The Curse of the MA thesis

October 23, 2009

Hello to those few readers that still care to stop by my measly little blog, I thank you. The extreme lack of posting has been in large part due to my cursed MA thesis that is now officially done, graded, and formally accepted. The only thing left is the actual convocation which I am told is a formality, one of those necessary human ritual things that through a public display formalize things (we sure are a weird species).

So, now that I am deshackled from my thesis I have moved on head first into a PhD at McGill, and over the next little while there are some exciting things happening that will appear up here on the blog. I have switched gears for my PhD, embracing the geoarchaeological work I have done in Jordan and has been mentioned a few times on the blog. Nothing against the archaeology on the Northwest Coast, definitely still an interest of mine, but I really enjoy the geoarchaeology and working with the people I met in Jordan, a great crew! This switch means I need to brush up on some geography, geology and soil science and as a result am auditing a class on Soils and the Environment this term, which is going great. It is through Geography, meaning I get to play the fun game of trying to relate pedogenesis and nutrient cycling for temperate environment agriculture to 300,000 year old buried soils in the basalt desert of eastern Jordan. That being said the course is incredibly informative and I would recommend a contemporary soils class to anyone doing field archaeology.

That course is great but the thing I am most  excited about this term is the course I have signed up for with Prof. Rich Macphail at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. In a couple weeks I am heading over to London for an intense workshop/course on Archaeological Soil Micromorphology. While I am over there I will keep you all up to date on what the course is like and the trials and tribulations of learning micromorphology.

Have to run. Time to head out to the Parc Safari cemetery to finish digging up and mapping the remains of an enormous male watusi…yes I am going to leave that hanging at the end of the post…don’t worry I will fill you in shortly.



Windy Azraq

May 19, 2009

Another few days have passed and the field work is now in full swing. We’ve got a number of test pits and some survey going in the Azraq area of eastern Jordan. Nothing too exciting yet as we’ve mostly been making our way through the upper disturbed portions and will only be coming down on any cultural material in the next day or two. Based on last years test pits we can expect Kebaran, possibly Upper Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and even Lower Paleolithic. In addition to the rich paleolithic history in Azraq there is also a significant Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader marker on the landscape. Azraq is home to the famous Azraq castle that was built by the Romans, occupied by various groups over time, and used by Lawrence of Arabia. A castle in the distance makes for nice scenery while working in the excavation units!


To help ourselves out a bit this year we have rented a local wedding tent to provide some shade over the excavation units. The tent is basically a six legged frame with three cross-beams (all of substantial size and weight) that support very nicely decorated canvas segments (two on the roof and three sides). Unfortunately I don’t have a picture yet but the outsides are plain beige and when you step inside you get confronted by vibrant colours and memsmerizing geometric patterns. As a shade it has been working great, making the days a bit less draining by keeping the sun of our backs. However, in the afternoon today the winds really picked up from the west-southwest almost lifting the tent like a kite. It took five of our crew members plus one friendly and incredibly helpful local to keep the thing from taking off. We tied every possible piece of rope we had to rocks, trees, and fences plus we anchored the leg posts with the biggest boulders I could carry. After about an hour we felt confident it would make it through the storm. Now, as I sit here in the lodge, I am question whether it will be there in the morning. The wind is howling and whipping things around as though they were wieghtless. All of the trees in the area are being held at a significant angle and before the sun went down the skies looked particularly daunting. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the night brings and then assess the damage in the morning. Reconstrcuting the tent is a setback we would all really like to avoid!

First Full Day of Work

May 16, 2009

Just finished up the first full day of work here in eastern Jordan. The temperature wasn’t too bad today, in the low 30s probably. It was pretty dusty but that is to be expected in a windy desert. It’s not your stereotypical desert in this part of Jordan, that is to the south in the Wadi Rum area and is also the location where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. We are working near the town of Azraq and the desert has a darker colour. There is a lot of basalt, as you will hear about shortly, some scrubby plants, and a lot of flint on the surface that takes on a desert varnish which gives it a blue-ish colour. There is a lot of sand but not the fine grained dunes that immediately pop into everyone’s head. This what the landscape looks like in our area around the town (North is roughly straight up and thanks Google Earth!).


We spent this morning getting our site area ready for excavation. This involved tying our survey equipment back into last years grid, finding the trenches from last year, cleaning them off and starting to remove the backfill. We were a bit concerned about how much disturbance the past year of construction had below the surface so we also put in a small test pit to determine the stratigraphic integrity. This testpit was finished up by lunch (good news!) and we had made good progress on identifying the perimeter of the pit from last year.

After a short break for lunch and a few minutes rest at the lodge we split into two crews and headed back out. One crew of 4 to the morning’s site to finish clearing off the perimeter. Myself and two others headed a bit further north to follow up on a project started last year, as well as survey the upland basalt for more evidence of the prehistoric lake shore. The project we started last year looks at the natural patterns of desert weathering on bone and it involved quickly locating and mapping some bone we documented last year. After that was done I headed up slope into the basalt areas and found a few more blocks with eroded shorelines in them. I am specifically looking for an eroded bench with the right types of sediment attached that I can use to get a reasonable date for the shoreline. Although we don’t have a date yet, based on some sedimentary analysis that myself and Carlos Cordova presented at the Association of American Geographer’s annual meeting this year, we think the shoreline fits into the Marine Isotope Stage 5e interglacial (or roughly 110,000-130,000 years  ago). So, no dateable sample yet, it just  means I get to keep looking. I have to do more survey regardless if I am going to get a reasonable map of the shorleine perimeter and an accurate elevation anyway. Unfortunately nothing knock your socks of exciting to report yet but spending the day hiking through the desert isn’t that bad. Here’s a picture of one upland bench to give you an idea of what I have been and am looking for.


Huge Weight off the Shoulders!

May 15, 2009

I’m still in Jordan but I finally got that pesky thesis finished and into the multiple revision process. I’ll have to say I am fairly happy how it turned out. There were a few times when I wasn’t too sure if it was going to come together. Now, I don’t mean get it finished on time because the submission deadline isn’t actually until June 15th. I was worried about how to effectively portray all the variables I needed on one graph. However, thanks to the great help of a friend in my lab, the Computational Archaeology Lab at McGill, I was able to figure it out.

Since it’s been a while, before I tell you about the graph I better review the thesis. The whole point is to test current descriptions of the prehistoric transition from chipped stone to ground stone technology on the southwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Specifically, I am looking at whether or not the concept of phase (prehistoric periods of time for which all sites get grouped together) has an impact on interpreting archaeological change. So, I analyzed the above mentioned transition using prehistoric periods and then again without them, using strictly carbon-14 dates, to see if there was a difference in the temporal and spatial pattern of change. The tricky graph I mentioned was the final one, placing all the assemblages (75 of them) on one graph that had time and space (coordinates) represented as continuous axes as well as including the proportion of chipped stone, ground stone, and faunal tools for each assemblage. That makes 6 variables for one graph…and voila….kind of

composite_plot _2

What we came up with is this graph. It is a basic scatterplot with the Y-axis being time, the X-axis being space, and the assemblages coloured using an RGB composite where Red = ground stone proportions, Green = faunal tool proportion, and Blue = chipped stone proportion. This gives every assemblage a unique colour based on the combination of the three colour proportions. There were two tricky parts. First, the spatial axes is actually two variables, the latitude and longitude. Luckily our sites are positioned on a fairly east/west axis so we reclassified them as the distance from the mouth of the River. Zero kilometers is the river mouth and everything East is inland up the river while everything to the West is in the delta or coast islands. You can see the division between deltaic sites and coastal island sites clearly on the graph between 30 and 50km W. The other tricky part was the legend but thanks to some helpful colleagues we got it figured out properly. What the graph shows is a pattern that goes against the current descriptions of the transition and suggests that continuous axes of time and space are more appropriate than archaeological phases for understanding change through time. I’m sure more info is needed but that will have to come later.

For now, enough technical mumbo jumbo. I’ll get you up to speed on the work here in Jordan very soon!

Mmmmmm Baklava!

May 14, 2009

Well, am I ever glad to be writing on here again. All it took was a month of insane work and an 11 hour flight to Amman. During that time I managed to get the draft of my MA thesis put together, present at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting in Las Vegas, attend the Palaeoanthropology conference in Chicago, decide where I am going to do my PhD (Montreal, Tucson, and Stillwater…don’t ask), and get prepared for another season of fieldwork in Jordan. It sounds even more ridiculous now that I’ve written it down but it’s all done now and I get to enjoy my fieldwork and read a whole bunch of stuff about geoarchaeology, soils, geomorpohology, and Jordanian prehistory. Sounds like it’s going to be a pretty good five weeks in Jordan.

I am part of a crew that is working on the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the northeastern part of the country. Last summer our survey turned up a substantial sequence of Lower Palaeolithic (likely about 250,000 year old) through Epipalaeolithic (around 15,000 years old). The craziest part of this is that it is located in a depression that used to be a swamp only 20 or so years ago. After looking at the sediments in our test trenches we also discovered that the basin used to be a lake with substantially fluctuating water levels in the past, fluctuations appearing to correlate with the global patterns of glacial advance and retreat. I presented these preliminary results at the AAG this past March and reconstructing the basin throughout the past 300,000 odd years – lake levels and associated environments – is going to be my PhD project… or I guess is my PhD seeing as it has already started!

For now we are in the American Center for Oriental Research until we can get a hold of the proper permits and any gear we still need.  As soon as possible, most likely tomorrow, we will be heading north to Azraq to truly get the work underway. So, over the next five weeks I’ll do my best to get the exciting new events up here and any anecdotes from the field. In the evenings I’m probably going to try and get the ball rolling on a few other papers and touch up my thesis, so don’t be surprised if some of that stuff pops up on here as well.

And, no, I haven’t had any Baklava yet, but soon….I hope.

What is Anthropology?

March 16, 2009

Over the past few years there has been one question I have despised answering: So, you’re an anthropologist?

My cut and paste answer has become: I’m an archaeologist but I study out of an Anthropology department.

This answer did not randomly develop, I chose to identify myself as an archaeologist rather than an anthropologist. Not because I don’t consider myself an anthropologist, I do, I just don’t want to explain the intricacies of the difference to the uninitiated…you know, the whole Archaeology as discipline or sub-discipline debate. So, this got me thinking, particularly about how the issue is only pertinent (dare I say important) to those that are part of the initiate. Catalyzed by two recent posts at The Blogaeological Record and Glossographia I decided to add my two cents on the issue.

Over at The Blogaeological Record Lars has started a series of posts that he calls Archaeodigms. He is trying to instigate a discussion about where we archaeologists currently stand theoretically. This series, in combination with Glossographia’s great response and thorough discussion from a non-archaeology perspective, has lead me back to a question I asked myself near the end of my undergraduate degree: What is Anthropology?

To me this is the fundamental question for sorting out the often times ridiculous disputes and cold-shouldering that happens in departments across North America. If you ask anybody in one of the four sub-disciplines (Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Physical Anthropology…wait a minute, that’s more than four…hmmm) they will most likely define Anthropology in terms of their own sub-discipline. Can a definition encompass all of these fields and, if yes, what should it be based on? The second part of this (“what should it be based on?”) is where the “What is anthropology? question comes into play. At what level of generality can all the sub-disciplines be encompassed by one definition? Is our obsession with the unification of the four sub-disciplines a historical hang-up?

Clearly more than four sub-disciplines are currently being recognized. There are more than I listed above too (Environmental, Political, Legal….and the list goes on). Where these fall in the four field divide is often disputed. Some will drop all of these under the umbrella of cultural anthropology but I have many friends and colleagues that argue for considerable differences between them all. A complicating factor, often overlooked from the North American side of the pond, is the Cultural versus Social Anthropology divide. When discussing this with a colleague trained in Belgium he thought it odd that we often refer to a Socio-cultural anthropology. For him the two are clearly different, with Social focusing on the relationship between people and their environment and Cultural focusing on the material and immaterial manifestations of the social. Yet another sub-division within the discipline.

I think there is a serious problem with the four field divide. Not because I disagree with broad training in each, the complete opposite actually. The critical flaw is it assumes there are only four perspectives from which to study anthropology. How can such a framework accommodate the numerous approaches to studying anthropology? Even more worrisome for those of us outside of the Cultural Anthropology sub-discipline is, why is the term Anthropology automatically associated with Cultural Anthropology? I will write on this topic more in the coming weeks but for now I ask you all to consider, from a discipline-wide perspective: What is Anthropology?

Megalith and Microlith Soundscapes

March 13, 2009

In my last post I mentioned that the local McGill Archaeology Lab band – Megalith – played a show to end the Anthrograd conference we had last weekend. I thought I should share some of this with you so we arranged to have one of our “groupies” record the whole show. We have extracted two songs from his recording so far and they are up on YouTube. I apologize for the shaky hand, awkward zoom shots, and the rapid blurry panning of the stage.

We call the electric group Megalith and the acoustic group Microlith…I wonder what this means from a phenomenological perspective? Enjoy.

Megalith covering Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers

Microlith covering Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd

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