Qatar – Happy Eid!

All my workmen were excited to have a few days off for Eid al-Adha, the festival celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Hundreds of millions of animals were sacrificed for this event, but we’re out in the desert, far away from the festivities. I’ve spent most of the time working on my dissertation, but managed to do a little wandering in the desert and took the requisite animal photographs:

Here are a couple of the reconstructed fort at Kalet auom elmaa:

Google Sketchup for Modeling Archaeological Sites

A model of what might be a mosque at Fuwairit. Its based on the archaeological footprint on the ground and two other historic Qatari mosques.

Over the summer I started making a Sketchup model of Fuwairit, a site we intensively surveyed by total station. The site itself is nearly a kilometer long (longer, if you count the fortifying wall to the jebel) and about 200m wide and is chockablock full of architecture in the form of rectangular compounds. After a month and a half of survey, we had a pretty good idea where all the walls were and created an autocad model that was just the wall lines. I tried all kinds of things to import the file into Blender, but the translatability between a PC/Autocad and an Apple/Blender was insurmountable. Actually, I got it to mostly work, but it was so infuriating I wouldn’t really recommended. Hint: do not try to import polylines. It doesn’t work.

I ended up importing the polyline wall file (dwg) into Google Sketchup (you have to use 7 and not 8, because they moved the functionality into Pro for 8, but then you can import the 7 file into 8) and playing with it there. Sketchup has changed a lot in the four years since I’ve last opened it up, and it might be worth another look if you, like me, are an early adopter/early rejector. The most fundamental problem is that it is not Open Source. I’m still hurting a bit from the Second Life burn, and am hesitant to commit to any format that will restrict archiving or my future use. Luckily, Sketchup exports to many different kinds of files, so the Second Life debacle is a bit more avoidable.

Anyway, some notes, so that your model-making experience will be better than mine:

1) Do not attempt to reconstruct kilometer-long, complex architecture. Sketchup starts to bog down pretty fast, and after 2,000 objects, no longer will import into Google Earth.

2) Do not smooth edges until you are absolutely finished and absolutely certain. The beachstone/mud finishing on the pearling site architecture tempted me to smooth the lines and it looked great…until I needed to redo a lot of the textures, which you cannot apply to smoothed surfaces.

3) Import the model into Google Earth sooner rather than later to check it out. The model looks pretty good in Sketchup, but usually looks better in Google Earth, so it will give you a better idea how your textures are turning out.

4) Use the edge style and plane style to come up with different views and feels for your project. Turning shadows on is nice as well, as you can manipulate the time of day and see if the particular alleyway that you are modeling was shaded or sunny at that time.

This is with shaded textures off, and the profile edges on.

5) Try importing various pre-made objects. There are a lot of free objects that were made by various people and I was able to pick up some nice date palms, mangroves, and even a dhow to add detail to my reconstruction. I took photos of some standing structures to add textures and windows and things like that. It’s obviously much easier when you have something still existing to give you a pretty good idea of what the structures looked like.

6) There’s also the option to “walk around” and to make fly through animations, if you are into such a thing. I like to use it to test viewsheds, something that is obviously important in “veiled” islamic domestic architecture.

So, it is basic but robust, and you can easily manipulate the various textures to give you a more or less “accurate” or cartoony atmosphere. I want to make some time to import the images into photoshop to touch them up there, but I am fairly satisfied with the mockup I’ve made with a fairly low time investment.

(Mostly written March 10, with some more recent edits)





It’s been an incredible time here in Qatar, working with the QIAH (Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project) on the NE coastal pearling sites. I’ve been very involved with the Blogging Archaeology SAA session and other various side projects, so I have been distracted from my usual mode of field blogging, which is a little sad because I’ve been able to do some new and interesting things here. I have a half-dozen posts that I’ve been waiting to edit and bring out–hopefully I will be able to finish them up in this last week.

I think it sums it all up though in saying that it is a truly amazing experience to work with well-trained, professional archaeologists again. We had a fairly last-minute rescue job that I’ve been working hard at this week and I have rarely seen rescue archaeology done so efficiently and so well. Working with professionals is just so easy–you all know what needs to be done, and everyone pitches in to make it happen. The craft is respected and pleasure is taken in the little things, like exquisitely rendered sketches and less-than-mil grid accuracy. There’s a reason that academics have increasingly been hiring professional archaeologists (trained in single context) to excavate sites–it is fast, it is exacting, and once you have been on a project that employs these folks, there is no looking back. We were extremely well-managed by Tobias Richter, who took care of us, made sure that things ran smoothly, and kept a sense of humor about it all. It’s really the gold standard for how sites should be run.

The work that has been done in the name of the QIAH is absolutely top notch–performed by excellent archaeologists who have really given it their all. I’m proud to be a part of it, and actually pretty sad to be leaving Qatar!

Post redacted, March 7, 2013. There’s a first time for everything!

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!

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.

%d bloggers like this: