It is easy to reflect on this cemetery project and service learning course. The entire experience has been much more than a class. It has been a unique opportunity to not only engage with the public, but participate in a project that will require ongoing work. To summarize our work, it is the beginning of a long process of identifying and mapping all of the grades in the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery. We began by flagging as many graves as we could identify. We ended up having human remains detection dogs coming in and identifying more, so in the end we have found that there are close to 1,000 graves in total. Bringing in the HRD dogs, Piper and Jasper, was a very interesting stage, as they were able to locate graves which had been completely unmarked. Our next step was to go to each grave and record as much known data as possible, including measurements. We used a total station, as used in archaeological fieldwork, to begin to map each grave. Of course, we could not complete all 1,000+ in one semester, so this is an ongoing project.
I would say that perhaps my favorite part of this project was data collection. This is not something I would have foreseen myself enjoying, but there is something almost therapeutic about methodically gathering information and recording it in an organized manner. Besides this, I enjoyed taking notice of the individuals buried in this cemetery. I feel that I played a role in reminding the community of their presence. For the unmarked and unidentified graves, simply recording the location and flag number, with a photo, felt good. Knowing that while we are unable to identify these individuals at what is a very early stage, there is a possibility of new information being uncovered with time. I expected my least favorite part to consist of any and all technological contributions. I have never been gifted in the handling of technology and have come to accept that my talents lie elsewhere. I did tend to avoid the total station; I’m going to be honest about that. This being said, just about anything can be learned with time and practice, so I would like to make a point of tackling my technological hang ups in the future.
As someone whose academic focus is not in archaeology, I initially signed up for this course in order to gain hands on experience in field work. It is wise to have some type of research or field experience prior to grad school. While this project may not be a three month excavation in a foreign country, it does offer an opportunity to step outside of the typical university setting and into an environment that welcomes ideas and applauds initiative. It has been eye opening and humbling to see firsthand the level of detail that archaeologists strive for. While I do not see myself becoming a career archaeologist, as I am leaning toward the global health field, I have developed a newfound respect for archaeologists and their work ethic.
Upon leaving the classroom and beginning to build a relationship with the community, it allows one to not simply see or hear the course content, but to experience it firsthand. This semester I took Intro to Archaeology in addition to this Public Archaeology course. Because of the service work, I was able to apply many of the anthropological concepts I was learning in Intro to Archaeology, and that was very cool. Another important dynamic has been the strong focus on social justice. The hope of this project is to strengthen what has been a very neglected and overlooked cemetery. Many of the individuals buried here were dealt an unfortunate hand in life and were unable to afford a private burial. We want to keep the public, and the loved ones of those buried in the cemetery, informed throughout this process and provide them with as much information as possible as we move forward. For anyone who may have a family member or friend buried in an unidentified grave, it is important that they do not lose hope in finding the location. While it may take time and resources, there are people who care and want to keep working toward these goals.
I, personally, benefitted from this experience by growing as a student. This was my first university course that did not take place entirely in a classroom, so it was a useful experience for me to participate in a project that needed help. After I earn my bachelor’s degree, I will be looking at master’s programs in applied anthropology, so having been able to “apply” anthropology at least once already will be beneficial for me. Speaking on behalf of the class, I would say that this project has been a great way of testing our abilities, as students, in order to take the skills we have learned in the classroom, and apply them in the real world. On top of that, service work is needed in so many areas and having been able to contribute to one of these causes is advantageous in its own right. As I continue my education and one day build a career, I will enjoy looking back on my first educational community involvement experience and the imprint it left.
I would really love to take this public archaeology class again and continue my involvement with cemetery fieldwork. At the moment, it looks as though I will have a full schedule up until graduation. This being said, I consider myself invested in the outcome of the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project and would love to visit the class in the future and see what progress has been made. I’m interested in seeing changes that have been made and learning of any new developments. I have already spoken highly of my experience with two fellow members of the UTRGV Anthropology Club, who are both scheduled to participate in the spring, so I will be kept relatively in the loop.
To close this essay, I would like to discuss what I feel I have taken, and what any student may take, from this experience. There were many things to be gained from this project, and from service learning in general. At the top of the list would be: experience, knowledge, confidence, stronger partnerships with fellow classmates and the overall feeling of having contributed to something worthwhile. I truly hope that anyone who is familiar with our work has been happy with what we have done. I remain hopeful that the project continues in a manner which brings support to the community and receives support in return.