Category Archives: Uncategorized

Archaeology Films A-Z: Hiatus

Just a brief note to mention that my films project is on hiatus for the moment. We just don’t have the bandwidth here in Qatar to stream the movies.

This is possibly something to remember while crafting future research strategies!

The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment

There’s a fantastic conference going on at University College London on the 8th and 9th of November, Digital Engagement in Archaeology, which I have co-authored a presentation in with Matt Law about a lovely data set he collected when Geocities closed down. Check out the abstract: 

Title: The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment

Abstract: After fifteen years of hosting millions of user-built webpages, in April 2009 Yahoo announced that they would be shutting down their United States Geocities webpages. Geocities was once the most common hosting service for low-cost personal webpages, including hundreds of public outreach sites about archaeology. Were the webpages moved to another hosting site, archived, or abandoned? We tracked and recorded the fate of 89 of these webpages, eventually sending a survey to the webmasters asking them a range of questions. While we received relatively few responses, the answers to the questions were illuminating. Much of the current digital outreach performed all over the world relies on “free” services such as Twitter, Flickr, WordPress, Google Pages, or Facebook to host their content. What can the fate of archaeological content on Geocities pages tell us about the benefits and risks of using commercial infrastructure for archaeological outreach?  In a conference dedicated to understanding digital public engagement, we sort through the digital wreckage of past outreach efforts to evaluate the fate of the online archaeological presence.

All of the other papers look really interesting, I wish I could be there to check it out. The paper will get developed into a piece of longer length to be published in an Open Access journal.

I must admit, one of the things that I’m the most excited about is the mind-blowing opening slide that Matt made, full of gifs and broken links–truly retro-geocities-fabulous:


So so brilliant.



Oakland Chinatown Saturday

Pandan waffles on a gray Oakland day.

Blogging Archaeology 3 – Tomorrow

Today’s question/mega-long response has been postponed, partly due to a sandstorm.

Cricetinae -or- Shanti’s Hamsters

Hamster Bones by Gracezorz

After performing a series of increasingly annoying favors for me, my dear friend (and fellow UC Berkeley graduate student) asked for a favor in return–she wanted me to post about hamsters on my blog. Fair enough, but…I didn’t really know much about hamsters. I asked my favorite faunal analyst about hamsters in archaeology, their use as food, and their eventual domestication. No dice. So I went to the web.

Hamsters were very recently domesticated, in 1930, as research subjects in laboratories. (Apparently the ancestor of all these domesticated hamsters was captured in Aleppo, Syria and taken to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.) Indeed, most references that I could find were medical experiments (viagra cures jet lag in hamsters) or pet guides. Sadly, they’re not known as food species, like their fellow domesticates the Guinea pig, which played an important role in Andean cuisine. Apparently an enterprising vertebrate paleontologist, Björn Kurtén measured stoat and hamsters teeth found in Pleistocene sites in Hungary to measure climate change in the past. The reference is mostly notable for having the term “stoat oscillation” in it, which is purely unintentional, yet delightfully vivid imagery. (Incidentally, Kurtén also coined the term “paleofiction,” a genre that Jean Auel made famous. Also, it sounds like his Dance of the Tiger might be a good book for a prehistory in fiction class. hmmm.)

Not having access to the Berkeley library limits me in my research as well. I have pdfs of most of the books related to my research on my computer, but Approaches to faunal analysis in the Middle East is not one of them, sadly.

So, that’s about all I have to offer–a rambling trawl through library searches, online journals, and wikipedia. Now, at least, I know what the dorsal view of the hamster tongue looks like.

First Day: The ViA 2009

I have been in Southampton, UK for the last 24-odd hours on a whirlwind journey to the Visualisation in Archaeology Conference and it’s better than ever this year! There are fewer presentations and lots of discussion time, a model that is really productive at these small workshop/conferences.  I still have a bit of work to do on my powerpoint (I had to change some things to better address issues that came up in the discussions today), but I wanted to jot down a few impressions while they are still fresh.

Marble head of statue found at Portus

There were six presentations today, split into two morning and afternoon sessions. Matthew Johnson was the chair of the first session, “Toward A Virtual Archaeology?” and the presentations were surprisingly diverse. Graeme Earl and Gareth Beale presented their research at Portus, which has apparently been in the news a lot recently. They have a lot of high-tech gadgetry–you can see a sample here, on their flickr stream.

Reconstruction of Wayland's Smithy Barrow by Jennie Anderson

Jennie Anderson presented a much smaller project, both literally and figuratively–an interactive version of Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow accessible by cell phone. Long-time readers of this blog will know why I’m so delighted that someone has taken this project and really run with it. Jennie also graduated from Swindon’s Archaeological Illustration MA program and shoots with a for real bow and arrow! I was happy to meet her and sad that she had to leave early.

Jesse W. Stephens ridiculously gorgeous photography

Jesse W. Stephen's ridiculously gorgeous photography

I shouldn’t really say too much about Jesse Stephen’s presentation, as we worked together on Kalaupapa and have the stories to prove it! It was great to see him again though and though he didn’t present any of his photography, we heard about his close encounter with Hawaiian public television.

We had a nice lunch and everyone chatted about the various papers and their impressions so far of the conference. People seemed really engaged and happy to be there–so far so good! The second session was titled “The Role of Pedagogy and Enskilling in Visual Practice,” chaired by Stephanie Moser.

Tim Webmoor’s paper, Archaeology’s Media Economy: means of visualization or visual fetishism was excellent, as usual. I was sad that I wasn’t able to chat with him before he left. I wish him well at Oxford–he seems to be thriving.

Digital Saints, by Chrysanthos Voutounos

Digital Saints, by Chrysanthos Voutounos

Chrysanthos Voutounos‘ paper on Byzantine art and presentation in museums was a little hard to follow.  He was describing some really interesting bits about the construction of icons and showed the spatial relationships between the standardized facial features of representations of Byzantine-era Jesus Christ. As he was describing it, I looked around the room and noticed that most of the illustrators present at the conference (there are quite a few!) were drawing the Jesus face, almost reflexively. I loved it.

Rob Reads drawing of a bone comb.

Rob Read's drawing of a bone comb.

Finally, Rob Read and Graham Smith gave their remarkable paper, “Training the undervalued and unacknowledged: Specialist training provision for archaeological illustrators in the UK.” It was a statement on the profession of archaeological illustration and just what we have been losing over the years as the number of illustrators dwindles. They showed some really beautiful reconstructions and made great points about the relationship between the site artist and the archaeologist. Really fascinating commentary from craftspeople who tend to get overlooked in their importance as active interpreters of the archaeology.

I should get back to that powerpoint, but I hope to update again tomorrow about the second day of the conference. I hope my paper goes well!

The Mamluk Emporium

As previously mentioned, I have been spending these last few weeks excavating a Mamluk-era barrel vault here at Tell Dhiban. This has meant several weeks of lifting guffaws full of dirt and rocks up out of the building to remove the collapse while documenting brief re-occupations of the building. Finally, on Wednesday, I came down to a nice dirt layer that the collapse respected, meaning that it fell mostly on top of the floor, with a few heavier ashlars more embedded in the softer ground. At first I was afraid that I might have missed the floor—we were expecting flagstones—and had moved on an earlier construction phase by accident. But as we were coming down to the surface we had fewer finds, and the dirt was pretty “clean.” For a tell just lousy with occupation it would have been difficult to get a construction fill that didn’t have loads of artifacts embedded in the matrix. I also didn’t see much of what could have been flagstones—it was all rubble from the collapsed ceiling and floors. We’ll see how accurate my interpretation is when we get more of the building cleared out!

The dirt floor also respected the bin in the south wall, which ended up diving down much farther than I expected. As I was excavating the last of the collapse back, I noticed that it also respected a line of ashlars effectively bisecting the building right at the cistern. We have a similar construction pattern in the west half of the building and whether this is some kind of water management system from the cistern or delineated activity areas, I’m not sure. I am currently leaning against the idea that it was a water system linked with the cistern because it appears that the cistern access was blocked off at this phase by a rebuilt wall. Again, this remains to be seen as we clear more of the collapse out.

From what I’ve seen, the phasing of this building (which I’ve jokingly called the “Mamluk Emporium—everything MUST GO!”) is a bit complicated—it was originally built with two doors, one into another room to the north and another out to a courtyard to the west. Then the north wall was cut away and a cistern was installed between the two rooms. Then, for whatever reason, the cistern was blocked off, but a niche was left where the door once was.

It’s these kinds of puzzles that make excavation so exciting for me—figuring out the architecture, revising my phasing narratives, finding things that completely turn your interpretations around. Not to mention other odd things like there being such an overabundance of Roman, Byzantine, and Iron Age pottery, with a relative paucity of Mamluk artifacts. The Mamluk were re-using stones from other buildings—a fact that makes reconstruction difficult (let’s use a Byzantine column base for a niche corner!) and excavation a bit of a headache. We’re also very near the acropolis of the tell, so wash can only explain so much intrusion from earlier artifacts.

There are a lot of things that happen after the excavation ends—Alan will be running his float samples, there will be other artifact analyses, and a mountain of paperwork—but making sure that the archaeology is properly excavated in the first place is what gives the rest of our work meaning. While this seems obvious, I don’t think that enough of an emphasis is given to the craft of excavation and there is certainly not enough training for archaeology students who want to go on in the field.

Dhiban by the Numbers

17: Flea bites on my left hand
5: Workmen
3: Words I learned in Arabic (horribly transliterated: Gumu, Suu-on, Harrrr = “get out” “chert” “hot”)
6: Hours of sleep (a good night!)
103: Iron Age, Roman, and Mamluk pot sherds from my trench
16: Tags I filled out for finds
8: Cups of tea consumed by 13:00
38: Guffaws full of rocks and dirt that went out of my trench today
3: Slices of watermelon
2: Dustpans that broke as I was using them
1: Seashell from the Red Sea

Touring Jordan


As most people in the states were sleeping in, anticipating beer, friends, and fireworks, I was scrambling over piles of black basalt ruins in the desert near the Syrian border. The ruins of Umm al-Jimal seem to stretch on forever, black against blue sky and gold sand. Our group of nearly twenty rapidly dispersed across the site, no other tourists in sight. Indeed, when we drove into the tiny parking lot there was not another soul around, and we crossed the road and filed in through the open gate. Umm al-Jimal was founded by the Nabateans then occupied by the Romans who used it as a military post. The site has been excavated, but the reports are sadly unpublished. Acres and acres of archaeology remains, and there are bright red Roman pot sherds covering the ground. I walked along the top of a wall with my friend Alan and ducked inside the structures with still intact ceilings—basalt blocks that looked like they had been woven together—an architectural marvel that defies lofty ideas of reconstruction. Would we have been able to figure out this kind of complexity from a jumble of stones? My thoughts went back to Dhiban, to my own pile of rubble.

Umm al-Jimal was the last stop on a weekend trip that included Jerash, Umm Qais, and Qala’at Ar-Rabad. Jerash is the famous site, fabulously reconstructed limestone Roman ruins with gladiator fights, chariot rides (I got the reins taken away from me when I made one horse shy, booo) and a view of the modern city. I walked up the long Cardo Maximus and up the stairs to the temple of Artemis, snapping photos of the spare columns against the blue blue sky. Artemis always seemed like a sensible goddess to me, not as silly as Aphrodite or as stern as Athena or as vicious as Hera. The Eastern Artemis was different though, with mysterious spheres hanging from her chest—breasts, testicles, something else? It hasn’t been decided, so said Danielle the Classics prof that chatted to us about the streets and arches that we wandered through. The midday call to prayer was followed by live broadcast of sermons from the surrounding modern town, and the Arabic wound down and around the Corinthian flourishes and faceless lions.

The next stop was Qala’at Ar-Rabad, a castle built to defend against the pesky Crusaders. It’s become an especially dear to the immigrant Palestinians who have re-settled in Jordan and long for a glimpse of their homeland from its ramparts. They’d line up to take photos of their loved ones against the distant horizon and I tried to stay out of the way. I loved the architecture, full of built and re-built walls, arrow-slits, and mysterious feats of creative reconstruction by well-meaning conservators.

After a good night’s sleep (!) and a blessed hot shower (!!) we made our way to Umm Qais. We’ve been having a hard time getting a bus that will hold us all, so we spilt into four rental cars, silver non-descript sedans dressed up with neon pink flagging tape so we could keep track of each other. The rides were long and hot, static Persian pop on the radio, idle chatter about archaeology and school and miscellaneous. Umm Qais is another Roman Decapolis, mentioned in the book of Matthew in connection with a rather silly story about evil spirits possessing people and Jesus casting the spirits out into a herd of pigs who then rushed into the Sea of Galilee to drown. To enter the site you traverse a ghost town of Ottoman houses that were contentiously evacuated to allow for more work on the “important” Roman architecture. Happily most of the houses are still standing, and I enjoyed a few good mezzes, a cold beer and an outstanding view of Israel-occupied Golan and the mountains of Lebanon after my long walk through the ruins. Umm Qais is a mixture of blinding white limestone and black basalt, a breathtaking contrast set in quiet olive orchards. The government was excavating a large plaza, column sections lined up and numbered for reconstruction, their Corinthian caps sitting askew like bleached vertebrae from a long-dead leviathan. Most people think that all the Roman ruins are excavated, but there are thick, fat acres of olive orchards at Umm Qais, pregnant with archaeology, bits sliding out of poorly-executed sections. This was true at all the sites we visited—Ben likes to say that there’s dozens of dissertations at Umm al-Jimal alone.

We ended the trip by flying down highway 15 out of Mafraq, cutting in front of the other cars, trying to get back to Dhiban in time to do our laundry. We got into Amman just as the sun set, the fading light turning the blocky concrete houses into a hilly moonscape, jagged satellite dishes, terraces, rebar jutting geometrically into the skyline. I was happy that Dave was driving, a wry Scouse who was quick and precise behind the wheel of our silver rental car. The story just gets silly and complicated from this point on—ruins behind us, we got kicked out of ACOR (American Center of Oriental Research), went on a hike to get food and beer, and didn’t get back to site until midnight.

I should update again about my barrel vault (oddly single? truncated floor? bin in the south side?), but I think it will wait for a few days.

In a Mamluk Ruin


For the last week I have been excavating a Mamluk-era barrel vault, previously excavated in 2004 and 2005.  After cleaning out tons of limestone blocks used as backfill, we started to try to sort out the major architectural features in the building—in particular there’s a mysterious cistern, which was cut in the northern wall that I’m itching to investigate. While trying to clear some of the caved-in ceiling (and upper floor) from the barrel vault, I found a nice little fire pit, dug right next to the east wall and full of charcoal. We sampled the charcoal extensively, and I started to excavate the feature.


From the top the fire pit was circular in shape, but as I went deeper it became obvious that the people who dug the pit couldn’t be bothered to move the same rock tumble I was struggling with. This fire pit was dug after what we call the primary occupation of the site—the structure was used opportunistically by people who appear to have had a bit of goat for dinner, judging by the nearby bone and tooth I found. We’ll know better when Alan sorts out the phytolith and flotation samples that we took.  He’s looking for evidence of plant remains to determine ancient climate and regional diet. 


So these people who dug the pit chose the very northeastern corner of the building, which is quite far away from what we think was the door.  Yet at this time, the building had at least caved-in partially, as the fire pit intrudes into a collapsed layer.  The fire pit was also quite small, measuring only about .3m x .3m x .3m deep and the area near the fire was only large enough for one person to cook.


The town of Dhiban is situated on the next tell over, and it is cacophonous, full of shouts and dogs barking, calls to prayer at all hours (including 3am), welding, sirens, you name it.  I began to wonder if the tell site of Dhiban was once the same way, noisy and full of mayhem.  But I also know that it was not always this way, that Dhiban has been through periods of occupation and near abandonment, and I wonder if the fire pit was built during one of those quiet times, a single line of smoke dividing the evening sky, and a very small group, perhaps only one person, standing in the Roman, Byzantine, and Mamluk ruins and enjoying the view of the wadi and the night sky.

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