Friday, May 30, 2014

Nicaragua trip

Last week, I returned from my first trip this summer to Nicaragua. I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with colleagues, friends, and family.

First, we went to Cusirisna Cave in the Department of Boaco. Kendra Philmon wrote her thesis on the materials in the cave, which are curated at the Harvard Peabody. We are hoping to publish a revision of her thesis as a monograph. At the SAA meetings, she asked me if it were possible that some of the teeth remained on the floor of the cave. Most of the crania in the collection have lost their front teeth. So, I stopped by with my wife to take a look. I also wanted to take more photos because those from my first trip were not great. It was a terrible mistake. Getting to the cave requires a bit of a scramble. It's in a gorge with very steep walls that are paved with loose rock. Moreover, I'm in terrible condition. My wife is in better condition, but she took a serious fall while I got overheated. I managed to get some pictures and take a quick look in the cave.I didn't see any teeth, but I noticed that there is a layer of earth that might conceal additional remains and could be excavated.
Cusirisna Cave. Right hand chamber. Machete points approximately north

Cusirisna Cave. Left-hand chambers

Lahar deposit underlying Cusirisna Cave.
From Cusirisna, we went to the town of Boaco to visit our friend Edgar Espinoza, a semi-retired archaeologist. He has a lovely home there, and he kindly invited us to spend the night.

The next day he took us to see some petroglyphs in the surrounding hills.

Petroglyphs near the base of the hill, Boaco

Petroglyph of a fawn near Las Lagunas, Boaco

Anthropomorphic petroglyph (shaman?) near Las Lagunas, Boaco
A couple of days later, we had the opportunity to visit a couple of sites near Somotillo, in the Department of Chinandega, that had been previously found by Jorge Zambrana and reported by Rigoberto Navarro. We first went to see a couple of sites named Don Noe, after the landowner. We found a historic wall, but we're not sure if it is part of one of the previously reported sites. We chatted with Don Noe, but he did not know where the previously reported prehistoric mound site was located. After I came back and mapped our points, I saw that we were a couple of hundred meters too far north.

Historic wall remnant on the property of Don Noe, southwest of Somotillo, Chinandega

Then we drove back to Somotillo and looped around to cross the Rio Gallo and then came back southwest to its junction with the Rio Negro.  Heading south from El Tejar, we found the site of Los Andinos, which turned out to be impressive. According to the original report, it has over 30 mounds, densely packed. We saw lots of material on the surface, including chert (perhaps heat-treated--see photo below), obsidian, and fine-paste ceramics. The fields with the mounds are being plowed, but fortunately with oxen. Tractors will destroy the mounds in no time. This site has more architecture than any other we have seen to date in the Department of Chinandega.

Artifacts in the road at Los Andinos. Note the dark red chert that may have been heat-treated. The fine paste ceramics are typical of the region, including the red slip and the light grey cores. The compass/clinometer has a centimeter scale on the side.

The largest mound that we saw at Los Andinos, which apparently lies in the northern part of the site.
My wife threw me a surprise birthday party in Somotillo in the Restaurante Katin in Somotillo. I can't remember the last time I had a birthday party, but it must have been when I was a small child. It was also the first time I had a piñata. If you watch shows like America's Funniest Home Videos, you know that gringos are incompetent at whacking a piñata, which is, frankly, embarrassing. I didn't hit anyone or break anything, and I didn't have to dance!

Birthday party at Rancho Katin, Somotillo

Birthday party at Rancho Katin, Somotillo

Whacking the piñata
Adios for now.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Society for American Archaeology annual meeting, and on being a discussant

This year's SAA conference was a lot of fun. My department at FAU boasted a large contingent of current and former graduate students, many of whom presented on their own research, including Kendra Philmon, Kelin Flanagan, Brittany Reneau, April Watson, and Laura Van Voorhies. Tim Guyah and Tom DiVito, recent graduates of our program, also attended the meetings. One of my departmental colleagues, Valentina Martinez, presented on her research in Ecuador.

I was involved in two symposia, one on recent research in Nicaragua and the other on multi-scalar approaches to archaeological interpretation. Both were very interesting. In the Nicaragua session, I presented a brief summary of work to date in the Department of Chinandega and Kendra Philmon outlined our work on the collection from Cursirisna Cave in Boaco. In the multi-scalar session, which included some research involving fractals, Kelin Flanagan presented her work on the fractality and lacunarity of archaeological site distributions. I served as a discussant at that symposium. 

It was my first experience as a discussant, and it was interesting for me. I read all the papers that had been submitted in advance, which seemed a lot like actual work. Then I thought about the remarks I had heard discussants offer in other sessions. They seemed to me to fall into two categories: those that critiqued the papers individually and those that offered thoughts on the theme of the symposium. While the former are probably more common, I though the latter were potentially more interesting. I still remember lucidly the comments that David Pendergast made at a symposium on Maya cave archaeology many years ago. They were of the second type, general observations on cave archaeology. I found his remarks more inspiring and affecting than any of the papers that had been given in the session. With that in mind, I tried to emulate that model of being a discussant. So the night before the session (which captured the enviable Sunday morning time slot), I created a brief presentation on the polyvalent meanings of scale in archaeology. I, at least, thought the comments were interesting, and it of course saved me from summarizing and reviewing everyone else's talks, with the concomitant potential for misinterpretation, omission, and offense.

I would be very interested in hearing about others' experiences as a discussant or your opinions about what kind of comments are most interesting and influential.

Thanks to those who organized our symposia and were kind enough to invite me and my students: Geoffrey McCafferty, Larry Steinbrenner, and James Stemp.