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January 26, 2006

Georgia on my mind

I'm taking the weekend off to drive to Savannah to meet up with my girlfriend for a little getaway. We are staying at a couple of bed and breakfast places which are old historic homes. Savannah looks like a neat town and was chosen because it's roughly halfway between Wilmington and Tampa. First night at the Dresser Palmer House and then to the River Street Inn on Saturday night. Click the photos to check out the websites. I'll post some more next week (that we took ourselves).

Dresser Palmer House:

River Street Inn:

Posted by Will at 08:30 PM

Hip hop and linguistics

Hip hop and linguistics: You ain't heard no research like it!
It's rare to use the words 'hip hop' and 'serious academic research' in the same sentence, but a University of Calgary linguistics professor has relied on rap music as source material for a study of African American vernacular English.
Dr. Darin Howe recently contributed a book chapter that focuses on how black Americans use the negative in informal speech, citing examples from hip hop artists such as Phonte, Jay Z and Method Man. Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 10:22 AM

January 25, 2006

Searching for Nomadic Thoughts

I'll have to start doing this more often...I was looking at my visitor stats and I can see what pages refer people to this blog including what they search for on Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. to surf here. Most of it is by chance but it's quite amusing. I noticed today that I've hit a milestone: I am the 3rd highest ranked site for the Yahoo search term "Jesus Christ will get a new body and be reborn in 2006."

Posted by Will at 05:01 PM

More on revival of Virginia Algonquian

Seedmagazine.com has a story on the UNC-Charlotte English professor who was asked to recreate the long-dead Virginia Algonquian language for Terrence Malick's The New World (see my review here).

One amusing example of Rudes' work involved a bit performer in The New World whose task was to walk up a hill, gaze down on the new colonists building Jamestown Fort and promptly be shot dead by the oh-so-civilized white men. The actor lobbied to say something cute before he was killed off, eventually settling on the New Yorker-worthy quip, "There goes the neighborhood."
To translate this short sentence, Rudes first rephrased it as "They will destroy the neighborhood." He already knew the word for "they;" the suffix to change it to the future tense; and the verb meaning "destroy." To create the word "neighborhood," he joined two words from the closely-related language of the Massachusett tribe, one for "neighbor" and one for "place." He then added the ending for "it is." He next changed the letters from the original Massachusett words to the corresponding Virginia Algonquian letters. Finally, he came up with the word "wikahkamikaaw" for "it is the neighborhood." Rudes later discovered that there was once a Virginia Algonquian town of the same name, reassuring him that his made-up word existed in the original language.

I have yet to read anything on reaction from the linguistic and Native American communities about the use of the language in the film, but I'll be sure to post anything here. Fascinating stuff!

Posted by Will at 04:48 PM

Sir, do you have a permit for that atlatl?

From National Geographic News:

Pennsylvania hunters hoping to stalk deer with Stone Age spear- throwers may get their chance later this year. Today the state's game commission gave preliminary approval for hunting deer hunting using the atlatl and dart.
The ancient weapon uses a throwing stick to propel spearlike projectiles farther and harder than hunters can with arm power alone.
The atlatl (pronounced AHT-lah-tuhl) predates the bow and arrow and was first used some 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, possibly earlier, by hunters around the world.
The weapon appeared in the Americas about the same time humans arrived. It was brought to its technological apex during thousands of years of Native American use.
"It's first and foremost a hunting weapon, and I think that naturally this is what it should be," said Jack Rowe, an atlatl enthusiast from Sayre, Pennsylvania, who lobbied for approval.


Full story and original graphic here.

Posted by Will at 03:06 PM

Two sides of the same coin

At Anthropology.net (an excellent site by the way), blogger gringoperdido has an enlightening post about the disparate natures of the American and Latin American education systems. Besides pointing out the differences in the logistics of degree-seeking, he speaks to the dynamics of actually carrying out archaeology (and interpretation) in the Maya world when two different educational structures (and languages) collide in the same region: one emphasizing method over theory (Latin America) and the other theory over method (US):

This has resulted in 2 separate dialogues about the nature of the ancient Maya. The gringos pay little attention to Guatemalan archaeologists and the Guatemalans are unable to access many of the interpretations and a lot of the recent theoretical schools. In addition, there is the actual language barrier. As most of the American projects in the Maya world are in Belize (an English-speaking country), there are many gringos who do not speak fluent Spanish and are thus unable and/or unwilling to read the reports of the Spanish-speaking projects. Most of the Guatemalans do not speak English and the few English-language books and articles that make it here are in out-of-the-way libraries, they do not use them much.

Posted by Will at 12:58 AM

January 24, 2006

A head-against-concrete moment

I wish I could say this is not graphic and obscene, but I can't. Curious? Mark of backfill has the story, but make sure you're sitting down and not around any sharp objects...

Posted by Will at 05:29 PM

"Dig Adds to Cherokee "Trail of Tears" History"

From today's National Geographic News, here's a somber but interesting news story from my home state:

Archaeologists working in the rugged mountains of southwestern North Carolina are adding new details to the story of a tragedy that took place more than 160 years ago.
The scientists are uncovering the remains of farms and homes belonging to the Cherokee Indians before they were forced to abandon their property and move to Oklahoma.
About 16,000 Cherokee and hundreds of other Native Americans were forced out of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama in the late 1830s. The event came to be known among the Cherokee as the Trail of Tears.
Brett Riggs, an archaeologist with the University of North Carolina's Research Laboratories of Archaeology, is leading the excavations. He said the relocation of the Indians was a form of ethnic cleansing.
"A group of people in possession of sovereign territory with a sovereign government were forced to abandon that land, and were forcibly deported," Riggs said.
"They were detained by the U.S. military, and then moved away from their homes to open the area for settlement by a whole different population. That fits the bill for describing ethnic cleansing as well as anything I can think of."

(Photo taken from the story)

Posted by Will at 12:33 AM

January 22, 2006

Some things archaeology can't tell us...

UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that the disk in the cartoon is the Aztec calendar, not the Maya calendar. My sincere apologies if any confusion resulted in the posting of this cartoon:)

For more information (in true archaeology dork fashion): http://www.mayacalendar.com/ and http://www.azteccalendar.com/

Thanks to my Dad for the cartoon:


Posted by Will at 09:50 PM

U. of New Hampshire's Indiana Jones

Here's a pop piece to entertain you:

It took Bill Saturno nearly a year to tell his wife and kids about his discovery of a lifetime.
That’s because the University of New Hampshire assistant professor of anthropology had nearly killed himself when he trekked into the Guatemalan jungle in March 2001 in search of artifacts rumored to have been uncovered by looters.
"I didn’t want to tell her what an idiot I had been - how I had put her and our family at risk," Saturno said with a guilty chuckle during a recent telephone interview from Santa Fe, N.M., where he is on sabbatical writing a book about the discovery of a mural that has set the Maya anthropological clock back some 500 years.
"We didn’t tell anybody until March of 2002 - that’s when the April National Geographic was released with the first article about the site," said Saturno, 36, a research associate at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who set out with a small party funded by National Geographic on what was supposed to be an afternoon search for the as-yet undiscovered site of San Bartolo, north of Tikal (one of the great ancient Maya cities of Guatemala).
The group leaders heard rumors that looters had found stele (elaborately engraved stone slabs) and wanted to try and secure the site before it was pilfered.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 01:16 PM

January 21, 2006

"Mexico Unearths Colonial Mural"

MEXICO CITY - Salvador Guilliem dangles on a narrow beam over the sunken remains of a mural painted by Indians shortly after the Spanish Conquest. Guilliem, an archaeologist, points out the newly excavated red, green and ochre flourishes in one of the earliest paintings to show the mixing of the two cultures.
The vivid scene of animals real and mythical cavorting around the edge of lakes that once shimmered in Mexico City was painted by Aztec Indians in the early 1530s during a rare, brief moment of tolerance in an era when Spaniards were obliterating Aztec culture to cement their own rule.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 01:58 PM

The New World: Film Review

Last night I had a date with myself and saw The New World, a film by Terrence Malick and starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, and Q’Orianka Kilcher. I was a bit skeptical going in because anytime Hollywood produces a period piece based on historical events, there’s room for interpretation and misrepresentation. Coming away, however, I was quite surprised at how good the film was and the unique approach the filmmakers took to retelling the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.


The Story

The majority of the film is set in what is today Virginia at the Jamestown colony and the surrounding area. It starts with the first English colonists arriving in Virginia to the bewilderment of “the naturals”, who don’t know quite what to make of the pale, dirty, and odorous strangers. Initially, they take the invaders arriving on their impressive vessels as gods from above and hesitantly welcome them to their lands. This of course doesn’t last very long once the Indians realize the English are here to take over. The story focuses on John Smith (played by Colin Farrell) who becomes infatuated with a young Indian girl played by a new actress, Q’Orianka Kilcher. Their relationship is based on that of Smith and Pocahontas although in The New World, we get a more realistic idea of what that may have played out. It should be noted that the John Smith-Pocahontas love story is largely myth. Both were historical figures but the details of their relationship and interactions are vague (there is a great piece in the Jan/Feb 2006 Archaeology magazine about Jamestown which mentions the film). When John Smith leaves Jamestown and Pochahontas (who is never referred to by that name in the entire film) believes he is dead, new colonist John Rolfe (Christian Bale) moves in and falls for her as well. He takes her as his wife and they have a child, living a seemingly happy life as Jamestown begins to flourish after a rough start. The rest of the film is about her experience with finding love and discovering its true nature.

The Film

Overall, I was impressed and left the theater satisfied. The first half of the film was the most entertaining (for me at least) because it focused on the landing in Virginia, the construction of the Jamestown fort, and the interactions with the Natives. The latter aspect was by far the most impressive because as far as I could tell, this was a pretty accurate portrayal of Native American life at the time of colonization. The costume and makeup of the indigenous actors was breathtaking down to the last detail and I saw those historic engravings come to life before my eyes. Also, from what I understand this is the first film to employ Virginia Algonquian, the language spoken at the time (National Geographic news has a fascinating story about this here). Linguists and historians were able to reconstruct the language from historical documents written by the colonists, including John Smith. As I anticipate with Mel Gibson’s upcoming film Apocalypto about the ancient Maya, this film is important if only because of the reconstruction and preservation of an indigenous language.



I am not the biggest fan of Colin Farrell, although he did a decent job in The New World. He wasn’t as annoying as he normally is perhaps because he was so reserved during this movie and his emotional outbursts were limited to important turning points in the film, something that added to the drama of the storyline. Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pochahontas was simply amazing. She is a young actor, 14 at the time the film was made, so she was very believeable and John Smith’s forbidden love interest. Far from being prurient, the scenes between her and Farrell seemed real. The filmmakers did an excellent job of editing, never showing the two in anything more than an intimate embrace. Knowing that the actor who plays Pochahontas is very young and that the historical Pochahontas was very young as well contributes greatly to the realism of their relationship (emphasized for dramatic effect in the film), which John Smith must hide from his fellow colonists. Christian Bale, who plays the newcomer colonist and tobacco farmer John Rolfe, was amazing as expected. Bale is one of my favorite actors and The New World is proof that he can pull off anything. His relationship with Pochahontas didn’t seemed forced despite the circumstances.


Overall, The New World was worth my student discount at the theater and worthy of a purchase when it comes out on DVD (although I recommend seeing it in the theater). This is a Hollywood film with all the trappings of one, but it wasn’t overproduced nor did it do a grave injustice to historical fact aside from perhaps embellishing John Smith and Pocahontas' intimacy. As I mentioned above, this most fascinating aspect of the film was hearing the Virginian Algonquian language and seeing early Native Americans come to life. I also enjoyed how the name "Pochahontas" is never spoken once in 2 1/2 hours. With all of the gross misrepresentations of Native American life associated with retellings of the Pochahontas story, the absence in this movie of the name was refreshing. As an anthropologist, I don’t need a movie to tell me that the Indians were real people with very real feelings, but this film may do just that for those with little or no knowledge of indigenous life at the time of contact.

Posted by Will at 01:04 PM | Comments (1)

January 17, 2006

The Office

I'm moving up in the world...sort of. I packed up and migrated to a new office down the hall. Last semester I shared a large one with three other people. My new one is a corner office, but that doesn't make that much of difference when it's in the basement of the building. It's quite cozy and quieter than my old place and I kind of enjoy the cold, bare concrete walls. Aside from the fact that it desperately needs to go head to head with a vacuum cleaner, it's not too shabby.

Here's a shot I took with my camera phone after I got everything situated.


Posted by Will at 09:42 PM | Comments (3)

January 15, 2006

Racial Progress

A revealing poll from the Associated Press (I respond to the questions myself below the graphic):


Do you think there has been significant progress toward Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?

Significant progress? Yes. Still a long way to go? Absolutely. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s was a turning point for the United States and King has come to embody everything that it stands for. As I just did in the last sentence, most everyone speaks of the Civil Rights movement as if it happened and then resigned to the history books. The truth is, in my opinion, we are still in the midst of the movement and have a quite a bit of ground to cover. This country was built on the backs of minorities from the days of conquest through slavery and all the way up to today. This fact isn’t easily forgotten and is often ignored. Unfortunately, the Katrina disaster set us back a decade or two because both blacks and whites sunk to name-calling and hurling false accusations. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see true racial equality in my lifetime but I do believe my generation will continue to see progress, with a few steps back along the way.

Will you do anything to commemorate Martin Luther King Day this year?

As I did last year, I’ll probably read Letter from Birmingham Jail again. Embarrassingly, I only first read it a little over a year ago and I realized it was something that should have been read much earlier in life. Beautifully written and poignant, I get the distinct feeling that not enough people in this country have read it and really thought about it. One can learn so much from it and not just about race and equality. If you don’t normally do anything for the holiday, read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Do you feel that Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday should be a national holiday?

Of course. We already have White History Month well-established January-December each year.

Posted by Will at 05:47 PM

The God Survey

PZ of Pharyngula linked me up to a blogger who recently carried out a two-month informal study of Christians on message boards where she asked a variety of questions related to Christian ideas about the existence of God and atheism. She found some interesting tidbits, nothing new but good to see in writing. She posts basically a bunch of lists like the "10 most common misconceptions about atheists" (Jealous of theists is #1), etc. More interesting was her receptiveness (or lack thereof) on the message boards and how she concludes that one of the main problems in initiating a dialogue between theists and atheists is a language barrier:

The entire experience can be summed up fairly easily. Generally speaking, they know next to nothing about atheists, they are extremely emotionally attached to their deities, and they are just people looking for truth as we are. The animosity that sparks between atheists and theists seems to stem from the two camps speaking two different languages - atheists speak in terms of empirical evidence and logic; theists speak in terms of faith, emotion, and the unknown. An atheist expects proof before acceptance, a theists sees acceptance as proof.

This is essentially an anthropological approach to studying a group of people (however informal and unscientific the study is). Here we have an interested individual who sets out to gain insight into the worldview of what can be described as a different culture. As with any study of "the Other" there are meanings that cannot be translated, ideas that cannot be adequately put into words, and implied hostilities that cannot be reconcilied. Trying to understand how an atheist or theist thinks without actually being one or the other is incoherent and ultimately impossible. In other words, you'll never find a Christian that fully agrees with an atheist's characterization of Christianity and vice versa.

Posted by Will at 12:56 PM | Comments (2)

January 14, 2006

Foundations of Applied Anthropology: A response

One of my courses, entitled Foundations of Applied Anthropology II, requires us to post five questions and five resposes to classmates' questions over the course of the semester. This is done on USF's internet web forums. I'll reproduce some of my responses periodically because it makes for a quick and easy blog post!

We are currently reading Skull Wars by David Thomas Hurst. One of my classmates asks about the role of applied anthropology, early governmental policies regarding Native Americans, and today's policy of spreading democracy and peace throughout the world (in other words, capitalism).

I too, while reading Skull Wars, saw the parallels between the U.S. government’s early Native American policies and our current policy regarding democracy and the spread of peace. There are some big differences but the effect is the same. The Western world, of which we are the most powerful representatives, have a monopoly on morality and worldview. It is often opined that cultures different than our own are somehow either against us or wanting to be like us. While this has never been explicitly stated by any recent administration (I could be wrong), foreign policy indicates that it is the dominate way of viewing nonwestern societies. As the federal government has an uncanny ability to shape public opinion, we end up with an American culture that is largely oblivious and sometimes even hostile toward cultures that do not exhibit similarities to a Western way of viewing the world. My classmate goes on to state that capitalism can be viewed as a more humane form of slavery. I would agree with this only after pointing out that in what is traditionally considered a slave/master relationship, there is a thinking human on both ends while capitalism is an economic system with a life of its own, dominated by those who wish to gain the greatest amount of wealth possible. For most, getting caught up in the capitalist machine is unavoidable because it is greater than any one person.

Social scientists are the “experts” on anything having to do with humans, at least in the view of the general public and the federal government. There is one small catch, however: they pick and choose. If the social sciences publish something that does not help a particular viewpoint or policy, it is simply ignored by the policy makers. Conversely, if they find a tidbit of information that furthers a cause they latch on to it not necessarily because it demonstrates a truth about humanity but because it is science and this alone produced the credibility of our product in the eyes of many. “Well, it’s science, sorry.” This puts the burden on us to produce responsible research, always mindful of who may be using it and for whatever purpose. It is wrong to take a hands-off approach and conclude that even if we do good science it is not our responsibility to ensure that it isn’t eventually used for harmful purposes.

I believe that anthropology, and applied anthropology in particular, is in a unique position to affect change and influence the wider society in which we are forced to operate. Like it or not, we live in a capitalist society that was built on the backs of those we eventually forgot about via poor policy-making and patronizing efforts to recognize our roots. This has changed dramatically over the past several decades although we still have a ways to go. The role of anthropology should be to play mediator in the growing influence of Western ideals and morality. We cannot stop the spread of the negative and harmful aspects of Western culture but we can facilitate the spread of the positive ones, such as charity and a genuine concern for others.

Posted by Will at 06:34 PM

January 13, 2006

New Evolution/ID Debate Forum

Mark at Backfill, one of the newer archaeology bloggers, has set up a forum focusing on evolution and the debate over intelligent design. Looks like a worthy endeavour so spread the word and hopefully we can get some good discussion going. You can find the forum by clicking here.

Posted by Will at 09:53 PM

Some archaeology news from south Florida

Ancient Remains Found in Downtown Miami
MIAMI (AP) - Archaeologists excavating two American Indian burial sites in downtown Miami say they have found hundreds of remains piled in limestone fissures, some of them stacked in stone burial boxes.
The remains are at least five centuries old and likely are the ancestors of the Tequesta tribe that met explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he claimed the land for Spain, archaeologists said.

Posted by Will at 08:41 PM

January 12, 2006

The first week

I have now had at least one meeting of each of the courses I am taking this semester. Like last, it’s still too early to tell which will end up being my favorite, but I’m much more confident to make a guess this time around. On Monday I started off at 9am with Ancient States, taught by my thesis advisor. The usual graduate seminar format, it’s essentially part two of Chiefdoms, a course I took last semester. Our main text is Bruce Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations, a great volume that examines seven different prestate societies and how they came about. Last semester’s Chiefdoms course was replete with theory (which I crave in a twisted way) but Ancient States is going to be more culture history oriented although we’re still looking at theories quite a bit. We have one research paper and a class presentation. My class presentation is going to be on Dynastic Egypt and I’ll be leading discussion for about a third of one of the meetings.

Paleoclimatology is my required elective outside of the Anthropology department. My knowledge of how climate works is limited but judging from the two meetings so far and what I’ve read, it’s going to be not only interesting but practical to my research (depending on exactly what I end up doing for my thesis). I am probably most excited about this class because of the hands-on research and field trips we’ll be doing. This Saturday, actually, we’ll going to a protected area of Tampa Bay were the plan is to collect clams and carry out analysis. This is going to involve some canoeing and getting dirty, something I haven’t done since Belize last summer. The other trips are tree coring at a local park, sediment sampling at a cave north of Tampa (spelunking!), and a sediment coring expedition in the bay. Besides the field trips, I’m excited about the group research project, which I’ll be working on with two of my friends who are also Mesoamerican archaeologists. We are to carry out actual field work and lab analysis and produce a publishable report of the results. Obviously it will be nothing extensive but good practice at doing something different.

Finally, Foundations of Applied Anthropology II is the sequel to a required course that examines the history and thought of applied anthropology. There is plenty of reading and writing for this class but it’s useful in the sense that I’ll learn why I’m at USF in the first place. As opposed to most of the courses I’ve taken and will take, this one brings together all first-year masters and PhD students regardless of track or focus which makes for an interesting and lively debate about the different topics. Anthropology is indeed a single discipline but you would be surprised at the array of opinions coming from so many different academic interests. The books include David Hurst Thomas’ Skull Wars, which I am reading now.

All and all off to a good start this semester. I’ll be writing less now that I’m back in the groove of graduate school but I anticipate plenty of thoughts about what I’ll be learning, to be sorted out here!

Posted by Will at 05:06 PM

January 09, 2006

Mouse Power!

Mouse Thrown Into Fire Sets Home Ablaze
FORT SUMNER, N.M. (AP) -- A mouse got its revenge against a homeowner who tried to dispose of it in a pile of burning leaves. The blazing creature ran back to the man's house and set it on fire.

I used to have a pet mouse, so this story hits close to home. It's good to see some mice in the world are starting to stand up for their right not to be burned alive...and then screw over the guy who did it.

In Memory of Maximus Mouse, 2005-2005

Posted by Will at 07:57 AM | Comments (1)

January 08, 2006

Antiques Roadshow in Tampa

I don't usually watch Antiques Roadshow but they're going to be kicking of their 10th season in Tampa for the next three episodes:

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW kicks off its 10th anniversary season in Tampa, Florida, with new host Mark L. Walberg. Walberg joins appraiser David Rago in Tampa’s Ybor City, a historic district once known as the “cigar capital of the world,” to learn why there’s nothing more satisfying than a good cigar collectible. At the Tampa Convention Center, ROADSHOW appraisers discover some smokin’ finds, including an autographed scrapbook documenting Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 hitting streak; a marriage license issued to Davy Crockett for a wedding that never took place; and a painting by acclaimed 19th-century marine artist James E. Buttersworth.

Posted by Will at 02:43 PM

Carnival of the Godless #31


The 31st Carnival of the Godless is up at Buridan's Ass. I mention it this time because I submitted my post about science and religion. Check it out because there are some great posts to be read.

Posted by Will at 12:12 PM

January 07, 2006

More King Tut

The Tampa Bay Times, a local entertainment paper, has a review of the King Tut exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale along with a couple of photos.

Previously on Nomadic Thoughts:
King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 1
King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 2
King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 3

Posted by Will at 05:22 PM

Thomas Hylland Erikson to guest post at Savage Minds

Keep an eye on Savage Minds because Rex has announced that Thomas Hylland Erikson will be guest posting for about a week. Erikson is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and the Free University of Amsterdam. He is also the author of Engaging anthropology: The case for a public presence, which has been collecting dust on my Amazon wish list. As an applied anthropologist I'm interested in Erikson's ideas about involving the general public in anthropological matters. So read, comment, and be enlightened.

Posted by Will at 03:03 PM

Two links...

...to keep you busy over the weekend (at least for a few minutes). Slate has a piece up where they ask writers, artists, etc. "to name the most amazing—or most disappointing—cultural happening they stumbled on during the course of the year." An interesting read of some varying points of view.

Also, a little Florida evolution/ID news: the Gainesville Sun has story about teaching in public schools.

Sort of a slow weekend around here. My friends are still out of town and I'm picking one of them up at the airport tomorrow night. The past two days I started my second semester of graduate assistantships. The changes include a new GA advisor and an additional 10 hours with the chair of the department. For the time being my time will be divided between cleaning and organizing another lab and working on other things. I started in the lab a couple of days ago. Are archaeologists generally this disorganized and packrat-ish? It was fun to flip through student papers and projects from 10-15 years ago and play with field equipment that's easily two decades old.

Posted by Will at 02:48 PM

January 05, 2006

Science and Religion

I don't usually post links to Pharyngula because virtually all of PZ Myers' posts are fantastic reading. But this one really stands out because it gets to the heart of an issue that's very important to me: the compatibility (or lack thereof) of science and religion:

It is entirely correct that the scientific community is full of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists, and I think that's reasonable and fair—we're even pleased to point out to the creationists that many of our leading lights have been and are religious (Dobzhansky, Ayala, Miller, Collins: it isn't at all difficult to find people who can do both good science and follow a religion in their private life). It is self-evident that scientists are not necessarily derisive of religion, and also that science as an abstract concept can't be derisive at all. However, I do think that the processes of science are antithetical to the processes of religion—personal revelation and dogma are not accepted forms of evidence in the sciences—and that people can encompass both clashing ideas is nothing but a testimony to the flexibility of the human mind, which has no problem partitioning and embracing many contradictions. There are also many scientists who are capable of suspending disbelief and reading fantasy novels with pleasure; that doesn't mean that magic is a valid way of manipulating the world.

Here, PZ raises an interesting point: the human brain is extremely talented at balancing opposing concepts and ideas. We can believe one thing and then turn right around and simultaneously believe something completely contradictory. This is why the science-religion debate exists. PZ observes that if one takes a step back and looks at science and religion for what they are, they are completely antithetical and simply cannot be reconciled. This of course is not a new idea and one that I have only recently subscribed to. I used to believe that one could have a personal God on Sunday and go to the lab on Monday morning and become a person who "believes" in science. This is not to say (as PZ notes) that religious individuals cannot do good science. It does, however, highlight the inherent contradictory nature of subscribing to both a religious worldview and one based on science and reason.

The problem of science and religion is more pronounced in the biological and natural sciences relative to the social sciences but the pitfalls of holding religious beliefs still apply. As an anthropologist, I am as dedicated to empirical evidence as a chemist. The difference is that the evidence I study (artifacts) was created by living, breathing, thinking beings with the capacity to develop ideas based on a number of observed and imagined criteria. Although every branch of science looks at different things, some animate and some not, we are all bound by a quest to achieve the greatest possible degree of certitude in our results. This is done via the scientific method and relying on the observable evidence as opposed to supernatural phenomena. You cannot do both and be called a scientist.

Scientists with a religious worldview sometimes succeed at keeping these two parts of their world separate, but with great detriment to the latter. Sometimes it is the other way around: one may be so dedicated to their religious beliefs that it interferes with their attempt at scientific inquiry. This is why intelligent design has been knocked down time and time again. I have always believed that a person is free to hold whatever worldview they wish, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology, Atheism, or any other way of viewing the world around them. I am becoming increasingly convinced, however, that the coexistence of a consistent theistic worldview and science is not possible.

Posted by Will at 10:09 PM

"Earliest known Mayan writing found in Guatemala"

From Reuters.com:

ANTIGUA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Archeologists excavating a pyramid complex in the Guatemalan jungle have uncovered the earliest example of Mayan writing ever found, 10 bold hieroglyphs painted on plaster and stone.
The 2,300-year-old glyphs were excavated last April in San Bartolo and suggest the ancient Mayas developed an advanced writing system centuries earlier than previously believed, according to an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.
The glyphs date from between 200 BC and 300 BC and come from the same site in the Peten jungle of northern Guatemala where archeologist William Saturno found the oldest murals in the Mayan world in 2001. Radiocarbon tests prove the writing is 100 years older than the murals depicting the Mayan creation myth.
(Photo from the National Geographic News story)

Posted by Will at 09:38 PM

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 3

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 3 of 3

I mentioned earlier my “rock star” theory that I feel partially explains the enormous success of the exhibit and mutually informed the layout and design of the actual displays. It is no secret that the public is fascinated with all things ancient Egyptian. From how the pyramids were constructed to the mystery surrounding the ascension and fall of kingdoms, people simply cannot get enough Egypt. The Egyptian symbol of life, the Ankh, is even a wildly popular tattoo among Westerners. King Tutankahmun is representative of the intrigue and allure of ancient Egypt and thus an exhibit of his personal effects is a guaranteed success.

The exhibit is sponsored by National Geographic Society, Northern Trust, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida and produced by Arts and Exhibitions International, a private company that puts on such exhibits. It is the latter that reminds me of a concert promoter: the organization that makes sure the “show” can be pulled off. Indeed, the Tut exhibit is an elaborate production with all the aspects of a rock show, with Tut on center stage. As I mentioned in Part 1, we were first ushered into a small viewing room where were watched a flashy introduction video on three high-definition screens. The curtain behind the screens parted to reveal the first exhibition hall. At that moment I did feel my heart skip a beat because it was unexpected and it really did create an aura of mystery and excitement. The first two halls (also mentioned in Part 1) are analogous to the opening band. They set the tone for the upcoming main attraction and give the context needed to enjoy the rest of the displays. A little background on Egypt, its people and practices, and the ascendancy of Tutankhamun further adds to the suspense of what lie ahead.

Once in the main Tut hall, it was pure rock stardom for the rest of the afternoon. The boy king’s personal belongings were displayed like they were all, well, solid gold. Many of them are. I marveled at the array of jewelry, ceremonial items, and body ornamentation but I was most fascinated with his personal belongings; such mundane things as a chair, footlocker, dresser, hand mirror, and foot rest. These are the items that give the god-like Tut a human value, one that we can all relate to. While he had riches beyond imagination, he was as human as we were with the same basic needs. To come face to face with a mirror that once reflected the face of the most famous ancient Egyptian more than 3,000 years ago was very eerie to say the least, and quite moving.

The production team was very aware of this. They organized the exhibit in such a way as to simultaneously shed light on the mystery of Tut and further add to the mystery and intrigue. It was a phenomenal event and simply one of the best historical exhibits I’ve seen, apart from the subject matter being displayed. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is proof of how cool science and history can be if you have enough funding.

Posted by Will at 07:53 PM

Pentagon to sponsor foreign language training

Interesting story from Inside Higher Ed:

President Bush is expected to tell dozens of college and university presidents tomorrow of an administration plan to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars on training in foreign languages deemed critical to the United States. Arabic, other Middle Eastern languages, and Chinese are expected to be a focus — potentially providing for a significant expansion of study by American students, who are notoriously monolingual.

The story also mentions how some professors and observers are a bit nervous about the program, saying that the United States' damaged reputation in other parts of the world (notably the Middle East) will make it hard to put foreign language education to practical use. On the surface it seems like a great program considering the monolinguistic nature of America, but the fact that it's government-sponsored raises a set of interesting questions. Any readers have a more informed opinion?

Posted by Will at 12:04 AM

January 04, 2006

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 2

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 2 of 3

The first hall is titled “Egypt Before Tut” and featured cases of beautiful objects that are too many to describe here. There was so much to look at that I can’t even recall exactly what my favorite objects were without consulting the official exhibit catalog (a cool $50 in the gift shop…I didn’t get one). The second hall was about the traditional beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Many of the objects here were very elaborate and quite beautiful. At this point I thoroughly convinced of the magnitude of Howard Carter’s find in 1922. The preservation of virtually all of the artifacts is simply breathtaking. After proceeding through halls about the Valley of the Kings (the location of Tut’s tomb), death and the afterlife, and religion we finally got the objects found in the tomb. Unfortunately the actual sarcophagus and the mummy of Tutankhamun is still in Egypt (which makes complete sense to me) but most of the other objects were on display here. Items such as chairs, chests, dressers, mirrors, tables, model boats, body ornamentation, and jewelry were all displayed beautifully with very helpful descriptors. There was even a bust of the young king that is believed to have served as a mannequin to either store or manufacture his elaborate garments. Perhaps the most impressive was the solid gold sarcophagus of a woman believed to be Tut’s mother. It is simply too beautiful for words and seeing any picture cannot do it justice.

At this point we were still on the second floor of the museum so after descending a staircase to the first floor, which is supposed to represent Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb, we were treated with all the details of the mummy itself. The rest of the exhibit included great displays about the remains and tests than have been carried out, guesses as to his cause of death (which is still unknown), and an interesting room that reconstructed what the tomb looked like. And of course, this then led to the gift shop where mountains of overpriced Tut memorabilia were available for purchase.

Part 3 to follow...

Posted by Will at 07:16 PM

King Tut Exhibit Review, Part 1

Exhibit Review
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
January 3, 2006

Part 1

Today I visited the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art to check out the famous King Tut exhibit that runs through April. After battling some rain and traffic along the way we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale to discover a bright, sunny day with temperatures in the mid 70s. This did not detract from our excitement of spending a few hours in darkened, chilly rooms examining objects and artifacts more than 3,000 years old.

The incredible success of the traveling exhibit was immediately obvious upon arriving at the museum in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. Even for a Tuesday, the crowd was thick (probably stragglers from holiday vacations). We had preordered our tickets through Ticketmaster (I'll talk about my "rock star" theory later) so we proceeded to the gate and ascended an outdoor stairway specially constructed for the King Tut exhibit. This led us to the second floor of the museum where the show began. Just as I was about to break a sweat in Lauderdale's wintry weather we were led into a darkened theatre where we watched an introduction video on three beautiful high-definition flat panel screens. After the film, the lights raised and a curtain in front of us dramatically parted like Moses' Red Sea to reveal the first of the exhibition halls. This caught me off guard and let me know that this wasnt going to be an ordinary show.

More to come...

Posted by Will at 12:17 AM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2006

Back to it

Made it back to Tampa safe and sound, but not before a sore hand and a headache. I had to haul back all the loot I got over the holiday, mostly books (the sore hand). Once in Tampa at about 10:30pm I had to order a van ride back to my apartment, which took finally reached my door at 12:15am because we had to drop off a person in lovely south Tampa. Now I must try to get some sort of sleep tonight before my road trip to Ft. Lauderdale to see King Tut!

Posted by Will at 01:46 AM

January 01, 2006

"Dig reveals first sign of Jewish life after Second Temple"

It's no secret that if I wasn't doing work in Mesoamerica I would be a Biblical archaeologist working in the Near East. So much to dig, so few years in a lifetime.

Recent archaeological excavations near the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem indicate the existence of a Jewish community in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
The findings - said to be the first indication of an active Jewish settlement in the area of Jerusalem after the city fell in 70 C.E. - contradict the common wisdom that no Jewish settlement survived the Roman destruction of the city. However, some Israeli archaeologists have argued that Jewish settlement revived and continued to exist even after the destruction.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 10:39 PM

Hello TampaBLAB

Looks like I passed the rigorous background check because Nomadic Thoughts has been added to TampaBLAB site, a Tampa Bay area blog aggregator. If you're not sure what I mean, whenever I post here it will automatically show up on that blog as well along with other writers who are a part of the community. It's essentially an easy way to read a bunch of blogs at one central location.

Posted by Will at 08:08 PM

Creationism's Wedge Strategy

Austin Cline has a good post today on the atheism.about.com blog about the wedge strategy that some supporters of creationism/ID advocate as a way to "overthrow" Darwinism:

If you wonder why so many creationists falsely claim that evolution entails atheism, this is why: the assertion is necessary for their larger goal of getting people to read the Bible and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and saviour. It is, in effect, yet one more example of people lying for the sake of converting people to their religion.

I've always believed (and this is not a new idea) that if ID is a valid alternative to evolution via natural selection there needn't be any sort of subversive strategy at all. If ID really does stand on its own then it shouldn't have a problem gaining widespread acceptance in the scientific community. Granted, Darwin and his contemporaries had to convince alot of people when natural selection started causing tremors but eventually the evidence spoke for itself and it continues to do so. This is why we are seeing the intelligent design movement: creationism failed in the scientific arena so its proponents had to regroup, repackage, and offer up a revised edition that was more effective.

Posted by Will at 05:52 PM