Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Muddy: Ethics for Archaeologists.

To conclude the educational odyssey that has been this class, we discussed the complex issue of ethics in archaeology. This semester we have learned how to identify, plan, map and execute a successful archaeological excavation, so it seems fitting that our field season comes to close with a discussion about ethics behaviour and professionalism. While ethics are important in any professional discipline, in archaeology ethics are essential because we frequently require access to sensitive cultural material, like human remains, around which issues like ownership and preservation revolve.

Bergman and Doershuk define ethics as “what is good and bad and what compromises moral duty and obligation” (2003, 86). We expanded this definition and decided that for an archaeologist, ethical behaviour is to identify the potential stakeholders involved, their mandates and cooperate with them while still achieving the research goal. We determined that at any one time there are at least three stakeholders involved, the archaeologist, the landowner (whether it be the federal government or a private owner) and the descendent group. In Cultural resource management the client also has a significant stake. As a result, to act ethically one must take into consideration the interests of all the stakeholders involved.

For an archaeologist, the primary objective of an excavation is to obtain as much information about a site as possible, while operating within the law and cooperating with other stakeholder interests. Archaeologists are often ascribed the identity of being “stewards of the archaeological record” (Groarcke and Warrick, 2006, 165) we preserve it, interpret it and can make accessible to the greater public. Does this make our interests more important than those of the other stakeholders? Here in lies the challenge. Whose interests matter more? Does research take precedence over site preservation? Should the wishes of descendent group be more important then those of the landowner? Should all stakeholders be equal? There is no easy answer; yet each excavation team will have to take some form of action.

Ethics are also significant when extracting value from archaeological data. Oral histories from a descent group could contextualize data in way that academic deductions could not. Alternatively, the academic record can identify inaccuracies in the oral history. The oral history of Parc Safari is a good example. Although the site is less than thirty years old, discrepancies have been discovered between the oral history and the material we have excavated. If there is a conflict in interpretation, whose story is chosen as correct?

We also discussed the importance of avoiding biases and considering alternative opinions when interpreting archaeological data. Even within the same stakeholder group differences of opinion can exist. We discussed the divisions between academic and Cultural resource management (CRM) (Bergman and Doershuk 2003,1). CRM archaeological consulting is a relatively new development in the field of archaeology that is concerned with extracting archaeological data as a business. The difference between CRM and academic archaeology is that CRM is conducted to assess cultural remains within sites designated for future development. The result can be a salvage excavation to extract data from a site before potentially damaging construction or development takes place. The data derived from archaeological consulting has, in the past, been deemed as “grey literature”(and has been regarded as less important than the data from academic archaeological research). We discussed the possibility of using grey literature as a source of information for future academic research. Grey literature is a valuable resource, encouraging its use in academia could assist in discouraging the endurance of negative professional stereotypes.

We concluded our discussion by determining that archaeologists of any profession have an obligation to engage neutrally, preferably in the political arena where all stakeholders’ voices can be heard. It is important to remember that the archaeological record is publicly owned; because archaeologists have the privilege of first contact with the archaeological record there is substantial pressure to ensure that our choices and actions comply with the accepted ethical standards of the time. And let’s be honest, complying with ethical standards is a small price to pay for the fun of getting dirty in an excavation pit.

Works Cited:

Bergman, C.A & J.F Doershuk, 2003. Cultural Resource Management and the Business of Archaeology. In Ethical Issues in Archaeology, edited by L.J Zimmerman, K.D Vitelli, and J. Holloway-Zimmer, 85-98. New York: Altamira Press.

Groarke L. and G. Warrick, 2006. Stewardship gone astray? Ethics and the SAA. In The Ethics of Archaeology: philosophical perspectives on the archaeological practice, edited by C. Scarre and G. Scarre, 163-177. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Digitize This!! (oh wait, i already did)

Since our days in the field have unfortunately come to an end, Parc Safari 2010 has begun the process of discussing the possibilities of digital archaeology. As a group, we came to the consensus that in order for digital archives to be legible, standards must be applied to allow for comparability. Furthermore, metadatas must be created to facilitate useful comparisons based on ontologies. Our discussion this week turned to the effect of new technologies on field methods. While these technologies do allow for increased data acquisition, they must be taken up with a grain of salt.

It is fitting that during our discussion of the uses of technology in archaeology we should find ourselves with a perfect example of technology as a hindrance. Corroborating Backhouse’s claim “digital data is almost always useless because it generally has no contextual information with it”, the data points recorded by the total station lost some of their significance due to a misinterpretation of context (Backhouse 2006, 53). In order to understand this example, we need to go back in time to Parc Safari, week 8: after setting up the total station over our datum, a tedious process of leveling then adjusting then leveling again, we realized that our labour had been in vain because the stick on which the total station prism is mounted had been forgotten. Luckily, the total station is a technology designed to be adaptable; instead of using the prism to locate data points, a laser can be aimed directly at points to record their location. Since we had already plotted the location of each corner of PSTR1, we could use one of these corners for a temporary datum. This is where the problem came in: we knew that PSTR1 comprised of points 12,13,14,15 but we had not recorded in our notebooks the location of each of these points. So we made the assumption (which turned out to be incorrect) that the points must have been taken in either a counter-clockwise or clockwise manner, such that the northwest corner of PSTR1 would always be point 14. We then continued to plot all of the points for week 8 from point 14, which was actually the southwest corner of PSTR1. The result when Colin mapped the total station points of PSTR1 was a crooked map. In this way, our data suffered because we failed to record its context.

Total Station at northwest corner of PS2010TR1

Another limitation of digital archaeology is apparent in this example: that of digital maps. As Zubrow points out, the perceived reality of digital maps are often greater than is justified (Zubrow 2006, 22). Since our skewed map of PSTR1 is constructed of data points plotted by a sophisticated technology, somebody not involved in the project may view it as a completely accurate depiction. Unlike hand-drawn maps, which show the hand of the artist who produced them, digital maps have the appearance of being a “disembodied view from nowhere” (Zubrow 2006, 22). In reality, however, (like hand-drawn maps) digital maps “are located in culture, space and time” (Zubrow 2006, 22).

Map of PS2010TR1

Despite these limitations digital maps, and digital archaeology in general, provide useful tools for the archaeologist. As Chris pointed out, a hand-drawn map cannot be published in a paper thus necessitating its conversion to a digitized form. Not only does this conversion take time, it also “removes the data one more step away from the individual who made the observations in the first place. An interpretation on site recorded on paper is reinterpreted in post-excavation, introducing data irrelevance and data inaccuracy” (Backhouse 2006, 53). Furthermore, digitizing these maps allows a degree of play with archaeological data. In Bevan and Conolly’s survey of Kythera, Greece, for example, maps of terrain at multiple scales were layered over one another – a technique only made possible with GIS (2004, 132). By creating a mult-scalar map Bevan and Conolly were able to determine terrain curvature. In other words, which valleys appear as valleys at multiple scales? In a somewhat dated article, Dibble and McPherron seem to prophecy Bevan and Conolly’s approach when they write: “the fact is that we can and will explore more possible relationships when data manipulation is made much easier” (1989, 437). Since the possible questions an archaeologist can ask are increased by digital archaeology, “digital developments create or at least influence the creation of theory” (Zubrow 2006, 11).

The use of technology in archaeology offers more efficient, more sophisticated, and faster methods for use in data acquisition, analysis and archiving. Some of these possibilities have been described here. It is important to remember that without standards for recording such data it can become a drop of water in the ocean that is the archaeological record. It is also significant to acknowledge the effect that these new methodologies can have on archaeological theory.

Works Cited: Backhouse, P. 2006. “Drowning in Data? Digital data in a British contracting unit”. In: Daly, P. and Thomas L. Evans (eds.), Digital Archaeology – Bridging Theory and Method. New York: Routledge, pp. 50-59

Bevan, A. and J. Conolly. 2004. GIS, Archaeological Survey, and Landscape Archaeology on the Island of Kythera, Greece. Journal of Field Archaeology 29, 123-138.

Dibble, H.L. and S.P. McPherron. 1989. On the Computerization of Archaeological Projects. Journal of Field Archaeology 15, 431-440.

Zubrow, E.B.W. 2006. In: Daly, P. and Thomas L. Evans (eds.), Digital Archaeology – Bridging Theory and Method. New York: Routledge, pp. 10-33.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Packing it in. Or, how to excavate TR2 in one afternoon.

Last Friday was our last day in the field. The occasion brought the two groups together, produced several finds, and created a general excitement as we collectively tried to get as much done as we could before we packed it in for the term. As we worked quickly under a slightly overcast sky and brisk weather, we were very aware of the time constraint—as Chris and Colin put it, everything that we did that day needed to be finished. That day.

This week the group split up to maximize our time at the site and the first task at hand was to continue exposing the extended portion of our first trench (PS2010 TR1) since Group A had further exposed portions of several bones. Several bones were unearthed, including a rather large, short, and squat femur which soon became one of the biggest finds of the day.

At the same time, we continued test the subsurface deposits between our first trench (PS2010 TR1) and the Watusi unit, using the same method described in last week’s blog post—a simple and inexpensive coring device. As previously mentioned, we do not yet have a clear idea of the stratigraphy of all areas of the site since many of the layers have been disturbed by the construction of the road. The Parc Safari site was thus a good place to get an idea of the three-dimensional matrix of an archaeological site: most of the site consists of sediment and soil deposits (most of them anthropogenic, or altered by human activity) or constructions (the road), with scant artifacts. While it is largely an additive deposit, consisting of the various layers of animal burials and deposited refuse, there is a considerable amount of deposit subtraction that has occurred through the construction of the road (Kvamme 2005, 425). This post-depositional disturbance accounts for the mixed surface finds that we encountered in our trenches, close to the road.

The crew took turns coring, finding a similar stratigraphy to what had been encountered in the Watusi Pit. Making our way slightly northeast to TR1, we took several samples and found the same thing each time: past the top layer of vegetation there was (1) a loose organic layer, with some roots and grass, (2) a more densely packed layer of soil, and (3) a final layer somewhere between the dirt and clay.

One last core was left, close to TR1, and it was my turn to have a go. It was a bit tougher than I thought it would be, but after briefly contemplating jumping on the handles and treating it like a pogo stick, I gave it one last good shove and in the ground it went. This one was slightly different. After the topsoil there was simply the loosely packed organic layer and the more densely packed layer of soil—so now we have an idea of where the stratigraphy changes in that portion of the site.

To get a better idea of the subsurface deposits, next year’s team may be able to use the brand-spanking new Ground Penetrating Radar (see previous post); however, this year it was not at our disposal. We did have one last project at hand, though—as we were simultaneously continuing to excavate/map TR1 and coring, we began and completed our second trench, PS2010 TR2.

The location of this second 50cm x 2m trench was determined by a hypothesis that Chris and Colin had about the mapping of methane emissions by the geography department. If the methane emissions could be proven to be higher near units that contained bone, then there might be a correlation between the methane level in the soil and animal remains, thus allowing us to include chemical mapping in our arsenal of terrestrial remote sensing techniques.

Chris and Colin seemed to be on to something, and we eagerly excavated the unit next to Peeper 3. Being careful to follow the Golden Rules, we unearthed an array of individual bones, including a tailbone in the southwest portion of the trench. After carefully mapping in our finds, our instructors nearly had to pull us away from our trowels to pack up. It appears as if you really do find everything on the last day…

That lion will have to wait for next year.

Kvamme, K. 2005. Terrestrial Remote Sensing in Archaeology. In: Maschner, H.D.G., Chippindale, C. (Eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Methods. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, pp. 423-77.

Roskams, S. 2001. Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stein, J.K., 1986. Coring Archaeological Sites. American Antiquity 51, 505-527.