Shovel Bum: Comix of Archaeological Field Life

By: Trent de Boer (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2004. viii+129 pp., refs. $22.95 pb (ISBN 0-7591-0682-7))

Shovel bum is a somewhat derogatory word used to describe archaeologists who travel across the country working temporary jobs in exchange for a meager wage and a per diem. It may not sound like a desirable job to most, but Trent de Boer pays a fitting tribute to those individuals who make a living from this difficult work. Shovel Bum was originally the name of a fan magazine or zine, edited by de Boer, to which past and present shovel bums submitted their humorous yet accurate stories about working in the field. The more artistically inclined turned these stories into comics, but a few submissions were narratives.
De Boer begins Shovel Bum with a two-page comic that explains what inspired him to solicit contributions from fellow shovel bums and publish the annual zine. The remainder of the book contains the best material from the first eight issues, which de Boer arranges thematically into eight chapters. The book closes with an afterword by Troy Lavotta that discusses the history of the zine phenomena and places Shovel Bum within the context of zine culture.
The first chapter centers on de Boer’s experiences working as a shovel bum in Arkansas. He pays particular attention to the hazards that shovel bums encountered there, such as insects and nasty property owners, yet de Boer makes sure to balance this negative with the positive, pointing out that people continue to pursue this profession because they like finding interesting artifacts and working in the outdoors. Finally, de Boer provides basic information about what shovel bums do in the field, such as walking transects and excavating when necessary.
The theme of the second chapter is food or, more appropriately, how shovel bums stretch their per diem dollars. Per diem, meaning each day, is the money provided shovel bums to cover food expenses. It usually is distributed as cash at the beginning of the week or reimbursed through receipts. This chapter contains stories that emphasize the down side to all-you-can-eat-buffets and praises the “heroic” breakfasts available at various restaurants across the country.
Besides food, shelter is another necessity for shovel bums, and chapter 3 presents only horror stories about small motels with rigid rules or questionable workers. The stories submitted in this chapter are as interesting as the stories presented in chapter 2 but contain minimal illustrations. Perhaps de Boer had a limited amount of material to choose from, but one more illustrated story would have added to the variety of the chapter.
In chapter 4, de Boer and contributors discuss the various vehicles used in the field, including tributes to vehicles that have “passed on” and an analysis of what makes a good and bad field vehicle. Other humorous stories involve vandalism, awkward moments with dump truck drivers, and a standoff with a flock of turkeys. This chapter contains more contributions than the others do, and the diversity of the content and illustrations really gives the reader an idea of what a typical issue of Shovel Bum contains.
The stories presented in chapter 5 revolve around de Boer’s experience at one particular site, the Tolt in Washington. This chapter describes a unique phenomenon in the life of a shovel bum—working on a site with 30 or more other shovel bums. De Boer relays the highs and lows of working on the site, and another contributor explains how the shovel bums entertained themselves playing creek baseball. Chapter 6 contains similar material as de Boer describes the obstacles encountered when excavating on or near military bases.
Chapter 7, appropriately named “Isolated Finds,” features selections from the zine that did not fit under the other seven categories. The highlights of this chapter are Lavotta’s truthful guide to attending archaeological conferences and de Boer’s brief history of the Marshalltown trowel. De Boer also included one or two games in each issue of Shovel Bum, and chapter 8 contains the best of these.
The only negative aspect about Shovel Bum is Lavotta’s afterword, “Putting Shovel Bum in Context: Why a View from the Shovel Handle Matters.” The title implies that Lavotta will discuss why it is important that the life of the shovel bum be documented, despite the form of media. Lavotta does this in the first few paragraphs, but then he plunges into a 10-page essay that discusses the history of the zine phenomenon and almost ignores Shovel Bum. This deviation from the original subject of the essay makes it appear slightly out of place compared to the rest of the material. Readers may find it easier to read Lavotta’s essay before reading Shovel Bum. Otherwise, the academic discourse of the concluding chapter seems very dry and tiring after reading more than 100 pages of comics.
Overall, de Boer and the contributors to Shovel Bum should be commended for taking the time to help others understand the trials and tribulations of being a shovel bum. The collection is recommended for archaeologists wishing to re-live their shovel bum days and for any student who is considering entering the field of archaeology.10
 Rachael Herzberg

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