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.