Tag Archives: Archaeology

The Archaeology of Gardening

Pottery SherdsThis evening, while bracing for full throttle summer and the planting that goes with it, I prepped one huge planter (it took on three of those huge bags of dirt) adjacent to the patio. Before dumping in the dirt, and for reasons that will never be made clear to me, the word “drainage” bounced through my brain. So instead of just dumping in the dirt (and dooming a plant to drown), I looked about and gathered up some small cobbles (way larger than what in the archaeology business we call a Size Grade 1). I dumped what small rocks I could find into the planter, but it was a smattering and did not seem enough. So I looked around, and found a — or, if you prefer, an — historic archaeological solution: smash up the already busted up pottery, some terra-cotta, and put the sherds into the huge planter as foundation for drainage. Last week, Molly and I salvaged these sherds while trolling up and down the streets, eyeing the curbsides during the annual, city-wide dispose-of-anything-and-everything day. As I was situating the sherds in the bottom of the huge pot, I also thought about excavating northern Great Plains, North American midden mounds and Hellenistic garbage piles in the eastern Mediterranean Levant.

BackfillAncient and prehistoric pottery is everywhere, and more often than not, ceramics and pottery uncovered by archaeologists today has, throughout the course of its own life, undergone a series of adaptive reuses: the artifacts we uncover today have been recycled for a long time, by disparate cultures and for different reasons. In using my archaeological imagination, I also couldn’t help but thinking how Ancient Romans and Hellenistic Cypriots, and Ancient Mandan-Hidatsa, would have used busted pottery for a variety of purposes, either as backfill, drainage for planters, and so on.

An aside: there is something soothing about the noise of used terra-cotta bases smashing against a brick wall. To the right is a photo of an excavation unit from the PKAP archaeological dig of May-June 2012 on Cyprus. At the bottom of the deepest strata, you can see the terra-cotta back fill emerging from a 3rd-century BC Hellenistic site.


Revisiting Dee Taylor’s Archaeology of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

A view of the Elkhorn Ranch landscape from October 6, 2012.

Some years ago, perhaps around 2008, friend and colleague Lou Hafermehl asked me to join up with him in research and a study that sought to look at the landscape history in and around Theodore Roosevelt’s 1883 Elkhorn Ranch in southwestern North Dakota. For a variety of reasons, our project came to a halt (the decision above our pay grade, as most if not all are), but prior to that, I had come across perhaps the best modern archaeological investigation of a “man camp” in western North Dakota: the Dee Taylor’s study of the Elkhorn Ranch. Arguments can be made back and forth as to whether the cattle ranching industry in the late-19th century was in fact an industry with man camp associations. I would argue yes, since it involved a clear boom-bust cycle, over-crowded and over-grazed grasslands, punishing winters, heavy speculation, and industrial railroads that attempted to bring the cattle to markets in Chicago and beyond. Actual cowboy open range cattle ranching was a short-lived event in American history, and perhaps this is why it is so heavily romanticized: it came and went like a flash in the pan (barb-wire fencing ultimately brought an end to those pesky open grazers).

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, "Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site" (1959), 49.

The layout of the Elkhorn Ranch home in Dee Taylor, “Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site” (1959), 49.

The 1959 archaeological investigation at the Elkhorn was conducted by Dee C. Taylor (Montana State University), and it is titled, Archeological Investigations of the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Without going over the 146-page report in detail (at least not here), I thought I’d mention at least one of the pieces of material culture that the archaeological crew recovered from the Elkhorn Ranch house. In reading through the domestic assemblage, my eyes focused on the label of one of the tins recovered that said, “OYSTERS.” The three individuals out at the Elkhorn (Theodore, but more so Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow) were from or around New England (Sewall and Dow served as hunting guides for Roosevelt in Maine). One can imagine that they would get a bit lonesome for some culinary semblance of home, and tins of oysters might have filled that void. Or they could have simply been hungry for food, and a tin of oysters was what they had to eat.

In today’s man camps of western North Dakota, at least the multi-national corporate Type I camps, the kitchens openly advertise southern style cooking, likely to draw the attention of any number of oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico region. So in thinking about this in a comparative studies kind of way, one can say that in the 1880s New England ranchers devoured oysters at the Elkhorn Ranch site along the Little Missouri River, and in 2013 oil laborers from the Gulf of Mexico area are now on the northern Great Plains, inhaling canteen-style southern cooking around Tioga, Alexander and beyond. This is archaeological food for thought before I head to Denver to present my paper at the Western Social Science Association on the modern archaeology of man camps in western North Dakota.

Note: in his introduction, Dee Taylor noted that he took two anthropology grad students along on his excavation crew, William G. Buckles and John J. Hoffman, and other crew members included Arvid Scott, Rodney Myers, and Vernon Goldsberry. Be very suspicious of any historian or archaeologist who does not mention anyone but themselves as researchers, writers, and idea-generators.


Paleo Grilling in the Winter

Michael Pollan has been focusing our attention to what is on our table for some time now (the body of his work is listed here). It is probably a good idea: whether we verbalize it or not, when those huge anhydrous ammonia trucks pass us on the interstate, the thought that rattles through the mind has a kind of duality to it: “There goes the fertilizer truck with the death labels on it… should we be eating food that is juiced up with this stuff?… should we be feeding tomorrow’s generation with this stuff? It’s probably okay, right? I mean, they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t okay… right?” We live on an industrial planet — or, more accurately, a planet industrialized by humanity (that’s us). But it wasn’t always this way.

A glorious flank steak.

A glorious flank steak.

This last weekend I thought about that as I prepped a flank steak (from a cow grazed on grass, the way cows have done throughout the forests of the Mediterranean region for ages). After letting the chunk of meat sit in a bath of spices, beer and lemon juice for a couple days, I decided to cook the flank steak paleo style, placing the chunk of meat directly on the hot coals. This in turn got me thinking about any number of archaeological digs where just a bit of charcoal surfaces, and is oh-so deliberately collected (usually it is placed in aluminum foil for storage). On a dig, the charcoal is saved. But this technical description often stops there, and that is where the mind really picks up and is left to wonder. That charcoal, buried under one stratigraphic layer after another, possibly provided a source of heat and fire for a small or large family thousands of years ago. Perhaps they grilled a chunk of bison or elk on this fire, placing it directly on the coals? Seems like one possible and reasonable idea. Here is some audio-video from that winter night of grilling:

Archaeologists should feel comfortable whipping up flank steaks directly on hot coals for any number of tasty reasons, and it also answers the call that Ian Hodder issued over 20 years ago in a post-processual statement (I blogged it here once, and below are his remarks in full, pulled from “Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role,” 1999, American Antiquity, Vol. 56, No. 1, page 9).

…new theories and the new ways of writing them often serve to make archaeological texts more obscure and difficult for anyone but the highly trained theorist to decipher. How can alternative groups have access to a past that is locked up both intellectually and institutionally? Subordinate groups who wish to be involved in archaeological interpretation need to be provided with the means and mechanisms for interacting with the archaeological past in different ways. This is not a matter of popularizing the past but of transforming the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures.

Alternative groups, such as flank-steak-charring cooks, should be brought into the broader archaeological discussion. There is the study of the past, but there is also the applied anthropology of trying to recreate some semblance of a paleo meal, but today.


Archaeological Disturbances in Western North Dakota

I came across this October 29, 2012 article, “Land eyed for oil well may be on burial site,” through a colleague and friend, Richard Rothaus.  With the Bakken oil boom going full tilt, this article concerns oil drilling development near and around the Killdeer Mountains in Dunn County, western North Dakota. The part within the article that is incredible is from Lynn Helms, the director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division. Mr. Helms said, as paraphrased by the Forum, that “he had no doubts the proposed drilling area has no artifacts.” Once again, this was a paraphrase, but it caused in me the following thoughts: I don’t know whether Mr. Helms physically visited the lithic scatter and possible burial, nor do I know if an archaeologist explained it to him. In the event that he did not physically visit the site, there are quite a few of us that would be happy to explain to him the processes, and why they are necessary. But his lack of doubt is  disturbing. This is why.

The very nature of science and our legal system necessitates constructive and deconstructive doubt. Without this doubt, a case cannot be made one way or another. And without this kind of doubt, and without verifying one’s assertions, a statement is simply a statement sans substance (this is often captured in the saying, “You have no case here.”) Further inquiry into Killdeer is indeed necessary. Numerous archaeologists are concerned with these high profile sites, as they should be, and we are quite interested in showing Mr. Helms why and how. Education is powerful that way. That’s all. Back to it on this end.


McGovern Archaeology

Today (10/21/2012), Sunday, George McGovern died in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at 90 years of age. He had been hospitalized for a time, slipping into a coma within the last couple days. During that time I started thinking about McGovern at the local level, at least in South and North Dakota. McGovern hailed from the small town farming

George McGovern buttons from a private collection. Photo taken on October 21, 2012.

community of Avon in southeastern South Dakota. He joined up with the Airforce at 19, and flew B-24 bomber missions against Nazi Europe. After the war McGovern returned to South Dakota, and with his GI Bill he worked toward a graduate degree in history and lectured at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. He eventually got into politics, and the state of South Dakota elected him for 3 terms to the United States Senate. In thinking about all of this, it seemed like a good idea to upload some George McGovern archaeology, at least a photo of his presidential buttons from his 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon. McGovern lost. Big time. He carried no more than one state in the election — apparently it’s a really good idea to find out a lot about your vice presidential running mate before you ask them to be your vice presidential running mate. But that was how things played out external to the Democratic Party. Internally, McGovern ushered in numerous progressive reforms. Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, has pointed out that McGovern helped revolutionize the internal workings of the Democratic Party, driving out the old guard and absorbing the times that were a changing — thank you Bob. The buttons reflect those changing times and reforms. The buttons have a variety of iconography, including a rainbow, the sign for women with parallel horizontal lines

The McGovern Library at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. McGovern lectured history at this campus.

that signifies equality, the dove (certainly a sign of peace and love), and the geopolitical outline of North Dakota that emphasizes the state’s Peace Garden slogan. These photos came from the private collection of Molly McLain. No doubt there are more of these buttons tucked away in the attics, storage lockers and basements of a variety of homes across the country.

Another photo is of the McGovern Library at Dakota Wesleyan University. If I remember correctly, the building (not the McGovern Library) where McGovern lectured history at DWU still stands. To a large degree these buildings help connect our discombobulated present with the past, providing a kind of stability that is both real and imagined. McGovern lectured history in Mitchell, and he was from Avon, South Dakota. If looking at McGovern, it seems that you can do anything in this country if you put your heart and mind to it. It just so happened that McGovern also had a genuine soul (not every politician or individual has this). Here’s to George McGovern, and his well played life. …well played indeed.

A Google Earth image of Avon, South Dakota, the home town of George McGovern.


The Archaeology of Fargo’s Hotel Bison

In preparation for the transition from summer to winter (which, on the northern Great Plains, is often preceded by at least two solid weeks of autumn), it is necessary to pull all a/c units from the windows and take them to hibernate, usually in basement storage rooms. While doing that this evening, I decided to photograph the hand-painted signage next to my storage space, a grand piece of commercial radio artwork that reflects some of the

Early and undated Bison Building signage, when KVOX 1280AM occupied the building.

earlier years of Hotel Bison, or the Bison Building, this located about the 400 block on Broadway Avenue in downtown Fargo. The angle the art portrays is of the northwest corner, and the Art Deco facade affixed to this commercial brick building reflects what had to be one of the earliest phases of modernization to the original Bison Hotel. In the painting, the facade and marquee notified passersby of the good food and coffee within. That marquee, at least in 2012, has long since been removed, as have any large or small KVOX radio towers on its roof. A quick search and cursory sampling this evening of the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies (Fargo) database for “Bernie Ostrum” did not yield any specific results (just a broad barrage of digitized daily papers from North Dakota Agricultural College’s The Spectrum, among other items). You’ll note the radio persons on the painting as well, “Rod” the Disc Clerk, Manny Marget, Bernie Ostrum and Loehle Gast (quite likely radio namesakes).

Then and today, the Hotel Bison is situated immediate to the railroad passenger train in Fargo (this just across the parking lot to the north), and a person can imagine how many Fargo arrivals and outgoing passengers utilized the hotel. For a variety of reasons, the historic private and public economic and city forces of Fargo decided to continuously re-adapt and re-use Hotel Bison, so as of today it stands as one of the recognizable building-marks in the downtown area. In many ways this sign can be thought of in the same way as a cross-section of stratigraphy is in an archaeological test unit. The signage preserves particular perceptions in space and time, and so long as it is around (either in material or digitized form), we can glean information from it. I’ve been meaning to digitize that signage for a while, and it’s fascinating to capture how this building was used — and perceived — at a particular place and time in history. Finally got around to doing it in preparation for winter.


Thoughts on Global Archaeology

On June 5, 2012, my Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project excavation team hit glorious bedrock (something just over or around 1.8 meters below ground surface). Here is what happens when you sink a hand pick into clay and hit said bedrock. Reverberations shoot up and in through the handle, up to the hand, all while simultaneously returning audible reverberations produced by said metal pick striking bedrock (also known as “that sturdy clink”). The ear drum will pick this up and trigger cognition in a certain direction. It will induce a New World northern Great Plains’ers’ eyes to widen. Note: if you are privy to Native America and its history (and you always should be), you will arguably not regard yourself as from the New World (in academia, we sometimes refer to this as post-colonialism). However, when you are in the Mediterranean, you will need to somehow communicate differences from one side of the Atlantic to another. “Damn that Columbus.” Say this while smiling. If you carry Scandinavian historical identity with you, remind Columbus fanatics about this Smithsonian web-link. We all need balance.

The wall emerges. It’s okay to vacillate between the late Lewis Binford’s processualism and Ian Hodder’s post-processualism while uncovering subsurface Hellenistic architecture at this stage in the game. Say to yourself, “What does this all mean!?”

Anyhow, and upon hearing this bedrock clink, thank the archaeological comrade to your immediate east. “Thank you for also hitting bedrock.” Then pull the pick up out of the earth, swivel the handle 180 degrees, grip it again, and bring back the right arm to its physiological apex. When at its entire apex swing downward, coordinating the arm with gravity to aim the scraper end where the pick left off. Note: you will hear a similar clink and feel the handle vibrate again. With the pick lodged in the dirt and resting on the bedrock below, extend the free left arm toward the upended pick, enclose the left hand around the topside of it, and then drag the handle toward yourself with your right while pushing down on the backside with your left. Essentially, pull the scraper in to the body. Do this repeatedly, moving across the horizontal stratigraphy, only stopping to wipe the sweat from the brow (it otherwise will get into your eyes and produce a slight sting in the corners). This, in turn, will ultimately induce northern Great Plains and Old World historic and archaeological comparative thoughts.

No matter the location on the planet, archaeological excavation units are essentially closed quarter laboratories, where theory and data are in constant exchange with one-another. There is the material culture that continuously emerges from below, inanimate objects from a bygone age (note: do not ever, ever, refer to skeletal remains as “inanimate objects.” You will deservedly be destroyed by the present). These objects carry and reflect the imprint of humanity. Know them. Respect them. They are from civilizations and cultures that pushed in certain directions for an infinite amount of reasons. While in the excavation unit, thoughts will continue, at least when bounced off the word culture (this word and idea re-popularized by Fernand Braudelin the 20th century).  This latter word, culture, is analogous with the word cult (and even agriculture, and monoculture), or the process of doing things together and in a particular direction. These are some thoughts that will rip through your brain.

Hellenistic Imagined Community (name-dropping thanks here to Benedict Anderson). Map taken from U of Texas web-link: http://www.utexas.edu/courses/macedonia/maps_hellenistic_kingdoms_.htm

In addition to this, your archaeological physiology will be in constant exchange with meteorology and the weather. This may be reflected in the saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the excavation unit.” You will be uncertain how warm it has been getting at the Vigla site on Cyprus — “What does this Centigrade mean? And why can’t the world just get on board with Fahrenheit? What does it all mean?!” Never mind all of these thoughts. Keep them to yourself. If you know the sun is going to be up and about, definitely wear a brimmed hat (sombreros have been suggested), collars if you can, sunscreen for certain. If your shirt is in its second day of rotation, you may take offense at your own odor about mid-afternoon of that second day. It’s okay to announce this to your crew. Be calm in your tone, though. “I am taking offense at my own body odor. I just wanted to announce that.” In the correct context, all of this will lighten things up a bit.

But back to this exchange in the excavation unit, the one that is set down on top of a 3rd century BC Hellenistic site. As the fortification wall grows up out of the ground (you’re excavating around it), you will begin admiring the mason who some 2,300 years prior chiseled these ashlar blocks and roughed out stones here and there to assemble this wall. “Is it a partition wall? Is it one phase of an exterior wall? What’s with all the military-like artifacts we keep coming down on within these walls? MAKE SENSE OF ALL THIS, DAMMIT!!!” You’re brain will think these things, a kind of psychological inversion into itself. After climbing out of the test unit, scribble a distilled and filtered variation of these thoughts down in the subjective note section of your excavation unit forms. Use big words here and there. They tend to be more timeless than relativistic lay-terms. Also: a slight breeze may push up over the plateau and evaporate the sweat out of your drenched shirt. Be sure to say to the crew, “Don’t come out of the excavation unit: it’s cold up here, something like 90 degrees Fahrenheit, or whatever,  and you’ll catch a chill and perhaps your death. Stay down and warm in the breeze-less 90+ degree excavation unit.”

As mentioned above, excavation units can become cramped. But this doesn’t matter because you’ll have kept the bigger idea and picture in mind. The mind convinces the body that an inevitability is at stake: we will finish this excavation unit, record it properly, and be satisfied with questions we answered, and the new questions generated by the unanticipated finds — happens every time.

While in the western portion of the excavation unit and while facing north, you will have to bring the pick down close to the emerging foundation wall. This will invariably bring your knuckles into direct contact with the said foundation wall. With one repeated swing after another, your knuckles hitting the wall is ultimately a game of chance and odds. At some point they will scrape the wall. When this happens, you’ll immediately think of the epilogue Tom Isern set down in Prairie Churches. Tom was re-roofing a prairie church, and he maneuvered in a way on the ladder that was in discord with gravity, and amazingly he captured himself, but only after dragging his forearm across the said church roof. One imagines that a bit of Tom, at least the DNA from his scrape, was set into this church roof. Similar situation when your knuckles whack and scrape the side of subsurface Hellenistic architecture in the Levant. You’ll see a dash of blood and think, “Well, there it is. Better take a picture and Web 2.0/Digital Humanities this thing on the Internets…”


Archaeological Overlap

Any archaeological field school invariably draws in a cross section of students who are not directly working toward receiving a degree in archaeology. For a truly rounded education in the arts and sciences, students end up taking a cross-section of classes for a variety of reasons. A couple days ago when the slight 35 kilometer/hour breeze came to a lull at the Vigla Site in Cyprus (allowing the microphone to pick up the audio), I asked my team of undergraduate students brought in from Messiah College to think how undergraduate disciplinary training in non-archaeological fields might be applied to the archaeological process that they were doing right then and there.

I posed the question, and they had 15 minutes to think of a response. This is how it played out. I was very satisfied with the results, as the students worked with the data emerging from the field and excavation unit, and also explored how this influenced them personally (back in the day, we used to refer to this as building character).

The first is Danielle King, an education major…

The second is Carrie Bisciotti, a philosophy major, who discusses theories laid out by Dr. Robin Collins, and how these theories might be applied to thinking of evil as inherent to virtue-building processes (is Carrie suggesting that my trench supervisory skills were at first perceived as evil to her, but then looked at another way, perhaps as the anvil and hammer upon which virtue is built?)…

The third is David Crout, a history major who discusses epistemology, real-time…


Earth Homes, Mud Brick and Ancient Engineering

A couple points about this short video clip below, taken on June 1, 2012 at the Vigla site (dated to roughly 3rd century BC) on Cyprus. The first point is that it, the video, captures the A/V of an archaeological trowel at work. The video doesn’t capture the essence of the meteorology and atmosphere, though, which on the hottest and most humid days induces 21st century archaeologists to ponder what a 12th-century crusader thought when arriving on the scene in full battle regalia (“Chain mail in this heat? Yeah, I think I’ll crusade up to the North Pole instead…”). Then the thoughts drift to how some of those knights returned home to contemplate existence and play chess with death (or life, depending on one’s interpretation).

The up-close trowel shot also demonstrates what the majority of archaeological fieldwork is like: one scrape after another, and how this requires archaeology attentiveness to the changes in the soil. In the video, the soil color change is what the ubiquitous mud brick looks like upon digging into, the mud brick a staple of any rural and urban settlement. To identify this, look for the color change that is darker rust-colors, a type of clumpiness in the soil, and white fibers that helped bond the bricks (today fiberglass strands provide that binding agent, at least with concrete). Mud bricks also required a foundation that raised them above the ground surface so they didn’t melt away when it rained (saturate the mud bricks, and they will slump and fail).