Excavating My Own Research


This morning I was writing an idea I’d had down in my notebook. It’s a bead research notebook that I’ve had for about six years, but I’ve had phases of being really bad about writing stuff in it. As a result, I have just over 100 pages of notes in here spanning 6 years of work (like I said, some periods were REALLY bad).

But what’s cool about it is that I have notes from when I first started looking at beads. Not all the way back to the fall of 2009, which was my very first foray into beads, but it goes back to 30 April 2010. It’s now 14 May 2016.

My first entry wasn’t that exciting. This is a research notebook after all, and it was early days. The first entry (the one for April 30th) is basically stating that I wrote a brief status report for my then advisor and dropped it in her mailbox. It also says that I need to work on ‘polity polygons,’ which I believe means drawing polygons on maps in ArcGIS (a mapping software) around the areas of known Southeast Asian kingdoms ranging from 500 BC to about AD 1500. At the time, I thought my biggest challenge would be figuring out how to do that in GIS. It wasn’t until about 6 months later that I discovered the any notion of know polity boundaries for this period in Southeast Asia was effectively wrong, or at least confused enough to make these polity polygons relatively useless.

A lot of the notebook details how to do certain things, either in ArcGIS, Microsoft Access, or even things like how to scan and article from microfilm.

By 5 May 2010, our database had 293 sites in it, many of which were in India. That’s more sites than I currently have in Scotland (189), and it was only within about 8 months of starting research in Asia.

There are also elements of my own excitement in here. One passage reads “Ah ha! Just figured out how to draw more that one polygon in a single layer: hit editor, start editing, then draw the shape. Open attribute table and edit details! Can give each polygon a start and end date and run a definition query on both the polities and the beads to get sites in operation at the same time as the polity! This is so cool!”

I don’t remember being so excited about GIS software, but there it is. I remember spending a significant portion of time figuring out how to do things in various software – GIS, Access, R, SPSS, etc. I remember being frustrated at times that people couldn’t necessarily help me as much as I wanted (though I did have help with certain elements of GIS and SPSS from some wonderful people). But the fact that most of it was self-taught has helped with a lot of my current work, where I’m really just messing around and trying to figure stuff out on my own.

There is also at least one trip to Southeast Asia documented in here – when I went to Yogyakarta, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur with my advisor on a research trip. The writing gets much more hurried, as it was written quickly on unstable surfaces as we collected information. There are random drawings in this section that seem to indicate the difference between drawn and wound beads, and a note that simply reads ‘Monday 9:00am w/Ita.’ A few pages later are hurried notations of beads from certain sites that we looked at in the National Museum in Jakarta, followed by lists of sources and articles that are only available in Indonesia.

Then we enter the period when this notebook was best kept up to date – during my summer research fellowship in 2010. There are discussions of different types, including notes from the day I realised mutisalah consisted of three subtypes: mutitanah, mutibata, and mutiraja. There’s also the development of the database that I still have, though I don’t use much at the moment because I have yet to integrate the Scottish material into it.

Then it jumps to 31 May 2011, leaving 6 months relatively blank. Those 6 months were the core of my BA Honours thesis (as we call them in the US). I graduated on 22 May 2011, so this blank chunk also skips over that major chapter in my life. It jumps right to field work in the Philippines, just before starting my first graduate degree. It’s very sparse after that, jumping to fieldwork in Thailand only a few pages later. Thailand was the following summer, in 2012. An entire year condensed into a few pages.

The entries on 2012 research only takes up both sides of a single page. After that, we jump to 2 January 2014. By then, I am halfway through my MLitt in Celtic and Viking Archaeology, have shifted from Southeast Asia to Scotland and am living in Glasgow. My notes are talking about my plan for my MLitt dissertation and my PhD thesis.

The time in between was a really difficult one, and I won’t go into details. But I completely understand why I skipped over all that time.

Shortly after that, there is a large chunk on my MLitt dissertation research – roughly 50 pages of notes, and roughly half the notebook, is the raw data for that study, which took roughly 5 months. It’s interesting that certain areas of the notebook cover entire years in a page or two, or even omit years entirely (there is nothing from 2013 in here), while shorter periods take such large chunks of the notebook.

And now we jump again, from 2014 to 2016. MLitt to PhD. The notes are fairly technical – camera specifications for each model I try to make, trying to see what works and what doesn’t, isolating the variables and hoping they tell me something. There is one page talking about stuff I did for the education collection at Mystic Seaport Museum, but the rest of 2014 and all of 2015 is left out. In part, that’s because there wasn’t as much bead research happening, but it’s also because that’s when I started putting a lot of my thoughts on this blog instead of in the notebook.

It’s strange how 6 years of work fits into so few pages. I know that’s partly due to my forgetfulness when it comes to writing thing in the notebook itself – I have pages upon pages of notes that aren’t in that notebook, but they really ought to be. But it’s kind of bittersweet, how that much time is compiled in this one notebook – this one item that has followed me from my very early days of bead research to now, bringing me back to sunny afternoons in the basement of the anthropology building at St. Lawrence University, making maps and writing my notes on the chalkboard.

A lot has happened since then.


About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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