Mick Aston

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Mick Aston was prob­ably the best-known archae­olo­gist in the UK. I’d also go so far as to say that he was the most influ­en­tial archae­olo­gist of the last 25 years.

Mick Aston

Mick Aston (centre). Photo by Wessex Archaeology.

The reason is Time Team, an archae­olo­gical series on Channel 4. If Sky at Night is Astronomy then Time Team when Mick Aston was in it was archae­ology. Its suc­cess massively expan­ded the uptake of archae­ology by stu­dents. Mick Aston’s idea was respons­ible sup­port­ing an incal­cul­able num­ber of jobs in uni­ver­sity depart­ments. It’s easy to over­look was an aston­ish­ing idea Time Team was.

The tra­di­tional doc­u­ment­ary places the aca­demic speaker at the author­ity speak­ing Truth. A recent example is Rise of the Continents, where Mantle Plumes are presen­ted as unques­tioned fact as noted in the post at The Theatre of Reason. A com­mon grumble is that sci­ence is a pro­cess not a body of fact, so how do you show pro­cess? Mick Aston reckoned you could pro­duce a usable brief eval­u­ation of an archae­olo­gical site in three days and this became Time Team. A cam­era crew fol­lowed an archae­olo­gical team as they dug for three days.

Below I’ve embed­ded the epis­ode from Blaenavon, which I hope 4oDDocumentaries have made widely access­ible.* You could make a drink­ing game from the num­ber of times someone says they don’t know some­thing. To steal a line from Paul Bahn: it’s not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out.

As a meas­ure of impact, I offer another series, Bonekickers. Bonekickers was an attempt by the Life on Mars team to pro­duce a drama around an archae­ology unit. It was laughed out of the sched­ules because Time Team had demon­strated to a large chunk of the UK pop­u­la­tion how archae­ology worked. To be fair Bonekickers was pretty awful in its own right, but it’s thanks to the impact of Time Team that it became truly ris­ible. Can you ima­gine that hap­pen­ing with any other aca­demic discipline?

Mick Aston’s influ­ence meant that he became a ste­reo­type of an archae­olo­gist in his own time. That could sound snide, but rather it’s a meas­ure of how loved by the pub­lic he was.

He also had the poten­tial to keep innov­at­ing. After leav­ing Time Team, he’d been work­ing with Timothy Taylor on Dig Village. In some ways he was in the twi­light of his career, but he still could have shone for many years like the even­ing star.

Photo Time Team in Salisbury by Wessex Archaeology. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence.

*I’m not optim­istic that it’s vis­ible bey­ond the UK. You can search for Time Team on YouTube, but embed­ding those videos isn’t sens­ible. Uploading a pro­gramme whole­sale, breach­ing the copy­right isn’t neg­ated by say­ing “No infringe­ment of copy­right is inten­ded”. These videos will be com­ing down sooner or later. My per­sonal favour­ite epis­ode is prob­ably Llygadwy / Celtic Spring, but that’s not so typ­ical of the series.

The opposite of Open Access

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Here’s an inter­est­ing paper I found while look­ing for inform­a­tion on a topic: EVALUATING THE STATUS OF UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN EGYPT. I’ve no idea if the con­tent is inter­est­ing. However, the reason I don’t know that (and prob­ably never will) is what makes the paper so interesting.

It’s avail­able at -http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​4​8​/​A​P​B​J​.​2​0​1​2​.​0​0​005– http://​www​.ingenta​con​nect​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​a​p​b​j​/​i​j​m​c​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​4​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​/​a​r​t​0​0​005 . Actually I prob­ably should have said it’s ‘avail­able’ with air quotes instead. The reason is obvi­ous when you try to down­load it. Like 90% of journ­als you can’t because you need a sub­scrip­tion, but usu­ally there’s an option to buy the paper at some high rate. Not here. You have to sub­scribe to the journal to get the paper.

To be clear to read this paper on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Egypt, because I have an interest in archae­olo­gical her­it­age, I have to sub­scribe to a journal that pub­lishes in the same issue:
EARNINGS MANAGEMENT AND TRADE-OFF BETWEEN TAX SAVINGS AND REGULATORY SCRUTINY THE CASE OF SLOVENIAN PROPERTY INSURERS
-http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​4​8​/​A​P​B​J​.​2​0​1​2​.​0​0​012–
http://​www​.ingenta​con​nect​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​a​p​b​j​/​i​j​m​c​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​4​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​/​a​r​t​0​0​012
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INDUSTRY AND CAPITAL DETERMINANTS OF COMPULSIVE BUYERSBEHAVIOUR: THE CASE OF RETAIL CLOTHING MARKET IN LITHUANIA 
-http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​4​8​/​A​P​B​J​.​2​0​1​2​.​0​0​034–
http://​www​.ingenta​con​nect​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​a​p​b​j​/​i​j​m​c​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​4​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​/​a​r​t​0​0​034
EXPERIENTIAL CONSUMPTION OF TIME: A CASE STUDY OF CONSUMING FREE TIME IN THE CONTEXT OF ENTHUSIASM FOR HORSES -http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​5​8​4​8​/​A​P​B​J​.​2​0​1​2​.​0​0​037– 
http://​www​.ingenta​con​nect​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​a​p​b​j​/​i​j​m​c​/​2​0​1​2​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​4​/​0​0​0​0​0​0​0​1​/​a​r​t​0​0​037

I’m will­ing to believe these are all excel­lent papers in their field and well worth £150 as a bundle to the right per­son — but not to me. Publishing this way really does lock away research to a nar­row audi­ence. The bar­ri­ers to get­ting the paper mean I won’t be includ­ing it in any research databases.

The punch­line? Check the name of the publisher.

#blog   #archae­ology   #her­it­age   

Edited due to a com­ment by +Rheza Rozendaal : I really should have checked the DOIs

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If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge
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Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

What lies beneath Achill-henge?

Achill-henge
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Achill-henge

Achill-henge. Photo by Seequinn

It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is access­ible world­wide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an intro­duc­tion to the story. You can also listen to the radio pro­gramme (world­wide I think) with the rel­ev­ant seg­ment at 6m04s.

It’s not a bad story, but from an archae­olo­gical point of view it misses the most inter­est­ing things. Firstly build­ing this ertsatz archae­olo­gical site may have dam­aged a real site. Usually before con­struc­tion there will be test digs to check the con­struc­tion won’t des­troy some­thing of his­tor­ical import­ance. Achill is an extremely sens­it­ive archae­olo­gical site. There’s a long run­ning field school there because it has such a rich archae­olo­gical record. If you’re a fan of pre­his­toric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk des­troy­ing one to make a copy.

The second thing is the tem­plate chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as any­one who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of tri­lithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the pre­his­toric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becom­ing clear that there are dis­tinct­ive dif­fer­ences in tra­di­tions around the islands.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack

This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recum­bent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them any­where else. There is a pos­sible astro­nom­ical align­ment. These circles tend to be set up so that the sum­mer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recum­bent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter

This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s com­pact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the oppos­ite side to the recum­bent stone. This is more typ­ical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a delib­er­ate a portal for entry. The astro­nom­ical align­ments are dif­fer­ent for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an align­ment to winter sol­stice sunset.

Even though they look sim­ilar, these stone circles could be telling us very dif­fer­ent things about belief. If we trust the pat­terns emer­ging from study­ing groups of monu­ments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost oppos­ites. The key event in Scotland seems to hap­pen with the Moon in sum­mer. In Ireland they’re look­ing to the Sun in winter.

There’s an ongo­ing argu­ment about whether sum­mer sun­rise or winter sun­set was more import­ant at Stonehenge. I favour winter sun­set, but to some extent this is just as reflect­ive of how you view pre­his­toric life as it is about the data. In addi­tion there’s plenty of evid­ence show­ing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remod­elled, includ­ing a pos­sible shift from lunar to solar alignments.

In any event whatever the tra­di­tion was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflect­ive of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embed­ded as an iconic brand for pre­his­toric archae­ology in the British Isles, that British pre­his­tory is now col­on­ising per­cep­tions of what a pre­his­toric Ireland would look like.

I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inven­tions, and some archae­olo­gists will cringe at the idea of a pre­his­toric Ireland or UK. Recognising mod­ern bound­ar­ies don’t apply to the past is a sens­ible fea­ture. At the same time an appeal­ing com­mon past does risk los­ing some of what makes places loc­ally distinctive.

Photos:
Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

Can you preserve sites on the Moon?

Boot print in the lunar regolith
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This might sound like it’s either mad, who’s going to dam­age sites on the moon? or bleed­ing obvi­ous, if we could still see Columbus’s first foot­print on Hispaniola we’d pre­serve it, right?

Boot print in the lunar regolith

Boot print in the lunar rego­lith. Photo: NASA / Buzz Aldrin


As the NYT points out, the Google X Prize is aimed at mak­ing the Moon more access­ible and that will have knock-on effects when it comes to pre­serving his­toric sites on the lunar sur­face. No-one’s going to inten­tional dam­age Neil Armstrong’s foot­print are they? Well once tour­ists arrive it’s inev­it­able I think. There’s some hom­inin foot­prints at Laetoli. They’re among the earli­est foot­prints of our human-like ancest­ors. And they’re now pro­tec­ted because of dam­age. Tourists couldn’t res­ist put­ting their foot into the foot­print to compare.

Listing the Moon land­ings as her­it­age sites might seem obvi­ous, but it’s also cur­rently impossible. You can only list sites on your ter­rit­ory. Through vari­ous treat­ies the Moon (and Antarctica) aren’t recog­nised as national ter­rit­or­ies, so they can’t have her­it­age list­ings. The USA can claim own­er­ship of any­thing they’ve left on the moon, but not of the dust on its surface.

So long as humans can’t get back to the moon it might still look like navel-gazing, but one of the things that’s mak­ing space archae­ology an inter­est­ing field is that a few archae­olo­gists are now look­ing back at how unpro­tec­ted key sites from the space race are on Earth. KSC, Kourou and Baikonur are all still in use, but Woomera is no longer used by the British. The Australian gov­ern­ment has used it as site for hold­ing immigrants.

Once you start look­ing at earth­side sites things get messier because they have human con­sequences. Alice Gorman has noted Peenemünde is a key site in the devel­op­ment of rock­etry, but list­ing it as a her­it­age site can’t be done without think­ing about deaths among the Jewish work­ers there, or those killed at the British tar­gets. She’s also poin­ted out that some other sites chosen because they were remote and no one lived there, turned out to have indi­gen­ous peoples who thought their homes were very local to where they lived.

For more on Space Archaeology
Beth O’Leary has a site on Lunar Legacies at http://​space​grant​.nmsu​.edu/​l​u​n​a​r​l​e​g​a​c​i​es/
Alice Gorman has a web­log Space Age Archaeology at http://​zohar​esque​.blog​spot​.com/
and there’s a Space Archaeology Wiki at http://​www​.spacear​chae​ology​.org/​w​i​ki/

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

The earliest astronomers?

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave
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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThe short ver­sion of this post is that Astronomy in the Upper Palaeolithic? by Hayden & Villeneuve is a great paper. If you’re inter­ested in astro­nomy in hunter-gatherer soci­et­ies you should read it. I’m going to dis­agree with some parts of the paper below, but if Hayden & Villeneuve are wrong about some things, then it’s for inter­est­ing reas­ons. And it’s by no means cer­tain that I’m right to dis­agree about the things that I do.

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave

Reaching for the stars in Lascaux Cave. Photo (cc) tourisme_vezere.

The archae­ology of astro­nomy is con­ten­tious at the best of times, but the Palaeolithic is a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult period to study, because the remains are so frag­ment­ary and few in num­ber. So to put this in con­text we need to know when the Upper Palaeolithic is.

You’re prob­ably famil­iar with the Three Age System, Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. In this sys­tem in Europe the Stone Age ends roughly between 4000 and 2500 BCE depend­ing on where you are and exactly where you want to draw the line. Everything before this is a long time period so you can split it up fur­ther. The Neolithic is a period when people settle down and become farm­ers, it starts between 8000 and 4000 BCE in Europe depend­ing on where you are. The south-east of Europe adopts farm­ing much sooner than the people in the north-west. The Palaeolithic, if you ignore all sorts of sub­tleties is the period before that. To nar­row down things fur­ther the Palaeolithic is sub-divided into three sec­tions, Lower, Middle and Upper. Again, roughly speak­ing, the Lower Palaeolithic is the time of early humans, the Middle is the time of Neanderthals roughly 300,000 BCE to 35,000 BCE, and the Upper Palaeolithic is the period after that with Homo Sapiens.

This gives the astro­nom­ical read­ers a rough idea of when we’re talk­ing about. Archaeological read­ers could very eas­ily pick holes in more or less everything I’ve said about the dates. One import­ant reason we’ll get to later is that when we use terms like Bronze Age or Palaeolithic, we’re not dir­ectly talk­ing about a spe­cific time, we’re talk­ing about the tech­no­logy we find that’s asso­ci­ated with a spe­cific time. So some ‘peri­ods’ make no sense out­side of Europe. If you live some­where where Obsidian was much easier to get than Bronze, then it’s pos­sible local people never bothered with a Bronze Age.

Hayden & Villeneuve real­ise that evid­ence from the Upper Palaeolithic is scant, but they also recog­nise that the Upper Palaeolithic is not just a time, but it’s tied to a place. What they’re inter­ested in is whether or not eth­no­graph­ies of mod­ern hunter-gatherer soci­et­ies can give us inform­a­tion about pos­sible uses for astro­nomy. You can’t simply say that mod­ern hunter-gatherers from now were exactly like hunter-gatherers twenty thou­sand years ago, but you can see if tack­ling astro­nom­ical prob­lems pro­duces debris sim­ilar to what archae­olo­gists find. You can also see if there are com­mon fea­tures in astro­nomy around the world from hunter-gatherers. If you can see hunter-gatherer astro­nomy in action then you have clues why hunter-gatherers used astro­nomy in the past and that can pro­duce work a lot more inter­est­ing than “there’s marks on this bone, people could be count­ing moon phases.“
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