Tag Archives: Archaeology

Painting the Visual Vocabulary of Mesoamerican Archaeology

Adela Breton was apparently “a nuisance” to the men who couldn’t quite figure out what to do with a 50-year-old single woman in Mexico in 1900. Happily, Trowelblazers worked up a short profile on this fantastic artist and scholar and followed up their profile with this tweet:

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I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing something or have other heavy head-work to do, I like to browse through digital museum archives when I need to take a break. Maybe it’s just me. But it paid off big time.

The Breton Collection has 1301 entries, maybe 1/5 of these entries have images online. I can only imagine what else is in their storeroom, because the images that they have online are a glorious feast of archaeological visualization.

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Adela Breton is probably one of the most gifted archaeological illustrators that I’ve ever seen.

You see, I was working on a co-authored piece with Holly Wright on analog vs. digital archaeological field illustration, and so going through this collection was even more exciting. Breton didn’t just draw loooovely watercolors of ruins though…her works covered several of the other visual outputs of archaeology.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit. (Bristol Museums)

This hachured plan of an archaeological site would be familiar to any landscape archaeologist, and I love imagining Breton tromping across this mountainside in her Victorian lady-boots, sketchbook in hand, gnawing a pencil, thinking about contours, the relative distances between buildings, and the direction of slope beneath her feet.

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museum)

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museums)

Breton painted artifacts with such grace that you feel like you can touch their smooth curves. Can you see the chip in the rim of the animal pot?

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

She also drew more pottery in ways that are more familiar to archaeological illustrators, not quite as painterly, a focus on hue and shape. I love that this painting appears to be on the back of stationery from the Palace Hotel.

In addition to the archaeological illustrations, Breton drew ethnographic sketches, geological formations, and…earthquakes?

San Francisco Earthquake of  April 1892, 58 seconds.

San Francisco Earthquake of April 1892, 58 seconds.

Breton put pen to paper during a massive earthquake, even indicating north on the page! The first seismograph wouldn’t even make it to America until 1897. I flagged it up to Karen Holmberg & Elizabeth Angell, both of whom do exciting work on anthropology and natural disasters and can add much more nuance to the analysis of such an incredible visual artifact.

Thank you to Bristol Museums who have kept & digitized this glorious collection! Support your local (and digi-local) museums!

 

Springtime in Arabia

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Qatar, 2011.

In the desert there is a perfect proportion of dun sand and blue; a Rothko division between land and sky that horizontally bisects the lens. I can’t help but pop the colors on my photos of the desert, it is a magical saturation of yellow-orange and blue abused by movie directors into banality. Yellow! Blue! Yellow/Blue! By mid-March the colors are slowly bleeding into bright white, the desert is overexposed, blurring into shimmering haze.

I arrived in Qatar during a rare, late series of thunderstorms that pelted perfect circles into the dust on our windshields. I delighted in the lightning and rolling thunder–I had missed weather–and the odd green dusting left on the desert by the uncommon wet. It rumpled up the landscape of Qatar, coaxing the small creatures out and painting new eddies and rivulets in the sand. I realized that I think of Qatar very much like I think of a crisply folded white piece of paper, sharp, unsparing, a bit clinical, the knife-crease of a freshly starched thawb. But everything is a bit sandier after the rain, and it was nice.

The Origins of Doha project started excavations at Fuwairit this year, and I was excited to go back, after surveying the kilometer-long site in 2011. I wrote about the site then, and it’s funny to see that I discuss the same things–unusual rain, being at home in the desert. My role has shifted from excavation to handling digital media and outreach. I’ll be releasing several videos about the project shortly.

After backfilling the trenches on the beach, we moved on to Oman, where Dan is doing his PhD work. Where Qatar is stark and bright, Oman is a piece of colorful velvet left out in the sun. Hot, hot, slightly faded on the surface, but full of plush depth and texture when you part it with your fingers. I’m not sure it is entirely productive to have a synesthetic approach to the feel of entire countries, but I guess it at least breaks up the great, homogenous other of Arabia.

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Oman return/return to Oman.

Where Qatar was archaeology on a beach next to a mangrove, in Oman we’ve been walking through the dry wadis, finding purplish squared rocks in lines in the ground perched on the sides. I fell in love with such a site last year on our grand tour of all things Bronze Age and otherwise oldish, but tried to stamp it out, as I thought there was little chance of us doing more there. But we went back there this year, and there are plans for more work, and I’m trying to keep it cool and detached when all I want is to dive in with with both hands. A feverish, adolescent oh-god-oh-god-should-I-text-him sort of anticipatory glee that is truly improper when it comes to scatterings of 4,000 year old pottery in the desert. I guess I’d be more of a scientist if I didn’t have such a great love for this stuff.

I’ll be back in England next week, where the creep of spring doesn’t come in bold swashes of Hollywood color, but pushes small flowers into the air; the leaden gray skies breaking up into miscellaneous and slightly whimsical feather-clouds. In the meantime, I’m trying to wrap the desert around me, keep it close, an immaculate yellow/blue geometry cross-cutting my mind.

The Archaeology of Far Cry Primal

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The professors were in their places, the Twitch stream went live, and Micheál Butler, one of our MA students in Mesolithic Studies started the count-down to 10,000 BC. I am always excited when experimental play sessions come together, as it’s rare to find the right combination of archaeological and technical expertise and the will to bring it all together. We had Professors Nicky Milner (Mesolithic expert, director of the fab Star Carr excavation) and Matthew Collins (encyclopedic knowledge of all things cutting edge in archaeological science) discussing…a video game.

It was a bit quiet at first–I hadn’t heavily promoted the event as I was not sure it was going to work and I was completely frantic at the end of the term with teaching and other responsibilities, but it did, and now Nicky and Matthew were discussing the size of the cowrie shells worn by the characters, hunting in the Mesolithic, saber tooth tigers…and then the questions from the audience started streaming in.

How common was the consumption of raw meat and fat during this period? Did early humans not get sick with parasites and disease often?

Cowrie shell wrist wraps. Accurate, appropriate, fashion-forward?

How often did early humans venture out at night to hunt and scavenge? Further, did early humans operate on the same night/day cycle as we do?

Great questions! Nicky and Matthew were able to bring several archaeological examples into the conversation. I was able to chime in a bit about representation and video gaming in general. You can watch the play-through and conversation here:

Part One:

Part Two:

I am particularly appreciative of this, given that I’ve been dealing with and thinking about video games & archaeology for almost ten years (Tomb Raider & Embodiment, Tomb Raider & Angkor WatMy Game Biography, Video Game Cartography, Avatars I, II, Gone Home, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and oh god so much Second Life). It has been fantastic to see initiatives like the Value Project and Play the Past–and check out Tara Copplestone’s blog on our Far Cry playthrough, where she thoughtfully describes the relationship (or lack thereof) between academic archaeology and video game makers and players.

Further, I appreciate my colleagues here at York for possessing a quality that I’ve previously described as “being game.” That is, being open to experiences of all kinds, and importantly, letting this allow you to see your archaeology in new and interesting ways. It’s my #1 most important trait for people I collaborate with, and can be extremely rare.

So here’s to more play-throughs, gaming, and elbowing out a bit of room for fun in archaeology.

Feminism & Scholarly Piracy: A Love Note

Dear Feminist Archaeologists,

Not enough of your writing is freely available online. I feel like a bit of a jerk for pointing this out, but it’s becoming a real problem. I know, you fought like hell for your education, your academic position, and your publications where you finally risked all of these things to write about feminism and archaeology. And now you are being asked to give it away for free? Yeah, I know. I feel the same way when I cross my little Creative Commons/Open Source/Open Content fingers and publish with one of the Big Bads in hope of having a “real job” someday. How dare I ask you to make knowledge free when you’ve paid every single personal price just to get to the point where you can write something meaningful, good, true, and, astonishingly, get it into print?

But you are rapidly becoming invisible. These classics, these gems of texts that I hold closest to my heart are often buried in edited volumes–Susan Kus’ Ideas are like burgeoning grains on a young rice stalk: Some ideas on theory in anthropological archaeology, is a gray, dead non-link. The horrible smudged photocopy I read when I was an undergraduate lit my brain on fire! Sometimes you can get pieces of these classics through Google books, like Julia Hendon’s Feminist Perspectives and the Teaching of Archaeology: Implications from the Inadvertent Ethnography of the Classroom, but only pieces, and it has a low citation score. This is crap. This is Not Right.

Perhaps playing into the self-promotion game is too masculinist–a lot of the trowelblazing feminists of the 1980s and 1990s are retiring, have better things to do, and don’t seem to engage with the ragged glory of struggling for name recognition in our freakish neoliberal academic rat race. Worse yet, a lot of these authors found refuge in edited volumes, where their ideas found traction amongst like-minded authors and weren’t batted away by journal gatekeepers who did not find value in feminist ideas in archaeology. Yet the mid-90s edited volume is a particular publication black hole–too recent to escape copyright policing, and too old to be pirated and passed around in pdf.

So I submit to you, our finest doyennes of feminist archaeology, put your publications online. Put them in as many places as you can. Sow & germinate widely. I jumped for joy when I saw Diane Gifford Gonzalez’s You can hide, but you can’t run: representation of women’s work in illustrations of paleolithic life was available. Hilarious! Divine!

We need your archive. It is not enough to be tucked away on a shelf any longer. There is no reward for the intrepid researcher to unearth your lovely writing–peer reviewers are unlikely to point out the omission. Because the reviewers haven’t read it. They don’t even know it exists. There is so much that is more readily available and it’s damned unfair that you are disappearing in the deluge. Please, it’s too important.

Love & all my esteem,

Colleen

Most Read Public Archaeology Article in 2015

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I’m chuffed to bits that my article Archaeology and the Moving Image (Open Access in Public Archaeology!) made the “most read of 2015” list.

It’s a fairly massive article derived from my thesis about movies made by archaeologists. It includes social media metrics, “punk video” and the panopticon. What’s not to like?

Here’s the abstract:

Archaeological filmmaking is a relatively under-examined subject in academic literature. As the technology for creating, editing, and distributing video becomes increasingly available, it is important to understand the broader context of archaeological filmmaking; from television documentaries to footage shot as an additional method of recording to the informal ‘home videos’ in archaeology. The history of filmmaking in archaeology follows innovations within archaeological practice as well as the availability and affordability of technology. While there have been extensive analyses of movies and television shows about archaeological subjects, the topic of archaeological film has been characterized by reactions to these outside perspectives, rather than examinations of footage created by archaeologists. This can be understood to fall within several filmic genres, including expository, direct testimonial, impressionistic, and phenomenological films, each with their own purpose and expressive qualities. Footage taken on site can also be perceived as a form of surveillance, and can modify behaviour as a form of panopticon. Consequently, there are considerations regarding audience, distribution, and methods for evaluation, as these films are increasingly available on social media platforms. This paper explores the broad context for archaeological filmmaking and considers potential futures for the moving image in archaeology.

The Beautiful Bones: Skeletons as Visual Shorthand for Archaeology

3D Printed Skull on Wikimedia.

3D Printed (anonymous?) Skull on Wikimedia.

WARNING, THIS POST FEATURES HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS
though you probably won’t mind!

Bones lead. Skeletons attract headlines, and have been displayed prominently in many, if not most Western (and some Eastern, Southern, and Northern) institutions, both religious and secular, for a very long time. The material remains of people have been used as icons, as reminders of past family members, for offerings, for decoration, for medicinal purposes, and shunned entirely, to never be seen by the living again. Pretty much any way you can think of, and many ways I’m sure you can’t, human skeletons have played a part in the lives of the living.

Yet this was before the internet. You see, the way human remains were treated before was contextual, was defined within the limits of a locality or culture. This started to go to pieces with, well, colonialism, archaeology and museums and has been wildly exacerbated with the widespread availability of images on the internet. Archaeologists have only just started to come to terms with when and where and why it may be appropriate to share images of skeletal remains on the internet.

While dealing with some human remains housed in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley in 2009, Alexis Boutin and I crafted an ethics statement on the display and remediation of artifacts and human remains in association with the project. As we drafted it, I cast around for similar such statements, and found that not even the International Visual Studies Association had an ethics statement on visual media. I was happy that my queries were cited as a motivating force for the IVSA to come up with their own statement.

I’m delighted to see that this has been picked up in more recent years by Howard Williams and Alison Atkin in their publication in Internet Archaeology, by an excellent session at WAC organized by Brenna Hassett and her colleagues: Digital Bioarchaeology: New Dimensions, New Methods, New Ethics and there have been some great discussions on the DigitalOsteo mailing list organized by Alison Atkin. The bioarchaeologists are bringing it!

It still comes up frequently though. A couple of weeks ago, I was extremely pleased to be an author on a joint publication, Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons, in Nature Communications. Skeletal remains were not used to illustrate the article in Nat Comms, but were used in the roll-out to the press. This photo ran in the Daily Mail, BBC, the International Business Times, and IFScience, among others:

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This is not my photo, but I’ve set up such shots before. I’ve told scientists to “lean in, get really close” to the object of their study. A young female researcher leans close to a skeleton of a young male “gladiator.” Her position as a boundary-crossing bioarchaeologist, one who can translate for the dead to the living is secure. (Zoe Crossland has a lot of great things to say about these boundary transgressions in her analyses of forensic literature.) The photo itself doesn’t really tell you anything about the research–it is not obvious that the skeleton was decapitated, or really much of anything except that there were scientists looking at bones.

Another one of the photos that ran:

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This one was in Phys.org and National Geographic, but wasn’t quite as popular. This is the more interesting photograph to archaeologists, as it shows the skeleton as the excavator fully revealed it, decapitation obvious, skeleton on its side. You can see that the grave cut has been excavated properly, and the grave is not cut by any other later graves. It is, in the words of one of my excavator friends who saw these photos, “beautifully excavated.”

It is fully revealed, the bones look mostly present (though some of the ribs and an arm are unaccounted for–possible truncation?) and the position of the skeleton is obvious. This photo, to a trained eye, conveys a certain kind of respect–the archaeologist took care in excavating this burial. The archaeologist who did so is well-trained and reflects well on the heritage entity in charge, York Archaeological Trust, who made sure that this excavation was undertaken with expertise. This photo makes the resulting analyses appear more legitimate.

While there is a certain amount of theater to setting up a truly lovely excavation shot, publications with photographs that show messy excavations, improperly excavated remains (like skeletons or artifacts on pedestals of dirt), or horrible health & safety conditions undermine the resulting data, making the entire enterprise suspect.

Still, that does not fully address the ethics of having these bones used in the popular media to illustrate a scientific article that was about ancient DNA. I wondered though, what would be better? An analysis of these skeletons has revealed how monumentally beat up they were during their lives. They had lots of healed injuries, some old, some more recent, a pair of manacles so tight that they would have caused horrible pain to the man before he died. Any illustrations of these men right before their decapitations would have been fairly gruesome.

I brought this up on DigitalOsteo, asked about “fleshed” reconstructions vs. showing skeletal remains, and Sharon Clough pointed me toward this illustration by Mark Gridley:

Mark Gridley's Reconstruction of a Viking Burial Pit.

Mark Gridley’s Reconstruction of a Viking Burial Pit.

Would showing the violence of their last moments alive through a “fleshed” reconstruction of events instill more empathy, a better understanding of the lives of these men?

Finally, I think about the context of these skeletons. There are many communities who object to the display and depiction of the dead, who would give a full-throated denunciation of the remains of their ancestors being subjected to DNA sampling and extensive scientific study. But who cares about the Romans?

You can do pretty much anything to Romans. You can make them into cartoons, use them to sell anything from condoms to van insurance, anything goes.

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Trust this guy with your van!

Is it because the Romans are known as conquerers and colonizers? I’m far from a classical archaeologist or an art historian, but it isn’t too hard to find the Romans themselves depicting such brutality, such as this example from Trajan’s column:

Warrior holding the head of a decapitated Dacian by the hair. Charming!

Roman soldier holding the head of a decapitated Dacian by the hair. Charming!

Am I using the Roman depiction of conquered Dacian decapitation to justify using skeletons to illustrate archaeological research? Of course not. The complexities of using depictions of human remains in popular media is an unsolved and unsolvable problem. Bones lead. But selecting images for actual content and showing the research context of the burials while being sensitive to the past and present cultural implications is a worthy goal.

2015: Postdocs, New Jobs, Publications, and a Whole Lot of Travel

I’ve come to think that it’s mostly graduate students & professors who have time and headspace to blog. Postdocs? We mostly just hustle. Words erupt from my fingers, thousands, thousands of words all over the keyboard and into papers and grants and emails and I don’t really feel like I own any of the words anymore. They’re all words for other people. I posted on Savage Minds the other day and I remembered the luxury of my own words, arranged in a way that pleases me. I’d like to do that more often.

Scotland was real purty.

Scotland was real purty.

So what does a postdoc hustle entail, if there is no time for blogging? In 2015 I travelled to Seattle, Colorado, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Qatar, Oman, San Francisco, Greece, Australia, New York, Scotland, and Germany.  I gave one keynote, three invited lectures, organized a conference, organized two sessions, chaired other two sessions, and presented eight papers. I published four articles and have five more in press. I got three postdocs and turned down two of them. Oh and we moved house with two days notice.

After my dream-like EUROTAST Marie Curie came to a close, I started up a slightly strange dual position at the University of York, a Centre for Digital Heritage postdoc and teaching, and that’s where I am now.

So what has all that gotten me? It’s hard to tell. My CV is hell on wheels, I feel pretty good about that. I’m tied down with teaching these days, but that’s okay. The students at York are great, the classes are small, and you feel like you can make a significant impact with teaching. I’d like to cultivate a bit more quality with my academic writing, aim higher with more polished publications. After attending all of the conferences last year (SAA, CAA, EAA, SHA, TAG-NYC, I get tired just thinking about it) I’m attending none this year. I’m spending one day a week getting together a Pretty Big Grant for my avatars project, saying “no” to a lot of stuff (sorry, I feel bad) and trying to keep my original goal for archaeology in mind: doing great research with people I like and respect. That, and learning how to use Unity. dammit.

But no lectureship/professorship. Yet. I’ve been assured that I don’t want one, but I’m stubborn. We’ll see what 2016 brings. #lifegoals, right?