Friday, February 10, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Weird Archaeology 101: Dowsing for Graves

I've heard in the past of dowsers or other "psychic archaeologists" being used by institutions that didn't want to pay for the more expensive scientific archaeology required to protect cultural patrimony and heritage. But I've never heard of dowsers being brought in because archaeologists weren't considered sufficient enough.

Until now. Check out these links. (h/t Boing Boing)

Buried Secrets

A Grave Matter

I could try to summarize the story, but really I think one needs to read it to really get all the forces at play. Note: While one of the archaeologists involved is from Tulane University, his entry into their program postdates my graduation, I don't know him.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101: Update on Glenn Beck's Archaeology Lessons

Wesley Lowery of The Columbus Dispatch brings us the behind the scenes of a DVD touted by Beck back in August, and how six archaeologists interviewed for the production feel "the documentary advances unsubstantiated claims, uses their words out of context and highlights artifacts that have proved to be fraudulent to advance a "fringe" archaeological belief."

Here's a trailer.

I have to say, I'm surprised at some of the names who were interviewed for this, and didn't see it coming. Though I've heard more than enough examples of such projects going south, including some projects purposely hiding the nature of the film being made (though I've heard no such allegations about this project).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101: Why Cthulhu Isn't On that Gravestone

Cross posted from my other blog, Miskatonic Museum, where I conduct a touch of tongue-in-cheek alternative science and archaeology blogging about the cosmic horrors that are the true masters of this planet, as chronicled by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Posted here because of the potential relevance for how to deal with more obviously "authentic" pseudoarchaeology.

Here at Miskatonic Museum, we curate and display objects and cases where the real world parallels or at least calls to mind the works of H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos. So we were amused when io9's Jess Nevins recently pointed out a tombstone from Duxbury, Massachusetts that to his eye resembled one of the common icons for Cthulhu. This is very much up our alley, and is comparable with our most famous piece, the Moche Headdress, possibly from La Mina, Peru, which may provide additional insight into the Cthulhu Cult.

But as with our Red Rain of Kerala exhibit, examined through the lens of "The Colour Out of Space," we do try to also educate our visitors regarding more mainstream interpretations of these objects. In the case of the Duxbury Stone, there seemed to be more that might be said in this regard.

One of the comments on the io9 article, by greenivygrey, notes that the border is a gourd and floral design, and points to similar iconography on a 1695 tombstone. Another example, from 1697 was photographed by jlbriggs in Newport, Rhode Island. This design is also known as "fig and pumpkin" and in these examples this is more obvious than on the Duxbury Stone (which includes the figs, but not the pumpkin). Another example from 1705 Ipswich can be seen here. PrimaryResearch has a visual glossary of colonial-era headstone elements which you can view. If you are a student of these designs, please feel free to add further information or corrections in the comments.

You may notice that all of these examples cluster together. This brings us to the Death's Head design on the Duxbury Stone, and the work of archaeologist James Deetz. James Deetz was a pioneering historical archaeologist, author of, amongst other works the book In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Deetz's most famous work may be his seriation, conducted with Edwin S. Dethlefsen, of New England headstone iconography. You can read the article here. This seriation did not directly address border designs such as the fig and pumpkin, but is a classic case study on seriation of material culture. The article tracks the waxing and waning in popularity of three basic headstone designs, and then goes into detail into the specifics of the evolution of these designs, and how demographics, settlement pattern, religious beliefs, and economics affected this evolution. This article has led to other projects, including those utilizing the study to educate children in history and how to conduct research, such as Dean Eastman's "Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones" which has another illustration of the fig and pumpkin motif.

Seriation is a technique developed over a century ago that is in many ways the backbone of everyday archaeological chronology (anchored in time with absolute dating techniques such as radiocarbon). The style of material objects generally changes through time, and in most cases, it changes in a relatively predictable and common sense way. Elements of style or whole styles are innovated or introduced, they become popular and widespread, and then they drop off as another new fad or trend emerges. The sequence of these changes can be compiled and used to date when an object was probably made. We do this all the time, recognizing that a car or a pair of pants or a building is from a particular decade or century based on other examples we know from that time. We know that Mad Men takes place in the early 1960s not from seeing a calendar, but from the clothes, and we recognize the show's advance through time as the clothes change. And when we see something we believe to be out of place, even if it is not, we find it jarring, as in the recent meme of finding "time travelers" in old photos or video clips.

Deetz and Dethlefsen seriated these grave markers not just to study them in particular, but as a larger test of seriation. The article was published in 1967, an era when explicit testing of the rigor of archaeological methods had reached a fever pitch in what historians of archaeological theory call "The New Archaeology" or processual archaeology, contrasting it with "culture historical" archaeology that had preceded it. The headstones are dated, and some of the carvers are known from the historical record. It was an ideal case to determine whether seriation, regularly applied to prehistoric artifact populations, actually worked like everyone thought it did. Below is a video of archaeologist Dave Wheelock carving an 18th century style headstone for the late Deetz.

This headstone may feature pumpkins and figs rather than Cthulhu, but I suspect HPL would have appreciated what has been learned about these tombstones in the intervening decades. He wrote extensively about changes of style and elements of architecture, both in his letters and in some travelogues, unpublished during his lifetime with an antiquarian bent (most famously his purposely archaic "Quebeck" study). He wrote about small bits of old Dutch material culture in New England, liked the idea of a museum of folkways, and went on in an amateur fashion about regional English-language dialects in America.

Just as a side note on the io9 article, while Innsmouth does indeed have some elements of Ipswich and Gloucester in it as Mr. Nevins notes, much of it was openly based on Newburyport. Like Arkham, which is a mix of Salem and Providence (especially Brown University), it has several components.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

House A.D. - Could Archaeology Help Cure Cancer?

Exactly how old is lupus?

Not just archaeologists. Biological anthropologists, historians, and others. But it felt good to say.

Researchers from the University of Manchester have identified the first evidence of cancer from an Egyptian mummy. Rather than suggesting that cancer is older than was thought, the lack of other signs of cancer in the many mummies examined over the decades suggests that cancer was quite rare. Likewise, they found that historical records only begin to describe cancer in the 17th century. Though not claiming that the disease is new, they are suggesting that it was rare in antiquity, and has become common in industrial societies because of man-made carcinogenic environments and conditions. Similar findings are reported from analysis of a skeletal collection from Croatia. And some scholars even believe that ancient drinks and concoctions might have worked against cancer.

I am skeptical that cancer is purely recent. The authors of the Egyptian discovery suggest that cancer would survive taphonomic processes in mummies better than regular tissue, but I'll find that more likely if, after this publication there are not many more tumors found. Lower life expectancy probably accounts for some of the discrepancy (a rebuttal notes that virtually all the mummies in this study were under the age when most cancers occur), and despite the authors' faith in medical observation in the past, there is a shift in the importance of observation and especially recording starting right around the time they notice an upswing in recorded cases. And as for the idea that there is nothing in nature that causes cancers, surely this can't be meant to exclude skin cancer from sun-damaged skin?

But for the moment, let's put the accuracy of the findings aside. For the purposes of an intellectual exercise, let's assume that the findings are correct, and cancer was rare in antiquity, becoming more common in the 17th century and on. What changes around 1600 that might account for this? The obvious event to point to, from my biased perspective, is the re-uniting of the New and Old Worlds. Genes and species passed back and forth that had been largely separated for thousands of years. At least one famous carcinogen, tobacco, became popular throughout the world at this time.

What about technology and pollution? Industrialism does increase, but closer to the late 1700s and into the 1800s. And plenty of toxins and heavy metals were used in antiquity including lead and tin in drinking and liquid storage vessels and cosmetics. Lead from Classical Greek and Roman industries in the Mediterranean can be detected in Greenland ice cores (abstract, news article).

Regardless of the specifics of this study, utilizing history and anthropology to examine the history of current diseases in order to understand their origins and nature, is a one more way that scholarship often stereotyped as frivolous is contributing important information of practical use to people today.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101 Pop Quiz: Ancient Shekel in Massachusetts?

Good afternoon class,

We've had a few sessions, so I thought I'd give you a pop quiz.

A builder comes to you and says that during the the reconstruction of a wharf in Manchester, Massachusetts, he found a 2000-year old silver shekel of Tyre (Lebanon) in a hole in the nearby sand. He notes the irony in finding it on Holy Thursday, the day Christians commemorate the Last Supper, which is followed by Judas' betrayal of Jesus, for which he was paid in silver shekels. He takes it to the owner of the property. They take it to a numismatist, who determines it is authentic (dating from 126 BC - 66 AD), that it had been worn, and that there is evidence it had been submerged underwater for some time, though there is no formal paperwork to that effect.

The owner does not claim to know how the coin got there and suggests there are hundreds of possibilities. She has done some research on previous owners of the property, but has not found evidence of coin collectors. She also suggests both that an animal might have dropped it there from somewhere else (including possibly a seagull), or that the Phoenicians might have lost it during trade with Vikings in the area.

If this case was brought to your attention, what would your reaction be? Any suggested methods for the arrival of the coin? Possible courses of action?

Ancient Poetry and Texts in the Original Languages

Martin Worthington at Cambridge is spearheading a project to bring together scholars and record for public listening various Babylonian texts, initially poetry, in the original Akkadian.

On the site, Dr. Worthington points to similar projects including Anglo-Saxon Aloud and the Odyssey in Ancient Greek.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Classification: Lumpers more accurate than Splitters? Some reflections on what dinosaurs can teach us about potsherds

1915 Classification of Ceratopsidae by William Diller Matthew. (Wikicommons)

A recent study by paleontologist Michael Benton (University of Bristol) of the history of dinosaur taxonomy in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, discussed by Scientific American, argues that lumpers (those more willing to overlook minor differences when creating classifications) are more accurate than splitters (those who prefer to spin off more classificatory types based on minor differences).

Those who named more dinosaurs had a higher rate of those species later being absorbed into other species as it became clearer that the differences once used to define a "species" were minor, with typically 50 - 70% of "species" ultimately being rejected by the field. Those who named only a few dinosaurs, however, typically had about 40% of their discoveries rejected. Benton also argues that some of the more prolific dinosaur namers may have had financial or prestige motivations.

This issue has been particularly in the news lately, with the determination that the famous genus Triceratops is simply a juvenile version of the genus that had been called Torosaurus. Dinosaur fans need not worry, as Torosaurus was named later, so its genus will be erased and lumped in with Triceratops. No need to start another Pluto guerrilla war.

Any archaeologist will bristle at the idea that we dig up dinosaurs (go ahead, ask one). And unlike in the case of dinosaurs, where a press release goes out with a new taxonomic addition, no one really cares if you've named a new type, group, or even ware of pottery. But this does bring to mind some of the issues with archaeological classification. Pots or spear points are not species, and any first year grad student (at least of Americanist archaeology) can point to the iconic Ford vs. Spaulding debate over whether types are discovered or created by the archaeologist.

Reading this article, I started to think about how chaotic archaeological typologies really are. One problem I'm quite familiar with is the issue of the word colono or colonoware. In historical archaeology, the term has a wide at and at times nearly contradictory use, incorporating ideas of both continuity and blending. It has been used to refer to pottery from sites in the Caribbean, the United States Southeast, and nearby locations that are simply vessels not created by Europeans, plates and pitchers created by indigenous potters but incorporating European design concepts, bowls and jars created by Africans and African Americans in the style and symbolism of their pre-diaspora homeland, vessels like those of a pre-diaspora homeland but reflecting ethnogenesis involving people from various African cultural traditions, and vessels not associated with potters or consumers of a particular identity but instead reflecting the dynamic changes wrought by colonialism.

Thinking of this case I can't even imagine the idea of an orderly "rejection" of a type in the manner of the paleontologists. Again, a species isn't a type, and a type may well serve a research purpose more than be an actual discoverable "thing." But types aren't often treated in this manner. They get published, or sometimes are just propagated within a regional research community, and then they start to get used by other archaeologists for possibly very different research ends than those of the classifier. A type originally designed simply to clarify a deep stratigraphic sequence might get used for examining ethnic identity, trade routes, or status differences. Neverminding unusual cases like the colonoware one, there is no real way to check the production of new types, nor how useful they are, other than through the informal process of ignoring earlier works, a process that may get entangled with more practical than intellectual matters.

Personally, I have found that I feel like "splitting" feels proper, taking note of minor differences and then pointing your index finger in the air whilst shouting "A-ha!" in your best Sherlock Holmes imitation. But then, when it comes time to actually present taxonomy to the world, "lumping" instincts kick in out of caution. At least within my research materials. Lumping in with someone else's typology, that opens up whole new issues (is this really the same thing? Is there a regional variation?). And the cycle begins anew.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lost Language Discovered on 17th Century Paper in Peruvian Archaeological Excavation

Dr. Jeffrey Quilter of Harvard's Peabody Museum discusses the amazing discovery from Magdalena de Cao Viejo (also known from its also amazing prehispanic component, the Moche site El Brujo). This site is extremely dry, and has preserved actual documents, an astounding find from an archaeological site. Not only are these documents very rare, that they record extraordinary information about the number system of a little known language is almost unbelievable. As the video notes, this material has just been published in American Anthropologist (press release on the research can be read here). Here's the project website. I know several of the folks there, either through attending Tulane University with them, or through work on the upcoming hybrid material culture volume I'm editing.