All posts by rizorl

Five individuals in a field holding up one finger.

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.

Driving down country highway with blue skies.
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.

Two team members mapping in headstones.
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.


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….


Sunset over fields.
Sunset marking the end of day 1

A trip of “firsts”

11 days (as I write this).  I cannot believe that we only have 11 days before we leave for Texas!  I have been so caught up in final exams, presentations, and finishing PhD applications that it hasn’t hit me until now that we are leaving so soon. I am both excited and nervous for this trip. There will be many “firsts,” and because of this, I am not quite sure what to expect!

This will be our first trip to Willacy County.  This means that we do not know what the soil consistency will be like, what the weather will be like, what the burials will consist of, or how the local community will react that what we are doing.  Willacy Co. is located about one hour northeast of McAllen, TX, where the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center is located.  During our trip last January, we traveled from Falfurrias to McAllen to visit the respite center and aid the volunteers with welcoming, feeding, and clothing the individuals who crossed the border and sought asylum.  It will be nice to be so close to McAllen and have the constant reminder of this amazing organization and all of the incredible individuals who volunteer their time and goods to help these migrants.

This will be our first time conducting exhumations on private property.  The exhumations in Falfurrias and Rio Grande City both took place in county cemeteries, so this aspect of the trip will be a completely new experience for all of us.  I look forward to learning and understanding how to navigate this process a new way.

This will be my first time having a mapping apprentice.  In past field seasons, I have been on my own when creating the hand-drawn maps, and I have relied on my judgement and experience when setting up a baseline and choosing data points.  This trip, I will need to teach and involve Sammi in all aspects of the map-making process so she can continue this task after I leave UIndy.  Choosing points in the field to create a map is actually a very complex decision-making process!  It involves a constant dialogue in your head, going through a million “what-if” scenarios and asking yourself numerous questions before you decide on a specific technique that will work most efficiently.  Over the past two field seasons and numerous forensic cases, I have learned how to navigate map-making in a way that makes sense to me personally.  This season, I will have to learn how to teach this to Sammi.  I think this will be difficult because creating a map is a fluid process – every scene is different and every cemetery we have been to in Texas has been different and has required a unique mapping process.  I think this concept, as well as the small nuances that go into mapping decision-making, will be the hardest to teach Sammi. I hope that I can teach her in a way that makes sense to her and that she can adapt to other mapping endeavors in the future!

Leann mapping in points.
Mapping – Starr Co 2017

I am so excited and grateful to be able to return to South Texas for the third time to aid in this amazing humanitarian mission!  I am filled with both excitement and nerves for all of the new things we will experience in Willacy Co.  Despite all of these “firsts,”  I am incredibly confident that our team will be able to accomplish everything we set out to and more.

See you soon, Texas.

A New Purpose

I’ve been home from Texas for three days now and it’s always a weird transition back into normal life. In Texas, you wake up every morning with a purpose and it’s really hard to come home and wake up without that same purpose.  Additionally, it is hard to come back to a city where a great majority of the individuals have no idea of the atrocities occurring at the border.  While this disheartens me, it also fuels me.  It fuels me to spread awareness about this crisis and educate people about the true events occurring at the border, those that are commonly inaccurately portrayed by current media.

UIndy team photo.
My amazing team

I learned more than I could have ever hoped for on this trip to Texas.  Not only did I improve upon field techniques and forensic archeological skills, I also gained experience conducting lab analyses.  As this was the first trip I have been involved where skeletal analyses took place, I learned so much regarding each of the aspects I took part in, as well as the intricacies and variation behind each of the traits we looked at.  During the Human Osteology course offered at UIndy, I learned about some of these traits and how to correctly analyze them, so it was amazing to apply this education in a new context.

Team selfie on the plane.
On the plane and homeward bound

I also learned more about the sociopolitics surrounding this crisis in a town that is situated much closer to the border than Falfurrias is.  Because we don’t have the same five year long relationship with Rio Grande City as we do with Falfurrias, I believe we will continue to learn more about the sociopolitics surrounding this crisis as our relationship with this city grows and progresses.  I look forward to continuing to learn about the intricacies of this humanitarian crisis, and seeing how location and proximity to the border effects community views.  I believe that understanding these aspects of the humanitarian crisis can inform policies, procedures, and viewpoints that accurately address  and reflect the mass disaster occurring.  Only with this understanding can true change take place.

Photo taken out plane window over Texas sunset.
Goodbye Texas

I always miss the people I have met down in Texas.  The new friends I made this field season, as well as friends made last January; Sister Pam, Dr. Spradley, Dr. Gocha, JP… all of these incredible individuals that work so hard for this humanitarian effort. But the aspect of Texas I always miss the most is the purpose, knowing that what I am doing is helping return individuals to their loved ones.  Even though I don’t wake up with the same purpose as I do in Texas, I now wake up with a different purpose – spreading awareness, education, and advocacy.

Until next time, TX…