Can you preserve sites on the Moon?

Boot print in the lunar regolith

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

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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Blogging Archaeology Week 4, Part Two: What could a group Archaeology blog look like?


I’ve been think­ing over vari­ous prob­lems in set­ting up a group blog for archae­ology for a while. The thought pro­cess usu­ally fol­lows four steps.

  1. Hmm… here’s a tech­nical prob­lem that could need to be solved for a group blog.
  2. Aha! Here’s a solu­tion that would be nifty.
  3. Of course, you’d need someone to organ­ise people and enthuse them…
  4. That sounds far too much like hard work. I’ll leave it.

For example I think Terry Brock is right, a group archae­ology blog could be a good idea. But for reas­ons you really don’t need to know about I can’t com­mit to any­thing before mid-April at the earli­est. So my con­tri­bu­tion is lim­ited to say­ing “Great Idea!” without actu­ally doing any­thing that could be mis­taken for work. I have been in a group blog though, so I could flag some prob­lems that need to be solved.

I was a mem­ber of HNN’s Revise & Dissent. I don’t think it was a suc­cess­ful group blog. It had good blog­gers as well as me, but I think col­lect­ively the blog was less than the sum of its parts. One reason is that it wasn’t a coher­ent col­lect­ive. We had interests in dif­fer­ent peri­ods of his­tory and dif­fer­ent regions. I thought that was a good thing because it meant that we covered history’s diversity. Instead I get the impres­sion there was no com­mon thread to the blog other than ‘the past’. Terry Brock points out that archae­olo­gists aren’t that well con­nec­ted at the moment. I think he’s right, but cre­at­ing a group blog will not inher­ently make us con­nec­ted. I read Dirt. I like it, but I don’t com­ment as I don’t have any­thing of value to say there. I think if Terry and I were on the same group blog then I’d simply not com­ment on that blog instead of not com­ment­ing on Dirt.

In con­trast some­thing like Play the Past, isn’t just about his­tory. It’s about a shared approach to his­tory. Possibly you could say that archae­ology is a spe­cific approach to his­tory, but some people think archae­ology is a branch of anthro­po­logy. I’m some­times a his­tor­ian and some­times an archae­olo­gist. I’m inter­ested in human action in the past and I’m not really con­scious of delib­er­ately switch­ing between two approaches. However, I am not an anthro­po­lo­gist. Anthropology is rel­ev­ant to archae­ology, but they are not the same dis­cip­line. I don’t think archae­ology is inher­ently focussed enough for a group blog to gel.

A second prob­lem with Revise & Dissent is that we made it demand­ing. We already all had blogs that were our home. I don’t know if any of us felt at home at Revise & Dissent, which sat on HNN’s sys­tem. It meant that writ­ing posts for R&D was a con­scious effort because we wanted to put up some­thing ser­i­ous there. There was no pres­sure from HNN to do this, I was some­thing we inflic­ted on ourselves.

I think this con­trib­uted to a third prob­lem, which was when to con­trib­ute? I con­sciously held back some posts, and didn’t sub­mit oth­ers because I didn’t want the blog to be Me and Revise & Dissent. This could have been a mis­take. Cliopatria works per­fectly well with Ralph Luker doing much of the blog­ging. I don’t think we tackled this prob­lem of what to post and when. It’s not a com­plaint that oth­ers were not doing enough — I have long peri­ods I can­not blog. We simply didn’t organ­ise the work, in my case because I don’t want to try boss­ing people around when they’re doing some­thing in their free time.

xf8n An archae­o­b­log not com­ing to a screen near you any time soon.

So a suc­cess­ful group archae­ology blog should have entries from vari­ous people relat­ing to each other on a reg­u­lar basis and not feel too much like hard work.

One way to cre­ate rela­tion­ships between blog­gers is to get them talk­ing about the same thing. This is what Colleen has done with her Blogging Archaeology car­ni­val. So a group blog could adopt a theme each month e.g. Origins, Power, Food, Religion… and release a series of posts by dif­fer­ent blog­gers through­out that month. Bloggers would be dis­cuss­ing the regions and peri­ods they were inter­ested in, but by talk­ing about some com­mon human exper­i­ence you get to com­pare and con­trast actions in dif­fer­ent times and places. You get to see what’s spe­cial about what you’re work­ing on by see­ing what other people are doing elsewhere.

That sounds good, but as Mick Morrisson can tell you get­ting people to respond to a theme isn’t so easy. For example I could see that some people could pro­pose Slavery as a topic. That’s some­thing rel­ev­ant to the ancient world, but it’s not some­thing I spend much time look­ing at. So do I ignore it when it comes round, or to I grind out some­thing to con­trib­ute in the hope that when I put for­ward some­thing I’d like to see oth­ers will do the same? As pos­sible solu­tion is that people pro­pose and pre­pare drafts on a theme in a back chan­nel. So I could write a gender piece and announce it on the back chan­nel. Someone else could pre­pare some­thing on Travel and I might see that and draft a post as well. When it comes round to choos­ing the next month’s topic instead of assign­ing the topic, you could see which topic has the most drafts ready to go and that becomes the next theme on the blog. Four or five posts mean that you’d have a top­ical post once a week. To get those four or five posts though you’ll need more than four or five blog­gers because people get busy and run into gluts of work. It’ll take some social wrangling.

A purely ‘theme of the month’ based group blog is rather nar­row in focus. There are some other things where a col­lect­ive blog could add value. One is blogged reviews. Michael E. Smith at Publishing Archaeology has lamen­ted the lack of a good out­let for reviews. I agree with him on this and on the fact that BMCR does an excel­lent job of pub­lish­ing reviews. I some­times get offered things for review, and it’s likely that a group blog would also get offers. Initially you’d need to prove that the concept works by blog­gers review­ing things they’ve read in their own research, but a review stream would be a valu­able addi­tion to archae­ology that doesn’t seem to be act­ive elsewhere.

An assump­tion above is that blog­gers con­trib­ut­ing to both of these strands would get links back to their own blog. They would, but what about people who have some­thing to say, but don’t want to start a whole blog when they’d only have some­thing per­haps once every three or four months? A third cat­egory News & Comment could offer this. I don’t think this would work just as a col­la­tion of head­lines. David Meadows already does that, and bet­ter, with the Explorator. If there was com­ment­ary on a story, for example why beer and wine mat­ter like SciAm does here then you have some­thing more worth­while. You could also throw in com­ment­ary from occa­sional blog­gers. If you get a large audi­ence it would also make sense to add requests for help, like look­ing for people to answer ques­tion­naires on out­reach, here. Hopefully the con­trast with the themed blog posts would make it less of a strain to blog inform­ally in this category.

The final cat­egory I’d sug­gest is just per­sonal axe-grinding. Photography. Partly because Colleen Morgan pro­duces some great pho­tos and there’s plenty of inter­est­ing images appear­ing on Flickr. Also it’s some­thing that formal pub­lic­a­tion doesn’t do so much. In some cases some dire pho­tos are pub­lished. Photo of the Day would be hard work, but a Photo Phriday would be pos­sible with sub­mis­sions or CC-licenced images from Flickr.

I’ve been think­ing about this for a while and there are prob­lems that need to be tackled. The big one is social. You need a core who are will­ing to slog for six months blog­ging on your monthly themes. Also one post a week is not going to build up an audi­ence rap­idly, so you’d need that core to each be com­mit­ted to one post a week on aver­age. It doesn’t sound a lot, but keep­ing that up for a long period is a ser­i­ous commitment.

You also need people who can encour­age people out­side the core to con­trib­ute and also keep an eye on qual­ity con­trol. That’s going to need tact. You won’t want rub­bish on the site. At the same time you don’t want to block people simply because you don’t agree with them. It’s likely to be some very good mater­ial that isn’t a suit­able fit for the site. You need someone who can turn that down without giv­ing the impres­sion that it’s rub­bish. I’d find set­ting up a site and telling people to take part, then say­ing ‘No thanks’ to some stressful.

There are tech­nical issues. Some are trivial. You won’t get a theme that every­one will like, so it’ll just have some­thing that people can live with that does the job. Some are more dif­fi­cult. A big­ger blog is going to be more of a tar­get for hack­ers. I’m using VaultPress with AoBBlog, and some­thing sim­ilar would make sense for a ser­i­ous group blog. There are plu­gins to man­age (Zotpress, Mendeley or both?) and they can clash in unfore­seen ways. New fea­tures in WordPress can break themes in unex­pec­ted ways and the big­ger the site the more vis­ible a fault is. Ideally the tech­nical side should be done so that people who aren’t inter­ested in the nut ‘n’ bolts don’t notice what’s going on.

There’s also the mat­ter of fund­ing. I’d be will­ing to con­trib­ute, but I couldn’t guar­an­tee fund­ing in per­petu­ity and there’s very few people who could. It would make sense to try to make the site self-funding. I’m against Google Ads. I don’t think they’re suit­able for a site dis­cuss­ing arte­facts as it’s impossible to pre­vent ads for illi­cit antiquit­ies appear­ing on site. If you’re not inter­ested in mak­ing a profit then fund­ing by other means might be a sol­uble prob­lem, but it’s hard to raise exactly the right amount of money and no more. So what do you do with a sur­plus? One answer would be to donate it an archae­olo­gical fund, but it’ll make life so much easier if this you can clearly demon­strate it hap­pen­ing. This is even more import­ant when if the sur­plus is tiny or non-existent so you rarely see dona­tions being made. It’s nat­ural to ask where the money is going.

The above is just one model of what an archae­olo­gical group blog could look like. Digital Archaeology might be enough of a niche that a group blog could work. There’s a few archae­ode­bunk sites, they too might work as group blog. A group blog does bring bene­fits, but I can see it being a long slog to keep it run­ning. If one was set up now it wouldn’t be live till May, when exam mark­ing starts in the UK so it’s a tough time to launch. June brings more mark­ing and towards the end it fades into field­work sea­son, which will also make July and August dif­fi­cult months. September and October will be bad because terms start… and so on.

It can be done, but would enough people want to?

What can the short form do for (insert discipline here)?

Google drink. Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Colleen Morgan is get­ting ready for the SAA con­fer­ence ses­sion on blog­ging. To open up the ses­sion to people bey­ond those who can get to the USA, she’s ask­ing a series of ques­tions to the world at large. Her first ques­tion is:

The emer­gence of the short form, or blog entry, is becom­ing a pop­u­lar way to trans­mit a wide range of archae­olo­gical know­ledge. What is the place of this con­ver­sa­tion within aca­demic, pro­fes­sional, and pub­lic dis­course? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

This is a topic that’s being dis­cussed else­where. At Ether Wave Propaganda (h/t Jonathan Dresner) Will Thomas notes that blog entries are cre­at­ing extra interest in papers. At AoB Blog for Botany, we’re find­ing that the blog is increas­ing interest in art­icles. So what is it that helps?

First up there’s the simple act of telling people that there’s research out. This is why there isn’t just a blog for the Annals of Botany, there’s also a Facebook page and Twitter account. These aren’t repla­cing other meth­ods of com­mu­nic­a­tion, they sup­ple­ment them and they work.

Another issue is that there are ser­i­ous aca­demic con­cerns that can be aided with dis­cus­sion that don’t belong in a journal. Exhibit one is Mick Morrisson’s post on a Digital Archaeology Workshop. Nearly every aca­demic is going to have expert­ise that’s unique to their depart­ment that is also shared with other people around the world. A blog is a tool that can open dis­cus­sion with col­leagues around the world. I’m sure Mick could write up his blog post in long form with ref­er­ences and sub­mit it to a sub­scrip­tion only journal with a read­er­ship that’s well over 100 people, but would the extra effort be worth the extra (or just dif­fer­ent?) response?

Google drink. Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Downloadable drink, they’re work­ing on it.
Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Which leads me to the third point. Short form doesn’t apply to just blog­ging. It applies to com­ments as well. We’re used to the 20 minute talk at con­fer­ences. Social con­ven­tion means you don’t hear 20 minute ram­bling replies at a con­fer­ence unless the ram­bler is old and the ori­ginal speaker is young. Even then the abil­ity to reply without pause for breath, coher­ence or mercy doesn’t work. Likewise blogs also offer oppor­tun­it­ies for short com­ments and if you see a long ram­bling reply with CAPITAL LETTERS lib­er­ally sprinkled around, scroll on.

Blogging is writ­ten, so there’s a tend­ency to see it as a com­pet­itor for aca­demic pub­lic­a­tion. Instead the short form means it can be more inter­act­ive and dis­curs­ive. For an example fol­low the many links in Bora Zivkovic’s post Roosevelts on Toilets for dis­cus­sion about what blogs can dis­cuss and an example of an event becom­ing a mat­ter of ser­i­ous and pas­sion­ate debate. Blogs are more a com­ple­ment to con­fer­ences. Just as one con­fer­ence doesn’t really pre­clude the exist­ence of oth­ers, so too blog­ging is not going to replace any con­fer­ences. At least not till you can down­load alco­hol and brief but embar­rass­ing romantic encoun­ters over the internet.

SciAm and Stonehenge


Scientific American has an art­icle on Stonehenge up this month. My first reac­tion would be dis­ap­point­ment if I’d bought a copy just to read the Stonehenge art­icle. It’s not bad, but there’s a lot of ideas being gen­er­ated by archae­olo­gists at the moment. The lack of space means that the three main pro­jects all get skimmed. I can see that it works for someone who hasn’t been fol­low­ing news at the site, but if you’re a henge nut it’ll add noth­ing new.

On the other hand, I did like the sup­ple­ment­ary mater­ial that SciAm has added online. This goes into a bit more detail about the work by Birmingham University. Adding this to the ori­ginal art­icle makes it a lot bet­ter. Instead of being stan­dalone, the ori­ginal art­icle works well as an intro­duc­tion to the addi­tional mater­ial. Without chan­ging a word in the ori­ginal my opin­ion has gone from dis­ap­point­ment to think­ing it’s actu­ally quite clever. It means the magazine’s web­site is more than a bro­chure for the art­icles, or a copy of them.

It’s also a crafty way of get­ting their advert­ising out on other people’s sites, but the wait (if the pre-load advert plays) is worth­while. The actual video is 5m40s.

Archaeologists prove the secret to a successful date is knowing what is on the menu

Bora Bora Dining and Food at Sunset

Knowing about food will increase the suc­cess of your dating

ResearchBlogging.orgLooking from the out­side, one of the most under­rated areas of archae­olo­gical research at the moment is the Archaeology of the Pacific. It’s pos­sible to make excit­ing dis­cov­er­ies any­where in the world. In Polynesia though, it’s hard not to. The reason is that Polynesian archae­ology has an odd con­tra­dic­tion. There’s been some excel­lent research done in the Pacific, yet it’s likely to be wrong. The prob­lem is in the dating.

Take Easter Island. The big story there is the eco­lo­gical col­lapse of the island. We know there was an eco­lo­gical col­lapse because set­tlers arrived AD 800, their set­tle­ment pat­terns changed around AD 1200 and when they were dis­covered by Europeans there were rel­at­ively few people on the island. We know they were on the island in AD 800 because that’s been radiocar­bon dated. If those dates were wrong, like if they were too old and set­tlers arrived later, then it’s not just a mat­ter of tweak­ing dates on the timeline in text­books. Suddenly there’s no native-caused pop­u­la­tion crash to explain.

Across the Pacific it turns out that many radiocar­bon dates are too old. Testing the human factor: radiocar­bon dat­ing the first peoples of the South Pacific by Petchey et al. (2011) is a paper that helps explain why, but also shows which dates are accur­ate. First here’s a brief reminder on how radiocar­bon dat­ing works.
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