Archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus

This is my first post about my new research project ZANBA: zooarchaeology of the Nuragic Bronze Age. This isn’t the post I expected or wanted to write. But none of us are doing what we expected or wanted right now. Fighting the pandemic is rightly taking precedence over our plans. So these days I’m sitting on my couch or looking out my window at empty parking lots and wondering – how do I “do” archaeology in the Time of Coronavirus?

I expected to be in the field right now, getting ZANBA off the ground: meeting with the Soprintendenza, discussing permits, reestablishing lab access, taking a look at the bags of animal bones I haven’t touched since fall 2018. I was hoping to revisit some of the monuments where I work so I could finish an article that’s 90% written. I was going to see my friends. The trip was going to be low pressure and exciting. It was going to be fun.

Obviously, that trip has been cancelled. I’m still seeing my friends, but it’s for virtual cocktails over Zoom. Our conversations only occasionally touch on work. They focus on concern for each other’s safety and heavy doses of encouragement.

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Lab training for ZANBA, on hold for the moment.

I arrived in Wales to begin my new project in early January, just days before the novel coronavirus was identified. In January, the feeling around me was of an emergency happening somewhere else. In February, the feeling was of a concern that would only seriously affect a few. In March, the feeling went from “this is probably overreacting, but…” to “this is a national health emergency” in a matter of days. On Friday, March 13, my university announced that in-person teaching would end after one more week. The following Monday morning, it announced that in-person teaching would end after Wednesday. By that Monday evening, in-person classes were cancelled and staff were encouraged not to return to the building on Tuesday. The world was changing fast.

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The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to grasp what a slow-moving discipline like archaeology has to contribute in a crisis. The logistics of excavation and survey mean it can take years to gather our primary data. The constraints of collaborative research, shared labs, and intermittent funding mean it can be years again before we publish our findings. Most of our work investigates people who died a long time ago. Realistically, should the public care at all right now what the archaeologists have to say?

YES. Archaeologists can answer some of the most important questions people are worried about right now. Not about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus (stay home, wash your hands!) but about what things might look like after. How do societies respond to crises? How do crises differentially affect cities, towns, and rural settlements? What happens after a crisis? How do societies recover – or not? How long does recovery take?

Archaeologists have experience interpreting a global dataset that stretches back 250,000 years. We’ve studied how a lot of human systems have contracted and collapsed, as well as how they’ve adapted and been reinvented. It may feel like archaeological information can’t be comparable to what we’re going through today – ancient people didn’t have jets and stock exchanges and the internet. But most archaeologists will tell you that the roots of resilience in the past are the same as those in the present: maintaining the flow of accurate information, good decision-making, robust supply chains, and a willingness to do things differently when necessary.

Many archaeologists are trained in an anthropological framework that encourages us to see ancient people as culturally different, but cognitively and biologically the same as we are today. This perspective means that archaeologists can’t fall back on the comforting but false idea that real crises won’t happen to us because we’re too smart, scientifically advanced, or technologically capable. Archaeologists know that ancient people were just as smart as we are, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that – no matter how smart we are – our human trajectory never goes endlessly up.

But we’ve also seen that dips in human trajectories vary widely in their aftermaths. Sometimes large-scale projects and long-distance communication all but disappear for centuries, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes people respond quickly and there’s a new period of growth. Sometimes the dissolution of sweeping hierarchies leads to more successful local systems. All kinds of outcomes are possible. Both individual and institutional responses matter, and adaptation is key.

The archaeologist who is my coauthor on the article that’s 90% finished is a specialist in photogrammetry. He’s currently adapting his skills to 3D print face shields for medical workers. We all have skills that can be adapted to the current moment. They may be as simple as the ability to keep ourselves entertained while staying inside, but these skills are saving lives.

We also have skills that will help us adapt to whatever future emerges from the current crisis. None of us knows right now how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be on our social networks, our economies, and our way of life. We’re taking this one day at a time. But as we move forward, consider talking to the archaeologists. Our case studies are different but relevant, and we’re trained to take the long view.

And please, please protect yourself and others by staying home and washing your hands!

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Documenting remains of the Nuragic Culture on the Siddi Plateau in 2019. Hopefully I’ll be able to return soon to finish that work!

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 (photo E. Holt)

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.

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.

Vendemmia

Yesterday was my first day back in the deposito, and I was delighted to find it in great shape: everything where I left it, the electronic equipment still working, no mold anywhere. There was barely a spider that had set up a web among the bags of pottery. While I’ve been away, the Comune even came and attached the plumbing, so whereas last year we constantly carried equipment to an outdoor tap to wash it, this year I have a functioning sink right in the lab. (Tante grazie al Comune di Siddi!)

There was one negative surprise, however. It turns out that the bones I was convinced were stored in the deposito are currently housed in a museum in another town about 5 km away. These bones are, of course, precisely the materials I came here to study.

It isn’t a major problem, and if it’s the worst thing that happens during the study, I’ll be in great shape. Still, archaeology is surrounded by bureaucracy in almost any country, and Italy is not an exception. Taking those four crates of bones, putting them in a vehicle, and driving them 5 km to the deposito will take days. There will be permit applications, calls to the Soprintendenza, organizing a day when we can use the Comune’s truck…

So when a friend asked me if I wanted to spend this morning helping him harvest his vineyard, I said sure!

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In the vineyard before the sun, the heat… and the wasps

I got up at 6am and dressed for fieldwork – my Northface pants, a long-sleeved shirt with a high spf rating, hiking boots, work gloves, sunscreen, a hat. Then we drove to the vineyard – a short distance outside the town – where we met five friends who were also lending a hand.

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Bunches of bovale wrapped around the wire trellises

It’s a small vineyard divided between two Sardinian grapes – bovale and monica – with a row of table grapes as well. We started with the bovale, which was difficult to harvest. The grapes are small and the clusters grow in tangles with themselves, the branches of the vine, the wire trellises the vines are tied to, really anything they can wrap a tendril around. It was hard work just figuring out where to cut, and even then we had to untangle the grapes before they would fall into our large plastic baskets.

The monica was simpler. The grapes are slightly larger and the clusters tend to hang down one by one. It was easier to see the stems, to insert our shears among the leaves and branches, to gather the clusters once they were cut. All in all, the seven of us made short work of the harvest. We finished before 9am, when the air was still too cool for the wasps to come out, but late enough that we could tell today was going to break 37°C (100°F) again. Another hot day in a series of hot days in a series of dry weeks stretching back for months. The effect of the drought was clearly visible in the grapes, some of which appeared to be drying on the vine before they had even fully ripened.

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The crusher made short work of separating the grapes from the stems

The wine production takes places in my friend’s garage, and the first step was to turn our fresh grapes into must. We slowly poured each basket into an electric crusher, which spat out the stems – or most of them – and dropped the juice and crushed grapes into large plastic vats below. At the end, the vat of bovale was knee-high, and the vat of monica was only slightly lower. They told me it wasn’t much this year because of the drought, but it still looked impressive to me.

The must has to stand for a week to let the fermentation begin. We’ll go stir it a few times, then press it and bottle it. It seems almost too simple to result in the excellent wine I’m used to drinking at my friend’s table.

“È tutto?” I ask in some disbelief.

“È tutto,” they assure me.

We can’t resist tasting our work before we go. There’s a fine screen we press down on the must to let just the juice through, then we scoop up the juice in a plastic cup. Both are delicious. The bovale is intensely sweet and rich tasting, the monica slightly less sweet with a flavor closer to table grapes. Some complain that it’s too sweet, but it seems the intense sugar is expected in a drought year. Drought years produce little wine, they tell me, but the wine you get is very good. I’ll have to return next summer and see.

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Sweet, delicious, fresh-squeezed juice