Sunday, May 24, 2015

You may have been in the field too long if...

1) you've been listening to the BBC on the short wave for so long that you recognize the voices of all the news readers and can tell if they have a cold;

2) you stopped taking your malaria meds so long ago you can't remember the dosage;

3) you file your nails with the same bastard file you use to sharpen your trowel and your machete;

4) Sunscreen? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, cough, snort. Oh, that? That's just a mole;

5) You intuitively recognize whether the GPS coordinates are correct in DMS, decimal degrees, and UTMs;

6) You can spot a sherd on the side of a dirt road while driving by at 50 kph;

7)  You're on a first-name basis with every farmer and hunter in the district/state/department/canton/province;

8) Your athletic socks have evolved to the point that they could pass a Turing test;

9) trenchfoot is a frequent topic of casual discussion;

10) you don't even think about TV any more; and, drum roll please,

11) you've forgotten what it's like not to have diarrhea.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Kelsey Willis, Undergraduate Researcher Guest Blogger

Reporting from Chinandega, Nicaragua:

I am here with my advisor, Dr. Clifford Brown, and one of his graduate students, Ashley Gravlin, to analyze archaeological ceramics. The ceramics are from over 20 sites that Dr. Brown found in his previous fieldwork. We want to analyze the collected ceramics so we can define the people who created them. For our goal, we believe the best way to come to such a conclusion is to classify the ceramics into types, varieties and groups. To classify the ceramics we will be observing the finishes, decorations, colors and forms of the pottery; recording the coarseness by examining the temper particle size, shape and type; and measuring the colors of the ceramic’s paste, slip or paint (if included).

One of the first things I thought would be really amazing to see is where some of the ceramic material came from, so a few days ago, we headed out to some sites. We went to the sites known as Cosmapa Oriental, Santa Cristina, and Rio Chiquito in that order. At Cosmapa Oriental, which is a large peanut field, we walked in our own straight lines and found sherds just lying on the surface. A few of the sherds we found resembled a ceramic type known as Las Vegas polychrome (Figure 1) and we photographed them. We also came across a biface stone tool fragment that was made of chert (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Potsherd of Las Vegas Polychrome from the Cosmapa Oriental Site
Figure 2. Chert biface fragment from the Cosmapa Oriental Site

At Santa Cristina we did not find as much, but we did come across a large painted ceramic support. After spending a little more time there, we headed to Rio Chiquito. In this area, the ground was covered in grass and weeds. It took my eyes a while to adjust to finding geometric shapes on the ground, but once they did I saw sherds every five steps. We even found some obsidian shatter and one obsidian flake.

We didn't collect any artifacts, but it was really exciting and an awesome experience to visit actual archaeological sites!

Friday, May 22, 2015

More Dinosours, Dammit!

Have I mentioned recently that this blog is entitled "No Dinosours!" because I am tired of people confusing archaeology with paleontology?

Apparently not. It's been over a year since my previous rant.

To add injury to insult, someone redid the Anthropology Department's website and put a photograph of what appears to be a dinosaur skeleton as a banner across the top of the page.

As such, it even appears across the top of my own Departmental page.

I even complained about this at a College Faculty Assembly meeting, but that had no effect.

Please don't visit my Departmental page. It has virtually no useful information and also contains errors, such as my rank and title.

Disclaimer: Paleontology is very cool, but it is a branch of geology, not Anthropology. Archaeologists look for people, not dinosaurs. It's amazing how many educated people do not seem to know this.

Ancient DNA from a recent descendent of a Neandertal-Homo sapiens coupling

Interesting article by Ann Gibbons in today's Science magazine. The article reports on a talk by Qiaomei Fu who sequenced ancient DNA from a young male mandible from a cave site in Romania. The mandible is said to be suspiciously robust, and it turned out to have a lot of Neanderthal nuclear DNA, including long segments that had not yet been disordered by cross-overs. The conclusion is that the individual was only a few generations away from a mating between a human and a Neanderthal. Both the date (42-37 kya) and the location (Europe) are curious for the interbreeding event. The scientific article is supposed to be in review. Can't wait!

Gibbons, Ann (2015). Ancient DNA Pinpoints Paleolithic Liaison in Europe. Science Vol. 348, Issue 6237, p. 847.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Best students ever!

To all my previous students:

I'm truly sorry but you have been downgraded by two levels in the student quality hierarchy by my current students, Ashley and Kelsey, because they baked me a cake here in Nicaragua. To understand why this is significant, you should know that it is the end of the dry season here in Chinandega, the hottest part of the year in the hottest part of Nicaragua. So, turning on the oven feels almost exactly like jumping into the smoking volcano that is visible through the kitchen window.

 Kudos to Ashley and Kelsey. They've raised the bar. It might take brandy and cigars to surpass them. I feel sorry for their successors. Good luck to them, the poor bastards.



Saturday, May 16, 2015

Flying Pigs and the New Season in Nicaragua

We are starting our new season of research in Nicaragua. (Of course, the "season" never really ends for me because by the time I finish my report from last season, I have to start preparing my permit request for the next year.) This year we hope to complete a fuller, more detailed ceramic analysis of the pottery we previously excavated in the Department of Chinandega. We hope that redefining some types and varieties and describing them more fully will allow us to produce a chronological sequence. And maybe, maybe, some indication of ethnic differences.

I've brought with me two excellent students, Ashley Gravlin Beman, who is working on her Master's thesis research in our Department, and Kelsey Willis, an undergraduate who is planning to write a senior thesis on a subset of these materials. I am also looking forward to working with a couple of young Nicaraguan archaeologists who will be joining us.

We had a great flight in on American Airlines. We rented the SUV without problems, got cell phones, pulled out the parking lot, and just sat in traffic. The traffic lights, which are mostly new, had apparently all gone out, and that caused a bunch of accidents, and it was a Friday afternoon, and the traffic was at a total standstill. It took us over an hour and a half to get to our hotel downtown. We missed our meeting at Patrimonio. I'm really annoyed that I missed such an important meeting, especially since I'm obsessively punctual.

A Nicaraguan friend recently wrote to me saying something like, "but pigs fly surprisingly often in Nicaragua," meaning, I guess, expect the unexpected, or the improbable is more likely than you think in Nicaragua. So, the pigs are soaring here; big flocks of them are on the horizon.

Got to hit the road for Chinandega now.

Next time: photos.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Reflections on the Quantitative Methods and Computer Applications in Archaeology conference

The CAA conference was interesting, and I’m glad I went. I would have had more fun if I had figured out that they were serving lunch to everyone. I only noticed that the last day, and even on that occasion I missed the food because I stopped to chat with a graduate student. It was during the one (foodless) lunch I attended that I ran into a couple of people I know. If I had known they were there, I would have enjoyed the conference more because I would have had friends to hang out with. As it was, the conferees were mainly Europeans. Few Americans attended. It’s natural that geographic proximity would influence turnout, if only for economic reasons—my airline tickets were quite expensive—but it made the conference feel a little parochial, Roman this, Roman that.

The conference also felt a little narrow intellectually. I am probably only projecting my preferences—or prejudices—but the conference was heavy on GIS, and light by comparison on everything else. A lot of the papers and posters seem to me to be saying, “Hey, look at the cool, whizz-bang thing I can do with GIS!” I have nothing against GIS; on the contrary, I think GIS is crucial in archaeology. Because most of our data have a fundamental, primordial spatial component, GIS is the natural way for us to store, retrieve, analyze, visualize, and report our data. My own paper described research that we mostly performed within a GIS environment. Our research also would have been extraordinarily difficult to do in any other way. That said, I still think that GIS is basically a tool rather than an end in itself. Yet I came away with the impression that more than a few papers focused on showing the researchers’ technical mastery of GIS than actually contributing something substantively original. Sometimes I found myself saying, sotto voce, “It’s great that you can do that in GIS, but why would you? It’s so difficult and idiosyncratic that’s it’s not of broad interest.”

I hope in the future that the CAA gives at least a little more weight to Quantitative Methods and even non-GIS Computer Applications. I’m not blaming the organizers, who must content themselves with the papers that are submitted, and therefore do not have total control over their own agenda. But perhaps more could be done to encourage a broader range of contributions.

The five stages of archaeological typology

Denial—They all look the same.

Anger—What kind of idiot defined these types?

Bargaining—Please, God, let there be more variation between groups than within them.

Depression—The within group variation is greater than the between group.

Acceptance—Well, it sort of works now, but I don’t know what it means, and I no longer care.