Monthly Archives: January 2011

Survey and Scopophilia

…beep beep buh-beeep-beep….

I keep one headphone off while I’m at the total station, so that I can hear that final confirmation beep, telling me that I’ve registered another point on the landscape. A total station is an electronic theodolite and we use them in archaeology to accurately measure points on the landscape, much like the surveyors you probably see all the time standing by the side of the road. In this case we are using the machine to survey a long, ovoid beach site, with virtually no visible walls. To the untrained eye, it probably looks like a series of small dunes, lumpy, with very little definition. All this means is that we are making a topographic map of the site, along with what we think are cultural features. The EDM is highly accurate, but there is interpretation and guesswork involved in defining features, sometimes making it a slow process.

I move the scope across the landscape, sighting a prism, sometimes nearby and sometimes far away, catch the glint from the mirrored center, and push the button. Dan walks to the next point, and I repeat the process, entering the correct code. In one ear, I hear the beeping of the instrument, usually over a thousand times a day. In the other ear, I keep a steady stream of music, news, and podcasts to help the time pass.

In the Reign of Harad IV is a short story by Steven Millhauser that appeared in The New Yorker in 2006. The New Yorker has been featuring writers reading other writers for a couple of years now, and it’s a mixed bag. In the Reign is a lovely fairytale-like story about a king’s miniature maker, whose creations grow smaller and smaller until they enter the realm of the imaginary. As I was listening to it, creating a scaled, digitized world of my own behind a powerful lens, I wondered about the nature of this magnified vision, of remaking the landscape in tron-like polygons, and wondered how many artists worked in the medium of CAD landscape painting.

I also thought about Kwan’s use of GIS as part of a feminist methodology in geography, and asked one of my fellow surveyors what she thought about some of the complications involved in the use of technically-aided vision and interpretation of the landscape. She shrugged and said she just thought it was a tool, not some Foucauldian mind-trip. I still wondered though–the power to make these maps and to interpret these landscapes was very much in my hands. The site is highly endangered by people driving over it, and protecting it would involve limiting the use of Qatar’s prettiest beach–unpopular, to say the least. By swinging the scope around, quantifying this site, I am elevating it, creating it into something more than just a few lumps and bumps.

Still, quality time at the scope and walking around with the prism has taught me how to use this tool. While it is incredibly tedious at times, learning the details of landscape survey takes up Donna Haraway’s invitation to reclaim technoscience as a situated practice, a feminist pursuit. It is not enough to critique these visualization tools from an academic vacuum–you have to stand behind the beepy machine and learn how the damned thing works.

World of Warcraft’s Archaeology Skill

From Blizzard’s website:

Hunting the unknown, discovering the lost, knowing the forgotten. The Explorers’ League of Ironforge is redoubling its efforts to learn the secrets of the past. The league has begun teaching the discipline of archaeology to all members of the Alliance in a bold attempt to procure as many ancient relics as possible. This initiative is being matched by the campaign of the Reliquary — a Horde faction formed from an unknown council based in Silvermoon. The Reliquary is training members of the Horde in the art of the dig and challenging them to find any and all artifacts of historical significance before the Explorers’ League does. Each side now jockeys for position, relishing in the chase, vying for control of time-lost relics, and jealously guarding any valuable information the objects may impart.

With their latest expansion release, Cataclysm, World of Warcraft has added a “secondary profession”–archaeology. Players of WoW can now survey for, find, and reconstruct artifacts.

In the above video, the basics of the archaeology skill are demonstrated. In a large map, areas that you can “excavate” are indicated with a trowel. Once you are there, you activate a “survey” skill to help find the artifact. I found this “survey” mode to be the most interesting, as you place what looks like an old-school theodolite and evaluate the flashing light next to it. If the light is flashing green, then you are close to treasure. If it is flashing red, then you are far away. What archaeologist wouldn’t like that? If you go to the correct area, then you find a bag on the ground (perhaps dropped by a previous, clumsy archaeologist?) with an “archaeology fragment” or a (“fossil fragment”, sadly) inside. When you get 30 fragments, you can piece them back together and it creates a useable item.

As a non-WoW participant I became aware of this new development in the game in two ways.  One of my fellow archaeologists in Qatar has been playing as an archaeologist in WoW. Apparently the in-game play action of archaeology is incredibly tedious, which is perhaps appropriate. He says that people complain on the special WoW archaeology chat channel about it, and he tells them, “this is what I do in my real life too!” If he’s like me, he dreams about archaeology as well, which would complete the 24-hour cycle of non-stop archaeology. The other way I found out about it was a slightly more troubling development. A google search for “how to do archaeological survey” turned up with WoW links. It looks like it has changed now, perhaps specializing its search results to my particular interests, but it is a good reminder of what an incredible juggernaut WoW is in gaming culture. There are 12 million subscribers to this game, and while individuals may have more than one subscription, that’s still a substantial fraction of people playing an online game, sharing experiences and forging communities of practice.

What does the new WoW profession of archaeology mean to the broader definition of archaeology? Well, already they have some blatant failures in that they include fossils of ancient ferns as artifacts, though the fact that they also have “night elf” artifacts may remove that somewhat abstract designation of artifact typology. It also is typical in gaming realms that the archaeologist keeps the treasure. A simple change might be a reward of a more abstract kind in lore or experience points.

While this is the kind of nitpicking that Cornelius Holtorf takes issue with in his Archaeology is a Brand, there might be an interesting set of talking points for education here. A side-by-side comparison of the depiction of archaeology within the game and of true practice might make for an entertaining lecture in an introduction to archaeology class. A well-phrased letter from an archaeology society to Blizzard may not actually change much within the world, but may help guide future development of this skill. Engagement with this game’s audience may prove enlightening and fruitful in the end.

Do any other archaeologists have experience with this skill in WoW? Any further commentary?

GOOD’s Food for Thinkers: Digging up and Eating Fish in Qatar

Photo by Alexis Pantos.

As my trowel raked against the dirt piled on the plaster floor, I stopped for probably the 50th time that day and cursed. I put down my trowel, reached for a plastic bag, then started picking through the soft, light-brown rubble in front of me. Tiny fish bones were everywhere, scattered by my troweling. I had to pick the minuscule things up one by one and put them in the bone artifact bag. By now I could easily identify the bones of most terrestrial animals, including humans, but the fish bones were out of my league. Diligently I bent over and put my cheek almost in the dirt itself, so I wouldn’t miss the tiniest vertebrae. This was a highly unflattering position, and the site workmen made sure that I noticed that they noticed. “Shu?” I queried in Arabic, and they turned around and went back to shoveling.

I have been in the desert for a couple of weeks now, digging and surveying with a team of archaeologists excavating historic pearling centers on the northern coast of Qatar. As a professional archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, I tend to encounter food at its least appetizing–as the discarded remains of past peoples. While I do not specialize in the study of food as intensively as zooarchaeologists (animal remains specialists) or paleobotanists (plant remains specialists), it is an immensely important part of understanding people in the past.  These coastal sites are absolutely packed with fish bones, especially around tabun ovens, the clay-lined fire pits that are present in every house. These tabuns hold a wealth of information for us, from giving us a potential date for the site in the carbonized remains of fuel, to seasonality of the occupation in the cooked plant remains, to the relative health of the animals that were being killed for food.

All of this doesn’t really make picking up tiny fish bones in the midday sun in the desert less tedious, and a less vigilant (or less guilt-ridden or possibly more sane) archaeologist might not pick up every last tiny, semi-translucent fragment of somebody’s dinner. I didn’t know it then, but I would have my reward later that night. One of the team members has started to assemble a reference collection of Gulf fish bones, and this meant that she was eating her way through the selection available at the local fish market. She selects the fish, photographs it, carefully guts and prepares the fish for cooking, cleans, collects and dries every tiny bone, then curates them in boxes labelled with their taxonomic name.  Shark, bream, hamoor and dozens more had been carefully selected, cleaned, and served up to hungry archaeologists, who made note of their relative tastiness and ease of cooking. That night she made a big pot of lovely fish curry and I went back for seconds. Twice.

Food is a passionate expression of ourselves. Seemingly insignificant remains hold a wealth of information about people in the past, and about ourselves. Sifting through the ashy remains of an ancient dinner, finding a discarded 18th century fork, examining the worn edge of an obsidian blade all evoke in us a sense of wonder and of intimacy with the past. Understanding what food was available and what food meant to people in the past brings us ever closer to appreciating the incredible creativity and adaptability present in these people and in ourselves. I probably wouldn’t have ever considered eating the slightly more esoteric looking fish that were available, and some of them are very tasty!

As the climate changes and as fuel sources diminish and diversify we need to draw upon this creativity and adaptability for survival. People in the past ate an incredible array of foods, prepared in interesting and sometimes unlikely ways. If we can draw out this past knowledge, we have more resources to confront modern problems relating to disease, sustainability, and poverty. While this is not the only motivation for archaeologists to study the past, it is one that is becoming increasingly important. Writing about ancient food today can only improve our chances to survive a future where the cornucopian optimism of yesteryear brought by the mechanization of food production is diminishing in the face of population growth and dwindling resources. So we go to far-flung places (or sometimes your back yard!) to collect, catalog, and discuss these things from our shared human history. And sometimes we’re lucky enough to do so with a belly full of tasty fish curry.

This post was invited by GOOD Magazine’s Food Editor, Nicola Twilley as part of a celebratory blog carnival, Food for Thinkers: An Online Festival of Food and Writing. GOOD Magazine is re-launching their food section and there are a lot of really great submissions, including one from our favorite Space Archaeologist, Alice Gorman!

Al Jemail

There weren’t any photos at all in the last post, so I thought I’d make up for that with this post. Yesterday I visited Al Jamail (or Al Gemeel or any number of spellings–Arabic romanization is random at best) to take a look around and remember how to take photographs. I barely touched my DSLR all fall, and I have a fairly new macro lens that I wanted to get accustomed to, so I kitted up, intentionally leaving my zoom at home, and went out to see Qatar very close up.

I took along my iphone for back-up, grabbing touristy shots with Hipstamatic. I was told that Al Jemail had been fixed up to film a movie there, and there were parts in better repair than others.

Sadly, I took a lot of photos of garbage, since that was mostly what I could see from very close up. The beach is entirely covered, along with most of the ruins.

Still, it was good to see a more traditional village in pretty good repair, as it gives me a better idea of what the ruins we are digging up looked like a century ago. Oh! And I also found a fishing lure! The survey team has taken to collecting these so I’m glad to contribute.

In tiger stripes, of course!

Field Archaeology and the Daily Round

In the desert, sitting against a ruined wall, wind ripping through my context sheets, salty sand on my lips, skinned knuckles and bruised knees, I feel like myself again. It’s easy to slip into a comfortable routine on site–photograph, record, draw, excavate, repeat. After academic archaeology it is a relief to be able to excavate with a team of professionals, doing good work with other experienced archaeologists using a sane recording system. So the dance continues, a set of comfortable gestures that make sense–photograph, record, draw, excavate, repeat.

There is a breakfast break, when everyone comes up from their scattered excavation sites and eats whatever the Syrian restaurant 40km away brings us. People have their preferences and discussion of this day’s “pizza” (khubz and cheese or spices or tomatoes) or that day’s falafel is ongoing. I usually prefer to eat by the side of my trench, but the communality is nice, and we hear about it if anyone has any nice finds or if anything interesting has happened. The night’s plans are discussed and complaints about the weather are lodged.

After work we drive back to our flats, unpack the truck, then clean up for lunch. Lunch is from the same restaurant, and also variable. The afternoon is free for us to do as we like, and we sometimes go to a local pitch to play soccer, or run on the beach, or ride bicycles around the small town of Shamal. I have been trying to work on my dissertation with mixed success, so I usually try to write in the afternoons. These afternoons are interminable, and I always think it is much later than it really is.

The evening call to prayer comes and the house gets chilly. We’re usually still full from lunch, but we occasionally cook a little something, watch a movie, then go to bed. Rise again the next day.

The geometrical puzzle of complex, architectural archaeology sustains me, but the body grows tired and worn out. Most of the archaeologists have been here a while already–this week marks their half-way point–and it shows. They’re tired, introspective, the usual distractions running thin. I try not to be too annoyingly excited by being here, excavating again, doing what I like and what I’m best at. I’m sure the sand and wind and sun will wear me down soon enough, but for now I’m relishing being back in the field, scratching away at the dirt and rocks to find meaning in the past.

Backfilling at Zubarah

Piles of sand, rocks, and road debris line the road to Shamal. The
lines on the road wander around off into the margins and into large
concrete barriers. The country is building an 8-lane highway from Doha
to Shamal that will eventually connect to the longest bridge in the
world, a bridge that will connect Qatar to Bahrain. Massive
construction projects are a constant theme.

There’s a split in the road before Shamal, with a left turn that goes
off to Zubarah, a desert fort and pearling town where most of the team
is spending their days. We have the option of working Saturdays to
save up time to take a holiday, so I went out with a couple of the
archaeologists that have been here a while to do a little site
maintenance work.

We backfilled a few large trenches–backfilling, for
the uninitiated, is filling in the holes you’ve made in the
archaeology with dirt that you’ve just taken out of these holes. We do
it to preserve the surrounding dirt matrix and for health and
safety–nothing much gets a local farmer more agitated than their cows
falling down in a hole that you’ve left open. Or camels, as the case
may be. Anyway, me and Alistair supervised a couple dozen workmen
shoveling wheelbarrows and dumping them into the trench. And by
supervising, I mean shoveling next to them and haranguing them in
Arabic and English and in this case, Nepali. Most of our workmen are
from SE Asia or Africa. Qataris are generally taken care of by the
state and don’t need our archaeology riyals. All of the dirty work in
this country is done by immigrants, including pesky British,
Americans, and Danes who dig up their history.

Regardless, it was really good working with workmen again. They’re
generally ridiculously overeducated–there’s an oil Engineer from
Eritrea on the team with 2 degrees–and learn quickly and are deeply
capable. We joke around in pidgin, with one guy coming in with a new
“gold” watch and everyone constantly asking him the time. Working hard
and working with your hands generally breeds a kind of camaraderie
that crosses cultures in minutes. They got over the weirdo white
American girl with the tattoos pretty fast, though who knows what they
were actually saying. At Dhiban I learned that the guys that were nice
to me were also saying that I was a drug addict, so it’s always hard
to say.

We finished filling in the trench in near record time so we moved over
to help another team of archaeologists, working a couple of kilometers
away. I might not have mentioned, but Zubarah is enormous–the site
photographer has to bicycle between different areas being excavated. I
was flagging a bit, so I helped sort rocks out from the backdirt pile
and used them to fortify the wall around the spoil. At the end of the
day I was tired, but enormously satisfied. It’s been ages since I’ve
done a good day’s work outside.

So I mentioned the split in the road before Shamal–to the right is
Fuwairit, a site that Dan and I will be surveying in the next couple
of weeks. It’s a lovely site, located right on the beach, next to a
Mangrove copse and a bunch of rock art and Iron Age cairns. The site
is also a historic pearling town, but it’s being destroyed by people
who use the beach as site to test out their 4-wheel drive. It will be
nice, but maybe a little lonely, after our crew of 70 workmen and
impromptu language lessons over a shovel.

Qatar – First Impressions

The redeye from London was brutal–8:30PM to 6:00AM, with a 3 hour loss, so it was really like arriving on the dusty tarmac in Doha at 3:00AM. I slept for about half of the 6 hour flight, thinking that I was getting pretty good at these overnight flights after a few dozen transatlantic ventures. Not so much.

Luckily I was booked into the Gloria hotel in Doha, a fancy (for me, but not for Doha!) 4-star hotel with king-sized beds and flat screen TVs. Archaeology is odd–you meet kings, stay in fancy hotels, and get invited to crazy rich-kid parties, but you also stay in the crappiest hovels, eat the worst food, and get shot at occasionally. It’s not really a dichotomy as much as just miscellaneous.

Doha is like an uber-Dallas in the 1980s–you can’t walk anywhere, everything is under construction and everyone is oil-rich. It’s like living inside of a mall. Even the souk is very clean and tidy and nobody tries to sell you anything. There’s a store where you can buy hawks to hunt with and they’re all lined up in a row, hooded, but still twitchy. I needed a towel and a plumb bob and a couple of other things, but was too spooked by the tidiness to actually purchase anything.

The rental car hadn’t arrived by the second day, so I went to the new Modern art museum (incredible exhibition!) and to the Islamic art museum. Both were amazingly presented–one of the directors here told me that there is more non-reflective glass in the Islamic art museum than anywhere else in the world. That, indeed, some of the display cases are worth far more than the artifacts contained within. I found that mostly believable, but there is a huge amount of bling in the museum in the form of ruby-encrusted falcons and the like.

I made it out to site the next day, and started working, but it has been a bit slow because we lack the proper equipment. Hopefully we’ll get it sorted out in the next few days and I’ll give a proper (though necessarily vague) update about the archaeology out here.