Here is the video from last Friday's excavation. Enjoy!
I've got a long going on, so it's been tough to find the time to produce both weekly blog posts and weekly videos about the field school excavations. I intended to write about Week 3, and I hoped to also write about Week 5 (Week 4 was cancelled due to the flu). I'm bearing down on the modeling work I need to do prior to the SAA's (in April) and prioritizing on some other things as well . . . so it looks like video will be my main avenue for communicating about the field school in the near term.
Here is the video from last Friday's excavation. Enjoy!
I have decided to build my Fall 2018 Forbidden Archaeology class (now ANTH 227) around the theme "Cataclysm and the Lost World." We'll be exploring a variety of claims connected to one another through the general ideas that (1) the cultural/natural world was a qualitatively different place in the ancient past; and (2) that "lost world" world was destroyed through some kind of incredible catastrophe.
As in the first iteration of the course, the main goal will be to build critical thinking/communication skills. Credible ideas about the human past can withstand scrutiny and challenges, while incorrect ideas can be shown to be incorrect. My goal is to give the students the confidence, tools, and information they need to critically evaluate ideas about the past. And have fun doing it.
I have yet to narrow down the exact topics we'll be covering. The theme, obviously, provides lots of potential avenues down which to explore: e.g., Atlantis, gold-mining Annunaki from Nibiru, pyramid power plants, the pre-Flood world, etc. Within any and all of these topics, one can evaluate specific claims and explore the various motivations for creating/maintaining narratives about the past that are not supported by facts.
The structure of the course will be somewhat different than the first time around. There will still be student blog posts and I hope I can arrange for a guest or two, but I'd like to try to build some of the structure around some other activities. I've got some ideas that I'll need to think through, and some of what will be possible or impossible may depend upon enrollment numbers. I'll keep you posted as things develop!
I'm sorry to announce that the field school did not make it into the field last Friday. Having spent the entire week dealing with the flu in our household, I was worn out and probably still contagious. It would not have been responsible of me to expose my students to the virus, so I made the executive decision to stand down for the week.
In lieu of going in the field, I gave the students a three part reading assignment to help them understand the context of what we're doing at 38FA608:
Part 1: Review last season’s fieldwork
Please read through my weekly blog posts (listed here) from last season’s excavations to familiarize yourself with what we did and why we did it that way. This will help you better understand the purpose of what you are doing in this year’s excavations.
Part 2: Familiarize yourself with basic vocabulary used to describe sediments and basic concepts of sediment deposition and soil formation
Please read the following two documents online, keeping in mind what you know so far about the site where we are working: “Guide to Texture by Feel” (USDA) and “Soil Formation” (LSU). Being able to competently identify and describe sediments and understand what differences in color and texture might mean is important to being a good excavator.
Part 3: Understand the general geomorphological setting of 38FA608
Please read this short article on natural levees and have a look at this paper about the formation of lamellae in sandy sediments. The lamellae paper is fairly technical, so don’t be discouraged: try to understand what the authors are saying about the formation of lamellae (which we have in abundance at 38FA608 in the deeper zones) and what they might be telling us.
This week's announcement that a 10,000-year-old resident of Britain had dark skin and blue eyes has added another data point to our understanding of the complex and fascinating evolution of variability in human pigmentation. DNA analysis was used to give "Cheddar Man" a makeover:
The portrait of a dark-complected Cheddar Man has upset many racist modern Britons, who were comfortable with a lighter-skinned ancestor. White supremacists are attributing the change in Cheddar Man's skin tone to political correctness, cultural Marxism, and a hoax perpetrated by the UN and Jewish scientists.
These blanket rejections of the science responsible for Cheddar Man's new look come from the same crowd that, just two weeks ago, hailed the announcement of a 200,000-year-old "modern human" fossil from Israel as a significant blow to the Out of Africa theory. Oh you fickle racists.
In reality, the claim that a European from the Early Holocene probably had dark skin and blue eyes is unsurprising in light of other recent work suggesting that lightened skin pigmentation emerged relatively recently in European populations. These conclusions are not the result of agenda-driven guesswork, but of direct analysis of DNA. Have a look at the paper from the La Brana specimen for an example.
Data on the recent emergence of "whiteness" among European populations undercuts the white supremacist notion that light skin tone is ancient, "special," and somehow linked to inherent biological/cultural superiority. It's a very short step from the modern mythologies of white supremacy into numerous threads of pseudo-archaeology, many of which depend on the existence of ancient "white gods," "white giants," "white Atlanteans," etc.
The real stories of human variability are much more interesting than the fantasy ones. I recommend embracing evidence.
My house is still a sick ward, so I think the best contribution I can make to archaeological science today is to type out a few thoughts about a pair of papers that came out last week. The papers ("Extraordinary Biomass-Burning Episode and Impact Winter Triggered by the Younger Dryas Cosmic Impact ∼12,800 Years Ago," parts 1 and 2) lay out evidence for an anomalous episode of widespread burning that coincided with the onset of the Younger Dryas. The papers are unfortunately behind a Journal of Geology paywall. As you might expect from the mental image that the title conjures, the papers have gotten a lot of play in the media.
I'm going to play the sensationalism card with this image:
These papers are complicated, synthesizing a lot of data and information. I count 27 authors, including my South Carolina colleague Christopher Moore. There is a lot to digest here. I'll leave it to others to evaluate the parts of the papers that are outside my area of expertise. What I'm most interested in how the claims of widespread burning mesh with the Late Pleistocene archaeological record of eastern North America.
But first, what do the papers say? In the first one ("Ice Cores and Glaciers") the authors present data suggesting anomalous peaks in "combustion aerosols" in ice cores layers from several continents dating to about 12,800 years ago. Those concentrations, presumably caused by combustion of organic matter, coincide with anomalous concentrations of dust and platinum which the authors associate with a cosmic impact. This is a good summary of the scenario that they envision:
"The best explanation for the available evidence is that Earth collided with a fragmented comet. If so, aerial detonations or ground impacts by numerous relatively small cometary fragments, widely dispersed across several continents, most likely ignited the widespread biomass burning observed at the YD [Younger Dryas] onset."
For the uninitiated, the Younger Dryas was a temporary and rather sudden return to glacial conditions that occurred, for some reason, as the earth was coming out of its last glacial period. The causes of the Younger Dryas are a subject of debate, with the majority view being that the change was caused by an interruption in global ocean circulation patterns. These "Biomass-Burning" papers add to a growing body of scholarly work arguing for an alternative scenario, attributing sudden global cooling to a "nuclear winter" effect caused by atmospheric dust and smoke on a massive scale triggered by cosmic impacts.
The second paper ("Lake, Marine, and Terrestrial Sediments") examines dated sediment cores from numerous locations for the presence of peaks in charcoal and soot that would have been deposited as impact-related wildfires burned at large scales. Based on that analysis, the authors conclude that about 9% of the Earth's biomass was burned at the Younger Dryas boundary.
Nine percent is a big number no matter how you slice it. That's a lot of stuff on fire. I'll leave it to the climate people to evaluate how that number translates into changes in global weather patterns and weather that could have been a trigger for the Younger Dryas. We know the Younger Dryas happened, and we know that human societies would have had to have adjusted to it. As an archaeologist who works in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, I immediately wonder how such a "biomass burning" scenario articulates with the archaeological record.
The burning would had to have been spotty (nine percent is not, after all, 100%). Even though the smoke and soot from combustion in the atmosphere is supposed to have contributed to the "nuclear winter" effect, however, direct evidence for it doesn't show up in every core. There are several possible reasons for those absences, including post-depositional processes ("the soot was deposited but has been destroyed"). What intrigues me is the possibility that some of variability in the deposition of charcoal/soot could be linked to which areas were actually burned. Surely the wildfires would have been of varying scale and duration, and would have affected nearby environments in complex ways. We're talking about global climate change, but local/regional burning (which presumably would have taken place over a relatively short period of time). Creating some kind of geographic map of which areas were ostensibly burned would be useful for comparison to what we know/suspect about shifts in human population in response to the Younger Dryas.
I feel the "cosmic collision apocalypse" trope has been seriously abused, mostly by those outside of the actual scholarly debate. If there was an impact that triggered the Younger Dryas, it did not result in the extinction of human populations in eastern North America in any way that I can see. What I see instead is change in the distribution of populations and shifts in technology, subsistence, and mobility. Clovis doesn't "go extinct:" it changes into something else that actually looks a lot like Clovis (large, fluted, parallel-sided points similar to Clovis [e.g., Gainey/Bull Brook, Redstone] are the technological descendants of Clovis and post-date the Younger Dryas boundary). Large-scale time/space changes in the distribution of Paleoindian populations are something I've been interested in. So far, I haven't seen anything that looks to me to be a direct response to some kind of cataclysm.
But what would such a response look like and how we tell it apart from the alternatives? These are good questions to ask and not simple ones to answer. I am unconvinced that there is good evidence for some kind of significant, widespread post-Clovis population drop. In some areas of the east (i.e., the Northeast and the lower peninsula of Michigan), human populations actually seem to expand their range northward as the climate gets colder. Long story short: it's complicated.
We surely have the tools to investigate human responses to the larger patterns of climate change that characterize the Younger Dryas. I do not know, however, if the terrestrial sediment record, as it exists now or as it can be analyzed in the future, is fine-grained enough to develop a model of where in Eastern Woodlands large-scale burning would have occurred in the "nuclear winter" scenario. Likewise, it's not clear that the archaeological record is sufficiently fine-grained to track the short term responses of human populations to the new landscape that would have been created by widespread burning.
That's all I've got for now. Fingers crossed a comet doesn't hit us before we get all this figured out.
Hello friends. Our is a sick ward right now, with four people in various stages of a flu-like illness. Knowing I wouldn't get to campus today, I spent what energy I had yesterday to produce the summary video of our Friday work at the field school. As things get more complicated, the videos are getting longer (you can find links to the previous two here or on my YouTube channel. And my personal laptop which I use at home is a snail compared to the computer in my office. Anyway . . . I blame any lack of clarity on the virus and/or Shawn the Sheep.
I'll write a regular blog post when things get back to normal. I'm also planning on writing about the "earth was on fire" study that's been making headlines. In the meantime, enjoy and share!
Most of my time during the first three weeks of the semester has been consumed with getting this year's field school season off to a good start, catching up in my lab, and doing stuff around the house. I have had some time on evenings and weekends, though, to work in the garage, and there are other art things in the works I wanted to mention. Here's what's new.
As I've grown more comfortable with the video editing software I use (Adobe Premiere), I've become more efficient at making videos. Videos aren't a complete replacement for writing, but I think they provide something that writing doesn't. I've posted several more to my YouTube channel over the last month. Here they are in case you missed them.
Kinetic Derby Day
There's a new festival coming to West Columbia in April: Kinetic Derby Day. I'm planning on participating as an artist in some form or fashion, although we have yet to work out the details. I've created a lot of new stuff since my Afterburner show at Tapp's last summer, but ideally I want to make something brand new to roll out. I've got ideas and materials, and I've started working on it. I'm not going to say what it is because that commitment would add pressure that would make it less fun. I'll just say it will be bigger than a bread basket.
I've started working on it and it's going well (I'm not super familiar with the animal, so I've had to watch a lot of videos and look at a lot of pictures). I'm going to hold off on "in progress" photos on this one, I think, and reveal it when it's done. I'm videotaping my progress so there will be a video at the end, also. I estimated the piece would take about 25 hours to complete. I'm about 6-7 hours in at this point. The image above shows my original accumulation of possible pieces on a chalk drawing in my driveway.
I wasn't planning on writing a blog post today, but two things came across my desk this morning as I was going through emails and making my "to-do" list. The first one was this article in The Conversation about the history of "fake news." The second was this top ten list of giant human skeleton claims.
The multiple connections between these stories operate on several levels. The piece in The Conversation, written by a professor of media studies at Penn State, had me shaking my head not because it was wrong, but because I'm frustrated that pointing out that 19th century newspapers often fabricated stories to increase circulation rates as insightful. As anyone who follows the history of pseudo-archaeology knows, made-up stories in 19th century newspapers about made-up places, made-up artifacts, and made up giant skeletons are integral to the perpetuation of the tangled mess of 19th century claims about the human past that persist today among "forbidden history" advocates of all stripes (Young Earth Creationists, white supremacists, Atlantis enthusiasts, giantologists, etc.).
It's bizarre that the same crowd that cries "fake news" and "conspiracy" today relies so heavily and so uncritically on newspapers that have been shown to have produced multitudes of fake stories for the purpose of selling copies.
I don't know how many discussions I've had with people on line who say that, unlike now, the media could be trusted back in the 1800's because there was no reason for them to lie.
Did you know, for example, that we discovered life on the moon in 1835?
I think there's a deep parallel between the creation and spread of fake news stories about giant skeletons in the 1800's and the resurgence and re-spread of those same stories now. I suspect that, in both cases, it has something to do with the emergence of new technologies of mass communication (the proliferation of cheap newspapers then, the internet today). Some of the same dynamics are at work in encouraging the publication of fantastic claims and rewarding those that create and spread them.
Which brings me to the second piece: a Listverse article titled "10 Forbidden And Creepy Claims Of Giant Human Skeletons" by Duane Wesley. I'm linking to this dumb article not to increase it's exposure, but so you can see it for yourselves.
Wesley places himself among the world's most gullible people by citing for support, in the first paragraph, the satirical World News Daily Report article that has demonstrated the critical thinking skills of so many believers in giants. He then lists nine well-worn "giant skeleton" reports from late 19th and early 20th century newspapers. For good measure, he throws in as evidence a more recent satirical article (also from the World News Daily Report) about a giant skeleton unearthed in Australia.
And why does Duane Wesley do this to us?
To make a hundred bucks, apparently.
That's how it works, I guess. You go look at other lists of giant skeletons, switch up the order, cite a publication that's one step below The Onion on the credibility scale, send it to Listverse, get your money through PayPal, and go buy some groceries or cat food or whatever you think is a suitable way to spend the money you earned for making America dumber.
Congratulations, Duane: you're part of the problem.
Last Friday was our second day in the field. We had another sunny day with temperatures starting around freezing but warming up to the mid-60's by the afternoon. As far an January working weather goes, I'll take it.
Other than educating students and directing the excavation, I had one main job: bring ground coffee and filters. I botched it. I won't fail again. I promise.
We started the day going over the basic components of our record-keeping system: the Field Specimen (FS) log, the unit/level forms, bag labels, and individual notebooks. I explained to the students how all of these things work together to match the materials we collect to the contexts from which we have removed those materials. The FS system I use is a kind of single context recording system that assigns unique numbers to unique proveniences of artifacts and samples. Redundancies built into the information that goes in the FS log, on the forms, and on the bags provide a way to catch and fix errors.
There was a little bit of water in the block that we bailed while removing the plastic. The main activities for the day were resuming excavation in Unit 5 and getting started on a unit extending the block to the north (Unit 12).
At the end of last year's excavation, the floor of Unit 5 was 20 cm higher than the floor of Units 4 and 6. Unit 5 was the only unit in the block where we maintained a consistent piece-plot strategy all the way down after the first plowzone. That, along with a large number of roots, slowed things down. My plan is to maintain the piece-plot methodology in Unit 5 in perpetuity, as it will provide us with a consistent column of high resolution data down through the deposits.
Removing the landscape fabric from the floor of Unit 5 revealed some minor damage from ant tunnels. Sam and a crew of two students got to work cleaning the surface with trowels and beginning excavation of level 7.
Unit 12 is a 2m x 2m unit abutting the north edge of Unit 4. My goal in opening and excavating this unit is to get it down to the level of the floor in Units 4 and 6, exposing the northern portion of a cultural feature (probably a Late Archaic pit feature) that extends outside of Unit 4. As in the first unit/levels last year, we started Unit 12 by excavating arbitrary levels in 1m x 1m quadrants of the unit. This gives the students a chance to get some experience with controlled excavation while we're still up in the plowzone, where mistakes don't actually cost you any data.
.After the students get some reps digging arbitrary levels in near-surface contexts, we'll strip the remainder of the plowzones (there are two plowzones, remember) as natural levels and get down into what's underneath. In some places in the block and the machine profile, there appeared to be lenses of unplowed sheet midden and/or a natural A horizon beneath the lower plowzone (Zone 2). We'll be on the lookout for those as well as for truncated features extending from base of the second plowzone.
The floor and walls of Units 4 and 6 remain covered by backfill for now. While having that dirt in there makes for some ugly pictures, its presence protects the unexcavated deposits from our feet and from the water that will get in the block (and the bailing to remove the water). It also provides support to the fragile cut wall between Unit 5 and Unit 6, and allows us to have a ramp to get in and out of the block. It's better to have some ugly photos than to lose the archaeology through weeks of trampling.
As promised, I made a video of our activities in Week 2. Enjoy!
Last year, I wrote a blog post after every day of field school. This year I'm going to try something different. My plan is to create a short (5-10 minute) video that shows and describes our activities each day in the field. While the blog posts were useful for both research and public communication (and I plan to write when I need to talk about particular things in more detail), I think I might be able to expand my audience by making our work accessible through video.
I hope to have a video from each Friday posted by the following Monday on my YouTube channel. Here's the first installment. Enjoy!
All views expressed in my blog posts are my own. The views of those that comment are their own. That's how it works.
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