April 05, 2007

Public Archaeology contract at Binghamton U.

To answer the question of "what is archaeology really like?" comes this story out of New York. Via EurekAlert:

Binghamton University's Public Archaeology Facility receives major state contract
The Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton University, State University of New York, has won a new state contract worth up to $20 million over five years to inspect prospective Department of Transportation project sites.
The Public Archaeology Facility, or PAF, an organized research center at Binghamton University, has a long history of working on transportation projects and, in fact, is wrapping up work on a similar five-year contract, said Nina Versaggi, PAF director and adjunct associate professor of anthropology. With help from three subcontractors, PAF will conduct archaeological surveys assigned to it by the New York State Museum in Albany.
The archaeologists will examine 100-150 project sites throughout the state each year. Each location can go through as many as three phases. During the first phase, archaeologists do a systematic spot-check using small test excavations.
"We have to answer the questions 'Is there an archaeological site present or not,' and 'Is there significant historical architecture or not?'" Versaggi explained.
If so, the review continues with a second, more thorough excavation designed to establish whether the site is eligible for inclusion on either the state or national registers of historic places. The archaeologists prepare a report in which they argue for or against the site's potential to yield valuable research data.
If the experts indicate a site has archaeological significance, the DOT then looks for alternative project sites. If none can be found, the archaeologists return for a third phase in which they excavate the site to recover data before construction.
The archaeologists frequently consult with American Indian groups, historical societies, property owners and others who may have information about the history of a given site. Recent projects have led archaeologists to revise the long-established chronology for the region. New sites and radiocarbon dates have identified the earliest camps in the region and have produced research on continuity and discontinuity in American Indian land use, as well as documentation of diverse historic settlements, Versaggi said.

Link: Public Archaeology Facility at Binghamton University

Posted by Will at 01:19 PM

March 23, 2007

Gibson vs. history

Mel Gibson came face to face with his arch enemy last night in California: historical accuracy. At a screening of the film at California State University Northridge, a Central American studies professor dared to question the accuracy of Gibson's portrayal of the ancient Maya in his latest film Apocalypto:

Gibson directed an expletive at the woman, who was removed from the crowd.
"In no way was my question aggressive in the way that he responded to it," Estrada said. "These are questions that my peers, my colleagues, ask me every time I make a presentation. These are questions I pose to my students in the classroom."

Read the full AP story here (thanks to my dad for the link).

Posted by Will at 09:58 PM

March 21, 2007

Portrayal of women in prehistory

cavewoman.jpgOne of the most fascinating discussions in my Theory course last semester was about how ancient women have been described in the archaeological literature and how such portrayals are a reflection of the decidedly sexist history of academic archaeology. While much progress has been made since the days of "man the hunter," a Salon.com piece published today revisits the debate and how many portrayals of "cavewomen" in the popular media continue to be a caricature of reality. Accounts of man the hunter, woman the gatherer have become so entrenched in our culture that it still passes as the way things were. The Salon.com article discusses a new book by James Adovasio (of Meadowcroft Rockshelter fame) et al. entitled The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory that should prove to be an enlightening read. An excerpt from the article:

The lifestyles of the female and prehistoric are a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation, especially when you consider that Paleolithic women didn't have corporate careers to abandon in favor of becoming stay-at-home moms or the disposable income to buy Jimmy Choo sandals. As with their educated upper-middle-class sisters of today, people think they understand exactly how prehistoric women lived, even though these notions often turn out to be more cartoon than reality. And I mean that literally, since single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker featuring shaggy cavemen in one-shoulder bearskin outfits dragging their consorts by the hair probably represent the sum of what most of us know about the lives of our (very) distant ancestors.
Actually, what's astonishing is how much the members of the peanut gallery think they know about such things, considering how few sureties real paleoanthropologists will swear to. "The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory," by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page, promises to lay out everything the most current research has established about archaic women, and the truth is that it's pretty thin gruel. The authors can point out some embarrassing mistakes made by past experts and suggest some intriguing alternative interpretations of various facts and artifacts, but even so there's a lot of padding and extraneous material in this book's 300 pages.

Posted by Will at 10:34 AM

February 25, 2007

Stick to sinking ships and aliens, James

Update: skip below for some links and a video of the documentary trailer.

File this post under the "um, this is random" department: director James Cameron is set to unveil a documentary he is making that among other things, claims that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead and that he had a son with Mary Magdalene. Not that I need James Cameron to provide evidence of either tidbit, but what's really strange (and unsettling) is that he claims to have archaeological and DNA evidence of it all, including the coffins of Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. From a Time.com blog post:

Ever the showman, (Why does this remind me of the impresario in another movie,"King Kong", whose hubris blinds him to the dangers of an angry and very large ape?) Cameron is holding a New York press conference on Monday at which he will reveal three coffins, supposedly those of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. News about the film, which will be shown soon on Discovery Channel, Britain's Channel 4, Canada's Vision, and Israel's Channel 8, has been a hot blog topic in the Middle East. Here in the Holy Land, Biblical Archeology is a dangerous profession. This 90-minute documentary is bound to outrage Christians and stir up a titanic debate between believers and skeptics. Stay tuned.

It's important to remember that we live in a post-Da Vinci Code, quasi-academic world where the lines between entertainment and science are blurring faster than ever before. We'll have to see what really happens at the press conference on Monday, but I'm having a hard time believing that this is legit (legit in the sense that Cameron is serious about his evidence).

Update: a story from Discovery.com

Update 2: Now you can watch this morning's press conference online by clicking here (a direct link to the video that will open in your default player). The Lost Tomb of Jesus show is to air this Sunday night at 9pm ET on the Discovery Channel. Like a good scientist, I'll reserve judgment until I see the show, but in the meantime you can watch a series of interviews with the filmmakers and browse the official Discovery.com website about the show...it's very shiny and soooo Indiana Jones!

Also, I did some Googling and Talmor Media is behind the promotion of the film. They have a truly over-the-top website at www.jesusfamilytomb.com with all sorts of "archaeological" information and a section on theological implications. Talmor Media's YouTube Page has a bunch of video clips if your anxious for a preview. Below is a trailer for the documentary that comes across more like a Hollywood production than a documentary. It has a bitchin' soundtrack that I want to play every time I'm on a dig, regardless of the situation.

The whole production and hype is interesting and the show itself will probably hold my attention, but the archaeological discovery of the millennium? Sheesh...

Posted by Will at 07:56 PM

February 09, 2007

Religion and archaeology in Jerusalem

Another example of the clash between religion and science, this time at the very location where it all started, Jerusalem. From Time.com:

jerusalem.jpgAmid the old city of Jerusalem and rising above it is the ancient site of Solomon's Temple and the point from which the Prophet Mohammed journeyed to Heaven. Holy to Jews and Muslims, it is as dangerous these days as a ticking atom bomb. Any readjustment of its ancient stones can detonate outrage among millions of faithful around the world. On Friday, Muslims in Jerusalem protested against Israeli excavation work next to al-Aqsa, one of Islam's holiest shrines, which sits atop the site. Around the world, Muslims declared a universal "day of anger," Israeli police stormed into the Muslim compound and fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at youths trying to hurl stones at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. Israeli police claim that 17 protesters and 15 police officers were injured in the clashes, but Palestinians say many more were hurt in skirmishes around the mosque grounds.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 06:32 PM

January 05, 2007

Looting arrests east of Tampa

Good news coming out of a small Florida community:

On Thursday, law enforcement officers arrested five men suspected of "poaching" prehistoric artifacts from this federally protected site just north of Interstate 75 in Thonotosassa, a rural community east of Tampa.
The Thonotosassa artifacts predate the Seminoles, he said, going back to prehistoric times. As such, they're highly sought after by collectors. Still said the arrowheads and tools found at sites like this turn up at flea markets, on eBay, and at tourist gift shops. Some people will work on unfinished tools they find to turn them into half-faked arrowheads, he said.

Full St. Pete Times story here.

Posted by Will at 12:55 PM

December 06, 2006

Bruce Trigger, 1937-2006

McGill has the offical news release posted:

Bruce Trigger, 1937-2006
December 2, 2006
Bruce Trigger, renowned archaeologist, author and McGill professor, died Friday, Dec. 1, in Montreal, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 69. Prof. Trigger's career in McGill's department of anthropology spanned more than four decades, during which he published more than 20 books, including A History of Archaeological Thought, which became required reading in the discipline.
Prof. Trigger, whose exhaustive exploration of the origins of the Hurons earned him an honorary membership in the Huron-Wendat Nation, was considered an authority on aboriginal cultures in northeastern North America. He was respected internationally as a scholar of early civilizations and revered by students as a man whose enthusiasm for archaeology made him an ambassador for his chosen field. His death came just two months after the October release of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, in which 22 scholars paid tribute to Prof. Trigger's influence on generations of archaeologists. At the launch of the book, Prof. Trigger said, "This last year has been one of the happiest of my life. First of all, I've been able to spend time with my wife and family, which is always very pleasant. In June, I was made Professor Emeritus and now this book, The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, is evidence in print of my colleagues' appreciation."
Prof. Trigger was an officer of the Order of Canada and the Ordre national du Québec, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1991, he won the Quebec government's Prix Léon-Gérin. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Barbara, two daughters, Isabel and Rosalyn, and grandchildren David and Madeleine.

Posted by Will at 05:11 PM

December 01, 2006

World's oldest ritual discovered

Pretty crazy/exciting stuff:

A startling archaeological discovery this summer changes our understanding of human history. While, up until now, scholars have largely held that man’s first rituals were carried out over 40, 000 years ago in Europe, it now appears that they were wrong about both the time and place.
Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, can now show that modern humans, Homo sapiens, have performed advanced rituals in Africa for 70,000 years. She has, in other words, discovered mankind’s oldest known ritual.
The archaeologist made the surprising discovery while she was studying the origin of the Sanpeople. A group of the San live in the sparsely inhabited area of north-western Botswana known as Ngamiland.
"Stone age people took these colourful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there. Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site. Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape.” says Sheila Coulson.

Full news release from EurekAlert.
More from LiveScience.
Also, my pal Kambiz from Anthropology.net got a leg up on the news and has some additional comments.

Posted by Will at 07:38 PM

November 10, 2006

Surveying at Crystal River

I was up in Crystal River again this morning at the beautiful Indian mound complex to do some survey/mapping work with some colleagues. Also got to see the long-range 3D laser scanning technology as well as mobile GPS in use, although unforunately I don't have photos of either of those (I'll be using mobile GIS for my thesis research next summer in Honduras). I did however upload some photos of us using the Total Station survey equipment. Boring to all except archaeology nerds and highway surveyors. Click here for the album.

crystal_river 019

crystal_river 006

Posted by Will at 05:38 PM

November 05, 2006

Holy Caves of India

Today from the New York Times:


In the Holy Caves of India

It would have been hot, as it always seems to be in this eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. The land ahead of him would have been much as it is today — fairly flat, dusty, yellow, featureless, tricked out with thick scrub and forests of mimosa and tamarind trees. He was a soldier, and his fellow officers would have been behind him, keeping as quiet as they could and well downwind of their prey, a thus far unseen tiger.
Then there was a gap in the scrub, the land fell away, and down, down, well below the eyeline, there lay, unexpected, a winding and noisily rushing river. Beyond it, filling his view, rose a cliff that was marked indelibly and incredibly with a horizontal tidemark of large and oddly shaped apertures, caves, perhaps, carved by water or winds. Or on second sight maybe not, since the openings seemed more like doorways, doorways carved and fretworked into the cliff-face stone.
He must have been amazed.

There's an excellent audio slideshow that goes along with the story too.

Posted by Will at 11:50 AM

October 22, 2006

Lewis Binford

lewisbinford.jpgReturning to archaeology for a moment here on Nomadic Thoughts, I thought I would talk about my latest paper, this time for the archaeological theory course I’m talking. We were asked to choose a prominent American archaeologist and write a biographical sketch about that person and give a 15-minute conference presentation to the class. It’s not due for over a week, but I need to have the paper finished by Friday morning because my sister is getting married this weekend in North Carolina.

I am writing about Lewis Binford, the SMU archaeologist who is best known for his association with the New Archaeology, a movement he helped start in the early 1960s and one that drastically changed how archaeology is done in the United States. There are several aspects of Binford’s life that I can relate to: he was born in the south (Norfolk, VA), was a Boy Scout, and received a B.A. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina. He also has an unwavering dedication to the scientific method and the entire scientific worldview. Binford embraces his ignorance and believes that lack of knowledge is the most satisfying aspect of science because it drives us to learn more. Much of this comes from his father, who taught him never to blindly accept received knowledge. This way of thinking stayed with Binford through the present, and is evident in his works about theory and method in archaeology. One of his first published papers, Archaeology is Anthropology (1962, American Antiquity 28:2), is a bold statement about how archaeology really does have something to say about the human condition. Before then, and during Binford’s UNC and Michigan years, he became increasingly dissatisfied with how archaeology was often partitioned off from ethnography and cultural anthropology. This is still true today, with some cutting all ties to anthropology to form separate archaeology departments. What Lewis Binford did was bridge the gap that, at that time, was inherent in the field. The 1962 American Antiquity paper didn’t single handedly change the face of the discipline in the United States, nor did Binford, but he certainly elucidated and put on paper some revolutionary ideas that did have a great impact on method and theory in archaeology. The impression I get from reading Binford’s and others’ writing from the 60s is that archaeology was asleep up until then. It needed to be shaken up and reinvigorated so that it had contemporary relevance. Binford provided the initial push to this reorganization of thought and it snowballed from there.

One thing about Lewis Binford’s writing is that it is sometime (ok, often) hard to understand. He himself has even admitted that he does this on purpose, because if he writes clearly and the reader immediately understands what is being argued, then there is a risk that it will be blindly accepted and perpetuated as received knowledge. By burying his meaning in complicated prose Binford forces the reader to consciously deconstruct his argument by reading slowly and rereading even more slowly. Both Lewis Binford the man and Lewis Binford the archaeologist is a little rough around the edges, and this is precisely what made him so influential in the field.

I was having trouble coming up with a good introduction to hook my readers so I decided to take a hint from my professor and try out a little humor. Whether its actually funny or not is a matter of debate, but I’m sure it's amusing at the very least:

If the life of Lewis Roberts Binford was an artifact, it would be classified as grit-tempered with a serrated edge. As a feature, it would be described as a highly visible, multi-use structure with cross-generational significance. Articles would be published, volumes would be edited, and entire symposia would be organized for the purpose of trying to solve the problem of what the artifact once represented, if anything at all. Scholars would debate whether or not its true meaning can be gleaned from a mere surface examination of form. A processalist would subject the Binford life to a series of quantitative analyses in an effort to determine if variation can tell us something about its use. Far away, in a distant land, a post-processualist would claim that we can understand the Binford life’s meaning only by examining ourselves first. Somewhere in Florida, a graduate student would attempt to write a paper about the Binford life and immediately realize that an amusing introduction was the only way to maintain sanity during the course of his research. Usually artifacts can’t talk; we have to speak for them and give them meaning ourselves. In this case, the artifact can talk and it has had quite a bit to say over the years.

Most of the information I’m getting about Binford’s early life and college/graduate years comes from two volumes: An Archaeological Perspective by Binford and Conversations with Lew Binford by Paula Sabloff. The latter is an easy read and very fascinating.

Posted by Will at 03:34 PM | Comments (2)

October 15, 2006

Archaeology and Google Earth

The Raleigh N&O has a story of another example of the Google Earth program being used as an archaeological tool:

Web lets UNC prof do armchair archaeology
After 25 years of fieldwork abroad, UNC-Chapel Hill archaeologist Scott Madry has dug up a new way to hunt for ancient ruins -- without leaving home.
Last year, Madry read how an Italian man accidentally discovered the outline of an ancient Roman villa while looking at his house on Google Earth. Since then, with help from the French government, Madry has confirmed the free service's promise as a research tool. As the news spreads, other scientists are growing excited, too.

Madry claims to have found 101 potential archaeological sites in France and later confirmed that about 75% of those were actual sites on record. He presented his findings recently at the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference, a good sign that satellite imagery, specifically Google Earth technology, is growing as a legitimate research tool and making its move into the academic mainstream (much like the internet itself did several years ago). The only drawback is that not all areas of the globe are high enough in resolution to be very useful, including rural Northwest Honduras where I work. Over the years, I suspect that this will improve, maybe even in tandem with its use in archaeology.

Using satellite images and aerial photography are nothing new in archaeology, but this is the first time that researchers have been able to simply sit at their desk at no cost and no extra work and browse the globe like an online library catalog. Another promising step from Google's side is the recently-launched Google for Educators which attempts to make the company's technologies accessible to teachers for use in class and research projects. Google Earth is included, of course, and I can only hope that this will be one way to stimulate kids to become interested in geography and archaeology.

Posted by Will at 08:00 PM

September 24, 2006

Quote of the semester

I came across this tonight in one of my theory readings. It made me laugh:

"If the social sciences were like mathematics or physics, economists might be rich, political scientists would be elected, sociologists would be unemployed, and archaeologists would know all the answers."
--T. Price on the unpredictability of archaeological inquiry (Ch. 16 of Principles of Archaeology)

True, so true.

Posted by Will at 08:41 PM

August 27, 2006

Iraq antiquities take another blow

From Guardian Unlimited:

Saviour of Iraq's antiquities flees to Syria
Iraq's most prominent archaeologist has resigned and fled the country, saying the dire security situation, an acute shortage of funds, and the interference of supporters of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had made his position intolerable.
Donny George, who was president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, achieved international recognition for his efforts to track down and recover the priceless antiquities looted from Iraq's National Museum in the mayhem that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
But this week he revealed that he had resigned and was in hiding with his family in the Syrian capital Damascus. In an interview with the Art Newspaper, Dr George said Baghdad was now so dangerous that the National Museum, which houses a trove of Sumerian and Babylonian artefacts, had been sealed off by concrete walls to protect it from insurgent attacks and further looting.

Read the full story here.

Posted by Will at 02:53 PM