Archive | December, 2012

A Tale of Woe at Teotihuacán

29 Dec

On the 17th of December the New York Times published an investigative article detailing how far Wal-Mart de Mexico were willing to circumvent Mexican planning laws to construct a store near the legendary and ancient Teotihuacán complex in Central Mexico.  The details of the case include a number of substantial bribes to various officials, and last minute illegal changes to planned zoning areas around the Teotihuacán complex, which prohibits commercial construction.  The bribes themselves included illegal payments for traffic permits ($25,900), zoning rights and alterations ($52,000), political pay-offs ($114,000), and ‘donations’ to archaeology (up to $81,000).  It is an eye opening article into the overseas business expansion of so famous a business, and it is well worth a read.  The following three paragraphs introduce the background . . .

“SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.”

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

I have had the pleasure of studying American prehistory and Pre-Colombian cultures at University, and I found Teotihuacán to be a particularly interesting city and archaeological site, and one I’d love to visit one day.

So it was with a deep interest that I read the investigative article.  In particular the following two paragraphs from the above article detail the emerging resistance against the store…

“But the tide turned as INAH’s archaeologists began to find evidence that Wal-Mart was building on ancient ruins after all. They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed. The discoveries instantly transformed the skirmish over Mrs. Pineda’s field into national news.

Student groups, unions and peasant leaders soon joined the protests. Opponents of other Wal-Marts in Mexico offered support. Influential politicians began to express concern. Prominent artists and intellectuals signed an open letter asking Mexico’s president to stop the project. Many were cultural traditionalists, united by a fear that Wal-Mart was inexorably drawing Mexico’s people away from the intimacy of neighborhood life, toward a bland, impersonal “gringo lifestyle” of frozen pizzas, video games and credit cards.”

The response from Wal-Mart can be found on the article site.

As archaeologists we often try to save and defend the ruins of the past, or at least mitigate the impacts of the construction industry by recording and analysing what remains ahead of building work.  This article, though, details not just a clash between the new and the old, but of different cultures and the role of international businesses in countries throughout the world.  The article, and the actions of both Wal-Mart de Mexico and officials in Mexico, depict actions that are happening across the world.  In an ideal world the adherence to local customs and laws must be a part of the planning process.

Further Sources:

  • The website Teotihuacán- City of the Gods, led by noted Teotihuacán scholar Saburo Sugiyama of Arizona State University, has an excellent introduction to the city alongside a detailed chronology of its lifespan and information on its major buildings and archaeological finds.  It also demonstrates the city’s history in Mesoamerica and its lasting influence on cultures that followed.
  • A few recent articles on the website Past Horizons highlight how new archaeological finds, including burials and artefacts, are often found at the city site complex.  This staggeringly beautiful crafted Jade mask was found during a project focusing on the Pyramid of the Sun from 2008-2011.  A further article at Past Horizon’s describes evidence for the the use of cosmetics on the dead as part of the funerary process, and hints at the large trade networks throughout Mesoamerica at this time.

Mesolithic Musings and the Howick Home

22 Dec

I ventured up to a dreary and drenched Newcastle today and whilst there I visited the delightful Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, located near the University of Newcastle.  This a free, engaging and entertaining museum- an ideal place to help soak up an introduction to the natural and historical wonders of northern England.  A proposed near 100% cut in the £2.5 million cultural funds by Newcastle-upon-Tyne city council will likely force a number of cultural institutions (including art galleries, museums, and music centres amongst others) in the city to either close, let go of staff, and/or lose precious objects and artefacts, not to mention a potential loss of knowledge.  Thankfully the Great North Museum receives some funding from the nearby University, but it will remain to be seen what damage across the city the cuts will do.  The Great North Museum houses a number of important collections including over half a million objects from the fields of the natural world, geology, library archives and world cultures.  However it was for the section on archaeology that I was particularly interested to see, especially so the sections on the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.  It would be fair to say that these sections are not particularly expansive, but they are interesting.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Mesolithic in the Tees valley and North Yorkshire Moors, Northumberland has evidence for one of the earliest houses in Britain at Howick, located just on the coast of the North Sea.  On display at the museum were some of the artefacts found from the site including sea shells, burnt hazelnut shells, and microliths.  The site at Howick was discovered and excavated by a team based at the University of Newcastle during the summers of 2000 to 2002.

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC,  overlooking the modern day coastline, (Source).

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC, overlooking the modern day coastline (Source: University of Newcastle Howick Project).

They uncovered 3 distinct phases of a single circular hut building, with construction starting from 7800 BC and in-habitation potentially lasting a century or more, with evidence of post holes and successive lenses of debris.  It is not yet known whether the site was occupied permanently, semi-permanently or seasonally.  A total of 18,000 pieces of flint were recovered from the site, and whilst only a small fraction of these were on show at the Great North, it was nonetheless stimulating to be looking at the evidence and artefacts from one of the earliest domestic sites in the UK.  A large amount of burnt hazelnuts were found with a small number of hearths, indicating that this food group were specifically targeted for food, alongside probable food sources such as seals from along the coastal area.  The site was carefully investigated during the excavation period and subsequent analysis; this included test pitting, sediment coring, soil analysis and geomorphological characterisation, as well as extensive radiocarbon dating of various deposits found in the main extensive open area excavation.

Careful excavations such as this help to add to the picture of Mesolithic life in Britain.  In a recent article written by the project team at Star Carr, a famous waterlogged Mesolithic site in the Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire, Conneller et al. (2012) suggest that the site was actually quite extensive with evidence of a least one hut, and a significant amount of work had gone into constructing the site.  They also suggest that the long held view of the European Mesolithic as proliferated with ‘small groups’ of people may have had their rationale in the small excavations of archaeologists’ themselves (Conneller et al. 2012: 1004).

These are interesting projects, especially in highlighting the varied archaeological finds of Northern England.  In my hometown alone I have a petrified Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic forest located just off the coast, a complex of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British centres spanning nearly a thousand years nearly on my doorstep, an important early Anglo-Saxon centre of Christianity near the coast, not to mention the important Medieval and Post-Medieval trading sites.  It should be remembered that museums are integral to displaying and housing a wide range of collections for the benefit of both the public and the researcher, not to mention commercial construction companies.

Further sources:

Ancient Places and Ancient Lives

21 Dec

“What survives from the real Middle Ages is a range of, in practice, quite arbitrary objects based on luck and the durability of their materials.  Ivories of great age, generally showing scenes from the Bible, have endured because they have always been valued but also because they could not decay and could not be reused.  Very little decorative gold survives because centuries of embarrassing royal emergencies or changes in taste have taken advantage of its plasticity to remodel it or put it back into ingots or coins.  Clothing, even precious clothing, has rotted, tapestries have faded, paint has worn away.  Much of the texture and visual meaning of the Middle Ages is therefore lost- quite aside from the irreparable problem of our mental and spiritual equipment being so drastically altered by the intervening centuries that we can hardly engage with what we are looking at.”

From ‘Germania: A personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern’ by Simon Winder (2010: 45).

To slake my thirst for reading I have recently borrowed this delightful book on Germany from my brother.  The book is an often funny but always passionate and informative guide to the central European country, and although my aim was to read it before journeying to Magdeburg last year I never quite got around to it.  The quote instantly reminded me of what I had seen myself in Amiens in the summer, of the cathedral lit as it once was with its vibrant, even gaudy colours transplanted onto the bare and ashen stonework, and of the true sights and sounds that are now largely lost to the ages.  Archaeology is in the business of salvaging and conserving finds and sites from the past, and an integral part of this is the study of human remains as this blog has tried to highlight.  Whilst we can investigate many different aspects of past cultures, not just from the relics and the ruins that remain, but of the actual people who had once lived, it is still important that we realise we can only form an impression of what they had once seen and lived through themselves.  I often catch myself whilst handling a person from the past, imagining who they had loved, what they had seen and what they had done in their lifetimes.  Although the answers to some of our questions as researchers may now be lost, archaeology and its related disciplines can still help to shed a little light.  That light is improving as archaeology widens its scope via science breakthroughs and multidisciplinary projects.

Lascaux Cave Art & Immersive Website

19 Dec

Whilst reading the wonderful archaeological themed advent calendar series over at the ‘Musings of an Unemployed Archaeologist‘ blog site, I came across the Lascaux entry, featured in the most recent blog update (18th December 2012).  The website of the famous Palaeolithic cave site (estimated to be around 17,300 years old), which is located in the Dordogne area in France, features an extraordinary immersive visit to the cave system itself, allowing the internet accessible audience to visit and see each famous painting up close and in detail.  It is a thoroughly entrancing sight, and it is a delight to explore the various cave routes.  I heartily recommend the interested lay person and professional alike to visit this website, to capture a feeling of how this magnificent cave once looked like (the original cave site, discovered in France in 1940, is currently off-limits due to extensive damage from the horde of visitors, although an exact replica site is available to visit nearby).

This blog entry by ‘Musings…’ comes hot on the heels of news of the comparison of animals and their representations in art through the ages.  A study in the journal PLoS by Horvath et al. (2012) found that compared to modern artwork, Upper Palaeolithic artists were more realistic in their representations of animals, in the fact of their depictions of quadrupeds walking and proportion sizes, than many modern artists are.  It is a thoroughly interesting article, and one well worth a read.  The Lascaux cave system depicts nearly 2000 figures which have been categorised into animals (including aurochs, a bird, a rhinoceros, stags, felines, and equines, who predominate), human figures and abstract signs.  Perhaps most noticeably is that there is no depiction of landscape scenes or of vegetation throughout the cave complex.  It has been stated by some (Bahn & Lewis-Williams amongst others) that when viewed with tallow, or fat, candles, as they would have originally have been the images themselves would shimmer in the candle light due to the uneven surface that they were painted on.  The implication being that the images of the animals would flicker almost as if they were alive; it is certainly an interesting theory and experiments have helped to provide evidence that this effect does occur.

Aurochs depicted at the Lascaux cave complex, from the Upper Palaeolithic, in France.

An stunningly realised example of aurochs depicted at the Lascaux cave complex, from the Upper Palaeolithic, in France (Source).

Upper Palaeolithic cave art, both portable and stable, is a fascinating and deeply emotive subject, full of differing theories from various sources, anthropologists and authorities.  It continues to be a source of fascination with a wide variety of people throughout the world, including the German director Werner Herzog who released the 3D film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ about the Lascaux complex which involved interviews with scientists, footage of the cave itself, and voice overs from the great man himself.  Ultimately the cave art itself has become a testament to the placing of man and beast together, and it continues to echo down the ages as a source of inspiration and artistic expression of humanity and early man.

Mesolithic Project on the North Yorkshire Moors

18 Dec

There is a nice little article on the Past Horizons website on the work of my local archaeological group, Tees Archaeology, and their continuing work on the Mesolithic project based in the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire Moors in north eastern England, carried out in conjunction with North York Moors National Park.  The Mesolithic period in this area lasted from to 8000 BC  to roughly 3800 BC, with flint tools used during this period often belonging to the microlithic tradition- specialised mini-tools.  The human population during this time were largely nomadic, often moving from place to place as season/food dictated.  However, it can be hard to make specific claims about this period as the evidence can be so scattered and diffuse.  Projects, such as this one spearheaded by Tees Archaeology, can help to unveil concentrations in Mesolithic flints and tools, and possibly even help to highlight camp sites or hearth sites, whilst also involving the public to become engaged with prehistory and heritage management.

The north east of England is generally unrepresented in the archaeological record compared to later periods (Source: Project Summary), and is certainly lesser known compared to the more well known sites of Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering, or Mesolithic houses of Howick in Northumberland.  Yet the evidence gathered from the many hundreds of flints from the project so far could indicate concentrations of Mesolithic activity on the North York Moors, with nearly 450 flints found near Goldsborough, Whitby, with evidence of burn flints which is often taken as a sign of camp fires or hearths (Source: Past Horizons).  This project helps to highlight the systematic approach to the prehistorical archaeological record, especially taking into consideration the change of environment between now and then.

The Tees Archaeology led project is split into 3 main phases, which include:

Phase 1 (completed 2006):

The collation of existing data, including the work of unpublished and unrecorded material, palaeoenvironmental evidence, and information from private collectors.  The information was entered into a database and graded accordingly to type, and from there 6 types of location were identified for Mesolithic sites.  The sites were then targeted in Phase 2 (Source: project Summary).

Phase 2 (completed 2008-2012):

Targeted fieldwork explored the 6 location types identified from the 1st Phase in order to characterise the different types of activity present, detail the chronology at the site, and provide information for future management.  The 6 location types are termed as Zone 1– low lying areas in the Tees valley, Zone 2– lowland activity in prominent locations, Zone 3– lower lying northern and eastern fringes of present moorland block, Zone 4– upland activity in prominent locations, Zone 5– upper reaches of streams in upland locations, and Zone 6– highland springhead locations (Source: project summary).

Phase 3 (projected 2013)-

The majority of finds from Phase 2 of this project included extensive field walking at a number of sites to find, record and plan flint finds, whilst the 3rd Phase aims to finish trial shoveling, pitting and field walking at specific sites in conjunction with geophysical surveying, whilst testing the methodologies used in Phase 2.  The final section will bring together the lessons learnt from the project, and help produce and inform heritage management planning.  A popular booklet will be produced to help educate and inform the public.

Further Information, Publications and Reports-

A Tees Archaeology produced series of Flint Fact Sheets can be found here.  The detailed fact sheets help to provide information on the importance of flint collections, their value and how knowledge can be attained from them.  It describes the quality and the nature of flint, how to recognise different period production of flint tools (from Mesolithic microliths to Neolithic fabricators), as well as a guide on how to recognise the different functions and type of flint tools and artifacts that can be found in the area, ranging from scrapers, burins, awls to saws, knives and leaf shaped arrow heads.

The Tees Archaeology Phase 1 Final Report, from 2006, can be found here, which describes the objectives and research design in further detail.  On the project homepage further information can be found on the specific sites that have been targeted since 2006, such as Farndale Moor in 2009 or Goldborough in 2012, with yearly reports produced for each site available on the webpage.  This brief report outline both the completed Phase 1 and Phase 2, and the upcoming Phrase 3 in 2013.  A future report is expected within a year times, whilst trial trenching and test pitting on the North York Moors will be carried out in early 2013 (volunteers wanted!).

I sincerely hope I can join in with the project in the coming spring, as this seems like a fantastic opportunity to become involved with a Mesolithic project, a period I am especially interested in.

The End of the MSc at the University of Sheffield…

17 Dec

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog entry on the beginnings of the MSc at the University of Sheffield, which detailed the modules that made up the course and the contents of each module.  I graduate next month, and I feel now is a pertinent time to reflect on both the modules and the department as a whole, one year on.  Perhaps first and foremost I should state that I enjoyed the course thoroughly, that it tested me in ways in which I had not been tested in academia before, and offered opportunities I’d never though I’d get to experience.  However, it is also wise to add that this is my own personal experience, and as such, the reader should be aware that this a subjective review.

As I stated in the original blog post I had chosen the University of Sheffield partly because it offered the opportunity to dissect human cadavers and to learn firsthand what the muscles and associated anatomy looked and felt like.  In fact, this is still the only University in the UK that offers a hands on anatomy and dissection class in an MSc in studying Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  A second important factor was the fact that many now practicing the profession in the UK undertook and passed this course or it’s sister course at The University of Bradford, as they were both devised and set up by Professor Charlotte Roberts in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  This course is widely respected as a benchmark in osteological Masters, both in the UK and abroad.

However there has also been important recent changes with regards to staff in the archaeology department at Sheffield since the conclusion of my time of study, and this has affected the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  Mike Parker Pearson, who taught the funerary archaeology module on the Masters course, has moved to UCL to teach and carry on research, whilst Dr Andrew Chamberlain, who taught Biological Anthropology I & II & Quantitative Methods in Anthropology, has moved to the University of Manchester (although no webpage is currently up displaying his profile).  Further to this a small number of prehistorians  have also left the department.  Perhaps most importantly is the advent of the new MSc in Osteoarchaeology offered at the University of Sheffield, which combines human and animal osteological modules.  This does however place further stress onto the human osteology lab and skeletal materials in the department.

As per the earlier blog entry a break down of the modules will now be presented.

1. Human Osteology-

A single lecture covered a certain part of the skeletal anatomy whilst a follow up lab session involved a detailed look at the typical osteological landmarks for each element, alongside how to side the element.  The practical was marked in a series of bi-monthly osteological tests in the 1st semester, whilst a essay accounts for the remaining 40% of the module mark.  This module, alongside the anatomy module below, accounted for many many hours spent in the laboratory studying variations and fragments of the skeletal elements.  It is heavily recommended you work both by yourself,  and with others testing you and each other.

2. Human Anatomy-

A single lecture covered a certain part of the musculoskeletal anatomy (anterior ante-brachium for instance) followed by a practical dissection class in the medical teaching unit at the university.  Perhaps one of the more intensive modules, which involved a thorough study and revision of the anatomy before and after the practical classes.  Two timed exams, one covering the upper body delivered half way through the 1st semester and the second covering the lower half of the body at the end of the 1st semester, is the way in which the module is marked.  The exams take the format of ten un-annotated diagrams with four parts each, and the questions asking to name the muscles and actions etc.

3. Biological Anthropology I-

A 1st semester lecture and lab based module, which followed on from the human osteology module.  Included varyingly successful methods of aging, sexing, and palaeopathological markers, alongside indicators of health, stature and overall height.  Competing methods for each of the above, on different elements and sections of the skeletons, were presented, which highlighted the vast range of discrepancies between some solid, and some not so solid methods.  The assessment for this module was a skeletal report on two individuals, one adult and one child, from the skeletal collections, and how well different methods were applied.

4. Biological Anthropology II-

A 2nd semester lecture and lab based module on the wider issues in biological anthropology, including human evolution, diet, health, mass disasters, forensics, recording and technology in osteology.  A single written assessment with preset titles was used to mark this module.

5. Funerary Archaeology-

A 1st semester lecture based module discussing a variety of topics throughout the main topic of funerary archaeology.  This included social and cultural reactions to death, and the dead body, how the body is treated to death, historical and prehistoric traditions from around the globe, and the science behind the decomposition of the human body.  A single essay was set on pre-assigned topics, although free range is given to the discussion and examples used.

6. Quantitative Methods in Anthropology-

Each week in the 2nd semester a different statistical method is used in a case study.  This module introduces the basics of statistical analysis using the SPSS19/20 program, and teaches which statistical tests should be used on both parametric and non-parametric data sets, and how to interpret the results.  A statistical report based on original questions applied to a compiled cemetery dataset is the way in which this module is marked.  I only truly learnt to understand the importance and value of statistical analysis whilst conducting research for my dissertation itself, during long hours of repeating a variety of tests against my own database.  By going through each of the weekly tests a few times a week a core bedrock of knowledge can be formed, but it can still be (and is!) mystifying at times.

7. Biomolecular Archaeology (module choice)-

A lecture based study of the breadth of biomolecular archaeology.  Topics included aDNA, infectious diseases, human evolution and stable light isotopes amongst others.  Although disappointing in the fact that there were no practical classes, the revolving door nature of the lecturers kept the talks interesting and vibrant, as the various researchers were clearly invigorated by their topics.

8. Research Design in Anthropology-

This module consisted of reading various themed articles each week and discussing them in front of the study group.  Ultimately, this was a hit and miss affair, with some articles covered in depth and others lightly skimmed over.  The marked component of this module was a critically assessed research design of the dissertation topic under consideration.

9 Dissertation Topic-

The dissertation consisted of original research, and naturally led on from the Research Design in Anthropology.  Ideally have a topic idea, or area, in your mind before the end of the 1st semester.  Although this is not necessary, it will help you work through any potential problems, and let you decide if a topic is feasible or not.  Depending if you are conducting physical examinations on human bones or carrying out practical tests, or if your topic is mainly statistical or literature based, always make sure you factor in enough laboratory and library time to conduct your tests and research.  In my experience, time with supervisors was severally limited during the summer months due to movement (both student/staff), and conflicting timetables.  I conducted statistical testing on Strontium isotope ratios from 422 individuals from the LBK period in Central Europe taken from the existing literature, with regards to mobility and migration.

Ultimately this course is what you yourself make of it.  The first semester is especially intense, focusing on the osteology and the anatomy, with almost weekly exams testing your new found knowledge.  The second semester is more relaxed, with a focus on research for essays and original research for dissertation projects.  Although this course is a taught Masters, it is heavily advised that you take every opportunity to study in the human osteological laboratory, and make full use of the skeletal elements, skeletal collections, and the muscle marked anatomical models.  Compared to courses abroad, the time spent teaching by the staff may seem limited, so it is heavily advised that personal study is conducted in conjunction, especially in familiarizing yourself with the anatomy and osteological landmarks.

With any future prospective student, I’d advise that you research the type of Masters program that you want, and compare and contrast the varying courses on offer in the UK and abroad.  The UK is currently experiencing a boom in the forensic sciences, and this is reflected by the introduction and rise of forensic archaeology, especially in conjunction with forensic osteology and biomolecular archaeology.  Remember to email and ask specific questions on the courses you are interested in, and ask to see the figures for past students regarding employment or research routes taken.

CSCS Card for the Archaeologist

6 Dec

The Construction Skills Certification Scheme was set up in the mid to late 1990’s to help raise the level of health and safety awareness and demonstrate occupational competency in the construction industry.  Primarily aimed at workers in the construction industry at all levels, there has also been a recognised need for archaeologists who work on, or near, construction sites to possess a CSCS card.  It is now often a condition for employment by archaeological companies in the UK to include CSCS card accreditation in the ‘desired’ or ‘essential’ criteria for prospective field archaeological job applicants, although companies will often sponsor a candidate through the process if they already work for the unit.

Individuals who take the test must undergo a Health, Safety and Environmental exam to demonstrate their competency, and depending on the type of card applied for, may also undergo other exams.  The 2009 online BAJR Guide 28 deals with the ‘CSCS Card for Archaeologists’, helping to highlight the relevant information needed to take the test.  A change in the testing of CSCS applicants from April 2012 means that there are added elements to the exam.  This includes a behavioural module, where the candidate will be tested on a lifelike situation in which candidates will be tested on their reaction to an unfolding case study.

Although there are a range of CSCS cards aimed at the general workman to the specialist and managers (such as the Black and Red cards), the field archaeologist will only need the White/Grey Card, which is a general construction relation occupation card.  The CSCS card is valid for 5 years, and after that period a re-test is needed.  In the UK the test and the certification to gain the CSCS card currently costs £30, although archaeological units are often willing to pay this administration fee, and, if you are jobseekers allowance, the job centre can in some circumstances help to fund the cost for the test.

An example of the White CSCS card.

An example of the White CSCS card.

The CSCS test can be organised via your local council, and whilst revision materials can be found online (although they are quite limited) it is best to either loan or to buy a specific manual to revise from.  To strengthen your application for archaeological jobs in this competitive market, it is highly recommended that you gain this certification, as a well as a full clean driving licence.  Although a part of the industry will see the the rise of the CSCS as an encroachment of health and safety legislature, it has helped to raise the standards of health and safety across the board- undoubtedly helping to prevent accidents and save lives.