Out of Context – The Roman Peasant Project

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I applied to be a part of the Roman Peasant Project this summer. The project, directed by Penn professors Kim Bowes and Cam Grey, seeks to investigate and understand the lifestyles of Roman peasants in rural Tuscany. (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/romanpeasants/) Although I have no experience in archeology, at the initial meeting Professor Grey said that they were looking for people who could be upbeat and singing after seven hours of digging under the hot Mediterranean sun. “I can do that!” I thought, and so I applied.

The fact that this was the sixth and final year of the project made me nervous. I knew many of the people working on the dig would already have a rapport. In addition, this being the last year meant that it was the last opportunity to discover new information about peasant life. Upon my arrival in Cinigiano, the town where the project was based, however, all my fears vanished. Everyone, both new to the project as well as veterans, was welcoming, and it was clear that this would be an environment where questions and learning were encouraged.

I won’t lie; the first day of digging was hard. Temperatures can reach the 90s in Tuscany, and I was not expecting digging to be so physically demanding. After seven hours, I was asking myself if I had made the right decision by coming on the dig. The second day turned things around for me, though. As everyone got to know each other, conversation and laughter flowed in the trench, and the physical elements of digging became easier. In addition, the work became more exciting as we started to dig up pottery and bones, and hypotheses were formed about the ways in which these peasants were living. As the dig continued, it only got better. By the end of the first week we were singing more often than not, and we easily shared the work, rotating between shoveling and picking. It was exciting working on different areas of the dig site. During the first week we uncovered what we believed to be a Roman cistern. By the end of the dig it was determined that while it had been used as a cistern in Roman times, it had likely been refurbished as the foundation of a medieval structure.

One of the big questions of the dig, and the one that I found the most fascinating, was how to define a peasant. Traditionally, a peasant is defined as a poor person situated in a rural area who owns or rents land mainly for subsistence farming. However, as we dug, we began to question whether the people whose homes we were unearthing truly fell into that definition. It was true they were farming, and they certainly lived in a rural area. However, much of the evidence suggested that they might have been much more a part of the outside world, including the outside economy, than was traditionally believed. For example, there was pottery found which was a replica of a type of pottery imported from Africa. Why, one might ask, would they have cared or even known about this imported pottery?

I wish I could say that I left a month of digging with all the answers about Roman peasant life. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I left with many more questions than answers. However, I learned a great deal from the Roman Peasant Project about archeology, research, ancient Rome, and how to be a helpful, engaged part of a team.

Digging on site!

Digging on site!

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Archaeology at the border: survey and excavation in Xinjiang

As far as archaeological fieldwork goes, there are certainly far less accommodating places than where I have fortunately found myself for three consecutive field seasons. My summer fieldwork in Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a picturesque area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region less than 30 km from China’s border with Kazakhstan, has offered just the right balance of thrill and serenity (sans mosquitoes and creepy crawlies).

Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.

Looking north towards the Alatau Mountains.

The view from the site where I am excavating.

The view from the site where I am excavating.

We are now four weeks into the field season and so far we have exposed eight slab graves* (see picture below) lying on the piedmont slopes flanking the Bortala River Valley running east-west between two mountain ranges of the Tianshan (45°N, 80°E). In an archaeological survey conducted by the local bureau of cultural relics in 2010, over 200 sites with stone structures including slab graves, stone cairns, habitation structures, and anthropomorphic statues were discovered in this area, making it a significant representation of the steppic stone monument tradition that extends beyond Xinjiang, to areas in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. These archaeological remains delineate areas of past human activity and indicate territories of cultural and economic significance.

My fieldwork with the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this season, comprises two modes of investigation – survey and excavation. I will talk about the excavation in my next post. Our work has been generously supported by the Bureau of Cultural Relics of Wenquan County. With their help, we have been able to locate and document many archaeological sites that would otherwise be difficult to find. Some sites are located in areas where access is obstructed by masses of rocks brought down by flash floods. Working in the mountains, we have learnt to deal with various temperaments of nature; packing up the survey equipment in time before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive has become part of the drill. Temperature could fluctuate anywhere between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun at above 2000 m (> 6500 ft) above sea level could be deceivingly mild in the presence of a strong gale. Although the weather occasionally makes it difficult for survey and excavation, watching the forces of nature in the vast expanse of the steppes is nothing but awe-inspiring.

Here comes the downpour…

Here comes the downpour…

Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.

Every now and then, we get a rainbow or two.

Our survey focuses on structures dated to the early to late Bronze Age (late 3rd to late 2nd millennium BCE). The sites we currently survey are visible on the ground surface, in the form of stones arranged in geometric patterns indicative of either a burial, ritual or habitation structure. Preliminary observations in the previous field seasons (2012 and 2013) have identified a strong correlation between the location of these stone structures and features of the natural environment. For example, these structures are located on piedmont slopes between the altitudes of 1800m and 2500m, and most entryways of  large non-burial structures have an easterly aspect. Elsewhere in Eastern Central Asia, the distribution and purported functions of stone structures have been used in landscape analyses to delineate possible territorial boundaries or routes of communication. In the Bortala Valley, it appears that these stone structures are not standalone features but components of a well-curated landscape that are correlated with topographic features and the workings of natural phenomena.

Several site clusters have been selected from a preliminary survey in summer 2013. Given that distances between sites are too far for a total station to be operational and that it is not possible to obtain precise locations with a handheld GPS, we use a satellite positioning device, Real Time Kinematic (which consists of a base station and two mobile units), to obtain the exact coordinates of the archaeological remains and topographic features. These data will be used for terrain modeling and geospatial analysis to identify possible connections between the archaeological remains and the physical features. This year, we are also using aerial photography and 3D photogrammetry to supplement surface survey in hopes of creating a more dynamic and visually effective result.

Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.

Quadcopter in action, hovering over a walled stone structure.

Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.

Recording the outline of a stone cairn with an RTK mobile station.

Inhabited by multiple ethnicities of which the majority comprises Mongol, Han, Kazakh, Uyghur and Hui, the region of Bortala is also home to Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists and their bountiful flocks. This demography provides excellent opportunities for interesting ethnographic observations, some of which I shall detail below and in my next post. Due also to the ethnic diversity, the tranquil and rustic atmosphere is tainted by tightened security in response to recent violent attacks in Urumqi and other cities in China, which had resulted in alarming death and injury tolls. Checkpoints are installed in between counties and prefectures, bags have to be screened before entrance into grocery stores, barricades are put up even in front of primary schools. At our site, we are frequented by border patrol who have been on the lookout for fugitives hiding in the area, supposedly attempting to cross the border.

My companions.

My companions.

Hello there!

Hello there!

While the political reality may be uninviting, it is well compensated for by the locals’ overwhelming hospitality. We are often treated to a bowl of milk tea (freshly brewed with Kazakh red tea leaves and fresh milk) and a few hot dishes in the homes of pastoralists when we are out doing field survey. It felt like we were imposing but in fact it is considered rude by the Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists to not accept invitations into their homes. Once, we passed by at the end of a long day of surveying a home of a large Mongol family who had gathered in front of the corrals for their annual sheep-shearing event. As we approached with curiosity, we were immediately welcomed into a crowd of baaing sheep. I was asked to down two cups of beer from a makeshift halved coke bottle before I participated in the shearing, subjecting one poor sheep soul to my unskillful hands. I could feel the sheep twitching as I plunged the blunt edges of the shears into its thick greasy wool. I learnt later that sheep-shearing is to the pastoralists a sacred familial event, at which an outsider’s presence is considered a blessing and therefore must be honored. The guests are offered a bowl of hot mutton soup, and sometimes, even a feast of mutton-themed dishes.

The wool is sold by the kilogram to the middlemen who come to pick up the wool for resale to factories in other provinces in China. The price is 3-4 RMB /kg (which is about 50 US cents) this year, and a household with 200-300 sheep would make about 2000-3000 RMB (less than 500 US dollars) per harvest. I bought a sheep’s worth of wool for 10 RMB (less than 2 bucks) to try my hand at felting. If the result is any decent, I will share it here.

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Shearing season.

Shearing season.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Old School Cool

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Frank S. Speck sketching, and observers. St. Augustine July 1935.
Penn Museum Image #195106

This image captures Frank S. Speck, the son of noted anthropologist Frank G. Speck, sketching while in Saint-Augustin, Côte-Nord, Quebec. The younger Speck is seen drawing while two observers look on.

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Updates from Thrace

The Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project is a combined excavation/survey conducted jointly between Princeton University and the 19th  Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of Komotini, Greece. It includes a fieldschool for undergraduates from Princeton as well as the University of Pennsylvania and Demokrates University, and a merry band of Penn archaeologists, including three graduate students from Penn’s AAMW program and Professor Tom Tartaron.  For a brief introduction to the site, you can see blog posts here at Beyond the Gallery Walls from last season by recent Penn alumna Elizabeth Potens. The excavation was also recently reported on by Ο ΚΡΟΝΟΣ, the local newspaper of Komotini.

Thrace, the northeastern area of Greece, is perhaps best known for its mythical king, Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts and even trees with the sound of his lyre. It’s hard not to think of Orpheus with his floral and faunal audience here at the Molyvoti excavation, which is situated at the edge of the Lake Ismarida/Lake Mitrikou National Park, with its constant nocturnal chorus of frogs, owls, and cicadas, and daytime sightings of snakes, hedgehogs, and flamingos. The North Aegean has a more temperate summer climate than the rest of Greece, and the verdant forests rise from the coastal plane into the Rhodope mountains at the Bulgarian border.

Left: Orpherus and his animal audience on a Roman sarcophagus at the Thessaloniki museum, Right: some of our faunal visitors.

The extraordinary biodiversity of Thrace (Left: Orpheus and his animal audience on a Roman sarcophagus at the Thessaloniki museum, Right: some of our faunal visitors).

Out on the Molyvoti Peninsula, I’m supervising the excavation of three 5m x 5m trenches in what was once downtown Stryme, a bustling little port city that connected maritime routes of the Aegean with land routs into inland Thrace. Although excavations in the 1950s and 1990s revealed parts of this 4th-century B.C.E. city, a single house at Stryme has never been fully excavated, and this is one of the primary objectives of our three-year project. In the late 5th and 4th centuries, great advances were made in urban planning (grouped under the rubric of Hippodamian planning ), particularly in the alignment of the street grid and houses to optimize temperature seasonally and mitigate drafts to generally improve public health. I’m very interested to see if the plan of the house we’re excavating uses the same strategies of temperature control in this cooler climate as are found in the 4th-century Greek cities to the south.

Showing one of the day’s most exciting finds from the house to a student during the tour of the trenches. Photo by Alison Weaverdyck

Showing one of the day’s most exciting finds from the house to a student during the tour of the trenches. Photo by Alison Weaverdyck

Houses at Stryme, like most in the ancient Mediterranean, were built of mudbrick with floors of hard packed earth. Stratigraphic excavation of such structures requires very careful attention to changes in soil color and consistency. The skill of discerning one patch of brown dirt from another patch of brown dirt allows us to spot the difference between the collapsed mudbrick walls of a house and its packed-earth floor, let alone the various pits and foundation trenches of its many phases. A glimpse at the mounting pile of excavated dirt shows the surprising number of subtly different shades of brown we find.

Left: some of our back-dirt, each wheelbarrow-full representing an individually excavated soil deposit. Right: the Munsell color chart we use to quantitatively keep track of the color of our dirt.

Left: some of our back-dirt, each wheelbarrow-full representing an individually excavated soil deposit. Right: a page from the Munsell color chart we use to quantitatively keep track of the color of our dirt.

After a 7-hour morning of excavation and an afternoon of processing pottery, we still have time for a little fun. Last Monday, the workmen challenged the excavation staff to a game of three-on-three basketball on the court behind the dighouse (formerly the elementary school of Pagouria). It was Penn’s own Professor Tom Tartaron who scored the game winning point (21 to 16) in a good-humored match at sunset.

Basketball in Pagouria: Tom Tartaron (UPenn), Elias Koytsoykanidis, Periklis Chrysafakoglou (Demokrates University, Komotini), and Simon Oswald (UCLA)

Basketball in Pagouria: Tom Tartaron (UPenn), Elias Koytsoykanidis, Periklis Chrysafakoglou (Demokrates University, Komotini), and Simon Oswald (UCLA)

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How Much Does Matter Matter? A Glass Wampum Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary

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From left to right, Marie Pelletier, Stephanie Mach, Lise Puyo, Dr. Margaret Bruchac, at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary

This spring, I joined Dr. Margaret Bruchac and Stephanie Mach for field research in the northeastern US and Canada, to get a closer look at wampum belts and collars (shell bead objects woven by Native Americans, First Nations peoples, and colonial diplomats). A personal highlight of this trip was the opportunity to serve as an interpreter between the English-speaking research team and our French-speaking informants, especially Marie Pelletier, who manages the Archives du Séminaire de Nicolet (Nicolet Seminary), in Québec, Canada. She welcomed us for a whole afternoon to examine the two wampum belts in their collections. One of them is entirely made of black glass beads.

Now, one might argue that if it is not shell, it is not wampum. Yet, being made of glass beads does not necessarily mean the belt was not used in a meaningful way. With the wampum belts we have seen so far, we can make a few general observations about the prevalence of shell and glass. Although white shell beads are said to have been more numerous, purple shell beads are far more common than we would have expected. Glass beads were supposedly used as replacements for the shell material out of scarcity. If this is so, then the remaining collections seem to indicate that white shell beads were more scarce (or perhaps more meaningful) than purple shell beads. During our survey of museum collections, we discovered that glass beads were most often found in white designs, and that there were only a few belts with a white background. The sheer volume of purple shell beads in collections suggests that when Native wampum makers wanted to use purple shell, they had access to an abundance of this material. The selective use of glass beads could evoke a particular intent, and maybe sends a particular message.

At the Dartmouth Powwow, while meeting with traders and contemporary wampum makers, we learned that there are at least two types of historical dark glass beads resembling wampum: Czech ones, dark blue and translucent, letting the thread appear inside the bead; and French ones, either dark blue or nearly black and opaque.

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Blue glass beads from Tadoussac, catalogue # M 9014 at the McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. Photo by Lise Puyo

At Nicolet, during our first long glance, it looked like one belt was entirely made of these very dark French glass beads. This would fit the pattern of settlement along the Saint Lawrence and in Canada in general. Those beads—often referred to as porcelain in the written documents—were commonly used as trade goods to exchange for furs and other articles coming from Indigenous people.

After looking at other aspects and spending time with this belt, however, we spotted a reddish hue, coming not only from the rawhide and linen, but also from the beads themselves. There was no sign of red pigment being rubbed onto the beads (as we saw on several other belts). Was the red color just a figment of our imagination? By shining a white light underneath the belt, we realized that these beads are not exactly black: they are a very dark shade of red. If this object was intended to be held up around a council fire, picture how the shimmering light would give it a dramatic aura. The belt would simply come alive.

Glass belt lit from behind

Stephanie Mach shining a light through the glass belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photo by Lise Puyo

“This close-up picture is helpful to show both the red color of the beads, and the red dye deeply soaked into the rawhide and linen warp and weft (giving them an orange hue). According to our observations so far, when red pigment is rubbed onto the finished belt, the warp is not tinted where pinched by the weft; it remains a pale color when the rest of the material is dusty red. Here, however, it seems that the leather was dyed before weaving the beads together, contributing to the overall reddish color of the belt.

We observed similar weaving techniques in several other belts so far: the warp is leather, the weft is plant fiber, and the long edges are wrapped with either dampened leather or rawhide so that the edge will harden as it dries, securing the weave. The ends of this dark glass belt are short and knotted together, which in wampum semiotics tends to indicate a closed, independent message, as opposed to long untied ends, which indicate that the message and dialogue can continue.

Some beads are missing on both ends. The fact that the weft is still in place, bearing witness for this bead loss, is specific to both of the wampum belts in the Nicolet archives collections. In most other cases, when beads were taken out, the weft was pulled out as well. These threads allow us to estimate the number of beads that are missing. This belt has seen no repair, unlike many of the other belts we have seen. A single black thread was added to it, but this thread does not help the weave or support any bead; it stands out, loosely tied. We believe it formerly held a collection tag, price tag, or explanation tag, perhaps added by a Nicolet curator after the 1870s.

This glass belt was clearly made with care and with intent: the weaving material reflects the color of the beads. The dark red beads have been darkened even further by the addition of a black ash-like coating that has partially soaked into the leather. It is constructed following the same Native weaving techniques observed on shell belts, but it does not use shell beads. As Dr. Bruchac observed, in wampum semiotics, the message is quite clear: dark beads (in the absence of any white beads) signal trouble, complexity, something powerful in a potentially harmful way. Those beads were apparently selected because of their ambiguity between black and red. The fact that they are foreign might indicate several things; we theorize that either it was made by Europeans, or it was made about Europeans.

According to the curatorial records at the Nicolet Seminary, this belt was given by the Blackfoot of Alberta to l’Abbé Georges-Henri Laforest during his sojourn in First Nations territory far to the west of Nicolet. This appears to be an early belt, using a style of glass bead common in the east, but uncommon in the west. If this belt originated in a region where wampum making was more common (the Northeast Atlantic coast, the Saint Lawrence seaway, or Haudenosaunee territory), it would have carried a very recognizable message that transcended language barriers: trouble is coming, involving foreigners. Since glass beads were common trade goods, the origin of the beads might identify which group this message would refer to: could a French bead represent the French?

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Marie Pelletier, Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach examining the Glass Belt at the Archives of Nicolet Seminary. Photo by Margaret Bruchac

With this belt, as with all the others, we are following Dr. Bruchac’s guidance in what appears to be a unique research approach. Our method is to examine every bead, every thread, every repair, and every bit of dirt and other material evidence while we talk around the belts, creating a visual and verbal thick description. Since we are coming with fresh eyes, and since we have familiarized ourselves with the various materials—quahog, whelk, conch, glass, sinew, brain-tanned leather, rawhide, hemp, linen—we often notice details that might have been overlooked before. The curators look on, and we invite them to share insights on how each belt has been handled and cared for, on other items it might relate to, and on any other information needing an inside eye. Only after close visual analysis do we turn to the examinations of provenance data and historical research that might track the movement of each belt from a community or event to its current environment. Since we only have a few hours to spend at each location, we gather as much data as possible while we are present with the wampum, and leave the written reports for our long debriefing sessions.

At each locale, museum curators have been delighted to hear stories about our previous discoveries and the insights gained from all of the different communities we’ve talked to: Indigenous wampum-keepers, wampum makers, antiquities dealers, and other museums. This has been a very collaborative effort so far, resulting in exciting new insights, some of which have been reported in our blog, “On the Wampum Trail.” However, as Dr. Bruchac reminds us, we need to recognize that our research may raise concerns, since museum wampum collections have been so carefully guarded, so poorly understood, and so hotly contested. She notes: “We are shining light into some dark corners of museological collections and recovering some provenance data that has been long missing. We have discovered evidence of Indigenous wampum-making techniques and messaging that both transcend and incorporate European materials. We expect to encounter contested Indigenous patrimony, and hope that we can encourage productive conversations about what each wampum belt has to tell us, and which Indigenous communities these belts are linked to.” All of us hope that our museum colleagues will be as excited as we are that this restorative approach to research might hold the potential to solve some old mysteries, and heal some old wounds.

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Left Behind

SAmos1ome parents might find it difficult to let go of their children’s possessions–toys, trophies, mix tapes–when the kids move out and begin lives on their own. However, Carl Weiss, a member of the Museum’s Director’s Council, and his wife Andy decided to have some fun with an object left behind by their daughter, Alissa, C06. When Amos, the big, pink teddy bear no longer “fit” in Alissa’s Brooklyn apartment, Andy and Carl, who are also members of the Museum’s Loren Eiseley Society, graciously adopted him and began introducing him to the finer things in life. Soon Alissa’s inbox was filled with photos of Amos reading a book with his very own reading glasses or decked out in Phillies gear to watch a game with Carl.

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Amos-3
Then this week, Emily Goldsleger, Assistant Director of Membership and Annual Giving,  and I had the pleasure of meeting Amos and giving him a tour around the world at the Penn Museum. In addition to seeing our renowned collection, Amos was able to assume a few ancient personas, like a Roman gladiator and the Museum’s famous Sphinx. We can only assume that Alissa was impressed with the photos from Amos’ adventures.

Now don’t you want to revisit that box of stuff that’s still in your parents’ basement?

AMos-4

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Ringo Enters The Dragon’s Lair

The work in the Penn Museum Archives never ends. The backlog resists attempts at taming it. The archives is happy to have a number of interns and volunteers who are willing to help organize, catalog, and preserve the documents, drawings, and photographs in the collections. Alyssa Velazquez is one such intern, who is presently reorganizing the storage of the old glass plate negatives. The Museum has at least 30,000 glass plates, in sizes ranging from 3×4 inches to 11×14 inches. Many of these were originally transported into the field, were shot and developed there, and were then brought back to the Museum. Others were taken in the Museum’s photo studio, which was established by at least 1902. The Adventures of Ringo and Sobek is a social science satire centered around the Museum’s old records, surroundings, and areas of study.

In The Continuing Adventures of Ringo and Sobek:

I did as you suggested Sobek
I decided that you were right.
My next order of business should be in aquatinting myself with the museum.
After hours, of course.
It was so still.
A zone of social abandonment.

Right in the middle of night class
As I read my way through the mission statement
There appeared a rather sizeable rattus rattus laden with a collection of arts and crafts
Heaving his way along the outskirts of admissions.

Well aren’t you a chipper chirper!
Come here my little friend
I’ve got just the thing to renew your song
Said he

Hello. Are you native to these parts?
Said I

No
And neither is you Jiminy,
But for the sake of making us both more comfortable let’s call it a truce

He was the most peculiar rodent that I had ever seen.
He wore a scrap of robe emblazed with flames and oriental filigree.
On his head was forced a crown of feathers that appeared to be a product of the creature’s own gnarled teeth.
He had an affected limp from encumbering weight.

Whatever brought you to this institution Jiminy, does not matter,
It is what you take back with you.
And I’m not talking enlightenment
Everyone is claiming that-
It’s cost effective.
Said he
I’m speaking in terms of tangible property.
Enter, if you will, into my personal treasury.

I followed this marauded riddling pirate into his marked territory.
An almost unnoticeable hole in the nearest storage cabinet
How such an animal was able to squeeze through that loophole I will never comprehend.

Jim…Jim…Jim
What is it you desire?
Asked he

If strength is your aim behold: a sword sheath.
No sword.
Just the sheath.
For weapons are rarely ever worth the price.

Or power?
I’m brimming with slinging stones.
No slings, but what does that matter when you have a handcrafted rock to admire?
Seller’s honor, everyone is unique.
If you don’t believe me, that is not my fault- not I
It is because you lack an archaeologist’s eye.

Or do your tastes lean towards aesthetic beauty?
Abandon your search little one.
For here I will sell onto you, the fragment of an unknown Crock.
Beautiful in its cracked condition.
This part is worth more than its whole.
With no one around anymore to boil,
A pot or bowl would be just a toil.

But wait-The_dragon
I think I misjudged you Jim.
I can see you crave a connection with the divine.
Purely spiritual relationships go awry.
Conversions need commerce;
Apostles need not try.
I am in possession of a bundle of beads
Unmarked by province.
Fair organic trade waiting to be reborn.
Rosaries, Shaman malas or Magatamas,
In time you’ll see what you made them to be.

Humans can be great companions too
As a partial specimen or as a set
Bones are the least troublesome of pets.
Said this scrambling scavenger and hoarder.

I was too overwhelmed.
Human remains carpeted the floor
Dolls poured out of crates
You pillaged the museum’s surplus population I exclaimed
They’re priceless.
Not to be sold or exchanged!

Anger crept into the objectifying traitor’s eyes
Like a good auctioneer he explained:
I’m in the business of accessible public knowledge
Desuccession-they call it, which you might have known if you had gone to college.
A little share here
Bit of a share there
Its all legit my self-righteous beetle.
I lend to borrow and sell
Even after I empty their refrigerators they can’t tell.
There are more items then there are shelves.
So I play the role of the collective dragon that waits for profiteering knights to stumble upon my trove.
To crowd around my round table for a civil plunder and pillage amongst this drove.
Without my services, all these treasures as you are so quick to elevate, stay buried beneath the mark.
Sustained by the pedant’s lark.

As I knew that I did not seek a share in The Dragon’s civic service
I thanked him for the capitalist tour and bid him adieu.
Thankful that I lacked the funds and the need,
For a pair of tinted spectacles he determined this beetle: Jiminy, should rightfully own.

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Survey Methodology in the Şərur Plain

Hello again from Azerbaijan, and günortanız xeyr (good day)! Our work on the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project Survey (Director: Dr. Emily Hammer, Oriental Institute) is proceeding smoothly here, but only two weeks remain on the survey before we wrap it up for the season. With so little time remaining, we are moving ahead full-steam to get as much coverage as we can before our departure. In my last post, I briefly introduced the scope of our project and our main research questions. The questions themselves are straightforward enough, but figuring out how to answer them is a constant challenge. One of the main methods we are using to learn about the settlement at Oğlanqala is archaeological survey.

Surveying the wall at Qarabağlar Qalası

Surveying the wall at Qarabağlar Qalası

The Naxçıvan Archaeological Project involves many different components including excavations, aerial photography, and geological prospection; our survey is just one part of the larger international and multidisciplinary effort – on a typical day the survey team numbers just three people, an Azerbaijani representative, and sometimes several local day laborers. Surveys are typically a much leaner operation than any given excavation, but surveys generate just as much valuable data about ancient societies.

Archaeological Survey (Google Stock Photo)

Archaeological Survey (Google Stock Photo)

When most people think of archaeology, they think of excavation, but really, digging is just one phase in the archaeological research process. Before any trenches can be opened, ancient sites must be located, identified, characterized, and evaluated for their utility in terms of our research aims – excavation is expensive and time-consuming, after all. Survey is the preliminary groundwork that allows excavators to be surgically precise in their targeting of archaeological features and monuments to investigate. We use satellite imagery, historical maps, geological maps, historical registers, local guides, and our own foot-power to search for archaeological sites and to gather information about the distribution and organization of ancient human occupation across a particular landscape.

Surveys can be intrusive or non-intrusive, meaning they can involve digging small excavation units, or they can leave subsurface deposits of artifacts and architecture intact. Surveyors usually do background research to identify areas likely to contain archaeological materials using the published records, maps, satellite imagery and local knowledge and then visit these areas to ‘ground-truth’ the veracity of the information provided by the background sources. This ‘ground-truthing’ involves a number of different methods depending on the terrain and dispersal of artifact concentrations, habitation sites, burial monuments and so forth. Some of the methods we are using this year include systematic field walking, areal collections, shovel-test-pits and geophysical prospection.

Recording the location of each artifact with the GPS device and red flags

Recording the location of each artifact with the GPS device and red flags (Mt. Ararat in the background)

Field walking is the method we use in cultivated agricultural areas. It is perhaps the most contingency-ridden of our methods because in any given year only a select number of fields in any given village have been left fallow or have been recently plowed.  We can only systematically field-walk where the ground surface is highly visible – as a result, any field that has been planted with wheat, fodder-plants, large vegetables, or where chaff has been left to dry is inaccessible to us for this kind of survey. But, when conditions are right, we measure out equally spaced transects across the fields, placing blue flags at the beginning and end of each transect-line. We then walk in a straight line between the flags and collect all the ceramics and tools visible on the surface, leaving a red flag at each artifact location. Our director follows along behind and records the location of each potsherd with a handheld GPS unit; this information gets uploaded to a digital database every day and forms the raw data that we use to generate an artifact density map of the landscape. This method is most useful when we already know that an area has archaeological materials on the surface and that the density of artifacts is quite high. In other situations, when we are less sure and when the density of artifacts is likely to be lower, we use methods such as areal collections.

Fields near Sədərək settlement

Fields near Sədərək settlement

Areal collection is when we patrol a landscape for artifacts following ground features such as ridges or watercourses and traverse open pastureland or foothill zones. This is a much less systematic method than field walking, but we still use handheld GPS devices to keep track of where we have walked and where we find artifacts. This method is especially useful when a large territory needs to be covered, or when we visit a site for the first time and have no prior knowledge of its surface features. During areal collection we frequently encounter surface features such as linear alignments (walls or architecture of various kinds), stone piles left by recent shepherds, burial grounds of varying age, canals both ancient and modern, in addition to the ancient ceramics and stone tools we are most interested in. Areal collection helps give us a better idea about where it would be worth investing our time in systematic methods collections such as field walking or shovel-test-pits.

Auguring at Oğlanqala settlement

Auguring at Oğlanqala settlement (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Emily Hammer)

Shovel-test-pits (hereafter, STP’s) are field walking’s intrusive sibling. When we do STP’s we follow the same basic principle – we lay out transects and cover them systematically – but in this case, we dig a 50x50cm hole into the earth to a minimum depth of one meter and then use a bucket augur to drill another meter under the surface. This method is extremely labor intensive and time consuming – on a good day, a team of an excavator and a workman can do just four! When we dig STP’s we cut through 50 centimeters of earth at a time, recording not just artifacts but also the soil, its color, composition, and texture. This allows us to get a better sense of post-depositional processes that affect the preservation of the archaeological record; it is important to record the soil’s features to know how human behavior and natural climatic events might have altered the archaeological remains between the time that they were discarded by their users and our discovery of them in the present.

Surveyor's Toolkit

Surveyor’s Toolkit

This information then goes into a spreadsheet that we can manipulate to produce a map of the subsurface deposits of a particular area. We can then compare this map with the map of the surface distribution of artifacts to gauge the degree of preservation of intact archaeological deposits. These maps can then be combined with geophysical data to get a sense of where architecture and features might be located.

Getting an STP started at Sədərək settlement

Getting an STP started at Sədərək settlement

Geophysical survey encompasses a wide variety of techniques and instruments, the most commonly used in archaeology including magnetometry, electro-resistivity, ground-penetrating radar, and electromagnetic conductivity, among others. Generally, these instruments and techniques measure the earth’s electromagnetic field in order to detect magnetic anomalies that signal the presence of burned material, disturbed sediments, or otherwise culturally modified subsurface materials. This year NAP brought out a team of geologists from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to conduct a magnetometry survey of a variety of linear wall features surrounding the fortress of Oğlanqala. They operated their equipment to produce georeferenced spectrograms of the subsurface deposits so that we could visualize the distribution of magnetic anomalies to better understand the construction, features, and preservation of the wall system identified in previous seasons of the NAP survey.

Dr. Rob Sternberg of Franklin & Marshall College operating the Magnetometer

Dr. Rob Sternberg of Franklin & Marshall College operating the Magnetometer (Photo courtesy of Sam Feibel)

Over the course of this year’s season we have used each of these different survey methods in order to address the research questions discussed in the previous post. Because we are still in the data-generating stage of research, it is difficult to provide any hard and fast answers, but we have identified new sites, and acquired a great deal of information about ones already known. One of our most significant findings this season has been the discovery of a large 20+ hectare multi-component site with occupations dating to the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2500-1500 BCE) and the Iron Age (ca. first millennium BCE), located approximately five kilometers north of a fortress already identified in previous seasons. This settlement and its relationship to the nearby fortress will provide an important comparative example to the settlement-fortress complex at Oğlanqala. It will be interesting to see in coming seasons whether the relationship between fortress and settlement are different or similar between this new site and Oğlanqala, and what these differences and similarities are. Hopefully this information can help us identify additional settlements associated with already identified fortresses in the area.

In closing I would like to acknowledge my appreciation for the hard work of the directors of NAP, Dr. Lauren Ristvet, Dr. Hilary Gopnik, Dr. Emily Hammer, and Dr. Veli Baxshaliyev. It takes an unbelievable amount of commitment and dedication to finance, organize, and run a field project in a foreign country, and none of what I was able to participate in this summer would have been possible without all of their pioneering efforts over the last eight years! I want to extend special thanks to Dr. Emily Hammer, the NAP Survey director for all of her expert guidance and direction over the course of this season.

I hope this short reports have helped give some insight into one of the less-widely known but very important aspects of archaeological field research! Görüşunuz (see you around)!

Last day of auguring at Sədərək Settlement

Last day of auguring at Sədərək Settlement (Photo courtesy of Dr. Emily Hammer)

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Day of Archaeology 2014

This Friday, July 11 the Penn Museum is participating in a Day of Archaeology 2014, which is a communal project that invites people from all over the world who work, study, or volunteer in the archaeological field to share their day. The goal of the project is show the world “why archaeology is vital to protect the past and inform our futures.” Yet, a Day of Archaeology also allows those in the trenches (I mean that literally and figuratively) to share what being an archaeologist or what working in an archaeology museum is really all about.

Just walking down the hall here at the Penn Museum yields some "interesting" sights. I call them Halls of Fun!

Just walking down the hall here at the Penn Museum yields some “interesting” sights. I call them Halls of Fun!

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the day-to-day work of archaeologists and anthropologists isn’t as glamorous or as dangerous as the Indiana Jones franchise made it out to be (but we still love Indy). That said, everyday I do see, hear, or read about something amazing going on within these walls. For instance, we have two conservation interns who stare at the same two large Buddhist murals all day, every day. But Cassia Balogh spies some truly incredible and heretofore unseen details everyday. Or there was also that time when Katy Blanchard thought she was just watching some TV, but soon realized that objects featured on The Cosmos, were the same objects that she works with everyday. We also deal with the unexpected in our day-to-day, like Nina Owczarek from conservation, who found that a simple looking alabaster head held a couple of strange surprises for her. Through our blog we share many aspects of our work, and the Day of Archaeology is now a chance for us and many others from around the world to share the fun parts, the dirty parts, the boring parts, and the truly exciting and spectacular fun parts of being in the archaeology field that is all in a days work!

Summer camp is in session! And we'll also be documenting what young archaeologists and anthropologists in the making do in a day's work.

Summer camp is in session! So we’ll also be documenting what young archaeologists and anthropologists in the making do in a day’s work.

If you check out the website for the Day of Archaeology you’ll find a variety of blog posts from this and past years from across the globe where contributors have documented their day through videos, photos, and written posts. We’ll be sharing our work through next week on the official blog, via social media, and here on our own blog. Be sure to follow #DayofArch and enjoy learning about archaeology from people across the world!

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Creating Beth Shean After Antiquity

This spring, I had the opportunity to sit in on a graduate seminar focusing on the ancient site of Beth Shean in northern Israel (Beth Shean After Antiquity, taught by Dr. Robert Ousterhout). When I first registered, I expected the class to be similar to other archaeology courses I had taken – mostly lectures, discussions, and class presentations, with a few museum visits sprinkled in for good measure. However, as soon as I arrived in the first class, I realized that this was not the case – the professor had announced we were going to make a virtual web exhibit for Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean.

TelMap

Map of the Tel at Beth Shean (Fitzgerald, 1931)

Situated in present-day Galilee, Beth Shean was an important location in Biblical times (ca. 1100 – 700 BCE) and Late Antiquity (ca. 250 – 750 CE). The Penn Museum initiated an excavation at the site in 1921, focusing on the Biblical levels. Today, many artifacts from these early levels of Beth Shean can be found in the Canaan and Israel Gallery. However, finds from later Late Antique and Byzantine Beth Shean are harder to spot. While they were well documented and preserved in the museum’s archives, they remain for the most part unpublished and in storage.

Led by Dr. Ousterhout, our task was to dust the decades off these later artifacts and breathe new life into them online.

We would soon discover that building a digital web exhibit is easier said than done, especially since none of us had significant web design experience. But we had a mission – constructing an engaging, historically accurate online exhibit in a single semester.

For four months, we were in overdrive, designing the site and its content. While developing appealing visual elements was important to engage visitors, the artifacts needed to remain central. The interface had to appeal to everyone, while remaining useful for visitors with scholarly interests.

After experimenting with several platforms, we decided on a layout that used image galleries for navigation. We kept the descriptions short and the background simple. This minimalism highlighted the striking appearance of the artifacts, allowing them to speak for themselves.

Once the foundation was laid, we began creating content. Each student wrote a research paper focused on a broad topic relating to Beth Shean, its people, or its surroundings. These papers were posted to the site’s digital archive.

Mother and Child Figurine from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-103-936

The real stars of the site, however, were the artifacts.

Each student curated a themed gallery, for instance focusing on a specific type of artifact (e.g., glass or architecture) or a context (e.g., a cemetery). We selected artifacts to be showcased by balancing daily experience, for instance, cookware that would have been found in every Beth Shean home, with stunning highlights from the archived collections. We wanted viewers to have a sense of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

The museum archives contain over three thousand Late Antique and Byzantine artifacts from Beth Shean, and the process of selecting precisely which ones to feature in the final exhibit was not unlike a game show. First, we hit the books and chose our contestants. Then, we requested our top picks from the Near Eastern Section storage room and presented these to the entire class. Some made the cut, while others were sent back to the storerooms. Once the set of artifacts was approved, we carefully photographed each piece. The photographs were then edited and uploaded, along with a brief description and scans of related documents. Unlike physical galleries, the web-based interface also allowed us to link artifacts to relevant references, including groundbreaking publications, other artifacts in and out of the museum’s collection, and to each item’s museum record.

Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28

Incense Shovel from Beth Shean, Object Number: 29-108-28

While all of the information we present was accurate and verified, many students have expressed the desire to take advantage of the digital medium and continue to edit and update the site, even though the course has ended.

The movement of this project from the storerooms to the classroom to the web has definitely reshaped the way that I interact with archeological sites and materials myself. It has also impacted how I think about processing and presenting information to the public. If I’m ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on this sort of project again, I would in a heartbeat!

Check out our exhibit at http://www.beth-shean.org/

Project Director: Robert Ousterhout

Contributors: Megan Boomer, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Fleck, Joseph R. Kopta, James Shackelford, Rebecca Vandewalle, and Arielle Winnik.

Beth Shean After Antiquity is a collaborative project of the University of Pennsylvania History of Art Department, the Penn Museum, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at Penn Libraries, with support from the Digital Humanities Forum.

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