Theory in Archaeology

The students in my Ancient Cities course recently encountered an insightful but challenging reading, a chapter in a book dense with that most hated of academic discourses: theory. Just say “theory” at someone – and I don’t mean only undergrads – and their eyes will glaze over and they’ll visibly fight the urge to check their Twitter notifications.

Unless they’re like me. I love theory. Theory is my favorite thing in all of archaeology to teach. Understanding theory means deciphering the tangled logic puzzle of “how do we know what we know.” Understanding theory means making clear – and then criticizing – all the unstated thought processes that archaeologists go through in making sense of our information.

For example, take a string of numbers: 17351. You can observe the numbers written here, but if someone made you stop reading this post right now and asked you what those numbers meant, you’d probably say “who knows.”

But what if you kept reading and saw that I added some symbols in with the numbers: 17 x 3 = 51. Suddenly you can say something about the numbers. They’re a multiplication problem. There’s a relationship that makes the first three numbers equal to the second two numbers. The first two numbers should be considered as a unit, the third number is a unit on its own, and the last two numbers are also a unit.

We’ve applied theory to the numbers. Now we can say what they mean.

Archaeological theory works with artifacts like mathematical operations in a string of numbers. Theory structures the relationships among artifacts and other archaeological data, allowing archaeologists to understand how they interact. Without theory – and the application of theory, which we call method – archaeologists would endlessly collect old things without actually adding to our knowledge of the past. We would dig up artifacts, document architecture, maybe even identify some campfires and postholes, but we wouldn’t know what any of it meant. It would just be a string of numbers… er… artifacts.

The early days of European curiosity about the past were full of “strings” of artifacts – in reality, these were drawers, boxes, cabinets, and rooms that housed jumbled assemblages of ancient objects. Antiquaries1 of the late Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment collected these objects – sometimes digging into barrows or other monuments to find them – and documented the existence of ancient sites. But they found themselves trying and failing to describe relationships among the sites and artifacts. They hadn’t developed any archaeological theory, so they couldn’t interpret what their finds meant. The problem was so acute that the Danish antiquary Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829)2 complained that “Everything which has come down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog.”3

Fortunately, antiquaries began developing foundational theory that allowed them to start organizing finds. Ideas like the Three Age System – which was proposed in 1816 and divided European prehistory4 into Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages based on the primary materials used for tools – allowed antiquaries to begin recognizing relationships among their materials. Other types of theory like the concepts of typology and seriation – the idea that artifacts that looked similar probably came from similar time periods and that these time periods could be arranged chronologically – moved the study of the past from antiquarian collecting into the budding discipline of archaeological explanation.

Great, you say. Antiquaries formulated theory, applied it to artifacts, established archaeology, and now we know what the past means. But not so fast – let’s return to that string of numbers. What if instead of making it a multiplication problem, I use different symbols: |1 x 7 – 3 – 5| = 1. This way of interpreting the numbers is equally consistent and so equally valid as the first.

Archaeology works like this, too. Often, multiple ways of applying theory give us internally consistent understandings of the past. What if I asked you for an ecological explanation of why I wore my orange sweater today? You might say I wore it because the weather turned cold and I wanted to stay warm. But what if I asked you for a postcolonial interpretation of why I wore my sweater? Then you might say it relates to my position within a historic system that channels global resources toward the west, making it possible for me to own a (probably excessive) number of warm sweaters. Both these ways of applying theory to my sweater produce perspectives that are true and useful for understanding my experience.

Now don’t get me wrong: the past is not all relative. Archaeologists can demonstrate that many ways of understanding the past are straight-up false, and it is not the case that every interpretation is as good as any another. For example, what if I ordered my numbers like this: 1 + 7 + 3 + 5 = 1. That’s simply wrong. Unlike my first two proposals, this interpretation of the numbers does not show a logical relationship. Or what if you claimed that I wore my orange sweater because I always wear orange on Wednesdays. Examining my other Wednesday wardrobe choices would show you this is not an accurate explanation.

Even though not all understandings of the past are true, it is true that the past was as rich and varied as human life today, so it shouldn’t surprise us that multiple ways of understanding the past can be accurate and provide insight. And thanks to a long history of archaeological thinking, we’re not at a loss to distinguish the good explanations from the bad. Robust archaeological theory provides the tools we need to tell the difference between rigorous interpretations of the past and ones that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

 

  1. The term “antiquary” refers generally to a person who studies the past and is especially used to describe people who collected ancient artifacts and documented sites in the period before archaeology became a field.
  2. (2009). Nyerup, Rasmus. In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, 2nd edition (online). eISBN: 9780191727139 DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199534043.001.0001
  3. Page 51 in Fagan, B. M., and Durani, N. (2016). A Brief History of Archaeology. Classical Times to the Twenty-First Century, 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 9781138657076
  4. The Three Age System was specifically applied to Danish prehistory when it was first proposed, but it was found to be broadly useful and adopted for European prehistory in general.

The Semester Starts in Earnest

If you’ve read my post about Archaeology in the Off-season, you know I’ve been busy since I returned from Paris last November. Archaeologists always are. The time when we’re not in the field is when we read the latest scholarship, learn new skills, and write our own books and articles. It’s some of the busiest time we have.

These last two months have been no exception. I’ve been intensely busy settling into my new job as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Miami University of Ohio.  I’ve also been preparing an application for a Marie Curie fellowship at Cardiff University, and writing a major fellowship application is almost as much work as an article. But I submitted the Marie Curie in mid-September – fingers crossed! – and I’ve found my footing teaching Greek Civilization, Ancient Cities, and Discoveries of Archaeology. I even got word that another of my book reviews is out in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. It feels like a lot of old projects are wrapping up, and you know what that means:

New projects.

It’s time to dive back into a couple of things I’ve kept on the back burner for too long, as well as decide on new directions for the coming academic year. It’s an exciting prospect, almost heady: I’ve been working on a backlog for so long, I barely remember what it’s like to have a front-log.

I have two main goals for the coming academic year: submit some articles and step up my public outreach. I’ve already started on both. I’ve actually been surprised how easy it is to get back into scholarly writing. It turns out all the thoughts that were kicking around in my head while I was updating my encyclopedia article and finalizing my edited volume just can’t wait to get onto the page.

I’m also really excited to try out new methods for communicating archaeology to the public. I bought some materials from Forestry Suppliers – that mainstay of archaeological equipment – and I’m looking forward to putting them to use. Stay tuned to see where my new photographic scales turn up!

I’ll write more about specific projects as the semester progresses, but for now, a draft of an article is calling.

Onward.

Full Circle

When I was little – five? maybe six? – I told my mom I wanted a dead mouse collection. I had found a few around our large back yard (probably the cat’s fault), and they looked so cute and soft and furry, I figured I’d bring them home.

Fortunately, my mom was used to my strange ideas. She stalled for time.

“Where would you keep your collection?”

I said I’d keep the mice in a fish bowl so people could see how cute they were.

“I don’t think they’d stay cute in a fish bowl.”

I offered to throw them out when they weren’t cute anymore, but my poor mom put her foot down.

“Honey, I don’t think dead mice are something people collect.”

When I got my postdoc at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle studying mouse teeth, I sent my mom this photo:

Dead mouse collection 1Hell yeah they are.

My mom swears she doesn’t remember my aborted dead mouse collection, but I do – and props to my mom for constructive handling of my weird childhood enthusiasms. But what occurs to me most when I think about that story is the old plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: after fourteen years of higher education, I’m pretty much the same person I was when I was six.

I had another full circle moment yesterday. Back when I was fifteen, I attended the National Junior Classical League convention, which was being held at Indiana University Bloomington. While at the convention, I heard about the Lilly Library – IUB’s rare books, manuscripts, and special collections – and I learned that anyone – anyone! – could make an appointment to see the rare books. It blew my teenage mind. I could walk into this library and ask to hold a book that was hundreds of years old – and they would let me.

I put it to the test. Lo and behold, they sat me at a desk, set up props to hold the book, and brought me one of the first folios of Shakespeare, published in 1623. I remember hesitating to touch it, worried it would fragment, worried I would tear it if I turned a page. But the paper felt surprisingly resilient for a book over 350 years old, and I slowly gained confidence. For the next two hours, I sat in the quiet of the library reading Macbeth, my favorite play.

That first folio of Shakespeare was not the first artifact I had ever touched, but reading it in the Lilly Library was one of my first experiences entering the world of artifacts – that place where people valued and studied and worked to understand the past through its material remains. I had wanted to be an archaeologist since I was eight. Being treated like a researcher and trusted with a rare book made me feel like it was possible.

Yesterday, I took the students from my Discoveries of Archaeology course to the Walter Havighurst Special Collections of the King Library at Miami University of Ohio, where I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor. Guided by Head of Collections William Modrow, my students handled dozens of objects: cuneiform tablets, medieval books of hours, Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte, and late 19th century stereoscope images of archaeological sites to name a few. Cautious at first, as I had been, by the end of the visit they were picking up volumes and replacing them on their props, turning pages, switching out the stereoscope images, running their fingers over the tiny pressed symbols of the clay tablets. With plenty of time to explore, the students gravitated to what most interested them, and it seemed to be different for everyone.

I have no idea what particular interests drove each of my students, what their own personal curiosities and ideas and hopes might be. And I have no idea what the experience of the special collections will end up meaning to them. It may mean nothing particular, or end up just a curious memory, or be one of those cool ways college was broadening before they settle into something totally unrelated. For most, it probably won’t be formative. But we never know what experiences are going to matter to people. They may not know themselves until it’s twenty-two years later and they’re holding a first folio of Shakespeare.

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Archaeology in the Off-season

I apologize, readers. It’s been a long time since I posted anything in Errant. Too long. I have no excuse except I’ve been busy.

“Haven’t we all,” you reply.

Touché, touché…

Even if I have no excuse, it’s true that archaeologists do a lot of work in the off-season. The stretches of time between our intensive fieldwork and lab work sessions is when we read articles, write articles, become familiar with the latest techniques, and build new skills. So what did I do that took so much time I couldn’t write?

Well, I learned French. Not enough to spontaneously compose the complete works of Zola (or even read them), but enough to earn a C1 rating on the Test de connaissance du français. Through a combination of the free online resource Duolingo, listening to the Journal en français facile, watching France 24 on YouTube, reading several novels, and watching hours of sitcoms (subtitles off), I immersed myself in French language and grammar for two intense months. Then I traveled to Chicago – the nearest city where the TCF is given – and took my chances. The hard work paid off.

My desire to learn French is mostly personal: the research team I work with at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle speaks excellent English. Even so, I feel it’s both respectful and useful to speak the language of the country where you’re working, wherever that happens to be. Everything from buying groceries to working with local governments goes more smoothly when you can communicate in people’s preferred language, and the show of good faith goes a long way, especially if you work in an area where there’s a reputation for colonialism left over from archaeology’s Bad Old Days.

But French wasn’t my only project since November. I also finished editing a book. Water and Power in Past Societies is the result of an international conference of invited scholars that I organized when I was the postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology. Editing the volume that resulted from that conference has been a major part of my scholarly life ever since, and this year it finally drew to a close. Immediately after my trip to Chicago, I turned my attention to the line edits and indexing, and the book appeared in print in April. I couldn’t be prouder of the result, or more grateful for the opportunity to work with the inspiring scholars whose research is featured.

Still, editing a book didn’t seem like quite enough, so I wrote reviews of three others. Professional book reviews are an essential part of most peer-reviewed journals, and they help colleagues decide whether particular books will be useful for their research or teaching. Writing reviews is also a good way to get a free copy of a book you want to read, but don’t be fooled – when I divided out the price of the books I reviewed by the number of hours I spent working on each review, my average pay came to about $4 an hour. Two of the reviews are still forthcoming, but you can check out one of them here if you’re curious.

Not everything I worked on since November was a new project. One was an old project that landed back on my desk rather unexpectedly. In 2014, I wrote an article on Nuragic archaeology for the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, and right around the time I left Paris, I was informed it was time for me to update it. A number of new works had come out in my field since 2014, so updating the article meant catching up on a lot of scholarship I had been neglecting while my attention was focused on Water and Power.

And last but not least, when all the rest was done, I managed to write a 20-page report on the zooarchaeological research I did at Tel Akko in Israel last summer. Working in a new area of the Mediterranean was extremely challenging, but the results were worth the effort. My contribution is only a small part of this ongoing research project, of course – I can’t wait to see what new excavation seasons add to our knowledge of animal economies and environments at this fascinating site.

So that’s pretty much what I did. Of course, all these projects were in addition to my work-for-money jobs, which included teaching archaeology and anthropology at Miami University and working as an Experience Programs Teacher at COSI, Columbus’s wonderfully engaging hands-on science museum. I’m pleased to say that, as the summer draws to a close, I’m looking forward to continuing as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Miami University Classics Department and volunteering a few times a month at COSI.

I’m also looking at clean slate with no outstanding projects or professional obligations. I wonder what I’ll work on next…

A Conspiracy in Paris

There’s a conspiracy in Paris, and a lot of the major museums are in on it. I didn’t recognize it at first, but it’s real, and – like The Da Vinci Code (which, full disclosure, I have not actually read) – I found an important clue in the Louvre.

The Louvre was the first museum I visited on this trip to Paris. A friend offered me a free ticket, so how could I resist? But I’ve been before, so the question was – what to see? I followed signs for the Ancient Mediterranean without a clear plan, stopping at a case of prehistoric Cypriot ceramics. Beautiful, but I’ve seen artifacts like these many times. I walked further in, looking for something new, and caught site of a doorway offering to usher me into the world of Islamic art. Now this – to me at least – was new.

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A 16th century illuminated Islamic novel

The Islamic wing was the main section I visited that day, utterly absorbed by the elegance, gorgeousness, and minute craftsmanship of the objects on display. The exhibition covers centuries of artistic development from across the Muslim world, and I found myself drawn especially to the examples of writing as art and writing in art. Favorites were a lavishly illuminated novel that showcased the owner’s wealth, taste, and education even across the time and culture gap, and a vibrant set of tiles depicting a poetry competition. I left the Louvre delighted, but completely unaware that a conspiracy was afoot.

I still didn’t catch on when I visited the Musée du Quai Branly. The Quai Branly houses the ethnographic collections of Jacques Chirac, and – as an anthropologist – it was a must-see. I reveled in the power and clarity of these impressive artistic traditions, and I was especially interested to see that the museum was hosting a special exhibition on the long history of engagement between Africa and Europe*. African materials, techniques, inventions, and artistic influences were traced through exchange contacts and their subsequent effects.

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The uniquely human musculature of the butt

I was still oblivious when I visited the Musée de l’Homme. Another must for the anthropologist, the Musée de l’Homme proposes to tackle the very stuff of human existence: who are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? The museum’s impressive exhibits do just that, encouraging visitors to confront the wealth of human variety while always bringing us back to our human commonalities. I was delighted by the display that explains, in dispassionate detail, why humans are the only species to have a butt. The butt is a complex musculature developed to support specialized bipedal locomotion, and if the fact that everyone has a butt isn’t proof that we’re all the same deep down, I don’t know what is.

But the Musée de l’Homme didn’t stop with butts. There was a dedicated special exhibit deconstructing racism. As if the entire story of shared human evolution wasn’t sufficient, here was a whole space devoted to helping visitors understand why “race” doesn’t really divide us, and why we often believe it does. This is where I finally caught on.

So I wasn’t surprised when, on a visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to Monet’s monumental water lilies, I discovered a special exhibit devoted to the influence of non-Western and especially African art on Dada. The Dada movement, a rejection of the anti-human horrors of WWI, was a major beginning of modernism in Western art, and it drew a huge amount of inspiration from non-Western aesthetics. We can – and should – debate the ways in which these aesthetics were appropriated and reproduced, but the point remains that in a moment of cultural crisis, Western artists looked for inspiration outside the West – as they had been doing for centuries.

My conspiracy theory drew some amusement when I shared it with Dr. Stephanie Nadalo*, a brilliant art historian who is also the friend who gave me my Louvre ticket. She describes this “conspiracy” – much more accurately – as “an organized and well publicized effort to decolonize art history.” After all, the founding mission of the Quai Branly museum, which was conceived in 1996 and opened in 2006, is to “encourage original dialogue between the cultures of four continents.” The Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre was founded in 2003 and the galleries opened in 2012, financed in large part by donations from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, and Azerbaijan in the wake of 9/11.

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A 19th century skull figure from Cameroon at the Quai Branly

But what struck me about this effort to decolonize art history wasn’t just the shift in perspective of the permanent collections, but also the timeliness of the temporary exhibitions. The idea is out there that there is some such thing as a Europe or a “West” that is independent from what is non-Europe and non-West. This idea has gained particular visibility over the past several months in the backlash against eminent scholars discussing ethnic diversity in Roman and medieval Europe. As an anthropologist, I have concerns with some of the museums I’ve mentioned in this post, concerns with both their pasts and their presents*. But even so, I want to recognize these museums for their efforts to present more of the complete story of the so-called West. The complete story needs to be told, now, in as many venues as possible, and museums are perceived as presenting the “canon” whether they mean to or not. The West is and always has been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious. Thank you to the museums of Paris for showing it.

 

* The temporary exhibition “L’Afrique des Routes” closed on November 12.

* You can follow Dr. Nadalo on Twitter (@postmodernclio) and Instagram (postmodernclio)

* For an example of scholarship discussing such issues, see A. Martin. 2011. Quai Branly Museum and the Aesthetic of Otherness. St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies 15: 53-63.

Micromammals Tell a Mega-Story

Most research in archaeology happens in a lab. Despite the images of sweaty excavators and big hats that come to mind when “archaeology” is mentioned, the bulk of archaeology happens when the digging is done. It’s a truism among project directors that you plan three days in the lab for every one day in the field, but the essential work that goes on behind the scenes is largely invisible to the public.

I’m a zooarchaeologist – an archaeologist who studies animal remains – and I do most of my work in labs. Right now, I’m working at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, where I study the bones of micromammals like mice and voles. These tiny remains were excavated from Bronze and Iron Age sites on the island of Sardinia (c. 1700-300 BCE), and despite their small size, they help me answer big questions about the cultures I study. Micromammals are sensitive to the environments around them. Different species have particular preferences for habitats and living conditions, which means that identifying the micromammals at a site is a way to reconstruct the site’s environment. And reconstructing the ancient environment is fundamental to understanding everything from past economies to climate change.

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I use a microscope to examine bones for evidence of digestion by predators

A typical day of zooarchaeology includes multiple projects. Today, I’m working on three. I begin the day by tackling a taphonomic analysis of the micromammal remains. Taphonomy is the study of how ancient bones are incorporated into archaeological sites, and it includes everything that happens to the bones after the animals die. You can imagine why taphonomy would be important for interpreting ancient bones. Let’s say, for example, that the ancient environment was swampy, so the local micromammals were adapted to wet terrain. But if there were grasslands nearby, an ancient owl could nest in the swamp but hunt in the grasslands, scattering bones of grassland species around its nest. A case like this will give you a confusing mixture of grassland and wetland species showing up together – so what was the ancient environment really like? A careful taphonomic analysis can sort out which species died at the site and which were brought there by predators, helping differentiate the immediate local conditions from the wider surroundings.

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Special software lets me capture detailed images of the micromammal teeth

After a morning in front of the microscope recording taphonomic clues, I’m ready to move to my second project. This project uses geometric morphometrics – a kind of spatial statistics – to analyze the shape of micromammal teeth. The shape of the teeth shows genetic plasticity, meaning that it changes depending on which groups of micromammals bred with each other. Looking at the shape of ancient teeth is therefore a way of tracing population dynamics, and when the only way new micromammals get to an island is by sneaking onto ships, ancient micromammal interactions become a proxy for ancient human interactions.

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Drawers full of tiny reference skeletons at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

I spend several hours taking images of the micromammal teeth. When I’ve captured images of all of the teeth, I’ll use specially developed software to compare the teeth with each other and with teeth from archaeological sites around the Mediterranean. Capturing the images takes up the major part of my day, but it’s only the beginning. Outlining each tooth so I can compare their shapes will take days. It’s a slow process, and I’ll work on it a little at a time after I return to the states.

 

 

I have just about an hour left in my day, so I decide to spend it studying. My third, long-term project is to do an environmental reconstruction for my site in Sardinia – Sa Conca Sa Cresia – which I excavated with my colleague Mauro Perra in 2009-2011. Even though we completed the excavations a while ago, I’ve only recently finished sorting the heavy fraction to remove the tiny micromammal bones. To prepare to do a complete environmental study, I first consult The Atlas of European Mammals to see which species are currently known to exist on the island. Then I visit the Muséum’s reference collections to familiarize myself with the characteristics of these species’ bones – and especially their highly diagnostic teeth.

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The number and shape of the cusps make teeth “diagnostic,” meaning they can usually be assigned to a species

By the end of the day, my brain is fried. I cover the microscopes, turn off the lights, and make my way to the metro line 7, then transfer to the 6. I’m in a bit of a daze, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion – similar to how muscles feel after a trip to the gym. It’s an exhaustion that lets me know I deserve to take the night off. And there’s no better place for a night off than Paris. 

 

An American (Researcher) in Paris

I love Paris. Maybe it’s cliché, maybe I’d sound cooler if this post began “I love Kuala Lumpur” (and who knows – I probably would love Kuala Lumpur), but my love for Paris is more than a superficial infatuation with the Louvre Pyramid on a dark night when the Eiffel Tower sparkles in the background. My love for Paris is a love of the city’s soul. What is the city’s soul, you ask? Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers, but my answer is: ideas.

I finished my work in Sardinia in a blur (as you can tell by my lack of blog posts), and I arrived in Paris a week ago today. Getting set up to continue my research at the Museúm national d’Histoire naturelle is an ongoing process. I have to get an access badge, register my computer with the museum’s network, have a preliminary meeting with my postdoc advisor, retrieve my materials, organize my work for the month, make appointments to use imaging equipment, buy civil insurance… If only all I had to do in order to do my research was the research!

But I’m impervious to the complications of re-finding my place here because I’m so darn happy to be back. Paris is one of the homes I’ve chosen. Few places I’ve traveled have felt so immediately comfortable, and I attribute that comfort to being surrounded by ideas. Ideas make me happy. I rarely feel more myself than when I’m mulling over some new discovery or work of art, and these things are everywhere in Paris. Posters for independent films hang beside the usual blockbusters. Flyers invite you to watch comedians dissect everything from family relations to global politics. Newsstands display Beaux Arts and Science&Vie with more fanfare than the French equivalents of Cosmopolitan and GQ.

And those are just the mainstream ideas. Get to know a Parisian, and you’ll find yourself drawn into subcultures of ideas that lead to more ideas that lead to who knows where. I wasn’t in Paris a week before one of my new flat mates invited me to her concert at La Java, where Edith Piaf once sang, as part of a celebration of À Nous la Nuit, a French movement similar to Take Back the Night. Before the evening was over, I had been invited to feminist film festivals and shibari demonstrations, and I can only guess where attending those might lead. Sadly, they’re taking place after I return to the States, but just knowing they’re out there adds to my sense of being a happy rabbit dropped into a twisting warren of thoughts.

Ideas make Paris the perfect place to be a researcher. Even if most of what I encounter isn’t directly related to my work, the constant flow of ideas makes me feel curious, sharp, and creative. The atmosphere is inspiring, and it’s everywhere. Even on my morning metro commute, everyone is reading.

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The Story of Meat Puck

Let me tell you the story of meat puck. The story begins the summer after I started my PhD program. I traveled to Italy for the first time to join an excavation in central Sicily. We were a large team, and the project hired two Sicilian cooks to keep us fed – a Herculean task given that we were dozens of twenty-somethings doing eight hours of manual labor. The project in Sicily was my introduction to authentic Italian food. I savored classics like pesto and caprese and sampled Sicilian specialties like arancini – balls of risotto that are stuffed with various fillings and then fried. Meals were delightful, eye-opening, and washed down with generous glasses of local wine and more than a few limoncellos.

Delicious as dinner was, the main fare was pasta, and night after night of carbohydrates can leave you wanting if your American vision of dinner includes a slab of meat. So there was one particular dish that was greeted with roaring enthusiasm every time it appeared. That dish was meat puck.

Meat puck is basically a large meatball that has been squashed, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil, like a nugget of Italian meatloaf. The first time the team got meat puck, a light appeared in the eyes of every student who had worked on the project the year before. Knives and forks were seized with uncommon energy, even for that hungry crew.

“Meat puck!” they cried almost in unison, and dug in.

I spoke no Italian at the time, so I couldn’t ask what region of Italy meat puck came from, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that meat puck was tasty, hearty, and a glorious dose of protein. We got two per serving, and we loved it.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that meat puck – like pesto and caprese – was pan-Italian. Five years after the project in Sicily, I partnered with an Italian colleague to run a small excavation in Sardinia as my dissertation project. A handful of students volunteered to work with us, and our tiny team bought lunches from a local couple who also catered for the town elementary school. Just a few days into the project, we opened our lunch boxes to find:

“Meat puck!” I cried.

“Meat puck?” my students asked, eyebrows raised. I laughed.

“I don’t know what it’s called in Italian, but we got it on a project I did in Sicily and we called it meat puck. It’s yummy.”

My students agreed. From that day forward, meat puck in our lunches was cause for celebration. It was the cherry on top of a day gone well, the saving grace of a day of disasters. And it made me happy, in a circle-of-life kind of way, to introduce a new crop of American students to this delightful Italian classic, as I had been introduced to it five years before.

But Americans are spoiled for choice. I grew up in a Midwestern town that was far from an exemplar of internationalism, and I still had access to Chinese, Thai, and Mexican in addition to the usual restaurant chains. During grad school, when my friends and I would take a break from our studies to get lunch, we first had to decide what kind of lunch we wanted: sushi? Indian? Latin fusion? Maybe try the new vegan place? Americans prize the opportunity to decide what we want, and choosing foods is no small part of this enjoyment. And why not? Even the best cuisines can become repetitive. I admit, after weeks of eating Italian every day in the field, my students and I were starting to wish for variety.

It was a great day, then, when one of the Sardinian workers told me: “you must be excited, you’re getting American food today!”

We were? How did she know? It turned out that the caterers provided a lunch schedule for the parents of children at the elementary school. My students and I spent the morning in rabid anticipation of this unexpected treat. What kind of American food would it be? I closed my eyes and wished that it might, just might, be barbecue. When lunchtime arrived, we threw the boxes on the table, ripped open the lids, and:

“Meat puck…?”

There was a stunned silence as we looked at the little fried meatloaves.

“But…” someone stuttered plaintively “meat puck isn’t American…”

The silence lengthened. It took us time to put it together. Slowly, unwilling to believe, we realized:

“Meat… pucks… are… hamburgers.”

There it was. The terrible truth stared up at us from a thin pool of olive oil. In a second of disillusionment, meat puck went from a beloved Italian specialty to a sadly inaccurate American one. Where was the cheese? The lettuce? The tomato? What about ketchup and mustard? Where was the bun?

It’s funny how expectation changes everything. I didn’t stop enjoying meat pucks once I realized they were hamburgers, but my enthusiasm lost its edge. The concept of Italian-American food was familiar to me, but I had never considered the possibility of American-Italian food. I had never imagined how it would taste to eat one of my national dishes after it had been translated for a different palate. I thought of the Chinese, Thai, and Mexican restaurants I had grown up with, and wondered how deeply those dishes were doctored so they would sell to a bunch of Ohioans.

I can’t deny that the story of meat puck has a kernel of disappointment. But I like to think it’s really a story of hope. A story of cultural exchanges waiting to happen, of important culinary bridges remaining to be built. The story of meat puck is a call to introduce Italians to the fresh, smoky, succulent flavors of the genuine American classic. And with this sacred duty in mind, I squared my shoulders and walked through a crisp fall evening to my friends’ house to cook them hamburgers. On a grill. With cheese. Without olive oil.

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Magnifiers, Mouse Teeth, and Hope

Archaeologists love their equipment. Most of us can tell you when and where we got our first trowel, when and where we got our last trowel, whether we prefer a leaf blade or a pointing blade or a margin blade, why we buy Marshalltown or WHS or Battiferro. And it isn’t just our trowels. We’re obsessed with our hand picks, our Leatherman tools, our GPS units, our water bottles, our boots, and – perhaps the one realistic thing in the Indiana Jones movies – our hats.

It doesn’t stop with field archaeology. Lab archaeologists are just as intense about their microscopes and stereo macroscopes, their sonic cleaners and deionized water, their bags and bottles and pipettes. I’m as bad as the next archaeologist when it comes to equipment, so when a magnifying lamp I ordered finally arrived on Wednesday, I was stoked.

My lab in Sardinia is still being set up. I buy a few new pieces of equipment each time I return, and this year’s addition of a magnifying lamp is a significant upgrade. It enables me to take some time for a second zooarchaeological project that has been on the back burner for a year now. That project is looking for mouse teeth.

Yes, mouse teeth. Mouse teeth may sound insignificant, but these adorable, tiny fragments of ancient Rodentia are actually quite meaningful. Rodents are sensitive indicators of their local environments, and some species have particular relationships with humans that archaeologists use to understand how ancient people lived. In an ongoing research project that I’m pursuing in collaboration with the workgroup Mousetrack, run by Dr. Thomas Cucchi at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, I’m using different mouse species to understand when exchange relationships developed between Sardinia and the cultures of the East Mediterranean. This is an important question because archaeologists debate whether the prehistoric cultures of Sardinia were more isolated or more connected to other Mediterranean groups.

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Sorting for mouse teeth with my new magnifying lamp

I took my new lamp to the lab first thing on Thursday morning and set it up at a specially reserved desk. This desk is now my mouse study desk, where I do the painstaking work of sifting through what archaeologists call “heavy fraction.”

When archaeologists dig, they collect a sample of sediment from every important stratigraphic layer. This sample of sediment is then mixed with water and agitated in a process called “flotation.” Flotation can be done by hand in a bucket or with a variety of more or less sophisticated pump-and-barrel mechanisms, but the point is to get carbonized plant remains to rise to the surface. The floating material – which sometimes also includes fish scales and tiny bones – is called the “light fraction.” We collect it using an extremely fine mesh like chiffon and dry it carefully, preferably out of direct sunlight (if carbonized seeds dry too quickly, the difference between the dry surface and the wet interior can make them break).

The stuff that doesn’t float during the flotation process is also collected, usually in a slightly larger mesh with holes about 1 mm2. This is the heavy fraction, and it’s where we find lots of tiny animal bones as well as pottery, chipped stone, metal, glass – any heavy material that breaks into small pieces. The tiny artifacts that show up in heavy fraction can be fascinating. Beads and jewelry, nails, pins, and fragments of carved bone are all common. Food waste is also common, and evidence for small foods like eggs, fish, and sea urchins is often recovered only in the heavy fraction.

The heavy fraction I’m sorting comes from my excavation of the early Nuragic site Sa Conca Sa Cresia, located on the small plateau near Siddi, Sardinia, that also includes Sa Fogaia. I co-directed the excavation of Sa Conca Sa Cresia with Sardinian archaeologist Dr. Mauro Perra between 2009-2011. The excavation was very successful and our analysis of the resulting artifacts is ongoing – a good rule of thumb is that archaeologists expect to spend three days in the lab for every one day of excavation.

At first, sorting heavy fraction feels like doing excavation in miniature. It’s exciting to notice the shiny flakes of obsidian, the broken pottery, the piglet toes and lizard jaws and frog legs as they emerge from the tiny rocks that make up 99% of the heavy fraction. After a while, though, I start to get nervous. Where are the mouse teeth? Why haven’t I found one? Will I end up finding any at all, or will I just spend hours of precious research time looking for something that isn’t there? The problem, of course, is that there’s only one way to answer these questions, and that is to get in there and sort.

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Got one!

Realistically, I was rewarded pretty quickly with my first mouse tooth. And not just any tooth, a first molar of the mandible: the specific tooth that is most useful for my study. My heart leapt a little as I recognized the characteristic shape, and I picked it up gingerly and transferred it to a plastic specimen tray. I couldn’t say immediately what species the tooth belonged to – that requires careful cleaning and more powerful magnification – but the tooth was the right size to be one of the species I’m interested in.

It was an exciting find, and it re-energized me for a while. But after a couple of hours, the frustration crept back in. Then the concern. Obsessively, I sorted on.

When you’re invested in the outcome, sorting heavy fraction feels like playing a weird archaeological slot machine. I use flexible tweezers to spread out a small pile of sediment, then examine it minutely with the magnifying lamp. “C’mon, mouse tooth!” I say to myself as I flick past the ribs and toes and vertebrae that aren’t relevant for my study. There’s lots of what I don’t want, but is there anything I do want? No, nothing. I push this pile of sediment to the other side of my tray and start a new pile: “C’mon, mouse tooth…”

The hope is addictive. The possibility that each little pile of sediment might hold the tooth I’m looking for. The possibility that the tooth might belong to a significant species. The possibility that enough significant teeth will add up to a significant find, a meaningful advance in what we as humans know about our past. Students sorting heavy fraction for the first time usually put down their tweezers after fifteen minutes. “You do this all day?” they ask in disbelief. “Don’t you get bored???”

Yes, I get bored. But I stay hopeful.

After non-stop sorting for three days, I’m almost finished. I currently have eight new teeth, an average of less than one tooth for every liter of sediment. I’m hoping to find one more, but the sediment I’m working on now includes very little cultural material of any kind. There are only the rarest fragments of pottery, obsidian, or bone. Still, you never know. I always have hope.

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Four mouse teeth – a full day’s work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research Takes Forever

Today is the seventh day of my bone study. I’ve been getting up at 5:30 am, arriving at the lab before the sun is above the horizon. The bakery across the street is the only building where the lights are on. I’ve worked seven to ten hours every day since I started last Saturday, and I’ve identified 1028 specimens so far, an average of 146 specimens per day.

When I plan a zooarchaeological study, I estimate that I can do 200 specimens in an eight-hour workday, 25 specimens per hour. Most of the time, I hit this rate. Sometimes I even exceed it. But what I forget is that this is the ideal rate, the rate I achieve after I’m settled into a study, with my database exactly how I want it, my reference materials in familiar locations on my laptop and work table, the measurements I need to take fresh in my mind. I forget that this is not my rate during the first week of the study.

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Each bag starts out a jumble

Careful research takes time, and preparing a study is one of the most time-consuming parts. It took me this whole week of working with the specimens to get my database sorted out. I started designing the database before the bones were back in the lab. I made a list of everything I needed to record and how I would record it. It took a full day to create the database in Filemaker, then a second full day to edit and improve it. When I started identifying specimens on Saturday morning, the database included 111 fields. But in the past seven days, it has grown to 125 fields: working with the material has reminded me of important types of evidence that slipped my mind during the design phase. I was still adding fields to the database yesterday, and who knows – I may realize tomorrow there’s yet another field that should be added. But I’m crossing my fingers that I’ve finally hit the point of diminishing returns.

For every specimen I look at, there are 125 types of evidence I may have to record.  I can usually eliminate many after a brief glance. For example, I don’t have to record the circumference of the shaft on a bone that doesn’t have a shaft. But some types of evidence take time to figure out. One of the hard ones is carnivore gnawing. Dogs and other carnivores often gnaw bones, and their teeth leave marks that are fairly easy to recognize on a fresh bone. But when that bone is also gnawed by rodents, then exposed to the elements causing cracking and flaking, then buried and etched by the twisting roots of plants, it becomes much harder to decide whether a particular pattern of indentations comes from the teeth of a carnivore or from some other type of modification, what bone specialists call taphonomic processes.

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Then I start to organize – by species, by bone type…

Teasing out taphonomic processes isn’t the only thing that takes time. Today, I had to investigate several bags that had been mislabeled. Figuring out their correct contextual information was a small feat of detective work. Fortunately, I keep good records, but the puzzle had me rereading the project notebook I kept back in 2009-2011 to see exactly which units my team was excavating on – for example – 14 June 2010. Needless to say, I did not average 25 specimens during those hours.

But these are the frustrating things that slowed me down. There were also exciting things. One of the great joys of archaeological research is the unexpected discoveries. As I examined my specimens for signs of taphonomic processes, I also noticed that several showed characteristic burnishing on the points and edges, a sign that they had been used as tools. I bagged and labeled each one and set them aside for a colleague who specializes in analyzing worked bone. Studying bone tool production is new in Nuragic archaeology, and the work my colleague will do to understand the worked bone industry at my site, Sa Conca Sa Cresia (Middle Bronze Age, c. 1700-1450 BCE), will result in only the second publication of its kind. As my colleague says, “È tutto da scoprire” – it’s all to be discovered.

So there are many reasons why research takes forever, but take forever it does. I’m a little nervous looking at the many bags of bones. Will I manage to identify every single one? At this point, I can’t say. But, like a good scientist, I took the time to design my study carefully. I will at least have a statistically significant sample – enough evidence to draw robust conclusions about the animal economy at my early Nuragic site.

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And slowly, things come together