Monday, August 22, 2016

The 2016 Season in Chinandega

The 2016 season in Chinandega was a success! We were able to offer significant logistical support to Hector Neff and Fred Lange. It was also a pleasure to provide aid and comfort to Marie Kolbenstetter from the University of Leiden in her Choluteca project. We enjoyed visits from Jason Paling and Justin Lowry's field school and Patrick Werner and Edgar Espinoza's team from the Canal project.

In addition to those extra-curricular activities, we also succeeded in studying the ancient pottery of Chinandega, which was the reason we were there.  In fact, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that we have succeeded in creating the outline of a ceramic sequence that runs from the beginning of the Late Preclassic through at least the Early Postclassic, an interval of more than 1,000 years. We have identified materials from all of the periods comprehended by those dates, and, perhaps more important, we think we have identified the ordinary, local pastes and wares corresponding to the major intervals, which will become the key to dating most sites.

I use the term "outline" advisedly because we are still missing most of the details that would convert the sequence from a sketch into a vivid portrait. While we have identified materials from each major period, i.e., Late Preclassic, Early Classic, Late Classic, and Early Postclassic, we only have a pure deposit of ceramics from the earliest phase, the Late Preclassic. The other materials mostly come from mixed deposits and are therefore more difficult to sort out. So, some of our chronological attributions are supported by less than overwhelming evidence, which will need to be shored up in the future. For almost all our materials, the sample sizes are too small to permit the kinds of descriptions we would really prefer to develop. Ideally, one needs an array of whole vessels as well as lots of sherds to be able to describe vessel forms and ranges of variation. We lack most of that information. We can only hope that future excavations will supply the samples necessary to develop those descriptions.

This sequence comes from the coastal plain region, the least known part of the Department of Chinandega. In the northern part of the Department, in the foothills of the highlands, the pottery is very different, but fortunately, it appears closely related to better-known materials in the Segovias region to the north. We started analyzing the northern pottery this year, but almost everything remains to be done.

We had a really great team this year, and I sincerely thank everyone who helped.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Climbing the Cosigüina Volcano with guide Marvin Meléndez

A couple of weeks ago, we took Sunday off and climbed Cosigüina, the westernmost volcano of the Maribio chain. Forming the end of long peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, it creates a looming headland that guards the entrance to the grand Bay of Chorotega. It's a large, complex shield volcano capped with a  low stratocone.

In 1835, Cosigüina exploded. According to Briffa et al. (1998), the volcanic explosivity index of the eruption was 5, making it one of the most powerful in recorded history. The violence of the eruption demolished part of the cone and changed the contour of the mountain forever. Today the cone is lower, about 900 m, and it encircles a deep crater over a kilometer across which harbors a beautiful lake.

Some friends introduced us to a great guide, Marvin Meléndez. He is director of rescue operations for the municipality. He said that when people get lost on the mountain, they call him, so why not cut out the middleman? He was a very genial companion as well as a very professional guide who put safety first. He knows every inch of the mountain and is very experienced. I recommend him highly. His number is 8775-5594. Don't climb Cosigüina without a guide. Every year, people get lost on the mountain, and sometimes they die, usually from dehydration. If you go, bring much more water than you think you'll  need, and then throw some Gatorade in your backpack.

It's a lovely climb, steep towards the end. The young and sprightly will enjoy it. Those who, like me, are older and more sluggish, will struggle, but the end is worth the effort. The view is spectacular. Even from the eastern rim of the crater, you can see west across the mouth of the Bay to El Salvador, where the volcano Conchagua  stands watch upon the other headland.  You can see the Honduras across the Bay to the north.

Looking back toward Nicaragua, you can see the whole length of the Peninsula of Cosigüina lying as a road leading back to El Viejo and Chinandega. You can see from the Bay and the magestic Estero Real to the Pacific on the other side.

It's very beautiful.

Cosigüina crater lake

The Estero Real from the rim of Cosigüina

The Estero Real to the left and the Pacific to the right.

The Gulf of Chorotega

Marvin Meléndez

Reference cited

Briffa, K. R., P. D. Jones, F. H. Schweingruber, and T. J. Osborn (1998). Influence of volcanic eruptions on Northern Hemisphere summer temperature over the past 600 years. Nature 393:450-455.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Two more fieldwork rules

1. If you run out of drinking water, don't brush your teeth with Gatorade.
2. You can dehydrate while cooking, so keep drinking or you could pass out.

Never ask me how I know these things.

Do you have rules on your project? Send them in!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

What Happened to the Ice Cream Sandwiches

So, I had to go to Managua for about 55 hours and by the time I got back my students were on the verge of resorting to cannibalism. I left them with a kitchen full of food and enough cash to feed a Nicaraguan family for a year, but when I walked through the door yesterday, they'd polished off all the Snickers, including the backup Snickers, and the emergency backup Snickers, and we were totally out of ice cream. I took them out to dinner that night, which was yesterday, but that would obviously be only a temporary solution.

Now, for you to understand the rest of the story you have to know that I spent a couple of days last week showing a colleague around who wants to core near the inland margin of coastal estuaries to find evidence for the origins of agriculture. Hence, I took him to some sites in the swamps here in Chinandega so he could decide if any of the spots looked propitious. Now, I think that Chinandega has the best swamps (a dubious distinction), but I'm biased. We were standing around on a mound in the Estero Real looking an a piece of obsidian and talking to the landowner who, by now, qualifies as an old friend, and he said, "My neighbor found a vein of that stuff down at the bottom of a well he dug down the road here."

That sounded highly improbable, though not impossible, but we had to go see. We drove over to the neighbor's house, and he comes out with a small, narrow, stemmed dart point made of obsidian, and he confirmed that it came from deep in a well he excavated, which he offered to show us. Now, a point is not a vein, but a deeply buried site would be pretty interesting too.

We tramped over to his watermelon patch, and he showed us a large irrigation well, several meters on a side, which went down close to 10 m. We could see beautiful stratigraphy in it, including what looked like a 1.5 m thick ash fall lying on top of a very sharp contact with an underlying stratum. The ash layer started over 1 m down from the modern surface, so the contact was probably close to 3 m below the modern surface. If the spear point came from "deep" in the well, it would be far below that. Fascinating!

I decided that I would need to get down the well one way or another, and thought probably a ladder would be the best way. My local friends offered to build one, but I'm familiar with those kind of ladders, having almost died using one in a cave in Yucatan, and I declined. I asked around in Chinandega after ladders, and it seemed like I would probably have to buy it at the SINSA hardware store, which is expensive. The 10 m ladder was close to US$300. I thought it best to measure the depth of the well before spending that much money. Some friends of mine were scheduled to bring their students over this morning, and I decided to take them out there to look at some sites, and they were kind enough to bring a long tape measure for me to use to measure the depth of the well.

We got out there, and it turned out to be only 4 m down to the bottom of the first ledge where there was a concrete shelf they used to support the irrigation pump. From there it is 3 or 4 more meters down to the next stage, after which a small round well takes you down the final reach to water table.

Knowing that, I could now buy my ladder, which really only needed to be about 5 meters long. So I took my students to lunch with our friends, successfully staving off the cannibalism for a few more hours, and then we went to the supermarket where we replenished our supply of Snickers and ice cream. It is always better to shop after you've eaten so you don't buy a lot of junk on impulse. I asked for, and received. some old cardboard boxes at the supermarket to use to protect the roof of the car when we tied the ladder on, and we popped the cardboard in the back of the SUV with the groceries. 

Then we popped by the SINSA hardware store to pick up a ladder. They had a 6 m ladder at a good price, so I bought it, some rope, and a hard-hat. We put some, but not all, of the cardboard on the roof, laid the ladder on it, tied the ladder to the roof rack with the rope, bought more rope, tied the ladder some more, and set off for home, very slowly, with my red hanky dangling from the back of the ladder.

We got home, carried the groceries into the house, untied the ladder, laid it on the porch, and I drove the car back to the parking lot on the other side of the plaza, about 2.5 blocks away.

About an hour later, I heard my students asking each other where this was and where that was, and they realized that some bags must have been left in the car. They asked me for the car keys, headed off to the parking lot, and eventually trooped back with several bags that had been hidden behind a large piece of cardboard.

About 8:30 pm, I got a hankering for an ice cream sandwich, but I couldn't find them in the freezer. I asked my students where they were, and one said, "They suffered a mishap in the car. We took extraordinary measures to save them, but they didn't make it."

So, I guess if we make it through the night we'll have to go back to the store tomorrow. So that's what happened to the ice cream sandwiches: they melted because they were inadvertently hidden behind the cardboard we got to cushion the ladder we bought to find the deeply buried site in the well on the edge of the huge estuary.

I'm going to lock my door tonight. I'll let you know what we find when we finally get to the bottom of the well.

We really need to draft a roommate agreement that covers cannibalism. And zombies. Definitely need to address any potential zombie-related issues.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Will the nightmare never end?

Now they are selling "Archaeology Soap" for kids with dinosaurs in it. Please, think of the children!

On Being a Full Professor

I believe that I officially became a Full Professor yesterday. It may seem like a strange date, but it was the start of the University's new fiscal year, which means that our new contract starts.

It doesn't feel any different. Wait....oh, nope.


Subscribing to the blog--again

Dear Fan(s):

In the Blogger settings, I found a way in which I could e-mail posts to a set of specified e-mail addresses. I'm testing it out now (with this post) on an unfortunate student (and on myself), but I think it will work.

So, if you want to receive posts from this blog by e-mail, feel free to send me an e-mail to my office e-mail, which is on the right-hand side of the blog's front page under "About me."




It worked! It's a heck of an awkward work-around, but it worked.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Say Archaeologists Dig Up Dinosaurs again...I Dare you

The theme of the blog for those who missed it the first time


Seriously, though...say it!

New site! And a visit to an old one

We have had a guest from the University of Leiden staying with us, and she was interested in seeing some of our salt-making sites. I have wanted to re-visit Rubén Darío since I realized that the pottery we surface-collected there was so very different from anything else we had seen in our collections.

Because Rubén Darío is located near many of the salt-making sites (at first, we assumed it was one), I thought we could kill two birds with one stone, visiting Rubén Darío and then moving along to the salt-making sites.

Rubén Darío was as buggy as ever, not surprisingly, especially since it has been raining frequently. The mosquitoes were terrible even though we were well-armed with repellent. One stung me on the lip so viciously that it felt like a bee or a wasp, and I suppose that it is possible it was.

Not content with examining the pottery scattered on the near side of the stream, we crossed over on a fallen tree, and our guide took us to see more material on the far side. I've been over to the far side in the past, and so I knew there were sherds on the other bank, but I had never explored over there. Our guide, Davíd, took us to see a pile of stone and earth full of sherds.

Pile of rocks, dirt,and sherds
I thought it might be a fragment of a mound, but he explained that it was probably a push-pile from when the dug the canal. Canal? I asked. He said, oh, yeah, that stream is a canal that was excavated to drain the pastures further inland. He explained that it was excavated a long time ago, before he was born. I knew the stream seemed peculiar--unnaturally straight and deep, with vertical walls--but I didn't know it was artificial. That helps to explain why the stratigraphy seemed so strange. It's possible that the site was deeply buried before the canal excavation cut through it. We'll need to explore that possibility. Davíd then walked a little further downstream (toward the Estero Real) and up onto slightly higher ground and showed us more patches of sherds, as well as what might have been the remains of a couple of structures on top of the hill.

Possible structure

Then we went to another nearby site that we had walked past very briefly the year before. We had thought it might be another salt-making site, and indeed, on this visit, we looked more closely at the pottery and decided it was probably briquetage.

We also noted that the mound at the site, although fragmentary, was larger than I remembered. I paced off 34 m before I got to the recent road cut that damaged it. It is also more than 2.5 m high, possibly 3 m or even more. I decided we should probably name the site Nolasco.

Mound at Nolasco. Note the large size of the stones in the retaining wall.

We visited another site or two that day. Overall, it was a good day in the field, despite the heat and the bugs.

Florida State University to dump Antarctic ice core curation facility

There was a report in Nature on Thursday saying that Florida State University was going to close an NSF-funded curation facility that stores and makes available for research ice cores from the Antarctic. Being involved in curation and paleoclimate research and the Florida State University system, this is disappointing but hardly surprising news. The government of the State of Florida finds the subject of climate change to be anathema. Curation--in any field--never seems to receive proper attention or funding. Storing specimens, I guess, just doesn't smack of sexy new discoveries, although the study of scientific collections is absolutely essential to the whole scientific enterprise. And, despite endless lip service, and the efforts of some dedicated individual administrators, the Florida State University system is not really committed to science, scholarship, or research because the legislature views the system as an expensive jobs training program.

Yet another sad day for science and education in Florida.