The Virtual World of Çatalhöyük (Turkey): Okapi Island in Second Life

This is the talk that Ruth and I are giving this Wednesday here in the department.  It will mostly be an overview with some machinima added in and bits from my Archaeologies paper.

If you happen to be in the Bay Area, come and bring your lunch!

Is this your archaeological deposit? purports to be the product of a person’s hobby–buying lost luggage from the airlines, photographing the contents, and putting the photos online.  At first I was suspicious–the photos haven’t changed since 2009, the design work is really clean and the domain name is registered through an anonymizing proxy.  But there’s an interview with the creator, Luna Laboo on the Examiner that implies that these are not just the products of a design thesis.  While she compares her collection to a case of butterflies, I’m more inclined to think of them as an intact cache, an archaeological deposit.  Archaeologists love caches because they contain objects that were intended to be grouped together by the person who buried them so there is a coherence that we do not normally see in the archaeological record.  Whether we can interpret the meaning behind the intentional deposition of such objects is another matter entirely, of course.  Sometimes these caches are attributed to ritual activity; the person burying the objects had no intention of coming back for the objects.  But occasionally we find caches of tools, weapons, or coins that seem as though the person would be coming back for them–but never quite made it.

These suitcases are a bit like the latter, small assemblages of items that were gathered together for a specific purpose, only to be abandoned later on for whatever reason.  Looking at the clothes you might glean a few facts from the assemblage.  The suitcase above probably belonged to a teenaged girl who had gone on a trip to the beach.

These contemporary assemblages have always been of interest to me–I have a small set on Flickr of the boxes I would find around Berkeley full of the left-overs of garage sales that explores the same concept.  I’d love to do a more formal study of these contemporary assemblages (one of my advisors has a particularly nice collection of abandoned photo packets from an old lab) but that would probably be another dissertation or two.  Anyone know of contemporary archaeologists doing similar projects? I want to hear about them!

Where is Single Context Archaeology?

When I first walked onto site at Çatalhöyük in 2006, I felt pretty confident of my excavation abilities.  While I wasn’t an old field hand, I had more excavation experience than most grad students and had worked as a professional archaeologist as well.  To my great chagrin, I found out that I knew worse than nothing, in fact, I had to unlearn almost everything I knew about excavation and restart from scratch.

This was my first exposure to single context recording.  Most archaeologists in the Americas have never heard of such a thing, and even if they have, they have no idea what it actually means or how to do it.  Single context recording was in the 1970s in the UK, in part by Ed Harris, the man who gave us the Harris Matrix–a way to represent archaeological relationships in 2-D.  For a more detailed description of what single context recording is, there’s no better place to start than the MoLAS archaeological site manual. While there has been some discussion of its limitations in envisioning archaeology (and comparisons to a kind of mechanization/industrialist capitalization strategy), it both empowers individual archaeologists to form their own interpretations of the stratigraphy (contra the box/baulk method where a supervisor comes every once in a while to inspect the section that was excavated by the students or workmen) and provides a detailed plan view of the archaeology.

After learning single context recording, it was often difficult to see some of the architecture being excavated by Americanist archaeologists in squares or trenches.  The most heinous is generally the Mesoamerican houses and temple complexes that have been taken to pixel-bits with squares all at different phases. It is generally taboo to criticize excavation strategy, but it is sad to hear these archaeologists describe their finds and samples taken from these insecure contexts.  True, money is often an issue, but if you cannot excavate a site properly, perhaps it is better not to open the earth at all?

So, needless to say, I am a convert.  Single context recording is truly the gold standard of excavation methodology for architecture and complex stratigraphy and can be tough to learn.  A quote overheard by Dan Eddisford: “We no longer strictly promote single context recording on the site as it requires too great a level of professionalism from our staff.”  Would that a higher level of professionalism would be attainable by field hands who are chronically underpaid and underappreciated.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the real topic at hand: what sites use single context recording?  I know that many of my friends work in far-flung places, but I’d like to keep a record to counter the many criticisms I receive from my New World colleagues who insist that using single context would hopelessly marginalize their work.

Also: I found a use for Google Wave! Finally!  I found that you can create collaboratively edited maps! So if you have excavated anywhere in the world using single context recording, please make your mark here:

Single Context Google Wave Map

If you do not feel like messing around with Google Wave, then please leave me a comment on this post or email me at clmorgan at

“With archaeology we stake our claim to the future by finding our past”

I’m taking Ruth’s Archaeology and Film seminar this semester and our first assignment was:

A themed mini-project in one medium. Due 9 February. The common theme among all the projects will be: “With archaeology we stake our claim to the future by finding our past”. You can choose any medium that we are discussing in this course: photograph, photographic collage, video clip, montage of videoclips, line drawing, audio clip, podcast, videocast etc.. You should elaborate your medium by a textual caption in which you say why you chose this medium and why you think it expresses the theme.

For my first medium, I chose photography.  When I first posted about the decomissioned street cars in Oakland I hadn’t noticed this yet–it’s the key route symbol for Grand Avenue painted on the fence in my back yard.  Someone before me had made the same connection to the place they live, and memorialized it in a semi-private place–the wooden fence that surrounds the yard behind my apartments.  The yard was partially why I rented the place; it’s a nice little oasis from the somewhat bleak concrete and asphalt landscape outside my front door.

I chose to take a photograph of the back fence during the rainy pre-dawn hours and with a flash, so that it would look as obscured as when I first discovered it, an artifact, a relic, a sign pointing not necessarily to the old key route system, but to a deeper knowledge of Oakland.  I tweaked the settings in Lightroom so that the red paint was the only color and the rest was desaturated by the dark.

Knowing what my apartment, my street, my city looked like in the not-so-distant past is an important part of being an archaeologist to me.  It isn’t a profession as much as it is a mode of being, experiencing, seeing–a deep curiosity about the surrounding landscape.  This, in my opinion, is the most important thing that archaeologists can share with the future.

So, anyway, I’m leading the discussion about photography today in class and we are reading:

Sara Perry’s Fractured Media

Yannis Hamilakis et al – Postcards from the Edge of Time, Archaeology, Photography, Archaeo-Ethnography

Ashish Chadha’s Visions of discipline: Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the archaeological method in India

Michael Shanks’s Photography and Archaeology

A Mild Retraction – BBC’s 100 Objects

Over the weekend I was listening to more of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects and I feel that I have to take back some of my enthusiasm for the series.  The broad generalizations that the host makes about the artifacts and the conclusions drawn about modern and ancient humans are vapid and irresponsible in many cases.

The show is very much a propaganda piece for the British Museum–“oh, history is universal, human experience is universal”–not terribly surprising from a museum that is trying to hold onto their colonial spoils.

Besides all of that, the show can be deeply uninteresting and misses a lot of opportunities to talk about the context of the object–the materials involved, the excavation/accessioning process, etc.

I’ll listen to a few more before unsubscribing from the podcast altogether; I’m at 9 out of 100 objects, so a 10% sample may not be representative.

Anyone else have a listen and form an opinion?

William Kentridge’s “Monument”

William Kentridge’s Monument is a captivating short animated film about the unveiling of a statue dedicated to the South African work force.  This monument comes to life, and continues to suffer under the elite white regime.  This celebration and memorialization of past injustices fails in its goal to silence or normalize these injustices, as the statue breaks the cinematic third wall and its breathing fills our ears.

Archaeology Podcasts

Since I’ve moved I’ve never bothered to get internet at home, nor do I have a television or for that matter, a home phone.  This has helped tremendously with dissertation reading and writing, but has cut down significantly on my time to answer student emails, blog, build things on Second Life, etc.  So it should probably go as I enter my twilight years of graduate school and get ready to start applying for jobs.  I’ve compensated for my lack of home internet access in several ways, including downloading podcasts at school so I have something to listen to while I cook dinner and do the dishes. (Full disclosure: I also have a first generation iphone, so I’m not entirely offline, but am unlikely to respond to emails or browse while using it.)

The state of podcasting has changed since I last paid any attention to it several years ago.  There are now several archaeology-related podcasts, and two in particular that I quite like.

The Naked Archaeologist – I must admit to having a bit of bias for liking this podcast as it features my friend Thomas Birch as the “backyard archaeologist.” His interview with Adolf Fridriksson about predictive modeling of the location of viking graves is excellent listening.

BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects – As I was mentioning to a friend earlier, I don’t really like the BBC’s websites, as they frequently make my web browser crash.  Good thing I usually grab podcasts through iTunes, though I have some problems with that particular piece of software as well.  Anyway, this podcast is a wonderful series that features a particular object, then links that object to its context within the world.  Sometimes it can be a little overreaching, such as the latest podcast featuring Ken Den’s Sandal Label as an example of a model of power in ancient Egypt that “resonates uncannily throughout the world today.”


Okay, so I might still be a little stuck on shoes.

Photoshop for Archaeological Publication – Seeds

Part of our excavation strategy at Tall Dhiban is to “float” a sample of dirt that we excavate. So up on the site we collect about 30L of dirt out of the context we are currently digging up and send it to the lab house, where Alan (and company) diligently processes it through a flotation tank.  The flotation tank separates out what we call the light fraction and the heavy fraction–basically particulate matter that either floats or sinks, and tries to get rid of all of the dirt around it.  Then he sorts the heavy fraction (usually lots of rocks and small pot sherds) and looks at the light fraction under a microscope.  Then he identifies the different seeds and such (this is where I get a bit hazy–I’m not a paleobotanist, though I know the mechanics of it) and is able to talk about the paleoclimate, what people might have been eating, seasonality, that sort of thing.  He then takes microscopic photos of the more interesting bits and uses these photographs for publication.  I was asked to “clean up” these photographs for publication.

So all of this is a large introduction to a fairly basic blog post.  I have edited artifact photographs for publication before, but I upgraded from photoshop CS3 to CS4 this Fall and my settings were all wonky and I forgot some of the basics.  I’m blogging about it so that I can show folks what I do to clean up these photos and to get feedback on better ways.  Back when I posted about photo scales, Jason popped up and was able to give me much better scales that I use all the time.

So, anyway, here is one of the photos I started with:

Perfectly acceptable and lots of publications might use it as-is.  I quite like it as it shows the curve of the microscope and emphasizes the shape of the seed with the shadows.  But some of that detail isn’t as pertinent in black and white publication, so let’s simplify it.

I usually begin by making another duplicate layer in photoshop so that I have a back-up, something I can use for reference later on. Then I create two new transparent layers — one for the background that I “fill” with white, and another that I’ll use to paste the seed onto after I cut it out from the photo.

I tried a couple of different ways to erase the background–people have different preferences in this respect.  I usually just rely on the pen tool to trace around the object, moving the points closer in to the object or further away.  People have success with the masking tools in photoshop as well, but I don’t feel like I can control the paintbrush quite as well as the pen tool.

Once you extract the image with the pen tool, you can paste it on one of the transparent layers.  Then I like to hide the original background images so that I can see how well I did.  This seed was a bit hard because the aperture made the edges fuzzy and hard to disambiguate from the shadows.

But, you say, what about the scale?! Yes, archaeological photographs have scales in them so that you know that this seed is not the size of a bowling ball.

I like to make digital scales, and they’re pretty easy–either have some ready made and scale them into the photo, or quick-make them.  Either way it’s about the same about of time, unless you do something fancy.  I usually just make them from the reference image out of a couple of filled rectangle boxes and the font tool.

So the digital scale is just a transparent layer on top of the original image and I can move it around however I like.  I was thinking about omitting the “1” in front of the millimeter as it seems obvious.

I also left in most of the screen on this shot so you can see all the different layers.  I usually merge the scale layers together so I can move it around more easily.

The final step is filling one of the background layers with white, then making the original photographs invisible, saving a photoshop copy (with layers) if I want to mess with it later, then collapsing the layers into a tif file.  This can be cropped (if need be) and send to the publisher:

The background erase on this one is a little wonky, but it gets the job done. I also didn’t adjust the light levels or anything on the seed itself because I wasn’t sure what would be the most helpful to the other paleobots looking at this thing. Some people like to add drop shadows, but I didn’t bother. It occurs to me that I have no training in microscope photography of any kind, how disturbing! I’ll have to remedy that.

Anyway, after you do a few dozen of artifact photo fix-ups (it’s even worse when you have to put multiple artifacts into one figure that have been taken at different scales and with different backgrounds) you begin to understand the value of taking a good shot with a good scale and nice light.  I recently saw a photo of an artifact on a blue towel–the horror.

Anyway, I’d be happy to hear any tips from people who have more experience in the matter and are willing to share!

My apologies if this was partially inarticulate–I just lectured on Ethnography, Hitchcock & film and Berger/Sontag/Barthes for three hours and I’m feeling a bit wiped out!

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