Archaeological Drones

I like to think of myself as someone who enjoys most new technologies, electronics, and things that go beep.  One thing that I’ve hated since they blew up in popularity are drones.  Especially after seeing what people had done with them, like the private citizen who mounted their pistol on a drone and are able to fire at the push of a button.  Unlike our military, a private citizen would have no true need for a drone mounted gun, but I’ll set my politics aside because I’m sure I’ve already upset someone.  Anyway, in the explosion of popularity that drones experienced, I have just seen so many forms of misuse that make me question if these should be owned and operated by the public.  Again, I’ll set my politics aside because this could be a good debate for another day.

Recently, I’ve been becoming more of a fan of drones. And while I don’t see myself buying one at any point, they can be useful for archaeology so I’m finding myself seeing the good in them.  Like any other tool, there is no inherent good or bad, just how they’re used and who uses them.  Looking at drones in archaeology today, it seems like they’re primarily being used for aerial photography which makes sense.  The cost of a drone and a reliable camera would likely be cheaper than having to rent the services of someone who takes aerial photographs, particularly if you consistently have a need for up to date aerial photographs.  So, this makes total sense to me.  But drones do not stop with regular old aerial photography, they’ve been used with thermal imaging cameras which don’t sound all that different or useful compared to aerial photography overall.  However, if you keep in mind that different materials hold heat differently, suddenly structures buried in sand or covered in vegetation are potentially visible.  We’ve even seen drones being equipped with ground penetrating radar, which could provide higher accuracy in data collection by taking out some of the human error.  If we can apply drones like this, then who knows how else we could use them in archaeology?  Let’s just hope that drones, and other cool robots, can’t completely replace us, not yet anyway.

IUP Anthropology Department

Quick Tips on Staying Sane

It’s that time of the semester where things just seem to get crazy.  You have little to no time and a half-dozen papers to finish by the end of next week.  Stress levels are rising, and you find yourself eating more from the vending machines than the actual food you might’ve prepared and stored in the undersized grad student minifridge.  Alright, maybe I’m projecting my own problems onto the situation here, but I think you get the idea.  It’s just the time of the semester where everyone seems to get stressed.  So, between myself and several other grad students, we have put together a list to help accomplish your goals, destress, and survive to the end of the semester.

  1. List out what you need to do and manage your time. I know this is a cookie-cutter type response, but there is merit behind it.  Set a schedule of what you need to get done by when, section off the time you’ll have to work on each project or what you think it will take to accomplish it.  If you finish something off, scratch it off your list.  As the day goes on, you’ll see that you’ve been productive and that might just motivate you to keep going.
  2. You need to rest at some point.  Sure, working hard is a core aspect of grad school, but you don’t need to wear the bags under your eyes like a medal of honor.
  3. Realize that you are a student. I’ll repeat that again for those in the back, you are a student.  This is the time for you to learn and make mistakes.  If you mess up, use it as an example to learn from and move on.
  4. Ask for help. You are probably surrounded by your peers every day, there is no shame in asking for help.  If your peers can’t help you then reach out to your professors.
  5. Take time for yourself to relax, unwind, or whatever. Just give yourself that time to do whatever you want to do.  I find that having a feeling of needing to do nothing from time to time helps keep myself on track.  So, whatever you want to do, do it.  Don’t know what you want to do?  Lucky you, I polled some of the other grad students for their preferred ways to relax: play a video game, maybe something mindless and violent like GTA5; wine and dine yourself; go for a drive somewhere scenic if you can; spend time outside, maybe get a nice walk in; binge your favorite show on Netflix (or whatever streaming service or format you prefer).

Hopefully this quick list is of some help to you potentially over-stressed reader.  Remember, you can do it!

IUP Anthropology Department

VR Archaeology

I’ve never tried to hide it, I am a huge geek.  Something I’ve been following closely for the past few years is virtual reality.  VR technology has been around since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2012 or so when the Oculus Rift hit the scene that VR became more accessible for the average consumer.  Of course, there was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy released in 1995, but it didn’t really catch on.  Since the Oculus Rift is still in production and has spawned numerous generic devices, I’m using it as the current standard of home VR technology.  Anyway, VR has become more widely available in the modern market and has been used for everything from videogames to training medical and military personnel.  Within the past few years, the realm of archaeology has really started to play with VR and I for one am ecstatic.

VR within the realm of archaeology has focused on the obvious of bringing sites to people.  This is done by using reality capture techniques (like photogrammetry, LiDAR, and sonar) that scan a site and allow for the creation of a digital model.  Bringing the sites to people encourages education of archaeology and could potentially reduce tourism related issues at sites.  There’s always the devil’s advocate approach, worrying that this could encourage looting, but let’s try to be positive about the general human population for a moment.  Still, VR goes beyond bringing sites to the public.  As of 2017, the Smithsonian Magazine reported VR had been used to reconnect the Tejon tribe with sites of their cultural heritage.  Now, this may be no different in the execution of reproducing the site, but there is an actual connection here between people and the site.  This is only from within the first few years of VR really taking off with the public, I can’t wait to see how far it can be taken.

Imagine, one day you may be able to put on a VR headset and look at any site in the world (assuming it’s been digitized).  Better yet, you may be able to interact with artifacts in situ.  Or how about going on a virtual excavation to better understand the site, doesn’t that sound amazing?  It’s all possible, but there’s a catch.   This can’t be done for free, you need to do all the coding to interact with the artifacts and purchase or rent equipment to produce the site model itself.  You can’t forget the cost of whoever has to initially record the site plus whatever expenses there are for the archaeological examination.  In short, this is pricey now, but it’s possible that the costs will decrease through time as it gets easier to do this kind of work.  Despite the current costs, I hope VR becomes a staple of public outreach in archaeology.  I really think the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations here and that this could become an incredible teaching tool for future generations.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments below!

IUP Anthropology Department

Future Archaeology and… Aliens? Wait… What?

I feel like this needs a disclaimer, I was just trying to amuse myself in writing this.  This is not to be taken seriously, but if you want to  continue the conversation then just leave a comment.

One of the most attractive aspects of archaeology, in my opinion, is the ever-expanding nature of the study.  We create more archaeology as we live, so we could never learn everything (even excluding all the data that has been lost).  This means that there will always be archaeology which I find amazing, but there’s also a sadder aspect to that.  We will never know everything.  Are we piecing together scraps of the past in a futile attempt to leave our mark?  I think that we’re making some difference, that what we’re doing is not a waste.  But if we will never know everything, I wonder why this will be the case.  I’ve pondered this quite a bit, and frankly, I haven’t come up with any positive answers.

This is where things are going to get a bit weird, and maybe I’m trying to look too far forward, but I think it deserves a mention.  We as a species will go extinct at some point.  Now, this could be from any of the infinite possibilities and scenarios.  I’m not going to get into hypotheticals because your brain will tell you a better story than I can and that’s not my purpose here.  Obviously if we go extinct then we can’t learn about the past anymore as we have all become the past and there is no current or future.  What I wonder is if we as humans will be uncovered at any point in time beyond extinction.  I am personally a firm believer that intelligent life exists beyond Earth.  This does not mean I believe that they have ever contacted us in any way, shape, or form.  I simply believe life exists beyond what we know.   Assuming some other life form would come across our remains, would we have left enough information for them to understand us?  Forget the odds of another species being able to translate our written thoughts and ideas.  Would another species even care about us being some lost civilization?  I don’t know and frankly I’ll never be able to answer that.   Technically aliens could do archaeology, after all it is a study of humans and I’ve never seen it defined as a study by humans.

I feel like aliens doing archaeology would be kind of funny.  Especially if they uncover a recording of the Ancient Aliens guy.  I don’t know how a conversation between other intelligent life would go, but the thought of aliens calling that guy a liar just makes me chuckle.

IUP Anthropology Department

Flotation Therapy (Archaeology Edition)

Something I’ve found myself thinking more and more often is that working in the wet lab, processing flotation samples, is relaxing.  Now, this could just be the tired mind of a grad student enjoying a few moments of peace and there’s some truth to that.  However, there’s more to it.  It’s been feeling like a productive therapy session.  There’s something fulfilling about taking liters worth of samples and revealing what the soil has hidden, particularly of the legacy collections that have been keeping their secrets for thirty or forty years.  Although, I don’t know what will happen with the materials retrieved once they have been bagged and labeled.  Sure, some materials will be examined sooner or later for research questions that might not have been asked yet.  However, I have a suspicion that those of the legacy collections, which sometimes are more plastic (from the degrading trash and/or sandwich bags originally used to store them) than anything else, may just be stored away indefinitely.  It seems like a shame, but I hope this material will be examined at some point.  It may seem sad, but it’s fun to wonder what this material could contribute to archaeology.  Perhaps this will inspire me to pursue researching micro-artifacts, including those of these abandoned collections   That’s enough of my rambling for now.

For anyone unfamiliar with flotation or what exactly I’m talking about, keep reading and I’ll try to make it short.  If I didn’t make this clear earlier, flotation is a process that separates tiny artifacts, plant materials, and the like from soil through water.  These artifacts separate into two groups called the light and heavy fractions.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the light fraction floats in the water while the heavy does not.  We at IUP are fortunate enough to have a flotation machine which cuts the amount of time and effort put into collecting these microartifacts.  You do not need a flotation machine to do flotation, a bucket of water and a sieve will suffice, but it makes the process far easier.  In the case of a flotation machine, you have a pump that keeps the water flowing and helps to agitate the sample and separate the soil and microartifacts.  You pour a sample into the main compartment, gently.  The water flows through an opening, carrying the light fraction, and then through a screen that collects the light fraction.  The heavy fraction remains in a removable screen in the main compartment and gets collected once the light fraction has finished collecting.  The machine gets cleaned out when changing sites, and just every so often, to avoid accidental contamination and to keep the machine functioning properly.  If I left you with more questions than answers, leave a comment and I’ll try to answer you ASAP.

Light fraction

 

IUP Anthropology Department

I Can Munsell That? (Part 3)

Today we bring you the latest installment of “I Can Munsell That.”  The series where I get to Munsell something unusual for my own enjoyment and curiosity and share the results with you.  In this edition we will be using the Munsell Soil Color Chart on a delicious snack that someone was so kind to make and contribute to the collective grad lounge snacks.  What is it you ask?  Maple, peanut, and bacon popcorn!  You heard me right, that’s a sweet and salty popcorn mix.

This lovely snack has four main parts to examine: plain popcorn, glazed popcorn, glazed peanuts, and bacon.  Due to different amounts of the maple glaze, there are an array of hues on the glazed items, so I will focus on what shade seems the most prominent.  Let’s begin with the base of this, plain ol’ popcorn.  It fits quite well with 9.5/N (white) on the white page.  The glazed popcorn is where the issues of hues begin.  To me, it looks around 10YR 4/6 (dark yellowish brown), side note the color depicted in the image is slightly different due to lighting but I note it like I see it.  Then we have the peanuts which get fairly close to 10YR 6/8 (brownish yellow), almost a perfect match.  Finally, we have the bacon which doesn’t have the best color match in a Munsell color chart (surprise!) but there’s a decent match.  This specific bacon bit was around 10R 3/4 (dusky red).

 

plain popcorn

glazed popcorn

glazed peanuts

bacon

That’s all for today folks.  Thank you for indulging me in my nonsense.  Need more silliness?  Want to know more about the Munsell color system?  Click here or here to be redirected to my older posts on the subject.  Or you can click here and see where the inspiration for this series came from.

IUP Anthropology Department

Thinking About Archaeology in Media

Sitting in my office, coffee in hand, I scroll through various websites.  In truth, I’m just looking for new or interesting articles that I’ve yet to see.  However, I’ve been noticing a pattern and it’s not quite positive.  There is a degree of pseudo-archaeology that sticks its ugly nose in.  Now, the positive thing here is that this degree of disinformation and inaccurate representation does not apply to most articles that I have been seeing but it fluctuates depending on the website.  Particularly on social media (mainly Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit) is where I see the highest degree of false or self-serving archaeology. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising as most of the articles I’ve seen like this come from those sites that post anything for sensationalism and reap that sweet, sweet ad revenue.

The point I’m trying to reach is that I’m seeing archaeology inaccurately represented and used for self-serving purposes more than I should.  By no means am I the only person to notice or feel the need to write, perhaps vent, about this.  Archaeology is not accurately represented in media, and this is the basis of my complaints.  For media to pass along a message, it needs to be digestible for the average reader.  Archaeologists, whether budding or professional, are not the average reader.  It is not designed for us, but for the public audience.  Where we want to know everything from methodology to data interpretation, this would make the average public audience glassy-eyed between the minute details, terminology, and the typical length of an article.  It needs to get to the point while glamorizing various portions of the work to draw in the audience and keep their attention.  Or, it needs to be done in a manner that serves a purpose beyond upping ad revenue.

You know, my most notable grievance come from media outlets that I have enjoyed for years, like the Travel and History channels.  These outlets give archaeology a home in mainstream media outlets, but it becomes twisted and warped.  Legitimate archaeology becomes intermixed with conspiracy theories, like the idea of ancient aliens.  I think Dr. David S. Anderson spells this out clearly in his Washington Post article about “Legends of the Lost” stating:

“Legends of the Lost” often ends up in just such a place. (Megan) Fox, a Hollywood actress, is clear throughout the episodes that she wants to find evidence of myth and magic — and to show up the devotees of “hidebound academia.” To come to these conclusions, she is perfectly happy to make use of scholarly research that can fit into her narrative, but sadly most everything else is left out of the show.

Essentially, this is an example of media cherry-picking information to best suit their needs, and in this case the needs are sensationalism and viewership.  Yes, this is far more entertaining for a typical audience but that doesn’t make this information correct by any means.  I could complain about more shows like American Pickers (antique dealers with shop called Antique Archaeology), The Curse of Oak Island (glorified treasure hunting), Pawn Stars (with their history of dealing historical artifacts), Ancient Aliens (duh), and a fair few others.  Frankly, these shows like to take the information that fits their story and make leaps that Evel Knievel couldn’t.  Not all of them do, Pawn Stars and American Pickers try to give a brief history of material possessions, but that is how I see them.

I’d like to say that I’m upset by the way that archaeology is portrayed in the media, and to a degree I am, but it is not all bad.  There are outlets that show archaeology for what it really is.  There are hundreds of archaeology blogs, numerous documentaries, and even a few TV shows that do this.  While I can’t vouch for the quality of every blog, documentary, show, book, magazine, publication, and whatever else but they do exist, and I hope those sources get picked up more by the general public.  Will they? Maybe a few, but if it’s not made to entertain then the interest in it will probably be limited.

IUP Department of Anthropology

Lessons From the First Semester of a Grad Student

Somehow, it has already been a full semester since I started as a grad student here at IUP.  I have no idea where the time has gone or why it seems like there won’t be enough time within the next week to get everything done.  Since finals begin next week, I figure now would be a good time for a little reflection.

I won’t lie, this first semester has been challenging, but I’m not in this alone.  After all, as Dr. Ford has been saying all semester, Archaeology is a social science that requires you to be social and I feel so lucky to have such an amazing cohort/class that helps one another.

In the spirit of helping others, I hope I can impart a few things I’ve learned from this semester onto future students.

  1. Grad school is a serious commitment and not just financially. I didn’t realize how little of my life would exist besides classwork.  Make sure you can keep the basics of life in order.
  2. Time management is key if you want to minimize the number of all-nighters. It doesn’t look like much on the syllabus, but it will probably take longer than you expect.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t understand something or you need more time on an assignment, just ask.  The worst that will happen is someone can’t help you.  Then remember, you have a whole department, professors and peers, that could probably help you out.
  4. If you’re as socially awkward as I am, this is going to hurt, but get used to talking in front of others. Between class discussions and presentations, you need to know how to talk to people.  I’m one of those people who hates public speaking, even after reading at open mic poetry nights for a couple years.  What I can tell you though, is that once you know people in the room, it gets easier.  I know this is lame advice but stare at someone you know.  Talking to a friend, teaching them something, is far easier than talking to people you’ve never seen.
  5. You’re not in this alone, no matter the program or department.  All your professors went through grad school and your peers are going through it at the same time as you are.
  6. Remind yourself that this will not last forever. The grass is greener on the other side and all that jazz.

IUP Anthropology Department

Musings of a Recent IUP Graduate

By Samantha Taylor

Let’s face it…grad school feels like an eternity. My two years at IUP felt almost as long if not longer than my four years in undergrad. It’s only been six months since I received my M.A. from IUP and time is flying by. So much has happened and I’m proud to say that IUP has adequately prepared me for life as a professional archaeologist.

A brick pathway found beneath a potential robber’s trench in front of Spotswood’s Enchanted Castle.

This past summer I accepted a job as the assistant site director for Virginia Commonwealth University’s field school at the Fort Germanna/Enchanted Castle Site in Orange County, Virginia. The position was 15 weeks long and my first foray into supervising. I was nervous to teach students how to dig and to serve as a role model for future archaeologists. My job description included assisting the site director (the amazing Dr. Eric Larsen), supervising our four interns, and teaching field school students. Our goal was to locate the Fort Germanna, an early 18th century fort built by Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood for German colonists. The fort supposedly intersected the west hyphen of the Enchanted Castle, Spotswood’s house which postdated the abandonment of the fort. This summer we excavated the area to the north of the structure which hugged the façade of the house. While we did not find the fort, we were able to better understand the function of the front lawn of the Enchanted Castle. Meanwhile, students and interns were able to gain valuable experience. I was incredibly fortunate that my boss, interns, and students were all wonderful and talented. During my time at Germanna, I took a particular interest in helping design the four public access days that Germanna hosted this past summer. In fact, I will be chairing a session the first ever paper session on Germanna Archaeology and presenting on Germanna public archaeology at MAAC next spring (be there or be square). I doubt I’ve enjoyed a job as much as I’ve enjoyed my time at Germanna. Not only was my position fulfilling, but I made lifelong friends with my crew and was able to inspire some of them to continue pursuing archaeology as a career.

An overview of all of the Test Units opened at Germanna during the 2018 season.

My job at Germanna came to an end on August 30th, but fortunately my next job was already lined up. I started my current position at New South Associates, Inc. on September 4th. I am an archaeologist/field director at the Greensboro office in North Carolina. My job description includes directing field work and writing reports for various projects across the southeast. I spend about 50% of my job working in the field with a variety of archaeologists who come from all over. The other 50% of my time is spent synthesizing data and writing reports.

The Field School on our last day! We were small but mighty!

While it’s only been six months since I graduated from IUP, I feel as though my post-grad school career has been successful and fulfilling thus far. It’s definitely not always easy, and takes just as much dedication and time-management as school did. I know I have a long road ahead of me still, but wherever archaeology takes me I’ll be happy to go. So, to all the current graduate students and prospective graduate students here’s my advice: grad school is an emotional and physical commitment. It isn’t easy but it is worth it. Your two years in classes will feel like an eternity. Your time spent working on your thesis will feel never-ending. But the good news is that the grass is greener on the other side, and that these challenges will ultimately prepare you for what is ahead. Don’t give up, keep going! Your M.A. is on the horizon!

Learning how to 3D Scan artifacts, courtesy of Dr. Bernard Means from VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab (VCL)

IUP Anthropology Department

Public Outreach In Archaeology, Are We Doing Enough?

Something that I have been thinking about recently is public outreach in archaeology.  It may in part be because we’re about two weeks past International Archaeology Day and our open house (which you can read more about by scrolling to the previous blog) or that I’ve recently read some articles on the subject for class.  Not that this is only reason I’ve been thinking about public outreach, but it may just be what has brought it to the forefront.  I wanted to share a few thoughts and I apologize now if this turns more into a flow of consciousness than an informative piece.

Public outreach seems like such a simple idea, you find a way to share your fieldwork, research, and findings with non-archaeologists.  You share what hopefully makes you enthusiastic and get people engaged.  We tend to make this far more difficult than it needs to be, and sometimes for good reasons.  To paraphrase Joe Baker of PennDOT in his 2017 PAC Symposium Presentation, we are not all experts in public communication and that’s perfectly fine.  It may be that only a small percentage of archaeologists are comfortable with and can effectively engage the public, again this is perfectly fine.  In my time with the IUP Anthropology Department, both as an undergrad and a graduate student, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting peers and professionals that are brilliant in their own right but I could not imagine them working in public outreach.  Sure, anyone can post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, YouTube, or any of the other dozens of social media platforms or hundreds of blog sites and I encourage it.  There’s significance in spreading information and this is something most of us can do with ease and spread to non-archaeologist audiences.  However, not everyone that’s posting about archaeology should be a communication professional.  We do not all have the necessary interpersonal skills and that’s just how things are.

Public outreach is an important issue for many of us.  The Society for American Archaeology has a set of principles and ethics that they would urge all professional archaeologists to follow.  The very first principle is stewardship and can be broken into two portions.  Stewards are both caretakers and advocates of the archaeological record for the benefit of all people.  The first portion is not much of an issue, though I could argue that we have fallen behind since the increase of archaeology for the sake of salvaging sites, but that’s a blog for another day.  The point on advocating for archaeology is where I think that we have fallen behind.  There are devout advocates who I applaud for what they do even if I take issue with a method or two.  What about the average archaeologist though?  What can they do to fulfill this principle and how can they aid public outreach?  There’s not a true answer, but I think the best way would be by getting people involved from the beginning.  If there are groups already invested, talk to them, see what they would want to know.  I don’t mean to say we should do everything they ask, there’s only so much time and money to go around, but this would be a potential way to get more people interested.  Their questions may even become the basis of new research questions.  Another option could be to open sites to the public for more than just one day a field season or an archaeology day style event at the end.  I wouldn’t call it uncommon to open a site up to visitors and interested peoples, but it’s limited.  During my field school at Squirrel Hill, we never advertised a day when people could come in and learn along with us.  That didn’t stop people from finding us and we, I should just say Dr. Messer, would be more than happy to talk to the few that showed up.  Careful of what we would say, particularly around a couple of older gentlemen who were openly pothunters.  These are the kind of people we both want and don’t want to talk to and they are the kind of folks that I believe add to our cautiousness when involving a site.  I think we are afraid of letting people into sites because of the potential damage immediately or future through additional looting.  But if we can teach people the importance of archaeology and why they shouldn’t loot, do we really have to worry so much?  I honestly don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we wouldn’t have to worry as much.

Again, I feel that we as archaeologists have fallen behind on that second portion of stewardship.  It seems to me that instances of public outreach aren’t necessarily planned that well, more like they are hastily tacked onto the end of a field season.  Something that we can still pat ourselves on the back for and say we did something.  The fact is, we could do more, and I believe we should.  What exactly?  That’s up for debate, the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations.  An archaeology day open house is great, so is opening a site to the public, sharing appropriate posts online with non-archaeologist audiences, and taking the time to work with school programs.  How about sponsoring a TEDx Talk?  How about aiding your local Boy Scouts Troop and helping them get their archaeology merit badge or writing to whoever heads the Girl Scouts and suggesting an archaeology badge?  How about creating a display for public spaces or schools to talk about archaeology?  I’m sure that time and funding will be cited as the main issues with wanting to do more, but should that deter us from even trying to be stewards of archaeology?  No.

I hope this made as much sense on paper, or in cyberspace, as it did in my head.  Please, leave your thoughts in the comment below, lets keep this thought process open and get to some discussion.

IUP Anthropology Department