Category Archives: outreach

Ruth vs. the Intercutting Firepits

The QIAH has been conducting work at Freiha since 2009, revealing dense, complex occupation. This video is a time lapse of my good friend (and coworker) Ruth Hatfield excavating a series of intercutting firepits. Photo and Video Credit: Qatar Museums Authority – QMA.

We built a small structure over a fraction of the firepits to provide shade and then Ruth did her thing, digging all of the firepits under the shade in two hours. This time lapse demonstrates the principles of single context recording on a microscale–Ruth would dig and record the fills and cuts, all in stratigraphic sequence, showing which of the pits were dug last and working back in time. The last little bits were dug (and burned) first and truncated by later firepits. In some ways it is too bad that the camera was on a timer–you only see Ruth measuring or taking photos a couple of times. I’d like to do a time lapse that shows the entire recording process for each feature–but that might be just too tedious. Sadly I had to use iMovie to edit–my old Final Cut Pro license expired and the new FCP is appalling.

Incidentally, the font for the video is one of my favorites, Lavanderia, inspired by the writing in the windows of the San Francisco Mission:
Download Lavanderia

The music is licensed under Creative Commons and is available on Soundcloud:
Kitab el 3omr by Yussof El Marr

Please comment and let me know if you show the video in your classroom so that I can report back to the QIAH and the QMA and show them that making these things is time well spent!

Memory Palaces, Archaeological Sites, and Postex Planning

A plume of dust spread over the tanur I was drawing and my tape measure fell over and shuddered shut with a metallic clang. The wind had been steadily getting worse throughout the day, until it became an unrelenting blast furnace. I sighed and glanced up at the rest of the team. There were four of us on site, and everyone was neatly framed by the measuring tapes wound around grid pegs; five  meter boxes that we were neatly drawing at 1:20 scale on permatrace. I’ve railed against Americanist thinking-in-boxes for so long that it was a bit funny–but these were invisible boundary lines, and the layers were continued on the next piece of permatrace without the messy guessing of baulks.

Regular site work has come to a close; we cleaned up for aerial photography earlier in the week and are now drawing a large multicontext plan of the site before we cover it all up with backfill. I’ve done similar things before, but never a detailed plan over this large of an area–200 square meters. A few of the areas are pock-marked nightmares of postholes and clay-lined firepits–think circles within circles surrounded by circles. Other areas have bits of architecture or large layers of sandy-shelly accumulations.

I’ve worked over roughly the same area over the last five months, following the stratigraphy back and forth across the trench. Large areas can be difficult to excavate and I’d find myself chasing stratigraphic relationships in circles sometimes–not so hard to imagine when you know that the site depositional processes included sandstorms that would periodically blow thick layers of sand across site and we’d have to dig ourselves out time and time again.

While I was drawing I would remember the walls and the layers of sand that I’d taken off, but I’d also remember what the weather was like that day, who was on site with me, whether the general mood was good or bad. I’d remember if I was chatting to my workmen or my fellow archaeologists, or listening to a podcast or music (usually on windy days when I was using my headphones as wind muffles)–I have a very singular association of a midden dump and a low wall made of orangey-crumbly-crystally anhydrite slabs with a discussion of the concept of “the tipping point” courtesy of BBC’s Thinking Allowed. My thoughts wandered farther: what was the “tipping point” of midden accumulation–when was it accepted and acceptable to dump your garbage next to a wall? What started it? One camel bone? A piece of dog shit? Is there a broken window theory of midden dumping? I should look that up.

I recalled all of this as my pencil traced the outlines of layers yet to be removed. Archaeological sites are memory palaces in every sense of the term. We are re-remembering the past shapes and modes of dwelling and adding our own on top. As the site disappears in discreet episodes, paperwork and memories pile up in place of the stones and walls and sand.

I’d like for my future work to be in this arena, with location-based digital annotation, as most instances I’ve seen so far are completely separate from the lived experience of archaeology. Sadly, most avenues for this work immediately separates me from this very thing that I am most interested in–communicating the poetics of place. We’ll see if I can work something out.

Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology: a dissertation bit

Hello from sunny Qatar! Most of my spare words and thoughts have been going toward dissertating, so I thought I’d post some of my textual thrashing. (breaks in the text added so it won’t set off the tl;dr alarm)

“While some archaeologists are marginally aware of Creative Commons licensing, many archaeologists, myself included, exclusively use proprietary software. The software often is the industry standard and there are not necessarily good alternatives to use. In 2011, common proprietary software includes ArcGIS, the extremely popular global information system software suite, costs USD 1500 for a single-user license and Microsoft Access, an overwhelmingly popular database software costs USD 99 per license. More specialized software such as Autodesk costs USD 4000 for a single license. Increasingly interpretive projects and publications call for visualizations that require the detail and complexity that expensive proprietary software can provide.

Whether they are students or professionals, archaeologists generally do not have the money to purchase the sophisticated software with expensive licensing, so the copies are often illegitimate, and can stop working at any time. While it would be imprudent to identify specific individuals, archaeologists generally have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of illegally downloaded software to perform everyday tasks and do not hesitate to publish results and visualizations gained from using this illegal software.  Whether or not the archaeologist has a philosophical commitment to Open Source and Creative Commons, it is in their interest to prevent the catastrophic data loss that is possible with proprietary formats and illegitimate software. To this end, LP Archaeology has developed their own database software called ARK, which is open source and available for archaeologists to download.

Sadly, much of the proprietary software that archaeologists use has not been replaced by similar open source software. Even in cases where there are free alternatives such as Open Office, archaeologists do not feel like they have the time to learn something different and worry that the results will suffer. Obviously a more formal study of software use among archaeologists would be required to make steps towards correcting the issues surrounding Open Source software, data formats, and preservation standards. Still, there are many places for archaeologists to fit into the Open Source and sharing spectrum, whether it involves Creative Commons licensing for photographs or developing specialized software — supporting these efforts would benefit our collections, our connection to our stakeholders and the longevity of the archive.”

Is it ethical to use pirated software for archaeological work? Why or why not?

Crowdsourcing Archaeology – The Maeander Project Kickstarter Page!

After months of waiting, we received very short notice that we had indeed received a permit to conduct an archaeological survey in southwestern Turkey. Sadly we did not receive all of the funding that we had hoped–it is difficult to fund a project before you have a permit, and to get a permit before you fund a project. The fledgling project had taken flight, the Maeander Project is a go.

Obviously we still had to figure out a way to make up the missing money somehow, or else we would have to miss this valuable opportunity. I’d seen various projects funded by Kickstarter before, and even signed up for it last year, but after the urging of several of my friends I decided to try it out. Kickstarter is primarily for creative projects, but what is my work but creative? I might as well use this aspect of my research in a productive fashion. So, the Kickstarter page:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/colleenmorgan/the-maeander-project-a-digital-archaeological-land

While $5000 does not cover all of our costs, it would help a great deal. Also, if we are unable to raise this amount of money in a month, we do not receive ANY of it!

So please, if you can, throw a couple of dollars our way. If you can’t (and I completely understand!) then please help us by getting the word out about this project.

Mesa Verde Part 1 of 2: Parkitecture

Cliff House, Mesa Verde by Elemsee

I just finished up a 10-day road trip, driving from my folks’ house in northern Colorado back to California, with some fairly significant detours along the way. After taking a quick soak in Glenwood Springs, we took the Million Dollar highway down to Mesa Verde. Colorado had a long, wet winter this year and it paid off in a spectacular run-off, accompanied by the greenest, most wildflower-filled spring I’d ever seen.

I have to admit, I was beyond excited to go to Mesa Verde. Though I’d lived in Colorado for a while, I never made it down to the four-corners region to check out the gorgeous vistas and the Ancestral Puebloan ruins that cover the landscape. It was pretty much a perfect storm of Colleen-geekery: ancient architecture, cave-dwellers, and the National Park system. The National Parks are a revered institution in the US – I’d argue that they constitute a cornerstone of American national identity. As a large, government institution I’m sure there are widely divergent experiences within the National Park service that would either support my enthusiasm or shatter it completely, but as an outside beneficiary of the decades of hard work by thousands of park staff, I remain a big fan.

While others have written more cogently on the aesthetics and the motives of the National Park, Mesa Verde struck me as one of the most vivid examples of the managed tourism and “National Park rustic” or Parkitecture that the National Parks has to offer. Parkitecture attempts to blend in with the natural environment and is often a folksy mix of wood, stone, and hidden cinderblock architecture. While the facilities at Mesa Verde are not as iconic as those at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, the log ladders, stone borders, and wooden cautionary signs contributed to the “parkiness” of the park, signifiers of the managed nature of the park.

While Parkitecture has its design roots in the 1920s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects in the 1930s provided the labor force necessary for transforming the National Parks into tourist destinations. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were young men between the ages of 18-25 who enrolled in a six-month term and were paid $5 – $8 a month while $22-$25 a month was sent back to their families. The “CCC boys” camped at Mesa Verde during the duration and their work can be seen in most aspects of the park’s development. (I’ll be mentioning the CCC again in the next Mesa Verde post, but for more information, check out the excellent New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde.) Without the New Deal investment in the improvement of the parks, it is doubtful that they would have risen to such prominence in the national imagination.

Parkitecture occupies an interesting liminal space in the parks; it both informs and restricts your movement, trying to blend in with the natural surroundings while being obviously official. It also requires an investment in apparently outdated trades–we saw trail maintenance in Zion being performed by a team of masons with chisels and hammers, chipping the red sandstone into appropriately rustic blocks. The curation and preservation of these trade skills seem just as important to me as the park itself.

In the extreme, parkitecture can contribute to the Disneyesque feel of the parks. One of the trail loops at Mesa Verde is only accessible by what they call a tram, what is, in practice, a bit more like a stretch golf-cart. We sat in the tram and there was a pre-recorded interpretive speech that blared as we zoomed by the different “attractions.” Even as Americans have gotten fatter, our hunger for National Parks remains unabated, with attendance rising each year. The best beloved and most visited parks have had to adopt measures such as this tram and an increased control over exploration of the monuments, to protect the park’s resources while still catering to the widest possible constituency. While the paved walkways and carefully groomed garden-fences allow people of most physical abilities to experience the parks, it can be frustrating to those of us who are used to scrambling up cliffs, through waterfalls and into the ruins.

With the national, state and local governments cutting all conceivable services, I feared for the National Parks, especially as they are attracting more tourists than ever. While it isn’t on the scale of the New Deal, it appears that the Recovery Act has been funding projects in the National Parks:

$14.6 million dollars went to Mesa Verde for six projects, from improving water lines to the purchase of alternative fuel transit buses for tours of the park. The full list of Recovery Projects slated for the National Parks is actually very interesting and a little sad, considering that the majority of work is very basic, long-needed repairs. This funding seems at best a fairly scanty gesture, especially compared to the massive investment that the New Deal projects provided for our parks and for the enskilment of a generation of workers.

(Tomorrow, more about the actual, y’know, archaeology and interpretation at Mesa Verde.)

Sneak Preview – Then Dig

On June 1st, Then Dig, the collaborative archaeology group blog, will debut with its first issue: Distance. I’m getting together my post for Distance, but if you are interested in participating, the Call for Posts is here:

http://arf.berkeley.edu/then-dig/2011/05/cfpo-distance/

I made a one-sheet for it that we’ll be distributing on the various archaeology mailing lists. So, expect us!

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?

(This post is also hosted at Then Dig, an archaeology group blog that will premiere in June)