H.C. “Buddy” Brehm and Cave of the Medallions

Sometimes it seems as if life is about the inadvertent accumulation of assorted junk in the drawers, cabinets, closets, attics, and garages of our homes. One member of our household has been cleaning out these spaces and sorting through the accumulated junk to identify throwaways and keepers.  Sometimes I am required to issue a ruling on whether certain items should be kept or thrown away.

Three such items landed on the desk in my upstairs library this evening: an old receipt for picture framing, a hand-written cover letter from Dave McMahan in Alaska (accompanied by a small vial of crude oil from the famous Exxon Valdez oil spill where Dave had to do shoreline CRM for the cleanup effort), and an empty envelope that once contained a letter from my old and dear friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm.  I will keep the letter from Dave—and I will especially keep the old envelope from Buddy Brehm and put it in a scrapbook one day.

Buddy Brehm was a very special person and one of the nicest, kindest, and most helpful men who ever lived.  He had a passion for Tennessee archaeology that surpassed anything I ever saw in my college years at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville). Buddy lived at 5311 Indiana Avenue in Nashville.  Although he worked at a blue collar job on assorted shifts, he devoted much of his free time to archaeological work. His base of operations was a small, concrete-block outbuilding in the backyard of his home. Basically, he had converted it into a combination office, library, and archaeology laboratory.  I visited him at his home office only one time, but I was impressed by his conversion of this outbuilding for archaeological purposes.  His Nashville area archaeological work through the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey, Inc.  (SIAS) is now legendary and well documented, so there is no need to go into any of that here.

Buddy was always enthusiastic about anything archaeological in nature, and he assisted me and Dave McMahan with some archaeological work at the Cave of the Medallions near Smyrna, Tennessee, in the early 1980s.  Between 1955 and 1962, some person(s) had entered this small cave and applied colorful paintings of ancient bison and human figures to the walls and ceiling of this cave with black and red paints. Dave and I worked the purely archaeological angle on these paintings, confirmed that no prehistoric artifacts were present in the soil of the cave floor, determined that the paintings were fakes, and performed some research to frame the period of time when the paintings were applied to the walls and ceiling of the cave. One key question that intrigued us was: “Who did these cave paintings?”  Dave and I were living in Knoxville at the time and could only come to the Nashville area to deal with this cave in short spurts, usually incidental to visiting our family members in the area.  We knew that tracking down the cave-painting artists would be difficult and would require some significant and extended research (including personal interviews) in the Nashville-Murfreesboro-Smyrna area. Because Buddy lived in the area, he was really interested in that question, fired up to do the research, and ready to chase down the elusive artists, so we encouraged Buddy to run with it to the best of his ability.

In the meantime, Dave went off to do archaeology in Alaska, and I lost total interest in Tennessee archaeology and archaeology in general—and dropped completely out of the archaeological realm.  A couple of years passed by, and I just assumed that Buddy had abandoned his chase to find the cave artists just as I had left archaeology far behind. I was wrong. Buddy had been diligently chasing the artists down for a couple of years in his spare time. To the best of my recollection, I received a letter from Buddy in 1984, and it said that he was almost certain he had identified the person(s) who did the paintings in the Cave of the Medallions. I think that letter arrived in the old envelope that was placed on my desk this evening. Buddy did not name the artists in his letter, but he did ask me to call him by telephone so we could talk about it. He apparently did not want to name the identified artists on paper in his letter for fear of potential legal ramifications.  Because I had left archaeology far behind, I no longer had any interest in the subject and did not immediately call Buddy—a matter that I really do regret today.

My last contact with Buddy was a telephone call that I made to his home years later.  Some part of me was getting interested in Tennessee archaeology again, and I may have been calling to follow up on that old letter about the cave paintings. I expected the friend that I had known for years to pick up the telephone in his usual happy mood, but it was not to be.  Buddy was already very, very sick and going into kidney failure. He was clearly too sick to talk archaeology and remember factual details from a small project done years before that moment, so we just exchanged some small talk about his health condition and a few related matters. He was only strong enough to talk for a few minutes.  Buddy was gone forever soon after that.

It was my understanding that Buddy was donating some of his archaeology files to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville. If this was actually done  after his death, he may have included the names of the cave-painting artists he had identified in those files somewhere. If anyone at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (like Suzanne Hoyal) is ever interested in looking through what Buddy donated, there may be an old file folder marked as “Cave of the Medallions” or just “Cave Paintings.”  The names of the artists he had identified would most likely be in those files.

I really miss Buddy Brehm, and this old envelope that showed up on my desk this evening makes me miss him even more. Those of us who knew Buddy are a lot older now than we were back then.  A number of his old SIAS friends have died over the years, and I am not at all sure how many people who called Buddy friend and actually interacted with him face-to-face in his active years are still alive.  I am one of those people.  The only others I know about for sure are John Dowd, Charlie Faulkner, Kevin Smith, Mack Pritchard, Joe Benthall, Dave McMahan, Sam Smith, and  John Broster. For those of you who never met Buddy or never had a chance to work with him, you missed out on knowing a wonderful person with a real passion for Tennessee archaeology.  He was one of a kind. So, when you pick up a copy of one of his old Mini-Histories booklets or a journal article with his name on the “by line,” please pick it up with reverence for a person who (out of his own pocket and the goodness of his heart) contributed much to the archaeology of the Nashville area at a time when little professional archaeology (in the modern sense) had ever been done in that region. Buddy was not an artifact collector. He was a largely self-taught avocational archaeologist of the highest caliber, and I would even go so far as to include him with the likes of Glenn Black and Ellison Orr.

If you ever want to visit the Cave of the Medallions and take in some well-done Faux Lascaux, the paintings are most likely still there. In the early 1980s, the bison painting on the ceiling near the entrance was still in excellent condition, but the second bison painting on the right cave wall was eroding some and might not be as visible today. The human figure paintings and a couple of other painted images are relatively small compared to the bison paintings, and they are located on the lower left wall near the second bison painting. Most people who enter this cave miss those because you have to squat down to see them.

The location of the Cave of the Medallions and some of its history are presented  in Thomas Barr’s famous book entitled Caves of Tennessee, which is available on the shelves of many public libraries in Tennessee.  Under Tennessee state law, you will need landowner permission to visit the Cave of the Medallions, and if the owner does allow you access, please do not visit this cave after dark. In 1981, the trail to this cave was not easy to see in places, even in daylight, and it went through a minefield of small, circular, open, and quite deep limestone solution cavities. Falling into one of these cavities would be like falling into an early 19th century water well, and your survival would be in significant doubt. You can see these solution cavities easily in daylight and avoid a life-threatening accident.

Please be advised that these cave paintings are more than 50 years old now, and they technically qualify as cultural resources—meaning that even though they are fakes—they are now officially an interesting and valuable portion of the unique history of this cave.  Do not touch these paintings or mess around with them in any way. Use your eyes only, and let your only souvenir be a few photographs of the paintings and cave interior. In addition, please bear in mind that all Tennessee caves and their contents (including these fake cave paintings) are officially protected under Tennessee state law.  You can read up on those laws and the associated criminal penalties at the following link:

http://www.southeasternoutdoors.com/outdoors/caving/tennessee-cave-law.html

Removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog has taken notice of the fact that today is Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee.  In addition, the arrival of this date just happens to coincide with the current statewide debate on removal of the famous Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from its location of display in the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville, Tennessee.  As all of you know, we here at the blog are never afraid to take up any controversial topic of archaeological or historical importance in Tennessee, and this particular issue is no different. Therefore, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog herein offers its formal recommendation to the Tennessee Historical Commission and other responsible parties in Tennessee state government to permanently remove the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee State Capitol Building and relocate it to an appropriate Tennessee museum where it can be seated in perpetuity within the context of a display on Civil War history in Tennessee.  This would be the most appropriate time in Tennessee history to do so because we are now in the final year of the 150-year anniversary of the American Civil War, and General Forrest has been best known over the years for his military contributions in that war, in particular his very early and innovative contributions to what would later become known in the 20th century as blitzkrieg warfare.  In this regard, General Forrest was nearly a century ahead of his time.  The basic elements of his genius were on full display in the resounding American defeat of the Iraqi Republican Guard and its Soviet T-72 Tanks at the Battle of 73 Easting in the 1991 Gulf War. This battle has been hailed as the last great tank battle of the 20th century.

Like most of the people in our nation, we were deeply saddened by the vicious murders of the Emanual 9 in their Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The owner of this blog watched the emotional and moving eulogy offered by President Obama from the pulpit of this church. Moved by similar articulate oratory, our owner contributed money to the campaign of Barack Obama for President of the United States in 2008, actively campaigned for him in 2008, and voted for him again in 2012. Shortly after his first inauguration, we began to clearly and unequivocally notice the arising of national and regional racial sentiments against black Americans—sentiments that many of our citizens had deluded themselves into believing were dead and buried. Because we are persistent news and current events hounds here at the blog, it was our personal evaluation that the ugly fangs of racism against black Americans were becoming more open, evident, and emboldened across the past seven years in various segments of American society. Unfortunately, while the church murders in Charleston were shocking, we here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog were not at all surprised, and we believe it was almost predictable from the poor race relations environment that had been emerging over the preceding seven years. Obviously, American racists (who had been driven underground by four decades of ambient social sanctions against racism) thought a black President was so dangerous that they were compelled to come out of hiding and attempt to save America from the clear and present danger presented  by dark melanocytes in The White House. In particular, whether you agree with us or not, we have long sensed that much of this burgeoning racism was associated with the Republican Party and even more so with those societal and cultural elements that normally support the Republican Party.

Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party did put an end to slavery with the Civil War. They deserve great historical credit for that. The Democrat Party and its so-called Solid South were indeed chief proponents of Jim Crow oppression from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle 20th century.  American Democrats deserve a historical blistering for participating in such injustice. However, for those of us who know American history, we are also keenly aware of the fact that breakaway Democrats led the way in siding with and supporting the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the key decade of the 1960s. This massive flight of national Democrats to the cause of civil rights left behind a very large and lingering cabal of still viciously racist Democrats in the American South and other states, including here in Tennessee. These people felt extremely angry and betrayed by their party.  In 1968, Richard M. Nixon and his Republican Party saw these disaffected, formerly Democrat racists as a grand opportunity to expand the voting base of the Republican Party.  Therefore, for all intents and purposes, Nixon Republicans yelled out to these numerous disaffected racists, “Hey y’all!  We heard you folks kinda got abandoned by your Democrat Party.  Why don’t y’all come on over to our Republican Party.  We got a hot shower for you.  We got fantastic food, agreeable conversation, and a nice warm bed where you can lay yourselves down forever, feel safe, and vote for the Republican Party for many years to come.”  One of my racist relatives in Nashville joined this great mass of disaffected southern racists and did just that, and he felt right at home for the rest of his life in the Republican Party—feeling certain in his heart that his fellow Republicans must surely dislike black people just as much as he did.

The owner of this blog is no longer a Democrat and now considers himself to be what political scientists call an Independent Swing Voter in elections.  However, and this writer wants to be crystal clear on this, whenever a person mentions the word “racist” and the word “politics” in the same sentence in front of me, a flashing neon light is automatically tripped on inside my mind—and it always blinks, “Republican, Republican, Republican…”  I think the leaders of the Republican Party in Tennessee and outside of Tennessee do not sufficiently appreciate how many young, white Americans see that same flashing light in their own minds and think poorly of the Republican Party because of it. In the political party now known jokingly as the “party of old white people,” this flashing mental image does not bode well for Republican electoral chances nationwide in 2016, especially in a nation where demographics indicate peoples of color will soon outnumber white people. New statistics released just this past week indicate that this long-predicted demographic sea change has finally just occurred in California, and it is coming to your state or a state near you across the next 30 years.

What is the relevance of racism against black people and Republican politics to Nathan Bedford Forrest and his bust in the Tennessee State Capitol Building?  Plenty!!!  Tennessee K-12 school teachers often do not have the full story in hand when they teach students about Tennessee history.  To the best of my recollection in the Sumner County Schools of the 1960s, I was actually taught that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, right after the Civil War. For many years after my 8th grade Tennessee history class and from many different quarters nationally throughout my 62 years, I have repeatedly heard it said that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the founder of  the Ku Klux Klan. In short, it always ends up as this stark, compact, and troubling dualism: “The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee, and Nathan Bedford Forest was its founder.”  Ouch!!!!  Of course, the truth of the matter is a bit more murky historically.  Many historians insist that Forrest was not the key founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Some have pegged him historically as the first Grand Wizard (Supreme Leader) of the Ku Klux Klan, while others disagree on that, and still others have seen him only as an early and active member of the Klan.  What is the historical truth?  We quite frankly do not know for certain.  However, we do know what the advertising moguls on Madison Avenue in New York City know, and it is summed up in an old advertising adage: “It does not matter what the truth is. Perception is everything.”  Regardless of what the finegrained historical truth may be, we here at the blog believe there is a nationwide perception that Nathan Bedford Forrest was the principal founder of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. From a race relations standpoint, this means Nathan Bedford Forrest is a rotting albatross hanging like a necklace on the classic Tennessee Volunteer. It is our own unique and even more troubling version of the Confederate flag on Capitol Hill in Columbia, South Carolina.

Out of love and respect for the Emanual 9 and the many millions of black Americans and black Tennesseans who have been oppressed and marginalized in our society since the first slave ship arrived on American shores, it is high time to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Tennessee State Capitol Building.  From the standpoint of national perception, we think this would be an excellent move to repair a portion of Tennessee’s race relations reputation on the American stage.  A cleaned up reputation and a proper public repentance are always positives when one is trying to recruit new business and industry from up north, out west, and overseas.

Finally, with the 2016 elections coming, many people in our nation already know Tennessee is one of four American states (along with Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma) perceived to be the very reddest Republican states in the United States of America. That was stating it kindly and respectfully.  Those same people would grumble that Tennessee is widely perceived to be a red state run by many (but not all) state-level Republican politicians who are regarded as “right-wing extremist nutjobs beholden to the Tea Party.” Considering the Republican Party’s historical reputation for welcoming disaffected southern racists with open arms, the high emotions associated with the racially motivated murders at the AME church in Charleston, and the Ku Klux Klan-related reputation of Nathan Bedford Forrest, any legislative or procedural efforts by Tennessee Tea Party Republicans (or other radical elements) to block removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Tennessee State Capitol Building will be picked up as a national political football—and it will be suicide for Republican hopes in the 2016 elections. Donald Trump’s recent, unfortunate, and highly controversial comments on racial and ethnic issues underline that danger. Politically, the best thing Tennessee Republicans can do for themselves is to get squarely behind removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust—and do so quickly with vigor and unity.

Public Archaeology Item: What Are Your Thoughts on This Brochure?

Public archaeology is all the rage these days.  I was surfing around on the Internet extremely early this morning and quite by accident ran into the following public archaeology brochure sponsored and distributed by the statewide Agricultural Extension arm of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.  I would be interested to hear any thoughts you might like to express on this brochure.  Is it a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  Is it a mixed bag that is nonetheless good for the education of kids on the subject of American archaeology and prehistory? Please comment on this brochure by clicking the Leave a Reply button at the top of the post, or send us an e-mail message to tell us what you think (see Contact tab above).  We would really like to hear from you.  Here is the link to the brochure:

4-H Club Arrowhead Brochure

Can Artifact Collectors and Archaeologists Find a Way to Get Along and Collaborate More?

That is a very good question.  The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute has just launched a new blogging project aimed at helping to answer that question.  If you are an artifact collector or a professional archaeologist in Tennessee or elsewhere in the United States, your participation in the blogging project is both needed and welcomed.  You may read all about it at the following link:

https://archaeologyreconciliation.wordpress.com/

Foreign archaeologists who were trained in American universities on United States soil and are familiar with the issues that have divided the professional archaeology and artifact collector camps in this country for decades are welcome to join in the discussion, especially if you have picked up knowledge and ideas studying and working overseas that might be helpful for forging better professional-collector relationships here in the United States.  We hold out great hope that our archaeology blogging friend Doug Rocks-Macqueen will join in the discussions as his time allows.

Update on the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute

Planning for retirement is usually defined as saving money.  However, if you are a wise person, you realize there is much more to it than just saving money.  You have to plan out what you want to do in retirement and how you want to do it. Too many people fail to do that, come home on the last day of work, sit down, and stay sitting down throughout most days until they die—which usually happens early because they are doing nothing but sitting down.  I refuse to be a part of that picture and have continued to lay the groundwork for my pet retirement project, the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research institute (ORARI).

The ORARI organization now has its own office with a sign on the door, which just happens to be my upstairs office and library at home in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  We have our own official logo now.  We have our own official letterhead stationary too—quite attractive I might add.  Although we do not view ourselves as a commercial business, we now have official business cards with our logo and full contact information on them. Last but not least, we have created our own separate website for ORARI, and it is now up and running on-line at the following link:

https://archaeologyinoakridge.wordpress.com/

Taking the example set by our friends at the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (TCPA) website, we used a WordPress blog theme (The Motif Theme) as the computer platform for our website.  That has all worked out great so far except for the fact that I have been unable to figure out how to “turn off” the commenting functions on certain web pages so it does not look like a blog platform.  I know this is possible because my daughter and I actually did it together one day with another WordPress blog.  I just forgot how to do it, so I am waiting for her to come in from the Chattanooga area and bail me out one day soon. Kids know everything about computers…well…she does anyway. My little healthcare adventures of late gave me the time to finish getting most of the ORARI foundation and framework in place and ready to go, which only goes to show that bad things sometimes yield positive results.

We sincerely hope you have a toleration for deep purple, which is the primary logo color for ORARI.  Why deep purple?  You just had to ask didn’t you?  For one thing, purple is a rarely used color in the archaeological public square, which makes us unique in that regard.  We also have a sentimental reason. The late Dr. James X. Corgan was my geology professor at Austin Peay State University and a life-long friend of mine.  (And now for a descent into the Dark Ages.)  From 1971 to 1973, I took notes in his geology classes with a Flair fiber point pen. (Most of you just said, “A what?”)  My note taking was almost always done with a Flair pen containing deep purple ink, usually with Jim Corgan lecturing right in front of me—a front-row sitter in class.  I miss Dr. Corgan very much, and the color purple makes me feel like he is still here and still hovering over at least some of the things I am doing these days  Finally, red ochre is not uncommon on Archaic Period archaeological sites in Tennessee.  The Hart site (40DV434) had its share of red ochre, but the really big pigment star on that site was deep purple ochre. Way back circa 1972, that was the first time I had ever seen deep purple ochre on an archaeological site, and it made quite an impression on me—the Purple Flair Pen Guy. The few times I ever visited the Hart site, it seemed as if it were everywhere. The Middle and Late Archaic Period inhabitants of this site apparently knew where they could obtain deep purple ochre in large amounts, and they appeared to have done just that.  If anyone knows where they were getting it in the ancient Nashville area, Highland Rim, or Cumberland Plateau, please drop me an e-mail message and let me know where this ancient resource was being mined.  I would really like to know.

The photograph on the main page of the ORARI website is a U.S. Department of Energy stock photograph from World War II in Oak Ridge. The end of the war has just been announced in August 1945, and the locals have amassed somewhere here in Oak Ridge to whoop it up and celebrate. Ed Wescott, the famous U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photographer assigned to live here and document the goings on in Oak Ridge during the war days, took this old photograph.  I know black and white looks horrible with purple.  You would be surprised at how well color photographs go with the ORARI purple.  The real problem for ORARI is that nearly every photograph taken in Oak Ridge during the war years was a black and white photograph.  It seems that Ed rarely got any color film.  You can forget old archaeology photographs taken in Oak Ridge and Anderson County.  Not that much archaeology has ever been done in Oak Ridge and Anderson County, and most of the really interesting old photographs from the WPA archaeological work in the Norris Basin were taken with  black and white camera film.  Oh my gosh!!!  Some of you just asked, “What is film?”  I know I am getting old for sure now!!!

Last of all, just in case you might be wondering, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is not going to be an official part of the ORARI organization.  It will be operated as a separate and independent entity, as expressed in our policy statement.

Well.  That is the story on ORARI for now.  The stitches come out of my head Friday of next week. Wish me luck and pray that I do not bleed purple blood while they are doing it.  You guys have a nice weekend out there!!!

Skin Cancer Surgery Done

I was fortunate this time.  The skin cancer surgery lasted about 2.5 hours, and the microscopy indicated that they got it all.  The bad news is that I have a 3 or 4-inch incision on my head that was sewn together in a large, loaf-like hump with black thread.  It looks like a huge, swollen caterpillar.  The thing is ugly as sin and will probably leave a permanent scar that will make me look like a veteran Caribbean pirate.  I am thinking about buying a black eye patch, like the one worn by the old Hathaway Shirt Man, to complete the pirate mystique.  “Har maties!!!   Trowels me old profile down good, and I’ll purse you all some dark rum.”

Take care of yourselves in the sun kiddies—or you too may one day get the pirate mystique on your noggins!!!  Ooh!!!  And it is starting to hurt.   Time to break into the pain medicine.

Tennessee Archaeology and Skin Cancer

Summer is nearly upon us, the Earth is moving closer to the sun each day, and it is the prime season of the year for field archaeology in Tennessee. All but a very tiny amount of my field archaeology experience was obtained on warm weather projects under sunny skies. Much of this experience came in the middle 1970s. This was a time in American history when sun tans were in maximum vogue; people were California-style sun worshipers; men often went about town with no shirt on to soak up rays; women sunned themselves nearly every weekend to achieve a cosmetic condition known as the perfect tan; sunburns (even severe ones) were so common people did not think much about them; and almost no one wore sunscreen. I was a member of that sun-soaked Baby Boomer generation and failed to think about my own sun exposure in terms of future consequences. That was a really big mistake for me and other members of my generation, and the reward for many of us was skin cancer. This post to the Archaeology in Tennessee blog is written in the sincere hope that you young, up-and-coming generations of archaeologists in Tennessee (and elsewhere) will listen carefully to what I have to say here and protect yourselves from the rays of the sun while doing field archaeology. This post may scare the bejeezers out of you. Make no mistake about it. This is exactly my intent in hopes that you will muster enough good sense to protect yourselves from the sun better than I did during my hot summers in the grid squares. This subject is especially timely for me because tomorrow I am scheduled to undergo my second round of surgery since 2011 for skin cancer on my face.

Most exposure-related cancers take about 25-30 years to show up in the form of a tumor. I was out in the sun quite a lot as a child and got severe sunburns a couple of times during my K-12 years. My initial intense exposure to the sun (day-in and day-out for an extended period of time) was the 1976 summer archaeological field season on the Tellico Archaeological Project. Unlike today’s archaeological field schools, which stay in the field for only five or six weeks, we were out in the sun for the entire summer. My whole summer was spent working on the Tommotley site, which was the third largest of the Overhill Cherokee towns in the Little Tennessee River Basin. Tommotley had no shade trees, except along the edge of the river where the waterscreen pump hummed all day. All of the archaeological work was done out in the direct rays of the sun. I wore a straw hat with a wide brim a big part of the time, and I worked in a Tennessee tee-shirt and khaki pants to avoid sunburn. No sunscreen was used, and to the best of my recollection, high SPF sunscreens like the ones we have today were not widely available. In fact, it was often just the opposite. One of the key emphases in the grand American mystique of the perfect tan was special lotion that acted to intensify solar tanning effects on the skin. Thank you Hawaiian Tropic! Fortunately, I never used any of that special lotion. Nonetheless, my first bout with skin cancer arose on the left side of my nose in about 2007. That was 31 years after my first field season at Tellico, which was nearly perfect clinical timing.

My skin cancer first presented itself as a tiny, round spot on the left side of my nose. It was smaller than the head of a straight pin and did not look at all unusual. It occasionally leaked a tiny bit of water or a drop of blood. However, this was off and on rather than a constant thing, and it was rather unobtrusive in the overall scheme of my life―so I dismissed it for several years. Finally, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist for a general examination and happened to remember this weird but occasional thing that happened on my nose. They did a biopsy, and it was a type of skin cancer. This is when I learned that certain types of skin cancer can be sneaky like the iceberg that got the HMS Titanic. The presentation can be very small on the skin surface (like my tiny vent hole), but the bulk portion of the tumor can be spread out much wider under the epidermis as a mass that looks like a cluster of pearls when it is opened up with a scalpel. Such tumors do not usually spread to other areas of the body, but they do grow slowly outwards from their in situ position.

They scheduled me for surgery right away.  I thought this surgery was going to be quick and simple. They would dig out a little area no bigger than the head of a pin, it would all be done in about 20 minutes, and I would be on my way back to work with one of those little round Band-Aids on my nose. Instead, it turned into a grueling 8-hour ordeal, which I am expecting again tomorrow.

This sort of surgery is done with a local anesthetic that numbs the area around the cancer and some of your face. Consequently, you are awake and fully conscious of all the weird medical things they are doing to you, and it is not pleasant at all. It is like going to the universally dreaded, but usually never seen, Dentist from Hell. Periodically, the anesthetic wears off during the surgery, and they have to numb the surgical area again. They had to do it several times for me, and it was no fun because it hurts when it starts wearing off.

In my particular case, under the healthy epidermis, the tumor had eaten up a good-sized portion of the bottom left half of my nose. One of the problems with this kind of skin cancer surgery is that the surgeon really does not know the full extent of the problem until he gets inside. As it turned out, I had gotten into surgery just in the barest nick of time to avoid significant and permanently detrimental physical and cosmetic effects on my nose.

You might think this surgery involves simply cutting out the tumor in a single step, but there is a lot more to it. They have to do a little cutting, and then they take tissue samples to examine under a microscope to see if cancer cells are still there. So you lie there for a long period of time with your skin wide open and bloody while they process the slides and examine the tissue. If cancer cells are still there, they come back and cut more. And they do it over and over and over and over and over and over again, however many times it takes, until no more cancer cells are seen on the slides. To make it all worse, they are simultaneously doing similar surgery on two or three other people, so you are not just waiting on the slides and the microscope. You are waiting for the surgeon to get back to you from his other surgical patients. After about six hours of this ordeal, I finally heard those blessed words, “Well, Mr. Brown, we finally got all of the cancer.” I breathed a sigh of relief and thought, “Thank you Lord. It’s all over. I can go home now because I am exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically.” And I was indeed just plain worn out. Then the next horrifying words came from the surgeon:

We have run into a problem. We had to cut deeply to get all the cancer. The tissue that is left cannot regenerate properly in such a way as to leave you with a normal-looking nose. Therefore, we are going to have to find another place on your body to get healthy tissue, cut it out, and use it to fill in the trench we made in your nose.

I gasped in horror!!! The surgeon then decided to remove fresh facial tissue from one of those two natural grooves that run from my nose down to the sides of my mouth. (Go look at our state artifact Sandy for the anatomy.)  After even more anesthetic rounds, they had to cut slowly and carefully to avoid significant scarring and move tissue up to my nose―a little bit at a time. As they were cutting, I could feel waterfalls of blood rushing from my face down to my mouth, which is a really crazy-making feeling. This went on for over an hour, and it was grueling. When that cutting was finished, I had to lie there for another hour while they stitched up all of the cuts they had made on my face. This was not a simple case of stitching. It was slow, careful, and painstaking, with tiny stitches like those in early 1800s quilt work. This took another hour, and being fully conscious the whole time, I could sense all the stitching going on, even if I could not feel the pain from the curved needle as it and the thread went in and out. They then put on a bandage that covered nearly half of my face. I would not see how it looked until a couple of days later when the bandage came off. The remnants of all the cutting and stitching looked like something out of a horror movie. It took several weeks to heal up. I was unable to wash my hair or take a shower the whole time. It was truly the skin cancer gift that just kept on giving.

My advice to every Field Director, Field Assistant, and young archaeologist in Tennessee is to take the prospect of skin cancer from archaeology-related sun exposure very seriously. I can guarantee you do not want to go through the ordeals with skin cancer that I am going through. My skin cancers so far have not been the life-threatening kind, but malignant melanoma is a very real possibility for anyone who has undergone long-term sun exposure across many years. It is aggressive, and it spreads quickly, setting up tumors in other parts of the body―and it is every bit as much a killer as Jack the Ripper. One of my friends who took annual vacation trips with his wife to Hawaii came down with a case of melanoma in recent years. Fortunately, it did not spread, and he is still alive. You might not be the lucky one.

Here are some closing thoughts about protecting yourself from sun exposure while doing field archaeology. This is not medical advice because I am not a medical doctor, but I think it is still pretty good advice from an old archaeologist who has seen a lot of life:

1) Use a really good hat or cap that shields your face from the direct rays of the sun as much as possible.

2) Do not be stupid with sunscreen. I define stupid with sunscreen as anything SPF 40 or below. With the skin cancer problems I have had, I would personally use nothing less than 100 percent sunblock products or as close to it as I could find on the retail shelf. Some brands are better quality than others. Check Consumer Reports. They have most likely done a study to identify the best ones.

3) Nearly everyone forgets to put sunscreen on their nose and ears. Put sunscreen on your nose and ears, and never forget it. Skin cancer on the nose leads to bad things. Put it on the other parts of your face too, but keep it away from your eyes. You also need to be aware that sweat rolling down from your forehead can carry sunscreen into your eyes. It stings. Wear a headband to keep sweat and sunscreen out of your eyes as much as possible.  Use sunscreen on your face even when you are wearing a hat or cap.  My wide-brim hat alone was not enough to protect my face.

4) Spread on your sunscreen an hour or so before you arrive in the field each day. Sunscreen does not work well until it has a chance to soak into your skin some. Give it that chance for the best protection. Follow the directions on the bottle.

5) I think bikini tops and going shirtless are a really bad idea in field archaeology. While I know you have to strike a reasonable and healthy balance between keeping cool under a hot sun and avoiding skin cancer, the upper portion of your body is prime cultivation ground for skin cancer in most people. I would wear a tee-shirt made of thin cloth and periodically lift it for a minute or so across the day to let the wind cool off your skin directly. A damp  tee will also help to keep you cool if you can spare the water.

6) I have always thought shorts are a bad idea in field archaeology.  They expose the skin on your legs to the sun all day, and sweaty legs can ruin an excavation surface. I know most of you young archaeologists out there love to wear shorts during excavation work, and they do keep you cool. Some people wore shorts in the old days too. Interestingly, looking back across four decades, I cannot recall a single Field Director or Field Assistant who wore shorts. I will not advise you to wear pants, but if you insist on shorts, be sure to put plenty of sunscreen all over your legs.

7) Take advantage of shade trees and take breaks in the shade if you can. I know this will vary from site to site. Some sites may have no shade at all. A break tent or canopy is a good idea if the project can afford it.

8) I would like to end this list by commending Dr. Tanya Peres Lemons and Dr. Kevin E. Smith at Middle Tennessee State University for their frequent use of man-made shading devices on their archaeological projects. In addition to preventing rapid drying of the soil, which makes it harder to see and photograph feature outlines, it provides much needed shade for their archaeology students on hot summer days in Tennessee.  Blessings to both of you.

This blog has many readers outside of Tennessee and around the world. I can guarantee you one thing. You have never really lived until you have done archaeological excavations on a sunny, hot, steamy, late July day in Tennessee.  It will make any man or woman beg for mercy.

For my first skin cancer surgery, I had good, employer-provided health insurance with a major carrier.  Unfortunately, historically speaking, many field archaeologists who work for CRM consulting companies across the United States have had no health insurance at all.  The cost of my surgery, including doctor fees and follow-up, was between $3,000 and $4,000. Actuaries, those masters of statistical mathematics at insurance companies, had set the deductible on my policy at just the right place to get out of paying for most of my medical bills.  Fortunately, my employer at the time, one of the nicest and most competent men I have ever known, stepped in without my asking and graciously volunteered to pay for a great deal of my medical bills.  For that, I am forever grateful. My major point here is that even small skin cancers that are not immediately life threatening can be expensive to treat.  This is one more good reason for you to avoid getting skin cancer by taking appropriate precautions on your own early in your life.  On down the line, you may not have a health insurance policy, your deductible may be sky high if you do, or your employer might not be nearly as kind and generous as mine happened to be.

Personally, I would hope that all CRM companies could one day find a way to purchase health insurance for their employees, but insurance premiums are already extremely high and going up by huge percentages every year.  One 2015 Obamacare health insurance carrier is asking for a more than 56 percent increase in monthly premiums for 2016.  You read that correctly!  I saw it in a news article yesterday, and it was no mistake. Recently, a person who closely follows the healthcare industry remarked that health care is quickly becoming something the American middle class will no longer be able to afford, and we are on the doorstep of that very moment right now.  Those of you who vote can thank your local Republican politician who is OWNED by the big insurance companies and large pharmaceutical companies.