Monthly Archives: December 2012

Neolithic Water Wells, Laser Scanning & Open Access Archaeology


There’s a lovely new article about Neolithic water wells at PLOS:

The article discusses the timber-framed wells dating to over 7,000 years ago, claiming that “the first farmers were also the first carpenters.” The preservation in these wells is fantastic, and images of the whole ears of einkorn (early wheat) accompany the article.

Other interesting points from the article include the fact that they block-lifted the wells in order to excavate them in a controlled environment. One of the blocks weighed 70 tons! Block-lifting involves cutting around the targeted feature or artifact and taking the whole thing with you, including the surrounding dirt. Archaeologists often wish they could just block lift things and take them away, though the process can destroy the context around the artifact being block-lifted, as in the case of the paintings cut off the walls at Catalhoyuk. In the case of a well, this process can be performed safely, assuming that the well does not cut through earlier stratigraphy.

Once in the lab, the team laser-scanned damn near everything, as far as I can tell. This is productively shown in the detail recorded for the timbers, and the ability to show the adze work and fitting for the timbers. I am curious about the time differential–how many hours did it take for the laser-scanning team to process and manipulate the imagery versus how long would it have taken for an archaeological illustrator to do the same? I am still not sold on photogrammetry and laser scanning as a substitute for drawing, especially as drawing archaeology is an aid in understanding the archaeology as much as recording, but this article is a fantastic argument for using laser scanning to record and reconstruct timbers. Additionally, timbers are difficult for archaeologists–they’re rarely in good shape and once you take them out of the ground it is a race to record and conserve them before they disintegrate before your eyes.

Finally, the team uses dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) to corollate the dating of the well, but also to determine that the trees used to construct the well originated from at least 46 mature oak trees that felled at “just above breast height”, then “split in half with wooden wedges that were hammered in using wooden mauls” and then worked into their final length with adzes and burning.

Fantastic detail, solid methodology and well presented in an open access journal–this small article about Neolithic wells gives me hope for archaeological publishing!*

*Though PLOS certainly could make it easier to embed and share article images. I had to download and re-size and re-upload to make this work out.

“Don’t put this on your blog.”

I’m delighted to contribute to Sara Gonzalez and Darren Modzelewski’s WAC-7 session: Activist Archaeology: Connecting the Academic with the Personal with the following paper:

“Don’t put this on your blog.” – An online, activist #archaeology

The current prominence of social media enables archaeologists to broadcast their personal and professional lives online. Updating a blog, using twitter, and commenting on message boards in a professional role can give the online public unprecedented access to archaeologists, bringing forth the best aspects of public intellectualism. Yet the practice is not without considerable detractions and many academic and professional archaeologists do not have the time, lack the technical knowledge, or are simply not trained to engage with the public in a legible manner. Adding a personal dimension to an online presence can be risky for a professional career, yet removing yourself from your discussions of archaeology is disingenuous, especially while writing for the public. Additionally, there are often prohibitions regarding public discussion of archaeological work imposed by the government, the excavation staff, or the indigenous stakeholders and community members involved with the site. Given the complications involved, a meaningful, political social media archaeological outreach schema can be difficult to attain. In this paper, I discuss my experiences “living out loud” and doing online archaeological outreach, including ten years of personal, political, archaeological blogging.

This is the original abstract for the paper–I had to cut it substantially to fit in the program. There were several other WAC sessions that I really wanted to participate in, but I will be organizing some other aspects of social media outreach during the conference so I had to limit my commitments to just this one session. Additionally, I really wanted to get to the SHA this year, but I couldn’t schedule them both and still work here in Qatar.

Finally, there is an initiative to present WAC online, using crowdfunding. Please direct all questions regarding this effort to the project creators, as listed on the webpage:

Dissertation Writing & Crossfit

You know, if you’re just bookish, there’s a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical.  – Norman Mailer

My dissertation is still too big and too recent for me to formulate many thoughts on the entirety of it. Honestly, the last two years have been reduced to a montage of travel, writing, working, and stress. Still, I found myself at several stages becoming currently-nostalgic–there’s probably a perfectly good Turkish or Russian word for it–but recognizing that what I had going was a rare and good thing. During the hardest writing I was mostly in seclusion, leaving the house to work out in the mornings and then writing for 10-12 hours. That was it. A life of writing, pared to the bone. It was an extraordinary several months, bought and paid for by working in Qatar so I would not have to write while I was teaching or working. It was an unbelievable luxury to be able to concentrate on this work and it suddenly made sense to me why students with a lot of funding and no teaching got so much done!

My deeply regimented schedule was punctuated by regular attendance at Berkeley Crossfit. I’ve gotten fat and skinny over the years, usually depending on how much I was fed on excavations and whatnot. I’ve tried bootcamp, which was fun, but not hard enough, especially after summers of shoveling over my head and ridiculous hiking expeditions in the desert. P90x, the republican exercise regime of choice (!) got me through a lot of last year, when being in the field mostly meant pushing buttons on a total station or filling out paperwork as I watched workmen. There was still a whole lot of cheese and chocolate.

Last April I started Crossfit. It was impossible. I was addicted immediately. Starting the program I felt inept, unfit, pathetic–I had to modify all of the workouts heavily. I thought I was pretty strong, but Crossfit emphasizes a lot of Olympic weightlifting and “pretty strong” very quickly becomes measurable in not-as-many-as-I-thought pounds. Still, I had a challenge each morning to conquer and after doing the impossible, dissertation writing just wasn’t that scary. I was also too exhausted to do anything else. I sat and wrote.

I kept going to Crossfit. I watched my deadlift climb, and started achieving minor goals. I started doing banded pull-ups with the very strongest (easiest) band, now I’m able to do unassisted pull-ups. I couldn’t even get up on the wall to do a handstand before; today I did 100 hand stand push-ups. The same week my dissertation was due, I hit a 200 pound deadlift. My lift weights are fairly modest, but I’m proud of them. I am still consistently humbled by Crossfit–doing long L-sits or muscle-ups still seems a long way away. The work-outs also are varied enough that one day I was the fastest in the class, the next day, the slowest.

Most of all, I was able to be a part of a community that was outside of academia (though there were quite a few PhDs hanging around) and that supported my goals every day. I was never really a “jock” in high school, but I deeply enjoyed my fellow participants in the life of the body, which helped so much in my life of the mind. Now that I’m in Qatar, without this community and the gym, I miss it more than anything.

So, my advice to people who want to finish their dissertation or write a book is twofold: 1) write 1,000 words a day. It may take you two hours or ten. 2) do the impossible every day. Join a Crossfit gym.

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.