Category Archives: Archaeology

Norse men and American women

It has long been accepted that a Norse colony was briefly established in North America at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows around 1,000 years ago. Two written accounts of that colony, together called the Vinland Sagas, date from several hundred years later. Differences between the two sagas, added to the fact that both were written long after any eyewitnesses had died, suggest that they should only be used very cautiously as sources of information about the settlement.

For example, neither of the sagas even hints at intermarriage between Norse men and American Indian women. However, a recently published analysis of mitochondrial DNA from Iceland strongly suggests that it happened at least once. More than 80 living Icelanders have been found with a genetic variation that probably came from North America before the time of Columbus. Because mitochondrial DNA is only inherited through the maternal line, this means that at least one Viking explorer brought an Indian woman back to Iceland with him.

I haven’t had a chance to read the full article yet (it can be downloaded here), but from the abstract, this looks like a very intriguing finding.

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Warfare in the Southwest

Lately I’ve been enjoying Steven LeBlanc’s Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. The anthropology of war is a topic that I believe has not received nearly as much study as it deserves. Interestingly, LeBlanc himself seems at the beginning of this book to be struggling against the idea that studying warfare is somehow dishonorable. He also seems to have some odd misconceptions: At one point he writes, “If the winners are automatically labeled ‘aggressors’ and therefore bad, then you are not studying the past, you are simply using ethnocentric values to interpret it.” This statement seems odd, given the examples of war we have seen in more recent times. Surely nobody would argue that the winners of World War II were the aggressors, much less that they were “bad” for having won.

LeBlanc lays out a threefold division of southwestern prehistory (which he designates, naturally enough, Early, Middle, and Late), and presents in some detail the evidence for warfare in each period. I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but so far I’ve been finding his arguments quite interesting, and to some degree compelling. Clearly, warfare is much more important in understanding the prehistory of the Southwest than many archaeologists have assumed. However, I’m not entirely convinced that LeBlanc is right to attribute the causes almost entirely to environmental factors and resource shortages. I don’t doubt that conflict over resources is important, but it is not the only reason people go to war. Ideology, for example, is often a factor as well. And I think as well that it’s important to try and identify who it is within a society that makes the decision to go to war. These are not questions that are easy to answer from the archaeological record, to be sure. But I believe that they are important ones, that should be investigated wherever possible.


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NY Times article on Çatalhöyük

A good brief update on the continuing work to understand this very important Neolithic site. As an undergraduate I read James Mellaart’s book on Çatalhöyük in my Intro. to Archaeology class. I remember being struck by that fact that he seemed to pay much more attention to the artwork than to the fact that he found two physically distinct populations buried there, although there are no apparent signs of social differentiation. I wondered who those people were, and what was the nature of their association.

At the end of the Times article is a quote from the field director, Shahina Farid, that I particularly like: “People always ask what’s the best thing you’ve ever dug up? And I don’t know because it’s not an item, it’s a story. It’s the story that goes with it that excites me.”

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Space archaeology

NASA has just released a group of photos showing the Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. From an archaeological standpoint, these photos are important for two main reasons. First, they document the current condition of some of the most significant cultural heritage sites in existence. The lunar landing sites certainly should be preserved for future generations, and the first step to preserving any site is determining what condition it is in right now.

Second, photos like these are important because they help improve our understanding of what happens to objects left on the lunar surface. Archaeologists use the term taphonomy to refer to the various decay processes that occur after an artifact or feature enters the archaeological record (i.e. gets abandoned or lost). Understanding these processes is crucial to making sense of the remains that we find in the field. Because we have been exploring space for such a short time, detailed information on long-term environmental processes is hard to come by, and still largely theoretical. This set of photos will help provide the data that future space archaeologists will draw upon.



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More archaeology porn

Nothing much has been happening the past couple of days, so here are some pictures I took in at Canyon de Chelly last Christmas (as always, click to embiggen):

This rock art panel was obviously painted after the Spanish arrived in the area. According to our guide, it depicts the military expedition of Antonio de Narbona in 1805, in which a large number of Navajos were killed or taken captive.


This should be immediately recognizable to any Southwestern archaeology geeks reading my blog. For the rest of you, it’s a picture of the well known White House Ruin, probably the most visually impressive ruin in Canyon de Chelly. It was built by a people known today as Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo.


This is White House Ruin again, this time seen from the canyon rim. Construction of this pueblo began around AD 1050, and it seems to have been occupied for roughly 200 years. Why they left is still very much an open question in archaeology, although many of the current theories tie abandonment of this and other pueblos to changes in climate.

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Archaeology is fun

Especially when you combine it with computer games. A team at UCSD are experimenting with using a hacked Kinect to rapidly create 3D scans of archaeological sites. This technology can’t come fast enough for me, and I think anybody who has ever painstakingly mapped a cluster of rocks with pencil and clipboard, on the off chance that they might be significant*, would agree.

*It’s amazing how often what appears on the surface to be a deliberate stone ring will prove, upon excavation, to be just a random bunch of rocks. Sometimes the human brain is a little too good at seeing patterns.

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More books

We had a little extra money, so I decided to spring for six volumes of the Handbook of North American Indians. They arrived today, and after looking though them all, I realize there are a couple more I really should get as well. But at least I’ve got something to keep me busy over the weekend.

Also, this is my 100th post!

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Archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs

But sometimes we do uncover fossils in an archaeological context. In the case reported here, marine fossils seem to have been used in a religious context at Palenque. The Maya of the Late Classic period apparently knew that they had uncovered the remains of long dead sea creatures.

However, I would not be so quick to conclude that finding those fossils caused the Maya to believe that the world was originally covered with water. A primordial ocean is such a widespread element in mythology that I find it far more likely the fossils merely reinforced an existing cosmogony. It will be interesting to see what further research will turn up.

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Mesa Grande opening up to visitors

One of the most significant Hohokam sites in Arizona is going to be open to the public, perhaps as early as next February. Mesa Grande was a political center that helped control an extensive network of irrigation canals in the Phoenix area more than 500 years ago.

Whenever an important archaeological site is open to visitors there are always concerns about possible damage, and I sympathize with those who want sites like this one to be protected. But education in archaeology is as necessary as investigation. If the findings of archaeologists are available only in the professional literature and never discussed outside the academy, then it becomes hard to see the point of doing it at all. In addition, funding for archaeology is very heavily dependent upon public interest. If enough people lose interest in understanding and preserving the past, archaeology will largely disappear, and antiquities protection laws will no longer be enforced.

Also, speaking purely for myself, I’m looking forward to seeing the place.

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The evolution of complex systems

Economics writer Tim Harford recently gave a very interesting talk at TED about trial and error in the development of complex systems.

If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, while watching Harford speak, I was reminded Donald Hardesty’s discussion of evolutionary mechanisms in his Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State. (Yes, I’m aware that my brain works in strange ways.)

Drawing on work done by Patrick Kirch on cultural adaptation on islands, Hardesty describes three stages in the development of a mining district. Technologically, the first stage is characterized by low diversity and poor adaptation to the specific environment of the district. During the second stage, there is a great deal of experimentation with new techniques for both mining and milling. By the third stage, most people have begun to employ the best of the solutions worked out during the second stage. Technological diversity drops once again, but it is now much better adapted to the specific needs of the district. This sequence of development can often be seen archaeologically, as well as through historical documents.

Of course, even in the third stage some experimentation is still going on, although genuine improvement occurs at a much slower pace. The evolution of the technology continues as long as mining is still going on in that district. A similar process of technological evolution can be expected any time people colonize a new environment, although it is not always so clearly visible in the archaeological record.

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