Soft Vegetative Roof Capping at Gordion: A Tutorial Video

Poa bulbosa inflorescence

Poa bulbosa inflorescence

Archaeobotanists usually deal with dead plants, but as I was finishing my research on the ancient plant remains at Gordion, an ongoing project of the Penn Museum, I became involved in a bigger project: preserving regional biodiversity, the historical landscape, and the archaeological site itself through the management of the native vegetation. The approach sees an open-air archaeological site as a specialized kind of garden. This post is about one small piece of the “Ecopark” project.

I just returned from Gordion (Turkey), where I have been advising the Conservation team about the soft vegetative roof capping they have established on the conserved walls of the Citadel Gate building and the Terrace Buildings.

Poa bulbosa on the Citadel Gate building

Poa bulbosa on the Citadel Gate building

When the project began, I suggested the locally abundant bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) for the purpose. It has been very successful in protecting the walls, but as a living barrier, it needs some maintenance. This year, I weeded the walls and timed the results: Over the course of 5 days, I spent 412 minutes weeding 3268 seedlings over an area of about 55 square meters. This information will help the team develop a maintenance schedule.

Conserved Terrace Building walls.

Conserved Terrace Building walls.

361 plants removed from 4 linear meters (my foot for scale)

361 plants removed from 4 linear meters (my foot for scale)

I also developed an instructional video (filmed by Angelina Jones (MLA and MSHP Candidate, 2016, School of Design), so even if you don’t know the plants, you can learn how to weed them out!

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LiDAR Scans and Sacred Lakes: A Report from the 2014 Summer Season at Abydos- Part 1

Home Sweet Home, the American Dig House at Abydos

Home Sweet Home, the American Dig House at Abydos

This summer at Abydos promised to be a busy and exciting season. The Penn research team (dubbed Team Hafla, which is Arabic for “party”) returned to Abydos after an exciting winter season with the discovery of King Senebkay and the Lost Abydos Dynasty. We were ready to continue exploring the cemetery around Senebkay as well as other sites in South Abydos. What made this season so exciting were not only the opportunities to excavate, but also the chance to be part of the application of new technological methods at South Abydos as well as the chance to perform background and survey research on the forgotten sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple. Since I have a lot to talk about, I will split this into two blog posts, with this one focusing on technology and a later post on the sacred lake project.

The Penn Research Team- Front row: Alexander Wegner. Middle row beginning from left: Matt Olson, Shelby Justl, Lisa Saladino, Dr. Jen Wegner. Back row beginning from left: Paul Verhelst, Jamie Kelly, Dr. Kevin Cahail, Dr. Rasha Soliman, Dr. Joe Wegner.

The Penn Research Team- Front row: Alexander Wegner. Middle row beginning from left: Matt Olson, Shelby Justl, Lisa Saladino, Dr. Jen Wegner. Back row beginning from left: Paul Verhelst, Jamie Kelly, Dr. Kevin Cahail, Dr. Rasha Soliman, Dr. Joe Wegner.

Before I start talking about the technological methods we used at Abydos this summer, I will give a little background about the site. Abydos is located in the mid-section of Egypt, about 300 miles south of Cairo. Established during the Predynastic Period, Abydos was the burial place of the First and Second Dynasty Egyptian kings and continued to develop through the Greco-Roman Period as a settlement and cemetery due to its association with the cult of Osiris. Current Penn research focuses on the Middle Kingdom Senwosret III tomb enclosure and town site of Wah-sut, the Second Intermediate Period tomb of Senebkay, and the New Kingdom cemetery located to the north of the Senwosret tomb enclosure.

Even though my title only mentions LiDAR, we utilized multiple technological methods this summer at Abydos including magnetometry and ground penetrating radar. Since I was involved with the magnetometry surveys, I will talk about this technology and the experience we had with it this summer.

Magnetometry involves a survey of an area with an instrument that measures fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by buried archaeological features. The main archaeological features we were hoping to find are mudbrick walls, which would indicate the possible locations of additional structures and tombs. These features appear as a line of black dots when the data from the magnetometer is processed and geo-referenced on a map. Sometimes these black dots seem to form the walls of a structure; however, a lot of the time these black dots are other magnetic objects like fired bricks and pieces of metal, which can be misleading. The goal of this season was to explore the area around the tomb of Senebkay with the anticipation that there are additional tombs in the area.

Dr. Kevin Cahail conducted the magnetometry survey at South Abydos this season. Almost every day Kevin strapped the 50 pounds of equipment to his back and carried it around the site conducting the magnetometry survey. At this point carrying around a 50 pound instrument may not sound so bad, but when you factor in the heat (some days it could get around 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit), the uneven, sandy terrain and malfunction equipment, it makes it a little challenging to focus solely on recording data and staying focused. Kevin gave me the chance to conduct a survey for a day and I have to give him a lot of credit because it was definitely hard work. After this experience, I let Kevin handle the surveying for the rest of the season. I reserved myself to setting up the survey transects for Kevin rather than carrying the magnetometer.

Dr. Kevin Cahail conducting a magnetometry survey at South Abydos.

Dr. Kevin Cahail conducting a magnetometry survey at South Abydos.

One of the major obstacles to the magnetometry survey at South Abydos was the power lines that run across the site. The electricity given off from the power lines caused problems with the magnetometer’s computer memory, usually resulting in a complete loss of data gathered that day. Even with the power lines, Kevin was able to process the data from magnetic surveys conducted away from the power lines. From the array of black dots, Kevin was able to identify new areas of interest where future excavations will one day take place.

From magnetometry, we will move on to LiDAR, which was the technology I focused on this summer. LiDAR stands for Light Detection And Radar and is usually applied for remote sensing and three-dimensional (3D) modelling. Both methods involve using an instrument that shoots out a laser and measures the distance it takes the laser to hit a surface and reflect back to the instrument, which creates a point. The LiDAR instrument continues to shoot out the laser and measure each beam’s distance, which creates millions of points and results in a high-resolution scan of a surface. The goal this season was to use the LiDAR to make 3D scans of Senebkay’s tomb, Senwosret III’s tomb and any other structures discovered this season.

Conducting a LiDAR scan of a structure, like the tomb of Senebkay, requires planning before I can start scanning. Before I started scanning the tomb of Senebkay and other structures, I made a rough overview plan, which served to help me identify blind spots and set up reference points. The LiDAR instrument can only create a point from what it can “see” with the laser, which means that multiple scans are needed in order for every surface to be captured. By creating a rough plan, I am able to figure out where I need to place the LiDAR instrument to ensure that the final 3D model is not missing any surfaces of the structure. Another thing the rough overview plan helps me to do is set up reference points needed in the later processing of the scans. In each scan, I want the LiDAR instrument to be able to see as many of these reference points as possible since it will make the later processing easier. Usually, I do this rough overview plan of a structure the day before I actually start scanning, which gives me the time to evaluate the best way to conduct the LiDAR scan.

The LiDAR instrument and spheres set up in the tomb of Senebkay

The LiDAR instrument and spheres set up in the tomb of Senebkay

On the day of a scan, I tried to start as soon as possible in order to avoid the sun since its rays can disrupt the laser and the heat can cause the LiDAR instrument to overheat and shut down. I then went around and set up the reference points that came in the form of white spheres set up on small tripods, which left them open to various interpretations by my team members. My favorite interpretations of them are as alien viruses or spaceships hovering around a mother ship. Once my spheres were set up, I place the LiDAR machine in the first scan location. As soon as I hit the start button, I moved out of the LiDAR instrument’s line of sight as it rotates 360 degrees to scan the structure and capture pictures of the structure used to add color to the scan during processing.  After each scan, which usually lasts 13 minutes, I moved the LiDAR to the next scan location and continued scanning until I felt like I captured every surface and angle of the structure.

The next step is to begin processing the scans into a single 3D model, which involves loading the scans into a LiDAR program designed to create 3D models. In this program, I began by identifying the spheres and numbering them. Since the spheres act as reference points and are visible in the multiple scans, I can use them to merge or stitch together multiple scans of the structure into one model. This allows me to eliminate blind spots and create a high-resolution 3D model of structures like Senebkay’s tomb. After all the scans are stitched together, I can then remove any random points, which improves the model’s appearance. When finished, I will have a high-resolution 3D model.

A LiDAR scan of Senebkay’s tomb

A LiDAR scan of Senebkay’s tomb

Just like with magnetometry, the LiDAR was not without its issues. Overall, scanning was less difficult with setting up the LiDAR instrument, running the instrument and not over-heating the instrument during the day. What was more difficult was re-learning how to process the scans. At the beginning of the season, I had to draw upon the LiDAR skills I gained back in 2011 as well as get used to a different type of LiDAR instrument and processing software. Even though processing the LiDAR scans involved some stressful days, I continued to gain knowledge about processing the scans through determination and the assistance of colleagues who are experts in using LiDAR. I thought I would never say this after all those stressful days, but I have come to enjoy processing LiDAR scans and making models. These models are an important tool since it allows Joe and Kevin to bring back a scaled, high-resolution model of different structures to continue analyzing as well as preserving the structure in case of possible deterioration. I am sure the models will also serve as a cool addition to presentations as well.

What magnetometry and LiDAR represents for me is the continued experience of different technologies in the field. Ever since experiencing the use of technology during a field school in Jordan through the University of California: San Diego, I have strived to learn different technological methods in order to understand how they can be utilized on an excavation. In future excavations at Abydos, I hope to continue expanding my knowledge of magnetometry, LiDAR, and other technological methods.

Pictured are Dr. Kevin Cahail and Dr. Joe Wegner, who were our grill masters, along with Shelby Justl and Lisa Saladino, who are anxiously waiting for the final product

Pictured are Dr. Kevin Cahail and Dr. Joe Wegner, who were our grill masters, along with Shelby Justl and Lisa Saladino, who are anxiously waiting for the final product

Even though we were busy at Abydos, it was not all work for Team Hafla. On our days off, we did numerous activities to liven up the desert. These activities included sightseeing in Sohag and Luxor, hiking through the nearby wadis, playing homemade games like ring toss and beanbags, having a water fight, and attending a local Egyptian wedding. By far my favorite activity was the day we grilled because it is not summer unless the grill is out, even at Abydos!

The final product: grilled chicken and vegetables, macaroni salad, green salad, and bread

The final product: grilled chicken and vegetables, macaroni salad, green salad, and bread

One last bit of fun I had was to convince Team Hafla to take the group photo with a LiDAR scan. I am sure that many people are wondering what those white balls Matt, Kevin, Shelby, Lisa and Jen were holding in the group photo from the beginning of this blog. These are the spheres used in LiDAR scans as reference points and even though they are not acting as reference points in our group scan, they are too much of a feature to leave out of a LiDAR scan. For now, I will leave you with a 3D model of Team Hafla and will return soon to talk about my other focus at Abydos this season, the forgotten sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple.

The Team Hafla Group LiDAR scan

The Team Hafla Group LiDAR scan

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In the Field, from Field to Field: Another update from Thrace

The survey team pauses for a quick photo.

The survey team pauses for a quick photo.

In a previous post Sam introduced the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP), a combined excavation and survey project conducted in the Rhodope region of Thrace in northern Greece. Penn faculty and students have been involved with the project since its inception and I encourage you to read more about the project in the posts made by Sam Holzman and Beth Potens. As the second season of fieldwork has drawn to a close, this is a good opportunity to reflect on our progress so far and speak a bit about my own involvement in the second half of the project, the archaeological surface survey.

A storm rolls by in the distance as a student surveyor finishes her transect.

A storm rolls by in the distance as a student surveyor finishes her transect.

Before I get to the fieldwork, however, the region itself deserves some comments. Sam has discussed the temperate climate, the verdant forests, and lakes teeming with wildlife (and mosquitos), but the modern history of the region is equally fascinating. Located close to the Bulgarian and Turkish borders, the Rhodope region possesses a fascinating mix of cultures that you certainly won’t encounter in the more travelled south. Driving down the highway or from village to village, you see the bell towers of the Orthodox churches complimented nicely by the slender minarets of the mosques, and the clanging of the church bells on quiet Sunday mornings is soon followed by the call to prayer. Locals are equally likely to break out into traditional Greek dance as to take up a drum and sing a Pontic ballad (Pontic Greek, while generally thought to be closer to Ancient Greek, is almost unintelligible to a speaker of Modern Greek). This multiculturalism is one of the features that make this region of Greece so fascinating and a wonderful place to work.

The island of Samothraki looms in the distance.

The island of Samothraki looms in the distance.

In addition to the archaeological exploration of Ancient Stryme, this season included a systematic surface survey of Zone A, the protected area that surrounds the excavation site. This season’s survey was an intensive urban survey, designed to cover the principle area of habitation in and around the city walls. Though the zone is protected, limited agriculture still takes place, with wheat and cotton being the principal crops. Due to the vast differential in visibility between the two, we surveyed only cotton fields this year as the wheat obscured the ground almost completely. In spite of this limitation, 33 fields/tracts were surveyed this season, covering 410,887.5 m2. While we are still working through the data, the survey confirmed the character of the site as port city, with literally thousands of amphora sherds littering the fields around Stryme. The survey has also filled in and expanded the chronological range of the site’s occupation, dating at least to the Late Roman/Early Byzantine periods. Next year’s survey will push beyond the urban center of the site and we will hopefully then be able to compare the relationship between the Stryme and its hinterland, so stay tuned for more in the coming seasons!

A selfie from Stryme (photo courtesy of Penn MA student Amanda Ball).

A selfie from Stryme (photo courtesy of Penn MA student Amanda Ball).

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Rainforest Reconnoitering

Some of the most exciting archaeological fieldwork takes place during the survey phase of a project. Survey consists of various methods of covering a selected region to determine where concentrations of artifacts, features, and/or sites are present across the landscape. Survey usually makes up the preliminary phase of a project, which is why many of us first and second year graduate students are reporting on such work this summer. Typically, survey is done by walking (though satellite and remote sensing technologies have become increasingly useful in recent decades). Archaeological survey should be done systematically to cover as much of the landscape as possible, yet variables outside of the control of the archaeologist often determine our approach.

The western Maya lowlands, showing the project area within the white circle

The western Maya lowlands, showing the project area within the white circle

Here in Chiapas, Mexico, as part of the Proyecto Arqueologico Busilja Chocolja (PABC), we have had to be flexible to the realities of working in a remote area where jungle obscures many of the features we are trying to find. And where ranchers have cleared the jungle, we still have to be respectful of the desires of the various landowners and stakeholders, many of whom are wary of outsiders crossing their barbed wire fences to do “reconnaissance.” Indeed, many villagers here are self-identified Zapatistas, who proudly announce on the numerous signs along the highway that in this region the “people command and the government obeys.” Thus, archaeology here is oddly anthropological, as we spend much of our initial work getting to know landowners and ejidos (communities that share in the use of designated tracts of land), building trust to reach a compromise that benefits everyone.

The Usumacinta River between Mexico (left) and Guatemala (right) near Piedras Negras

The Usumacinta River between Mexico (left) and Guatemala (right) near Piedras Negras

In the last two years, I have been fortunate to be a part of this process, joining project directors Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, as well as a number of local and foreign students. The PABC project area is defined by the space between the Chocolja River to the north and the Busilja River to the south, both of which flow into the Usumacinta River, which marks the eastern boundary of not only the project but also the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala. To the west, the foothills of the Chiapas highlands mark the extent of our survey area. These foothills are famous for their protected lowland rainforests, as well as important archaeological sites such as Palenque and Bonampak, visited by thousands of Mexican and foreign tourists each year. Along the banks of the Usumacinta River are other less-visited sites including Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, in Guatemala.

Piedras Negras Stela 12 depicting a victory against Pomona with the aid of a La Mar sajal

Piedras Negras Stela 12 depicting a victory against Pomona with the aid of a La Mar sajal

PABC surveys in the last five years have been filling in the gaps between these large Classic period (AD 250-900) Maya kingdoms to identify sites such as La Mar and Budsilha first documented by Teobert Maler in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to find archaeologically unknown sites such as Rancho Bufalo and Flores Magon, to name only a few. Some of the sites within the project area, notably La Mar and El Cayo are epigraphically-attested, meaning these kingdoms were mentioned in numerous monuments belonging to Piedras Negras or Yaxchilan. These monuments suggest that subsidiary sites like La Mar were crucial to the military control of the landscape, and larger kingdoms would often support the kingship of a secondary ruler (known as a sajal) at a nearby site. Indeed La Mar, at various times during the Classic period, fell under the sway of Palenque or Piedras Negras, and secondary rulers are shown on monuments accompanying kings on military attacks against other kingdoms. Archaeologically, we have documented dozens of outposts that we have identified as military lookouts or checkpoints that may have been used to control travel and trade throughout the region during the Late Classic period.

The modern boundary between Mexico and Guatemala is another complicating factor in the archaeological survey of the region. This season, we have been given access to survey parts of Guatemala across the river from Yaxchilan. I hope to report on this survey in a few weeks! In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the PABC website for updates, publications, and field reports: http://usumacinta-archaeology.blogspot.com/

Mound group between two hills. A defensive wall is located beyond the tree line likely to monitor movement into the site from the adjacent valley

Mound group between two hills. A defensive wall is located beyond the tree line likely to monitor movement into the site from the adjacent valley

Drawing a defensive feature

Drawing a defensive feature

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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.

IMG_20140620_191004575_HDR

Shearing season.

Shearing season.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Old School Cool

195106

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.

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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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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?

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