Catacombs and dolce vita

Passionate about archaeology from a very young age, I began, like most of my colleagues, as a volunteer at sites when I was 16. My professional career began in 1991 with my first contracts as an excavator for Afan, now I’m currently working for Inrap.
The funerary domain always fascinated me and I oriented my career toward the direction of archaeological operations in this field (university education and choice of field sites when possible). My research topics concerned funerary practices, and in particular:
– the excavation of Jewish medieval cemeteries in Europe,
– mortality crises (epidemics and violent inter-human phenomena),
– monastic spaces (funerary or not),
– the chronology and typology of burials.
For the past twenty years, I have worked to communicate the results of my research through articles, conferences and exhibits because I consider that the profession of archaeology does not stop with excavation report writing and that it is our job to transmit our knowledge to both the scientific community and the general public.
On the occasion this “Day of Archeology”, I would like to share a typical day on an exceptional project in the Saint Peter and Saint Marcellinus catacomb in Rome.

In 2005, my colleague Dominique Castex (CNRS, Bordeaux), with whom I regularly collaborate, asked me to co-direct a mission with her in the funerary space then managed by the Vatican.
This kind of opportunity knocks only once and I had to cease it even if:
1/it was a two month mission,
2/my wife was six months pregnant,
3/we had to move the day before my departure for Rome!
Thanks to her devotion and sacrifice, we quickly found a solution: I left her with our boxes and I flew home often until she could join me for a bit of the Dolce Vita herself.

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb © SSPM

Making observations in the Saint Pierre and Saint Marcellinus catacomb. © SSPM

Life on an archaeological site in the Vatican

A typical day began at around 6:00 am for breakfast with the team. The team was composed of anthropology students from Bordeaux and sometimes a few colleagues and friends who found time to participate in this amazing experience.
We were housed in the center of Rome which was great for enjoying the charms of this marvelous city. The disadvantage was the commuting time to get to the site: taking the metro to the Termini station and then bus #105 for 40 minutes.

The doors of the catacomb opened at 8:00 for the fossores, the Vatican employees specialized in the very specific work of managing the catacomb. Their help was essential for the technical organization of the excavation and for finding our way around in the underground tunnels. This space consists of nearly 4.5 kilometers of galleries distributed across two or three levels in places, where it is very easy to get lost.

We then reached sector “X” of the catacomb where we excavated cavities filled skeletons covered with plaster. Each of us got into a horizontal position on our board and uncovered the bones peeking out a few centimeters below. Once they were uncovered, it was time to record, photograph, and draw them. We then “unearthed” the skeletons and put them into bags to take them up to the surface to be studied by other members of the team. After a short lunch break at Anna’s, the local pizzeria, we returned to our cool little hideaway (always 16-17°) while the “surface” was assaulted by the sun with temperatures over 30° during this month of September.

On the field © Denis Gliksman

On the field. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

Uncovering a level with skeletons. © Denis Gliksman

After the effort, a bit of comfort?

At around 4:00, the doors were closed again and we began the long journey back to our much awaited showers and beds.
It is then that the second day of the archaeologist’s began: that of administrative and scientific tasks. From 6:00 to 8:00 pm, I checked my email and answered the most urgent messages, while remembering to call home for news from the future mom. It was then time to write various articles that were urgently due “yesterday, of course”!

After the effort, a bit of comfort! This came with the meal regularly enjoyed as a group, like monks in the priory, except when we gave in to the temptation of the numerous trattoria in the neighborhood, or the diversity of pasta and pizzas rivalling the marvelous Italian wines. We solved the world’s problems during the time of a meal before ending the evening with an ice cream near the Trevi Fountain, always teeming with tourists. Such is the hard life of an archaeologist in exile…

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

The real Bruschetta ! © Philippe Blanchard

Philippe Blanchard, Inrap archaeologist, UMR 51 99

A day of archaeology and a ‘holiday’ by the graveside…

Hello! My name is Katherine and I am a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester. This is my first year contributing a post for the Day of Archaeology as, unlike last year in which I was stuck in the library shackled to a desk*, I actually have some fun stuff to write about!

My research project examines the practice of mortuary archaeology in the UK (confusingly, this is not the study of mortuaries, as I am often asked, but the archaeological investigation of past beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial instead!) and whether it has a wider role to play in contemporary society – one which goes beyond furthering our knowledge of the past. In particular, however, I am interested in the impact of ‘digging up the dead’ on archaeology practitioners. As such, I am exploring the effect of professional training on attitudes towards human remains, whether achieving a level of professionalism and expertise means subjugating emotional connections to the past and what bearing professionally-held conceptions of human remains have upon the construction of archaeological knowledge and the narratives that are produced for public consumption.

A ‘humerus’ picture in the unit’s warehouse…

To this end, much of the second year of my PhD has been spent interviewing lots of folk about their opinions on these matters and I am now spending the summer conducting ethnographic fieldwork with various organisations, including commercial archaeology units, field schools and museums. This involves observing and participating in daily life at each of my host sites, where I am exploring the assumptions and practices that underpin the process of mortuary archaeology and looking anew at the overlooked, the taken-for-granted and that which is considered routine.

On this most hallowed Day of Archaeology, I am currently ensconced in a very picturesque city in the north of England, where I have spent the past two weeks mithering the staff of a commercial archaeology unit (the deliberate vagueness here is an attempt to preserve anonymity!). The unit has very kindly allowed me to use their excavation of a medieval burial ground (which lurks underneath a car park, naturally) as a case study for my thesis and staff have agreed to be watched, photographed, sketched, interviewed and asked a whole bunch of silly questions.

However, what with being in such a beautiful city, the glorious weather and the break from reading and writing, I confess that I do feel a little like I’m on holiday and I am probably having entirely too much of a good time (I am definitely eating waaaaaay too much cake – archaeology is powered by sugar!). That said, I do go home at the end of each day covered in dirt and aching from head to toe, as I am digging alongside collecting my own data. For someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a computer screen, it has been a joy to re-discover my muscles and the great big ball of fire in the sky!

Today, amongst other things, I will be finishing up the paperwork for the burial I excavated yesterday. As it’s a Friday, however, we will down tools for the day a little earlier and there is talk of heading to the pub (this is where the best research takes place, honestly!) for a well-earned drink…or two – it is so hot today that I am actually hallucinating a nice cold pint! I will then throw myself on a train back to Manchester (I’m participating in tomorrow’s Festival of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum) and spend the journey typing up my field notes from the day and answering emails.

I have a couple more weeks left here and then I am off to my next site, but I will be sad to leave. The archaeologists here have made me feel incredibly welcome and allowed me access into their ‘secret’ world. It has been a real privilege to work alongside them and an even greater honour to excavate the remains of the dead which, shockingly, is actually my first time. As a result, this has provided me with a whole wealth of additional material based on my own personal reflections and feelings. The challenge is how I am going to analyse and write all of this up…but that will, perhaps, be the topic of next year’s post!

*I’m not really complaining, I do actually love my PhD!

Adventures in Digital Archaeology & Open Access Antiquarianism

Ashley M. Richter in front of one of the UCSD Calit2 visualization walls and my layered realities conceptual graphic for digital archaeological technology development and use.

Ashley M. Richter in front of one of the UCSD Calit2 visualization walls and my layered realities conceptual graphic for digital archaeological technology development and use.

It’s funny how quickly time passes while studying time.

Two years ago, this weekend was spent with a laser scanner at the beach.

I’d finagled a mini-grant from the National Science Foundation for a project I like to call Sandcastles for Science, but whose full un-pronouncable name identified it as a project to test out laser scanning capabilities for handling the imaging resolutions of stratigraphic sediment on archaeological sites (see– even that was a mouthful).

As a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, the beach was the nearest easy access place to play in the dirt and provided a perfect venue to open up the experiment to local kids and un-suspecting beach-goers who accidentally volunteered themselves for mini-science bootcamp. Willing audiences who would build me data castles, while my research assistant and I exposed them to archaeology, beach physics, the history of castles, laser scanning, sea-shell collecting, and all the other educational topics we could cram into our construction schpeals and posterboards. I like archaeological education outreach, so sue me. It gets written into almost every one of my projects somehow.

Sandcastles for Science was ultimately prep-work for a two month field season in Jordan, laser scanning sites in Faynan (and yes, even scanning Petra for one glorious day), as well as for a lovely bit of software development on visualizing temporal sequences in point clouds with one of my fabulous computer science colleagues.

The Leica Scanstation looming over its sandcastle victim at the beach.

The Leica Scanstation looming over its sandcastle victim at the beach.

Last year, this weekend was spent in a frenzy of data digging and labwork

My team needed to pull together presentations for Italian officials to approve the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology’s upcoming field season at Palazzo Vecchio and the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, and a bevy of lovely sites in southern Italy with a team from the University of Calabria.

So it was a weekend slogging through back-data of point clouds from the Hall of the 500 in Palazzo Vecchio, emphasizing the layered multi-spectral imaging into the model, and how it definitely showed the cracks conservators needed to track to create preservation solutions, and how it maybe had a hidden Da Vinci lurking behind one of its walls. It was a weekend of lists for the upcoming season, of site logistics, and Italian language lessons (team lessons with an instructor +  DuoLingo = a surprising amount of success once we hit Italy for the two month madcap field season that was my fall of 2013).

And if you’d like to check out more pics and details of my wonderful and ridiculous work for a once-promising academic something, scope out my scrapbook blog Adventures in Digital Archaeology.

The CISA3 diagnostics team at Palazzo Vecchio after successful conservation imaging.

The CISA3 diagnostics team at Palazzo Vecchio after successful conservation imaging.

The Faro Focus and I about to image the exterior of the Baptistery. Note that I literally only seem capable of this one jaunty pose with a laser scanner. I desperately need to start doing something different in field propaganda photos.

The Faro Focus and I about to image the exterior of the Baptistery. Note that I literally only seem capable of this one jaunty pose with a laser scanner. I desperately need to start doing something different in field propaganda photos.

But this year, this year was spent online- in a flurry of creative archaeological energy

This summer, I find myself graduated and out on my own, free to pursue my own projects, safely away from the boundary lines of academia and the rather unhealthy environment I had found myself in for a big chunk of this year.

Pulling ourselves back together, my favorite research colleague Vid and I cooked up a delightful dish that brings together all the digital archaeology flavors we’d been prepping before, but as part of a much grander and more colorful feast.

And so this weekend was spent running down the final lists of photographs, video media, and writing that needed to coalesce together into the FIRST archaeological technology driven Kickstarter.

Mushing together the laser scanning, point clouds, 3D models, and 3D printing,our project, Open Access Antiquarianism, proposes the construction of art exhibit built from re-purposed cultural heritage data using the digital visualization pipelines my colleague and I have been building to handle archaeological data.

A blend of 3D printed archaeological artifacts, furniture upholstered in fabric printed with archaeological LiDAR (literal armchair archaeology), interactive point cloud visualizations and other such extravagant re-workings of scientific data from open archives, the Cabinet of Curiosities Open Access Antiquarianism proposes offers an excellent opportunity to continue streamlining the point cloud and 3D modelling methodologies we’d been playing with for so long, while reaching a much much larger audience.

Because the larger global community needs to be engaged in the increasingly complicated discussions regarding ethical implementations of digitization and open access of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The public (and archaeologists themselves) need to understand the desperate desperate need for interdisciplinary and collaborative work and move away from the academic politics and needless power-plays that constantly bog such wonderful creative enterprises down. Archaeologists need to work more closely with technologists and engineers to develop useful and adaptable systems that preserve the past for the future (and often simultaneously end up building the surveying systems needed for the space-age future we all envision).

And the public needs to be aware of the wealth of data that is available to them in the increasingly larger and more wonderful online archives of museums and government institutions all over the world. The past has the potential to become increasingly and excitingly ubiquitous and something that plays a much stronger role in one’s everyday conception of time and space. It’s getting all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and the doctors of archaeology ought to be actively on the hunt for more and more Companions. Studying the past is no longer something that need be done by experts alone. In fact, we are drowning under such an avalanche of data, that it is imperative that more crowd-sourced archaeological ventures be launched to bear the brunt of analyzing everything that is already stacked up in the university basements of the world, let alone the incoming finds. Archaeologists can stay experts, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to talk to the public and engage them more actively in what we’re up to. Enthusiasm should count more than correct use of erudite jargon. Even to those hipster archaeologists out there.

In some small artistic way, the Open Access Antiquarianism project would like to address all of these things, while expanding the research and technological collaborative possibilities to continue refining the much needed digital pipeline that takes things from the field through processing, archiving, studying, and out to engagement.

My collaborative and interdisciplinary digital archaeology and outreach isn’t the traditional archaeology. But its my archaeology. And more than that, its an archaeological practice of hope. Hope that archaeology will fully embrace the increasingly digitized and interdisciplinary future. Hope that archaeology will not fall prey to over-specialization and tenure. Hope that archaeologists will continue to try to document and in some small way understand the past, so that we can help make vital statistically based decisions for the future. Archaeology has such potential to aid technology development and global ecological policy, if only us archaeologists would reach out and grasp it instead of assuming it will fall into our laps.

If you’re intrigued/dismayed/excited/furious/amused or any one of the wonderful and ridiculous emotions human beings are capable of, please check out Open Access Antiquarianism on kickstarter and on Facebook.  We’d love your support, and if you love our concepts about tech development, archaeology, and art as a research and outreach driver, perhaps your collaboration as well. Get in touch!

To the erudite young men and women a-sitting on a-tell: may your trowels be ever muddy and your point clouds free of shadows.

Acres and acres of happy wishes to all the archaeologists of the world,

Ashley M. Richter

One of the Open Access Antiquarianism Medaillions we've designed as part of the Kickstarter reward campaign.

One of the Open Access Antiquarianism Medaillions we’ve designed as part of the Kickstarter reward campaign.

Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

Friday the 11th of July marks Archaeology Day 2014, a tremendous initiative designed to showcase the diversity of research and work that is found in the archaeological sector and industry across the world.  But rather than have this blog entry focus on me specifically, I wanted to present the view of a few of my friends that are involved in the archaeology community worldwide, whether they are a volunteer, a student or an academic, be they in it for the fun or employed in the commercial sector.  So without further ado here are a few of my friends and what they will be up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014!

So firstly we meet up with my friend Jennifer in Belgium, who has some skeletons that need examining:

“I am a graduate in Prehistoric archaeology, and in funerary archaeology and human osteology.  On archaeology day I will be conducting an osteological study on a skeletal collection.  Firstly there is a need to assess the completeness of the bones that were excavated in the Belgian town of Rebecq.  This excavation by the SPW (Public Service of Wallonia) is one of the fieldworks I took part as a volunteer in 2012.  The cemetery is early medieval, and the individuals seem to show a lot of pathological lesions.  The sex and age at death of the individuals is estimated based on metrical and morphological features expressed in the remains.  Understanding the health conditions and the demographic profile of the people buried in this cemetery will help understand how they lived in Rebecq in the Middle Ages.


Jennifer Gonissen excavating an early medieval cemetery at Rebecq in Belgium. Photo credit D. Bosquet-SPW.

Besides that, I have also been helping at the lab for the Palaeoanthropology course led at the University of Brussels this academic semester.  I am also working on publishing my two master thesis.  Everything is done on a volunteering basis as there are very few paid opportunity for osteoarchaeologists in Belgium.  This does not mean that there is nothing to work on, as Belgium is rich in skeletal material excavated in numerous fieldworks across the country, a large part of which still has to be properly studied.”

– Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

Keeping with the skeletal theme we now turn towards Cheshire, England, where we find Alison helping archaeological students:

“While I often spend a lot of time at a desk for archaeology, this summer I am back in the field: from June to September at the Poulton Research Project field school in Cheshire. As there is a cemetery on site it is my role to oversee any excavation involving human remains. In addition to this, I also to teach students (from all subject backgrounds and levels of experience) how to identify, excavate, record, lift, and clean skeletal material.

alison poulton

Students record a burial on site, before the skeleton is lifted. Photo credit Alison Atkin, with permission.

While it’s my job, I consider it a privilege to be involved in their introduction to osteoarchaeology – and thus far I’ve been nothing less than impressed with their enthusiasm for and insights into the subject.”

– Alison Atkin, a Doctoral Researcher at University of Sheffield, osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project and blogger at Deathsplanation.

After which we join David in Haddington, Scotland, as he balances his community and commercial archaeological work:

Currently the world of my archaeology revolves around 5 major suns, all equally bright and demanding.  The Skills passport is printed and being packed, with the final text added to the website,  BAJR is campaigning for more than minima, the preparations for fieldschools and training with Rampart Scotland are at warp factor 7 (days to go)  and of course Past Horizons articles never end.   Finally, and slipped into the mix is my commercial sun, three reports to be completed, two tenders to submit and a rather complex negotiation to tiptoe through.   Also helping to organise a medieval conference in Haddington in September and a new social enterprise archaeology group.   So all in all a fairly busy, but exciting time!”

– David Connolly, owner of BAJR, co-writer at Past Horizons and creator of the Archaeology Skills  Passport.


David Connolly horsing about on an archaeology project – business as usual!

What is it like to work in the field as an archaeologist and what can it involve?  Kevin provides a breakdown of what he gets up to in the fields and offices of England:

“I am currently working with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, as a casual field archaeologist out of their Carlisle office.  They have me doing a little bit of everything in terms of work, though mostly within the early stages of pre-planning on sites due for development, including surveys (mostly geophysics) and evaluations.

Unfortunately I have been told I am not allowed to divulge detailed information on current projects for obvious reasons, but I can talk about the projects I’ve been involved with recently that have been made public.  For example, I helped throughout most of the post-ex for the predominantly Roman site at Blackfriars, in Leicester; washing all the finds as they came back, helping to catalogue them, writing small-finds sheets etc., which was great because there were some very interesting finds.  Pretty much everything you would expect from a domestic, urban Roman site, complete with coins, copper brooches, various other types of jewellery, iron tools, hoards of pottery and colourful painted wall plaster.  There was even a couple of roof tiles baked with animal paw prints still in them, which were interesting, giving a very intimate snapshot of Roman life.

Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts.  Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts. Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

However, my primary role these days is with the geophysics team, travelling all over the country, Essex, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and on Archaeology Day I will theoretically be on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Nice and close to home.  As I said, I can’t go into details about the job other than it is in advance of a housing development.  Doing the geophysics itself is hard work.  I am not going to lie! We shall be walking, I’ve been told, through knee-high sugar-beet, which will make walking with the twin-probed magnetometers awkward at best.

I think I’ve done geophysics through every type of crop and across every type of terrain (and through every weather condition!).  Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable, other times, like I say, it’s bloody hard.  No doubt I will need to buy a new pair of wellies by the end of the second day.  That’s right, we wear wellies!!! Our company won’t supply non-metallic shoes, so we’re all wearing rubber wellies which are uncomfortable to walk in over long distances and very hot and sweaty in the summer heat! Fun fun!  I suppose the odd aspect to my doing geophysics is that I’m not a geophysicist, and I certainly have no formal training in geophysics.  I’m very much an archaeologist who has been pulled in to do the surveying work, learning on the job!”

– Kevin Horsley, a commercial field archaeologist with his hands and feet dipped into all the pots archaeology has to offer.

My undergraduate university friend Emily also enjoys the variety that life in archaeology has to offer:

“If I am not in the field digging evaluations or excavations with my team, I am in the office processing finds and preparing archaeological archives for museum accessioning.  This weekend I’ll be celebrating the Festival of Archaeology by heading down to the nearby Milton Keynes Central Library to talk to the public about archaeology and local finds! 

Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

I really enjoy both the fieldwork and post-excavation elements of my job, it is nice to have the variety and I feel one improves the other as it gives me a better understanding of the different aspects of commercial archaeology.”

– Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

To continue to read the rest of this post click here.

Plans, Lists, Context Sheets, Levels, Sections, Photos, and Back to the Plans: Archival clean up at Bristol Dig Berkeley

My name is Emily Glass and together with my co-supervisor at Bristol Dig Berkeley, Sian Thomas, we have been wading through piles of drawings, lists and context sheets that were created over four weeks of digging at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. This project has been an annual fixture of the University of Bristol’s Archaeology and Anthropology department for ten years under the direction of Professor Mark Horton and Dr Stuart Prior. The excavation provides valuable practical experience for students during their three year degree and for any willing post-graduates! During the 2014 season the team worked in Nelme’s Paddock (a field to the front of the Castle) on Trenches 8 and 14 – for which the paperwork now needs looking over for any glaring errors.

Emily and Sian PX-ing the Berkeley Castle excavation

Emily and Sian PX-ing the Berkeley Castle excavation

Often seen as the ‘boring’ side of archaeology – the less hands-on, indoor work of checking and cross-referencing any excavation archive is a crucial part of the process. Using the archaeological features and finds to phase the sequence of events is the basis for interpreting your site. The mantra that most archaeologists have been brought up on is that ‘the archaeology does not lie’ – so no matter how much you try to cram that theory of yours into what the evidence is telling you, if it won’t fit then it’s just plain wrong! All that needs doing next is to fit this into the wider scheme of what was going on at that particular time in that particular area and you have your story! Simple, right??

One thing about checking an archive is that no matter how long you THINK it’s going to take – it will always take longer and often drive you mad in the process of going back and forward between lists, sheets, numbers, drawings, images and notebooks until you feel like you’re drowning in paperwork! However, on occasion the Post-ex process can throw up something completely unexpected – such as our 2014 Finds Team discovering a box containing ceramic vessels from Ur! Then, when all calms down and you finally feel you’re coming out of the tunnel – you realise that your final Harris Matrix doesn’t work and the cycle of despair continues!

"Tell Us Your Secrets Trench 8...."

“Tell Us Your Secrets Trench 8….”

Trench 8 has been open now since 2009 so we have many, many drawings and records that Sian has kept on top of year on year. She even has an A1 sized trench matrix which looks amazing, but of course needs a bit of jiggling! On this Day of Archaeology we sorted out finished drawings to be scanned, filed sheets into folders and updated the context check-list.  Some context sheets were checked off, whereas others are ongoing and will be completed at the Berkeley Summer School in August. So far we can track a broadly continuous sequence of use through buildings, roads, ditches and pits from the Roman period through to Saxon, then Norman, onto Medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan times. The latest phase represented is the Georgian use of the Paddock as a kitchen garden. So it’s not surprising that the sequence keeps shifting!

General niggles in the records were of the usual variety: confusion about compass orientations, forgetting to transfer levels back onto paperwork (or even work them out!), back-to-front matrices and terrible handwriting! All joking aside, completing the record checking of an archaeological archive to a high standard is not only the right thing to do ethically and morally (all archaeology being destruction / to dismantle is to understand and all that), but it is also very satisfying, especially when the job is ticked off as DONE!

Happy Day of Archaeology 2014!


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Monrepos – research in progress

Finally, I want to write a bit about our archaeological research which has to continue while the museum is prepared for the re-opening.
Of course, an apparent question is: Why don’t the other researchers write their own posts about their work? Well, the answer is simple and, presumably, very common in science:
It’s a matter of time!

Work schedules of cooperative projects and deadlines of submitting articles have to be kept. Since most institute members also try to help with the museum, time is getting short and even shorter… So we practice one of the amazing achievements of human behavioural evolution: division of labour! So while I’m blogging, others continue with their work.

For example, Dr. Martin Street just finishes writing an article about dogs… in space… and, more importantly, in the Upper Palaeolithic. This paper is his contribution for an exhibition catalogue of another institute. You see, we help where we can!
The previously mentioned Dr. Radu Ioviță has several research projects including field projects in Romania and Kazakhstan. Besides answering questions of actors, today he worked on one of his lab projects and made figures for an article he co-authors about bifacial symmetry.
A Master student he is working with, Nina Schlösser, made spear throwing and thrusting experiments the other week to understand microscopic breakage patterns of lithic tips. Some of us helped her back then throwing and thrusting spears, measuring the depth of the shaft in the animal, or simply switching cameras on and off. Today she was one of the many helpers in and outside the museum and for some unknown reason she was using a shaft again.

Radu’s and Nina’s work contributes to our previously mentioned research theme “Diet and Nutrition”. Understanding hunting equipments and, thus, hunting strategies in the past contributes to the very old problem how to get to the food.
This important motivator helps to fill the larger picture of our research concept which is “Becoming Human: the Evolution of Hominin Behaviour”. In our institute, we focus on ice age (Pleistocene) material as the longest part of human history to portray this process.

Many people instantly think of big glaciers, massive ice sheets, snow, and cold temperatures when they hear “Ice Age”. However, these phases of glacial growth were repetitively intersected by several millenia of warm phases so called interglacials such as the Eemian and, probably, the Holocene. Another of our research themes, “Human behavioural strategies in interglacial environments”, focuses on these warm periods. Important projects in this theme are, for example, the 300,000 years old site at Schöningen or the Eemian site of Neumark-Nord 2. Both sites represent specific lake shore environments which allowed a good preservation of organic material. The bone material needs detailed recording to distinguish natural processes from carnivore and human activity. Therefore, the pieces are not just determined to body part and animal species but they are also examined for breakages and potential cutmarks. Our Basque colleague, Dr. Aritza Villaluenga Martinez, spend some of his working day with this detailed recording.

He is one of the researchers having his desk in our comparative collection on the top floor.

Such collections are needed for more reliable determinations but in some difficult cases, direct exchange with other experts is the best way to come to a reliable conclusion. Therefore, most of our archaeozoologist have desks on the top floor.

Likewise others, Aritza used the Friday afternoon to additionally work on corrections of two reviewed papers. Moreover, earlier today he helped together with our colleague Geoff Smith cleaning up outside the museum.

Another one working late on a Friday afternoon is Wolfgang Heuschen M.A. For his dissertation, he examines schist plates from the Magdalenian site Gönnersdorf. These plates were regularly engraved with Pleistocene mammals such as woolly rhino or mammoths as well as stylised female silhouettes. Continuous use and post-depositional damages make finding and documenting these engravings a difficult task, in particular, requiring a moveable light.

Wolfgang focuses on signs and symbols which are occasionally difficult to distinguish from unintentional scratches. Therefore, he systematically records the plates and establishes regulations in the composition of engravings. Thus, regulations of early societies, our third research theme, can be filtered from the archaeological material.

In a comparable manner, we all contribute to the three research themes that support the research concept – if we are back to our usual working mode. Then we fill large parts of the process of becoming human as a team and explain more and more bits and pieces of the evolution of hominin behaviour – from Tuesday on, we also present what we already learned to the general public in our newly re-opened museum.

So if you are interested: Please, come and visit us!

Is it Déjà vu All Over Again?

Life at the Alfred W. Bowers W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology (AWBLA) is progressing into the summer months with its usual stately grace. The frantic pace of the semester has grudgingly given way to long hours in overwarm rooms. Staff members work determinedly to impose order on our many collections while finding creative excuses to work in the climate controlled Repository. The AWBLA is located on the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho. The Laboratory also serves as the Archaeological Survey of Idaho, Northern Repository and holds 748 collections unique to that function. The Laboratory also houses several other collections unaffiliated with the Repository, most notable among them being: the Asian American Comparative Collection, the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Comparative Collection, and Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archive. These collections are well recognized and undeniably among the most prestigious elements of our facility. Although highly prized, these resources have a seemingly endless list of needs that must be met as new artifacts are added, technology advances, curatorial practices shift, or even as the Laboratory redefines its purpose. As a result, Collection Managers at this Laboratory have been accessioning, rehousing, or modifying these collections for decades. As the years pass and our work on the collections continues, part of my brain whispers “It’s like deja vu all over again.” So, on this hot day in July, the amazing staff members of the Laboratory of Anthropology log in and settle down to do some serious work that few will ever appreciate. Over the course of a day, the dedication of the morning starts to fray a bit and the radio stations get a little louder, some people have disappeared into audio books, while others have mysterious means that involve laughing aloud to something no one else can hear. No one says anything about someone else’s coping mechanism. Here again, part of my brain starts whispering. This time it says, hang in there and remember “90% of the game is half mental.” The extreme tedium and almost hypnotic quality of the work is soothing for some and meditative for others. However, there are those days where the silent susurration of papers or the repetitive activity of cataloguing feels like a slow crawl toward madness. As all archaeologists, curators, preservationists, and related professionals know – this job is not for the faint of heart or undisciplined mind. Projects can take months, years, and for one of the collections we recently finished rehabilitating, a solid decade. People assume that because of the work we do that archaeologists are patient and calm people but that isn’t always the case. I for one can be marvelously impatient and often have the attitude of a caged animal. Yet I understand it isn’t about what my brain can tolerate, it is about the stack of papers that needs to be preserved for people I have never met, or the organization of a collection of Fire-Affected-Rock for a researcher that hasn’t been born yet. A determined mind and a belief that what we do serves some kind of purpose is what keeps our hands moving when our ability to focus is being lured away by a gloriously sunny day. Year in and year out we may work on the same project with good days and hard days thrown in the mix but eventually, we get to the point where we slide a box on a shelf and say “It ain’t over till it’s over.”


This archaeological collection consists of approximately 75 cubic feet and contains well over 16000 artifacts. Given the size and complexity of the collection, nearly inscrutable field records, and vagaries of funding, it took ten years to bring to completion. After working on it for so long, I doubt it will be ever be “over”.

Leah K. Evans-Janke, Ph.D.

Collections Manager, Archaeological Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology University of Idaho


A portion of the Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archive. By December of this year, some of these books will be made available to the public, students, staff, and other interested researchers through the University of Idaho Library as non-circulating resources. The project is slated to be completed in the next few years as more than 15,000 items go online.

Alyssa Griffith

Laboratory Technician

As an employee of the Alfred Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology, I get to work on different projects throughout the year. My current project is working to integrate the Pacific Northwest Archaeological Archives (PNWAA), housed here at the lab, into the existing University of Idaho library system. The goal of this project is to make the archives more accessible, visible, and searchable so that they can be utilized by researchers, students and members of the public. In order to integrate the PNWAA into the U of I library system, I am tasked with finding Library of Congress (LOCs) numbers for each book in the archive. The library uses these LOCs to electronically catalogue and shelve books. At first glance, it seems like a simple task. In books recently published (the last 20-30 years), the LOC is usually located on the copyright page along with the publisher’s information. The challenge comes from trying to find LOCs for older books, obscure periodicals and foreign publications, of which the archive has many. The Library of Congress has an online search engine to assist in finding the LOC numbers for these kinds of archival materials but it is hardly ever a straightforward query. In fact, it’s more akin to an electronic scavenger hunt at times, requiring multiple search engines and websites to find the information I’m looking for. Never a dull moment here at the lab!IMAGE 3

Overview of Michelle’s desk. Each staff member, or “Labbie”, spends so much time here that we get a bit attached to our space and make it into a home-away-from-home. Michelle, like all Labbies, has nestled her work in and among the artifacts of her life.

Michelle Sing

Laboratory Technician

On this fine and glorious eleventh of July, I find myself numbering endless documents that once belonged to the much esteemed Don Crabtree. Since my fellow Bower’s labbie Dakota Wallen will explain most of the project, I will refrain from detailing more. For my own experience on this Day of Archaeology, I find myself wondering what project I was working on one year ago to compare it to my tedious, though important, work of today. Last July, I was cataloging items from a well located during the Cyrus-Jacobs Uberuaga project from the 2012 summer field season in Boise. I remember how excited I was to spend hours piecing together old mason jars, perfume bottles, and ceramics. Basically, it was one big puzzle that was conveniently labeled as archaeology (or, more specifically, lab work). Today, I spend endless hours numbering Crabtree documents Ce.10.1.4… Ce.10.1.5…Ce.10.1.6…Ce.10.1.4…Oops, got distracted by a hang nail. Ce.10.1.7…..). Clearly, my work last year was about 1000 pieces of glass better, but I have found that all archaeological work has its perks and importance. Working with the Crabtree collection has shown me quite a bit of the evolution of flintknapping and archaeology (I count myself lucky to be working in the field when it is less sexist). The knowledge we have since found from Crabtree’s time has painted a more complete picture of lithics in Idaho and beyond. And there is still more to learn. As I continue to number my documents (while longing to be outside in the lovely Idaho summer), I know none of that knowledge is possible without me cataloging and analyzing away. So, this summer I will continue to preserve the work of Don Crabtree and know I am contributing to a long line of knowledge in my field.


Overview of Dakota’s desk. One of Dakota’s strategies for dealing with the tedium of numbering papers is to obsessively collect every piece of metal he removes the documents prior to their scanning and eventual long term storage. The pile in the left hand corner of the image has been growing steadily over the past seven months and has become a fixture in the Laboratory.

Dakota Wallen

Laboratory Technician

A graduate student in archaeology, I work as a Laboratory Technician for the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at the University of Idaho. I have been processing the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Technology Collection for 7 months now. Crabtree donated his library, most of his documents, replicas, and artifacts that he made to the University of Idaho when he died. Crabtree is very famous in lithic technology because he was a flintknapper extraordinaire who taught himself how to replicate the stone tools and projectile points found so often at archaeological sites. After teaching himself he began flintknapping field schools and taught the first generation of flintknapping archaeologists. He also made educational films about making stone tools, gave flintknapping demonstrations at the Smithsonian and consulted on projects as small as local Idaho surveys to the Leakey’s projects in East Africa. Crabtree’s artifacts have been well cared for and catalogued, however his documents and library have not. The entire collection was catalogued with no particular order; articles were mixed in with wedding announcements, correspondence, rough drafts of publications, and other miscellany. It remained that way for 30 years and now it is organized so anyone wishing to do research on the collection can actually find relevant materials and look through specific documents and categories. With the collection reorganized the remaining work is quite menial. I arrive at the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at 8:00am. The work room is already uncomfortably warm, so I turn on our little old air conditioning unit, which will struggle all day to keep the room a not so comfortable 80 degrees. I open a gray archival quality box and dive right into work . . . numbering pieces of paper. Okay so maybe it is not quite that bad, the papers are documents from the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Technology Collection after all. I grab a folder of alphabetized and chronologically ordered correspondence and begin assigning catalog numbers so that we can keep track of documents. If people came and did research with the collection it is important to be able to know how many documents were there before and after the collection was used, in case anything was stolen, removed or misplaced. After numbering a few hundred pages of correspondence I take a break to check some thesis research related emails. Budgets have finally been approved; they have been pending since February but get finalized in July. After learning this I also find out that the project deadline is actually August 1st. There was 6 months to do the project, but the funds were not yet available so now there is only a month to complete the project. I consult with my major professor and he suggests telling them when it will realistically be completed, our plans to do so and that I should say he said to do it because in his words “he is pretty famous.” After this good news I head back to work, more page numbering. If I come across any staples, paperclips or any other metal objects they need to be removed to protect the longevity of the collection from rust and other problems metal implements can cause to documents. After numbering all of the pages they will eventually be entered into a database, many of the documents will also be scanned so that they can be accessed digitally, which will prevent damage to many of the more fragile documents. It sounds awful numbering papers all day, but it’s not so bad. Working with the great group of employees at the Bowers Lab makes work enjoyable, and if no one else is around there are always audiobooks to fill the void!


The completely reliable, if somewhat contrary, copier/scanner that Samantha has lovingly nicknamed “Satan”.

Samantha Widner

Laboratory Technician

I am a senior at the University of Idaho working towards my BS in Anthropology. I have been working here at the Laboratory of Anthropology for a year and a half. I have spent the last 4 months working on the Don Crabtree Collection with Dakota Wallen. My specific job is digitize all correspondence and other donated material. On a typical day, I arrive at the lab around 10:00am and go directly to scanning. Unfortunately our scanner is located in a separate room from the main lab so I spend most of the day by myself. At first I struggled with the isolation of the scanning, but as time has passed I have adapted to it, while racking up some impressive Pandora hours. Scanning for 8 hours a day is as exciting as it sounds, but I occasionally come across some interesting finds in my work. I’ve found mentions of the Leakeys and their work in Africa, amusing stamps and cards, and what might be my favorite find to date. In a correspondence to his French associate Dr. Crabtree opened his letter by stating “How about that Apollo 11”. When the scanner is in an agreeable mood I can scan a thousand or more pages a week, however, any of my coworkers would tell you that the struggle with the scanner is real, and finding it in an agreeable mood is a rare. Overall I enjoy working at the lab, both for the opportunities it provides, and because of the people who work here with me.

Molecular Archeology Puts Artifacts in Perspective

Buried inside the Earth, lay secrets. Archeologists piece together histories often lost to time as they unearth human remains and their long-lost possessions.

Where archeologists exhume secrets from the soil, molecular archeologists uncover secrets lying inside human remains. By piecing together ancient DNA, molecular archeologists can more definitively answer questions about our past.

“Some people in my field consider themselves to be molecular archaeologists as we tend to work with archaeological remains and use an archeological context to help infer the genetic patterns we see,” said Ripan Malhi, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

While the day-to-day rigor of being a professor may not seem illustrious, over the course of the year, Malhi’s lab makes amazing discoveries.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer. ©

The Golden Era of ancient DNA

“We can do things now that we haven’t been able to do before,” Malhi said. “I like to say that ancient DNA is in a golden era. When I was a graduate student working on ancient DNA, it probably would’ve taken me years to sequence one complete mitochondrial genome and now we can do that in a week or so.”

Today Malhi’s lab studies complete genomes as well as DNA passed down from mothers to their offspring (called mitochondrial DNA) and from fathers to their offspring (called the y chromosome) to infer the evolutionary history of populations and species. Currently, research in the lab is split into two research areas: the evolutionary history of Native Americans and evolutionary genetics of non-human primates.

Last year, his lab found an ancestral link between ancient remains and their living descendants.

“The community members were really happy about the results because their oral histories have said that they’ve been there for a very long period of time as well,” Malhi said. “Now through scientific and DNA data we are able to show this connection in a different way. Being able to show that connection with something that they’ve known to be true was really satisfying.”

While most archeology doesn’t include DNA analyses, they can be vital to distinguish cultural processes from biological processes, Malhi said.

In the past, movement of arrowheads or pottery from one region to another indicated that a population might have moved. But in reality, Malhi said, a number of other factors could explain the distribution of artifacts.

“By combining DNA evidence with this cultural data we can distinguish whether people are moving or cultural artifacts are being traded from one community to the next,” Malhi said. “Using DNA evidence, we can show how genetic variants moved across the geographic landscape after neighboring groups intermarried.”

This work does more than solidify community backgrounds and establish migration patterns. It can also illustrate evolutionary process and show us how we may evolve with other organisms. One of Malhi’s students is studying how infectious diseases brought over after European contact affected Native Americans’ genomes.

How molecular archeology works

First, Malhi works with Native American communities to find out what questions they would like to answer. It’s a first step that scientists have often skipped in the past.

“They know their own history better than I’ll ever know it,” Malhi said. “They can look at the genetic patterns and give us ideas about what those patterns may represent.”

Malhi interacts with Native American communities and museum curators to discuss what the community members hope to learn from DNA analysis, the questions he wants to address, and how best to extract DNA from the ancestral remains.

Next Malhi visits the communities or museums to pick up the remains. Sometimes he has the chance to be onsite during the excavation as the archeologists collect the remains with gloved hands to prevent modern DNA contamination, from their skin cells and microbiome.

At Malhi’s lab, the remains undergo a surface decontamination to ensure that modern DNA is not included in the final analysis. Then they drill out a sample about the size of a cavity from the bone or tooth. The sample is ground up to a fine dust then sequenced and analyzed.

Finally Malhi is able to look for genetic patterns by combining the new results with published results from various databases and combines that information with other anthropological information, such as the community’s oral histories or cultural artifacts from the archeological site.

Today molecular anthropologists like Malhi can turn DNA fragments that are only around 200 or so base pairs in length into a complete human genome made up of about three billion base pairs.

It’s more than a job

From interacting with Native American communities to seeing his students begin successful careers, Malhi said his job is really satisfying.

“It’s always fun to go back to communities and report results and see how people take those results and incorporate that knowledge and then ask new questions,” Malhi said. “I am now at this stage in my career where I have my students presenting at meetings.  They spent years working really hard developing their research. When they put it all together and present it and the audience gets excited about it and the students are excited about it—that’s a really good feeling, too.”

Malhi also values being a part of the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) workshop, which facilitate discussions about how genomic research is conducted and to create a support network for Native American students in the sciences.

Malhi earned a Master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Davis. He also took molecular biology, population genetics, and other biological courses to complement the anthropology curriculum. Today a student interested in this field can pursue graduate degrees in biological or molecular anthropology.

“I recall hearing about a genetic study where an Italian population did not get heart disease because they had a natural genetic variant, and I realized there’s lots of genetic variation out there that can be interesting and useful,” Malhi said. “Then I learned about connections with history and how you can infer human history from DNA variation, and I was hooked.”

The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) is dedicated to interdisciplinary genomic research related to health, energy, agriculture and the environment. The Institute’s cadre of world-class scientists, collaborative laboratories, and state-of-the-art equipment create an environment that inspires discovery and stimulates bioeconomic development at the University of Illinois. For more information about the SING workshop, visit

Anthroprobably: Archaeology in Historic Hampton Roads, Virginia

Hello again; Matt Tuttle here. I’m excited to participate in the Day of Archaeology for the second straight year [Anthroprobably DOA 2013]! While it has been an entire year since I posted, not a whole lot has changed. I’m still working on the long-term, full excavation of a site in Jamestown, VA  that dates to 1611 (see photo below); but I have also tackled a number of other projects this past year as well.

Ongoing excavation at a Jamestown site dated to 1611.

Ongoing excavation at a Jamestown site dated to 1611.

One of these projects was a phase I archaeological survey in a park which contains what is considered to be the earliest free black settlement in the U.S.  The park plans to expand parking areas and a few trails on the grounds; the survey was completed to ascertain that no culturally sensitive materials or sites would be destroyed by the proposed construction. Generally these types of surveys consist of laying a grid over the site and digging STP’s (shovel test pits) every 50 feet in every direction inside the project area. We record the depth, soil layers and descriptions, any and all artifacts or features found, and produce profile maps for each STP excavated. We then investigate any finds discovered in the project area and complete a site report describing our results and conclusions.

I also just recently finished my largest solo CRM (cultural resource management) project to date along the James River in an area known as Governor’s Land Archaeological District in James City County. The project involved excavating 2.5 x 2.5 feet squares every 10 feet for approximately 1/4 of a mile along a proposed roadway and sewage pipeline. If you are wondering how many squares that works out to be, I’ll tell you: 113! Since the roadway will be located in an area known to be historically important, it was imperative that we made sure nothing would be missed. The project took just over two months to complete (see photos below).

Units every 10 feet.

Units every 10 feet.

Unit with bricks exposed.

Unit with bricks exposed.

I enjoy reading about everyone else’s Day of Archaeology and look forward to participating again in the future! [Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @Anthroprobably]