Guest Blogger Karemy Valdez - “What am I doing here, and who do these people think they are?"

‘What am I doing here, and who do these people think they are?’: Reflections on my time in Bermuda and my coming-of-age as a historical archaeologist

It’s orientation week for incoming graduate students at Yale University. As an event organizer and facilitator this year, I’m getting to mingle with a lot of eager, bright-eyed scientists, doctors-to-be, and library fiends. I love meeting people, but I dread the moment I hear, “So, what do you do?” directed at me. My academic existentialism kicks in and the only answer I can muster is usually somewhere along the lines of, “Well… I’m a professional, certified, 100% free range ancient dumpster diver.” That usually gets a bit of a laugh and a comment about how dinosaurs are really cool and Indiana Jones must be my idol. But, all jokes aside—really, what do archaeologists do?

I set out to find the answer to this question five years ago, during my first trip to an archaeological site with a professor from UC San Diego. Out in the Peruvian desert, where shade is scarce and avocados are plenty, I found that archaeologists dig carefully mapped square holes, and they take great care to keep the trench walls straight and the profile maps legible. This wasn’t much different from the Mayanists who work in Belize, as I discovered two years later with Texas Tech. The only difference may be the addition of a pickaxe (tears through limestone much more efficiently than a Marshalltown trowel) and blood-starved mosquitos and territorial monkeys. When I arrived at Yale last fall my answer to the “So, what do you do?” question was based on my experiences in Peru and Belize. If someone had asked me that same question at the end of my spring semester, though, I wouldn’t have known how to answer, because, as I finally came to accept a mere two-and-a-half months into my program, the archaeology I am most interested in is… historical. This isn’t really much of a betrayal to what I thought I knew and having to start on a clean slate; it’s more of a reconsideration of what I thought I wanted to learn and having to start on a slightly murky slate. I wasn’t trained as a historian, and my experience with prehistory couldn’t fully translate to the experience I then sought as an archaeologist dealing with a much more recent past.

So, we’ve reached the point at which we must amend the question: What do historical archaeologists do? I set out to find the answer to this question almost two months ago, when I arrived in Bermuda with no idea what to expect from a crew of (mostly) historians. Apparently historical archaeologists like to play Dungeons and Dragons. But they also dig, just like regular ol’ archaeologists, and they spend a lot of time in the National Archives, unlike regular ol’ archaeologists.

What historical archaeologists set out to accomplish is to fill in the blanks where history fails us, or where archaeology is unable to unearth the whole story. All in all, historical archaeology is a field of study in which different modes of interpretation mingle and inform each other in the hopes that we’ll be able to paint a much more coherent picture of our recent past. I have found that my role as a historical-archaeologist-in-training is to straddle the line between two disciplines that, quite frankly, could use more straddling. I also feel a responsibility to incorporate what we call community archaeology into my research goals—that is, figuring out ways to involve the general public and groups with an invested, and often deeply personal, interest in a site in the gathering, dissemination, and preservation of the knowledge I and my colleagues seek to uncover.

Attendees of the BNT/SGF public site tours
Whereas the methods of community archaeology may not always be employed with regular archaeological research, they are often embedded in historical archaeology research because our projects deal with personal and family histories on a more direct level than many archaeological projects do.The work of a historical archaeologist, then, is situated in the present just as much as it is in the past. Knowing and understanding the effects of history on different groups of people, and how these share a symbiotic relationship, is what inspires society to keep moving forward, to keep reflecting on the events and issues that are responsible for shaping its future.

Although my research deals with the history and cultures of Mexicans and Afro-Mexicans in the gulf coast of Mexico, and not with Bermuda’s early history, I joined the Smith’s Island team to learn about the methods and theoretical underpinnings that make up study of colonial English America and can inform the ways in which we study colonialism in Spanish America.
Now, it’s been three weeks since the end of the field school. You’d think I’d moved on to more convoluted trains of thought, what with my thesis deadline a mere seven months away, right? But my mind has been stuck in Bermuda for three weeks. Not only have I been experiencing daily bouts of reflection on what I learned on Smith’s Island, I’ve also been mulling over what I’d like to incorporate into my own research. There’s much to learn about the Atlantic system that gave us slavery in the first place, and fostered an intricate multiculturalism in the second. It’s also got me thinking, more than ever, about my role as a researcher and a future educator. And I now feel more confidence when providing an answer to that dreaded question.

So, what do I do? I’m a semi-professional, half-certified, 100% free range historical dumpster diver, and I sift through the hottest gossip of the 17th and 18th centuries. I aspire to teach what I learn to others, and to have others teach me in return. And when not in the field, I enjoy being in the library, reading or typing away on a clunky laptop.

Karemy Valdez is a second-year graduate student at Yale. She enjoys Dark and Stormies, bonfires on beaches, entertaining fellow diggers with fun stories and putting chili powder and lime on virtually every food she encounters. Yes, even watermelon.


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