The Story of a Set of Bamboo Picks

When pondering which of my archaeology tools are most important to me, I had a lot of choices (for example, I have used the same trowel since 1969). I admit that I get very attached to those digging tools that work well, but some have better stories than others. The tool that I have selected for this post is my set of “Perino picks.”

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Gregory Perino became fascinated not only with his encyclopedia-like knowledge of archaeology, but also with his ability to create the perfect archaeological tools. Having done much of my early field work in archaeology in the Lower Illinois River Valley and at Cahokia, hearing Perino’s name was a common occurrence (the man dug everywhere!), and I am delighted that I had the opportunity not only to talk with him, but to work with him at several sites. In particular, he visited me regularly when I excavated the Mississippian Moss Cemetery, and I had the opportunity to visit him in Tulsa when I incorporated the Mississippian Schild cemetery (which he excavated) into my dissertation, along with Moss. Greg always told me that his job was to find, excavate, and describe sites, but interpretation and fancy analyses were for students and academics. He was always happy to share.

Greg was an amateur archaeologist who trained himself to be a professional. He was astounding in his ability to find “cool” sites and artifacts, and his excavation pictures demonstrate his amazing ability to conduct beautiful excavations. He had his own little bulldozer, he created special sets of shovels and trowels and screens, and he invented the Perino probe, which was sprung steel with a little steel knob on the end. Greg used the probe to find sites and also to identify what he had found. Having been trained to use the Perino probe, I can attest that you can tell the difference between stone, ceramics, clay, bone, etc. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that I don’t own one.

Another tool I don’t own is one of Greg’s postmold cross-sectioners. It was an adapted shovel that was a little wider than 95% of any postmolds (or possible postmolds) you might find. With two cuts, he could cross-section the postmold, and determine whether it was real or a rodent burrow or something else. He loaned me the shovel for some work I had to do on a special project. It worked extremely well, and significantly sped up the process of excavation (we had about 100 possible postmolds to examine).

Two of my bamboo picks

When I was excavating the Moss cemetery in 1972, Greg was visiting Kampsville from Oklahoma, and came out to the site one day and announced that I did not have the right tools for the job. He then gave me several “Perino picks.” A Perino pick is a piece of bamboo about 6-8” long that he cut to various thicknesses, then carved to have a nice blunt point on one end and a nice beveled scraping edge on the other. You can easily work around and expose delicate artifacts and bone without risking harm to the items. I love those picks, and still use them today.

But, after Greg left to return home, another visitor decided that my supply of Perino picks was too limited. That visitor was the late Eugene Gray. Gene was a wonderful person who was an avid amateur archaeologist. He was happy to share information with professionals, and he very much wanted to learn how to do things properly. Gene also worked with Greg whenever the possibility arose. In any case, during Gene’s visit to Moss, he decided that I needed a broader range of Perino picks, and besides, he was trying to improve his ability to make these tools. I happily agreed, and Gene made me a set of picks that are similar to Greg’s, but are thinner and have a GG on them so that they can be clearly identified as distinct from Greg’s. In case you are wondering, the reason everyone was concerned about my toolkit was because we were finding significant numbers of whole pots at Moss, and no one wanted them harmed due to excavation.

My set of bamboo picks was complete, and to this day, I use them proudly and I loan them infrequently. Not only are they wonderful tools, but every time I use them I think of the two terrific field men who created them for me. In the years since, I have shown students how to create such picks, but I would never trade a new set for my originals – they were made with much knowledge and love by two remarkable archaeologists.

 

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

Photo by Colleen Morgan

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?