Sitz Unseen: Looking at Archaeological Sites

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Anna Sitz

Many people think that archaeology is mainly about doing: breaking the ground with a pickaxe, shoveling and sifting dirt, using a trowel to uncover artifacts. These activities are all part of the archaeological process. But a large part of archaeology is about looking rather than doing. I am a fifth year PhD student in Penn’s Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World program, and I want to share some of my experiences with looking.

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Ceramics from Alabanda, after washing

Several of my colleagues have written about archaeological surveys, in which a team walks through fields or over mountains, scanning the ground for pottery sherds (pieces of broken ceramics) or traces of walls. I participated in a survey a few years ago as a part of the Philosophiana Archaeological Project on Sicily. After a couple weeks of surveying, an archaeologist’s eyes become trained to pick out the colors and sharp edges of pottery fragments from the surrounding dirt, stones, and vegetation. Despite the bright Sicilian sunlight, I preferred to survey without wearing sunglasses, because accurately seeing color was such an important part of picking out the ceramics.

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Marsyas watches museum visitors in the Antalya Museum

Even when the digging begins, looking is still a major part of an archaeologist’s work. Each time a pickaxe, shovel, or trowel pierces the dirt, excavators watch the soil for artifacts or bones. The more spectacular of these items might end up in a museum, where the public encounters them as the most visible products of archaeology.  While digging, however, archaeologists are watching not just for these objects, but also for subtle changes in the dirt itself: a change in color, texture, or inclusions (such as pebbles or mortar). These variations are evidence of a change long ago- a flood, a new floor, a pit, a fire, etc. Ideally, the archaeologist can connect the changes in the color/texture of the dirt with artifacts (such as coins or ceramics) in order to date the layer.

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Dirt, Alabanda excavation

Of course, archaeologists are not often lucky enough to find securely dated artifacts and a distinct type of soil all at once. And even an archaeologist most carefully watching the dirt underneath her trowel may miss some of the more gradual changes in the soil taking place in the trench as a whole. At times, looking too closely can obscure the bigger picture. For this reason, many trenches have an area supervisor, whose job it is to watch, record, and assess.

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Lycian rock-cut tombs, Myra

The looking doesn’t stop even when the archaeologist exits his trench. In order to better understand the artifacts, walls, and contexts that emerge from the dirt, archaeologists have to look at other sites that have been previously excavated. This summer, I have been visiting several sites in Lycia, in southwestern Turkey.  This is the region just south of my normal area of fieldwork, at Alabanda in ancient Caria.

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View from the acropolis of Olympos (Lycia)

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Church at Patara (Lycia)

When archaeologists visit other sites, we enjoy the spectacular views and well-preserved buildings just like everyone else, but we are also keeping our eyes open for small details that can better help us understand our own work. We might look at a building’s layout and its masonry in order to see how it compares with what we are finding.

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View from the church at Arykanda (Lycia) into lower courtyard

We pay attention to sight lines, in other words, what an ancient person would have seen when standing in a building. We also think through the logic of building a structure in one place instead of another (for example, on a hilltop rather than in a valley), and the effect that location had on visitors.

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Tomb at Xanthos (Lycia) overlooking the valley

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Byzantine painting in church of St. Nicholas, Myra

My undergraduate training was in art history rather than archaeology.  While looking at a masonry wall is a completely different experience from looking at a Botticelli painting, there is quite a bit of overlap in the skills set needed to understand each one. Both art historian and archaeologist must develop an “eye” for the material they study – the ability to pick out pertinent details quickly, to identify the style of painting or construction technique, to draw connections with other material.

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Acropolis wall with reused blocks, Iasos (Caria)

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Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480. Wiki images

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this way, looking becomes an act in itself, a process of selectively seeing certain features and drawing mental connections. So the next time you visit an archaeological site, try to practice looking at the walls, ceramics, artifacts, and plans like an archaeologist. You don’t even have to get dirty to do it!

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Update from Iraqi Kurdistan

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So thrilled!

Covered with dirt from the excavation, I strive to make myself look presentable as a dust cloud in the distance signals the impending arrival of the director of antiquities and his entourage traveling in a caravan of white pickup trucks. As I bend down to retie my shoe, my eye is drawn to a rather strange looking potsherd. Only it isn’t a potsherd, it is my first epigraphic discovery; a fragment of a clay tablet written in the Neo-Assyrian script. For a cuneiform enthusiast there are few experiences more thrilling. This occurred during my first field season at Qasr Shemamok in 2012, and I have had the incredibly good fortune to return for 2013 and 2014.

My name is Katherine Burge and I am beginning my second year as a PhD student in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate group at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the generous support of the Penn Museum, I was able to participate in two archaeological projects in Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. In addition to participating in the Rowanduz Archaeological Program, this support also allowed me to continue my participation in the French Archaeological Mission to Qasr Shemamok, directed by Professor Olivier Rouault (Université Lyon 2) and Professor Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault (EPHE-Sorbonne).

The tell of Qasr Shemamok

The tell of Qasr Shemamok viewed from the North

Qasr Shemamok is a large mound site located about halfway between Erbil and Mosul. The site shows evidence for a long sequence of occupation, but was especially important at the time of the Assyrian Empire as the provincial capital of Kilizu. According to numerous references in administrative texts of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods, Kilizu appears to have ranked among the major urban and administrative centers of Assyria. The ongoing excavations at the site have confirmed this importance, yielding extensive layers of occupation and monumental building dating to the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods, including large mudbick terraces, as well as baked brick constructions bearing inscriptions of the Assyrian kings Adad-Nerari I (1295–1264 BC) and Sennacherib (704-681 BC). Excavations on the top of the tell have further revealed several phases of construction belonging to the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. For a more detailed overview of the project and its findings, please refer to the following links:

Neo-Assyrian levels on the southern slope of the tell

Neo-Assyrian levels on the southern slope of the tell

Mudbrick structures dating to the Parthian period on top of the tell

Mudbrick structures dating to the Parthian period on top of the tell

As in previous years, my participation in the project this season centered around an operation on the southern slope of the tell. This operation began in 2011 as a step trench extending from the base of the tell to its surface, and has since been expanded to expose a series of occupations dating from the Middle Assyrian to the Parthian periods. Last year’s excavation revealed a Hellenistic settlement cutting into the remains of an extensive mudbrick terrace dating to the Neo-Assyrian period, and it was a particular goal of this season to better understand this sequence. We therefore decided to open an area on the surface of the tell, in line with where we had been excavating on the slope. Just under the surface, we discovered a layer of fill and occupation, probably consecutive to a modern military function of the site. At a depth of around 80 cm, lines of mudbrick walls began to appear. These walls belong to buildings of the Parthian period, dated by the associated pottery. Excavating below the level of their foundations, we discovered a large layer of pebbles and gray sand, and showing traces of extensive culinary activity (fireplaces, ashes, animal bones, cooking pots, rocks and baked bricks organized as makeshift furniture, etc.) belonging to an earlier phase of Parthian construction. Under this layer we found mudbrick buildings and pottery dating to the Hellenistic period. This proved to be the northern extension of the settlement discovered on top of the Neo-Assyrian terrace last year. We further discovered that this terrace extends nearly to the top of the tell.

I am especially thankful to have had the opportunity to return to Qasr Shemamok this year in light of recent events that may prevent my going back for a very long time. Recent months have seen the advance of ISIS into northern Iraq, and in the last week militants managed to penetrate Iraqi Kurdish border areas southwest of Erbil, taking the cities of Gwer and Makhmour. Friends in Erbil communicated to me that Qasr Shemamok, which is accessible from the road to Gwer, had also been taken. Fortunately, the area has since been reclaimed by the Kurdish military.

Military trench on top of the tell, looking over the plain towards Mosul

Military trench on top of the tell overlooking the plain towards Mosul (Also pictured: a dog that would not move)

Qasr Shemamok is no stranger to warfare. It has witnessed many military conflicts in modern times as well as during the ancient periods under archaeological study. Military trenches dating to the first Gulf War trace the perimeter of the tell’s surface where hoards of rusted artillery shells and even a plastic military map have been found. Cement floors from installations dating to the same conflict were discovered just under the surface layer in one of the excavation areas. The tell was also hit during the American bombing of the region in 2003, giving its surface a pockmarked appearance. The modern name of the tell, Qasr Shemamok, probably refers to an Ottoman fortress, the ruins of which were noted by 19th century archaeologists A.H. Layard and Victor Place during their respective visits to the site. We know from inscribed bricks that the mound was heavily fortified by a double system of city walls during the reign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. It is not difficult to see why the site has been so attractive for military occupations throughout history: at a height of 30 m, the tell provides a strategic vantage point from which one can see for miles across the Shemamok plain.

Celebrating the last day of excavation

Celebrating the last day of excavation

However damage to the site during the present conflict is the least of our worries. Although the tell of Qasr Shemamok is currently unoccupied, there are two villages situated on either side of it. Several of the local inhabitants have worked with the French mission every season since the excavation began in 2011. We are anxious for the safety of these friends and coworkers, as well as for the safety of their families and neighbors.

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On the Wampum Trail: Balancing Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum

My name is Stephanie Mach and I am the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Penn Museum. I work closely with Penn Museum’s collections, University classes, and student researchers. My position acts as a bridge between the Museum and the Penn community, therefore, I am often asked about issues of cultural heritage, repatriation, museum best practices, and protocols for cultural sensitivity regarding the care of our collections.

This spring, I joined a new research team for travel to museums in the northeast (New England, Canada, and New York) to survey wampum collections. This project is directed by Dr. Margaret Bruchac, faculty member in Penn’s Department of Anthropology specializing in Museum Anthropology and Native American Studies. We were accompanied by Lise Puyo, an exchange student from Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France. In the field, we surveyed wampum construction techniques such as material, weaving methods, and repairs. My research interests were especially focused on museum curatorial methods associated with the care and display of wampum objects. For more information on our research, see the blog, “On the Wampum Trail.” Participating in this research project has allowed me to not only learn more about material culture studies, but to experience first-hand how many museums like ours navigate the complex and delicate balance between museological collections management and traditional care of cultural heritage.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History.

In May, we visited ten museums and noticed a variety of protocols, handling practices, and storage methods. Since certain kinds of wampum are specifically listed in NAGPRA as being objects of cultural patrimony, we were aware of the fact that we were asking to see culturally sensitive material, and museum staff informed us about objects with active claims. We are keenly aware of the delicacy of our position as researchers moving among multiple tribes and institutions. Our intent is to gain a broader understanding of wampum use and production while simultaneously focusing on minute details of material and construction that may help to clarify temporal, regional, and cultural differences. Hence, we consulted with the Haudenosaunee and others ahead of time, and we are sharing what we’ve learned with relevant tribal nations and institutions.

In general, institutions with active claims were more cautious in their approach; they placed more strict protocols on our visit, particularly regarding photography and handling. For example, before confirming our visit, several museums contacted tribal representatives to ask permission to show the collections to outside researchers. Another museum does not allow photography of wampum without prior tribal representative approval. At one museum, we were prohibited from photographing certain collections, understandably because they were from a burial context. Yet, we were allowed to photograph reproductions of these same collections that were on public display. In another museum, we examined a reproduction wampum belt constructed of plastic beads and artificial sinew that was treated with the same respect and restrictions afforded to historic shell wampum. The strict protocols placed on these reproductions raise interesting questions. Does it matter whether these objects are reproductions or not? Are wampum belts sacred in and of themselves, or are they made sacred by the rituals and meanings attached to them? This experience allowed me to think about wampum in an entirely new way.

If we consider the fact that wampum belts are made of organic material–shell, sinew, hemp, leather–then we know that these materials will not last forever. However, there are no fixed expiration dates on meaning and significance. What happens when the material severs, cracks, or breaks? Does the meaning also diminish? Or does the significance get passed into a new material–new shell beads, new leather strands, a new generation? Can a reproduction embody the significance of the original?

Cotton twill tape and polyethylene foam used to support and transport wampum at the Penn Museum. Top: NA3879; Bottom: NA3878. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Cotton twill tape and polyethylene foam used to support and transport wampum at the Penn Museum. Top: NA3879; Bottom: NA3878.

On the subject of preservation, we can compare the various ways that museums have chosen to preserve, conserve, and store wampum. In collections storage, belts were laid out on padded tables for us, handling protocols were explained, and gloves were provided so we could carefully lift the ends of the belts to see their construction techniques. To ease the movement of these objects, wampum belts and collars were typically placed onto strips of polyethylene foam or archival-grade paper board and tied down with cotton twill tape in storage. A few museums cut cavities into thicker foam and laid the object into the cavity. Both of these methods allow collections managers to transport these objects more safely from shelf to table, since the foam or board supports the weight of the belt and the ties and foam cavities ensure that the object does not move or fall.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

At several institutions, we encountered wampum belts that had been sewn down to fabric backing. In each case, this had apparently been done for display purposes and presumably left intact post-exhibition to provide added support in storage. Some belts were quite fragile, so the stitching provided reinforcement, but the foreign threads interfered with our ability to examine original construction and condition. In a more extreme case, one belt had been glued to a plexiglass backing and was completely immobilized. We also encountered a very long belt that is roughly five feet in length, however, less than half of the belt was visible due to an artistic display mount that coiled the belt at two mid-points. These curatorial strategies likely created dramatic visuals for display, but became a disadvantage for the objects in storage and for potential researchers and tribal visitors. I was understanding, as a Museum professional, of the various factors that impact care such as cost, time, and staffing, yet disappointed as a researcher not to be able to see details of the other side. Of greater concern is the fact that tribal members visiting these belts would not be able to lift them freely from their storage mounts.

When I first encountered a belt attached to a backing, my first thought was that I selfishly wanted to see the other side, but understood that this arrangement provides the belt with more support and stabilization than if it were free moving. However, my mind was quickly changed when we visited a repatriated wampum belt under the care of Chief Curtis Nelson at Kanehsatake. This belt is stored in the same box that it arrived in from the museum, including the standard foam support and twill ties. Everything seemed quite similar, until Chief Nelson lifted the belt from its box, draped it over his shoulder, ran his hand down the beads of the belt, and began to speak about its significance to his community, historically and presently. It dawned on me that the reason I had not seen a belt move or be moved in this manner before is that it would be inappropriate for a museum collections manager or curator to handle a belt in this way. Until this point, I could have considered the museum protocols for careful handling to be aligned with the goal of preservation–but I now see they are equally aligned with cultural sensitivity.

Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake (Oka, Quebec, Canada) holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care. Photo by Lise Puyo.

I was impressed by the efforts of several museums to consider and respond to the challenge of managing these and other culturally sensitive materials. One museum had a separate area of storage specifically for housing culturally sensitive material. In this space certain objects were draped with cloth to hide them from sight, offerings of tobacco were allowed to lay loose on shelves, and the entire section was roped off from the rest of storage to signal that this area was restricted. We encountered offerings left on or near objects in storage at several other museums as well. Those offerings included tobacco pouches, medicinal herbs, and quahog shells. One museum allowed smudging in storage, while several others had a room specifically designated for consultation meetings where smudging is permitted. I also noted at least two museums that had smudging kits available for use by visitors. Lucy Fowler Williams, Keeper and Associate Curator of the American Section at the Penn Museum, discussed the difficulties of finding the best smudging space at our Museum, noting that on one occasion, despite being out of doors, smoke was pulled through the vents and set off the fire alarms anyway!

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors.

After witnessing the care of wampum at so many different locations—tribal museums, non-tribal museums, and in the hands of a traditional Wampum Keeper—we are able to consider the many negotiations to be made among tribal members, collections managers, curators, conservators, and so on when balancing traditional care and standard museum collections management. I return to my job, but continue this research, with a renewed appreciation for Museum staff and tribal members who work together to care for material culture–a relationship that flourishes under the framework of open communication and shared understanding.

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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.

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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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