Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!”

The Grand Canyon survey of 1902.

I have the great fortune to be next to the room with all of the departmental field kit. This office (apparently once the kitchens of King’s Manor) also hold our lovely tech specialists, and I was chatting with them while admiring the lovely wooden tripod we have in the department.

The esteemed Dr. James Flexner taught me how to use an alidade in the field, and is the author of a great article on Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research. Each survey method requires a slightly different approach to measuring the landscape, whether you are hitting a button on a GPS every once in a while or getting sunburned while squinting down an antique.

Anyway, I’d love to try my hand at the alidade & plane table once again, but I’ve been informed that the prices of them are now astronomical. This has been attributed to fans of the steampunk aesthetic, who are buying old scientific instruments and putting them in their drawing rooms and dismantling them to make costumes. Funny ol’ world.

“Steampunk Girl” by HyperXP.

The Hunt for Al-Huwailah

The scene from last week really should have been filmed in grainy black and white–classic 1-2 head shot, reaction shot, static-strafed classical music in the background:

(Fade in – A tiny office, somewhere hot and dusty, the site director and the field archaeologist, talking over tea)

Site Director: “There’s an archaeological site that was excavated forty years ago, but has since been lost. We want you to find it.”

Field Archaeologist: (straightening her pith helmet) Absolutely, sir. I will find you your missing site.

(cut to the windiest, bleakest desert you’ve ever seen)

Though the desert part is accurate, the rest of the montage that follows is considerably less romantic. We found Beatrice de Cardi’s volume from her ten-week season in 1973, made a photocopy of the aerial photography of the site, Al-Huwailah, and noted the description of the location. (Marginalia – the report was actually written by Peter S. Garlake, who got fired by the Rhodesian government as the Inspector of Monuments–he wouldn’t deny the African origins of Great Zimbabwe to reaffirm crazy racist theories. I’m guessing that he hooked up with this project while hanging around UCL–anyone know for sure?) After making the photocopies and checking out possible locations for the site on Google Earth, we headed out. How hard could it be?

Several hours later, nauseous from driving fast over dunes and avoiding detention by the heavy security around a large oil refinery, we huddled together over a cracked and peeling tablecloth, sopping up steaming dal with fresh paratha. How could a site that’s 2km long with a big fort remain entirely undetectable? In previous years another team conducted a Google Earth/satellite image survey of Qatar, and placed the GPS point for Huwailah right in the middle of a trash-filled goat pen. Not so much.

This quest was becoming decidedly less romantic.

While the Google Earth map of the area showed development, I didn’t know the extent of it until I tried their “rewind” back to 2004. Mordor, aka the oil refinery that sits at the easternmost tip of this north-facing coast is visible from pretty much the entire country. The development that has been performed in conjunction with the refinery has completely altered the landscape in the area. Well, there’s that, and the giant earthen platforms that I thought were defensive emplacements, but then was told that they’re just viewing platforms for local racing.

We finished up for the day and returned to the dig compound, a bit dejected. Still, we kept at it, scouring satellite photos, playing with Google Earth, and looking up everything anyone has ever said about Huwailah. I found a reference that said that the fort was still standing to a height of 30′ in 1920. Between 1920 and 1973-1977  when it was investigated by English and French teams, it had lost 9 meters in height. Since then, it seems to have lost the rest.

It still seemed improbable that there weren’t any surface remains at all. Finally, we looked at the aerial photo taken by the French team–there was a little bit of ocean visible and a road that curved slightly to the northwest. In a modified digital extension of Prince’s principle, we overlaid the aerial photograph onto the Google Earth image…and we had a pretty good match. Sadly, I can’t show you the overlay that would disclose where we think the site is, but I will tell you…

…it’s directly in front of the food stand where we sat and argued over dal. Figures.

The site has been mostly destroyed by modern construction–indeed, the fort is undetectable and the city has been reduced to a surface scatter of pottery. Al- Huwailah, the most important pre-Zubarah and pre-Doha city in Qatar, is still by most standards, lost. Still, locating the site gives us an idea of the future of these coastal sites without protection and archaeological intervention.

Field Archaeologist: Boss, we found the lost city…but you aren’t gonna like it….

(originally written March 16th)

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.)

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.

Survey and Scopophilia

…beep beep buh-beeep-beep….

I keep one headphone off while I’m at the total station, so that I can hear that final confirmation beep, telling me that I’ve registered another point on the landscape. A total station is an electronic theodolite and we use them in archaeology to accurately measure points on the landscape, much like the surveyors you probably see all the time standing by the side of the road. In this case we are using the machine to survey a long, ovoid beach site, with virtually no visible walls. To the untrained eye, it probably looks like a series of small dunes, lumpy, with very little definition. All this means is that we are making a topographic map of the site, along with what we think are cultural features. The EDM is highly accurate, but there is interpretation and guesswork involved in defining features, sometimes making it a slow process.

I move the scope across the landscape, sighting a prism, sometimes nearby and sometimes far away, catch the glint from the mirrored center, and push the button. Dan walks to the next point, and I repeat the process, entering the correct code. In one ear, I hear the beeping of the instrument, usually over a thousand times a day. In the other ear, I keep a steady stream of music, news, and podcasts to help the time pass.

In the Reign of Harad IV is a short story by Steven Millhauser that appeared in The New Yorker in 2006. The New Yorker has been featuring writers reading other writers for a couple of years now, and it’s a mixed bag. In the Reign is a lovely fairytale-like story about a king’s miniature maker, whose creations grow smaller and smaller until they enter the realm of the imaginary. As I was listening to it, creating a scaled, digitized world of my own behind a powerful lens, I wondered about the nature of this magnified vision, of remaking the landscape in tron-like polygons, and wondered how many artists worked in the medium of CAD landscape painting.

I also thought about Kwan’s use of GIS as part of a feminist methodology in geography, and asked one of my fellow surveyors what she thought about some of the complications involved in the use of technically-aided vision and interpretation of the landscape. She shrugged and said she just thought it was a tool, not some Foucauldian mind-trip. I still wondered though–the power to make these maps and to interpret these landscapes was very much in my hands. The site is highly endangered by people driving over it, and protecting it would involve limiting the use of Qatar’s prettiest beach–unpopular, to say the least. By swinging the scope around, quantifying this site, I am elevating it, creating it into something more than just a few lumps and bumps.

Still, quality time at the scope and walking around with the prism has taught me how to use this tool. While it is incredibly tedious at times, learning the details of landscape survey takes up Donna Haraway’s invitation to reclaim technoscience as a situated practice, a feminist pursuit. It is not enough to critique these visualization tools from an academic vacuum–you have to stand behind the beepy machine and learn how the damned thing works.

3 Year Snakebite Anniversary


My friend John (nickname: “Lucky”) is celebrating his third year since he was bitten by a rattlesnake on a survey. We were in Brownsville, investigating a possible Mexican-American War battleground/retreat path:

It was lunchtime, and Tina and Colleen went with Rigden down the road to a gas station to use the bathroom. I decided to walk down a two-track along the railroad, far enough from the road to pee in private. While walking back, I noticed some stuff lying under a prickly pear cactus and decided to check it out (it was a pile of clothes).
Suddenly, several things happened at once. I felt a sharp, burning pain in my left ankle. I heard a rattle. I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw a rattlesnake, mouth open, retreating from a bite. I realized that I was in mid-air, jumping sideways away from the snake, totally subconsciously. And then it hit me: I had just been bitten by a rattlesnake!

For the rest of the story, go here:

Happy anniversary, John!  And wear your snake guards!

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