Exegesis of a Southwestern Archaeologist, Part 2

By Steve Nash, Anthropology Department Chair, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Read Part 1 here.

Neanderthals and Tree-Rings

Sometime in mid-August 1988, I flew to Tucson on a direct flight from Chicago. I picked up my personal belongings—everything packed into a backpack and an old travel trunk—at the baggage carousel, and went to the closest pay phone. (Remember those?) I picked up the Yellow Pages to look up hotels. I called the Lodge on the Desert, which had one room available, with a twin bed. Perfect.

The next day, I got on the Speedway Bus and went to the University of Arizona campus. After checking in at the Department of Anthropology, I went to the Bike Shack across Park Street, where I purchased a black, GT Timberline mountain bike, which served as my beloved urban assault vehicle for many years.  I then went to the Student Union to check the bulletin board with apartment listings. A few phone calls later, I landed a room in a house near the intersection of 9th St. and Campbell Avenue, which I rented for $170 per month plus utilities. I also found a rugby team, which provided an entrée into a community beyond the university.

Within a week or so, the Department of Anthropology hosted a meet-and-greet reception so that faculty members and incoming graduate students might get to know one another better. I clearly remember feeling inferior and out of place when the 26 (!) other incoming graduate students each stood up and said, “I am here to study with Dr. Whozits, and I plan to work on the analysis of Whatzits.” I remember standing up and saying, “I have no idea who I want to study with or what I am going to work on. I just know that I wanted to take two years off after graduating from college before going back to school. Those two years are up. So here I am.”

I remember clearly a room full of blank faces, and the fact that Norm Yoffee (who had been in the field with Paul Sidney Martin, see photo on page 10 of Archaeology Southwest Magazine 27:4) introduced himself after that meeting, for two reasons. First, he is a gentleman, and I think he felt sorry for me. Second, I had done my undergraduate work at Grinnell College, where two of his friends and former students, Kathy Kamp and John Whittaker, were on the faculty. I had been one of their first students.

Steve Nash and Carmen Carrasco

Me and my wife Carmen in December 1996.

In spite of my initial lack of direction, in the summer of 1989, I had the privilege of serving on Art Jelinek’s field crew at La Quina, a Neanderthal site in southwestern France. After a weeklong hiatus in Paris, during which everyone vigorously celebrated the French Bicentennial, I went back to southwestern France to join Harold Dibble’s University of Pennsylvania excavations at Combe Capelle. I was hooked; the excavation of Neanderthal sites in southwestern France should be on everyone’s bucket list. Exquisite artifacts, exquisite food, and the myriad of painted caves and chateaux in the region should be enough to enthrall anyone. I went back to Combe Capelle in 1990 and La Quina in 1992. In the meantime, I defended a master’s thesis critiquing the concept of “curation” in Middle Paleolithic stone tool analysis (Nash 1996).

I’m prone to the existential willies. Although I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing, I looked at the job market and realized that there were, at best, perhaps a dozen Middle Paleolithic scholars gainfully employed in this country, and the competition for jobs was fierce. Jelinek, my Master’s advisor, had also just announced his retirement. Although he was willing to see his senior graduate students through to completion, I decided it was time to move on.

In the spring of 1990, Don Graybill of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research asked his old friend Jelinek if he knew of any graduate students who would be interested in joining a field project collecting tree-ring cores. I was, and I spent three astounding weeks sampling bristlecone pines at high-elevation sites in Nevada and Utah. As luck would have it, I then learned that Jeffrey S. Dean of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research had NSF funding for a research assistant. I went to his office, not fully understanding that I was brashly approaching one of the preeminent archaeologists in the nation. Jeff offered me the position, and I have been hooked on tree-ring dating ever since. In full disclosure, I am not a dendrochronologist, for I seem to go cross-eyed when looking through microscopes all day. But I like to think that I am active proponent for the remarkable data the science offers to archaeologists.

For my senior thesis at Grinnell, I had written a history of environmental determinism in Western thought, from Galen in the first century A.D. to Ellsworth Huntington in the early 20th century. I never lost my affinity for the history of science, and found a way to close (or reify) that loop when I realized that no one had ever examined, through archives analysis, how the development and application of tree-ring dating affected the interpretation of pre-Columbian history in the Southwest. With a great deal of tough love from Nancy Parezo, I obtained National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant funding for the project in 1995. Over the next two years, I examined archives at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, as well as at the Tree-Ring Lab and Arizona State Museum closer to home. On March 31, 1997, I successfully defended my dissertation, which was subsequently published by the University of Utah Press (Nash 1999). That night, revelers danced on 4th Avenue. As much as I’d like to think they danced for me, it was not the case, for the University of Arizona men’s basketball team had won the NCAA championship a few hours after my defense. It was indeed a special day.

Hung over from various celebrations, the next day I helped load cacti that had been taken from construction sites into a container that was being shipped to the Netherlands. (Who knew about THAT market?) That summer, I worked a number of odd jobs, including in archaeology, and then Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago offered me a postdoctoral research specialist position, where I would be responsible for cataloging Paul Sidney Martin’s collections. On October 14, 1997, I embraced the first day of the rest of my life, for I then began a formal affiliation with museums and museum collections that has defined my professional life ever since.

Nash, Stephen E.

1996  Is “Curation” a Useful Heuristic? In Stone Tools: Theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory, edited by George H. Odell, pp. 81–100. Plenum Press, New York.

1999  Time, Trees, and Prehistory: Tree-Ring Dating and the Development of North American Archaeology1914 to 1950. University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City.

Read Part 1 here.

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