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February 9, 2007
Archaeology, like most fields utilizing modern scientific analysis to document history, has been romanticized through inaccurate depictions in outlandish films and overly dramatic novels. Ask the average person on the street to make a rough sketch of an archaeologist and more often than not the result will look something like Sean Connery in safari gear, with the Sphinx or Machu Picchu penciled into the background for good measure.

Of course the true science of archaeology couldn't be further removed from such Indiana Jonesian fantasies. Descents into cavernous desert tombs and expeditions to remote temples in the Amazon are certainly not the norm. In fact, they almost never happen. Most of the excavation work done by crews in the field of archaeology is more appropriately described by the industry's own term, cultural resource management.

Those gross misunderstandings of what it is that a person in the field actually does were precisely the impetus for Trent DeBoer to create Shovel Bum, a roughly-illustrated and irregularly published comic magazine. "Whenever we told people we were doing archaeological surveys," explains DeBoer, "people assumed we were digging up mummies or crawling around in pyramids." DeBoer and his wife Betsy found themselves continually explaining to friends and family what it was they actually did. Eventually DeBoer came across the work of John Porcellino, an erstwhile municipal mosquito fogger in Colorado who had published King-Cat and Other Stories, an illustrated serial relaying both the insightful and the mundane aspects of his unusual job. Not long after, in 1997, the DeBoers realized that sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, or a couple hundred at least. Shovel Bum was the perfect solution to the endless explaining.

Although it is a strictly low-key operation (copies are xeroxed at Kinko's and hand-stuffed into envelopes), and especially considering its unusual content, the magazine has caught on remarkably well. In 2004 the independent publishing house Altamira Press anthologized the first few years of Shovel Bum, and DeBoer has also been contracted to develop a series of animated shorts for the Archaeology Channel's educational website. The magazine is still being published, albeit as irregularly as always, and I recently caught up with DeBoer, who has graduated from shoveling dirt to shoveling papers behind a desk, to talk about his field of work and his magazine.

---

LAS: For the uninitiated, explain exactly what it is that a Shovel Bum's job entails... are you the guys who do the heavy digging and then give a holler if you hit something, at which point a bunch of bespectacled whitheairs in pith helmets rush in with little brushes to do the fine dusting?

Trent de Boer: Most of the work shovel bums are involved in is driven by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 requires Federal agencies to consider the effect their project has on significant cultural resources. Since hardly any of the country has received systematic archaeological survey, most Section 106 projects require a survey at minimum. If archaeological sites are found during survey and they can't be avoided, data recovery excavations are the most common form of mitigation. Data recovery is the cliched "paintbrush and dental pick"-style excavations. Shovel bums conduct the vast majority of archaeology in the United States; the bespectacled whitheairs in pith helmets (we call them silverbacks) are mostly an artifact of the past.

How does someone wind up as a field technician? Is there any sort of certification or qualification required, or can pretty much anyone who knows how to work a shovel join the ranks?

In general, you need a bachelor's degree in anthropology and an archaeological field school under your belt to get hired as a field tech. But there are no formal certification or required qualifications. In the past, some CRM firms would hire "anyone with a pulse" for their field crews so folks with little or no archaeological training learned it all on the job from other shovel bums. Some of the best shovel bums I know had no formal training. These days, most firms won't hire folks unless they have the educational background, plus some relevant field experience.

What is the latest word on Shovel Bum? The latest issue I've seen is #11. What's in the pipe?

2007 is the 10th anniversary of Shovel Bum. We're working on our 13th issue which should be published in April or May. The issue is called Hotel Heaven and we consider it to be the sequel to our Motel Hell issue. The Motel Hell issue focused on all the shitty places you end up residing in as a shovel bum - Hotel Heaven will feature the great places, like the McMenamins' Olympic Club in Centralia, Washington, where the lucky shovel bum gets to sleep in a refurbished historic whorehouse located above a saloon and poolhall. What could be better than that?

I visited the Microcosm website the other day and couldn't find the book anywhere... is it already gone?

Microcosm carried issue #11 and they're sold out. The Shovel Bum book was published by AltaMira Press. They should still have plenty of copies. It's also available at Amazon, Powell's, et cetera. The book is a best-of collection of the first 8 issues of the zine. We'll start on the next book after we publish the Hotel Heaven issue.

What prompted you to start up Shovel Bum in the first place?

My wife Betsy and I started Shovel Bum in 1997 to explain our summer jobs to our friends and family. We were working for a cultural resource management (CRM) firm in Arkansas while I was in grad school. Whenever we told people we were doing archaeological surveys, people assumed we were digging up mummies or crawling around in pyramids. There was nothing out there to help explain the boring day-to-day lives of the archaeological field technician, so the zine was kind of a no-brainer.

No offense, but you're obviously not an illustrator by trade. What made you decide to relay your tales in illustrations rather than in simple stories?

I drew comics a lot as a kid. I also spent a lot of time copying illustrations from the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio. So my illustration style is pretty much stuck in middle school. It's what comes naturally to me so I don't fight it. Plus, John Porcellino is a big influence and his illustration style is about as simple as it gets.

Are you still out in the field very much, or have you moved on to a desk job?

I've been a Shovel Bureaucrat since 2004 and I definitely don't get into the field as much as I did as a shovel bum. I'm at a point in my life where I'm not fighting all the desk time - there's a baby girl at home who needs a dad around. Shovel Bum #12, AKA Shovel Bureaucrat, details the "exciting" lifestyle I lead these days. PowerPoint is my new trowel.

Is there any way that a Shovel Bum can distinguish himself on the job? How does one move up in the ranks, as it were? Are there any ranks, or is everyone pretty much a grunt?

There's no question that a shovel bum can rise to the top by sheer force of will. There are so many niches for shovel bums - mapping, human osteology, artifact illustration, lithic analysis, remote sensing, et cetera. There are shovel bums out there who can recite on cue every manufacture date from the last 150 years for historic milk tins. So there's lots of opportunity for the specialist. There's also lots of opportunity for the motivated shovel bum as crew chief or field director. A lot of shovel bums don't want any of the trappings of responsibility so the shovel bum who's willing to put up with the bullshit of middle management is in a good position to move up the ranks.

Where do you do most of your work? Since, as you said, most work is centered around some sort of Federal building project, I'm assuming that the work is generally done in urban or suburban areas, to facilitate the construction of a road or maybe a dam or something like that?

When I was still a shovel bum, I did a lot of work on Federal lands, like the National Forest and various Army bases. Every time the National Forest plans to sell timber, they have to conduct a survey first to make determine whether the project will affect any historic properties. If the survey identifies a bunch of significant archaeological sites, the Forest has to decide if they can avoid affecting the sites. If not, they have to mitigate the damage to the sites and this usually means data recovery excavations. Every Federal agency goes through this, be it the Army, the Federal Highway Administration, the US Army Corps of Engineers, etc.

Do you ever do any freelance or recreational excavations?

Nope, I get my kicks on the job.

I've heard about these massive tracts of BLM land out west, particularly in Nevada, where anyone with a shovel and a 4x4 vehicle can sneak out into the desert at night and unearth Native American artifacts worth thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Do you think there has been a failure on the part of the government to excavate and document the natural and cultural history of North America, or do logistics simply make anything outside of an obvious location like Mesa Verde impossible?

The percentage of land in North American that has been systematically surveyed for archaeological sites is minute. Archaeological surveys are expensive so remote places where no development is planned typically haven't been surveyed. Likewise, it's too expensive to regularly patrol the remote corners of the continent so looters often have no trouble sneaking about in the dead of night. I've heard that Federal agents are getting better at setting up sting operations and busting looters. When they catch these guys in the act, they impose hefty fines and prison sentences and they confiscate all their equipment, including their precious monster trucks. Hit them where it hurts, I say!

Depending on the excavation site, I can imagine the prospect of selling something on the black market is pretty enticing. Do you ever run in to any looting or anything like that, or are the Shovel Bums already out of the picture by the time anything of value pops up?

I've never met a shovel bum who would steal an artifact from an archaeological site. The financial rewards of the shovel bum lifestyle are not so great, so the people that do it are people who have a profound respect for archaeology. I don't think the shovel bum community would allow a looter to keep working in their midst - they would be seriously ostracized.

What's the coolest thing you've ever unearthed on the job?

I've found artifacts that were 8,000 years old or so and it's pretty amazing to hold something that old that is obviously man-made.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever unearthed on the job?

I don't know if it's the weirdest thing but we frequently find "road porn" on survey projects. You're almost guaranteed to find pornography if you're surveying along a highway right-of-way. I've had discussions with other shovel bums on this phenomena and our best guess is that most of it comes from truckers on their way home from a long haul. They must feel an irresistable urge to throw out all that porn before they get home to their wives.

I was going to ask you what you thought about David Schwimmer's character on the show Freinds, but then I remembered that he was a paleontologist, not an archaeologist. Who is the Michael Jordan of the archaeologist/shovel bum lifestyle - real or fictional?

Hmm, tough question. The mythical Michael Jordan of archaeology is certainly Indiana Jones. In reality, I guess each region has its own shovel bum heroes. There are shovel bums who really live for this work and endure a lot of hardships because of their love. Those who keep at it year after year become heroes in their own way. For the Pacific Northwest, I nominate Dan Martin as the regional shovel bum hero.

What's the word on the animated video sequels for the Archaeology Channel website?

The sequel to the first Shovel Bum video is called Texarkana Shovel Bum Blues. Both Shovel Bum videos - "The Shovel Bum's Lot" and "The Texarkana Shovel Bum Blues" - are archived at the Archaeology Channel website. They want us to do another one at some point; nothing's happening on that front right now but keep your eyes peeled!

SEE ALSO: www.shovelbum.com
SEE ALSO: www.altamirapress.com
SEE ALSO: www.archaeologychannel.org

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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