Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No dinosaurs!

I cannot tell you how many times someone has asked me what I do, and after I tell them I'm an archaeologist, he or she asks, "Found any dinosaurs lately?" What's shocking about this is how often the interlocutor is an educated person. I first remember this happening when I was an adolescent and my optometrist thought that archaeology was the study of dinosaurs. In the decades since then, I have learned that this experience was not an anomaly. Many people with graduate degrees do not understand that archaeology is about studying ancient cultures, and therefore is a social science, while paleontology is about studying extinct animals and plants, and is a branch of geology.  There's very little overlap between the two fields, although paleoanthropology (the study of our human ancestors, a sort of paleontology of the human lineage) and certain instances of zooarchaeology come to mind.

I don't know if paleontologists get asked, "Found any pyramids lately?" or, if they do, whether it annoys them.

Perhaps archaeologists are overly sensitive, but being taken for a paleontologist evidently annoys some of us. Here's the video that proves it:

Yes, there's a song about it on Youtube.

But what really takes the cake is that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of Science, doesn't seem to appreciate the difference. On their science news accumulator site, EurekAlert!, under the category "Archaeology" they brazenly include paleontology articles.

More great science journalism! For shame, AAAS.

Caving in Oaxaca, The Cheve system

An interesting article in the New Yorker on exploring one of the deepest caves on earth, in Oaxaca.

Tonight's Lunar Eclipse, a rare skywatching success

All of you--that is, both of you--who follow this blog should know that I haven't had a lot of success in observing celestial phenomena in the last couple of years. When I manage to wake up for the meteor shower (or whatever), it's usually too cloudy to see anything, or there is too much light pollution, or something. Well, the dry spell finally broke. I saw the lunar eclipse this morning.

Here is the edge of the moon reappearing. Poor photo, but I'm not set up for proper celestial photography.

When the eclipse began, I was tempted to start banging on pots or shooting at the sky to scare off the beast eating the moon, as they do in Yucatan. I didn't think my neighbors would appreciate it, though, so I restrained the impulse.

I still don't understand why I walked to the end of my driveway to see the eclipse better.

Beautiful, clear night, for once. The moon really did turn red, and you could tell because Mars was--brilliantly--right by her side for comparison.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Atlatl videos

I bought a fancy atlatl at the knap-in last weekend. I've made my own atlatls in the past. It's easy to carve a crude but functional one from a tree branch. In contrast, the one I bought, from Thunderbird Atlatls, is a minor work of art.

My new atlatl
If you're buying a making a spearthrower, the most important consideration is that it fits your hand easily so that your fingers can hold the dart shaft. If your hand is small or your fingers stubby, you should take extra care to ensure that you can use the instrument effectively. 

More importantly, I bought several darts, which are much harder to make than a spearthrower.

Atlatl darts
I took the spearthrower and the darts out for a test drive yesterday with one of my graduate students, Kelin Flanagan.

Here are four short videos of her shooting darts.




Kelin is a natural!

Unfortunately, the best video would not upload, perhaps because of the file size. [Update: I converted the largest file to mpg format, and it uploaded, but Blogger still messed up the resolution.] Also, note that the original videos are much higher resolution than these. I suspect the blogging website reduced the resolution to shrink the file size.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I took a couple of graduate students to a knap-in last weekend and my hands have almost recovered, but the shoulder I injured digging in Nicaragua last summer is still aching.

The Stone Age and Primitive Arts Festival was held in Ochlockonee River State Park, which is a pretty little park located in the Apalachicola River delta, southwest of Tallahassee in the eastern part of the Florida panhandle.
Ochlockonee State Park

It was a heck of a drive. Google Maps said it would be about 6 hours and 49 minutes driving time, but it took us much more--it seemed like 8 hours--even though there were no detours, construction zones, or traffic jams.

The nearest town, between our hotel and the park, was Sopchoppy. It's a small town that looks like it's down on its luck: a lot of stores are closed, some houses are abandoned, and some structures are collapsing. The town used to be a stop on a long-abandoned rail line that served the logging and turpentine industries. Since they dried up a century ago, Sopchoppy has been struggling. That why we were shocked but delighted to find that the only restaurant in town was superb. The Sopchoppy Pizza Company serves not only really excellent pizza but a variety of other tasty and creative dishes. It's housed in a nicely maintained historic building and the decor is fun and charming. It's immaculate and homey. Ironically, it is a far better restaurant than most of those in the affluent and sophisticated area where I live in Palm Beach County.

The two students I brought, Lana Ruck and Justin Colon, are both interested in lithic analysis. Lana's research focuses on determining handedness from debitage attributes. The evolution of handedness is important because it may be related to the evolution of language. Both are related to brain laterality and they are processed in similar and unusual ways in the brain. To test her hypotheses, which include attempts to replicate the results of previous studies that have claimed to identify handedness from debitage, she needs debitage from left-handed knappers. As it happens, left-handed knappers turn out to be as rare as Tea Party Communists. But there were several at the knap-in, and so Lana was able to collect some critical data.

Lana and Justin
Here's a sight you won't often see: two left-handed knappers.

Two left-handed knappers
Here's one of them actually knapping, with the copper billet in his left hand.

Left-handed knapping in progress
We spent most of our time just practicing. The many experienced knappers there were very generous in sharing their knowledge and experience with amateurs like us. I bought a couple of hundred pounds of nice chert from a vendor.  That was a significant motivation for attending, for me, because it's really hard to buy chert sight-unseen on the Internet and the shipping costs are prohibitive anyway. Because I drove up in a big SUV, I could carry back as much chert as I could afford to buy. I spent $500 on chert at $3/lb, which seemed to be the going rate. It's nice material: Georgetown flint from Texas, smooth as butter. I also picked up some useful knapping tools, such as pressure flakers. I have made these by hand in the past, but the ones on sale were nice.  It is difficult to assemble a good collection of tools, such as billets, flakers, and hammerstones, but the largest impediment to learning how to knap is obtaining a sufficient supply of good raw material to practice on. So, being able to buy a pile of chert was very important to me.

Here's our tarp with our knapping stuff on it, with and without grad students:

The tarp we bought for knapping
Justin and Lana preparing to knap
The weather was beautiful, cool, dry, and crisp. There were knapping contests (we only observed), demonstrations, and folk music. A fun time was had by all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You're invited to my public lecture tomorrow night

I'll be reporting on the results of last year's fieldwork in Nicaragua

Date: February 13th, 7pm
Location: Palm Beach County Main Library
3650 Summit Blvd., West Palm Beach, 33406
"Under the Volcano II, Maribios and Chontales"
Presented by Clifford Brown, PhD

Dr. Clifford Brown will talk about the initial results his and his colleagues’ 2013 season of survey and excavations in northwest Nicaragua. The team located a number of new sites. They focused their excavations in the eastern and northern parts of the Department of Chinandega, at sites in the municipalities of Chichigalpa and Somotillo. Near Chichigalpa, they found a large site which has interesting stratigraphy as well as seemingly distinctive ceramics. The location and the ruins of a Colonial period church strongly imply that it is the lost Maribio town of Mazatega.

In the north, at the site of Dulce Nombre de Jesús, they found an extensive field of stone mounds as well as numerous prehistoric stone house foundations. Part of the site has a very unusual obsidian industry, while the remainder has a more conventional one. Finally, the site of La Trinidad produced patches of dense midden with cultural features. That site produced tantalizing evidence of ground stone tool production.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

War in Syria Causing Looting of Archaeological Sites

The AP reports that the civil war in Syria has led to extensive looting of the country's significant archaeological heritage, with UNESCO expressing concern. The European Union has provided funding (€2.5 million!) to combat the looting and trafficking. A related report from Reuters says that UNESCO also thanked "Hollywood" (probably referring to George Clooney) for raising awareness about threats to cultural heritage through the new movie "The Monuments Men."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Archaeology Writing Competition

This just arrived via the SAA Public Archaeology Interest listserv.

Archaeology for the People:

The Joukowsky Institute Competition

As archaeologists, we write for each other in journal articles, book chapters, monographs, and other forums, using language that makes sense to fellow members of the profession. Yet the results of archaeological discovery and analysis are important and deserve the widest possible audience: archaeology has momentous findings to report, and for the periods before written history stands as the only source of evidence we have for the human condition.

We believe that archaeology is worthy of a better level of writing, one that is accessible and exciting to non-specialists, but at the same time avoids excessive simplification, speculation, mystification, or romanticization. Some of the most effective writing in this vein has appeared not in professional venues, but in publications with a far wider readership. As just one example, we would cite Elif Batuman’s article in The New Yorker Magazine (December 19, 2011) on the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, and the many fundamental questions it raises about religion, technology, and human social evolution.

We therefore propose a competition for new archaeological writing, which anyone may enter. We invite the submission of accessible and engaging articles, accompanied by a single illustration and with no scholarly apparatus, that showcase any aspect of archaeology of potential interest to a wide readership. As an incentive, we offer a prize of $5,000 to the winner. The prize-winning article, together with those by eight to ten other meritorious entries, will be published in Spring 2015 in a volume of the Joukowsky Institute Publication series (published and distributed by Oxbow Books).

For more information about this competition, and to view the rules, please go to:


Questions concerning the competition should be directed to Prof. John Cherry (john_cherry@brown.edu) and Prof. Felipe Rojas (felipe_rojas@brown.edu).


This sounds like a great idea.  Archaeologists are notoriously officious, stodgy writers who delight in a convoluted obscurantism. (Think of Binford!) Of course, there are outstanding exceptions, such as, most famously, Kent Flannery, who is not merely funny, but also a gifted and powerful essayist.

I often wonder how it is that archaeologists, who are blessed with the most fascinating work, manage, by dint of nearly superhuman labor, to make the field so unbearably boring. I mean, really, just think about what we so often do. You struggle through the jungle or desert, find a lost city, maybe the capital of an ancient kingdom, and then what do you do? Very slowly dig an obsessively square hole, spend a thousand hours measuring little chips of rock, and then publish an unreadable article full of arcane statistics about the distribution or geometry of the chips. At least, that 's what I do. There's got to be something wrong with this!

 Kudos to the Joukowsky Institute for trying to do something about it.

As an aside, I love Batuman's writing, but I didn't think the Göbekli Tepe article was her best.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014