Blogging Archaeology – The Carnival

I am honored to join several of my fellow archaeology bloggers at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Sacramento, where we will hear short, 5-10 minute presentations followed by questions and discussion regarding the use of this social medium within our profession. A lot has happened since I proposed this session last Fall, both in the world of anthropological blogging and the wider world of political regime change, highlighting the relevance of social media.

I have invited the session participants to answer a question each week regarding blogging archaeology, but I wanted to widen the conversation to folks who couldn’t make it to Sacramento this year, especially as I’m not sure that we’ll be able to broadcast the session in any way, given that the meetings lack internet access.

So it goes like this:

* Each Sunday evening (Qatar time!) I will post a question. If you would like to answer this question, please feel free to steal the banner above, and link back to this post.

* Please also email me at with a link to the post, just in case WordPress doesn’t notify me of your link.

* At the end of the week, I will summarize all of the post and add links so that folks can find them all in one place.

The carnival will run for four weeks. Answer as many or as few of the questions as you like, and feel free to propose questions of your own! The more people we hear from, the better! There are so many great archaeology blogs out there that don’t get enough readership, hopefully this will bring a few of them to light.

So, the question for this week:

The emergence of the short form, or blog entry, is becoming a popular way to transmit a wide range of archaeological knowledge. What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

Old Bones Paper Published

In September 2009, I gave a presentation at the UMAC conference when it was at Berkeley of a paper I wrote with three other authors. Sadly, the original paper was gutted and published in a much modified form. It was a good but painful lesson in academic politics, sharing, and open access. Most of the advances in digital outreach cited in the paper have been modified and a lot of the content had to be taken down.

If you are looking for peer-reviewed academic papers that cite blogs and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and Youtube for outreach in archaeology and disseminating museum collections, there you go. One of the most interesting parts of the paper, the ethics statement for the digital dissemination of human remains was cut, but it remains on the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project blog here. My query to the IVSA about ethics and visuality in regard to this project was quoted in the Visual Studies article about their new ethics statement, so it was a sort of end-around publication.

Anyway, I had big plans for the project, but ended up pretty much walking away from it. Not everyone thinks that museum collections that the public pay for should be shared with that public. Mind-boggling, but true. The rest of the team is still doing good work with the collection of Dilmun artifacts and human remains in the museum.

So, here’s the paper:

Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

It should go without saying as this is a single-author archaeology blog, but:

These views are my own and are probably not shared by my co-authors and should not reflect on them in any way.

Fuwairit, shots fired!

Cord and I started the day well; we were knocking out the rest of spot heights and picking up a few walls that we didn’t get during our general walkover. The initial survey of Fuwairit is pretty much finished and it is mostly piece work from here on out. While I was punching buttons I was listening to yet another Radio Lab episode–about Zoos–and the day was starting to get hot.

About a hundred meters to my east some Qatari guys got stuck in the wet sand on the beach and a few other cars came out to help them, until there were about 10 guys standing around, yelling. Another SUV came driving up along the road to the west of the site, and I assumed they were coming to help as well.

The road to the west has become a bit of an issue–yesterday we came out to site to discover some construction workers surveying along its length. The day before I had written a recommendation to fence and preserve the site and the road is inside the proposed fence line, running through some middens so we were pretty worried. Qatari construction seems like it happens in a blink of an eye (I’ve now seen several major highway overpasses completely finished in less than a month) and even if the road only skirts the site the associated construction around the road annihilates most things in a wide swath around it on both sides.

With this somewhere in the back of my mind, I continue surveying. The SUV starts swerving oddly, coming up to park on site, then turning around and zooming off. It does this several times, but I’m trying to concentrate on work, so I try not to pay them too much mind.

Suddenly, I pull the headphone from my ear–that was a shot. Or at least, I’m pretty sure, so I duck down and turn around to see what was going on. Another couple of shots, and the SUV is swerving around madly. I go to get Cordelia.

We watch them from afar for a moment, then venture back to the total station. Cord uses the scope to check them out and reports that they’re chasing down and killing the wildlife–the driver was leaning out of his window with a pistol. Soon he hits his target, jumps out of the SUV, holds up a bird and laughs. They zoom off and we go back to work. During the Zoo episode the Radiolab guys say something like, “When did our (read: white, western, urban) relationship to animals change from one of brutality to protection?” and I wondered why it made me so angry that these dudes were randomly shooting animals.

I was still turning it over in my mind when they came back, this time going into one of the big, walled-in cemeteries west of the site. It was where our little lilith owl lived and both Cord and I watched them as they stalked through the cemetery, dreading what was surely going to happen next. Thankfully, no shots were fired and the guys zoomed off again to harass some other small creatures.

The Qataris to our east finally got their truck out of the sand and I was suddenly struck by this odd sense of recognition–who knew that the hinterland of northern Qatar would be a lot like backwoods Texas?

(update: we went back later that evening for a site tour, then a fish/crab roast on the beach. On our way to the site we noticed our little owl, perched on the cemetery wall.  Alhamdulillah.)

Taking your levels.

“You do what?!”

We’d come across a photo of some American archaeologists (not the one above) taking depth measurements by using a nail, a line level, and a string and I was trying to explain why they were doing this.

“See, you take a nail, and you file a line on it, then you measure its the line’s height from the ground when you pound it in, then you tie a string to that filed line, then whenever you want to measure your unit…”

“Your what?”

“Uhhh, your sub-sectioned, arbitrarily dug context…you pull the string across….”

“What if your context is bigger than a meter wide?”

“You know that they dig in meter squares in America. Following the shape of the actual archaeology is unscientific.”


“Yeah. Anyway, so you pull your string across, making sure that the line level’s bubble is in the middle and then you measure to the depth of whatever you are digging, generally to see if your ‘unit’ is dug exactly to a 10 centimeter depth in each unit corner….”

“But what if the context that you are digging is sloped?”

“It’s usually ignored and picked up in the sections. Any finds are pedestaled to maintain these arbitrary levels.”

“Oh. So what happens if it rains or if your nail comes loose? How do you keep track of these randomly assigned heights across an entire site? You know we live in the 21st century, right?”

“Any decent finds are recorded with a total station. If you have one. And there’s someone who knows how to use it.”

“Why not just have an accurately surveyed datum and use a dumpy level?”

“Because whereas meter squares are ultra scientific, actually measuring anything accurately is not. And reducing levels is hard.  Math, y’know.”



The dumpy level. The guy holding the staff needs to straighten up a bit.

This conversation has been slightly modified from its original form and content. No American or British archaeologists were harmed in the making of this blog entry. Hopefully.

Fuwairit, Today.

Property marker on site.

Cricetinae -or- Shanti’s Hamsters

Hamster Bones by Gracezorz

After performing a series of increasingly annoying favors for me, my dear friend (and fellow UC Berkeley graduate student) asked for a favor in return–she wanted me to post about hamsters on my blog. Fair enough, but…I didn’t really know much about hamsters. I asked my favorite faunal analyst about hamsters in archaeology, their use as food, and their eventual domestication. No dice. So I went to the web.

Hamsters were very recently domesticated, in 1930, as research subjects in laboratories. (Apparently the ancestor of all these domesticated hamsters was captured in Aleppo, Syria and taken to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.) Indeed, most references that I could find were medical experiments (viagra cures jet lag in hamsters) or pet guides. Sadly, they’re not known as food species, like their fellow domesticates the Guinea pig, which played an important role in Andean cuisine. Apparently an enterprising vertebrate paleontologist, Björn Kurtén measured stoat and hamsters teeth found in Pleistocene sites in Hungary to measure climate change in the past. The reference is mostly notable for having the term “stoat oscillation” in it, which is purely unintentional, yet delightfully vivid imagery. (Incidentally, Kurtén also coined the term “paleofiction,” a genre that Jean Auel made famous. Also, it sounds like his Dance of the Tiger might be a good book for a prehistory in fiction class. hmmm.)

Not having access to the Berkeley library limits me in my research as well. I have pdfs of most of the books related to my research on my computer, but Approaches to faunal analysis in the Middle East is not one of them, sadly.

So, that’s about all I have to offer–a rambling trawl through library searches, online journals, and wikipedia. Now, at least, I know what the dorsal view of the hamster tongue looks like.


The thin, pocked strip of asphalt on the way to Fuwairit is unlined and informal, the edges disappearing into the desert in places. It’s flanked on the south side by a line of mundane electricity poles, and reminds me so much of county backroads in Texas that I’m momentarily confused when the camels and date palms come onto the horizon. The road dead-ends into a large concrete compound, and you can turn right into the little town south of the site, probably also called Fuwairit. We invariably turn left, passing a walled graveyard where we look for a little lilith owl that perches in the same spot every day. It’s a good day when she’s there–she doesn’t like the wind and rain.

It’s been unusually rainy in Qatar, and we’ve been chased from site more than once by winds that have nearly blown me off my little survey tell, and leaves my face red and stinging. Tuesday was nearly windless, and the silence was incredible. Two flocks of goats are shepherded by the site each morning and I could hear them coming from miles away. There was a donkey lowing somewhere over the horizon, and the occasional rooster crowing from the town of Fuwairit. The pace of work immediately picked up, and the amorphous sand dunes turned into geometry, rectangle compounds built next to each other, interior rooms and the occasional alleyway becoming clear under the big blue sky.

The sun bleaches out the sky by midday, leaving a gray, shiny haze hanging over the site. We leave the isolation of our respective ipods and chat about the site, or news, or nothing at all. I took a walk to the mangroves and the tide was incredibly high, gurgling and surging around the stems and crab holes and breaking a couple of meters from the edge of the site. The mangroves are an incredible relief to look at–you don’t realize how desert-blind you become after a while, everything washing to a series of light buff and dun-colored rocks–I briefly wondered if this was why so many Middle Eastern cities were built from unadorned, tannish concrete.

Today we packed up a few minutes early so we could drive by the wells we think are associated with the site. People at these coastal sites had to go inland for water, and the wells were precious resources, generally protected by small forts. Almost invariably, these wells occur where the land rises 6 meters above the sea, behind a dusty, sparkly sheet of sabkha and onto the rocky core of the Qatari peninsula. The area around the well had a patch of green grass, with tufts of the purplish scrub poking through. We walked to the well and checked out the associated pile of rocks that looked like it had been bulldozed several times.  As I walked back to the truck I looked more closely at the sparse grass–microscopic purple and yellow flowers were beginning to blossom, surrounded by the sand.

(some) iPhone Apps for Archaeologists Part II

Back in 2008 I was playing around with my iPhone at the Presidio and since then the number and range of applications has multiplied exponentially. I haven’t done a summary since then (and the purchase of my iPhone 4), and while I haven’t even begun to explore the vast range of possibilities, here are a few that I’ve noticed that seem somewhat useful.

I have been using Hipstamatic, Plastic Bullet, and Best Camera in various combinations for my walking-around, snappy photos where I either don’t have my DSLR handy or I don’t feel like the composition warrants a 10M RAW file. While I get a bit of abuse for overusing my iPhone camera, I found myself taking photos again after a long hiatus and I like the casual feel of these photos. I like playing with my iPhone camera apps so much that I’m showing a few photos that I’ve taken with them at the upcoming UC Berkeley TAG.

My iPhone costs a bundle to use overseas, so I’ve disabled my data plan and txt messages and I haven’t taken it off airplane mode since early December. (It’s been sooo nice, but that’s another topic entirely.) I still use it to pick up wireless and use Skype to call back home when I can. Not exactly archaeological, but absolutely essential–Moxie Marlinspike, anarchist sailor & hacker speaks truly, “the curse of traveling – where you end up knowing and loving people in many different places and are always missing someone or something somewhere.” (If you haven’t watched Hold Fast yet, do it ASAP! But don’t blame me for any ensuing wanderlust.)

I just downloaded Theodolite Free, which has mixed reviews but looks interesting. I can spot check it against the EDM, so that should be interesting–if I decide to get a sim card in the iPhone that will work in Qatar. It’s great for checking your pesky azimuth and bearing while taking photographs.

Finally, the application(s) that inspired this post: Qibla direction applications. There’s a structure on site that we think might be the town mosque, and it appears to be out of alignment with the rest of the structures, and it is the western-most building–closest to Mecca. Obviously we’re in the process of working up the plans, but Dan thought of spot-checking after seeing the built-in compass for the iPhone. Again, I’ll probably need to activate data to use the application, but I find the idea pretty interesting. While it’s pretty reductionist to attribute the Muslim world’s long-standing, intense interest in navigation and time-keeping to keeping up with prayer time & direction, it is interesting to see the modern iteration of the gorgeous astrolabes hanging in the Islamic Art Museum in Doha in an iPhone application. These applications are expensive and the negative commentary is fascinating–if you have a bug in your software, then you are directly impacting the worship of your consumers. The comment section in the eQibla app that I linked to has questions in English, Arabic, Turkish, and French, some folks asking how to turn off push notifications, change the prayer time tuning, and re-calibrate the compass. While it may or may not help with figure out our mosque, it might be worth .99 just for the glimpse into another religion/temporal way of life.

Anyone have other suggestions?

Survey and Scopophilia, Part 2

After I posted about the survey that we’re conducting at Fuwairit, my UC Berkeley cohort member and friend James Flexner reminded me of some of the writing he’s done regarding analog and digital planning and survey. He’s also leading a session at the upcoming Society for American Archaeology meeting titled Archaeological Cartographies on 1 April that looks really interesting–I will probably try to attend, as the Blogging Archaeology session isn’t until the day after.

Anyway, in his article, Where is Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research? Towards a Place-Based Approach, James provides an overview of the literature on reflexive map-making in archaeology and talks a bit about his plane-table and alidade approach in mapping during his fieldwork in Kalawao, Molok’i, Hawaii. I had the pleasure of helping James excavate and draw in Hawaii (we wrote an article together about utilized glass–okay, he mostly wrote it, after I looked at his glass artifacts and made a comic about it), and he taught me how to use the alidade to draw–we planned the first Mormon church in Hawaii together.

I agree with him that the plane table map was an interesting, evocative tool to learn to use in drawing the visible architecture. James argues that drawing the buildings, “stone by stone, tree by tree, artefact by artefact” helped him visualize the site in a way that was more sensual, and perhaps more consistent with the vision of past inhabitants of the site. What he does not elaborate upon is the unequal relationship between the person at the plane table and the person holding the measuring staff and of the reversal of this relationship while using an EDM. (and this is probably where I lose all but the most dedicated of survey nerds)

While you are using a alidade and plane table there  is more immediate communication between the two people conducting the survey. There is a  person holding the staff and a person at the table and the person at the table directs the staff-holder, and the plans finish with the person at the table going to inspect the architecture to fill in the gaps on the plan by representing the individual features of the buildings in more detail. This power relationship is reversed while using the EDM, as the person with the staff is in essence inscribing the landscape invisibly, drawing a plan that first appears as a point cloud and then emerges as outlines of buildings and features during data processing, while the person at the EDM is mostly looking through the scope and pushing buttons. Ideally the plan is then printed out and inspected in a discussion during a site walk over by the survey participants, in a way that is similar to lifting the plane table from the tripod and drawing in the individual elements at close range. Also, while it is important for one person to finish segments of land individually, the person behind the EDM can change places with the staff-holder and continue work, generally without too much disruption in “drawing” style. (There is some give in this latter point, in that some people “draw” more jaggedly than others who take more points and provide smoother contours.)

I don’t think that the desired reflexivity is necessarily reflected in the tools, or in contrasting the “cold eye” of the total station with a more humanistic plane table approach, but in the discussion of the people planning the site and the consciously interpretive act of remediating a landscape. Representing sites may require more or less technology, and there are many times that I’ve been on site with an EDM where a dumpy level would do just fine, and probably even be better.

I enjoy drawing, and I would have enjoyed planning Fuwairit with a plane table and an alidade. But I find the invisible inscription of landscape fascinating, and using an EDM as a mental pencil works well for my reflexive experience of place. Regardless, James’ article is worth a read & it is good to know how to use different tools–even ones that are now kept in the departmental museum.

Virtual Participation, Politics, and Egyptian Antiquities

The initial online silence was a little uncanny–in Qatar the alarm over the events in Egypt was striking and immediate, even in our semi-isolated, media-deprived compound in Shamal. Doha is the headquarters of Al Jazeera and early reports accused them of deferring to a friendly relationship between Qatar’s Emir and Mubarak.  Then, in a dizzying flash, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East. I was invited to virtual protests and people were reposting from twitter accounts from The Arabist. It was an interesting tension between a hyper-aware, invested public trying to learn everything they could about the situated and run-of-the-mill slacktivism, wherein reposting links is seen as a kind of political action. I was happy to see people investing so much of their time in learning about the situation and trying to find a way to participate–I was doing much the same.

I’ve never worked in Egypt, but I know a lot of people who have, including some folks that were there when things went live. They were and continue to be deeply invested in the protests and have been using their contacts to make the situation that much more real for those of us who aren’t in Tahrir Square.  I genuinely hope that people who were turned on to Middle Eastern history, government, and media by the Egyptian protests continue to learn as much as they can about events over here, and question the US government’s continued support of corrupt and oppressive regimes. It is uncomfortable being American in the Middle East, but not necessarily because the local people hold that against you, but because there is an unavoidable feeling of culpability–I have been protesting the wars for a decade, but have I been doing enough when the policies of my government directly introduce misery into the lives of so many people?

The online archaeological community immediately turned their attention to the antiquities in the country, and The Eloquent Peasant in particular detailed the damage done to artifacts in the National Museum. Some criticized Zahi Hawass for accepting an appointment to Mubarak’s new cabinet, and he released a statement minimizing the damage. Hawass is a lightning rod for archaeologists in general, and discussion of his policies and media statements and is potentially career-ending for people who might want to work in Egypt. Recently he called for a damaged obelisk in Central Park to be conserved or returned to Egypt for proper care. Alex Joffe, writing in the Wall Street Journal, uses the unrest in Egypt as an excuse for repudiating these repatriation requests, willfully ignoring the destruction of many antiquities in Germany and the United Kingdom during WWII. Should we pack all of our artifacts away into mountain bunkers, safe from the descendants of the people who made them? As Neil Silberman writes, “Antiquities are seen as an unalloyed good, the property of all humanity, above politics. But are they just the fetishes of the powerful, tokens and illustrations of a narrative that separates the haves from the have nots?” To extend the point, if artifacts have agency, do they have the right to participate in the political action of the oppressed? Some Egyptian protesters stepped in to protect the artifacts in the museum, even as sites away from the main action are being extensively looted. Artifacts and sites are a mutable, active component of the construction of Egyptian identity, and this interplay within the context of the protests shows their deeply contested nature.

This focus on antiquities instead of people is contentious, to say the least. Yannis Hamilakis has written extensively and instructively on this topic, particularly regarding the ethics revealed in the responses of archaeologists and institutions to the looting of the National Museum in Iraq. How can we be worried about the remains of past cultures when there are bloody protests in the streets? It is a difficult situation to be in–while I am not an expert on politics, religion, or protests, I can say a few things about artifacts and contribute my knowledge to the dialogue surrounding cultural heritage. As a politically aware archaeologist, I try to consider my informed contribution about the situation and potential personal gain (publications, media coverage, etc)  in view of the people who are fighting and dying for liberation. As Hamilakis (2003) writes, “we should reject the role of the professional specialist who provides expertise in their narrow field but who fails to question the meta-narratives and practices of nationalism, neo-colonialism and imperialism within this knowledge is deployed.”

I am anything but ambivalent about the fate of the Egyptian people, the sites and the artifacts in Egypt, and the larger political ramifications for the Middle East and the whole world and I hope that I can attain and convey a perspective that is both politically and archaeologically informed–keeping these shatteringly huge events in mind while writing about archaeological ephemera and scratching around in the Qatari desert.

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