Monthly Archives: November 2008

Verisimilitude

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Y’know, as close as we can get sometimes, it’s just not the same as actually being there.

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Office Work

I dashed this off for one of the Notcot contests to try to get a free Fisheye camera.  They wanted an office anecdote, and working in the TARL was the best I could come up with.

I’m an archaeologist, so for at least part of the year, my office is outside, slinging a shovel.  But we have to do something with all of the things we find, so for the rest of the year you’ll find me typing away or in the lab, sorting artifacts.  Back in 2003, I was working in the Texas Archaeological Research Lab, re-labeling artifacts that were excavated in the 1970s and 80s.  The lab was located in a WWII Munitions factory that was half-condemned.  There was the side that was fine to wander around in, and then the dark, cordoned off area that was off-limits.  Some of the paleontology labs were in the same place, so there was a big mammoth skull in a crate sitting in the hallway.  Also stashed away was one of the first X-ray machines, giant and gleaming in the dark.  Probably my favorite thing was the cabinet full of non-artifacts.  That is, things that people brought in that were fakes, like big-foot castings and rocks with monkey faces chiseled on the front.  There was also a small mound outside filled with radioactive monkey remains, but that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, so one day I was finishing off a sack of rusty nails.  I hated labeling the nails because it was completely pointless, as the white nailpolish that we used as a background for tiny little black accession numbers would just flake off and leave the things as blank and useless as before.  At that point I had ceased to complain, as it would just get me another sack of rusty nails to label.  I reached into the archival box for the next bag and pulled out…something strange.  It looked like slightly fuzzy, black, glassy fluff at the bottom of the bag.  I opened it up and tried to see what it was, but couldn’t figure it out.  Finally, I fished out the white paper label that someone had provided.  It read:

25 Horseflies

So, I’m guessing that some archaeologist was on a terrible project in south Texas, getting bitten up, and finally just started bagging the damned things out of sheer frustration and perversity.  Then it was archived in a state facility and came to me, 30 years later. Horseflies.  Good times.

Wish me luck!

Rome in Google Earth

I spent the weekend in a particularly brown, cold, and desolate corner of Colorado–pretty far away from the sunny Mediterranean.  Regardless, I spent a bit of time checking out Rome Reborn after Google’s big announcement last week.  Google Earth’s Rome page is a little disppointing, but it contains a brief youtube video and a few screenshots from the simulation.  After a little tinkering with my Google Earth settings (I had it set up to show me places to sleep in Ireland), I was able to check the buildings and placemarkers out.

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Honestly, it was a bit of a mess.  Regardless, I’m used to dealing with Second Life, which brings messiness to a whole new level, so I really can’t complain much.  I tried to recreate swooping through the buildings like in the promotional youtube video, but dealing with the Google Earth camera is a little unwieldy and you can accidentally pop through this layer onto the modern Rome layer–the archaeology is actually transposed onto the modern landscape, which is an interesting contrast to our idea of archaeology being beneath the ground.

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There were also several 3D buildings already on the landscape, made by community members, geolocated photos, and descriptions of places written independently of the Rome Reborn project.  Seeing them side by side with the more “official” interpretations is a nice feature in Google Earth, and I’m glad Google didn’t (as far as I know) remove any of the existing annotations.

Rome Reborn could be critiqued on any number of levels–the lack of non-elite buildings, the lack of authorship and “certainty” metrics (how sure we are that the building actually looked like the reproduction) but I’m happy that the team decided to come and play out in the world, instead of keeping Rome Reborn in a sandbox.  It’s certainly grander than our little Presidio reproduction:

Gangs of San Francisco

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Mission Mission posted about these great t-shirts that celebrate the “Gangs of San Francisco.”  Other gangs include the Sutro Speedsters, an ice-skating team from 1897 and the Bear Flag Rebels of 1846.  Each shirt has a bit of history about the city included.  It’s a fun way to learn more about the city and declare your allegiance to a particular neighborhood.

Internment Camp Yearbook

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In our Introduction to Archaeology classes, we give our students a choice over the site that they want to focus on for their final project.  These can run the gamut from Teotihuacan to the Gault Site in Texas.  Students gather materials about the site and present this information to the whole class, and the final exam covers details from these presentations.  The success of these presentations varies widely, generally according to how interested the students become in the topic, and if they can maintain group coherence.  Each year that I’ve offered the choice of Manzanar as one of the sites, the undergraduates who chose the site become extraordinarily excited and interested in the place.  Even though most of them grew up in California, few have learned about the Japanese American Internment camps within their own state, each of which has an extensive historical record to draw upon.

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So, imagine my surprise and keen interest when I ran across the Internment Camp Yearbook scans on boingboing.  Aquila, published by the Tri-State High School in 1944, documents a year in the life of internees in Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Newell, California.  It’s hard to equate these smiling teens, slick with hair pomade and starched collars with prison camps.  But look under their names–it’s where they lived before the war.  Where they were taken from, after being forced to sell or give away their homes, possessions, and businesses.  Only 60 years ago, in the United States of America.

The students get this though.  In their presentations they talk about the oral histories, examine the archaeological evidence against the documentary evidence, lay out a plan for future interpretation of the site.  And then, sometimes, they do a bit more.  Unprompted by me, the last part of the group presentation from 2007 drew parallels between the treatment of a perceived enemy population during WWII and the treatment of Muslims in America, post 9-11.  The last slide was of Guantánamo Bay.

Needless to say, I’ll be using this yearbook next time around.

Scans from “Aquila“, in the Guy & Marguerite Cook Niesei Collection at the University of the Pacific.

Sifting, Sieving, Screening

“A good archaeologist can use anything, right?” – Roddy Regan

I received an email from “focus design” the other day, containing an advertisement for 21st Century Sifting Screens.  For the lucky readers who haven’t spent a few 100+ degree days mashing dried clay through 1/8th inch mesh, archaeologists generally push the dirt that they dig up through a screen, just to be sure that they haven’t missed any artifacts.  The amount of dirt that gets pushed through the screen and the size of the screen is determined by your research goals.  This work is done by a range of people, sometimes hired workmen (in the case of Catal), sometimes undergraduates, and sometimes, yourself.  I generally don’t mind screening (or sieving or sifting, depending on where you’re located geographically) if it is my own dirt–that is, dirt that I’ve excavated–but screening the dirt of other archaeologists is pretty tedious.  I’m sure that means something about my personality.

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Anyway, so the brochure shows features this fancy new screen made out of plastic.  It looks like a modified historic/California screen, which is a horrible contraption made out of wood.  I first encountered these things on the Cheney House dig, and have been just disgusted with the whole concept since.

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Basically, these things are built with one “leg” and a brace.  This makes them horribly unwieldy if you’re working by yourself, trying to heft 5 gallon buckets (that’s 19L for the metric folks) and pouring out the contents while balancing these damned things plus an artifact bag/bucket/whatever very often results in a lot of spilled dirt and cursing.  They’re not very well built either, and I’ve had to hammer them back together with the blunt end of a shovel more than once.  When you mention these points to any California or Historical archaeologist, they look at you like you have two heads.  That’s what they use and anything else is just weird.

Tripod screen, as seen in the foreground of this photo.

Tripod screen, as seen in the foreground of this photo.

Y’see, I was trained to use tripod screens.  These come in a lot of flavors, but I do recall hauling the heavy bastards out into the middle of the desert, along with a shovel and a bucket and all my paperwork and bags, setting up shop, digging, screening, then breaking down and moving to the next test pit.  They were made with three long metal poles, a big wood-walled screen, and a long length of chain that you used to hook each of the four corners of the screen.  Sure, sometimes the things collapsed, and as previously mentioned, they were heavy as sin, but once the thing was set up it was easy to dump buckets into it and you could walk away from a half-finished screen if something came up.  With the other screens, you were stuck unless you dumped the whole unfinished lot, which is, you see, completely unscientific.

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These are the screens that they use at Catal.  The umbrella is a nice touch, though I’m still undecided about the looped rope design holding the screen up vs. chains.  The looped rope restricts the movement of the screen–it’s harder to shake–and the screens are a lot smaller, so you can’t really dump a whole lot into them at once.  Still, anything is better than the stupid historic screens.

So, this 21st century design intrigues me.  I can’t help but look at the PVC and see it breaking after cooking for a few days in the Texas sun.  I also like the professional screener depicted in the brochure–clean clothes, garden gloves, and a silly floppy hat.  It’s like the undergraduates who come to the field with gardening trowels and safari clothes.  Cute, but a little useless.

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I’m probably what qualifies as a tool nerd in archaeology.  Yes, as Roddy says, a good archaeologist can use anything, and believe me, I have.  Indeed, I’ll try just about anything…so if a 21st century screen comes my way, you know I’ll be fair and diligent in my review.  Hint hint.

The Summer Plague

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It was a cool, breezy summer day; as I wandered among the dead and the dying I thought how it had been years since I had been able to love life this much.  I went into the mosque courtyards, wrote down the number of coffins on a piece of paper, and walking through the various neighbourhoods, tried to establish a relationship between what I saw and the death-count: it was not easy to find a meaning in all the houses, the people, the crowds, the gaiety and sorrow and joy.  And oddly enough my eyes hungered only for the details, the lives of others, the happiness, helplessness, indifference of people living in their own homes with their own families and friends.

Toward noon I crossed over to the other shore of the Golden Horn, to the European quarter of Galata, and intoxicated by the crowds and the corpses I wandered through poor coffee-houses, around the dockyards, shyly smoked tobacco, ate in a humble cookshop simply out of a desire to understand, strolled in bazaars and stores.  I wanted to engrave every single detail on my mind so I could reach some sort of conclusion.

Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle

(Poems, prose and comics that remind me of archaeology, pt 9)