Was Sardinia Atlantis? Hint: No.

If you’ve ever Googled Sardinian archaeology, you’ve probably run across the idea that Sardinia was Atlantis. The idea is common on the island itself due to a popular work of pseudoarchaeology. The claim that Sardinia was Atlantis has now been picked up by English-language sources, including a recent National Geographic special.

Now there’s pretty much nowhere on earth that someone hasn’t claimed is Atlantis, so in that sense, Sardinia isn’t special. But in case there was any doubt in your mind, in case you thought maybe Sardinia was the one place on earth that really was Atlantis, let me just tell you:

No.

Sardinia was not Atlantis. Nowhere was Atlantis. Atlantis was always an allegory; it was never a real place.

Nevertheless, the idea that Sardinia was Atlantis is persistent, and it’s being actively promoted. There are many problematic layers to this misinformation, one of the most insidious being that it’s being promoted using a lot of gorgeous images of Sardinia’s real archaeology, which is genuinely mind-blowing.

How could you not be impressed by the cultural patrimony of an island that includes literally thousands of towers like Is Paras?

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Is Paras, one of Sardinia’s many spectacular archaeological sites

This juxtaposition of archaeological imagery with fantastic claims blurs the lines between reality and fiction and draws people into accepting the misinformation because it appears to be supported by evidence. Unfortunately, like most pseudoarchaeology, the links between the fantastic claim and the real archaeology are cherry-picked and superficial, and the evidence that proves the fantastic claim is wrong is never presented at all.

The claim that Sardinia is Atlantis has been well and thoroughly debunked by many Sardinian archaeologists, historians, and geologists and you can read their Italian-language response here. But if English is your thing, you can also listen to me discuss these issues on the podcast Archaeological Fantasies.

Many thanks to Sara Head, Jeb Card, and Ken Feder – the hosts of Archaeological Fantasies – for having me on the show! You can check out Ken’s work on frauds and myths in archaeology here and here, and Jeb’s work on pseudoarchaeology here.

Les Gilets Jaunes

My first weekend in Paris, I marched with the Gilets Jaunes. It started by accident. I’m sympathetic with anyone who’s frustrated by the unholy marriage of wealth and politics anywhere in the world, but I hadn’t set out to march with them. I hadn’t even known they were marching. I’m in Paris right now to work on my research at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, and I was taking my Saturday to visit the Musée d’Art Moderne.

But as I approached the Quai Saint-Michel in front of Notre Dame, I met with a line of yellow-vested protesters. I’d read about the Gilets Jaunes in the news. I’d discussed them with my friends in the anthropology department. I’d even seen some of the damage they’d caused when I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Champs Elysée. Somehow, it never occurred to me that I might actually run into them. But here I was, watching the march go by.

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The January 5 march crosses the Pont Saint-Michel.

I joined for several reasons. First, it seemed convenient. They were going my way –  following the route along the Seine that I was taking to the art museum. I could have crossed the river or taken the metro, but I joined because I was curious. I wanted to do more than glance at their signs as they walked by. I wanted first-hand knowledge of what it was all about, to read the messages on their hand-decorated vests, to eavesdrop on their conversations. As an anthropologist, I study humans. As an archaeologist, my work is full of the power dynamics of the past. How could I not at least observe?

Later, I read more about those marches. I read about a ministry break-in and vehicles, dumpsters, and a river barge burned. I can’t speak to any of that, because I didn’t see it. All I can do is tell what I saw.

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A personified France takes the tape from her mouth.

What I saw was a very different picture from what I’d seen in the news before arriving in Paris. The atmosphere among the group I joined was defiant – chants of “Macron démission!” (Macron resignation) sprang up frequently – but it wasn’t violent. The protesters were of all ages. Many seemed to be alone, some were in small groups that chatted between chants. Some were parents marching with their young children. Many had decorated their yellow vests with drawings and slogans, some quite artistic, many poignant. People identified themselves as retired, as fathers, as women, as religious – the unifying thread was anger at runaway greed that would blithely harm others to further its own ends and at a government perceived to be complicit.

I saw no violence that was started by the protestors, though there could have been some that was out of my line of sight. I did see a few young men wearing masks – a gold Guy Fawkes mask sticks out in my mind as overly Hollywood – but I never saw them do anything. Many shops along the route had been closed, and some anxious proprietors stood at their doors and watched, but I saw no windows smashed or property destroyed. What I saw was a peaceful protest.

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“All Together: Retirement, Salaries, Employment. Everyone needs to live.”

We were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay when I decided I had seen enough and was ready to head on to the art museum. I started to speed up to break through the crowd when I noticed smoke on the bridge up ahead. The crowd was getting thicker. I kept pushing until there were too many people to push through, which was when I realized we were blocked. A line of police in riot gear blocked the bridge, and I assume there was one in front of us blocking the Quai Anatole-France. This is also when I realized the smoke was tear gas. The police on the bridge had already used a canister or two and were now deploying several more. The marchers called for the protestors on the front line to push. They did. The police used their batons.

A cloud of tear gas came toward those of us who were backed up against the wall surrounding the Grande chancellerie de l’ordre de la Légion d’honneur. It wasn’t bad where I was, but it was at this moment that I realized why several people had been marching in surgical masks. I turned away from the cloud and noticed a small woman in her sixties pressing into the wall with her eyes squinted and her glove to her face. I had nothing to offer her, and I felt foolish and unprepared.

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Smoke over the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor turned out to be tear gas.

My own glove over my face, I decided it was time to turn back. I retreated to the Musée d’Orsay, where police stood ready to block the protestors who would inevitably come that way. It was disconcerting to see the shields and helmets and batons lined up outside that elegant building with its trove of Monets and Van Goghs. I didn’t stay to contemplate, however; the marchers were already coming my way and I was quite satisfied with my first experience of tear gas. I politely asked the police if I could pass. I spoke in French, but with my American accent and lack of a yellow vest, they barely looked at me as they waved me through.

Politicians are confounded by the Gilets Jaunes because they have no real leaders and no clear demands, but that makes sense to me. How can you list your demands when it isn’t a single policy, but an entire system you feel has failed you? Why should there be a leader when it isn’t one person’s agenda but a whole people’s frustration that’s being expressed? I said I joined the march because it happened to be going my way. The phrase sticks with me, and I wonder how true it might be.

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“‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ It’s just at the top of city hall, but now it needs to apply to everyone.”

 

Ancient Astronomy

It’s been a busy few months! I just wrapped up teaching an intense semester, and I have one day to pack and prep my apartment before I leave for the holidays and – immediately afterward – a month-long research trip to Paris. I plan to be blogging again soon, but in the meantime, I had the pleasure of being a guest on Paul Sutter‘s podcast Space Radio. Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and a brilliant science communicator (definitely check out his new book if you’re interested in astronomy). He asked me to join him on Space Radio to explore how ancient cultures understood astronomy.

You can listen to our discussion here.

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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