Day of Archaeology – What have Archaeovision been doing? A Computational perspective

From James Miles:

As a relatively new commercial company we have had a lot of success within a number of research projects utilising computational methods in archaeology. We began the year by recoding the Insula Dell’ara Coeli in Rome, a second century building that can be found at the foot of the Capitoline hill. This was followed by a number of imaging related projects such as our Rode Imaging project, our photogrammetry work for the National museum of Estonia, Deerhurst Church and Salisbury Cathedral, included a 3D print of part of the medieval frieze found in the chapter house. Combined with other laser scanning projects such as the work completed at the Lady of Kazan church in Tallinn and the Ice House at Beaulieu, it has been a very busy year for us.


3D print of the Medieval Frieze

As those who specialise in computational methods, the majority of our time is spent in front of a computer, staring blankly at a screen waiting for our software to work and to stop crashing. Today has been no different! Archaeovision is split into three organisations, we have a company in England, a company in Estonia and a non-profit organisation that allows us to apply for research grants. We have therefore been working on a number of different projects within one day. James who is based in the UK has spent the majority of the day working on his PhD trying to process laser scan models for use within structural analysis tests and finalise a few of his thesis chapters. At the same time he been working on the admin side of the business, dealing with emails, invoices and trying to arrange our storage system. He has recently returned from California where he was part of a research led project looking at Chumash archaeology run by the University of Central Lancashire. His involvement was based on the recording of a number of different cave systems and he will spend this evening going through the scan data, tidying the data and creating virtual replicas of the areas required.



Californian landscape

Attached to our UK company are Tom Goskar and Paul Cripps. Both act as consultants for us and both have already posted about their ongoing work. Tom’s focused on his medieval and web based work whilst Paul’s mentioned his work on his automation project and LiDAR project. Tom and Paul are both experts in their field and it’s a privilege to be able to work with them. Part of the emails that James has been dealing with today is through a future calibration project that follows Paul’s LiDAR work. We are in the final stages of negotiating terms and hopefully this will be underway shortly. At the same time James and Hembo, who is a partner of the business, have been dealing with a request for a website design, again today was spent trying to finalise the details of the work and understand fully what our client wants. Hembo has an extensive background in web based technology and has spent most of the day working on the website for the 2016’s CAA conference that is taking place in Oslo, Norway. Hembo manages this website, along with many others, throughout the year. Today Hembo has been focussing on the Open Conference System for the CAA conference, trying to streamline the submission process for next year’s papers. Hembo has also recently returned from Italy through his involvement in the Portus Project and has been working on the archive system used on site.


Connected to out Estonian team, Kaarel has managed to find time away from the computer and has spent the day completing a survey in south west Estonia. Andres has spent the day working on his Haapsalu Episcopal Castle project which captured an incredible 404 scans over a two day period. He has been tidying up the model for use within a Building Information Model and has been establishing if any areas need further recording. His work made the national news this week which has been great for the company. Connected to this, James was also interviewed during the week in regard to the Ein Gedi scrolls because of his experience with Computed Tomography scanning. The article that the interview was used for was published today on the Smithsonian website. Although the majority of the interview was not used, it has been a good day for us in terms of publicity and for the University of Southampton which James is connected to.


Laser scan model of Haapsalu Castle

For most of us our day has been spent inside. On plus side for those of us in the UK, we have avoided the rain and have a fondness for coffee. A perfect combination for the long days’ worth of processing data and dealing with admin. Tomorrow involves more of the same but we will get to play about with some photogrammetric modelling that needs to be completed for one of our ongoing projects.

A Day at Olorgesailie, Kenya

The Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program is excited to participate in the Day of Archaeology 2013!

Our research scientists conduct field research at prehistoric sites in Africa (Kenya: Olorgesailie and Ol Pejeta Conservancy; Tanzania: Engare Sero) and Asia (China: Nihewan Basin and Bose Basin; Indonesia: Flores).  Today we’ll bring you into a day in the life of Dr. Rick Potts, the Director of the Human Origins Program. Today Rick is in the National Museums of Kenya, studying fossils and artifacts excavated at the site of Olorgesailie in southern Kenya.  But to give you a flavor of what fieldwork at Olorgesailie entails, we’ll be going back in the past — just two years, to July 26th 2011, when the excavations were going strong. Here is a modified version of Rick’s blog entry for that day from our Olorgesailie field blog:

Rick says:

One of the big-picture studies we do at Olorgesailie focuses on how the landscape changed over time, all the way back to the beginning of the sediment record more than 1 million years ago.  This area of the southern Kenya Rift Valley has the most precisely dated record of archeological and fossil remains in the world for the past 1 million years.  There is only one major gap in the time sequence, between the Olorgesailie and Oltulelei Formations – a gap that resulted from widespread erosion in the region between about 490,000 and 340,000 years.  But other than that, Olorgesailie presents a pretty continuous record from the handaxe era up to and beyond the time of the African origin of our speciesHomo sapiens.

My geologist colleague, Kay Behrensmeyer, and I have been studying landscape change in the region throughout the entire time period recorded in the Olorgesailie sedimentary layers.  Kay’s short visit draws to an end tomorrow, as she heads back to Nairobi and flies home to her family.  So we spent the morning going over the evidence for landscape change in the younger beds, the Oltulelei Formation, which includes the oldest Middle Stone Age excavations at BOK-2 and nearby sites.  Let me provide a couple of images that can help clarify what I mean by ‘landscape change’.

a river gorge wall with horizontal bands of grey, white, and tan. Green trees and round dark grey river stones in the foreground

Deep erosion along the river unveils many stratigraphic layers. Studying these layers helps us reconstruct how the Olorgesailie landscape changed over hundreds of thousands of years.For example, in the first image, you can see thick white bands and gray bands – where the upper layers were laid down on top of (and thus after) the ones below.  The white layer just above the line of rocks and trees is a thick layer of diatomite (look forward to me talking about diatoms tomorrow!).  The diatoms in the diatomite show that a large lake once existed at that point in time in the Olorgesailie area.  The gray band above it is a thick volcanic sand, which show two things – that there was a volcanic eruption in the vicinity, and that the debris from the eruption filled up wide stream channels that had cut across the region after the lake dried up.  So, count ‘em up:  that’s three major landscape changes.  First, the lake was present and then dried up.  Second, the dried-out landscape was eroded and water channels crossed the area.  Third, after a nearby volcano erupted, the ash and pumice and gravel was carried into the Olorgesailie region and it filled up the channels to form yet another, different kind of landscape.

One thing I’m especially interested in is how early humans responded to these big transitions in the environment.  Stone tools were the early humans’ version of a business card – they left the tools behind as if to say ‘We were here!’  Thus we use the stone tools to indicate whether our early ancestors were very successful or not in surviving the major shifts in the landscape, or perhaps repopulating the landscape after an especially difficult time.  Just think, 10 centimeters of volcanic ash blanketing the ancient terrain would have killed all the grass, forcing the abundance of grazing (grass-eating) animals to depart.  That’s a big drop in opportunities for obtaining meat from those animals.  So every landscape change affected the plants and animals – in fact, the entire ecosystem – and thus the early human toolmakers as well.

Now consider this next image:

Aerial view of the Olorgesailie landscape with white and reddish brown sediment layers and deep channels and ravines cutting through them

White and gray layers reflect the gradual build-up of the Olorgesailie Formation layers. They indicate many shifts between lake and land from about 1.2 million to 490,000 years ago. The darker brown sediments are ancient river sediments.  The narrow brown bands across the present-day landscape represent the erosion of large river channels, which were eventually filled up with silt and sand of the younger Oltulelei Formation. A big question:  What caused the repeated cutting of river valleys, followed by silting up of those river and stream channels?

After 490,000 years ago, the largest landscape changes we see were caused as river valleys were cut by erosion into the underlying Olorgesailie Formation.  These valleys were then filled up with brown silt and sand.  The filling was followed my more erosion as a new river valley formed.  This process happened at least 3 major times, and several minor times.

Aerial view of the Olorgseailie basin with green trees dotting the landscape of winding gorges with white and light brown and grey striped walls

The beautiful landscape of Olorgesailie – exposing layer after layer of landscape change, which could have resulted from climate shifts and earthquakes. Kay and I discussed two main causes:  Earthquakes or climate?  Earthquakes could have caused uplift of the Olorgesailie region, with rain and wind then carving out channels and creating valleys in the high ground of the uplifted landscape. The other possibility is climate.  That is, during dry times, the water levels across the region would have dropped, causing the occasional rain storm to carve the landscape down further and further over many years to reach the lower levels.  During wet times, as the regional water levels rose, the rivers and streams would have backed up and slowed, which caused the silt and sand in those flowing waters to be dumped within the channels.  In other words, cycles of erosion and deposition, over and over again as climate shifted over time.

At present, Kay and I are pretty certain that these big fluctuations of the landscape in the younger geological beds reflect strong climate cycles – that is, big shifts between dry times and wet.

The work continues as we keep seeking better clues to see whether we are right or not…


A vessel from Iran in Washington DC: Digging Artifacts and modern Archives at the Smithsonian

Many Greetings from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC!

Living in DC, there is an active archaeology program on the early history within the beltway with many exciting discoveries. What is visible for the hundreds of thousands who visit the Smithsonian every year for free, though, are artifacts from the past and present of many cultures around the world. Over the decades, the Smithsonian was also actively involved in scientific excavations (Think Shanidar in Iraq in the 1950s! Think Tell Jemmeh! in the 1970s! Think the fantastic Archaeology Conservation Program!), and while being studied and researched upon, artifacts from around the world are on display to promote an understanding of responsibilties and shared cultural heritage.

In December 2010, I became Assistant Curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, the Freer|Sackler Gallery. Two weeks ago, we opened a small installation on Iron-Age ceramics from the area south of the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran. As a curatorial intern in the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department, Sarah Johnson, co-author of this entry, who worked herself on an excavation in Syria in 2010, has helped to prepare the installation, and is currently doing research on the museum’s collections. This little blurb on a well preserved vessel from Iran currently not on display (S1998.326), gives an idea on only one aspect of what we can do in a museum, and reminds us upon one aspect of archaeology, minutely and more detailed record keeping and publishing.

It is both ironic and fitting that a photograph, we only recently rediscovered in the archives of archaeologist and early Iran explorer Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) sheds light on vessel S1998.326. Thanks to an early fine pencil label “Tepe Giyan” written on the back of the photograph, the jar can now placed with certainty to the site of Tepe Giyan, a large archaeological mound in Northwestern Iran near the modern city of Nahavand.

The jar had  entered the museum in 1998. It was purchased by Victor and Takako Hauge in a shop at a Bazaar in Tehran between 1962 and 1965.  Interestingly, Herzfeld came by his first Tepe Giyan ceramics in nearly the same way.  In his own words: “In 1926 I found, in a shop at Hamadan … two little vases … They had a prehistoric air, but the dealer did not know whence they came.  Mere chance, a year later, led to the discovery of their provenance—Tepe Giyan near Nihawand—whence some more pieces were brought to me.”  Just as Herzfeld used older excavation records to identify his vases, “mere chance” led us  to discover this photograph of a vessel, acquired by the Hauges, in Herzfeld’s records a few weeks ago.  The vessel and its connection to Herzfeld underline the important connection between archaeology, objects and archives in a museum setting. The gap in provenance for this vessel resulted from the separation of the vessel from the excavation photographs and a paucity of published materials on Herzfeld’s own work at Tepe Giyan and at other prehistoric sites.

The site of Tepe Giyan presented challenges from the start of excavations there.  Herzfeld first became interested in the site after finds from Tepe Giyan appeared in the market. The French held a monopoly over excavations in Iran from 1895 to 1927, but in 1928 motivated by rampant looting occurring there, Herzfeld began hurried excavations at Tepe Giyan. In 1930, he mentions that excavations (he does not provide the name of the excavators, so one must assume it was local archaeologists) have left only one third of the hill standing. This article in 1930 remained his only published material on Tepe Giyan until the 1930s when he suggested in the preface of Archaeological History of Iran that he would complete a three volume work on prehistoric art in Iran.  This work never appeared largely because of political reasons.  In the 1930s, Herzfeld was increasingly shunned by his German colleagues due to the rise of Nazism, and as a result, he lost much of his German funding.  His section on prehistoric art in Iran in the Ancient East (1941) remains his most comprehensive contribution to the study of Tepe Giyan and prehistoric ceramics.  His emphasis on his exhaustive editing of the prehistoric section in the introduction to this book suggests that he had more to say on prehistoric Iran, which was unfortunately never published.  Fortunately, the site was excavated in the early 1930s by a French team lead by Georges Contenau (1877-1964) and Roman Ghirshman (1895-1979), who later received a Freer Gold Medal for his accomplishments in Iranian archaeology. Most of what we know today about the early excavations at Tepe Giyan stems from the published excavation records of Contenau and Ghirshman.

While we can now place S1998.326 at the Tepe Giyan site, one of the many questions we may not able to answer is how the vessel get to the Tehran Bazaar of the 1960s.  Herzfeld often photographed and documented objects not from his own excavations so it is possible that he saw this object in Tehran or at a market of a neighboring town to the site.  Evidence that he sold many of the seals found at Tepe Giyan and other prehistoric sites to a dealer in New York suggests the possibility that Herzfeld himself may have sold the jar.  Difficult to fathom today, archaeologists often played the role of both the collector and the scholar in the early 20th century. The rediscovery of a single photograph is sometimes a testament to the benefits of the recording of artifacts in minute detail.