Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dibbling in Technology

Hello all, I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. My “lap-top” computer (Dibble 433) succumbed to the rigours of the field last week (roommate sat on it).

Our discussions the week before last focused on the uses and limitations of technology within the field. As time goes on and technological advances continue their endless march towards the singularity/Wall-E, archaeologists finds itself in a bit of a quandary. As Dibble so astutely points out, “'lap-top' computers” are getting smaller every day (433), and the traditional ways of recording data in notebooks and performing analysis by hand are quickly becoming dated. New technologies for recording data more precisely and accurately, as well as the new types of data that emerge as a result of a more expansive toolkit, radically alter the ways in which archaeologists conceive of their work. Though they bring solutions to many existing problems, they also carry, in a manner somewhat akin to the Biblical Plagues, a host of new ones.

We began with a discussion of Zubrow, who addresses some of the issues associated with the growing adoption of technology in “Digital Archaeology.” One of the first points he brought up was whether digital developments were primarily methodological advances, or whether their adoption resulted in the creation of a new theoretical toolkit. While its true that more precise ways of recording data are essentially methodological, its also true that new theories could become necessary in order to address the new types of data being generated.

We also discussed another point that Zubrow made, regarding the greater ubiquity of data generated from technological sources. The open-source effect, in which the data was available to a greater range of people, among a wider array of disciplines, has important consequences. This brought up a discussion of Tdar, a site which hosts archaeological data from a variety of sources, most of which were not peer reviewed, in order to promote greater access to research. One important observation that resulted from an agglomeration of data such as this is the need for a universal standard by which to group and arrange data. A standard format promotes greater accessibility. However, one perceived danger of such a standard is that hinders theoretical advances by constraining possible new avenues for interpreting data.

Our next discussion concerned the work of Andrew Bevan and James Conolly on the island of Kythera, Greece. This study remains the benchmark for the use of GIS and digital data collection, as they covered a ridiculously large amount of the Island's area with an equally ridiculously large array of measurements in order to gain data for the questions they were asking. One of the questions they asked was whether surface visibility affects the amount of artifacts recovered from a site, a question that reminded me of our own efforts to survey the terrain at the graveyard in order to gain a sense of what may or may not be buried beneath the surface. In our case, surface visibility was extremely low, making the placement of our test pits essentially a shot in the dark. Fortunately we were able to rely on previous knowledge of finds in the region in order to better situate our pits, but visibility definitely affected our fieldwork. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Bevan and Conolly found no significant correlation between surface visibility and artifact finds. Surprising in the sense that archaeologists have long relied on the degree of surface visibility as a means of estimating the possible number of finds in an area. Yet the research showed that there was no significant variation between the artifacts found in areas with low visibility vs high visibility, due to the fact that visibility is but one of several factors determining the likelihood of an artifact being recovered. I say not so surprisingly in the sense that its logical that the amount of visibility doesn't affect that actual placement of artifacts, a distinction that archaeologists need to keep in mind. In our case, based on past experience and our background knowledge, we were able to work in regions where our chances of success were high. Yet we didn't assume that the number of artifacts in the regions we surveyed were low just because we couldn't see them.

The work of Bevan and Conolly underlines the need to take into account not only the actual process of data collection, but also the time needed to interpret and analyze it when doing a project. Their immensely technological approach also highlights the stark reality of the actual prevalence of digital archaeology within the field, which according to Colin hovers around 30%. This is due not only to adverse environmental conditions in field- rain and technology, or dirt and technology don't often cohabit peacefully, but also archaeologists desperately clinging to the tried and true (as well as cheaper) methods of manual data entry. This was pretty apparent when at the first few drops of rain in the field we had to run to cover up the total station with a tarp. I can't see the station being used very much in rainier conditions.

Our discussion helped us gain a better understanding of both the solutions and the problems that the introduction of technology brings. Discussions in a seminar may not seem as fun as digging, possibly because it isn't, but it gives us valuable perspectives into the reasons behind why we do what we do, and how we can do what we do better. Following the seminar we proceeded to retrieve our own data on the field from the total station. It turned out to be surprisingly close (Colin almost fainted) to the real thing. Yeah! No real anomalies seemed to exist regarding the points on the map. All that remained to do was to match the tags on our recovered and newly cleaned bones to the points on the map, in order to fuse the data and create a dataset for our work this year. I feel that our project thus errs on the side of success. We found an elephant, for the love of god.

Works Cited:

Bevan, A., Conolly, J., 2002. GIS, Archaeological Survey, and Landscape Archaeology on the Island of Kythera, Greece. Journal of Field Archaeology 29, 123-138.

Dibble, H.L. & S.P. McPherron, 1988. On The Computerization of Archaeological Projects. Journal of Field Archaeology 15, 431–440.

Zubrow, E.B., 2006. Digital Archaeology: a historical context. In: Digital Archaeology: Bridging Method and Theory. London, Routledge, pp. 10-31.

Ignorance is not Bliss

When most people think of archaeology, they think about the exciting stuff; digging in an exotic place, discovering amazing artifacts, and bringing them back as trophies of a job well done. But rarely do people stop to think about the correct way to treat artifacts. Should we, as archaeologists, take as much as we can find and leave nothing behind for those that come in the future? Who really owns the artifacts that are found? And who has the right to decide where they should be put for safe keeping? These are some of the issues of ethical archaeology.

First of all, upon making a startling discovery or even just an interesting find, it is tempting to excavate to the fullest extent and recover as many artifacts as possible. This is problematic however, since we must consider that even over a decade, technology has improved at an alarming rate. This means that technology will most likely continue to improve over the next decade and so on. Therefore, it seems only logical that archaeologists should leave some of the landscape unexcavated so that those who come later will be able to use their new found technologies to perhaps get more detailed and accurate information. As was suggested in the “Can You Dig it?” article by the Economist, a viable plan is to “move away from the complete excavation of sites towards a more selective, sampling approach”. This would be a responsible way for archaeologists to behave. We cannot be too arrogant as to ignore the fact that those who come after us might actually be more successful or efficient in their work.

It seems that pride is a recurring theme in many of the ethical issues of archaeology. For instance, it seems as if archaeologists have come to see themselves as seekers of the truth and unfortunately, the high importance they place on that “truth” tends to blur the boundaries on what is ethical and what is not, especially on the issue of ownership of artifacts. As was stated in the Economist article, “the ownership of artefacts and responsibility to future generations, all stem in part from archaeology's new-found scientific authority” (Can You Dig it?, The Economist). This sense of authority sometimes causes archaeologists to neglect certain cultural and moral values that might be held by the community or culture that is associated with the artifacts that are found. The most favourable solution would be for archaeologists to work along with community members in order to come to an agreement that suits the desires of both parties. Though this would undoubtedly be complicated, it is imperative that archaeologists establish good relationships with the people involved. Arguably, one of the ultimate goals of archaeology is to enhance knowledge of human culture, therefore we have to start thinking more about the “human” part of it. The Society for American Archaeology agrees with this, however its principles of stewardship have certain flaws that would be improved (Groarke and Warrick, 2006). In addition to archaeologists seeing themselves as having a greater authority than most, there seems to be a Western way of thinking and doing that presents itself in some situations. Bergman and Doershuk state that in 1994, ninety percent of practicing archaeologists in the United States were of European descent (2003), which is startling and sort of unsettling when you think of the fact that these are the people making choices on behalf of the descendants of multiple ethnicities and that bias is almost inevitable. Archaeologists have to take into consideration that their interpretations will undoubtedly differ greatly from those of others and they cannot always assume that they know better just because they have science behind them.

Moving into the future, archaeologists can no longer ignore the wishes of members of the cultures that stake claims to artifacts, nor can they ignore the fact that there could be more successful archaeologists in the future. Therefore, they must find ways to interact efficiently with the other parties involved in their work and they must recognize that preserving parts of sites will prove more effective in the long term scheme of things. In short, it is apparent that when it comes to ethical archaeology, ignorance is not bliss.


Bergman, C., Doershuk, J. (2003). Cultural Resource Management and the Business of Archaeology in Ethical Issues in Archaeology (85-97). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Ethics and Archaeology: Can You Dig it? In The Economist. (2002).

Groarke, L., Warrick, G. (2006). Stewardship gone astray? Ethics and the SAA in The Ethics of Archaeology (163-177). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bye Magic!

When we got to the site for our final day in the field, our primary concern was identifying how to use our time to remove the most of Magic’s remains as possible. Group A had extended a trench between our original pit and the 2007 Magic pit and already removed a humerus from that trench. We decided to dig for the second humerus in that trench and to expand a small section of our original pit to the east to remove a scapula that was extending about halfway into the original pit. These bones were out two primary goals, as well as any vertebrae and ribs which we could remove from the original pit without further expanding it.

The humerus was covered by layers of thick black plastic which needed to be cut out bit by bit with a pocket knife. This was slow going and kept two people busy for the entire field day, a lesson in how difficult it can be to budget time in the field when unforeseen problems arise. We eventually removed the humerus! The scapula and several vertebrae were also removed. We also found a femur from a much smaller animal near the proximal end of the humerus but we did not find any other bones which looked as though they belonged to the same animal.

Mid-way through the day we had a quick tutorial is soil coring. We practiced using soil coring equipment and discussed the possible uses for soil coring at our site. As we already know the stratigraphy within the trench dug to bury Magic, by looking for where this stratigraphy ends we could identify the extent of Magic’s grave more quickly than we could digging test pits. We attempted to use this method to determine how far east Magic’s grave extends. However the stoniness of the soil at Parc Safari made it difficult to obtain soil samples containing the diagnostic layer of organic, pulpy sawdust which we found during excavation. Still, soil coring remains an extremely useful method of defining the edges of a site or of specific features. This is especially true at sites where features are very deeply buried, where mechanical coring equipment can be used which test pits are not feasible (Canti, 1998).

Soil coring could be useful in future years to determine the extent of Magic’s grave now that we know what to look for in the stratigraphy. Soil coring can be used to locate graves and human activity without knowledge of the stratigraphy through analysis of soil phosphorus levels (Holliday, 2006). Increased phosphorus would be left in the soil from decomposing animal matter, however as Magic is buried on farmland high levels of phosphorus could also indicate that fertilizer has been used on the soil in the past (Holliday, 2006). Our site also has extremely wet soil, which would generally cause soils to retain phosphorus however the effects of soil moisture on soil phosphorus levels has not been well studied (Holliday, 2006).

The excavation of the rest of Magic will unfortunately have to wait for another year. With the knowledge of Magic’s exact location and judging by the amount of dirt we managed to move, maybe by this time next year Magic’s remains will be reunited!

Canti, M. G., & Meddens, F. M. (1998). Mechanical Coring as an Aid to Archaeological Projects. Journal of Field Archaeology, 25(1), 97-105.
Holliday, V. T., & Gartner, W. G. (2007). Methods of soil P analysis in archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(2), 301-333.