Making sense of meteorites

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Were-llama
A were-llama?

There’s been a couple of inter­est­ing posts on the Peru Illness Flap recently. If you haven’t been read­ing about this, some­where in the Andes near Lake Titicaca vil­la­gers saw a flash of light and heard a bang. They went to invest­ig­ate and found a crater. They say there was a strange smell and that people are get­ting ill.

I’d been plan­ning to blog about this when there was more inform­a­tion, so I was pleased to read Hysterical about hys­teria on the SciAm blog. A lot of sites have been rub­bish­ing the idea that this was an extra-terrestrial ill­ness, which is fine, but George Musser at SciAm gets it exactly right when he argues that if you want to talk about the incident’s effect on the local people simple Geology isn’t enough. Geology is great when it comes to rocks, but it’s a remark­ably poor method to invest­ig­ate people.
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Prehistoric rice farming and modern consequences

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Paddy fields
Rice fields. Photo (cc) mack­aysav­age.

I’m mak­ing a note of this because I missed it when I was on cam­pus today. There’s a report in Nature on the dis­cov­ery of the earli­est dam­ming in pre­his­toric China. From the Register-Guard:

Stone Age Chinese began cul­tiv­at­ing rice more than 7,700 years ago by burn­ing trees in coastal marshes and build­ing dams to hold back sea­wa­ter, con­vert­ing the marshes to rice pad­dies that would sup­port growth of the high-yield cer­eal grain, research­ers repor­ted Thursday.

New ana­lysis of sed­i­ments from the site of Kuahuqiao at the mouth of the Yangtze River near present-day Hangzhou provides the earli­est evid­ence in China of such large-scale envir­on­mental manip­u­la­tion, experts said.

This is inter­est­ing because the trans­ition to farm­ing is an inter­est­ing sub­ject, but Neolithic Chinese farm­ing may us some­thing about Global Warming accord­ing to palaeo­cli­mato­lo­gist Bill Ruddiman.
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Where is Britain’s favourite castle?

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Britain's Favourite Castle
Britain’s favour­ite castle, but where is it? Photo (cc) Elvis Payne.

UKTV drummed up pub­li­city on the cheap this sum­mer for its History chan­nel by hav­ing a vote ask­ing what is Britain’s Best Historic Site. Best for what is never clear. Anyway the res­ults are in and to the sur­prise of, well no-one, Stonehenge won. HMS Victory and Liverpool Cathedral came behind.

But there are sur­prises in the list where a high rank­ing could make a dif­fer­ence. At num­ber four in the list is a castle, but where is it? London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast? Continue read­ing

An obsession with context

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Following yesterday’s post on the roots of archae­ology, I’ve read an inter­est­ing post David Gill’s Looting Matters web­log about an obses­sion with con­text. The key quote is so good I can’t help lift­ing it:

The archae­olo­gical community’s obses­sion with con­text puzzles numismatists.”

Lest you think the good pro­fessor is writ­ing with his under­pants on his head I should make clear it’s a quote from an art­icle he read. It makes more sense if you see numis­mat­ics as an heir of anti­quar­i­an­ism and archae­ology as a pre­tender. Archaeologists are more likely study the pasts of peoples who simply don’t appeal to the wannabe-country gent. It would seem a bit odd though as not all numis­maticians are paro­chial in their studies.

Of course if you are a bit of a social dino­saur you may not have noticed chan­ging times. This might explain bizarre claims like:

Numismatists believe that all coins carry use­ful inform­a­tion about the polit­ical, mil­it­ary and eco­nomic situ­ation at the time they were issued. Indeed, numis­mat­ists derive their own con­text from the study of design devices used on coins, the num­ber and chro­no­logy of dies used to strike given series, and the metal­lur­gical con­tent of vari­ous issues. For that reason, numis­mat­ists cat­egor­ic­ally reject the claim that coins lose value as his­tor­ical objects if the cir­cum­stances of their dis­cov­ery are not preserved.”

Ok, how wrong is this? For a start a coin can con­trib­ute to his­tor­ical research by examin­ing its art and its con­text. Lose that con­text and you lose the data. You can­not tell what arte­facts a coin was found with purely from its inscrip­tions, no mat­ter how intensely you study them.

But that’s only half the problem.

At the week­end in the times there was a com­par­ison between antiquit­ies loot­ing and ivory smug­gling in the Times. It is an apt com­par­ison. The death toll in ele­phants can be dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the amount of ivory recovered. Similarly an increase in coin sup­ply from Bulgaria, sorry Thrace, ((Exporting coins from Bulgaria, as well as Greece or Turkey, the other two coun­tries which could be described as Thrace, is illegal. Unfortunately if you list the coin as Thracian then it’s extremely dif­fi­cult to find where the source is and hence can­not launch a pro­sec­u­tion. You’d have to be a pretty shady char­ac­ter to do that though so you wouldn’t expect to find any­thing if you check Ebay for Thracian coins would you?)) may be con­nec­ted with the bull­doz­ing of archae­olo­gical sites in Thrace Bulgaria. The fact that this sort of thing is illegal has led some people to con­clude that crim­in­als might be involved with the antiquit­ies supply.

It’s not a thought that occurs to all deal­ers, nor it seems all numis­mat­ists. The trade relies on deal­ers and law­yers who don’t think too hard about the con­text of their finds. Read David Gill’s thoughts on the sub­ject and laugh or cry.

An uncomfortable truth?

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But this antiquary’s dir­ect des­cend­ants are those bearded men in Time Team dig­ging trenches in soggy English fields or circ­ling in heli­copters to reveal the geo­metry of our ancest­ors’ labours. Not just archae­ology, but all sorts of ama­teur pas­sions — brass-rubbing, archi­tec­tural his­tory, every kind of yen to col­lect every kind of old clob­ber — have their ori­gins in the activ­it­ies of these bewigged gen­tle­men (it seems to have been a wholly mas­cu­line busi­ness). It was anti­quar­ies who inven­ted local his­tory. If you live in an English county, its first his­tory will almost cer­tainly have been com­piled by some batty cler­gy­man with time on his hands who cor­res­pon­ded with the Society of Antiquaries.

It’s received wis­dom that Archaeology grew from Antiquarianism. I atten­ded a talk at a TAG con­fer­ence by Ronald Hutton who argued that this might not be so. For some reason a past is import­ant to most dis­cip­lines. Even Computing courses have been known to start with Babbage’s Difference Engine. It’s hard to under­es­tim­ate its import­ance in C++ pro­gram­ming, but it’s prob­ably about as rel­ev­ant as the phase of the moon. It may be inter­est­ing but for prac­tical pro­gram­ming it just doesn’t matter.

The con­nec­tion between archae­olo­gists and their past in con­trast prob­ably does. One reason is that unques­tioned assump­tions made by pre­vi­ous archae­olo­gists can pass on and become increas­ingly irrel­ev­ant. The other is that if you spend your days up to your elbows in the past of other pro­fes­sions you may start think­ing about your own. You’ll also find, if you’re an archae­olo­gist based in the UK, that almost everything inter­est­ing has already been whacked open with a pick-axe and plundered by anti­quar­i­ans. At least phys­ic­ally we fol­low in their footsteps.

However Hutton, if I under­stand him cor­rectly, argues that the reason archae­olo­gists fol­low anti­quar­i­ans isn’t a simple case of evol­u­tion. Continue read­ing

Religion versus Archaeology

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The Red Fort
The Red Fort where faith will soon tri­umph over Archaeology. Photo (cc) dijit­al­boy.

If you’ve been fol­low­ing my del​.icio​.us feed you’ll have already seen I’ve been read­ing the archae­olo­gical news com­ing out of India recently. I’ve held off com­ment­ing, because I’m not very famil­iar with Indian archae­ology. You should bear that in mind when read­ing on. I’ve also spent a few days try­ing to pull together who believes what happened when. And today I found the post ABC of Ram Sethu at E-mc^2, which says more or less the same thing. As far as I can tell the story is this:

Around 1.75 mil­lion years ago Ravana, King of Lanka was being a pest. As a bit of foresight Ravana had ensured that he was invul­ner­able to the attacks of Gods, Demons and celes­tial folk, but left out men and animal from the list. Vishnu spot­ted the loop­hole and incarn­ated as the human Rama, to get round some legal paper­work. Ravana kid­napped his wife and dur­ing the ensu­ing rum­pus Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka.

Around 125,000 years ago geo­lo­gical action star­ted to form a bar of rocks and shoals cre­at­ing a string of islands or shal­lows between south­ern India and Sri Lanka.

Around 2000 years ago the poet Valmiki com­posed the Rāmāyaṇa, which described the events of 1.75 mil­lion. Unfortunately he neg­lected to state whether Rama was homo sapi­ens or homo erectus, which could have helped a lot.

This sets the scene for a con­tro­versy around the dredging of a chan­nel through the Ram Sethu. In 2001 the BJP, then the rul­ing party in India decided a chan­nel through the Ram Sethu might be a good thing. At moment ship­ping has to travel round Sri Lanka. A chan­nel could cut out a day’s travel so they star­ted a feas­ib­il­ity study.
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The Lion of the Leylandii

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Squirrel Cropped

I went down to the bot­tom of the garden to fill the feeder this morn­ing, and had the eerie sen­sa­tion of being watched from the trees. I looked but didn’t see any­thing for a while until I saw a con­temp­tu­ous flick of a tail. Then the squir­rel moved out of its hid­ing place at star­ted star­ing at me. It could see me stand­ing by the recently filled box and was get­ting impatient.

Those of us wise in the ways of the forest call it “the Lion of the Leylandii” — ok so the Leylandii is an urban men­ace, but I’m only pre­tend­ing to be an expert about squir­rels. You really don’t want to get in the way of an annoyed squir­rel. The squirrel’s favour­ite method of attack is to break a man’s neck and then nibble on his nuts. As you can see below they’re fast, like a small furry ninja.

I’ve been mean­ing to test my cam­era for a little while, but haven’t really had the oppor­tun­ity. The sound on the video sur­prised me, and the click­ing to refo­cus means I’ll have to find the silent switch. The photo is an attempt at pseudo-HDR. HDR is a pho­to­graphic tech­nique to bring out more col­our and detail in pho­tos. Ideally you mix a few pho­tos together, but the squir­rel was far too fast for that, so I’ve tried repro­cessing a .RAW image. It hasn’t been a huge suc­cess as far as I can tell as it looks like a .JPG file would to me. For more on HDR you should visit Why Don’t You Blog? which has a few posts on the subject.

I got the squir­rel feeder from CJ Wild Bird Foods. They’re worth a visit at the moment as they’re giv­ing away a free garden wild­life guide.