Artifacts Galore: Lab Day!

Check out my other posts on the ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?” blog!

Here is the full text: 

When I was in college, oh so long ago, we focused primarily on the traditional aspects of archaeology without doing much in the way of hands-on activities; anything of that sort was left for fieldschool.  Most of the students in the introductory archaeology courses were planning on majoring in the field, and so fieldschool was a requirement, so it’s not surprising methods and artifact analysis were left out.  But, I’m a hands-on kind of learner.  The more I can see, touch, and interact with, the better I will remember it.  If I solely learned about lithics and the process of creating stone tools in class/from books without learning flint knapping or working with collections of flakes, cores, and tools, I don’t think I would be able to recognize tools and such in the field as quickly or with as much accuracy.  That being said, I still drone on about theory, formation processes, the history of archaeology and the like in my courses, but I try to have a hands-on aspect as well.  After covering dating methods, I set up a large dendrochronology (see the post on tree-ring dating) master sequence on one of the walls and handed out tiny tree ring ‘samples’ that my students had to match up to the sequence.  They had to figure out when the tree started growing, when it was cut, and how many wet and dry spells occurred.

fullsizeoutput_4a7

What I hope my students see: the artifacts from this ‘site’ are from an established village. There’s groundstone, so agriculture may be present. There is a variety of pottery types, as well as lithic materials, so there may be trade.

This past week I covered the different types of artifacts typically observed in the material record, like stone tools and pottery.  I raided type collection for all kinds of artifacts to set up small mock archaeological sites in my classroom; each site even had it’s own context!  I wish we had the time to set up mock sites outside, but this was just going to have to do.  So, I set up three prehistoric sites, two historic sites, and one trick (got to keep students on their toes).  Some of the sites had to be created with photographs of historic artifacts, but I think they got the idea across.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lab questions for each ‘site.’

More than anything, I wanted my students to think about what artifacts can tell you about a site, like what people ate or trade networks.  And, how the lack of artifacts may indicate looting.  Context is key—for artifacts to have meaning, we have to know where they were located.  Then, we can generate a narrative for what happened in the past.  That’s why I included a photograph of a rather famous looter’s basement, who had artifacts piled to the ceiling.  A couple of students came up to me, saying, “but this isn’t a site! What’s the context?” and we had a nice chat about whether or not you can actually learn anything from something completely out of context.

What's up, Archaeology?

When I was in college, oh so long ago, we focused primarily on the traditional aspects of archaeology without doing much in the way of hands-on activities; anything of that sort was left for fieldschool.  Most of the students in the introductory archaeology courses were planning on majoring in the field, and so fieldschool was a requirement, so it’s not surprising methods and artifact analysis were left out.  But, I’m a hands-on kind of learner.  The more I can see, touch, and interact with, the better I will remember it.  If I solely learned about lithics and the process of creating stone tools in class/from books without learning flint knapping or working with collections of flakes, cores, and tools, I don’t think I would be able to recognize tools and such in the field as quickly or with as much accuracy.  That being said, I still drone on about theory…

View original post 356 more words

Artifacts: What’s all that jargon about?

Here is another one of my posts from the What’s Up, Archaeology? blog!  Here is the Full text:

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out there.  Hopefully, through the terms, you will see that whatever you’re looking at is more than just a pretty arrowhead or piece of pottery—jargon gives weight/meaning to each of the artifacts we find.

First things first: What is an artifact?

An artifact is anything made by human hands.  In the United States, based on cultural resource management laws, an artifact is anything made by human hands that is 50 years old or older.  That gross rusty evaporated milk can?

12

A variety of prehistoric artifacts, including pottery, a hammerstone, a ground stone fragment, and debitage.

That’s an artifact!  That 1,000-year-old basket fragment?  That’s an artifact.  You get the idea.  Artifacts are an amazing tangible link to past people and cultures.  If you find any kind of artifact, please, just take a picture and put it back where you found it; taking an artifact from the site can change how we interpret the past.  Every artifact—even the ugliest of tin cans—matter!

 

Lithics: any artifact made of stone

Do you like stone tools?  Well, those types of artifacts fall under the category of ‘lithics.’  Flint knapping, the process of making stone tools, generates a whole bunch of jargon-laden terms.

-Core: a big chunk of stone, like obsidian, which flakes are removed during the knapping process.

-Hammerstone: a nice rock to hit the core, in order to make flakes.

20151004_142456

Quartzite flakes and debitage.

-Flake: a piece of stone removed from a core to make a tool or debitage.

-Debitage: stone debris knocked off a core that can’t be used for anything else.

Some sites may have a ‘lithic scatter’ where an archaeologist can tell if people were creating stone tools due to the amount of flakes and debitage left behind.

 

img_20170628_175819_566.jpg

This protohistoric chalcedony knife was made through the knapping process.

Projectile Point: those pointy things

A projectile point is the tool that gets fastened to the end of a spear, dart, or arrow shaft.  Most people are familiar with stone spears and arrowheads, but they also have been made from antler, bone, and copper.  The type of material used for projectile points can tell archaeologists about trade and the style can show cultural change overtime.  Unfortunately, projectile points are some of the most popular artifacts to be taken from archaeological sites.

Ground stone: feel the grind

Ground stone tools are formed by the grinding, pecking, or polishing of one stone with another stone.  These tools include manos and metates, which were used to grind up seeds.  There are pestles that would be used to crush seeds in a carved-out shape on a boulder, as well as beautifully crafted stone axes to pipes.

Ceramics: fire it up

Ceramics are artifacts made of fired clay, including pottery (jars, bowls, etc.), figurines, or really any other objects using fired clay.  Pottery provides archaeologists an incredible amount of information on clay types, trade, design, culture change, cooking, food, and so on.

Potsherds: no, not ‘shards’

A ‘sherd’ is a prehistoric or historic fragment of pottery.  There are many rocks that look like sherds (‘shrocks’) and sherds that look like rocks (‘jerkfaces’), which can make it difficult to distinguish at a site.

Perishables: where’d it go?

Most artifacts observed at archaeology sites are made of long-lasting materials, like stone or fired clay.  It’s not surprising that we typically do not find baskets, blankets, or animal skins at sites.  You need extremely good conditions, like a dry cave, to preserve perishable artifacts or artifacts made from organic materials, to prevent them from completely breaking down overtime.  It’s a particularly exciting day if you find a fragment of any kind of perishable artifact!

IMG_20180505_140721982

Prehistoric Fremont baskets.  Observed at The Prehistoric Museum, Price, UT.

What's up, Archaeology?

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out…

View original post 612 more words

Put a Ring On It: A Brief Overview of Dendrochronology

Another post from the What’s Up, Archaeology? blog!  Here’s the full text:

This week I’m teaching my students about the different methods archaeologists use to figure out how old an artifact and/or site could be, like radiocarbon dating to thermoluminescence.  One of my favorite kinds of methods is dendrochronology, also known as ‘tree-ring dating.’ Trees typically produce a distinct thin or thick growth ring per year, depending on the weather.  A wet year will produce a thick ring, while a dry year will produce a thin ring.  Why is that important?  Well, those rings can help date an archaeological site (something specific, like 735 AD!)!  On top of that, tree rings can help us understand past and present environmental processes and conditions (UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research), like climate change.

Dendrochronology

Trees that are sensitive to wet and dry cycles create distinct thick and thin rings, while complacent trees are boring.

In archaeology, dendrochronologists use a sample of wood with distinct tree-rings from an archaeological site (i.e. a wooden structure or a roof beam) to get the age of the tree when it was cut down—that’s the important thing to remember, the final ring is when the tree was cut and then likely used at the site.  It’s all about counting the rings on that cross section of wood.  The pattern of thick and thin rings from the sample is matched up to a much larger set of tree-ring samples or sequences from areas with similar environmental conditions.  By studying samples from “California bristlecone pine, European oaks, and other trees, tree-ring experts have developed a master chronology over 8,000 years into the past” (Fagan and Durrani 2016:115).

So, if I had a sample from a wooden beam from Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, I would try to match the pattern of rings with established tree-ring sequences in the Southwest.  That would give me the date of when the tree was cut and then used for that structure!

Dendro_example

A rundown of how to match a sample from a site to a larger master sequence of tree-rings.

But here’s the hitch (there just had to be one), we have to keep in mind that that trees may have been cut earlier, used at a structure, and then reused at a different building where it was discovered by archaeologists.  Despite this issue (important thing to consider!), dendrochronology remains a fundamental tool in figuring out the age of archaeological sites.  You can see where samples have been taken from a variety of archaeological sites throughout the Southwest, like at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

DSCN1322

The arrow points to where a tree-ring sample was removed from a wooden beam at Hungo Pavi, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, NM.

For more information, watch this great video on dendrochronology from Time Team America:

http://www.pbs.org/time-team/experience-archaeology/dendrochronology/

References

Fagan, Brian M. and Nadia Durrani

2016 Archaeology: A Brief Introduction. 12th Edition. Routledge, New York.

University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, electronic resource, https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings

 

What's up, Archaeology?

This week I’m teaching my students about the different methods archaeologists use to figure out how old an artifact and/or site could be, like radiocarbon dating to thermoluminescence.  One of my favorite kinds of methods is dendrochronology, also known as ‘tree-ring dating.’ Trees typically produce a distinct thin or thick growth ring per year, depending on the weather.  A wet year will produce a thick ring, while a dry year will produce a thin ring.  Why is that important?  Well, those rings can help date an archaeological site (something specific, like 735 AD!)!  On top of that, tree rings can help us understand past and present environmental processes and conditions (UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research), like climate change.

Dendrochronology Trees that are sensitive to wet and dry cycles create distinct thick and thin rings, while complacent trees are boring.

In archaeology, dendrochronologists use a sample of wood with distinct tree-rings from…

View original post 335 more words

I Love Teaching, But We All Have Those Days . . .

A new contribution to the ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?’ blog! Here’s the full text:

The Twelve Days of Archaeology Class, or, A Professor’s Lament
On the first day of classes, a student said to me,
Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the second day of classes, a student said to me,
Aliens could be the answer. . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the third day of classes, a student said to me,
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the fourth day of classes, a student said to me,
It’s just like the show ‘Bones’
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the fifth day of classes, a student said to me,
WHERE’S ALL THE GOLD?
It’s just like the show ‘Bones’
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the sixth day of classes, a student said to me,
I took this artifact while hiking
WHERE’S ALL THE GOLD?
It’s just like the show ‘Bones’
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the seventh day of classes, I stopped answering questions.
And Indiana Jones’s the worst there can be.

What's up, Archaeology?

The Twelve Days of Archaeology Class, or, A Professor’s Lament
On the first day of classes, a student said to me,
Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the second day of classes, a student said to me,
Aliens could be the answer. . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the third day of classes, a student said to me,
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the fourth day of classes, a student said to me,
It’s just like the show ‘Bones’
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be the answer . . .
And Indiana Jones’s the best there can be.

On the fifth day of classes, a student said to me,
WHERE’S ALL THE GOLD?
It’s just like the show ‘Bones’
Who cares about theory?
Aliens could be…

View original post 78 more words

What’s the Point of Archaeological Theory? No Longer Just a Torture Device!

View the rest of the post at the new ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?’ blog!  Check out all of the great contributors to the blog!

Here is the full text:

What’s the Point of Archaeological Theory? No Longer Just a Torture Device!

On a good day, I would say roughly 80 percent of my students hate archaeological theory, if not more.  I’ve had numerous chats with friends and colleagues about their collective hatred of theory.  It’s incredibly confusing stuff.  There was even a time I thought theory was invented to torture students, and in part, that is still true.  Over time—long after graduate school—theory grew on me.  I wouldn’t necessarily want sit down and read a theoretical extravaganza for kicks, but I see it’s usefulness and the need for it to be taught (sorry, students, you’re learning all about it this week).  So, what is ‘archaeological theory’?  Like many of the methods in archaeology, theory is just another tool to help us understand and explain the past.

Let’s get some jargon out of the way.  A ‘theory’ is a policy or procedure that is proposed and/or followed as the foundation of some action.  An ‘archaeological theory’ is then the set of procedures/methods used to conduct research, do an excavation, and interpret the past.  I like to think of theory as a set of lenses you can use to view archaeological data—a variety of extremely serious to super wacky glasses you can put on.  If I had a bunch of artifacts and data from a dig in Mesopotamia, I could use theory as a foundation/starting point to help explain why the site was abandoned, how the layers of dirt on top of the site formed over time, why people wanted to live in that specific area, and so on.

Theory can be taken too seriously.  Consider the following parable of the blind men and the elephant, a story I first heard in graduate school: there was a group of blind men who heard that an elephant had been in town, but none of the men knew the actual shape of an elephant.  When they felt the creature, one thought it was a snake (i.e. the trunk), one thought it was a fan (i.e. the ear), one thought it was a tree-trunk (i.e. the leg), and one thought it was a wall (i.e. the body)—they could only understand parts of the whole and insisted it was that one thing.  So, what on earth does this have to do with archaeology?

Think of the elephant as the material record/all we have left of the past and archaeologists are the blind men trying to interpret this confusing creature.  Each archaeologist is using different means (i.e. theory) to interpret and reconstruct the past.  But, they can be wrong about the interpretation.  Just as the blind men insist that the elephant was a snake or a wall, an archaeologist may misinterpret the past by insisting that that interpretation is the one single way of looking at the past.  We have to look at the whole picture to understand how a group of people lived.

Theory

Archaeologists trying to interpret the past (i.e. elephant) using extreme versions of post-processualism (left, anything goes) and processualism (right, super rigid and doesn’t consider people’s role in making culture).

There are so many archaeological theories to choose from and no single theory is perfect.  There’s processualism, post-processualism, cognitive processualism, processual-plus, neo-Marxism, neoevolutionary theory, feminist and gender theory, phenomenological theory, and so on.  These theories force us to use scientific methods, as well as confront our own biases about the past, and to consider multiple perspectives, human agency (i.e. people make culture), and otherwise neglected voices (i.e. women, elderly, minorities).  I prescribe to processual-plus, since it is a happy medium between competing theories, but it’s important to remember that theory shouldn’t be thought of a rigid framework.  Theory can be seen as a set of guiding principles to help us understand the past.  Choose what works best for you and the type of work you’re doing.  Does that make sense?  Good.  There’s going to be a quiz.

References

For the parable of the ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’: https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/story-blind-men-and-elephant/

Want to know more about specific theories? Read:

Trigger, Bruce G.

2006 A History of Archaeological Thought. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

What's up, Archaeology?

On a good day, I would say roughly 80 percent of my students hate archaeological theory, if not more.  I’ve had numerous chats with friends and colleagues about their collective hatred of theory.  It’s incredibly confusing stuff.  There was even a time I thought theory was invented to torture students, and in part, that is still true.  Over time—long after graduate school—theory grew on me.  I wouldn’t necessarily want sit down and read a theoretical extravaganza for kicks, but I see it’s usefulness and the need for it to be taught (sorry, students, you’re learning all about it this week).  So, what is ‘archaeological theory’?  Like many of the methods in archaeology, theory is just another tool to help us understand and explain the past.

Let’s get some jargon out of the way.  A ‘theory’ is a policy or procedure that is proposed and/or followed as the foundation of some…

View original post 529 more words

That Old Indiana Jones Cliché

Check out the rest of the blog post at the ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?’ Blog!

Here’s the full text:

Indiana Jones is a terrible example of an archaeologist.  There, I said it.  Not only does he promote the notion that his shenanigans are perfectly normal activities for an archaeologist, Indiana Jones is pretty much a glorified looter.  Yes, I realize I’m lambasting a fictional character, but this character has generated interest in archaeology while also being destructive to the field.  Last week was the start of a new semester and I had my students go around the room and relate why they wanted to take the course and what they hoped to learn.  Roughly 80 to 90 percent of my students cited Indiana Jones as the reason for taking Introduction to Archaeology.  A part of me is grateful that so many young people are interested in learning about archaeology, but I fear disappointing them when they discover it’s not quite as swashbuckling and Nazi-punching a field as depicted in the movies.  And trust me, I wouldn’t mind punching a Nazi.

George Lucas had a specific vision for Indiana Jones, stating that “He really started being a grave robber, for hire, is what it really came down to. And the museums would hire him to steal things out of tombs and stuff” (Metz 2014).  And we see that vision throughout the movies as he takes artifacts from temples, crying out “this belongs in a museum!”  But does it?  At what cost to the indigenous communities that held that artifact as sacred?  According to Jacobs (2017), the “Jones franchise conceals a far more contentious — and often racist — past than is alluded to in the films. In other words, when Harrison Ford delivers the phrase, “That belongs in a museum!” what Dr. Jones really means is: “That belongs in my museum!””

And at what cost the archaeological record? Taking one artifact from an archaeological site can change the story of what happened in the past—every article of the past matters, as does everything within it’s own context (i.e. everything left in place where it was discarded).  Furthermore, Jones makes archaeology about treasure hunting, instead of the process and everything involved in building the material record.

After one student sheepishly admitted his admiration of Indiana Jones, I launched into my often repeated lecture on Indiana Jones: he can be a great starting point to get people interested in archaeology, but there are so many better examples out there of amazing archaeologists doing fascinating work!  Just look at Gertrude Bell, an early 20th century adventurer and pioneer of Middle Eastern archaeology (Troweltales.com).  Not only was she the first Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she fought hard for artifacts to remain in the country where they were found instead of treasure hunting.

So, at the end of the day, what can be said for this Nazi-punching, artifact taking adventurer?  At least the lure of Indiana Jones get students into archaeology courses. Then it’s up to all of us archaeologists to teach them about the scientific side of the field, as well as it’s long history as a practice (i.e. the good, the bad, and the ugly).  The field is not some kind of crazy free-for-all and there are real consequences for destroying archaeological sites, stealing artifacts, and not including the communities that have a connection to the past.  Describing archaeological theory, survey and excavation methods, and the intense amount of paperwork involved in the practice may not seem as exciting, but it’s where Indiana Jones ends and real science begins.

References

Jacobs, Justin M.

2017 “Indiana Jones and the big lie: here’s what the franchise gets wrong about the hunt for lost treasures.” The Washington Post. Electronic resource, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/12/11/indiana-jones-and-the-big-lie/?utm_term=.241cb7f34f04

Metz, Nina

2014 “What Indiana Jones gets wrong (and right) about archaeology.” Chicago Tribute. Electronic resource, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/ct-chicago-closeup-indiana-jones-20141106-column.html

Trowelblazers.com

What's up, Archaeology?

Indiana Jones is a terrible example of an archaeologist.  There, I said it.  Not only does he promote the notion that his shenanigans are perfectly normal activities for an archaeologist, Indiana Jones is pretty much a glorified looter.  Yes, I realize I’m lambasting a fictional character, but this character has generated interest in archaeology while also being destructive to the field.  Last week was the start of a new semester and I had my students go around the room and relate why they wanted to take the course and what they hoped to learn.  Roughly 80 to 90 percent of my students cited Indiana Jones as the reason for taking Introduction to Archaeology.  A part of me is grateful that so many young people are interested in learning about archaeology, but I fear disappointing them when they discover it’s not quite as swashbuckling and Nazi-punching a field as depicted in…

View original post 475 more words

What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

Check out this spiffy new blog–I’m excited to be one of the contributors!

What's up, Archaeology?

Making the field more accessible to the general public is an ongoing challenge for archaeologists.  We all struggle to get our own projects accomplished and there typically is very little time to provide any kind of outreach.  I love being a member of the Women in Archaeology Podcast group, since we explore a variety of topics, but I think we appeal primarily to our fellow archaeologists and those who have some knowledge of the field.  When I learned about this blogging challenge, I figured it could be an excellent way to reach a broader audience with a wonderful group of interesting archaeologists.  I’m thrilled to be part of this endeavor but also terrified by the amount I need to write!

Since most of Colorado is currently covered in snow, I’m stuck either in front of my computer or in a classroom; it will be months before more adventurous projects start. …

View original post 104 more words