Shovel Bum: The Interview

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Since 1997, Trent de Boer and friends have produced an annual magazine for the archaeological field technician called Shovel Bum. Field technicians are the journeymen of the archaeological profession; they travel from job to job, providing the labor and brains for most of the on-the-ground government-sponsored excavation conducted in the US, UK, and many countries around the world. Part comic relief, part advice, part commiseration, Shovel Bum has a small but extremely loyal following.

In the spring of 2004, Altamira Press published a collection of the first few years of Shovel Bum, making it possible for those outside the profession to enjoy and get a little closer to understanding how cultural resource management [CRM] archaeology works. Trent was kind enough to answer a few nosy questions recently on his work and career.

About Archaeology: Tell me about the beginnings of Shovel Bum. I know you said in your book that you got started as a way to explain what the field tech business was all about. But, how did you end up developing it as a fan 'zine? Were you a fan of fan zines to begin with?

Trent de Boer: My wife Betsy and I started Shovel Bum in 1997 because we were sick of trying to explain CRM archaeology to our family and friends. We figured it would be easier to produce a comic showing what we did than write the same letter over and over. Right around this time, a friend sent me an issue of John Porcellino's zine King-Cat and Other Stories, when John was running a serial about his days as a mosquito abatement man in Colorado.

His matter-of-fact explanation (both visually and verbally) of the ins and outs of a job I previously had no idea existed really inspired me??most people I met were astonished to learn of the CRM archaeology industry.

After the first issue, Betsy and I moved to Seattle and I started reading a lot of zines. In particular, I was influenced by other "work" zines like Dishwasher and X-tra Tuff, about the Alaska fishing industry. I also worked for a while at a co-op with Gordon Gordon, publisher of the zine Teen Fag, and he gave me a lot of practical tips on self-publishing. We started taking submissions from other shovel bums during the second issue and expanded our format to reflect more of the "shovel bum lifestyle." Word of mouth has brought most of our submissions to date.

About Archaeology: How many people subscribe to Shovel Bum? Do you think most of your subscriber base is field techs? How do you think people hear about it? Do you sell advertising/or charge for issues?

Trent de Boer: The subscriber base is small, only a couple hundred people. We've gone out of our way to keep it that way, in part because we hate going to Kinko's to print up the issues. (They always play such horrible music!) The majority of our readers are shovel bums (or former shovel bums), but we do get a lot of feedback from non-shovel bums telling us how much they enjoy reading about our weird profession. I think most folks find out about Shovel Bum via word of mouth, but maybe that will change with the new book. So far, we've avoided the advertising demon and we keep our costs low... $2 per issue, including postage! It's definitely not a money making venture.

About Archaeology: I did a series on the field tech profession a while back (Have Trowel Will Travel) and got some complaints about my use of the expression "shovel bum": some people feel it is not a dignified term for what is an essentially a downtrodden profession. What do you think might help the dignity of a shovel bum?

Trent de Boer: It's cheesy, but I feel like the term shovel bum has been reclaimed. It probably started out as a derogatory term but it seems like most people use the term with pride now. In Shovel Bum, I've always tried to emphasize community--there really aren't that many folks out there living the life. And no matter what people might say, the shovel bums are the ones who get the work done. The shovel bums who manage to eke out a career deserve respect and I've always hoped that Shovel Bum could provide that.

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