Category Archives: field work

The African Muslim Fist-Bump

"Fist bump" by Indy Trendy Skits on Flickr

“Fist bump” by Brady Tulk on Flickr

(filed under cultural marginalia)

It was something that I had become accustomed to, a process of acculturation.

Meeting people in the Gulf and the Middle East was always a bit of a negotiated process. As I have mentioned before, while it is a truism that white women are to be treated as men, we inhabit a third gender, which we negotiate on a daily basis. Though my husband can expect a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, a hug, touching noses, or even, in the case of a man at a Syrian gas station, a rather rigorous attempt to crack his back, when I meet men, touching for a handshake is a complex, political process.

It is awkward the first few times it happens, when the glad-handed American thrusts her hand out in front of her, self-assured, flashing a smile, and this is met with a grimaced wince and a slow, reluctant hand limply meeting her own. I knew vaguely about the various prohibitions in Islam against touching women before praying, touching them with your hands, and so on, but it can be a hard habit to unlearn for someone trying to be polite.

So over the years I’ve congratulated myself for becoming more appropriate, more circumspect. When I meet Muslim men I put my hand over my heart, thus removing the necessity for them to decide to be “rude” and pious or  “worldly” and accommodating. After a time, I became unused to casual contact in the street–crowds would part in front of me, lest they touch me by accident and have to undergo purification–wudhu–again. But I could not become entirely inured to this process. Every once in a while, I would touch my hand to my heart (I’m so culturally sensitive!) and the man would thrust his hand out in front of me, insisting that I shake it. His cultural sensitivity would contest mine, and I would, of course, shake his hand.

In April I went to Africa for the first time, to the EUROTAST meetings in Ghana and Senegal. My excitement did not really register until I looked out of the plane window and saw the ragged line between deep blue ocean and the vast, tawny Sahara. In Senegal we spent most of our time in meetings on Goreé Island, a heterotopia of its own, but afterwards Dan and I headed south for a couple of days, to a crazy little community on the beach. Senegal is primarily Muslim, and felt more familiar to me than Ghana, even though people spoke English in Ghana and French in Senegal.

We were chatting to a man next to a wall who was fingering a misbaha, a string of prayer beads. He gave Dan a fierce handshake (there is the handshake-snap in Ghana, but that is a whole other thing). I was in mid-motion, putting my hand up to touch my chest, when he held out a fist to me. I probably looked at it quizzically, because he shook the beads in his other hand and explained, “you know, because I’m praying.” So I bumped his fist and he seemed satisfied. I was surprised and then delighted at this new (to me) variation of etiquette. Using the outer surface of the hand makes it okay to touch white ladies with while praying, so, the fist-bump. Okay. Got it.

The fist-bump is not rare in West Africa, nor is it a strictly Muslim practice; in Ghana there was a lot of fist-bumping, but it seemed on a more casual basis than a handshake. And that is how I coded it, a less-formal, “hip” gesture of friendship/encouragement. Since the famously infamous Obama “terrorist fist jab,” a few popular accounts traced the fist-bump to sports and it has been endorsed by doctors as being more hygienic. The fist bump is also briefly cited an example of “emergent culture” by Martin Ortlieb.

In Senegal, under a bright, yellowy sun and next to a whitewashed & peeling mosque, I found a slightly different version of the fist bump. Emergent or no, individual quirk or no, I loved to see it incorporated into a system of beliefs that dictate how and when it is appropriate to touch someone.

Trespassing…for Science

This is of a site in Dorchester by Wessex Archaeology. I'm sure it was legitimately taken and is only used as a demonstration of the technique!

This is of a site in Dorchester by Wessex Archaeology. I’m sure it was legitimately taken and is only used as a demonstration of the technique!

Sometimes you need the shot.

The ladder isn’t high enough, and climbing up on the crane is out of the question. But you need an aerial photo of the site you are working on. So…it’s up to the rooftops!

This is a uniquely urban solution, as I realize that many sites are out in underpopulated landscapes. Sadly, most buildings are closed off to the public, even more so if you have a camera. Ideally you would build a relationship with the surrounding neighborhood, but it can be hard to get in touch with official property owners and such. Asking permission takes time and often comes back with a negative result.

Caveat: I officially do not condone any of the following actions and if you are foolish (or bold) enough to try them, don’t blame me. Also, privilege can be in play with any kind of social hacking.

Key points in gaining access:

* Look like you belong there. This can be difficult in work-a-day archaeology rags, but your high-viz vest, hard hat and a clipboard can go far. Wear this combination and you magically become invisible.

* Enter and walk with purpose. This is part of looking like you belong–you have an aim: get to the highest point you can over your site and try to ignore anything in your way.

* Don’t show off your camera. If you can, conceal it until you get in place. Photographers are not welcome on private property.

* If you do get stopped, be nice. Ask for directions to the bathroom. If the person is still waiting for you when you get out of the bathroom, tell them you are an archaeologist working next door and you’d like to see the site from above, can they help you? Don’t mention taking photos. If they tell you no, then take off.

* Keep an eye out for doors that automatically lock. Not so great to get caught out on a roof.

So, in summary: Don’t break anything! Don’t steal anything! Take your photo and go. More tips can be had from the fine folks interested in Urban Exploration.

When Urban Archaeology Turns Into Street Photography

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I am going through the Origins of Doha photo archives before we start the new season here in Qatar and I’m finding unexpected treasures. Buildings recording and photography is difficult in Doha, and it is difficult to get clear, direct photos of architecture. I’m not sure if Kirk or Katie took those photo, but it is one of my favorites.

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This another one of my favorites–no scale, but I could look at the texture and multiple repairs on the wall for ages.

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Finally, I fully intend to use this in a class someday–can you figure out the building sequence?

Archaeological Dig Houses: the Best, Worst, and Weirdest

Rainbow over the Chicken Shed by Jason Quinlan

Rainbow over the Chicken Shed by Jason Quinlan

About a month ago I asked archaeologists on Facebook and Twitter about their dig house experiences living in a dig house.

What kinds of “dig houses” have you lived in while doing archaeological field work? Weirdest? Dirtiest? Most amazing?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a fairly overdue article about a contemporary archaeology of dig houses, an elaboration of our short buildings report on the Chicken Shed at Çatalhöyük. It’s a subject that I enjoy and will probably revisit over the years. Anyway, as expected I received some great responses. All of the authors will be anonymous unless they choose to reveal themselves.

Weirdest: 

Modern monastery in San Ignacio, Belize.

Monk’s quarters in Vescovado di Murlo, upper floor, with bathroom window onto the Tuscan hills.

Ounces Barn at Boxgrove. My room was an old bull shed with mating contraption in the corner

Bush camp in Kruger Park, South Africa, next to river…crocodile eyes at night & woke up to find leopard tracks outside the tent.

Air cadet base on Jersey – woken up by post plane, & nearest drinking hole is the airfield club bar.

Elementary school gym & classrooms in Vescovio.

Recreation hall of an old leper colony

Dungeon of a château in Alsace

Best:

The Princess Room at Giza. Carved king-size bed and two chandeliers.

A very large house backing on to the Thames at Wraysbury.

Rooms above the bar, Stymphalos

Tent in the Alps at 2400 meters

Swiss dig house in Petra

Chan Chich Jungle Lounge and nature reserve, Organ Walk, Belize

Chateau d’Aramont

Historic Commune north of Taos, slept in tipis and tents, used communal spaces and helped garden.

Two-story mudbrick compound in Dahkla, Egypt…except for the gigantic termites living in our dirt-floor bedroom.

Luxury high rise in Downtown Riyadh. Personal dare devil for a driver. Machine gun escorts. Office in the Embassy.

Townley Hall – a 200-year-old Georgian mansion.

On the Circus, Bath, two doors down from Nicolas Cage

Saqqara dig house before it was demolished. Amazing, but still quite colonial.

Worst:

Some kind of adobe mud house halfway up a mountain in central Madagascar. Cockroaches everywhere, dozens of them crawling up the walls, falling from the ceiling into my cup of wine. Didn’t notice at first, took a swig….

A newly redone B&B, no facilities, and owner couldn’t cope with people coming home dirty (cream carpets, floral bed coverings, etc). Constant stress, high additional costs and no comfort.

The infirmary of an orphanage, constantly feeling sick….

Bog in Tipperary, abandoned, rat infested farmhouse, we suspended shopping baskets from roof to store food….

“Found any gold?” Piggott in the Pub

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The Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle, courtesy of the British Museum.

Stuart Piggott is my academic grandfather–the advisor of my advisor–and I’m sad that I never got to meet him, because all the stories I’ve heard about him are great. I was particularly delighted to find this story, in his own words from The Pastmasters:

My memories of this extraordinary occasion (working at Sutton Hoo in 1939 with Charles Philips) are those of mixed feelings of inevitable excitement at the splendour of the finds, and a sense of frightened inadequacy in making the drawings to record the burial deposit, in which every feature was unique and startling, and where no precedent existed to guide us. We had to keep the sensational nature of our finds secret, carrying back the most valuable pieces to the pub in Woodbridge where we stayed, and locking them in a suitcase to await Kendrick’s next visit to transfer them to the British Museum. Coming home one evening and making straight for the bar, I was met with the inevitable hearty greeting,

“How are the diggings, ole chap? Found any gold?”

“Yes, weighted down with it”, I answered, covertly grasping in my pocket the box containing the great belt-buckle, over 400 grammes (16 ounces) of solid metal.

“Ha! Ha! Jolly good. Have a drink?” I accepted, knowing the truth would not be believed.

I have to wonder how many finds got lost back in the day after a good evening in the pub. Raise your next pint to Professor Piggott, and his ridiculous goldy gold belt buckle.

Flaked Glass Tools & Leprosy in Paradise

Back in 2008 I worked with my good friends James Flexner and Jesse Stephens on Moloka’i, the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. We recorded surface middens and opened up very small excavation test pits in the leprosarium on Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the north side of the island. Kalaupapa is very isolated–it is cut off from the rest of the island by the highest sea cliffs in the world and rough seas on three sides.

Contour map showing the study region

The settlement is equally fascinating and tragic; people suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were quarantined in Kalaupapa and Kalawao from 1865 to 1969 and they constantly struggled to obtain sufficient food, clean drinking water, clothing, and shelter–add this to being isolated from their families and former communities and the health problems that arise from Hansen’s disease such as losing sensation in your extremities.

Another interesting aspect of the island is the eventual presence of Father Damien. He served as a Roman Catholic missionary, ministering to the inhabitants and eventually built St. Philomena Church. When we visited the church, James pointed out the holes in the floor next to the pews where parishioners could relieve themselves of one of the afflictions of the disease–excess saliva–without disrespecting the church by spitting on the floor. There is also one next to the altar. Father Damien eventually caught leprosy too.

Father Damien has recently been canonized, and the potential for tourism in Kalaupapa National Historical Park is high, but will not be fully realized until the last of the residents of the leprosarium has died. When we were there, access to the park was very restricted, and we had the densely forested uplands and gorgeous beaches to ourselves.

This is me documenting the flat rocks where a house built on posts formerly stood.

While I was working there on James’ project, we collected and documented the historical assemblage–rusty bits of metal, ceramics, broken glass, and animal bones. I started to notice something strange about the glass though–some of the edges appeared to have usewear on them. Usewear is the damage that archaeologists can identify on a sharp edge  of stone tools. I was cautious though–depositional processes can play havoc with glass. I had just finished an analysis on Ishi’s glass points and debitage in the Hearst Museum (click here for a bit more information on that tragically unpublished paper) and was attuned to worked glass.

James and I did a bit of experimental archaeology, documented in comic book form:

(The rest of it can be found here: http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/utilized-glass-and-experimental-archaeology-in-kalaupapa/)

Essentially, it appeared that given the dearth of resources available to the residents of the leprosarium, and that metal rusts at an extremely rapid pace, glass was used both expediently (you find a shard, you use it to cut something) and was worked–we found what appeared to be a clear glass blade formed from a flake. Given that people suffering from Hansen’s disease lose fine motor control, it is an especially interesting technical innovation. We found a few instances where the necks and bases of bottles were preferentially selected to provide large surfaces to grab on to.

Finally, this innovation is especially interesting in that the communities on Hawaii do not have a history of making blades from stone–The obsidian that occurs there is very small and nodular and is usually worked into 1-2cm sized flakes from bipolar reduction. Flaked (or chipped, if you are British) glass is seen as a quintessential “contact” artifact, showing the use of introduced materials into cultural practices that were based around obsidian or flint.

James and I coauthored a paper on the project, which then turned into a chapter in The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture. We’re pretty excited that the book has finally been released! Here’s the full citation:

Flexner, J. L., and C. L. Morgan (2013) The Industrious Exiles: An Analysis of Flaked Glass Tools from the Leprosarium at Kalawao, Moloka‘i. In The Archaeology of Hybrid Material Culture, edited by J. J. Card. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, pp. 295-317.

We’ve been asked not to upload proofs of the chapter yet, but in the meantime you should check out James’ other articles on Kalawao. He’s got a whole lot of them uploaded on Academia.edu:

http://anu.academia.edu/JamesFlexner
ResearchBlogging.org
Flexner, James (2012). An Institution that was a Village: Archaeology and Social Life in the Hansen’s Disease Settlement at Kalawao, Moloka‘i, Hawaii International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 16 (1), 135-163 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-012-0171-4

Where in the World is Single Context Archaeology (part 2)

Back in 2010 I posted about my previous initiation into Single Context methodology and used Google Wave to create a collectively edited map. Here is an excerpt of the original post:

Single context recording came to be in the 1970s in the UK, in part by Ed Harris, the man who gave us the Harris Matrix–a way to represent archaeological relationships in 2-D.  For a more detailed description of what single context recording is, there’s no better place to start than the MoLAS archaeological site manual. While there has been some discussion of its limitations in envisioning archaeology (and comparisons to a kind of mechanization/industrialist capitalization strategy), it both empowers individual archaeologists to form their own interpretations of the stratigraphy (contra the box/baulk method where a supervisor comes every once in a while to inspect the section that was excavated by the students or workmen) and provides a detailed plan view of the archaeology.

After learning single context recording, it was often difficult to see some of the architecture being excavated by Americanist archaeologists in squares or trenches.  The most heinous is generally the Mesoamerican houses and temple complexes that have been taken to pixel-bits with squares all at different phases. It is generally taboo to criticize excavation strategy, but it is sad to hear these archaeologists describe their finds and samples taken from these insecure contexts.  True, money is often an issue, but if you cannot excavate a site properly, perhaps it is better not to open the earth at all?

So, needless to say, I am a convert.  Single context recording is truly the gold standard of excavation methodology for architecture and complex stratigraphy and can be tough to learn.  A quote overheard by Dan Eddisford: “We no longer strictly promote single context recording on the site as it requires too great a level of professionalism from our staff.”  Would that a higher level of professionalism would be attainable by field hands who are chronically underpaid and underappreciated.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the real topic at hand: what sites use single context recording?  I know that many of my friends work in far-flung places, but I’d like to keep a record to counter the many criticisms I receive from my New World colleagues who insist that using single context would hopelessly marginalize their work.

I highly recommend going back and reading the comments on the old post, as it created a fantastic discussion. The old map was great as well, but Google Wave died–another one for the complete impermanence of online archaeology. A new comment on my old post spurred me back into action and I’ve started a new map that everyone can edit:

Where is single context archaeology?

If you have used single context somewhere in the world, can you take a moment to drop a pin on it and add the following information:

Project Name as Title: (if it had one)
Project Duration: (as close as you can get, say, 2002-2005)
Your name: (optional!)
Comments: (was it modified single context, etc)

Thanks!

Archaeological Kit – a few of my favorite things

IMG_4180A post-Valentine’s day homage to a few of the tools of the trade.

* I love the old-school wooden folding ruler that I keep in my kit. There is a satisfying stiffness to it, a reliability, as I creak those old joints open to draw a fire pit or a wall. I draw alone most of the time instead of having someone call out the measurements for me, and having a wooden ruler that stays in place helps speed the process along. It’s also handy if you are working in a gale–I had two lines break on me last year, one had the temerity to also pull out the site datum it was attached to as well. My hand tapes die fairly regularly as well, and my latest one is already slow to retract, grinding unevenly through grit.

* Blank tyvek labels with reinforced holes. Invariably dig directors and finds managers make finds tags with set spaces for finds, bemoaning the forgetfulness of diggers in labeling up. These tags get more and more elaborate, until they’re huge quarter-sheets of paper, two-sided and you spend all day replicating your context sheet on the stupid tag. It’s a poor finds system that needs much more than a site code, context number, date, and initials of the digger on the tag. And artifact tags that aren’t tyvek? Are you kidding? Ridiculous.

* Properly sized nails are always in short supply. I get hollered at every time I steal them out of Dan’s kit bag.

* 6H pencils–I have tried the mechanical pencils with 6H lead, but it seems too soft and smudgy to be 6H. For the uninitiated, they’re for writing on permatrace, another of my favorite things. Speaking of stealing, I love stealing stationery the most, especially if it has another archaeologist’s name written on it. It’s a momento. It’s a bad habit and people get really angry, but I’ll only steal your stationery if I like you.

* Small, well-wrapped bits of string. There’s an almost unholy reverence for string among archaeologists–good, non-elastic, sturdy string is difficult to find and usually runs out or gets forgotten. Good string is carefully tended, never cut unless it’s absolutely necessary, and glorious when you realize that you have the perfect length. Yes, string.

…and then there are the days that you spend with your head down a toilet.

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Digging in the center of a “Heritage House” in Doha.

We got the call and three days later, we were on a plane back to Doha. So we’re back digging in Old Doha, finding remains of an older house beneath a “Heritage House” that has been preserved in the middle of an enormous construction site.

Every trench that we’ve opened has revealed either architecture or evidence of occupation, so we have a lot to work on in the next couple of weeks. There’s been a lot of “beasting”–moving lots of dirt in a rapid fashion. As most of it was construction infill, there weren’t a lot of photos or levels taken, just a lot of pick-axe and shovel handling. Exactly what I needed after being so well fed in England!

Yesterday I beasted out the rest of the construction fill from a small 4m x 3m room and so today I was rewarded with digging some archaeology, which meant a massive slow-down in pace and a lot of paperwork. I have to climb a ladder to get in and out of the trench, as the room I am digging in is about 2m below the threshold now. The whole room has been heavily invaded by the later structure and there is huge concrete, stone, and industrial epoxy mess on the east side of the trench that I try not to look at too often. It’s horrible and I don’t plan on chunking it out as it underpins the building. ugh.

Sorry about the terrible photo--I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

Sorry about the terrible photo–I only had a single halogen light way up on the wall.

But I have a couple of walls surviving and there was cut in the western bit of the room to poke at as well. It was sealed off with concrete, so I hacked away at it and found that it was filled with rocks. Lovely. About 30 cm down (.30m for nerds) there was a layer of concrete that had been smeared on to some other rocks–you could still see the finger impressions. There was a hole in the middle and that is when I realized that yes, I was digging out a toilet.

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The first 20 cm of the fill had a bunch of broken tile, probably the remains of the fitting out of the bathroom. Then…yep. Yellowish-brown silty stuff. Happily I was wearing gloves.

I got about a meter into the fill then stopped, as it was too deep to dig safely. As it was, I was balancing myself on my hands awkwardly in a small rectangular cut–good thing I’ve been practicing my handstands. I finished digging the toilet (hamam) and saved all the fill for our lovely paleobotanist, Mary Anne Murray.

So now I have to finish that pesky application to the R1 University. Happy digging, y’all!

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

The things you find down a 60 year-old toilet in Doha.

Quintessential Rescue Archaeology: The Origins of Doha Project

The construction site where we excavated as part of the Origins of Doha Project.

At some point I decided that it would be a great idea to book a flight from San Francisco to Doha, Qatar on the day after the end of the Fall 2012 semester–my deadline to file my Ph.D. A week later, I’m mostly recovered from that last, big push to finish, cleaning out my apartment for my subletter, partying beyond all reason at Cheyla and Nico’s house, and hopping a jet to fly 8,000 miles.

As is my current pattern, I got in for the last week of work at the Origins of Doha Project’s site in central Doha. We hope to work a bit more at a different site in January, but we’ll see. The site is a giant, chaotic construction zone with 5,000 construction workers going everywhere all the time and 19 tower cranes whirling overhead.

The insides of one of the heritage houses stripped out and lined with concrete.

Most of the archaeological remains are long gone, but there were a few  “heritage” houses that are being preserved, though they’ve been heavily restored twice and are pretty disturbed. These heritage houses are becoming a museum and are being cleared out to accommodate air conditioning and other modcons, so we were brought in to record what was left of earlier builds of the houses.

The exterior of one of the heritage houses, excavation director Daniel Eddisford for scale.

I helped my friend (and former Zubarah colleague) Kirk dig and record a little bit, spending an inordinate amount of time on an isometric sketch of a blocked concrete drain setting next to a well and a bath inside of a house. The team had been digging for a couple of weeks–I was surprised to find that this was the first archaeological excavation performed in Doha. Cool. We returned to site the next day to record a couple of wells in a different heritage house.

The well. A bit difficult to record, yeah? There’s dirt over the measuring tape so I don’t trip over it and fall into the well.

This is the well I recorded. The utility of drawing is probably pretty obvious in this case, as you can’t get a good photograph of the well with all the safety scaffolding in place. I pounded a nail in the eastern wall with my trowel and strung a line across the room. The houses are on a North-South orientation, so it made drawing the multicontext plan easy. There was a later soak-away coming in from the western wall that I also recorded. A soak-away is basically a drain coming from a toilet. The well was over three meters deep and didn’t smell, thankfully.

My kit in the doorway, with my unfinished multicontext plan.

It was still really awkward to move in the room and I tried to spend as little time over the well as possible and still record it. It was urban rescue archaeology all the way–dodging bulldozers and improvising the best way to record fairly trashed stratigraphy as quickly as possible while still producing the best record we could for the archive.