Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Anthropology and the Destruction of New Orleans

The Boston Globe reports on the latest issue of American Anthropologist. How often does that happen? It happens when the entire issue is dedicated to the anthropology of Post-Katrina New Orleans. The article has summaries of the various articles, including one by Shannon Lee Dawdy on the archaeological implications from what people took from their ruined homes in the aftermath.

I am an archaeologist at Tulane University, and yes my rented apartment home (hence no benefit from insurance!) was filled with four and some feet of water for several weeks. I didn't return until my landlords had cleaned it all out (with my permission, they've been golden to me during all of this). Eventually I did return four months after the storm and the flooding. I re-opened our Center for Archaeology, and got back to writing my dissertation. It wasn't until March, two months later, when I ventured onto the neutral ground (the media) in front of the house. In part this was because it was choked with debris. Even when I finally walked over it, it was still covered in trash, and gnats were everywhere, rising up from the wet mud. There were other hazards, including an open sewer (the entire foundation around the manhole cover had been torn out and laid to the side, exposing a fifteen foot drop).

Being an archaeologist, I started poking around on the surface, and it wasn't long before I began recognizing some of my own possessions. This was a bit startling, but I figured that after years of pawing through other people's trash after they've died, there could be a karmic penalty to pay. So I made a few observations and took a few photos. I noticed that my possessions were relatively small ones, and they were oriented about three feet to the south of the lines of the house, if you extended them across the street and onto the neutral ground. This trash was not disposed as part of standard city sanitation trash hauling, but rather as debris. Homeowners and contractors in the first few months after the storm would dump their trash, debris from house gutting, sealed (for fear of what rotted inside) refrigerators, and other things on the neutral ground. On a, I believe, weekly or so basis an Army Corps of Engineers truck would come by with a large claw arm, and pick up debris for landfilling. What I found of my former possessions (a music CD, Mardi Gras doubloons, old floppy disks with my handwriting on them) were those that were small enough and slippery enough that they could fall out of the claw's grasp, and start to be embedded in the mud.

Their displacement a few feet south of the house initially puzzled me. I walked up and down the neutral ground, and noticed that in general the denser debris scatters were in each case a bit south of the houses on my block. Why? Was there some taphonomic factor that escaped me? They certainly didn't roll down hill. Then it struck me: the trash wasn't in front of the houses, it was in front of the driveways. The houses I was investigating had driveways, and access doors, on their south sides. The trash was leaving the house through the easiest access doors, and either being dumped by hand by homeowners or contractors at the closest spot, or they were filling their trucks with the debris and then backing up to dump it on the neutral ground.

I will admit, the temptation did drift through my mind: maybe some of my stuff, the metals, stone, ceramics, and plastics, could be excavated and recovered. I started thinking about what I owned, what was small and durable? What was precious to me in that category? Maybe with enough disinfecting cleanser, I could recover my own artifacts. Then I thought about the gnats. The muck. The toxic and septic stew that had sat in my apartment for days. And I thought about how much I really needed any of those things. Or did I really just not want to give up all the vestiges of my former life. I decided I'd leave it to someone to study in the future. Maybe the robots that survive the twenty-first century, or the ant people that succeed them. In any case, if this blog post survives, remember to look a meter south of the houses.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This Explains Lot: Meth Addicts Addicted to Archaeology

People have wondered what I was smoking when I decided to become an archaeologist. Maybe they were on to something. An Arkansas sheriff believes that the obsessive nature of surface collection and survey appeals to crystal meth addicts, and he commonly finds arrowheads in meth busts. Me, I suspect the value to collectors is probably part of the equation. But this is interesting in either case, and might be a cautionary tale to field workers. We've already learned to be careful of traps or guards on meth labs and pot fields.

Top 10 Discoveries of 2006

Archaeology Magazine has made a list of what it considers the top discoveries of last year.

It has been a fantastic year for early Mesoamerican writing, with the discovery of what appears to be Olmec writing, the oldest Maya writing, and what may be an ancient calendar representation.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Ancient Religion?

Two recent discoveries address what may be early religious activities. The younger of the two discoveries have precedent, but are still extraordinary. Plastered skulls 11,500 years old were discovered in Tell Aswad, Syria. The skulls were coated with plaster, simulating flesh and skin, after death and painted to look more lifelike. Not only are these skulls earlier than those found at Jericho and elsewhere, they are far more impressive. Dating to the very beginning of settled life and the transition to food production, the uses of these skulls are uncertain. Guesses usually suggest family, ancestors, and ritual.

A find without precedent in Botswana dates back to what may be the beginning of modern human thought. Deposits of spear points around a rock sculpted into the form of a python appear to date to over 70,000 BP. The patterned deposition of these artifacts around a large image of an animal important to human concepts of nature and supernature may well be some of the earliest evidence of more complex ritual or religious behavior for Homo sapiens sapiens. Intriguingly, this is not far in time or space from the earliest evidence for human art. Blombos Cave, in neighboring South Africa, has produced the earliest evidence for symbolic creation of material culture. Shells were pierced for hanging on necklaces, and most intriguingly, zig-zag geometric patterns were carved into bars of red ochre, all around 77,000 BP. I would not be surprised to see other evidence of modern human behavior appearing in Southern Africa in the future.

Of course, other later hominids (such as Neanderthals) show some evidence of mortuary practices that may hint at symbolic thought. But so far not much evidence of symbolic material culture outside of mortuary practices. I'll leave the splitting between modern human behavior and other humans to those with more expertise in these fields.

A New Year, a New Mission

I'll be changing the purpose of this blog in the next weeks. First off, starting a designer's journal for a dissertation after having written 75% of the dissertation is a bad plan. Second, I've decided I don't like the idea of a designer's journal, too egocentric.

I'm still deciding what to do with this blog, but it will likely become a place to discuss new archaeological discoveries, and put them in perspective. This may well develop in conjuction with the Introduction to Archaeology course I am teaching this semester.

So here's a good start.

This article from Halifax, Nova Scotia
, mentions some new historical archaeological discoveries under that city. But it also discusses the importance of archaeology as a hands-on scientific experience. This is one of the great strengths of archaeology. It deals with material culture, which can be understood by anyone at some level. Of course there can be theory or technical issues requiring substantial amounts of education and jargon control. But putting that all aside, I can put a fragment of a drinking glass, or a religious medal, or a kitchen knife, or a hammer stone into someone's hand, and there is a basic human connection to people from another time, another society, another culture, another world.

Futhermore, archaeology is about pattern recognition and detective work. Archaeology can be literally hands on artifacts, and it can also be hands on data. Inspired by Dr. Robert Drennan of the University of Pittsburgh, I have found great utility in giving archaeological data to students so that they can "do the math" and solve research questions. Even if they never think about archaeology again in a professional manner, students can learn how to judge evidence and make reality-based conclusions. A predisposition to reality has been lacking in some quarters as of late.