Tuesday, May 5, 2015

American archaeology in the 21st century

Every year we  present the Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA) to recognize graduates of the Department of Anthropology at UNCG. This year's winner was Lea Abbott, who is currently the Assistant State Archaeologist for North Carolina. Lea graduated from UNCG in the late 1970s, and his primary research interest is lithic technology. Our DAA committee, however, asked Lea to focus on the role of archaeology in the 21st century and the career prospects for our students, and he delivered with a great talk.

First, he summarized wonderfully the place that archaeology occupies in the broader context of humanity. Archaeology, according to Lea, is important because (1) it helps to round out history (he used the example of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, as his talk was given on the anniversary, April 9th, of that seminal event in American history) and (2) it is the major venue by which the world's historic and prehistoric heritage is preserved (he mentioned the recent destruction of archaeological sites associated with unrest in the Middle East).

The students at the presentation were, unsurprisingly, also interested in jobs. Lea pointed out the intimate relationship between archaeology and development in the United States. Federally funded development projects require an assessment of the archaeological (or cultural) resources that may be impacted by the work, and there are many, many contract companies that provide this service. One only needs to drive down I-40 in North Carolina, Lea commented, to see new solar energy farms popping up, all of which required archaeological assessments prior to construction. This amount of work in cultural resource management rises and falls with the broader economy: lots of development, lots of archaeological jobs. Lea seemed to think that with the economy in an upswing the number of archaeology jobs for anthropology and archaeology graduates will be on the rise.

Lea also outlined some of the biggest issues that will confront the next generation of archaeologists. One of the most urgent is related to rising sea levels. There are, in North Carolina alone, ~5,800 archaeological sites that lie at or <30 feet above current sea level, and they are being eroded away at an alarming rate.

He concluded by offering some advice to students, particularly those who wish to pursue graduate studies. First, and most importantly, people who make a career of archaeology have to feel it not only "up here" (he pointed to his head), but "in here" (he pointed to his heart). If that doesn't apply to you, then archaeology is probably not a great career choice. Get engaged immediately, he also said, as professors have a lot going on, and students that are engaged tend to get great dissertation projects. He also recommended that students have a back-up. Take courses that will provide you with skills that can get you a job outside of archaeology.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Disasters and social change

Under the guidance of our Department Head, Bob Anemone, the Department of Anthropology at UNCG initiated a brown bag lecture series entitled "How I spent my 'summer vacation'," with "summer vacation in quotations because we (the anthropology faculty) are active researchers who conduct much of our field work and data collection during the summer months.

On April 1, our colleague Art Murphy presented on his work in Mexico on human responses to disasters. For the last few years, he has been working on the ABC Day Care Center Fire, a tragic event that eventually resulted in the death of 49 children. He is currently on a Fulbright in Mexico and, while there, he was asked to work on a more recent disaster, the chemical spill at the Buena Vista del Cobre mine. There is a lot going on in both cases, not the least of which is politics, but there is one point that Art made that resonated with me. It is often assumed that disasters−take Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti Earthquake−highlight social inequalities and are thus movers of social change. While the former is true, Art pointed out that the latter is typically not: as things calm down, people try to recreate and preserve the system of inequality that existed before the disaster. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

19th century German science as seen through literature

Another postsfrom my lengthening backlog...

The Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG hosts an event they call "Food for Thought," which brings UNCG scholars to speak about lively topics. I had never attended, but I saw the title for the February 11 talk, "Visions, Dreams, and Divinations: Literature and Science around 1800," and was intrigued by the fact that a visiting German scholar, Susanne Gomoluch, was speaking. Apart from my interest in the history of science, I've spent quite a bit of time in Germany, so, my interest piqued, I went.

She began by providing some historical background, and the political situation in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th century is particularly critical. At the time, what is now Germany was a loose confederation of autonomous states and principalities that, until 1806 when it was dissolved by Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire. This was followed by several loosely affiliated German confederations until the eventual unification of Germany under a single government in 1871.

Holy Roman Empire on 1789. By Robert Alfers via Wikipedia.
The looseness of the political arrangement is important in this context because there simply was no unified policy towards anything. Germany lagged behind Great Britain and France in industrialization, for example, largely because of this lack of centralized decision-making. This also meant, though, that a diversity of perspectives on science emerged in the German states. Dr. Gomoluch spoke about a number of interesting issues, but the most fascinating was a character named Karl Phillip Moritz (1756-1793). Moritz, among other things, was a high school teacher, professor of archaeology and, most pertinent here, the editor of Das Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde als ein Lesebuch für Gelehrte und Ungelehrte (The Magazine of Experiential Psychology as a Reader for Scholars and Laymen), which was one of Germany's first journals of psychology. The journal featured much early work on mental pathology, deaf studies, social deviance, and the interpretation of dreams.

An interesting presentation, and LIHC also provides a pretty nice spread of food... 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Osteology in the Carolinas 2

Here's another post from my backlog. In February of 2014, I attended the first Osteology in the Carolinas meeting. This year's event was held on February 7, 2015, hosted by UNCG, and organized by our own Bob Anemone. Twelve papers were given, and there were around 20-30 attendees, some from as far away as Virginia and South Carolina. Another set of really interesting papers, one of which was given by one of our UNCG anthropology undergraduates, Alexa Uberseder (great job, Alexa!) on our work at Olduvai Gorge this past summer. Some snippets from my notes:
  • Gwen Robbins Schug (Appalachian State) focused on re-imagining the idea of social collapse, a theme made very famous by Jared Diamond's 2005 book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." In that book, he cites examples of past societies that apparently outstripped their resources and thus collapsed. Gwen made the point that "collapse" may not be the best word, as a detailed examination of the archaeological record indicates that when societies undergo dramatic changes, significant reorganization usually occurs, but the cultural framework remains intact. In fact, what often happens, as her work among South Asian prehistoric sites demonstrates, is that people decide to either remain in cities or move to more rural settings. The latter typically results in a signature that can be misunderstood as a total collapse of society.  
  • Megan Perry (East Carolina), who spoke at least year's meeting, and one of her graduate students, Kathryn Parker, both gave talks on attempts to identify the origin of people living in Byzantine and early Islamic times in the Middle East. By assessing the isotopic signatures in food items or geological formations on the landscape, it is possible to determine where people did most of their eating and to track trade routes.
  • David Hines (University of Florida and Regime Crimes Liaison Office Mass Graves Investigation Team) summarized some recent work on extracting DNA from skeletons in mass graves in associated with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Interestingly, they found that some bones are better for producing DNA profiles than others (as it turns out, the pelvis and femur work best).
  • The last talk for which I took detailed notes was by Ashley Gosselin-Ildari (Duke University), who spoke about the use of clickers in large, introductory biological anthropology courses to encourage active learning. This was interesting, and timely, since I started using an on-line Student Response System (SRS) called Socrative to achieve the same goal. I am looking forward to hearing the student reaction at the end of the semester.
Overall, another enjoyable get-together...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Back from DC

As I said earlier, I was in Washington, D.C. last Wednesday and Thursday. I drove in a few hours before my talk was scheduled on Wednesday and decided, after checking in to my hotel (the 100-year-old Hotel Harrington, highly recommended for its location), to visit the National Archives. I was excited for two reasons. First, I really enjoy history, and second, I am a huge fan of the movie National Treasure, parts of which are shot (or at least are supposed to take place) in the archives. It was amazing. I was able to see the original Declaration of Independence (which is much, much more faded than the movie makes it out to be), Constitution, and Bill of Rights. They also have a copy of Magna Carta that dates to 1297 (the reign of King Edward I, who confirmed the rights laid out in the original 1215 version). No photos inside, unfortunately, but I did get this one from the outside:

National Archives from Pennsylvania Avenue. The temporary exhibit was
"Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History." 
Wednesday afternoon I spoke to the Anthropology Department for the Smithsonian's Paleoanthropology Seminar on our recent work at Olduvai Gorge. I gave the talk a cutsey title, "New Perspectives on Old Bones and Stones at Olduvai Gorge." That night I was treated to an excellent meal and great conversation by my hosts.

Thursday morning I was up early so I could visit the Woodrow Wilson House, which is a Georgian Revival on S Street SW where the Wilsons lived together from 1921, when the president completed his second term, until the president's death in 1924. His second wife, Edith, continued to inhabit the home until her own death in 1961. She graciously left the house and all its furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is beautiful, and the folks who run the house provided a wonderful tour (thanks Fay!) with a lot of interesting tidbits (they have Woodrow Wilson's famous fur coat, for example, which is made of kangaroo and wombat, and the huge tapestry given to Woodrow by the government of France apparently had a few too many exposed breasts and butts for Edith's liking). I was able to get some nice photos of the home:

A painting of an Armenian girl, done by her uncle, that hangs in the Wilson
sitting room. It was given to Woodrow Wilson in recognition of his service 
to the Armenian people.
The Wilson library. If you look just above the top row of books on the left, you
will see a rolled up screen, which the Wilsons would drop in order to watch 
Later that day, I met Briana at the museum to participate in an informal chat with Smithsonian volunteers about Neandertals. It turns out that I was on site for a little get together celebrating the five-year anniversary of the opening of the Smithsonian's David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. Rick Potts, who was the driving force behind the exhibit, talked a bit about the trials and tribulations associated with getting everything up and running (as you can imagine, it was a ton of work). Check out the awesome cake (those familiar with the hominin fossil record will notice the dental abscess, which was fashioned to resemble the Broken Hill, or Kabwe, specimen from Zambia):

Cake commemorating the five year anniversary of the Hall of Human Origins
at the Smithsonian.
After we had nibbled on cake, I sat down with several of the Hall's volunteers to talk about some of our work in Denmark and Armenia on Neandertals. They were all extremely well informed on the latest information, particularly the paleogenetics, and it was a lot of fun discussing things with them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Giving a talk at the Smithsonian

I am off for our nation's capital tomorrow morning to give a talk for the Smithsonian Paleoanthropology Seminar. I'm very happy to be reciprocating the visit of my friend and colleague, Dr. Briana Pobiner, who came down to North Carolina last fall to talk about her outreach work. I'll be discussing some of the recent goings on at Olduvai Gorge, and then on Thursday I'll be sitting down with some folks to talk about research we conducted some time ago on the possibility of a Neandertal occupation of southern Scandinavia. Looking forward to it! 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Visit to Jefferson's Poplar Forest

I am WAY behind on my posts, so here is my attempt to begin catching up...

Back in October, I attended the 1st MABIG meeting. My wife Noell and I decided to make a weekend of it and, on the way, we visited an interesting winery (Peaks of Otter, where we tried a pepper wine paired with, no joke, easy cheese) and Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. Jefferson designed Poplar Forest to be a retreat from the busy world of Monticello, where he often had to entertain an endless procession of visitors.

The home is an octagon, and represents one of the most unique architectural achievements of the early republic. Today's situation reflects that of the early 19th century in that Poplar Forest is wonderfully cared for but not as crowded with tourists as Monticello. We were given a fantastic tour with just a handful of other folks. Unfortunately, the much of the original interior was lost in a fire in the 1845, and several owners later modified the building's layout. They are now painstakingly refurbishing the home to its original (Jeffersonian) state with the use of period tools and technologies. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the home at this time, so ours are limited to the exterior.

Noell standing in front of the Poplar Forest home.
One part of our visit really stuck with both my wife and I, and it involved African slavery. It is well-known that Jefferson was a slave owner and that slaves were involved in the building of both Monticello and Poplar Forest. There is one area at the back of the Poplar Forest building that was excavated by hand through slave labor (shovels, picks, and wheel barrels) in order to expose the basement of the home to the outside. As our docent explained this process, the following exchange occurred with one member of our tour group (note: I am paraphrasing here, as I do not remember the exact words that were spoken, but the gist is accurate):

Female visitor raises her hand and says: So, when you say "slave," you mean that they weren't paid?

Docent: Yes, they didn't receive payment for their work.

Female visitor: But they did get room and board, right?

Docent: Yes, yes they did.

A view of the back of the Poplar Forest home. Note the depression, which was
excavated by hand through slave labor.
The questions ended there, but the way she looked to her friends and the way she asked the question implied that her reaction was "See? They got room and board, so that's not so bad." I think that (white) people still have a hard time accepting and fully understanding the type of slavery that persisted in the Americas up until the Civil War. In fact, this reaction smacks of the "benevolent master" perspective that many slaveholders clung to in order to justify the enslavement of Africans.

There is also a lot of really interesting archaeology being done on the grounds, and an edited volume was recently published that summarizes much of it (Heath and Gary, 2012).


Heath, BJ, Gary, J (Eds.) (2012). Jefferson's Poplar Forest: Unearthing a Virginia Plantation. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.