On Anthropology Field Schools

In Philippine anthropology departments, the start of April heralds the beginning of field schools. This is the time when professors drag their students away from the stuffy confines of the classroom and push them into the grime and sweat of fieldwork. For at least one month, students scrape  the earth until callouses grow on their palms and the tedious job of accessioning artifacts lulls them to sleep. The nights are spent on heated anthropological discussions up until the wee hours, sometimes over bottles of beer and karaoke blaring in the background.

One of the best training ground for the basics of archaeology is the Boljoon Archaeological Field School of Prof. Jobers Bersales of the University of San Carlos. In here, students are given a well-rounded training in archaeological excavation techniques and theory while also in a very scenic place. The site is right at the yard of a Spanish-era church with the entrance facing the blue seas of Cebu Strait. A fortress of  hills and cliffs with sparse vegetation envelops the area and, at its highest point, a sentry box made of coral rocks lies in decay. As the field school’s ex-bone guy and field hand, I had the chance to see the artifacts closely. We were able to recover interesting gold specimen, ceramics, precious stone beads, potteries, among other things. One of the exciting burial finds were two pieces of needle-shaped animal shell(?) with deliberate puncture holes at its base. This burial ornament was located on top of the pelvic region of a male individual. We also noticed  skull moulding and teeth filing practices in many of the buried individuals.

One of my memorable field school moments was in Joyce Well, New Mexico, located in that boot heel-shaped corner of this southwest state. We camped there for six weeks in the desert wilderness, amidst the purring of mountain lions and the scampering of roadrunners. Dr. William H. Walker, the field school director, armed us with machetes in case a wayward cat goes inside our tents (I think the purpose was mostly psychological than anything else. He could just have given us rosary beads against this very efficient ambush predators). Working on the Casas Grandes-type ball courts and pueblos, Walker and the team of field archaeologists helped students connect archaeological theory with the drudgery of digging. Walker would lie down flat on his belly next to your excavation pit and reveal the story of the scraped earth. He would talk endlessly about formation processes, the paleoenvironment of the site, the people’s religion, technology, sports, etc. that you could visualize the whole culture right before your eyes. Walker could also turn an ordinary trowel into a surgeon’s scalpel, deftly slicing the contours of the soil, exposing the artifact for removal and documentation.

Resting in the middle of a night trek

Another nice field memory was the 2006 primatological field school I co-organized (with Carla Escabi) in Bohol. Two primate species were observed: Philippine tarsiers (Tarsius syrichta) and Philippine macaques (Macaca fascicularis). The behavior, ecology and conservation of these species were the main topics for the training.  Although macaques are not endangered, we focused on them for animal identification exercises and the recording of animal behaviors because of their size.  We followed the format from other field schools, such as the La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica.

For the tarsiers, we  did daytime and nocturnal observational treks in the forests of Corella, Bohol. We found a pregnant female and a (possibly) mating couple seeking refuge under a clump of leaves in one of our day treks.  This couple was found no more than 6 inches from each other (which we found surprising since tarsiers are considered solitary in the literature).  Though they appear sluggish during daytime, tarsiers can leap from one branch to the next in a flash at night. They are so fast and small that it is impossible to follow them through the thicket. One time, we lay down underneath a tarsier sleeping site for hours until it woke up. At first, the primate stretched its long ankle bones and elongated its body as if it were doing a vertical push-up. Then the tarsier licked the tufts of hair at both sides of its shoulder and then the knees. Though we stayed so silent, its bat-like ears perked up like small satellite disks pointing in our direction. Rotating its head towards us, the tarsier stared for a moment with those moon-shaped eyes (by the way, each eye is bigger than its brain) and, in a split second, jumped three meters to the next branch.

mother and infant tarsier

We followed the tarsier for 30 minutes but its speed and agility were too much for non-vertical leapers like us.

What I like best about field schools is the learning opportunity students get in doing anthropology. While book knowledge is important, being on the field intensifies anthropological curiosity and interest. With all the discussions, work, and the general anthro-conducive atmosphere, students get to explore research questions and dream about what they could be in the future. I thus encourage everyone to head on to the nearest anthropology department and inquire about joining field schools.  The experience is really worth the time.

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