Friday, November 20, 2009

Books on the Olmec

In the course of doing some research, lately I’ve found myself dipping into two relatively recent books on the Olmec. One is Richard Diehl’s The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization (2004, Thames and Hudson), the other, Christopher Pool’s Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (2007, Cambridge). A few days ago, I realized that these are the only general books on the Olmec written in many years. Michael Coe’s America’s First Civilization came out around 1968, and Ignacio Bernal’s The Olmec World was published (in English translation) in 1969. But I can’t think of a general, introductory book on the Olmec written between 1969 and 2004. It’s true that Jacques Soustelle published the English translation of The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico in 1984, but I’ve never thought of that as an original (or interesting) contribution to the field. He’s not an archaeologist, and I find the book merely a rehashing of published data which by that time were well-known.

That’s not to say there were no books on the Olmec published for 25 years. Coe and Dielh’s two volume In the Land of the Olmec came out in 1980 and David Grove published two books on Chalcatzingo in the 1980s, but all were site-specific treatments rather than general books on Olmec archaeology or culture. Similarly, several edited volumes (e.g., The Olmec and their Neighbors, Regional Perspectives on the Olmec, etc.) have appeared, but neither are these balanced general treatments of the topic. The same holds for various attractive “coffee-table” books that have been issued.

So Diehl’s and Pool’s books are particularly welcome, not only for their intrinsic merits, but also because they fill an important gap in the literature. A great deal of original archaeological research on the Olmec has been conducted in recent decades, but syntheses have been lacking.

Richard Diehl’s book is one of the volumes in Thames & Hudson’s Ancient Peoples and Places series. The series is noted for publishing general books on archaeological sites and cultures that are simultaneously technically accurate while also being accessible to educated audiences. Diehl’s volume follows the established pattern. It is written in an engaging and pleasant style while being packed with plenty of archaeological detail. Like other volumes in the series, The Olmecs is a handsome book. It is liberally illustrated, and even includes several color photographs. It is also printed on heavy glossy paper and is well-bound, creating a palpably hefty object. Diehl’s erudition on Olmec archaeology must be nearly unmatched. When this book was published in 2004, Diehl was celebrating 40 years of active fieldwork in the Olmec area, and he is a consummate field archaeologist.

Although Chris Pool can only boast a mere quarter century of fieldwork in Olman, the Olmec heartland, he has nevertheless managed to cobble together a very recondite and worthy review of the subject. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cambridge book has a more academic and scholarly tone than the Thames & Hudson volume. Pool’s book is also longer, more technical, and includes more theory. For working archaeologists, these are all good things, but students may prefer to start with Diehl’s book.

In short, both books provide very credible and interesting summaries and interpretations of Olmec archaeology. For archaeologists like me, who work in neighboring regions of Mesoamerica and find it difficult to keep up on the literature, it is particularly useful to have these detailed discussions of the topic by highly competent and respected colleagues.

Monday, September 14, 2009


So, Lester Embree lent me his copy of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Lester urged me to read it, but I rarely read books that people recommend to me because I don't have the time. I'm so far behind on the reading I need to do for my own work that reading for pleasure is a rare treat. I don't know how many months Lester's book sat on my shelf before I dipped in, but once I did I was caught. The book starts with a description of a visit to the extraordinary mound sites in the Amazonian lowlands. This grabbed me not only because it's inherently interesting, but also because he was talking about people I know and about topics on which I do research, such as terra preta soils.

I was strongly tempted to read it straight through. It's a real page-turner. Instead, I chose to read it slowly to savor it.

I think this is the best book on archaeology that I've ever read, not only because it's beautifully written and entertaining, or because it masterfully summarizes a couple of decades of cutting edge research. It's not just a popularization of research. The book makes a fundamentally important intellectual point: that the American Indians were the moral, intellectual, and social equals of the Europeans. It makes this point more successfully than any other work I've ever read. It explains the European Conquest of the New World largely in terms of disease, not technological or military superiority

Why wasn't this book written by an archaeologist? I can think of a couple of reasons.
1) First there's the problem of "popular" writing by scholars. Many non-academics understand that popular writing by scholars is discouraged by the scorn of colleagues. Although not everyone cares what their colleagues think, there is nevertheless some truth underlying this belief. Certainly some scholars, particularly younger ones, will be discouraged by the disapprobation of their peers. But that's not the key issue. Scholars receive tenure, promotions, and professional advancement, including in many cases merit raises or plum job assignments, based on their scholarly productivity. A book like 1491, which was published by a trade book publisher and therefore was presumably not peer-reviewed, simply doesn't count toward professional advancement. Few of us have the leisure to work on major projects, like wide-ranging books, that don't contribute to advancing our careers.

2) Second, we're too specialized. Archaeologists specialize both topically and geographically. It would never have occurred to me to try to write a book on the archaeology of the whole western hemisphere. Archaeologists occasionally attempt a major comparative work on some wide ranging topic such as the rise of civilization, the origins of agriculture, or something similar, but these are rare, and they are rarely popular in tone. 1491 not only covers a vast geographic area but also discusses numerous disparate topics, from soils to demography to genetics. Certainly your average scholar would not believe him or herself competent with such a diversity of disciplines.

So, read 1491.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back from Nicaragua

The Director of the National Museum, Edgar Espinoza, had asked us to give a talk about the results of our project on August 14th, in celebration of the anniversary of the Museum. We were, of course, delighted to do it, but since I was leaving on the 16th, this meant that I would have to leave the rental house in Chinandega on the 13th, move into a hotel for the night, and then leave for Managua early on the morning of the 14th. It wouldn't make a lot of sense for me to go to Managua on the 14th, return to Chinandega, and then go back to Managua on the 15th for my flight the next day. So, I started packing up and making a variety of final arrangements on the 12th, at the same time as we were working on the presentation for the talk. On the 13th, I shipped most of my stuff to the storage place up in Somotillo, cleaned the house, and said goodbye. On the morning of Friday, August 14th, Ramiro García and I left for Managua before 6:00 a.m., to make sure we would arrive in time to attend the first presentation at 9:00 am. We arranged for the students who had been working with us from the Fundación Chinandega 2001 to attend the talk at the Museum.

The talk was successful and well received. Afterwards, we raced over to INETER to collect some computer files before they closed. Then we ran another couple of errands and finally met the students for lunch at Pizza Hut. I must be overly sentimental; it was difficult to say goodbye because they were so sweet. Late in the afternoon, I go to my hotel and spent most of the next day sleeping.

The flight back on Sunday was fine, but Customs detained my box of soil samples even though I had a permit. I had to retrieve it from the Agricultural Inspection people the next day, and, I must say, they were very helpful.

This week, my first back in the office, was a huge string of meetings, many of which I had postponed during my absence.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Progress in Chinandega

Well, we´ve wrapped up most of our excavations now. We did some prospection out on the slopes of the Volcano Coseguina today, but didn´t find anything. It was fun, though, because we took along the archaeology students from the school we´ve been working with in town.

In the past couple of days, we discovered some interesting facts about the fantastically rich site we excavated near Villa Nueva. Dr. Timothy Beach who is helping us to understand our taphonomy and site formation processes discovered a buried soil at the base of the depositional sequence at the site. I never would have seen it because it didn´t look much like a buried A horizon. We also discovered in the lab that the ceramics in the lower levels are in fact earlier--there are in fact resist decorated ceramics related to Usulutan wares in the lower levels. In fact, I excavated one vessel that was associated with a comal, a very unusual vessel form in Nicaragua. As usual, the most interesting discoveries come in the lab, although I did enjoy excavating the comal nestled in the Usulutan vessel.

We´re also finding a nmber of new types that will require new type names and we´re considering creating some new phase names for the area. The project is really coming together nicely.

Here´s a random picture of a site we found in the Estero Real a few days ago. Look at the density of ceramics on the surface. The site is a little island in the swamp. It is basically composed of a pile of sherds.

Hasta luegito.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chinandega again

Sorry for not posting more often. The fieldwork, as always, is frenetically paced.

Just for the record, I went to Honduras by accident twelve times yesterday with a random guy who was half in the bag and carrying a 9 mm semi-automatic which he used periodically to shoot at trees. It’s a long story, but it comes out well.

We visited the Pueblos del Norte. The road from Somotillo to Cinco Pinos is in the process of being paved with U.S. money. More than half is already finished and they’re working like the dickens on the rest. We saw scores of men, possibly hundreds, laboring on the project. Nevertheless, grinding through many construction zones was tense and tiring. Cinco Pinos was a pleasant reward. Cheerful adobe houses with red tile roofs. A pretty little church with a Black Christ somehow related to Esquipulas. We then went on to San Pedro del Norte where we met a good friend of María José. He told he knew of a pool in the river that had a drawing or carving on the rock. So we went, with me thinking of petroglyphs. After of a long struggle of a trip along the Río Guasuale, which involved repeated crossings of the river, we got to the site, but the carving, supposedly of an eagle, had been buried under river sediment and was invisible. We drove back as fast as possible. We got back about 6:30 pm, having left at 7:30 am, a long day filled with striking scenery.

Here´s a picture of the Rio Guasaule near the supposed petroglyph site.

Today we found a new site although we only recovered three artifacts from the surface. So we´re up to abolut 8 sites, which is not much, but we´re spending most of our time excavating and the excavations are producing interesting results. We´re in the process of excavating two sites and hope to dig at one more if we have the time and resources.



Friday, July 3, 2009

Survey and Excavation in Chinandega, Nicaragua


Well, we made it. I’M STILL A LITTLE SHELL-SHOCKED. I brought a ton of equipment and Flora packed everything but the rugs. So our bags were over-weight, and we had too many of them, but all that was ignored by the skycap who checked us in at the curb. Curbside check-in at Miami International is like a whirlwind in a mob. Our driver triple-parked, we hauled our 7 or 8 bags to the sidewalk, and we accidentally found ourselves in a line that looked like a circle. Apparently, MIA is in a parallel universe with non-Euclidean geometry. In fact, there were several lines that never ended, and never crossed, but weren’t parallel. I tried to ask a skycap a question, and he took our passports and disappeared into the crowd. I thought you couldn’t check in at the curb for international flights, but anything is possible in Miami if you speak Spanish. After a few minutes I started walking around on tiptoes, looking over the crowd with rising anxiety trying to see the skycap who disappeared with our travel documents. He finally reappeared with baggage tags, gave us our boarding passes, and wished us bon voyage. Miraculous!

We boarded on time, but of course as always a thunderstorm appeared and they couldn’t load the baggage because of the lightening. So, we were delayed, but only by about an hour. The flight was smooth, but we discovered on the plane that there were unusual sanitary procedures in place in Nicaragua. We had to fill out a health declaration asking whether we had flu symptoms and then when we landed they took our temperature with some kind of infrared camera. As soon as we passed customs, we met María José who I hope will work as my general factotum on the survey. We all went to the hotel in the shuttle, dropped off the bags, and zoomed off to look for a field vehicle. We drove all over Managua in taxis that looked like they could collapse into their constituent parts at any second. We almost crashed into an ambulance, which, if you’re going to have an accident, would be ideal. We picked up our cell phone, but haven’t figured out how to use it yet. Tomorrow morning, we’ll keep looking for some appropriate four-wheel drive truck.


We spent the morning looking for a field vehicle to rent but without any luck. Dashing about in taxi after taxi in the heat on a Saturday morning was exhausting and gave me a headache, undoubtedly as a result of dehydration and diesel fumes. An old friend, Don Filemón, came out to help us. He’s something of a mechanic and was willing to look at some of the diesel engines for us. He knew how to check for problems like piston slap and other things that did not occur to me. We finally gave up in frustration and rented a car from Dollar Rent-a-Car. Even getting one of those turned out to be a problem. We went to Hertz first and of course they were quite expensive. Then we went to Dollar but they had a limited selection. The problem yet again was the luggage. We had so much that an economy car was too small to carry them and the three of us, Flora, me, and María José. We ended up renting a Suzuki Gran Vitara with four wheel drive, which actually would be a good field vehicle. Since we will have to return to Managua to pick up Carmen on Monday, we only rented it for two days, but asked them to give us a quote for six weeks. Then we left our hotel and drove to Chinandega.

You can see the land grow ever more fertile as you advance toward Chinandega with the Maribios volcanoes flaring along your right flank. The trees loom taller and the vegetation grows ever greener. The plains of León and Chinandega both seem to have immensely deep soils, but the key difference is the rainfall, which increases significantly as you drive northwest to Chinandega. The data I have seen indicates that annual rainfall averages more than 1800 mm in Chinandega, considerably more than further south along the coast or inland in the central highlands. This combination of rainfall and deep, fertile volcanic soils is the reason why Chinandega is the breadbasket of Nicaragua, why the Spanish conquistadores called it a paradise, and why there should be extensive prehistoric settlement here.

We got to Chinandega and picked up the keys to the house we had rented sight unseen. Finding a house for rent for two months in Chinandega was quite difficult and occupied an inordinate amount of time and effort over the past couple of months. We almost had one house rented, and then it got sold. At any rate, we picked up the keys to our home away from home, base of operations, and temporary laboratory. Well, we got to the building and with some effort wrestling with keys managed to get through the steel front door and into the front patio with the car park. I noticed a weird sign made of twisted Manila rope over the door of the house proper and while the others went inside I found myself trying to puzzle out what the sign said. Eventually, I deciphered the words “Side Track”. How odd, I thought.

I walked inside and realized we had rented what had once been a bar. And it must have been named after the “Side Track Tap” in Lake Woebegone. Despite these exceedingly weird facts, it seems like it will serve well. It’s pretty big, has two bedrooms with air conditioning, and two bathrooms with toilets and showers. It’s not been well maintained and it’s rather dirty (despite having been cleaned at least twice), but it’s better than many places I’ve stayed in the field. In fact, this will be the first time I’ve ever had air conditioning in the field, although I should specify that the AC is very weak and needs to be supplemented with fans anyway.

Tomorrow morning we plan to go to Dulce Nombre de Jesús. María José tells us that the site is being looted. Local people are digging up whole vessels and selling them for 10 pesos each. It will be interesting to see what is showing up. When we first saw the site some years ago, the stone structures buried in the T1 terrace seemed so unusual, I thought they might be historic. The mortar was very hard and the walls were preserved to a considerable height. There is also some oral history in Somotillo saying that the town used to be located up in that area somewhere. All that made me think the site might be historic, even though we saw only what appeared to be aboriginal artifacts. There were various sherds eroding out of the same river bank, including at least one type that Healy dates to the earlier of the two phases (Las Lajas) in the Late Polychrome period (so, maybe A.D. 1200-1300). In fact, not far away was a small mound with some obsidian scattered around it. In sum, I have no idea whether the site is prehistoric or not, but we should be able to resolve that tomorrow.

Signing off from the Side Track Tap in Chinandega!


Dulce Nombre was a bit of a disappointment. The site is pretty overgrown, not surprisingly, and one th still-buried structure has partly collapsed down the bank. The excavated structure is still in pretty good condition, but the mortar seems to be softening. Unfortunately, the town drunk latched onto us and pestered us so aggressively we felt obliged to leave. We did however have a very leasant chat with the landowner, who told us that he has found artifacts in buried in many places on his land, including what might be an urn burial which he found while digging a well. He very kindly offered to let us excavate on his land. This still a weird ite


We´ve started doing some survey and have investigated a couple of sites in the vicinity of the city of Chinandega. They´re pretty large. The parts we´ve examined extend over hundreds of meters and we haven´t really found the edges of either of them. The materials look intersting, but we haven´t washed or analyzed any of them yet.

We did rent laboratory space and are getting ready to start processing the materials as we collect them. We´ve bought some tables to work on, towels for drying artifacts, lamps for illumination, and so forth. We should set up the lab on Monday.

Today we went to Managua to see the Director of the National Museum. He has helped a great deal in organizing the project and getting our permit. He was interested in our initial results and told us that he hoped to be able to visit the lab and look at the ceramics when we had more material washed and labeled. I certainly hope he can because he is a ceramicist who knows the material very well.

We had hoped to see the exhibits in the Museum, but unfortunately the mayor of Managua died a couple of days ago and the wake was being held in the Museum while we there, so the exhiubits were closed. Instead we visited the new park on the southern shore of Lake Managua. The park was lovely, but the wind off the lake was tremendous, making it hard to talk.

After lunch, we went to the Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territoriales to buy maps. I already have copies of the topographic maps of Chinandega, but there are new editions of several of them, and I wanted the up-to-date map sheets. The old ones are from the 1960s. We got seven of the eight we wanted for only $5 each. I also foudn out that they have both jpeg and ArcGIS versions of all the topo sheets. The jpeg images are C$250 each and the shapefiles are C$400 each. I hope to get both, but I´ll have to be selective and only buy the ones I absolutely need.

Here´s a picture taken from one of the sites we visited.

The small volcano in front is Chonco, the tall one in the middle with the fumarole is San Cristóbal, and smaller one in the distance is Casitas. The plowed field in the foreground was ideal for surface collecting!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fieldwork in Nicaragua

On Friday morning, I'll be leaving for Nicaragua to conduct survey and excavation in the Department of Chinandega, in the northwestern corner of the country.

I will attempt to blog about our progress, but I can't promise because it may be difficult to find a seat in an Internet cafe. More important, the pressure to make the best use of one's valuable, limited time in the field is intense.


Etching of a Mammoth Found in Vero Beach, Florida

I apologize to my many (ha! ha!) readers for neglecting this blog. I've been working on a NSF grant proposal, teaching, and preparing for an upcoming expedition. I leave next Friday morning for Nicaragua, so the pressure is on!

Nevertheless, I couldn't resist mentioning an archaeological find just up the road from me in Vero Beach, Florida. An avocational fossil collector found a bone with an beautiful etching of a mammoth inscribed on the surface. He passed it along to Dr. Barbara Purdy, professor emerita at the University of Florida, for study. She assembled a group of experts who looked at the specimen pretty closely using a range of instrumental methods and declared it authentic. It's quite a remarkable find. A local newspaper has published the most detailed description of the find. The description of the investigation convinces me that it is very likely to be authentic. Interestingly enough, the specimen seems to come from the area of an "early man" site that was investigated at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the many whose antiquity was later rejected when archaeologists became doubtful about the age of the human occupation of the New World. The site probably merits another look. It's always interested me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mammoth Barbecue

There's a fine article in the most recent number of Antiquity describing the excavation of an Upper Paleolithic mammoth roasting site in the southern Czech Republic. At the center of the site was a 5 m wide roasting pit where the Gravettians were cooking up a female mammoth and her calf. What a great find! The archaeologists also recovered some bone tools and fragments of ceramic. It's all about 29,000 years old.


Svoboda, Jiri, Miroslav Kralik, Vera Culikova, Sarka Hladilova, Martin Novak, Miriam Nyvltova Fisakova, Daniel Nyvlt, and Michaela Zelinkova (2009). Pavlov VI: An Upper Paleolithic Living Unit. Antiquity 83: 282-295.

[Apologies to the authors for not adding the MANY diacriticals in their names]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Moral-Reforma, Tabasco

Interesting article on the Maya site of Moral-Reform, Tabasco, in Spanish. The site is near the junction of the Usumacinta and the San Pedro and, given its location, is interpreted as a center of trade. It's a major site where INAH has been working for many years.

The Art Daily has a very similar article in English.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New dating method in archaeology

Wilson, Moira A., Margaret A. Carter, Christopher Hall, William D. Hoff, Ceren ince, Shaum D. Savage,Bernard Mckay, and Ian M. Betts (2009). Dating fired clay ceramics using long-term power law rehydroxylation kinetics. Proceedings of the Royal Society A Advance online publication. (doi: 10.1098/rspa.2009.0117)

Looks very interesting, but it does depend on knowing or estimating the mean lifetime temperature of the sample, which can be difficult or impossible to know with certainty.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Paper on Reductionism and Emergence

There is an interesting commentary on reductionism versus emergence in today's issue of Nature:

Binder, P.-M. (2009). The Edge of Reductionism. Nature 459: 332-334.

It discusses the difference between irreducible and undecidable systems (in Wolfram's sense) and provides examples of cellular automata that illustrate undecidability despite knowledge of the simple local governing laws.

It's worth a glance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New, very complete, skeleton of Eocene primate published

The quite complete skeleton of a new species of Eocene primate has been published in PLoS ONE. It is so complete that it includes the outline of the soft tissue and the contents of the digestive tract.

Franzen JL,
Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J, Hurum JH, von Koenigswald W, et al. 2009 Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

Some of the popular press have started raving about this as the "missing link" and claiming it's related to the human lineage, but that is all deceptive. This is a very early primate, about 47 million years old, and weighed less than 1 kilo, hardly what we think of as the missing link. Nevertheless, it is an important discovery.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Key Marco, Florida

Key Marco is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Florida. A shell mound located on an island off the southwest corner of the peninsula, it was excavated in 1895 by Frank Hamilton Cushing of the Smithsonian Institution, who uncovered a trove of over one thousand wooden artifacts in a swampy area. The wooden artifacts included beautiful statues that revealed a previously unsuspected aesthetic. Most of the wooden objects were not properly preserved after excavation because knowledge of conservation was not sufficiently advanced at the time. As a result, they warped and disintegrated. The collection from the site remains immensely significant as nothing similar has ever been recovered since.

For my birthday, my dear wife took me to Marco Island for a night in a kindly but probably misguided attempt to get me to stop working and relax, if only for a few hours. We happened to stay at a hotel on top of the archaeological site. Marco Island is today almost completely urbanized and what was a large site is unfortunately buried or destroyed. About 6:30 in the morning, we went out to look for artifacts. We found many small sherds along a major road wherever the underlying shell midden was exposed to one side or the other of the sidewalk. A surprising percentage of them are red (Glades Red type?), but that could be because the red sherds are easier to see, and therefore they might be overrepresented in the collection rather than truly being more common. Most of the non-red sherds are black and so are camouflaged in the soil.

It seems appropriate for FAU to have a collection from Key Marco. All I need to do is to find someone to wash and label the sherds.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Culture of Archaeology

I recently read an article on the disciplinary culture of archaeology that I have to recommend:

Moser, Stephanie (2007). On Disciplinary Culture: Archaeology as Fieldwork and Its Gendered Associations. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14:235-263.

The article appears in a special issue of journal devoted to feminist archaeology. As the editor of the issue, Alison Wylie, explains in her introduction, she assembled the contributions in the volume to counteract the deplorable (to her at least) lack of explicit feminist theory and activism in current feminist archaeology. Evidently, current feminist archaeology is no longer feminist enough for the true believers. This is an excellent example of recursive subdividing of schools of social theory so aptly described and analyzed by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines.

But I digress. Moser's article is very interesting. She discusses the Romantic origins and associations of fieldwork, the role it plays in the profession, and it's overwhelmingly masculine culture. Although she investigated archaeological fieldwork in Australia, little that she says would not be true in the United States. The macho tendency in fieldwork is perhaps ineluctable, but I try to counteract it in my students by emphasizing professionalism, ethics, and safety. I go so far as to admonish them that the field is no place for macho games and that if they ever hear someone say "Watch this!" they should just run the other way.

Moser's article got me to thinking about the culture of fieldwork. One salient point I have not heard others remark about is the self-reliance that field archaeology instills in its practitioners. Need to make a north arrow for a photograph in the middle of Amazon Basin? Whip out your machete and start chopping. (I've actually done this in Yucatán.) The resourcefulness necessary to solve the most unpredictable problems is a quality essential for every field archaeologist to possess. One day you might need to drive an old truck with a standard transmission and no synchros; another day you might need to build platform so you can take vertical photographs of your excavation; and the next day you might have to locate, rent, and install a trash pump to pump out your excavation. It all requires ingenuity and determination, something akin to an entrepreneurial spirit.

I found myself talking to a well-known woman archaeologist about this the other day. She said that fieldwork built leadership skills. You can't do archaeology alone. The image of the lone archaeologist scratching around in the dirt by himself is of course fictional. Fieldwork is a group activity that requires extensive planning and organization. You have to work with people, organize them, motivate them, and keep them happy. The idea that archaeological fieldwork builds leadership and self-reliance is one that we should emphasize to students who may be trying to make career choices.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Hohle Fels Cave Venus Figurine

I've now looked at the actual article in Nature that gave rise to yesterday's news reports. Here's the full reference:

Conard, Nicholas J. (2009). A Female Figurine from the Basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in Southwestern Germany. Nature Vol. 459, pp. 248-252. (doi:10.1038/nature07995).

It looks like a nice article. Some of the graphics showing the stratigraphy are very interesting. The figurine is carved of ivory and is about 6 cm long. Its very early date is significant: ca. 35,000 Cal bp. This is much earlier than the other Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines, which are generally Gravettian, about 5000 years later. Conard lists a large number of 14C dates from the Middle Paleolithic and Aurignacian levels of the cave, which, although not perfectly consistent, present a pretty clear picture of the antiquity of the find.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Oldest Venus Figurine Recently Found

Several reports appeared in the press today announcing the discovery of a new "Venus" figurine from the European Upper Paleolithic that may be the oldest yet found. Found in Germany, it has been dated to about 35,000 years ago. It is a sculpture of a female, made in ivory, that evidently exhibits reproductive organs exaggerated to such a degree that some have called it "pornographic" and "sexually charged". A Spanish newspaper headline even wrote "Sin Tetas No Hay Paleolítico", an allusion to the popular telenovella entitled "Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso". The scholarly article is to appear in tomorrow's number of the journal Nature.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Haven’t Given Away my American Antiquity...Yet

I read Mark Warner’s article “Why I Gave away my American Antiquity” in the last SAA Archaeological Record with interwoven recognition and sadness. Warner tells us that he gave away his accumulated run of American Antiquity because it had become irrelevant to his research, scholarship, and teaching…. “as a historical archaeologist, I don’t find American Antiquity all that relevant to me as a professional. Simply put, there are other journals that I use more frequently, that I find more interesting to read, and that are more useful for me to teach from” (2009:6). He also documents the decline of historical archaeology articles in the journal.

I’m not a historical archaeologist, but I nevertheless share his feelings with some dismay. I’m trained as a Mesoamericanist, but I have broad interests which include parts of North America. Unfortunately, I, too, find American Antiquity increasingly irrelevant to my research and teaching, and I’m glad that someone has spoken up about it. My disquiet began in the mid-1990s when Latin American Antiquity started up. At the time, I was sharing an office with a dyed-in-the-wool North Americanist at a CRM firm. We were talking about the new journal. I was delighted by it, and to my surprise so was he, but for a very different reason: “I’m thrilled,” he said, “because American Antiquity won’t be full of all that Latin American stuff.” I don’t think that the original intent of Latin American Antiquity was to make American Antiquity into a regional North American journal, but that seems to have been the result. Volume 73 Number 3 of American Antiquity, from July 2008, is a good example of this trend. Almost all the articles and reports in that issue were on North American topics that seem to me, subjectively, to be of limited broader interest. Unfortunately, as American Antiquity becomes more parochial, it becomes less interesting and less relevant. This is a loss for the archaeological community in general and for the SAA in particular.

I haven’t given away my American Antiquity yet, but mainly because I’m a pack rat. Packratism is, in my experience, a congenital disease among archaeologists. Throwing stuff away is contrary to our nature. Think about what we do for a living: we go to extraordinary lengths to dig up other peoples’ very old garbage, and then we keep it forever in museums and repositories. The very idea of throwing away something new is nary inconceivable. So, my run of AA is safe for the foreseeable future, but I remain concerned about the direction the journal is taking.

Reference cited

Warner, Mark (2009). Why I Gave away my American Antiquity. SAA Archaeological Record Vol. 9, No. 2 (March), pp. 6-7.

A Lesson for Students

I would ask any students (of mine, at least) who read this blog to look at the articles I cited in the last couple of posts. What do they have in common? The research articles (as opposed to the commentaries) are all strongly interdisciplinary, drawing from a variety of sciences, such as physics (entropy) and genetics. Now, almost all archaeology is interdisciplinary. That's one reason why I find it fun. I get bored easily and the far-ranging scope of archaeology helps hold my interest. The lesson for students is this: build a strong general background in science and read eclectically. Many (most?) truly interesting discoveries come from the serendipitous intersection of apparently unconnected ideas. More specifically, note the rise to dominance of archaeological science. Dave Killick and Paul Goldberg (2009) wrote about this trend in a recent edition of the SAA Archaeological Record. If you're thinking about thesis or dissertation topics or trying to choose a graduate program, consider how you will develop expertise in some branch of archaeological science. When you read the job ads, see how many solicit researchers with expertise in some form of archaeological science, from GIS to paleoclimatic analysis, to archaeological chemistry to microscopy. Do you want to be the job applicant whose expertise is limited to digging square holes very slowly?

Reference cited

Killick, David and Paul Goldberg (2009). A Quiet Crisis in American Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 11-13.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Even more in Science

As if yesterday's bonanza of articles on archaeological topics were not enough, yet another article appeared in the online advance publication section. I do not have access to the full text of these articles, but it's about the linguistic character of the Indus script. The authors claim to have show that the entropy of the as-yet-undeciphered Indus script is similar to that of other human languages, refuting the hypothesis that it is not a script representing natural human language.

by Rajesh P. N. Rao, Nisha Yadav, Mayank N. Vahia, Hrishikesh Joglekar, R. Adhikari, and Iravatham Mahadevan Science
Published online April 23 2009; 10.1126/science.1170391 (Science Express Brevia).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lots o' Archaeological Stuff in Today's Issue of Science

Before we get to today's issue of Science (Vol. 324, Issue 5926), I want to embed a cute little video from the "Science Friday" radio show web site about ancient domestic agave cactuses in the southwestern U.S.

Now, back to Science. There are articles about the domestication of cattle, horses, and sheep, all based on various kinds of genetic information:

by Arne Ludwig, Melanie Pruvost, Monika Reissmann, Norbert Benecke, Gudrun A. Brockmann, Pedro Castaños, Michael Cieslak, Sebastian Lippold, Laura Llorente, Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, Montgomery Slatkin, and Michael Hofreiter. Science 24 April 2009: 485.

by The Bovine HapMap Consortium Science 24 April 2009: 528-532.

by Bernardo Chessa, Filipe Pereira, Frederick Arnaud, Antonio Amorim, Félix Goyache, Ingrid Mainland, Rowland R. Kao, Josephine M. Pemberton, Dario Beraldi, Michael J. Stear, Alberto Alberti, Marco Pittau, Leopoldo Iannuzzi, Mohammad H. Banabazi, Rudovick R. Kazwala, Ya-ping Zhang, Juan J. Arranz, Bahy A. Ali, Zhiliang Wang, Metehan Uzun, Michel M. Dione, Ingrid Olsaker, Lars-Erik Holm, Urmas Saarma, Sohail Ahmad, Nurbiy Marzanov, Emma Eythorsdottir, Martin J. Holland, Paolo Ajmone-Marsan, Michael W. Bruford, Juha Kantanen, Thomas E. Spencer, and Massimo Palmarini Science 24 April 2009: 532-536.

In addition, there are two interesting commentaries on archaeological topics, including one on current research into the causes of the Maya Collapse:

A New Look at the Mayas' End by Heather Pringle Science 24 April 2009: 454-456.

"Climate researchers have fingered drought in the collapse of the great Maya civilization, but many archaeologists say it doesn't fit their data. Ultralocal paleoclimate indicators may spark a resolution."

The other one is about the lithic reduction sequences of Homo floresiensis:

Did Humans Learn From Hobbits? by Elizabeth Culotta Science 24 April 2009: 447.

"A detailed new analysis of stone tools unearthed from the cave of the roughly 1-meter-tall ancient human found in Indonesia sheds light on the "hobbit's" technological capabilities and raises a new mystery: Why did the modern humans who arrived later make tools the same way hobbits did?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pantasma "Crater"

In studying the geology and archaeology of Nicaragua, I noticed a prominent landmark north of the city of Jinotega in the central highlands of northern Nicaragua. It is visible as a circular structure in the middle of the Google Earth image below.

In the image below, I have circled the crater in yellow.

If you study the topography, it is clear that this is a well defined circular depression. I found that it is named "Pantasma" after a village located within the crater. Googling it, I found that there are websites that suggest this may be an impact crater. The Wikipedia article on Pantasma describes this theory. I think impact craters are pretty interesting, particularly because I worked in and around the Chicxulub Crater in Yucatán.

Unfortunately, I feel impelled to point out that Weyl's authoritative tome Geology of Central America (1980: Figure 107) maps this as a caldera, one of several responsible for the Mio-Pliocene out-pouring of ignimbrite sheets that blanket the region. The statement that appears in the Wikipedia is not well-supported by the evidence and probably should be removed. The Pantasma area must have been a smoking hell when all these giant pyroclastic flows were emplaced. The Río Estelí runs through this region a bit further west. The name Estelí is said to derive from the Nahua word for obsidian, itzli. I wonder whether there actually is obsidian in the area or whether some of the glassy ignimbrite merely recalls obsidian.

Reference cited

Weyl, Richard (1980). Geology of Central America, Second edition. Berlin: Gebrüder Borntraeger.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sri Lankan Shipwrecks

This topic may seem a bit odd, but it's one to which I feel a special connection. As a kid, I was interested in marine archaeology and read everything I could find about it. At the time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, underwater archaeology was a new field (SCUBA diving was invented during WWII and only became popular in the 1950s and '60s), and there were as yet few scholarly books on the subject. Most of what was written was by various kinds of avocational archaeologists or even treasure hunters. Among the ones I read were two autobiographical ones by Arthur C. Clarke, the very famous science fiction writer.

If I'm not mistaken, the books I read were Indian Ocean treasure by Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson (Harper & Row [1964]) and The treasure of the Great Reef by Arthur C. Clarke (Ballantine Books [1974]), although it's possible that one was The coast of coral by Arthur C. Clarke (Harper, [1956]). These books recount how Clarke and his friends started diving on the Great Basses and Little Basses reefs off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, where Clarke lived, and found a number of shipwrecks including one with a cargo of silver coins. As Clarke was a world famous novelist, the books were unusually well-written.

Well, the Sri Lankan Navy has just posted a web site describing these wrecks, their history, and a protection plan for them. Not surprisingly, given their fame, the wrecks have been extensively and brazenly looted. I hope the Sri Lankan Navy can protect them. It does seem a little odd for the Sri Lankan military to be working on this problem during their bloody offensive against the Tamil Tigers

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New Web Site

I have set up a new web site on Google Sites to be able to post data and photographs in a static setting rather than in this blog. Among other things, I have posted photos of typical Mayapán ceramic types, copies of some of my papers, and a series of photos of archaeological sites in Nicaragua. I am particularly interested in posting photos of archaeological artifacts because there seem to be few photographs of archaeological ceramics available to students and researchers. The photographs in books are normally printed in black and white because the cost of publishing them in color is prohibitive. The few photographs one finds on the web are usually rare museum pieces that are not representative of what one typically excavates. As a result, one usually has to go to a ceramic repository or museum to see actual archaeological examples of these ceramic types. So, I think there is a real need to have photos like these posted on the web.

I expect to continue to add new material to the web site as I have time. I will soon run out of space, however, and I'm not sure what I'll do then, but undoubtedly there are many options.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cave Paintings in Cueva La Conga, Nicaragua

Some months ago, reports appeared in the media announcing the discovery of cave paintings in the Department of Jinotega, Nicaragua, by Suzanne Baker, who has been working in the country for many years, mainly studying petroglyphs. The discovery of Cueva la Conga was interesting for several reasons. First, most of Nicaragua is volcanic, and so most of the caves are lava tubes, but Cueva la Conga is a limestone solution cavern, located in a small region of karst near the border with Honduras. Second, cave paintings, as opposed to petroglyphs, are rare in Nicaragua. Third, the central and eastern parts of Jinotega are remote, dangerous, and almost completely unexplored. So, any archaeological discovery in the region is interesting news. Here is a link to Suzanne Baker’s website describing the discovery.

I bring this up because of a new report on an effort to radiocarbon date the paintings by Dr. Ruth Ann Armitage at Eastern Michigan University. She is using new techniques that I haven’t heard of, so it will be interesting to find out how they work. Here’s the article.

I would love to visit Jinotega. It’s reputed to be a beautiful, coffee-growing region is the cool, misty highlands. Jinotega is supposed to mean “City of the Mists” (Ciudad de las Brumas). The closest I’ve been to Jinotega is the Finca Selva Negra, north of Matagalpa, which was indeed lovely.

Check out Jinotga on Google Earth. See how the eastern part is all green? This is a large patch of rainforest that has not been explored archaeologically. Much of it falls with the Boswas Biosphere Reserve, a protected conservation area. One reason Jinotega has not been surveyed is that it was heavily mined during the Contra War and it has not been completely demined. Demining efforts were significantly complicated by the effects of Hurricane Mitch, which caused extensive erosion and landslides that moved mines around. A couple of days ago, I watched Carla’s Song, a very powerful movie about the Contra War. It’s worth watching.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rich Moche Burial Uncovered

National Geographic has also posted photos of a very rich Moche burial recently excavated in from Huaca el Pueblo on the northern coast of Peru by Steve Bourget of the University of Texas. Again, very pretty pictures and also a news article.

Huge Bead Cache Found at Santa Catalina de Guale, Georgia

According to a report on the National Geographic web site, a cache of 70,000 seventeenth century trade beads has been found by archaeologists excavating the Franciscan mission site of Santa Catalina de Guale, in Georgia. The excavation is sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Not surprisingly, National Geographic has beautiful photos.

When Conch Was Queen

Here's an interesting popular article about conch in Caribbean archaeology: Talking Taino: When Conch Was Queen by William Keegan and Betsy Carlson. Dr. Keegan is a distinguished graduate of our M.A. program at Florida Atlantic University.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Early Ceramics in Northern Morocco

An Argentine newspaper, the Diario de Mendoza, reported on April 10th the discovery of quite early ceramics from a site named Hasi Uenzga, located southwest of the town of Nador, in the Rif region. The ceramics may be as old as 9000 B.C., which certainly is early for this part of the world. The discovery was made by archaeologists of the Instituto Nacional Marroquí de Ciencias Arqueológicas y del Patrimonio (INSAP) and the Instituto Alemán de Arqueología.

Here is a link to the article: Hallan cerámica del año 9.000 antes de Cristo. The article is in Spanish.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Collapse of the Earliest Civilization in the Western Hemisphere

This interesting article was mentioned in Nature’s journal club column this week.

Sandweiss, Daniel H., Ruth Shady Solís, Michael E. Moseley, David K. Keefer, and Charles R. Ortloff (2009). Environmental Change and Economic Development in Coastal Peru between 5,800 and 3,600 Years Ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, no. 5, pp. 1359-1363.

The basic argument seems to be that a “severe cycle of natural disasters—earthquakes, El Niño flooding, beach ridge formation, and sand dune incursion—at ca. 3,800 B.P." led to the collapse of the earliest civilization in the New World, which developed along the north central coast of Peru between 5,000 and 6,000 B.P.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Maize domestication

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to find and read the new articles about the domestication of maize in Mexico that came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here are the full references:

Dolores R. Piperno, Irene Holst, Ruth Dickau, and José Irarte (2009). The Cultural and Chronological Context of Early Holocene Maize and Squash Domestication in the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 1514-1518.

Piperno, Dolores R., Anthony J. Ranere, Irene Holst, José Irarte, and Ruth Dickau (2009). Starch Grain and Phytolith Evidence for Early Ninth Millennium B.P. Maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 1519-1524.

There was also a commentary about this pair of articles published in the same issue:

Hastorf, Christine A. (2009). Rio Balsas Most Likely Region for Maize Domestication. . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 106, No. 13, pp. 4957-4958.

You can read the abstracts on the journal website here.

These are important articles. The Ranere team excavated a number of rock shelters in the region of Iguala, Guerrero, looking for deposits containing evidence of the beginning of plant domestication in the Archaic period. They chose this area because the genetic evidence—that is, analyses of the DNA of maize varieties and teosinte varieties—pointed to this region as the heartland of corn domestication. Interestingly, they are focusing on the moister piedmont between 700-900 m elevation, rather than the arid highlands.

The first article, in which Ranere is the first author, describes the archaeological sequence that they found, mainly at Xihuatoxtla rock shelter. They seem to make a fairly sound argument, based on the stratigraphy, carbon dating, and artifact sequence, that they found a series of Archaic deposits. The second article describes the microbotanical evidence—phytoliths and starch grains—for the presence of maize cultivation and processing.

Here is a Google Earth snapshot of the Xihuatoxtla area where the Rockshelter is located.

These are nice articles, and they report very significant results. We’ve all been waiting to hear these results for some years now. We’ve known that the current earliest dates for maize domestication were much too late, and that the answer probably lay in the Balsas River Valley. These articles provide strong support for domesticated maize exploitation in the early ninth millennium (2-sigma calibrated date: 8990-8610 B.P.).

Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed. Perhaps I’m an intellectual Neanderthal, but I would have liked to seen some macrobotanical evidence in addition to the microbotanicals. I was disappointed that they didn’t find a single cob or kernel. Give me a cupule! In North America, we find carbonized maize remains in hot and humid parts of the southeastern U.S., which is not that different environmentally from the tropics. I’ve excavated maize macroremains in the Yazoo Basin in Mississippi, and I’ve also worked in various parts of southern Mesoamerica, and frankly, the Mississippi Delta feels more tropical. I’ve worked at Copán, Honduras, which is at 600 m elevation, about the same as these sites in Guerrero, and it’s fairly cool and pleasant by comparison. I still find myself a teeny bit skeptical about phytolith and starch grain evidence, if only because they are young fields and so few people do them that I don’t get the sense that there’s a community of experts who have arrived at a consensus on various important issues. The authors of these articles are undoubtedly world experts on precisely these issues—the identification of maize starch and phytoliths—one couldn’t ask for a better group. And they deserve tremendous credit for having developed the approaches painstakingly over many years. But I would be happier if their results could be independently validated. Or, of course, they could keep digging till they find a hearth full of carbonized corn cobs.

I also would have been happier if the most significant of the deposits, at Xihuatoxtla rock shelter, had been deeper with better stratigraphic separation. The deposits there are barely 1 meter deep and the first 50 cm are post-Archaic. In fact, there are sherds down 60 cm in Layer C too. So, it’s really just Layers D and E, only 35 cm thick, that contain the whole Archaic part of the sequence, stretching back to almost 9000 B.P. Are we to believe that those two strata all date to 8990-8610 B.P., the age of the sole radiocarbon date from those strata? Shouldn’t the deposits have built up over time, like the ones above them apparently did? Actually, that carbon sample came from the middle of Stratum D, so some of this material may be even older than that date. But I think there’s no doubt that their conclusions would have been much stronger if they had found a deeper stratigraphic profile associated with more radiocarbon dates. Ideally, one would like deeper strata without any maize exploitation overlain by the earliest maize processing. I expect the Ranere team was disappointed in some respects too. In addition, I think some discussion, however brief (these are articles after all, not monographs), on the geomorphology and taphonomy of the deposits might have alleviated concerns about their shallowness. The map of the excavation in the Supplementary materials suggests that the ground drops away in front of the rock shelter, a common situation which leads to downslope movement of materials over time. So, evidence that the deposits are intact would have solidified their argument.

Overall, the articles report on an impressive achievement. Most of my doubts are based on what they found, which is not under their control. It’s no accident that no one has excavated Archaic sites in the valley of the Río Balsas till now. These guys have spent years doing survey to find sites, performing paleoenvironmental reconstruction, excavating sites and performing artifact analyses. And it’s probably not an easy area to work. I love Mexico. I’d rather be there right now. But Guerrero is not the safest place in the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The French are online

I've noticed in the last couple of days that the French seem to have (finally?!) put a goodly bunch of journals online and made them freely accessible. (Perhaps it's my imagination, but in the early days of the Internet, it seemed that French websites would rarely connect or, when they did, they ran very slowly. I assumed that they had an antiquated phone system.)

Of interest to the readers of this blog will be Le Journal de la Société des Américanistes.

More generally, there is a broad and excellent collection of journals at a portal named Persée. Full text articles are available from the older numbers. The collection includes major French-language periodicals in history, social sciences (including anthropology), and archaeology. Interesting journals for archaeologists include:

and many others.

They also have a section with "Proceedings and Series" but I can seem to get the search engine to work there.

Otherwise, the site is attractive and functional.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome! Come in and sit down. Cup of coffee?

My name is Clifford Brown, and it's a pleasure to welcome you to my new blog. This blog will focus on archaeology, prehistory, and any other topics that interest me or on which I do research. I'm an archaeologist and anthropologist by training. I serve on the faculty of Florida Atlantic University, in the Department of Anthropology.