The Beauty and Frustration of Single Moments, Frozen in Time

Our first entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Lisa-Marie Shillito, at the University of Edinburgh. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

Lisa-Marie Shillito

It wasn’t until I became a micromorphologist that I understood how beautiful even the most unremarkable bit of earth can be, or that I truly understood context. I’ve previously described thin section micromorphology as ‘excavation under the microscope’ – observing deposits, describing their physical characteristics, determining the stratigraphic relationship between components, and reconstructing the processes by which they have formed (Shillito 2013). The sediments themselves become part of material culture. Produced as they are directly by human activity, understanding their mode of formation can aid in the interpretation of the activities that produced them.

The moment where you peer down the lens of the microscope and a picture comes into focus, you may find yourself glimpsing at that elusive ‘frozen moment in time’, a true single depositional event, preserved for prosperity between layers of glass. The moment where you can see the single layer of paint that was applied to a wall and subsequently covered and covered again; you can see the hand of the person that so carefully replastered and painted those walls over and over. The moment where you look at a sequence of floors and see a layer of fine dust less than 1mm thick that accumulated beneath a mat, the everyday dirt that escaped the fastidious sweeping of floors. Beyond buildings we may see the tell-tale undulations and orientations of particles within soft midden sediments that indicate where a person (or creature) once walked, perhaps taking a short cut to a neighbour over the way or making a rest stop to relieve themselves (we see evidence of that too…).

The closer we look, the more we see; the very process of examining archaeological deposits under the microscope gives a new understanding of the past. It is only by examining deposits at the microscale that you can gain a true understanding of ‘single context’ and how the tiny traces from individual activities combine to form cumulative palimpsests (to use the terminology of Bailey 2007) even in cases where we may think we have a ‘single’ context in the field. That moment you realise that ‘in situ’ is a relative concept, and materials we assume are intact have often undergone a series of post-depositional disturbances that have consequences for how they can be interpreted. At one magnification we may be looking at an event that occurred within a single moment; change magnifications and suddenly the temporal resolution shifts.

The implications of Schiffer’s ideas on formation processes are frustratingly obvious at the microscale. How can we really link that date with that artefact, when even in the same layer some small creature has come along and mixed things up a little? And how do we even know this disturbance has happened without using the microarchaeological eye? These processes occur more often than not, yet without microarchaeology, they may go unrecognised. It has been suggested by Smith (1992) that we cannot isolate and analyse instantaneous occurrences in archaeology and even if we could (as is sometimes the case with micromorphology) how do we decide what to analyse? The picture becomes so complicated I wonder if we can ever have a ‘true’ understanding of the archaeological record. Of course the answer is always, ‘it depends’. We can observe deposits at higher and higher resolutions, but the resolution that is necessary depends on specific research objectives.

Unlike specialisms such as zooarchaeology and lithic analysis where you can handle the bones and stones, pointing to features, however subtle, and explain your interpretations, my speciality lies in the unseen, the hidden worlds, the intangible. Explaining is not as straightforward. Explaining the importance of microarchaeological research and being transparent in how you arrived at an interpretation requires the visual. Under the microscope stratigraphy becomes differentiated, the relationships between components within a deposit become apparent and the mechanisms by which materials ended up in their positions can be directly observed in a way that is simply not possible at the macroscale.

Like single context archaeology, one of microarchaeology’s greatest contributions lies in sites with well-preserved stratigraphy and architectural features (Morgan 2010), and its true value can only come from collaboration between specialisms, and considering the sediment as part of the assemblage along with all the other materials we uncover. The sediments can speak their own stories about people in the past, but they also provide important constraints on the myriad of possible interpretations of other artefact and ecofact assemblages, going some way towards reducing their equifinality. It can be disheartening being the specialist whose greatest contribution is in pointing out the taphonomic problems with a favoured interpretation. Luckily, the beauty of the world under the microscope (mostly) makes up for its frustrations.

Bailey, G. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, vol 26, no. 2, pp. 198-223.

Colleen, M. 2010. Where is single context archaeology? [blog post] http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/where-is-single-context-archaeology/

Matthews, W. 1998. Report on sampling strategies, microstratigraphy and micromorphology of depositional sequences, and associated ethnoarchaeology at Çatalhöyük Çatalhöyük Archive Report. http://www.catalhoyuk.com/archive_reports/1998/ar98_06.html

Schiffer, M.B. 1987. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Shillito, L-M. 2013. Archaeology Under the Microscope. The Post Hole. http://www.theposthole.org/read/article/213

Smith, M.E. 1992. Braudel’s temporal rhythms and chronology theory in archaeology in A. Bernard Knapp (ed) Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory. Cambridge University Press pp.23-34.

Tracing the Past under the Microscope

Andrew Roddick

Lisa Marie’s reflections highlight the analytical quandaries, the frustrations, but also the new interpretive and aesthetic worlds that open up through the microscopic gaze. This exploration of the unseen and intangible might be considered as an exploration of the trace, an archaeological element of an entirely different scale than the impressive houses and mounds at Çatalhöyük. Rosemary Joyce (2006: 15) contrasts the trace, which is subtle and contextual, with the monumental, which are those realms of material culture with external hierarchies of value meant to convey sets of meanings over time.  Joyce argues our job is to work at “rematerializ[ing] traces of practices in the past” (Joyce 2012: 121). Such rematerializing requires the specialized tools, learned techniques, and careful theoretical insight and reflection, all essential to our modern disciplinary practice.

As a ceramicist I have been thinking recently about the relationship between my craft of archaeology and those craft producers in the deeper past who produced the vessels I study, and the traces I follow. Just as potters transformed into clay into a vessel through learned technical practice, the pottery is transformed again as it enters my laboratory. I must first decide which traces of the past I’m interested in following, as this choice will determine the next step of the transformation; the sample must be cut either vertically, horizontally or tangentially, each of which will produce distinct traces.  Each step in following these traces also introduces new problems: Are these micro structural traces evidence of clay mixing, or simply bioturbation? These mundane objects introduce monumental issues at the microscale. But like Lisa Marie, these moments are disrupted by aesthetic appreciation, producing a kind of pause similar to that of a sun setting over an important monumental heritage site. Exhibits by archaeological scientists such as David Killick (http://uanews.org/story/art-and-science-converge-state-museum-exhibit) suggests there may be reason to invite a much larger public to peer down the microscope with us, demonstrating the beauty behind even behind the dirt beneath your mat, or the awe in an old clay pot.

Joyce R. A. 2006. The monumental and the trace: archaeological conservation and the materiality of the past. In Agnew N and Bridgland J (editor) Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 13-18.

Joyce R. A. 2012. Life With Things: Archaeology and Materiality. In Shankland D (ed.) Archaeology and Anthropology: Past, Present and Future. Proceedings of the British Association of Social Anthropologists. London: Berg Publishers, 119-132.

El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas
El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas

The Microarchaeological Eye

Colleen Morgan

What is a context/archaeological unit? How can archaeologists deal with stratigraphic deposits that are too fine to feel, that disappear under the trowel? I find myself alternately defending the craft of archaeological excavation and now, wondering if field archaeologists are actually equipped to excavate at all. Lisa-Marie Shillito’s microlayers: fingerprints, the stroke of a paintbrush, the dust under the mat, a breath, the barest whisper of a deposit, are terrifyingly ephemeral. How soon until we are able to excavate a painting stroke by stroke, unmaking masterpieces in reverse? Recent work in 3D printing fine art paintings by Tim Zaman may make this possible in the near future.

I spent a few days in January in the company of artists at the Van Eyck Institute as part of NEARCH, and after the lectures were done, we compared art practice and archaeology practice. How are we funded? Who is our audience? This process of making our professions intelligible was fascinating, but now I think we might have missed the main point. Archaeologists are un-doers, unravellers of the skein of time, picking out the stitches, ruining the weft. Perhaps that is why some of us refuse to re-knit the past back together again, it is too personal, we are too inexperienced and can only produce a vague, warped parody of the original.

Still, I think about the gestures involved in unpainting a painting. The tiny, precise swipe of the removal of a stipple. The broad slash, peeling off a jagged stroke. What would the Harris Matrix of a Mondrian look like? Squares and lines and red on black? Would the reverse-Pollock matrix be a tangled cloud? How does our arcane, chronologic, geography of a site describe and inscribe the parameters of human action?

One of the artists, Leyla Cárdenas at the Jan Van Eyck Academy specialized in a kind of microstratigraphic excavation. She peeled apart layers of paint, pried apart wallpaper to make an exploded stratigraphy of sites. She is interested in palimpsest, in sections sawed through art. I wonder if there is a microarchaeological movement in art?

THEN DIG: CRAFT

CRAFT copy

William Caraher is organizing a series on Archaeology & Craft. From his Call for Posts:

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men). In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?

For more information, read the rest of his post here:
http://mediterraneanworld.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/a-proposed-blog-series-archaeology-and-craft/

Contributions will be ongoing, to submit please contact billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com

DEADLINE EXTENDED: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science

The deadline for the THEN DIG issue, the Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science has been extended.

Please see the original call for posts here:

http://arf.berkeley.edu/then-dig/2014/03/cfpo-the-senses-and-aesthetics-of-archaeological-science/

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to: colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk

*Banua, *panua, fenua: An Austronesian conception of the sociocosmic world

By Dr. Sophie Chave-Dartoen, University of Bordeaux

The aim of this short communication is to argue that mobility is a founding principle of Austronesian languages, social ensembles, conceptions of land, country and landscape, all of which are signified by reflexes of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian term *banua. The complex relationships encapsulated in this term should be carefully studied in their social, cultural, experiential and cognitive dimensions.

Most of Island South-East Asia and Oceania share some common cultural traits (ritual dyads, primogeniture, ranked siblings according to their age and gender, stranger-kings, house and canoe-shaped social organisations, and so on) generally linked with common ancient linguistic features that have been reconstructed as “proto-Austronesian”. The spread of the language is thought to be correlated with the movement of people who came a few millennia ago from southern China all the way down to Island Melanesia and, as a new cultural complex (Lapita), to Remote Oceania and Polynesia.

For almost two centuries, the relative cultural homogeneity one can still perceive in spite of the local variations made the Pacific Islands a focus for cultural history, evolutionary anthropology and human ecology (Spriggs 2008). Archaeology was one of the tools used to trace these migrations, using material remains such as pottery, basalt artefacts, obsidian flakes, bones, charcoal, pollen, and agricultural features. Kirch (1982) inferred that, at least for the Polynesian area, population has been sustained by an agricultural complex (techniques, seeds, animals) called a “transported landscape”, following Anderson. This proposal strengthened the materialist constraint-based hypothesis about migratory processes such as the quest for land and food resources or the quest for prestige goods (shells, whale teeth, feathers). Lately, a more cultural paradigm called “frontier ideology” has been proposed by Bellwood (1996): the young siblings of the chiefs would have been inclined to make their way to new islands in order to get political autonomy and establish their own dynasties.

These hypotheses may be valid, but probably underestimate the mobility of societies, many of which are still involved in wide and long lasting exchange networks (D’Arcy 2006). They also ignore other aspects of these societies such as their socio-cosmic organisation (Coppet 1990), which can be defined by the entanglements of the social world (the living, their social institutions and environments) with the cosmos (dead ancestors, the deities and the cosmos that they share with their human descendants). If the fertility of the land, the perpetuation of life and the efficiency of actions depend on the ancestors’ benevolence, conversely, the destiny and empowerment of the gods and ancestors rest on appropriately executed rituals. In this type of configuration – I personally studied the Wallisian case (Chave-Dartoen 2000) – rituals rule the life of the people and the order of the universe (Reuter 2006). In other words, the universe is made social, and social groups would not migrate without the “devices” (names, stones, plants or animals) necessary to transplant their cosmos to new islands, in part or whole. According to Blust (1987) the reconstructed PMP term *banua refers to this kind of conceptual entity: a fertile, life providing land, where a society (or part of a society) develops in mutual custodianship with the ancestors, a cosmos made social.

Different anthropological propositions (within the Austronesian world or outside it) may be useful in order to grasp the complexities of the multiple cultural and cognitive dimensions involved in such a concept. Fox (1997), for instance, traces a direct link between the way Austronesian languages locate things and events, personal and social experience. Ingold (2000) proposed that “landscapes” should be understood as an embodiment of the space, the practices and the temporalities that organize it for the people who experience it. Munn (1996) insists on the fact that, for Warlpiri Aborigines, the very presence of the ancestors is perceived in the landscape and organises practices and experience of it. Most ethnographies about the societies of Oceania agree that, despite the mutations of these socio-cosmic worlds and of their institutions, they perpetuate the condensed forms that *banua – and its reflexes designates. This term refers to the organization of the relationships between the living and the dead, the local society, its land, its cosmos, and the different levels (experience, language, ritual) of its environment’s internalisation, embodiment and expression.

 

References

BELLWOOD P. (1996) – Hierarchy, Founder Ideology and Austronesian Expansion, FOX J., SATHER C. (dir.). Origins, ancestry and alliance: explorations in Austronesian ethnography, Canberra, ANU E Press, p. 18-40.

BLUST R. (1987) – Lexical Reconstruction and Semantic Reconstruction : the Case of Austronesian “House” Words, Diachronica, 4, 1, p. 79-106.

CHAVE-DARTOEN S. (2000) – ‘Uvea (Wallis) Une société de Polynésie occidentale, étude et comparaison, Thèse de doctorat en Anthropologie Sociale et Ethnologie, EHESS, Paris, 846 pages.

COPPET (de) D. (1990) – The Society as an Ultimate Value and the Socio-cosmic Configuration, Ethnos, 55, 3-4, p. 140-150.

D’ARCY P. (2006) – The People of the sea. Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i press, 292 pages.

INGOLD T. (2000) – The Temporality of the Landscape, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London and New York, Routeledge, p. 189-208 [publication initiale (1993) The Temporality of the Landscape, World archaeology, 25, 2].

KIRCH P.V. (1982) – The Impact of the Prehistoric Polynesians on the Hawaiian Ecosystem, Pacific Science, 36, p. 1-14.

MUNN N. (1996) – Excluded spaces : The figure in the Australian Aboriginal Landscape, Critical Inquiry, 22, 3, p. 446-465.

REUTER Th. (dir.) (2006), Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land: Land and Territory in the Austronesian world, Canberra, ANU E Press, 385 pages.

SPRIGGS M. (2008) – Are Islands Islands? Some Thoughts on the History of Chalk and Cheese, Terra Australis, 29, (Islands of Inquiry : Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes), p. 211-226.

 

Some thoughts on the past and future of archaeological mapping in Polynesia

By Dr. James Flexner, The Australian National University

In a thought-provoking paper, Bowden and McOmish (2011) identify a “British tradition” of field archaeology, which they apply specifically to the careful mapping of archaeological earthworks, a practice that they claim is unique in its capturing of not only space, but time in the landscape. Many archaeologists will take issue with the idea that only British archaeologists do “field archaeology”, but I think this misses the point of the paper. Rather, I take this as a challenge to further explore the disciplinary histories of the regions in which we work. In doing so, we might understand a bit better why archaeological practice takes the form that it does, and we might uncover some of the unstated assumptions behind both theory and method in many of the regions in which we work.

Mapping a Polynesian landscape.
Mapping a Polynesian landscape (Photo by Robert Flexner).

Is there a “Polynesian tradition” of field archaeology, and how can we trace its evolution through time? Before the 1950s, archaeologists assumed there wasn’t much of interest in Polynesia. The region for the most part lacked the pottery that in the pre-radiocarbon era was the mainstay for archaeological dating. Most archaeologists thought it was thus impossible to say anything about the origin and spread of Polynesian culture. One result was a focus on documenting and mapping stone structures throughout the region.

Kenneth Emory (e.g. 1928, 1934) believed that you could trace the migration and development of Polynesian cultures through the variability of ritual sites called marae in many Polynesian languages (heiau in Hawaiian). Emory’s maps were often schematic in nature, interpreting ritual spaces to show their most important features. (for an example of this style, see Plate I from Danielsson 1952). The arrangements of stone features were used as evidence for Emory’s theories of Polynesian origins and migrations.

Emory’s Native Hawaiian research assistant, Henry E. P. Kekahuna, produced plan maps of sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands in the 1950s that foreshadowed the state of the art for Polynesian archaeology (a selection of these stunning maps have been made available online by the B.P. Bishop Museum). Kekahuna recorded Hawaiian stone construction in great detail, often relating specific features to his knowledge of Hawaiian ethnohistory, which is an ongoing practice in Hawaiian archaeology. Kekahuna also included relevant ethnobotanical details on the maps, reflecting an early interest in environmental archaeology, which would characterise much of the work to come from the 1960s onwards.

The development of the “settlement pattern approach”, pioneered by Roger Green in the 1960s (e.g. Green and Davidson, eds. 1969; Green et al. 1967), was something of a revolution for Polynesian archaeology. The theoretical development is accompanied by a notable turn in the representation of archaeological landscapes, as the focus shifted from individual ritual sites to entire landscapes, including agricultural features, domestic sites, and the temples and shrines that had been the staple of Polynesian archaeology.

As the settlement pattern approach developed over the last 50 years in Polynesia, hand drawn plan maps produced in the field have become the standard, based on close observations recording a range of features in great detail, often down to the individual stone. These plans often show the overlapping layers of human modification of the landscape, what Polynesian archaeologists sometimes call the palimpsest of stone structures going from the present to the past, which can be read from the map.

Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.
Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.

In the 21st century, there has been a shift back to more schematic mapping style, largely correlating with technological shifts, notably the nearly ubiquitous use of hand-held GPS units for archaeological survey. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as GPS has allowed for the recording of thousands of previously undocumented sites and features throughout Polynesia. However, if we rely solely on these schematic maps, or if we record these landscapes too hastily, we risk missing out on important features that can tell us new things about the Polynesian past.

We should be careful not to overlook the importance of being able to read the palimpsest of features in the landscape, especially in training future generations of Pacific archaeologists. Further, as Ballard (2013) points out, drawings, including maps, have an under-utilised potential as a tool for engaging in a dialogue with local communities about the work we do as anthropologists and archaeologists. This is where an understanding of our field mapping traditions becomes so important. If we recognise the crucial role that cartographic techniques have played in the evolution of our understanding of Polynesian archaeology, we will be better placed to use all of the technologies at our fingertips, the new alongside the old, for another century of exciting discoveries in the region.

Note of acknowledgement: My trip to Paris was funded by an Early Career Researcher Travel Award from the Australian National University. Colleen Morgan deserves my thanks for the invitation to guest-edit Then Dig. Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle organised the conference in Paris from which this post was distilled.

References

Ballard, Chris 2013 The Return of the Past: On Drawing and Dialogic History. The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology 14(2): 136-148.

Bowden, Mark, and David McOmish 2011 A British Tradition? Mapping the Archaeological Landscape. Landscapes 2:20-40.

Danielsson, Bengt 1952 A recently discovered marae in the Tuamotu Group. Journal of the Polynesian Society 61(3/4): 222-229.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1928 Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 12, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1934 Tuamotuan Stone Structures. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 118, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Green, Roger C., and Janet Davidson (editors) 1969 Archaeology in Western Samoa. Vol. 1, Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland.

Green, Roger C., Kaye Green, Roy A. Rappaport, Ann Rappaport, and Janet Davidson 1967 Archaeology on the Island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 51(2), American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Archaeological Attempt to Deal with Anthropological Issues: Investigating Societies through the Study of Techno-economic Activities

By Dr. Aymeric Hermann, University of French Polynesia

Before States, there were kingdoms. Before kingdoms, there were chiefdoms. The organization and characteristics of these societies has been a major topic of anthropological research. The islands of Oceania have always been considered as a favored place for analyzing the establishment, the organization and the variability of chiefdoms in terms of structure and evolution through time.

Archaeological remains: a twisted way to look at human societies

Complex aspects of human societies (institutions, concepts and symbolic values) are always quite difficult to approach through archaeological data, which are material remains (artefacts, architecture, traces, etc.). Nonetheless, through the study of those vestiges – otherwise referred to as “material culture” – it is possible to reconstruct the way past societies used to live, and to identify the practical choices that people made for interacting with their environment and living together.

In order to connect objects and material vestiges with social facts, one must be able to reconstruct a difficult puzzle: more than treasures, archaeological remains must be seen as an account of the activities undertaken within a given society. Those activities can be related to the purchase of raw material and goods, transformation processes for the production of those goods, and the use or consumption of those goods.

Without reducing social life to its material conditions, it seems quite obvious now that the dialectic between material and non-material aspects of cultures is a key to understanding the functioning and the development of human societies. There are two ways of dealing with material culture in order to understand its relationships with socio-economic organization: focusing on the ‘making’ (that is the production processes, and the social organization structure and the relationships embedded in the technical system) or on the ‘doing’ (that is the cultural practices of exchanging and manipulating objects).

Technology as an insight to social patterns

In the course of my PhD, I tried to investigate both making and doing, focusing on archaeological adze production and exchange within traditional communities in Tubuai, a small island (25km in circumference) located in the Australs, the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia. In Oceania, adzes are a central element of the material culture used in all kinds of activities related to wood working in the every-day life. Because there is generally no usable ore for tool making in Polynesia, adze blades were primarily made of volcanic rock, though shell adzes are also known from the region. These were then lashed to a wooden handle with vegetable fibers. Some adzes represented a symbol of power for chiefs and were exchanged within ceremonial inter-island networks.

Stone adze blade from Tubuai.
Stone adze blade from Tubuai.

The analysis of the Tubuai collections highlighted different ways to shape adze blades and therefore different know-how due to a higher degree of specialization for some knappers. Geochemical characterizations of the rocks used in tool manufacture show that good quality raw material and stone blades produced by experts are unevenly distributed within the island communities. Stone tools coming from distant islands were found within some of the oldest occupation layers in Tubuai. Those different discoveries led to the conclusion that key materials and valued goods were monopolized by a part of the island’s population. In light of previous anthropological work, we know that control over production and exchange systems was conducted by social elites. The centralization of Polynesian traditional economy around political and religious leaders is actually a general trend of historical evolution of Polynesian chiefdoms towards more hierarchical organization.

Societies as systems

Unlike today’s mainstream idea, economic activities are not only being led by the laws of supply and demand and rational calculation of costs and benefits. On the contrary, anthropological studies show that economy and techniques are also determined by cultural choices and social organization. Indeed, before the ‘Market societies’ technical and economic activities were much more embedded with social, political, or else religious institutions. But even though economic actions in our modern industrialized world seem to be fully independent from – and moreover dominating – the cultural context in which they take place, one must see that they are related to socio-cultural patterns (individualism, hyperspecialization of workers, intensive consumption of goods and services, etc.). Modern globalization is not just the liberalization of markets; it also involves the diffusion of certain practices, concepts and technologies. The choices made in traditional societies regarding production processes and inter-community exchange systems are related to the emergence and development of socio-political structures. In the same way, the future of our globalized world is not determined only by economic perspectives but also by political and cultural choices. The ‘end of History’is not for tomorrow!

References

Hermann A., 2013, Les industries lithiques pré-européennes de Polynésie centrale : savoir-faire et dynamiques techno-économiques, Ph.D. dissertation, University of French Polynesia, 420 pp.

Kirch P.V., 1984, The evolution of the Polynesian chiefdoms, Cambridge University Press, 314 pp.

Mauss M., 1966, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, London: Cohen & West, 130 pp. (see the notion of ‘total social fact’, pp 76-77)

Oliver D.L., 1974, Ancient Tahitian society, University Press of Hawaii, 1419 pp.

Polanyi K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press, 317 pp.

Sahlins M., 1972, Stone Age Economics, Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 348 pp.

“Bones and Sand”: Archaeology of the Dunes in Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

By Dr. Guillaume Molle, University of French Polynesia

“Beautiful paradise shores”, is how they were described by the first western explorers who rediscovered, sometimes tragically, the Marquesas Islands from the 17th century (Dening 1980). But the true history of these island societies didn’t start, nor stop, at this moment. It began nearly eight centuries before when some canoes coming from the West landed on these same shores bringing small groups of Polynesians who settled and established thereafter in this archipelago a rich, though intriguing, culture.

Regarding the ecology and geography of the Marquesas, with its rugged topography consisting in deep valleys with no coastal plains, the sand dunes played there the role of interface between land and sea, and appeared to be ideal locations for a first human settlement as they provide easy access to both marine and terrestrial resources. Not only are they favorable places for fishing or shell gathering, dunes are also the spots for departures and arrivals of the canoe trips to other valleys and neighboring or distant islands which communities maintain relations with, for exchanging basalt adzes as well as going to war. For these reasons, they have been occupied throughout the whole of Marquesan prehistory and even beyond, until today. As such, the dunes are among the preferred locations for archaeologists because they offer long-term sequences that open windows on all the periods. Furthermore, their natural drainage favors a good preservation of the artefacts.

I came myself to excavate sand dunes when I started to work on Ua Huka Island, as part of my PhD in archaeology at the University of French Polynesia (Molle 2011). Located in the northern group, this small island proves particularly important because of Hane, a site that was excavated in 1964-65 by Y. Sinoto, a leading archaeologist of his time, which provided some old dates that were used to define a first colonization model of East Polynesia. Since the early 1990s, my colleagues and I have conducted more research, especially on the dune systems on the south shore, and over 20 years of intensive excavations, we came to document almost all of them.

Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.
Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.

One of the most interesting and challenging points to me here is to compare the different coastal sequences in order to reconstruct a global history of the island. It brought us to realize that the functions of these sites have evolved through time. Let’s take a look at a few compelling examples.

On the Hane dune site, the lowest levels we excavated in 2009 provided the oldest dates of occupation in the archipelago as well as in French Polynesia, proving now that the human colonization of these islands took place by the 10th century A.D. The coastal areas were then frequented by small groups mainly relying on the exploitation of marine resources. Later, by around 1200 A.D., the Marquesans started to build in the dunes’ areas some large stone dwelling platforms called paepae that supported houses built in perishable materials. It indicates, both in Hane and Manihina, the will to develop a long-term occupation in these coastal hamlets and as such, a shift in lifeways. Then, after a temporary abandonment of the dunes and the beginning of the settlement in the valleys, the groups came back on the shores but mostly to bury their dead. Manihina and Hane were thus turned into cemeteries between the 14th and 16th centuries A.D. (Conte and Molle, in press).

But other specific functions can be put into evidence. Located in the south-west, Hatuana Bay is known in oral traditions to be the soul-jumping off spot towards Hawaiki, the original and sacred land of the Polynesians, a symbolic importance also demonstrated by the numerous petroglyphs discovered in the vicinity. The area turned into a lookout to prevent enemies coming from Nuku Hiva from the 17th century, a period during which we see an intensification of warfare in the Marquesas (Molle and Conte 2011).

Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).
Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).

By giving us the opportunity to identify series of key-markers or events, the dunes provides us with precious information about the way people used to live, move, fish, defend themselves, pray or bury their dead. As they have been occupied almost constantly, dune sites constitute the best records of temporal changes in Marquesan culture and provide a useful framework for interpreting its evolution.

In the recent years, the Hane dune site became a sitting place for watching soccer games during week-ends, but the inhabitants were far from imagining what was lying beneath them, just a few centimeters under the surface: a giant sandbox encompassing the whole history of their ancestors. What’s better for an archaeologist than to play the game of History on these beautiful shores?

References

Conte E. and G. Molle, in press. Reinvestigating a Key-Site for Polynesian Prehistory: New Results from the Hane Dune Site, Ua Huka (Marquesas). Archaeology in Oceania.

Dening G., 1980. Islands and Beaches. Discourse on a Silent Land. Marquesas 1774-1880. Honolulu : The University Press of Hawaii.

Molle G., 2011. Ua Huka, une île dans l’Histoire. Histoire pré- et post-européenne d’une société marquisienne. Tahiti : University of French Polynesia, PhD Thesis, 2 vols.

Molle G. and E. Conte, 2011. New Perspectives on the Occupation of Hatuana Dune Site, Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands. Journal of Pacific Archaeology vol.2(2), pp.103-108.

April 2014 on Then Dig: Spatial Dynamics in Oceania

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A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a conference on the archaeology of “spatial dynamics in Oceania” at the Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, France. The conference was organised by Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle on behalf of the ArScAn Équipe éthnologie préhistorique, and featured an international group of archaeologists from North America, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.

Presentations at the conference were all based in the region comprising Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, and ranged across a number of topics, including the circulation of stone tools, the evolution of agricultural techniques, the construction and use of monumental architecture, symbolic beliefs embedded in island landscapes, and more.

Archaeologists who work in the Pacific are often surprised that more people aren’t interested in what is happening in the region. Many people can immediately think of the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, pueblos in the American Southwest, and ancient ruins in Italy and Greece as places where archaeology “happens”. When it comes to the Pacific, though, most people simply imagine pleasant climate, pristine beaches, and grass skirt-wearing islanders. (Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is perhaps the one exception here, though even that island is mostly thought of in terms of its iconic moai, which are only a small part of the story).

What isn’t discussed is the fact that the dunes on those beautiful beaches often hold great archaeological treasures, especially for understanding the early settlements on many islands! This is not simply an academic issue, as people are much happier to bulldoze the dunes away in order to build yet another resort hotel when they don’t realize (or don’t want to acknowledge) that they are wiping away a major part of island history by doing so. Of course, many Pacific Islanders as well as archaeologists (in many cases the two labels can apply to the same person) are quite vocal in noting their awareness of this.

This month, we will present a selection of the many excellent papers that were presented in Paris earlier in 2014 as short-form posts to Then Dig. There were, of course, many more presentations at the conference that for one reason or another won’t make it onto this blog, but interested readers should look for a future edition of the Séances de la Société Préhistorique Française (link to the website here), which is an open-access publication that will feature papers in both English and French from the conference.

It is our hope that these posts on Then Dig will help to show how dynamic the work of archaeologists in Oceania is, both in terms of the interesting aspects of the past that we uncover, and our ongoing commitment to working closely with living Pacific Islanders.

Dr. James Flexner
The Australian National University
(Guest Editor for Then Dig, April 2014)

ZEITGEIST: Stuart Eve

Dr. Stuart Eve, Research Associate at University College London

This post is written as part of the Call for Papers over at ThenDig, looking at Zeitgeist in archaeological research and how to follow it, keep up with it, or create it. As will be clear from the previous posts on my blog, I am interested in using Mixed and Augmented Reality to aid in archaeological research. Augmented Reality (AR) is currently just over the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ of the Gartner Hype Cycle meaning that it has been hailed previously as the next Big Thing, but has not quite lived up to the hype and so now needs a lot of work to make it a sustainable and useful technology – I have previously written about what this means in terms of archaeology here.

As I have just finished editing the final version of my PhD thesis on the use of AR in archaeology I decided to write this post to give some brief reflections on what it has been like trying to surf the Hype Cycle, whilst still producing 85,000 words of scholarly research on the topic.

Twitter is your enemy

Perhaps a controversial statement, but for one attempting to sit down and write intelligently about something that is currently the zeitgeist Twitter is not your friend. I don’t say this because of the many wasted hours of procrastination that goes into reading and obsessively checking a million and one tweets (although this is certainly true), I say it because when working on something at the bleeding edge of tech Twitter provides hundreds of teasing snippets of the amazing research that other people are doing. This isn’t just other researchers, but also companies and hackers who seem to have all the time (and money) in the world to make cool proof-of-concept videos. While initially amazing and a great source for early ideas and ways in which to give your research the ‘wow-factor’, it quickly becomes disheartening – seeing what other people are achieving whilst you are stuck still making sure your bibliography is formatted correctly. It provokes the need to be blogging/creating/making/hacking almost continually to keep up with everyone, and show that you are somehow simultaneously surfing the Hype Cycle. In my experience there is always going to be someone who has done it better so for anyone who wants to have a life outside of their research, my advice is keep your Twitter usage limited to finding new dubstep tracks and getting irate at the state of the world today.

Remember your roots

One of the key things to remember when using new tech is that no matter how deeply you immerse yourself in the tech world, when you emerge you need to convince other archaeologists that what you have been doing is useful. Archaeologists are notoriously wary of new technology and will be your biggest crtics – and this is A Good Thing. Every new digital method or gadget should only be developed to further archaeological method/theory and our knowledge of the past – not simply for wow-factor or as a result of a ride on a Hypegeist bandwagon. If it won’t work outside in the rain or you can’t convince a colleague of the usefulness of it without resorting to fancy videos or Prezis then don’t bother.

Every surfer loses a wave

Be prepared to fall off the wave, and watch other people riding. It is going to happen anyway and by being patient, sitting back and watching other people ride the wave you can learn just as much as you can by constantly doing. It is less tiring and often very much more rewarding. I have found that acknowledging you are always going to be behind the curve promotes a feeling of calm reflection that is vital for properly researching what you are doing, and gives you the knowledge to choose the right time to jump back on the crest.

Take your time

Whilst blogs are great for working through ideas, writing academically makes you consider every word and sentence and forces you to find other research that backs up or challenges your claims. As someone who researches new technology everyday, a digital detox is almost unheard of. However, taking the time to unplug everything, sit down and write the paper or thesis makes you critically examine everything you are saying or promoting with a clear unhindered perspective.

I am convinced this is the reason that baking is so zeitgiest at the moment. People are craving time away from the digital world to watch their sourdough grow and savouring the time it takes for a loaf to prove and bake puts you back in the real world. Sadly, however, they are tech-ifying sourdough too.

PEER RESPONSE: James Stuart Taylor, University of York

Initially I wondered whether I might be the correct person to offer peer comment on Stuart’s Zeitgeist post. I do not blog (no time!) and I rarely tweet, maintaining a belligerent cynicism about the usefulness of this particular social media (this may be softening as I increasingly find I’m not averse to live-tweeting at conferences – which for me has the joyously irreverent feel of passing notes in class). But I am not a technophobe and I do get it. As a field archaeologist I have always maintained a deep interest in applied computational technologies, amongst other things they help us in our work as tools for data acquisition, analysis and dissemination – and in this sense I’m very open to the ‘bleeding edge’. I found myself smiling wryly at Stuart’s commentary on the problems of balancing popular hype and academic engagement of bleeding edge technologies, and at the same time nodding in agreement, reflecting upon the deeper issue here.

My research focuses upon applied GIS as a tool for getting to grips with intra-site spatiotemporal data from archaeological excavations. Being a computing technology that had its genesis nearly 50 years ago, GIS is far from the bleeding edge. My tech is well over the crest of its hype wave in archaeology (clawing its way out of the trench of disillusionment I’d say!). Indeed GIS is now a well-established technology in archaeology. Yet I am researching a fundamental that has never been satisfactorily addressed in the development of GIS: the interconnection (or lack thereof) of space and time. Important for GIS you’d think – critical for archaeologists; but rarely considered academically. Surely people should have solved this problem a long time ago? – apparently not! Why? – because it’s complicated…

Complexities and the challenge of overcoming them is ultimately whatdrives research, but a fundamental from an academic perspective is often low priority from a technical perspective. As a discipline it is easy to lose focus upon more tricky issues as we ride the tide of technohype that Stuart is alluding to: lidar, laser scanning, 3D modeling, drones, hyperspectral cameras, ‘space archaeology’, are part of a seemingly endless list of technological applications which vie with augmented reality (and the now passé GIS) to take a turn on the crest of the hype-wave. And like the stereotypical surfer that the metaphor alludes to, these technologies tend to be trendy, fun, immediate, impressive, but ultimately can be shallow in their application – this is a shame.

Stuart’s final message is important – as a discipline we do need to take time to think academically about the technology we apply, to reflect upon the theory that drives these new methodologies (or which they recursively help generate), to look for meaningful and practical applications which will outlive the zeitgeist, so that they can stand the test of time and answer key research questions. Perhaps moving away from the endlessly cloned variants of that ‘pointless’ conference paper we’ve all seen a thousand times: “Look at the Size of my Point Cloud”.

PEER RESPONSE: Dr. Holly Wright, Archaeology Data Service, University of York

As someone who wrote a PhD a few years back on the Semantic Web and archaeology, I feel Eve’s pain in trying to create a nuanced, scholarly understanding of a technology that has now entered the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Only now do I feel we are starting to face the reality of what it’s going to take to make Semantic Web technologies useful for archaeologists, and just how much hard slog will be involved in realising it. Those riding the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ headed for the hills long ago, giving those of us who are left a quieter place to work, and that’s no bad thing.

The deeper tension I feel Eve has hit upon here, is one I think is pervasive in the realm of digital archaeology, but seems to be rarely discussed: the fact that we sit between two very different disciplines and have to try to make sense of both. Archaeology is so interdisciplinary; I know we all feel the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ anxiety at one point or another. When manifest in its negative form, archaeologists don’t engage with the wider external discipline they are incorporating into their work, lest they be proven less than competent practitioners. For example, if we ask a statistician to look at our use of statistics in archaeology, we might find out we aren’t very good at statistics, so best not. For most of us however, we do our best to stay abreast of current good practice, and make sure we consult or collaborate with those who know the realm better than we do.

As Eve has pointed out, for archaeologists working with digital technology, the pace and chatter of the technology realm feels unrelenting, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype that creates, to the detriment of the archaeological research we are trying to serve. I would argue we need to spend more time understanding and articulating the value of choosing to sit in between these disciplines, to both sides, and to each other. Understanding how to bridge two very disparate things is as much an area of deep expertise as knowledge of Roman fortification or Linked Data. Virtually all of my colleagues here at the ADS are both archaeologists and digital practitioners. I go to work every day with a group of people (all with very different backgrounds), for whom sitting between these two disciplines is our profession, but I think that is rare. We tend to be scattered and embedded in other groups, and I think that makes it even more difficult to resist hype and find useful and sustainable balance, so all the more reason to explore ways to come together and value this work. We can also share our favourite bread recipes.

CFPo: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science

CFPO_Then_Dig

Archaeological science is a critical area of current archaeological practice. Analyses of ancient DNA from the teeth of long-dead ancestors, isotopes found in the remains of broken pottery, and the chemical signatures from flakes of obsidian are radically altering our understanding of the past. Unlike the pervasive fieldwork-based narrative of archaeology, these major discoveries take place far away from the trenches in the clean, well-lit laboratories of major academic institutions. Yet these discoveries are no less impactful, causing in some cases radical shifts in the kinds of stories we tell. Indeed the archaeological scientist is, much like the fieldworker, engaged in the craft of archaeology (sensu Shanks and McGuire 1996).

In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.

Authors might reflect on how the centering of the micro-scale and the abstract are brought to bear, and how the interplay between scientist and materials present the unexpected. We also encourage contributors to consider the embodied moments of lab work and discuss those findings that produce visceral reactions and new understandings of the past.

Editors:

Dr. Andrew Roddick, McMaster University
Dr. Colleen Morgan, University of York

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to: colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk