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Brief notes on archaeology’s “Grand Challenges”

February 12, 2014

Two papers came out at the end of January — one in American Antiquity and the other a two-page Opinion in PNAS explaining the rationale for the first — with the goal of laying out “grand challenges” for future archaeological work.  Many bloggers much more widely read than myself have already written about them, but I have a few comments, as well.

1) The authors claim that these grand challenges were the result of a “crowd-sourcing” effort.  It’s unclear to me why you would call this crowd-sourcing, though, unless you refer to the results of any survey as “crowd-sourced.”  The crowd-sourcing projects I’m more familiar with — for example Galaxy Zoo or the Valley of the Khans Project — rely on non-specialist interest and effort to accomplish something a) too time-consuming (and tedious) for specialists to work through alone and b) too complex for computers to do automatically.  The grand challenges, on the other hand, resulted from a survey sent to several professional associations of archaeologists.  That’s a sensible group to survey if you only want responses from archaeologists, but I don’t see what it has to do with the “crowd,” beyond the fact that “crowd-sourced” is a trendy buzzword, while “based on the results of a survey of professional archaeologists” is not.

2) In the American Antiquity paper, the authors state:

The main demographic disappointment was the sparse response from younger archaeologists and students (2 percent). We have no explanation for the low response; this age group was simply not as likely to respond to the request. (7)

As a member of the under 30 age group in question, I actually have a fairly good explanation for why I didn’t respond to their request: I had no idea the survey had been conducted until I read the Opinion piece in PNAS.  I suspect (especially considering Nicolas Laracuente’s comment on Bill Caraher’s post) that this was the case for many, if not most, young archaeologists.  I don’t think the problem was that archaeologists under 30 didn’t want to respond, but that the survey wasn’t successful in reaching us to begin with.  This might also explain why archaeologists over 50 responded by far the most frequently.

3) I actually like this paper more than I thought I would.  I’m generally skeptical of “design by committee”, and reading the summary in PNAS left me a bit worried, but I think they do a good job in the American Antiquity paper of arguing for the continuing relevance of the challenges they identify, and including a fairly wide range of interests.  Certainly I can see my own research as broadly fitting into a number of these categories.  What I found strange, though, was the unevenness of the bibliographies provided for each challenge.  The bibliography for Challenge A3 (“Why do market systems emerge, persist, evolve and, on occasion, fail?”), for example, includes citations going back to Polanyi.  That makes sense to me, because people have been investigating markets for a while.  But the oldest citation for Challenge A1 (“How do leaders emerge, maintain themselves, and transform society?”) is Clark and Blake (1994).  Perhaps the authors saw Polanyi as still relevant, but older literature on the emergence of leadership less so?

4) Under Challenge C3 in the Am. Ant. paper (“How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerge as a result?”) the authors note,

These are difficult and expensive places to work, and it is unsurprising that archaeologists are still developing basic culture-historical sequences in many of these areas. (13)

That definitely sounds familiar.  It’s good to hear that it’s not just southern Jordan.

As a closing note, this seems like it will definitely have implications for funding, so it’s probably something everyone should read, regardless of whether it sounds like something you would agree with.

Works Cited:

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D. G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity., 79 (1), 5-24 DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.79.1.5

Kintigh, Keith W., Altschul, Jeffrey H., Beaudry, Mary C., Drennan, Robert D., Kinzig, Ann P., Kohler, Timothy A., Limp, W. Fredrick, Maschner, Herbert D.G., Michener, William K., Pauketat, Timothy R., Peregrine, Peter, Sabloff, Jeremy A., Wilkinson, Tony J., Wright, Henry T., & Zeder, Melinda A. (2014). Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (3), 879-80 PMID: 24449827

Conferences past and future

November 12, 2013

It’s been a bit sparse around here, not necessarily for lack of things to blog about, but for lack of time in which to do so. But, I’ve always heard that you should never apologize for not updating your blog, so that’s something I’m not going to do. Instead, since I do have a bit of time right now, I’m going to finish a post I’ve been meaning to finish for some time, with updates about a conference I recently attended, and one that’s coming up.

First, I’ve recently returned (actually, the conference was the first weekend in October, so not all that recently) from the Conference on Medieval Archaeology at SUNY Cortland, organized by Scott Stull. As much as I love San Diego, it was very nice to be back in the northeast for at least one weekend of true autumnal weather, and the conference itself was quite interesting, as well.  I was presenting a fairly general introduction to our work on the Islamic periods in Faynan, since the audience consisted of people working on medieval archaeology in several regions, primarily western Europe. Some observations: 1) I was pleased to see that Scott went with an amusing acronym. I’m not sure if CoMA is better than MIRE, but I’m happy to have been at both. 2) Beyond my own anxiety about the term “medieval,” this also really brought home some conversations I’ve had with other Islamic archaeologists — Bethany Walker especially comes to mind — about communicating periodization across space, where dynastic and archaeological periods don’t translate. It’s not that it’s difficult to default to calendar dates, but that a lot of the assumptions that come with dynastic and archaeological terms have to be made explicit. And then there are the dynastic terms that are used in multiple regions, but not in the same way; at one point, I found myself saying something along the lines of, “. . . Late Byzantine, which would be Early Byzantine in central Anatolia.” Certainly that’s not confusing. 3) On those same lines, it was interesting and, I think, useful to be odd person out at a fairly small, focused conference. (Interestingly, I spoke with a few other presenters who also felt that they were “outsiders.”) I’ve been at conferences where the Levant wasn’t very well-represented, but even at the most recent SAAs we were in an “Archaeology of Jordan” session. I’ve had to gear talks to people working on earlier periods in the Levant, but it was a different experience speaking to a room almost entirely full of archaeologists working on the same period, but in Europe.

After the conference, I managed to take a little drive over to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from their tasting room (apart from the beer, which I knew would be excellent), since they’re part of the rapidly expanding Duvel Moortgat family, but I was pleasantly surprised. Their cafe was, from a San Diego perspective, fairly small and cozy, and the location is really rather out of the way. As evidence, here are two photos I took in their overflow parking lot.

Brewery Ommegang 1

Brewery Ommegang 2

That’s definitely a nicer view than most of the parking lots I’ve been in can boast, and I always enjoy being reminded of how much I love the northeast in fall. It’s a comforting thought, especially now that I’m back in San Diego, where the forecast for tomorrow is 87 degrees and sunny. In November.

Of course, I’ll be heading to cooler climes again soon enough. This year’s ASOR Annual Meeting in Baltimore is just over a week away, and I’m excited to go this year. Our field season tends to conflict with ASOR, so it’s not every year I can actually attend, and although I’ve been several times before, this is actually the first year I’ll be giving a paper. This is also the first time I’ll be speaking at length about our 2012 excavations at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, and the “Archaeology of Islamic Society” session that I’m in this year looks quite good, so I think it’s going to be an interesting conference. And, since I’m speaking about it anyway, it seems appropriate to end with my abstract for this year.

Life in a Mining Village: Insights from Domestic and Public Buildings at Middle Islamic Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir, Faynan, Jordan

Ian W. N. Jones, Mohammad Najjar, and Thomas E. Levy

At some point in the late 12th century AD, due to changing economic conditions in Bilad al-Sham, the Faynan district of southern Jordan became an attractive source of copper, after a hiatus in production of more than half a millennium. In addition to reoccupying existing sites, a small copper smelting village, now known as Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), was founded during this period. While interesting from the perspective of production, exchange, and consumption, this village also provides a unique opportunity to investigate the mining settlement as a unique social formation, and to address questions not answered in historical sources of the Middle Islamic period.

In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project’s (ELRAP) 2012 excavations at KNA focused primarily on non-metallurgical contexts. A large, “elite” building was partially excavated and revealed three distinct building phases, including both metallurgical and pre-metallurgical, elite strata of the Middle Islamic period. Additionally, two probes were dug in domestic buildings, and a third probe conducted in a small, one-room building which may have been a guardhouse.

This paper presents some preliminary conclusions from these excavations, focusing on (1) the differences between the excavated domestic buildings, (2) identifying “elites” archaeologically at KNA, (3) the transformation of the elite building into a metallurgical workshop, and, finally, (4) the implications of the ceramic assemblage both for life and food preferences at the site and for Middle Islamic ceramic typologies in southernmost Bilad al-Sham more generally.

Lost Cities, Movie Sets, and Nature’s Periodic Cruelty

July 25, 2013

I have to admit that I was rather excited when I saw the headline “Star Wars home of Anakin Skywalker threatened by dune” in my BBC RSS feed (and not only because, like many Star Wars fans, I’d be happy to forget about Mos Espa along with the rest of The Phantom Menace). The first thing I thought of when I read the headline wasn’t the movie, actually, but rather a lecture I saw Michael Moseley give at the Cotsen Institute a few years ago. The talk was mostly about periodic natural disasters in Peru, including sand incursions, and I found it quite fascinating. (If you’re interested, he’s published on it a number of times, including here, which is conveniently linkable and, unlike many Google Books entries, seems to show the whole chapter.)

This story seems like a neat illustration of that, on a non-catastrophic scale. A movie set is built in the path of a barchan dune, becomes a tourist destination for fans, and less than a decade and a half later people realize that perhaps “in the path of a barchan dune” is not the best place to build something. The slideshow at the top of the BBC piece is nice, although I wondered if Google Earth had more historical imagery. It turns out you can just fly to “Mos Espa” in Google Earth (which really shouldn’t have surprised me), but the only image the BBC didn’t include is one from 2004. It’s pretty cool to be able to go through the 2004, 2008, and 2009 images, though, and see a single vehicle track up the slip face of the dune turn into tracks covering most of the dune until finally, in 2009, the tracks all disappear, covered by sand. It really gives you some perspective on how quickly these dunes can move.

The BBC story is actually a brief summary of an article in press by Lorenz et al. (2013), published in the journal Geomorphology. I have to give the authors props, since it’s not every day I get geomorphology stories in my BBC feed. The paper itself, as you might expect for something published in Geomorphology, is primarily concerned with using satellite remote sensing to study the movement of the dunes. There are some interesting observations geared more toward “heritage” and tourism, though. For example, another nearby set building from The Phantom Menace has already been covered by a dune and emerged (seriously, they move really quickly). They note, though, that this caused some fairly significant damage, primarily because the buildings weren’t really designed to last a long time or, you know, be covered by a sand dune. This is likely the fate of Mos Espa, too, and the authors suggest that given its potential as a tourism site, something might be done to protect it, like either diverting the dune or just moving the site. This leads them to this great connection:

There would be some irony in such measures being adopted to protect a science fiction film set: it was exposure to eolian transport concerns and countermeasures that inspired author Frank Herbert to write a science fiction novel set on a desert world (‘Dune’) that itself became an epic film. (Lorenz et al. 2013:8)

(Incidentally, beyond its insights on desert cultural ecology, Dune also contains some interesting observations about the uses to which history and archaeology are put, and the processes of remembering and forgetting involved in this. These do get rather heavy-handed by the fourth or fifth installment, though.)

This reminded me of something I actually hadn’t thought about in a while: a short literature review I did during my first year of grad school as the initial stage of a cool remote sensing project. That project, for a variety of reasons, never happened, but it did expose me to a neat bit of Hollywood archaeology. The site we were interested in was the so-called “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille”, or the remains of the set built for The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent film, not the more familiar 1956 Charlton Heston version). The movie was filmed at Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara and, after filming, the sets were taken apart and buried beneath the dunes. This was, evidently, a compromise between hauling them away, which was too expensive, and leaving them intact, which would have allowed someone else to come along and use them. Either way, there they were, more or less forgotten, until they were rediscovered in 1983. Comparing the “Lost City of DeMille” to Mos Espa is interesting, because the underlying problem is basically the same (movie sets just aren’t built to last very long), but the environmental issues are different. In the case of the Ten Commandments set, the problem is that the sand is blowing away, leaving the site exposed to damage (more damage than was already caused by taking it apart and burying it under some sand dunes, anyway).

I remembered an archaeological project being in the works at the time I was looking into this (it’s mentioned on this site, which doesn’t appear to have been updated in a while), and wondered if anything had come of that. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look good. I suppose something might have happened after the Dunes Center last updated their web site, but I can’t find anything. It sounded like a really cool project, though: digging up the remains of what a legendary filmmaker and his crew in 1923 thought late 2nd millennium BC Egypt would have looked like.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLorenz, Ralph D., Nabil Gasmi, Jani Radebaugh, Jason W. Barnes, & Gian G. Ori (2013). Dunes on planet Tatooine: Observation of barchan migration at the Star Wars film set in Tunisia Geomorphology DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.06.026

Ripped from the Headlines: Biblical Archaeology!

July 22, 2013

Given my recent posts, you’d probably think I work in a much earlier period than I actually do. I suppose I’m going to add to that now by pointing to three stories that have come out of Israel in the past week or so.

First is the news that “King David’s palace” has been discovered at Khirbat Qeiyafa, identified by the excavators as the Biblical site of Sha’arayim (I didn’t want to comment much on any of these, but I will point to Aren Maeir’s response, which is both the shortest and the sweetest I’ve read so far). Second, a house at Tel Rehov has been identified as the Prophet Elisha’s. And the third is the most recent update on Simcha Jacobovici’s libel lawsuit against Joe Zias.

I could probably say a lot about any one of these stories, but don’t really want to. I bring them up, actually, because I just got around to taking a look at the (open access!) Richard III skeleton paper in the most recent Antiquity (Buckley et al. 2013). The authors of that paper begin their abstract by stating, “Archaeologists today do not as a rule seek to excavate the remains of famous people and historical events” (Buckley et al. 2013:519). One might be forgiven for assuming that the opposite is generally true in Biblical archaeology. . .

Works Cited

Buckley, Richard, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan, and Lin Foxhall
2013 ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87(336):519-538. http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/087/ant0870519.htm

The UCSD Levantine Lab in the Most Influential BASOR Articles

July 10, 2013

A list of the “10 Most Influential BASOR Articles” was posted about two weeks ago over at the ASOR Blog. I’ve been meaning to post about it since all 10 went up, but it’s been a busy two weeks.

Topping the list, quite excitingly, is “A New Chronological Framework for Iron Age Copper Production at Timna (Israel)” by former UCSD Levantine Lab grad student (and current Tel Aviv University professor) Erez Ben-Yosef, as well as UCSD SIO professor Lisa Tauxe, SIO post-doc Ron Shaar, and Hebrew University researcher Hagai Ron, who sadly passed away in September of last year, not long after the paper was published. The paper, which pretty much does what it says on the tin, is an excellent reassessment of the chronology of copper production in the southern ‘Araba Valley based on some of the excavations Erez conducted as part of his dissertation work. It’s fantastic that Erez and colleagues made it to the top of the list, and they certainly deserve it for their great work.

The other exciting thing about this top 10 list (for non-BASOR subscribers who don’t have JSTOR access through a large university library, anyway) is that you can download all 10 for free until the end of July. I like that ASOR is increasingly making some of their publications available for free, even if only for limited periods. It’s not open access, really, but at least it’s something.

The list itself, though, I find rather strange. Of the 10 articles, seven deal with the Iron Age (ca. 1200-500 BC), and none deal with topics earlier than the Middle Bronze Age (late 3rd – mid-2nd millennium BC) or later than the Roman period (ca. late 1st century BC – mid-4th century AD). On the one hand, I feel like this might actually represent BASOR’s readership, or even ASOR’s membership, fairly well. When ASOR changed the name of their more “general interest” publication from The Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1998, there were (I hear, since I was just starting high school then) a lot of complaints, which I assume stemmed from the fact that many members of ASOR didn’t consider periods not covered in the Bible to be a topic of general interest (and I suspect some still don’t).

On the other hand, I am a bit surprised that none of these papers made the cut:

1) Whitcomb, Donald
1988 Khirbet al-Mafjar Reconsidered: The Ceramic Evidence. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 271:51-67.

2) Holum, Kenneth
1992 Archaeological Evidence for the Fall of Byzantine Caesarea. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286:73-85.

3) Avner, Uzi, and Jodi Magness
1998 Early Islamic Settlement in the Southern Negev. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 310:39-57.

Certainly there are others that could be suggested (and I’m not even going to try for the prehistoric periods), but these were the three that I had in mind as I read through the list, expecting to see at least one of them. I’m not saying that Islamic archaeology (or, for that matter, Neolithic archaeology) is necessarily being intentionally slighted here; the Iron Age is a big period, and there was definitely an attempt to cover a lot of ground in this list. But it does seem to emphasize that although Islamic archaeology is becoming a bigger part of ASOR, we still occupy a fairly marginal position there.

But again, it’s still quite exciting to see that Erez made it to the top of the list. If you have any interest, you should definitely download his paper for free while you have the chance!

More on the Exodus at UCSD

June 19, 2013

Recently, a page dedicated to the Out of Egypt conference went up on the Calit2 (actually, now the Qualcomm Institute) site. As I mentioned previously, this is the conference that the EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future exhibit was associated with, and Tom Levy and our colleagues at Calit2 have done a fantastic job of making everything available to those who couldn’t attend the exhibit or conference.

So, in addition to seeing photos from the conference (if you scroll through long enough you can see a few of me with the rest of the Levantine Archaeology Lab crew and some other UCSD Anthro folks), you can also watch videos of every talk that was given at the conference and get a guided tour of the exhibition (from Tom himself!). Plus, at the bottom of the page, you can read the three panels on the Exodus in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, including the contribution I put together with Prof. Babak Rahimi.

I have to say, I’m impressed with how much of the conference has been made available online. It would definitely be a good thing if, at some point in the near future, it became common for conference organizers to provide open post-conference access to talks and other materials.

Donner on belief

June 12, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was asked by my advisor (who also happens to be the curator of this exhibit) to put together a few paragraphs describing Islamic traditions of the Exodus story for an exhibit called EX3: Exodus, Cyber-Archaeology and the Future (I planned to post this while the exhibition was still open, but it closed over the weekend). This is actually a topic I didn’t know all that well before this, so although the panel had a maximum of only 250 words, I ended up doing a fair amount of research. In the course of this, I came across a quote from the historian Fred Donner that, although it’s actually a metaphor for Islamic history, sums up pretty well some of the issues of Biblical archaeology:

But the parting of the waters – the actual supernatural event that, according to the story, was God’s act of salvation for the Israelites – this the historian simply cannot evaluate. . . . because it involves an event that is explicitly represented as supernatural, it is simply beyond his competence as a historian to evaluate its supernatural content. (Donner 2011:34)

It’s a useful compromise in some ways, and reminds me of a quote that Aren Maeir used in his presentation at the conference associated with the exhibition. It’s by the Zionist author Ahad Ha’am, from his essay “Moses”:

For even if you succeed in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses — the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.

For the believer, this seems like a rather sensible position to me.

(Actually, though, we all know that what these quotes really remind me of is “Lisa the Iconoclast,” the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa proves that beloved town founder Jebediah Springfield was actually the murderous pirate Hans Sprungfeld, but as a serious academic I can’t bring that up. It’s a perfectly cromulent association to make, though.)

Works Cited

Donner, Fred M.
2011 The historian, the believer, and the Qur’ān. In New Perspectives on the Qur’ān: The Qur’ān in its historical context 2. G.S. Reynolds, ed. Pp. 25-37. Routledge studies in the Qur’ān. New York: Routledge.

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