Category Archives: Environment

Talking about the weather, terrain, flora, fauna, etc…

Day 5: Tamales and Trenches and Wind, Oh My!

Every drive to our site starts with the gorgeous Texas sunrise
The gorgeous, Texas sunrise we see every morning

Today was our fifth day at the cemetery. Our team, being a hard-working and motivated group of people, was determined to bring high energy to the site and complete our goals for the day. We compiled a plan the night before, in which we decided to confront a new area of our quadrant. The funeral director had given Dr. Kate Spradley, from Texas State University, an idea of where he thought migrants may have been buried, but it was our duty as anthropologists to be sure to check all possible unmarked areas that could have been containing migrant burials. We felt it was important to start a new trench within the cemetery that contained a long stretch of land where no grave markers were present.

Jordan deepening the trench floor
Jordan deepening the trench floor

Even before clearing surface vegetation to better observe the topography of the area, we could still see and feel some possible depressions beneath our feet. It is likely that we are correct, and there are burials far below the surface in this area. However, we have been facing the challenge that some of these burials do not fit the migrant profile due to the circumstances of their burials. Hopefully the funeral director was correct, and we find the final two individuals in this quadrant we are looking for so they can be analyzed and identified.

According to the iPhone weather application, it was supposed to be one of the hottest days during our trip. The temperature was listed as a low of 56 and a high of 76 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed like the temperature would be practically perfect. Little did we know, strong, gusting winds reaching 27 mph would throw us for a loop, sending our hats and papers flying as the day went on. As Jordan, Jessica and I mattocked and shoveled our new trench, dirt was flying in our faces and eyes (not the best feeling in the world). Meanwhile, Leann and Dr. Latham were chipping away at a massive wall that was covering one of the burials we discovered by the large pit. By lunch time, the team had accomplished removing a decent portion of our new trench, uncovered the deepest burial we have found so far, photographed and removed the body, and added the precise corners of this burial into our maps.

Leann and Dr. Latham uncovering a burial
Leann and Dr. Latham uncovering a burial

Since it was impossible to do anything in peace with the wind, Dr. Latham suggested eating by the van. We rented a stylish, grey minivan for our transportation needs, so we thought that sitting on the North side of the van might block some of the northbound winds. At this point, everyone was getting pretty physically exhausted. During lunchtime, Dr. Latham suggested taking a short-day, which was probably productive for the overall group morale. We went back to work for another hour or so and then called it a day around 2:15 pm.

Restaurant in San Juan where we ate delicious tamales
Restaurant in San Juan where we ate delicious tamales

Back at the hotel, everyone showered and had some down time. We were super excited for dinner tonight at Delia’s, which is a well-known tamale restaurant with an alluring reputation. It honestly wasn’t difficult for the group to agree upon driving 30 minutes from our hotel to get dinner because everyone here is obsessed with tamales. I can truthfully say it lived up to our expectations.

I think the abbreviated workday helped regenerate our bodies and spirits. As frustrating as the wind turned out to be, we all stayed strong, encouraged each other, and maintained optimism. I am incredibly proud at how hard-working everyone has been. There is still much to get done before Thursday, but it is absolutely attainable. No matter what obstacles are thrown our direction, we will not lose steam!

-Sammi

End of day 5 group photo
End of day 5 group photo
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Day 1: Deep in the heart of Texas

I was very excited to get started on our first day of excavation. We had a decent breakfast at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express, before hitting the road this morning. It took approximately 30 minutes to arrive at the site by car, so Jessica played some music to pump us up (wake us up and get us motivated) for a successful day of digging (e.g. “Eye of the Tiger”, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”, and “Don’t Stop Believin’”). The site was located on a gorgeous, private cemetery at a family owned ranch, where numerous relatives of the property owners had been buried throughout the years. Unidentified migrants were also buried here — some in areas that were marked by posts, and others without a definite location.  When we arrived at the cemetery, it was only about 30 degrees with 20mph winds, making for a cold start to the day! Graduate students at Texas State University had devised a plan for dividing the site into four, 20×20 meter quadrants, which could then be further divided to maintain a uniform scale across all of the independently-working excavation teams. Texas State determined it would be best to record GPS points at every four-meter interval throughout the site to create subquadrants. We followed their pattern, and ended up with 25, 4×4 meter subquadrants within our Northeast quadrant of the cemetery. This turned out to be more work than Leann and I were expecting, but will be an important leaning experience.

Beautiful drive to the cemetery
Beautiful drive to the cemetery

Leann was an incredible mentor today. After Jordan, Jessica, Leann, Dr. Latham, and I finished setting up our grid , Leann and I began creating the surface map. We spent almost half of the day mapping because there were nearly two dozen headstones indicating family graves within our quadrant, two upright trees, and one fallen tree covered in shrubbery. After working together using the tape measures and a compass to document numerous measurements into a graph, we finally had all of the data needed to work on our completed maps back at the hotel.

Leann and Sammi taking measurements to create a map
Leann and Sammi taking measurements to create a map

Overall, I believe that day 1 went very well. I am extremely grateful to have such an experienced, well-trained team by my side to help teach me to properly excavate a site of this magnitude. Everyone was so patient with me on my first day, and I felt we were able to accomplish a lot in a relatively short amount of time.

Sammi

 

 

While Sammi and I were taking points for our surface map, Jess, Jordan, and Dr. Latham were probing the other subquadrants to feel for anomalies.  They found several areas of interest and began digging test pits to investigate further.  After digging a few test pits, they decided that it would be more efficient and systematic to dig test trenches throughout the subquadrants as opposed to continuing to dig test pits whenever an anomaly was felt.  There are numerous known burials in our quadrant that are aligned into rows, and those rows were used as guidelines for digging our trenches to locate any unidentified individuals.  With about 45 minutes left before sundown, Sammi and I finished taking measurements and joined the rest of the team digging trenches.

Jordan and Jessica digging a trench
Jordan and Jessica digging a trench

At the end of the day, we created two small trenches about 50 cm deep and 5 meters long.  Tomorrow, we plan on extending these trenches to cover all of the open areas in our quadrant that felt anomalous when we probed, as well as deepening the trenches we dug today by about 10-15 more cm.  With this trench depth, we will be able to further probe down reaching a total depth of about six feet.  We plan to construct the trenches like we did in Falfurrias, systematically spaced so no potential areas of burial will go unchecked. I look forward to what tomorrow will bring and how much we will be able to accomplish!  I also look forward to some warmer weather….

Leann

Sunset marking the end of day 1
Sunset marking the end of day 1
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A new year and a new field season

In less than a week (as I’m writing this), our group leaves for another trip down to South Texas to assist in the humanitarian effort of identifying the remains of migrants who perished along the US-Mexico border. The first step in this process is the field season (exhuming the remains) and is sometimes the hardest step. This will be my third trip to Texas and even though I’ve been before, I cannot help but to feel a little anxious. My first trip to Texas, our group was at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas which is place where several field seasons had occurred prior to my visit. In our group, we had members that had been to Falfurrias before which made it less apprehensive because I at least knew what to expect in terms of soil consistency and weather. Although, my very first trip to Texas in January 2017 saw record low temperatures in the 30s which none of us were prepared for. It all plays to our motto of ‘expect the unexpected’ and there was no way to know we would be bringing the cold, Indiana weather with us to Texas.

Jan 2017 - Record low temperatures
Jan 2017 – Record low temperatures

My second trip to Texas brought our group to a whole new city and cemetery. Although our group spent weeks carefully packing and deciding what tools to bring, nothing prepared us for the soil consistency that we found in Rio Grande City Cemetery. The soil consistency was more similar to cement; hard, compact, rocky soil that could only be penetrated by heavy machinery or a mattic. One of the many differences between Falfurrias and Rio Grande City was that in Rio Grande City, the graves were marked and the cemetery employee who actually made the graves years’ prior, was on scene to help us. The cemetery employee, Sylvestre, was a huge help in locating and systematically excavating the dirt until we were close enough to the actual burial that we could proceed with using our hand tools. As it turned out, the burials were closer to 5-6ft deep in Rio Grande City Cemetery versus only being 3-4ft deep in sandy soil like the graves in Falfurrias.

May 2017 - Sylvestre
May 2017 – Sylvestre

For my third trip to Texas, I am not sure what to expect because I feel that the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias and the Rio Grande City Cemetery were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of soil consistency and knowing the exact places were migrants were buried. What I do know, is that our team has a knack for adapting to our environments and always tackling surprises head on. Expect the unexpected is a motto we work by and it has helped us a great deal. I may be feeling apprehensive and a little anxious right now, but I know once we get to Texas, those feelings with dissipate. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to go back to Texas and help in this humanitarian effort. This experience changes you as a person and to be able to go back for a third season gives you a bittersweet feeling. Right now, I am going to spend the holidays with my family and thinking about the adventure that lies ahead in South Texas. I am unbelievably excited to be a part of this humanitarian effort and I am ready to start another field season with our amazing group from UIndy and Texas State University.

Jessica

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