Day of Archaeology: Societies, Chapters, and Clubs: Oh My!

Here is my post from the June 29th Day of Archaeology:

My name is Kurt Thomas Hunt.  I’m a CRM archaeologist based in New York State and I head up an archaeoblog called Sexy Archaeology.  Sexy Archaeology is one way that I provide public outreach within the field of archaeology by sharing the work that I do alongside what I consider excitingly appealing happenings from around the globe.  I’m also the president of the New York State Archaeological Association’s (NYSAA) Thousand Islands Chapter, one of sixteen Chapters within the Empire State.

For this year’s Day of Archaeology, I’ve chosen to share a brief overview of the NYSAA’s history, highlight the work of my Chapter, and attempt to persuade those who are not already members to join their local archaeological Chapter or Society.

The New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) is composed of professional and avocational archaeologists primarily within New York State (though residency is not a prerequisite to join). NYSAA exists to promote archaeological and historical study, and research covering the artifacts, rites, customs, beliefs and other phases of the lives and cultures of the American Indian occupants of New York State up to their contact with Europeans and beyond.

The NYSAA was founded in 1916 and there are currently sixteen regional chapters of the NYSAA throughout the State. Each of the chapters holds monthly meetings where they present programs related to New York archaeology. Some of the chapters conduct their own fieldwork with the assistance of both members and volunteers.  The NYSAA also publishes a bulletin and journal and sponsors an annual meeting in the spring of each year.

The Thousand Islands Chapter of the NYSAA was founded in 1994 and hosts over thirty members with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

Our Chapter recently finished hosting a summer dig for its members along the shores of the Indian River, long known to be an essential byway for indigenous peoples through Northern New York.  While a complete understanding of the site is still a ways off, a rough interpretation dictates that the two-acre area was most likely a seasonal Iroquois occupation site.

This rough interpretation is derived primarily from surface finds and excavations performed over the past couple of years.  During this year’s dig, 298 pieces of pottery were unearthed within the first five centimeters of a single 1m x 1m unit.  Other evidence has included flakes of locally sourced chert, projectile points, and just this year a post mold.

Aside from fieldwork, the Thousand Islands Chapter has, in the past, hosted lectures and discussions from a wide range of professionals, organized tours of historical sites, and has provided educational outreach programs for both children and adults across several counties within Northern New York.

Local or regional chapters of your state archaeological society provide exciting opportunities and come with numerous benefits.  Society’s allow the chance for professional individuals to network, avocational archaeologists to hone their craft, and students the opportunity to garner experience from more seasoned individuals.  Regional societies or chapters also afford members of the community the opportunity to better familiarize themselves with the history and archaeology of their area.

I invite you to join your local Chapter and Society.  Not sure where to get started?  The AIA website is a great place to turn, but a simple Google search or an email to your State Historic Preservation Office will also help further your search.  Good luck, and make the most of it!

An update on the fight against televised looting

I am overwhelmed by the response received in regards to both Spike TV’s American Diggers and National Geographic Channel’s Diggers series.  The outpouring of support from archaeologists, professors, curators, students, enthusiast, and legitimately concerned individuals is overwhelming.  I want to extend my thanks to everyone who has taken time to show their disgust and anger over what is percolating in the television landscape.

Here is an update across the board as to what is happening:

Archaeologists may sometimes be divided on their interpretations of history, but one thing has been made abundantly clear these last few days: when it come to threatening the historical record and the science of archaeology, we stand together.  Don’t let bad science or non-science ever rear its ugly head in the media because more often than not, what the public sees the public does.

The Federal Research Public Access Act – What it is and why Sexy Archaeology supports it

The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) is a hot topic in the news.  For those of you who have been living under a rock, or have just missed the bullet, allow me to provide a quick summary of this bill.

Straight from the Bill:

FRPAA would mandate that each Federal agency with extramural research expenditures of over $100,000,000 shall develop a Federal research public access policy that is consistent with and advances purposes of the Federal agency.

In layman’s terms, each year, the federal government funds billions of dollars in basic and applied research. Most of this funding is concentrated within 11 departments/agencies. The research results typically are reported in articles published in a wide variety of academic journals. FRPAA proposes to make manuscripts reporting on federally funded research publicly available within 6 months of publication in a journal.

You should be anxious to support this bill if you believe that you as a taxpayer are entitled to open access to peer-reviewed scientific articles on research funded by the U.S. Government.  It is no secret that widespread public access to the information contained in these articles is an essential component of our nation’s investment in science.  This and other scientific information should be shared in cost-effective ways that take advantage of the Internet, stimulate further discovery and innovation, and advance the translation of this knowledge into public benefits.  Passage of this bill would result in enhanced access to information by millions of scientists, professionals, and individuals, and will deliver an accelerated return on the taxpayers’ investment.

So far, there has been an incredible roll out of support for this bill by individuals across the country.  In our own archaeoblogosphere, there has been excellent commentary on Doug’s Archaeology, Savage Minds, and John Hawks blog.  But would you believe the American Anthropology Association this week took a public stand on open access?  Yup, it seems AAA is in full support of the initiative to stop taxpayers from viewing what they paid for.  Fortunately, members aren’t happy.  In fact, several members have quit over AAA’s announcement.

Open access needs the support of sexy archaeologists across the US.  You can help promote FRPAA by taking these steps:

1) Contact Congress now to express your support for public access to taxpayer-funded research and for this bill.

2) Issue a public statement of support from your organization and share it widely with members, colleagues, and the media.

3) Join the Alliance for Taxpayer Access to support the continued advancement of public access to research in the U.S. Institutional.  Membership is FREE.

4) Spread the word on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.  Use creative hashtags like #PassFRPAA, #SupportOpenAccess or #AAAFail .

Or take it a step further by following in the footsteps of Jeremy Trombley who announced on his blog this week he is willing to put his career on the line in support of this bill by only publishing in open access journals.  Whatever you do, don’t stand idly by when science needs you.

This is not DNA

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This is not DNA.  This was not painted by technologically advanced Neanderthals, ancient aliens, Lumerians, or the ghost of Whitney Houston (too soon?).

I’m explaining this because a vast majority of the individuals who see this photo may be inclined to draw connections between it and the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid.

What scientists believe this to be is the oldest cave paintings yet found.  On top of that, it was most likely created by Neanderthals.  Scientists believe the above image (seen in full here) depicts local seals that the Neanderthal’s in that area likely hunted.  This beautiful painting has been radiocarbon dated to between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.

So if you see this image popping up on conspiracy theory websites (not that you’d ever check those), please keep a logical mind about you.

Basement Archaeology

Sometimes, archaeology happens when you least expect it.

A few months ago I was digging through some boxes in my basement when I discovered an artifact from my childhood.  That artifact was a VHS tape; a bootleg copy of Star Wars.  Not Star Wars: A New Hope, STAR WARS, full stop (collector’s will note how incredibly rare this version is).   The tape was marked only by a small piece of aged masking tape with the title scrawled in pencil.

I picked up the tape, forgetting how weighty older technology can sometimes be.   For a split second, I considered tossing it in the garbage.  The tape is an obsolete piece of technology.  I don’t even own a VCR anymore, so what was the point in keeping it around?  But, as my hand hovered over the rubbish bin, I found myself hesitating.  I couldn’t let go, couldn’t part with it; I couldn’t bear to know that it no longer “existed”.

I found myself questioning my own actions.  Why did this rectangular plastic contraption matter?  I carried the tape back to my desk where it would sit beside an anthology of other cherished mementos for several weeks as I contemplated this question.

VHS-SW

At first the cassette was a nuisance and constantly in my way.  I found myself shuffling it from place to place on my desk.  Next, it became a paper weight and on one particular occasion a coaster.  Eventually, I moved it to the outside perimeter of the desk; sandwiched in between an early 1900’s cobalt eyewash bottle and an Iroquois projectile point.  That’s when it clicked.

I, the archaeologist, had failed to treat this object as exactly what it was: an artifact.  It may not have been as old as some of the other trinkets I’ve encountered, but the fact was that it fit the criteria: it had been created by human hands to serve a specific function, it had been utilized until it was no longer necessary, and then subsequently retired to the modern day midden (also known as the great American basement).  That’s when this whole article began to take shape.

But, before I go any further, a bit of a history lesson:

I was born in 1981, when the VHS format was migrating from exclusivity into commonality.  Learning how to operate the VCR was one of the first technical skills I ever acquired as a child.  Insert tape, press play, commence a 120 minutes of fun.  The 7⅜” × 4″ × 1″ black plastic artifacts originated before my time.  First introduced in the 1970s by JVC, VHS revolutionized the film industry by placing cinematic releases into the hands of the audience like never before.  The format’s introduction would allow for distribution on an affordable and ultimately unprecedented scale.

VHS didn’t go unchallenged.  It fought battles from the very start; first against Betamax and later Laserdisc.  On the consumer level, VHS won both campaigns.  But with the introduction of DVDs in 1996, VHS began its slow slide into a six foot hole.

In the 00s, VHS officially died, replaced by palm sized reflective plates and ethereal torrents of data.  On December 31, 2008, the last major United States supplier of pre-recorded VHS tapes, Distribution Video Audio Inc., shipped its final truckload and subsequently ended the format.

It took nearly thirty years for VHS to reach extinction.  As technology continues to evolve, I find it highly improbable that outside of digital content, we will ever see a format with such a resilient legacy and durable cultural following.  As contemporary times slip into history, VHS tapes will begin their migration in to landfills and middens around the world.  These tapes will be turning up at future archaeological sites for centuries to come.  They will be an insight into people’s lives through the stories trapped on their celluloid interior.  They are, for all intents and purposes, new age cave paintings.

As I mulled this over, I began wondered: what would my own tape say about me?

I’ll start with my previous statement, the one about new age cave paintings.  Imprinted on the celluloid roll encased within the plastic walls of the cassette lies a visual narrative.  All stories have versions.  My version is unique.  Its provenance harks back to a time before the story of Star Wars was even complete.  It exists before ROTJ (that’s Return of the Jedi for the unfamiliar), before the first trilogy collection, the second, the third, the laserdisc, the Special Edition, the prequels, the Ultimate Editions, the DVDS and the Blu-ray.  It’s a version free from rethinks and copious digital edits.  It represents a version of a story that has been unmodified, like a campfire tale unsullied by the retellings of time.  In archaeology, information like this contains value.  Oral histories are one powerful method for interpreting history.  Will people a hundred years from now be interested in the subtle variations of this legend?  Will knowing that Han not only shot first, but that Greedo never even pulled the trigger, provide insight into our culture?  That’s for future generations to determine.

Like most buried artifacts, this tape has received its fair share of weathering and erosion.  Perhaps just as destructive as the harsh elements of the outdoors are the repeated viewing habits of a young child or the destructive power of a cold, damp basement in New York where the tape has resided for untold years.  Time and circumstance have pressed themselves upon the celluloid interior and the once white gown of Princess Leia is now flaxen.  Tracking lines burst across the screen like surprise Hothan snowstorms.  The audio dips in and out.  I recall one of my graduate studies professors asserting that the mode in which we experience something is just as important as the experience itself.   Seeing an Egyptian sarcophagus brightly lit behind glass in the British Museum is one thing, but seeing it within a torch lit chamber in the Valley of the Kings, thick with two thousand years of dust, is a completely different experience.  The same can be said about my tape.  Time has not been kind to my bootleg.  But the tracking lines, poor audio quality, mono soundtrack, and playback speed are all characteristics of my experience.  These factors defined what I heard and saw and contributed, whether or not I knew it, to my exposure.

Digging deeper, I began to see that this artifact represented a specific time in not only my own life, but in the life of an entire culture.  Star Wars is a film that through its immense popularity and universal appeal has spread like wildfire around the globe.  In a way, the film has become a standard in both cinema and sci-fi.  With such a broad reputation I think it is safe to say the tape represents a form of exposure to a story in which a vast majority of the world is familiar.   So, in one respect, my copy of Star Wars represents a waypoint in my journey through pop-culture.  For decades, authors like Stevenson, Kipling, and Anderson fueled young imaginations at bed time.  This decade it’s more often than not Spielberg, Lucas, and Rowling providing the ground work for dreams and imaginations.  Through hundreds of viewings Star Wars shaped my character and drove my imagination.

Lastly, I suppose the tape survives as a byproduct of my nostalgic nature.  My first copy of Star Wars.  How many people, thirty-something years on, can say they own the first copy of Star Wars they ever watched?  Its survival is a testament to what I hold sacred; what was important to me in my upbringing.  To me, that achievement has value.  And since the format is now extinct, that personal accomplishment may be the only lasting value that remains.

What is archaeology if not finding value in obsolete things?  Over the course of human life artifacts are created, they are utilized, discarded, and often forgotten.  Our job as archaeologists is to take these forgotten artifacts and learn what we can from them, not just measurements and materials, but understand what they meant to both individual people and culture as a whole.  This is as true for a sharpened piece of antler as it for a clay fertility statue or a thirty year old VHS cassette.  Everything has meaning, everything has value.  Understanding what exactly those two concepts are may very well be the biggest mystery.

An Archaeological Critique of Watertown, New York – Part 2

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Watertown’s Washington Street, tucked behind a short sprawl of well manicured lawn, sits an ornate red brick estate.  This is the Paddock Mansion, home to the Jefferson County Historical Society.  A combination of Tuscan villa and Swiss chalet design elements make the Paddock Mansion an abnormal landmark.  It was constructed in 1878 and transformed into a museum in 1924 through the kind donation of Olive Paddock.

I’ve been here many times throughout the course of my life, starting with visits in grade school and culminating with a volunteer opportunity in 2010.   Today happens to be one of those rare days when the halls of the Paddock mansion are not bustling with visiting school groups.  The silence allows one to immerse themselves in the elegant parlors and fully enjoy the historic treasures that adorn them.  Its summer; the museum is hot and full of rich musty smells.  History is (literally) in the air and I am itching to explore.

During my visit, the museum is hosting a special exhibition: Presidential Papers and Historic Documents.  The exhibit showcases some of the museum’s historic national documents, including two recently discovered George Washington papers, two appointments signed by Abraham Lincoln, and an 18th century land contract detailing the sale of what is now the Ohio River Valley between two Continental Congress delegates.  It is an impressive collection to say the least and displayed at a level that puts it in line with most national museums.

But this isn’t archaeology.  Nor is the beautifully decorated parlor on the first floor, or the massive wrought iron stoves or industrial equipment that occupy the lower levels.  But upstairs, I find a room dedicated to the Iroquois tribes of New York.

Within the walls of this small parlor I find projectile points in a variety of shapes and sizes, turtle shell rattles, and pieces of beautifully decorated pottery.  I’m thrilled to see “old stones”.  I appreciate the focus on Iroquois culture, religion and society within the museum’s literature, but, during the course of my forty-five minute long visit I never once encounter the word archaeology in any of the museum’s literature.

In my opinion, The Jefferson County Historical Society has mastered historic preservation, but sadly, turned a cold shoulder to archaeology within the North Country.

My phone rings and I soon find myself heading off to lunch with a group of friends.

I meet my mates at a local chain restaurant.  On the table is a video monitor where patrons can pump quarters in and play a game while they wait for their food.  I scroll through the menu and find an Egyptian themed game called Luxor.  The game description reads as follows:

The pyramids are in peril, and only your quick wits and quicker reflexes can save Egypt from certain doom! Colored spheres roll relentlessly along a convoluted track; your objective is to remove them all from the screen before they can enter your pyramid. Do you have what it takes to protect this mystical land?

I’m nearly certain that this game could take place under the guise of any ancient civilization, but popular culture has this profound hold on ancient Egypt that I could never hope to explain.  While we wait for our foods, I take the time to ask my friends if they encounter archaeology in their daily routine.  Most scratch their heads and answer ‘no’ and I’m quick to admit that I’m not blaming them for missing something that isn’t there.  I ask them to fill me in on archaeological related stories they may have heard in the news in the past few months.  They rattle off few lines about early humans remains being found in Africa.  The specifics are scant.

“How old are these remains?” I ask.

I get a variety of responses ranging from a few thousand years to 200 million years old.  I’m unsure which hominid story they are referencing, but I can easily point out that 200 million years old is off of the chart.

I head to the gym afterwards where one of the exercises on the list is referred to a Persian Pushup.  I’m not sure if the Persians actually designed them or not, but they hurt and they do conjure up the image of ancient warriors training for battle.  There’s talk amongst myself and the other gym members about the Paleo Diet, essentially a diet based off of what human beings were consuming before the advent of agriculture and processed foods.  Finally, some archaeology!  My friends don’t realize it but their participation in this dietary path is actually experimental archaeology (at least from my perspective.  I’ve written about Paleo Diet before- see previous post: Why the switch from foraging to farming?)

At dinner, my girlfriend and I share a glass of Stone Age Winery’s blush.  Unfortunatly, neither the grapes nor the wine itself comes to fruition through any special Archaic process.

The day is drawing to a close.  Alas, as the sun sets over Watertown, I must now turn my eye towards the TV.  I could spend days commenting on the number of cable television series that attempt to incorporate archaeology as a buttress for supporting some pseudo-scientific agenda, but I’ll limit myself to just the 8 -11 prime time slot and the local stations.

Surprisingly I find nothing.  I think back to Karol Kulik and her observational study of archaeology and British Television and wonder what has happened since then.  By the furthest stretch of the imagination, you may be able to relate the Fox show Bones to the field of archaeology (I believe the main character is an anthropologist).  Even networks with a higher likelihood of airing such archaeological themed programming, like PBS, are empty houses this weekend night.  Dissatisfied, I flip off the television.

My day is at an end and it’s time to award Watertown its archaeological GPA.

Conclusion

If Watertown were a college Freshman wrapping up its semester in ANTH 204 (Introduction to Archaeology), it would be carrying a shameful D average.  Watertown is severely lacking an archaeological presence.  The physical process of archaeology is all but absent from the public view.  Historic preservation, while an active process, is still lagging behind the rest of the world with several of the city’s historic landmarks falling to shambles and/or absent from the National Register.

I started this journey to become more self aware of the presence of archaeology within my hometown.  With any luck, I’d hoped to find something to build upon.  What I did not expect to find was a gaping void.  It’s apparent that any sort of public outreach program could only have a positive effect on the population’s perception of archaeology.

My observational endeavor has been an interesting experience.  I encourage other archaeologists to take a long, scrutinizing look at their own stomping ground and evaluate the presence of archaeology.  Like me, you may be surprised (and slightly disappointed) by what you find.

An Archaeological Critique of Watertown, New York – Part 1

In my year long sabbatical from archaeological field work, I’ve resumed work on a handful of projects that have been floating in my head for some time.  Two particular projects stand out and both involve the Jefferson County Historical Society, the proverbial HQ of historic preservation in my home town of Watertown, New York.  The most fully developed idea I’ve got floating in my head and on my hard drive is a podcast series I hope to introduce within the next few weeks.  The second is a community based archaeological project that with enough planning and support could possibly be implemented next summer, here first in Jefferson County and then elsewhere around the United States.  I’m incredibly excited about both projects and promise to provide more details as soon as I have things sorted.

In an attempt to gauge the possible level of reception of these projects, I felt it essential to put Watertown through a sort of test.  Over the course of a day, I’m going to commit myself to paying particular attention to the presence of archaeology and historic preservation within the city of Watertown.  I’ll do my best to avoid veering from the beaten path of my daily routine, but strive to note anything relating to archaeology.

June 29, 2011,

My day almost always starts at 7am.  I pack up my laptop and notebook into my canvas ammo bag (purposely reminiscent of the one which Indiana Jones wears) and hop into the truck.  My first stop is the Historic Paddock Arcade to work on the website and get some reading in.

The Arcade is one of, if not the, most beautiful building in the city.  It is the oldest continually operated shopping mall in the United States and wears the title proudly.  The arcade was built by Watertown native Loveland Paddock and designed by architect Otis Wheelock in 1850. Its design was based on similar arcades built during that era in the United States and Europe. Shops occupied the bottom floor, while the upper floors were used for office space.  While still an awe inspiring site to this day, the building is a far cry from what it once was.  Its beautiful vaulted glass roof was hidden from view in the 1920s by the inclusion steel-and-wire-glass dropped ceiling between its second and third stories.  The building was added to the National Registrar of Historic Places 1976.

I grab a cup of coffee from the Paddock Coffee House, which after adding my cream I attempt to Munsell in my mind.  My guess is it’s somewhere in the 10yr 3/2 – 3/3 range then take my seat and pick up a copy of the the local read, the Watertown Daily Times.  To my surprise there is a page two article with an archaeological focus.  “Sunk sub is upright for first time” informs the headline.  I dive in to learn that workers handling the H.L. Hunley (the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship) are working feverishly to conserve this 1864 vessel.   The word archaeologist is featured once.  A second article, “Battlefield boasts historic garden crops” highlights a period-specific garden in nearby Sackets Harbor and its ties to the War of 1812.  No mention of archaeology, but there is an emphasis on historical research.

I finish my cup of coffee and head outside.

The front door of the Paddock Arcade opens up onto Public Square.  This is the oldest portion of historic Watertown.  The city’s first settlers built their homes on the west end of Public Square.  My guess is the archaeological remains of those log cabin dwellings were lost long ago when the square became the urban hub it is today.  In 1849 a massive fire destroyed most of the square, but it was rebuilt a few years later to include beautiful structures like the Woodruff Hotel.  The 1850 rebuild of Public Square featured the inclusion of three islands in the center which still exist, but have been incorporated into one single entity.  In the center sits an ornate fountain circa 1960, the third to occupy the spot.  In 2002, the fountain was vandalized and nearly destroyed by a drunken moron.  The fountain remained in storage for seven years while it was restored and Public Square was redesigned.  Today the Square retains most of its former majesty, but the number of vacant store fronts indicates it still has a ways to go.

Interesting, no?  You’d think that with nearly every major road in the city funneling traffic towards this historic spot that somewhere among the nearly two hundred year old circus that story would be available.  Yet not a single bit of information is available on Public Square regarding its history.  There is not a kiosk, an information board, anything that details the vivid history of this centerpiece of the city.  In fact, my day has barely brought any archaeology to my attention.

I hang a right out of the Arcade and pass by the grotesque marble additions of the 1960s, before I reach the Paddock mansion, home of the Jefferson County Historical Society.  Surely, if archaeology has a presence in the North Country culture, I will find it here.

Check back mid-week for more.