Thursday, May 26, 2011

some landscape articles

JAS has the corrected proofs up for two articles about landscape use. This one is about the impact of the Baltic crusade on the landscape of northern Poland. Specifically, they're looking at the palynology of an area around a Teutonic Order castle. There's nothing terribly shocking there, unless you, like me, had never heard of the Baltic crusades. Or if you, like me, tend to visualize small, fluffy dogs when you hear the word "Pomeranian".

This article is a bit more interesting. It discusses the evidence for forest management by 1st to 6th century Korean states. The chestnut tree was an important source of fuel, food, and building material, and appears to have been encouraged, at the expense of oak. This is similar to forest management practices in the Eastern Woodlands, the American South, and the North American West Coast. Neat stuff.

Kim, Minkoo. 2011. Woodland Management in the Ancient Mahan Statelets of Korea: An Examination of Carbonized and Waterlogged Wood. Journal of Archaeological Science (corrected proof).

Brown, Alex, and Aleks Pluskowski. 2011. Detecting the environmental impact of the Baltic Crusades on a late-medieval (13th–15th century) frontier landscape: palynological analysis from Malbork Castle and hinterland, Northern Poland. Journal of Archaeological Science (corrected proof).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

memorializing a 19th century African-American burial ground

This is an interesting story about an historic African-American burial ground under a parking lot in Virginia, and the fight to create a memorial honoring the people buried there, and their descendants. African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups in the U.S. do not get enough "air time" when it comes to issues of repatriation, respect for sacred/meaningful places on the landscape, and preservation of the past. With a few exceptions, such as Mark Leone's work, this issue is too often ignored.

Two things struck me about the article:
1) It's not at all clear that the parking lot in question is the true location of the cemetery. It is probably close, but the archaeologists are cited as saying they aren't sure and would need to test to confirm the location. Nobody else seemed to care, and there are no plans to conduct the testing. Clearly, this isn't about the actual treatment of actual bodies, but about memorializing the dead and their legacy.

2) All politics is local, as is clearly the case here. Reading both the story and the commentary suggests a deeply divided community, and this memorial was either a reason for those divisions or has become a symbol of existing problems. Another example of how important the past is in modern political contexts.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rowley-Conwy 2011

Rowley-Conwy, Peter
2011 Westward Ho! The Spread of Agriculture from Central Europe to the Atlantic. Current Anthropology 52:no page numbers yet assigned. (Can be found on-line, but is not yet published.)

I usually stick to environmentally- or zooarch-themed articles in this blog, but I was so excited by the new Rowley-Conwy article on the spread of agriculture in Europe, that I wanted to share.

Rowley-Conwy compares the Cardial Neolithic (Southern Europe), the LBK (Central Europe), the TRB (Northern Europe), and the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland, and comes to two conclusions: a) the spread of agriculture occurred largely through immigration by agriculturalists, rather than through "idea diffusion" across an existing forager population; and b) said immigration is better characterized as "lurches of advance" (nice phrase!) rather than a "wave of advance".

I work on early agricultural societies in two very different parts of the world, and the shift in perception about the spread of agricultural that Rowley-Conwy describes here has been very noticeable over the last decade. When I started working on these issues, there were debates about indigenous development of agriculture vs. immigration of farmers, but at this point, immigration is the consensus interpretation in both regions.

The strength of Rowley-Conwy's argument lies in its scale and comparative approach. OK, so I'm a sucker for any good regional-level analysis, but the leapfroging process of agricultural immigration is not visible on an individual-site level, or along a few kilometers of coast. A wide brush is needed to paint this picture.

The comparative aspect is equally critical, not so much the comparison between the different parts of Europe, but the comparison between Europe and the Middle East, where we know agriculture was an indigenous development. Many of us who have studied the earliest agricultural societies of the Middle East have been puzzled by arguments for indigenous development of agriculture in other parts of the world that show none of the hallmarks of indigenous development that characterize the Levant, such as significant pre-agricultural sedentism, and a long history of intensive use of local resources. That is not to say that indigenous adoption of agriculture could not have occurred in different ways in different places, but arguments for indigenous adoption of agriculture in the absence of any clear predisposition toward an agricultural way of life, and without any posited explanation other than "people like agriculture", are not convincing.

Rowley-Conwy's article moves the debate about early European agriculture forward in two very useful ways. The first is his argument that dairying was an important component of the Early Neolithic in Europe. That's been difficult to prove where I work because we don't have large enough samples of cattle, sheep, or goats to look at age profiles. (There were some interesting arguments over a case of pleurosis that left its mark on a human skeleton, though. There are many causes of pleurosis, but in historic times, one of the most common was drinking contaminated milk.) It would be nice if Rowley-Conwy influenced more zooarchaeologists to report age profiles and evidence for dairying from Neolithic sites.

Secondly, the article shifts focus from "foragers in transition" toward "foragers in contact." If farmers immigrated into and across Europe, they came into contact with preexisting societies, and the genetic evidence suggests a fair amount of intermarriage. In some places, such as Portugal and Denmark, we see co-existing farmer and forager societies long after the introduction of agriculture. The dynamics of these interactions are far more interesting to me than attempting to explain why foragers might adopt agriculture in general.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

fun with the liberal arts

I teach a regional overview course where each student does substantial research on a separate culture within that region. They give weekly reports on their research, and at the end of the semester, they write a term paper. For many of them, this paper is just their weekly reports put together. They have the option, though, of writing a short story set in their culture. The story must show mastery of the archaeological record, and give the reader a good idea of what daily life was like at that time and place.

This semester, about half of my students chose the fiction option, and their papers were fun to read. They ran the gamut from fictionalized accounts of documented archaeological events, to science-fiction stories involving time travel, to magical realism involving an invader and his pet mouse.

I really like this assignment because it represents the best of the liberal arts: forging links between scientific and humanistic disciplines, fostering creativity, and encouraging self-expression. If you're interested in doing something similar, I have two recommendations:

1) make sure students know they will be graded on the academic content of their story, not (or not solely) on plot, character development, etc. Make them include footnotes or an annotated bibliography for their sources.

2) include a significant amount of traditional academic writing/research in the class, in addition to the fiction component. This activity works for my class because my students have done a huge amount of research and writing on their culture before they turn to fiction. By the time they get to the final project, they've written nine short (1-3 page) papers on their culture's subsistence system, architecture, mortuary customs, etc., etc. In other words, we can have fun with a fictional account of their culture because they've proven without a doubt that they've mastered the material.

Monday, May 16, 2011

neandertals maligned

I had my students read Gifford-Gonzalez (1998) and write a short reflective essay on the role of popular culture in shaping our ideas about early human ancestors. I asked them if they had ever seen a museum display, cartoon, or film about human evolution, and how they felt this affected their perspective on our ancestors. My favorite answer started with these lines:

I can only assume you are referring to the documentary series "Jersey Shore" that portrays an early Neandertal community in its quest for food, shelter, and whatever the hell "smoosh-smoosh" is. (I'm not an anthropologist.)

Funny, but perhaps I need to make them read Speth 2004, too.

Gifford-Gonzalez, Diane
1998 The Real Flinstones? What Are Artists' Depictions of Human Ancestors Telling Us? In Selig, Ruth Osterweis and Marilyn R. London, Anthropology Explored: The Best of Smithsonian AnthroNotes, p.74-82. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC.

Speth, John D.
2004 News Flash: Negative evidence convicts Neandertals of gross mental incompetence. World Archaeology 36:519-526.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

worthwhile extra credit

I wrote the title for this post, and then hit "publish", accidentally posting it without any content. I thought about leaving it that way, since it neatly sums up my view of the topic!

OK, that's not true. "Typical" extra credit at Tiny U consists of giving students points for a short reflection paper on a presentation/lecture/movie viewing/concert/etc that is related to the class subject. This type of extra credit has two positive outcomes: 1) it encourages students to take advantage of cultural opportunities around campus, which is particularly useful at a liberal arts college; and 2) it makes students happier, since they think they're improving their grade, even if the points involved are minuscule. (My students tend to be bad at math, and even worse at assessing their risk of doing poorly in the class, whatever "poorly" means to then.)

Note I didn't include "helps students fully understand and apply class concepts" as one of the positive outcomes. In my experience, this type of extra credit very seldom does so.

I've moved away from that model of extra credit, and now, in most of my classes, I have a limited number of pre-fabricated extra credit activities. They are worksheets, self-testing quizzes, fill-in-the-blank study guides, and other material that is useful for studying for the exams. For example, for the primate section of my physical anthropology class, the extra credit activity was to fill in a chart with information about the physical and social adaptations of all the major primate groups. The activities are available on the class webpage from the beginning of the semester, and they are due on the same day as the exam to which they relate. I frequently take exam questions from those extra credit assignments. In other words, the extra credit helps them study for the exam.

Not only does the extra credit directly relate to class concepts, and sometimes help students apply those concepts to previously unfamiliar case studies, I get a lot fewer questions about extra credit opportunities. Students know up-front how many opportunities there are and when they are due, since they are listed directly in the syllabus. I don't have students constantly asking me "will there be more extra credit opportunities coming up?", especially at the very end of the semester when the poorest students suddenly realize that skipping class has left them with gaping holes in their grade and poor test scores.

I've been very happy with this type of extra credit. It's the only kind I'll use from now on.

Friday, May 6, 2011

never again, again

At the end of this crazy semester, I find myself saying "Well, that was tough, but I'll never do that again."

I'm not sure what part of "that" I'm planning to avoid in the future. I've run out of grandparents, so there won't be more last-minute trips across country for a funeral (God willing!). And it's not like the opportunity to take on a massive teaching overload is something I could foresee. But this feeling of "never again" is all too familiar. I've been down this road before.

Last year, it was the pregnancy (during fieldwork and lab work and an intensive summer class), followed by the baby (back to work a week later, for the last few days of the semester), followed by another crazy semester (teaching 8 credits while trying to stay at home with a newborn as much as possible). A year ago, I thought "Well, that was tough, but I'll never do that again."

And I haven't, at least not in the same way. This year I didn't over-commit myself while pregnant and caring for a newborn. Instead, I over-committed myself while caring for a toddler, and decided to heap coals on the fire by changing the format for all of my classes, changing books in two of them, and making things needlessly harder.

So I'm learning a more general lesson here. Young children are a big job. Teaching is a big job (especially when your regular load is 20 credits). Research is a big job. Life is a big job. Don't take on too many big jobs.

Limit what can be reasonably limited, such as revamping classes or adding to the grading pile. Don't volunteer to make the new brochure for your kid's preschool (yep, guilty on that one!). Don't volunteer for a new committee, just because it sounds "interesting". Sleep sounds interesting, too. As does playing with your kids, or getting tenure.

"I'll never do that again" is not about the specific idiocy of a specific semester. It's about the general tendency to heap far more on a plate than it is possible to finish. Knock it off!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

people as wilderness

Inappropriate or offensive references to Native Americans have been in the news recently. Many people objected to the use of the code word "Geronimo" in the Bin Laden killing.

I just got back from a trip on the "Empire Builder", the Amtrak route from Portland/Seattle to Chicago. It provided the easiest and cheapest way to get the whole family to my grandmother's funeral. On the train, I read the brochure [available here], giving colorful details of the route for bored passengers. Here's an excerpt from the first page:

A few generations ago, this route was pure wilderness, roamed by Native Americans and buffalo. Following early traders and gold miners came the merchants, timber men, farmers and – dramatically – railroaders. In the northern plains, the greatest of these was James J. Hill, a freewheeling, big-dealing tycoon who linked St. Paul and Seattle with his Great Northern Railway. He acquired the land, built the tracks, and encouraged homesteading along the route. On the way, this “Empire Builder” Hill came to govern the fate and fortune of a large part of this powerfully beautiful area.

Three comments:
1) According to Amtrak, Native Americans are part of the wilderness, like buffalo. (Never mind this area wasn't "wilderness" in the sense of "untouched by human hands".)

2) Believe it or not, Amtrak, most people don't find the robber barons of the 19th century all that endearing as cultural heroes. James J. Hill was the man Eugene V. Debs most famously worked against in unionizing the rainroad workers. (OK, I'll admit, my background biases me against robber barons. I grew up in one of the most heavily unionized regions of the country, and in the public schools we sang union songs and learned about people like Jimmy Hoffa and Eugene Debs.)

3) I teach a section on colonialism in my intro to cultural anthropology class, and in my experience, students dislike any portrayal of the U.S. as an imperial power. The railway route that Amtrak calls the "Empire Builder" takes its name from James J. Hill. Partly, he got this name from building his railroad empire, but the name has a more sinister meanings. Hill "acquired the land" by helping push bills through congress that allowed him to build across supposedly sovereign Indian lands. He also encouraged European settlers to settle on those lands, building his consumer base while eroding Native American land holdings.

All in all, a very sensitive brochure. Nice work, Amtrak. (Sigh.)