CFPo: Zeitgeist


What new idea, concept, methodology is haunting your current thoughts?

Academic publication is always lagging behind the conversations at bars, the hallway chats, the verbal ephemera that winds us up and inspires us to try something new in our research. By the time the paper publication is out, the march of the ideas has moved on. Are you on the vanguard or are you struggling to keep your head above water? One person’s fresh new idea is another person’s rehash–but until the fledgling takes flight you can’t know whether this will be the next game-changer in archaeology. If there can be such a thing.

This Call for Posts is for airing that terrifying leap into the unknown, vocalizing that flashy new idea that may spin out to nothing or may bring your work into the next level. It doesn’t have to be a big conceptual shift, it can be a simple brief of an interesting direction you’d like to move toward, or a consideration of current thought in your specialty.

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due October 9th. 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 this month’s theme editor, Colleen Morgan,

Building a Foundation for Korean Archaeology as World Archaeology

Building a Foundation for Korean Archaeology as World Archaeology – Martin T. Bale and Mark Byington (Early Korea Project, Harvard University)

Scene from the first joint international excavations in almost 40 years between the Early Korea Project, the University of Michigan, and two Korean buried cultural heritage excavation institutes in May 2011. Photo courtesy of Rachel Lee.
Scene from the first joint international excavations in almost 40 years between the Early Korea Project, the University of Michigan, and two Korean buried cultural heritage excavation institutes in May 2011. Photo courtesy of Rachel Lee.

From our point of view, there are problematic issues with the archaeologies of Korea and Japan that developed from distinct historical reasons, but the result of the problem is the same in both places. That is to say, the meaningful exposure of the global academic archaeology community and the general public to the prehistory, proto-history and early history of the two countries is quite limited. This lack of awareness and/or exposure problem is even more acute in what Olsen (1991) calls the metropoles of academic archaeology, i.e. in the top universities and museums of United States and the UK. One can see this in any introductory textbook by Fagan, Renfrew and Bahn, and others. Korea and Japan are reduced to the role of inconsequential satellites in comparison to the kinds of archaeology that are popular in the metropoles of the US and UK.

In the words of the archaeologist and Professor Sasaki Ken’ichi of Meiji University, this is “tragic” because the rich archaeological data from Japan (and conversely, Korea) offer enormous promise to help push forward the major research questions of our field from a global perspective: the origins and intensification of agriculture, the evolution and devolution of complex societies, the development of urbanism, and more. Given the nature of the preservation of material culture these questions may never be completely resolved, but archaeological data from these two countries offer a comparative perspective of great depth that seems to only be paid lip service by luminaries and mover-shakers in the metropoles of academic archaeology. The potential positive effect of Area Studies, which theoretically should include and actively foster archaeological research on Japan and Korea and help to interface the results in a multi-disciplinary way with the wider academic community, has been insufficient thus far, with the exceptions of the Early Korea Project (EKP) at Harvard University and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture. Our particular hope is that the Early Korea Project can make a contribution to remediate these problems through lectures, workshops and high quality, authoritative publications (see below).

We know the case of Korean archaeology best, and so the following comments are based on our experiences in that region. Until the mid-1990s, academic archaeology in Korea was a small field dominated by the excavation and interpretation of ancient archaeological features that were visible on the surface: megaliths of the Mumun Pottery Period (or the so-called ‘Bronze Age’, c. 1500-300 BC) and mounded tombs of the Three Kingdoms Period (c. AD 300-668). The propagation of knowledge about Korean archaeology has been inhibited not only by language differences but also the lingering hangover from colonisation by Japan (1910-1945) and reactionary nationalist interpretations of material culture that followed. Such interpretations have distorted the archaeological record and have allowed detractors to paint all of Korean archaeology with the same negative and dismissive brush. As South Korea steadily became more economically prosperous due to manufacturing and export policies of the national government, substantial infrastructure construction and housing development began. Korean heritage protection legislation specifies that archaeological investigations must occur before major construction projects start, and this has led to a great explosion of archaeological excavations that continues unabated. The Korean Peninsula may appear small on a world map, but the archaeological data available to investigate the big questions of archaeology are considerable. The settlement, mortuary, and production data that have resulted from excavations of the last 15 years is startlingly massive and highly useful. The salvage/emergency excavation industry in Korea now rivals that of Japan, which is better known in the Anglosphere. In Korea these developments have transformed archaeology into a vibrant and relevant field. These data have much to contribute to dialogues and theoretical model building in world archaeology, but even with the advances of recent decades the majority of it exists as ‘grey literature’ in Korean language only.

To help offset the problems mentioned above, the Early Korea Project (or EKP, was established at the Korea Institute, Harvard University in late 2006, with generous support from the Academy of Korean Studies and the Korea Foundation. The Northeast Asian History Foundation of Seoul provides programme funding. The mission of the EKP is to promote and direct the development of academic studies of early Korean history and archaeology prior to the 11th century in the English language, primarily through lectures, workshops and publications. The EKP takes a multi-disciplinary, comparative approach to the study of Korea and relies on active relationships with scholars in Korea and the engagement of scholars elsewhere whose research involves early Korea. These fields include not only archaeology and early history but also various sub-disciplines of anthropology and art history. This should come as no surprise for those trained in archaeology, but the EKP includes NE China and western Japan in its coverage. This bears mentioning given the fact that modern nation states of Northeast Asia had not formed before the 11th century and national boundaries, territories, and cultures are contested in the present.

In the next three to five years we hope that the EKP can improve the state of knowledge about archaeological research on early Korea in English, encourage undergraduates to major in Korean archaeology as postgraduate students in the metropoles and beyond, inspire archaeologists in the Anglosphere to engage in research on early Korea, and thus lessen the Olsenian satellite status of Korean archaeology. In addition, through our work we hope to show archaeology professors in expanding university departments in the Anglosphere that they should strongly consider hiring tenure-track faculty whose major research is on the archaeology of Korea. Hiring committees need to consider that there is more to East Asian archaeology than China, after all! Over the medium term we optimistically envision a time when the efforts of the EKP will help Korean archaeology, prehistory, and early history find an appropriately prominent place in the field of Korean Studies and assist in breaking down disciplinal differences between the humanities and the social sciences. Through the activities of the EKP we are working to contribute to an atmosphere in which archaeologists can use data from Korea that will substantially add to the creation of comparative theoretical models for world archaeology that will benefit a holistic understanding of the past over the long-term.

References Cited

Olsen, B. 1991 Metropolises and satellites in archaeology: on power and asymmetry in global archaeological discourse. In Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past, edited by R. Preucel, University of Southern Illinois Press, Carbondale.

Breaking the news

Sometimes, intercommunal distance can actually ease conversation, by freeing the conversants of the fear of causing offence or giving up power. Interpersonal distance can help communication too, by breaking up normal politesse on the rough terrain over which it is dragged or pushed – sudden meetings, awkward settings, imperfectly-spoken languages.

I experienced that, during my research into the destruction of cultural heritage during the Cyprus Conflict. One afternoon, I drove into a formerly-mixed village in Cyprus in a Turkish Cypriot car. When I asked, one of the Greek Cypriot residents immediately insisted that there had never been a mosque in the village. Then the Greek Cypriot asked me if I was Turkish Cypriot and, on finding out that I wasn’t, equally immediately pointed out the wasteland where the mosque had once stood.

Sometimes, information would breach emotional barriers and bond individuals and communities together. It would help people meet each other as individuals, rather than as representatives of groups (or as true representatives of groups being themselves, rather than as community members playing heroes, defending themselves against mythical enemies). Yet it cannot be communicated directly, because it would not be accepted as information if it were presented by the ‘enemy’ community.

I’m currently living in Kayseri, in southern Turkey. While walking around a suburb called Talas (or Mouttalas), I visited Yaman Dede Camii (or Panagia Rum Kilisesi) – the Mosque of Yaman Dede (or the Ottoman Greek Church of the Virgin Mary). I noticed some people who looked slightly less foreign than me, and realised they were Greek tourists.

The Christian Greeks filed up and down the steps to the church-mosque in small groups, each showing different understandings of history and attitudes towards Turks and Muslims. On our way up the steps, one woman read the brown sign that indicated both of the building’s identities. She rolled around her mouth the Turkish-language version (“Rum”) of the Ottoman Empire’s Greek Orthodox Christian community’s name for themselves (“Romaioi” [ref](East) Romans; Byzantines. There were solely Ottoman/Turkish-speaking Orthodox who called themselves Rum, and bilingual Konstantinoupolites still call themselves Rum in Turkish.[/ref]).

At the church-mosque, in one group, one person reminded another before they went in, ‘you are to take your shoes off [na vgaleis ta papoutsia sou]’. In another group, one person stood outside uncertain what they had to do to show respect until another, who was already inside in a shared-word and mime-based conversation with the caretaker, smilingly explained that all they had to do was ‘take off your shoes and come in [vgale ta papoutsia sou kai bes]’.

In yet another group, one person was in the process of taking their shoes off when another bitterly scolded them, ‘don’t be taking them off [mh vgazeis ta]’ – because that is only correct etiquette if the building is a mosque, not if it is (still) a church. Some people refused even to get off the bus to look at the converted building.

Church of the Virgin Mary, Mosque of Yaman Dede; Kayseri, Turkey
The Ottoman-Turkish church-mosque, Kayseri, Turkey

The caretaker pointed out a string of prayer beads hanging from a wire above us, then he and a man from the tour group grinned as they mimed out to each other a playful boy flinging his beads high into the air until they caught the wire – ‘chak!‘ – and swung around it. Studying the style of prayer beads, the caretaker and the tourist both thought the boy had been from the other community.

We all admired the Ottoman Christian architecture and (most, if not all of us) the sympathetic conversion (for example, the minimalist interpretation of a minaret). It was particularly pleasantly surprising because the church was converted into a mosque in 1925, just a couple of years after the last grotesque acts in a conflict that comprised states’ wars against each other, communities’ massacres of each other, and a religious nationalist parastate’s genocide of non-Turkish non-Muslim communities.

Yaman Dede Camii minaret, Kayseri, Turkey
View of the minaret of Yaman Dede Camii, Kayseri, Turkey

I hadn’t expected the following conversation, and even before it started there was already a jumble of Greek and Turkish in my head and mouth, so I can’t remember it word-for-word. Nonetheless, in the street, before we left, the Turkish-speaking Greek tour guide and I were told that Yaman Dede was Orthodox Christian, then he became Muslim; he converted to Islam, then he converted the church into a mosque.

The tour guide thanked the person who told us this, then with an apologetic smile that said “I’m sure you’ll understand”, the guide suggested, ‘don’t say that [to them] – I’ll explain it to them, when we’re back on the bus…’.

Distances in landscape archaeology

Distance is one of the easiest geographical attributes archaeologists can measure these days. The availability of digital data and the existence of free data providers such as Google Earth mean that the location of virtually every place on the Earth can be measured in relation with another. Computerized tools such as AutoCad or Geographical Information System allows measuring distances with precision; in addition, the latter allows manipulating distance measurements in different ways and creating visualisations of different kinds of distances. However, not all distances are archaeologically significant.

Distances have to be substantiated in archaeology. They have to relate to something tangible, something material. Distance is a corporeal quality in a physical world. We have to find dating evidence to measure distance between two ancient towns, different archaeological sites or two find spots. In addition, there is a cost to be measured and this can be measured in distance, energy or speed. Now matter how the measurement is made it has to connect two points that had significance in the past.

Distances do not exist only on the paper maps or digital coverages but in our minds. We evaluate distances and attach values to them. We consider affordances (Gibson 1979) and take journeys on that basis. We use our subjective mental maps (cf. Ekman and Bratfisch 1965; Gold 1965; Gold and White 1974; Downs and Stea 1973; 1977) and behave accordingly (cf. Guttenplan 2000, 17-26).

People have through time had different preferences. These preferences guided travel and potentially made daily lives different from one period to another. One can map these taskscapes (cf. Ingold 1993) through distributions of chronologically distinct finds (Rajala in press). Potentially significant distances can be measured between entities. In my own research I have measured the distances between a central place in a territory and datable finds. This approach has shown that the relationship between the ancient town of Nepi and taskscapes changed through time.

View Nepi in a larger map

Naturally, the distance from Nepi, settled from the 9th century BC onwards, did not correlate with the amount of prehistoric flints in any way. On the other hand, prehistoric pottery (Neolithic – Late Bronze Age/ Early Iron Age) was found farther away from Nepi than any other material group. A respectful distance was left between proper sites; this is confirmed by the existence of the bronze age Il Pizzo at Nepi. There was no correlation between distance from Nepi and the amount of Orientalising and Archaic pottery. However, the distribution was slightly skewed towards longer distances and variance was higher than with any other category. This suggests that the distribution originated from both settlement and funerary sites and was influenced by many varied processes. Dissimilarly, distance from Nepi was almost significantly different between the units with and without Roman pottery; Roman pottery was found nearer the centre. This shows how intensive the Roman land use was and how rural settlement started from the outskirts of the town unlike during the previous periods. The town had pulling power.

On the other hand, the distances affect archaeologists intellectually. We have our own mental maps moulded by our interests, attitudes and values. The archaeological attitudes towards meaningful change and this can be measured in distance. I showed some time ago (Rajala et al. 1999) how road networks defined landscape in archaeological survey in central Italy during the 20th century. Roman archaeological remains as a dominant feature guided archaeological research in the area (cf. Ashby 1927; Fredriksen and Ward Perkins 1957). Archaeologists followed the Roman roads and looked for visible remains in their vicinity.

This classical emphasis became weaker towards the end of the 20th century when blanket surface survey became a standard method. For example, Potter’s (n.d.) survey in the southern Faliscan area as part of the groundbreaking South Etruria Survey (cf. Potter 1977; Patterson 1998; Coarelli and Patterson 2008) on the western side of the Tiber aimed at exploring sites in all accessible fields with surface visibility. This can be measured by defining the distances between the known Roman roads and the surveyed sites and comparing them to those by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957). The difference between two surveys and their mental landscapes can be visualised through GIS maps (see Figs. 1 and 2). The visualised distances are Carthesian; if the cost of movement, i.e. the roughness and steepness of landscape, would have taken into account, the difference may have been even clearer.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2

The proof of the bias came through a simple statistical analysis. Nearly all sites visited by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957) located less than 500 metres from a Roman road. A one-sample chi-squared test confirmed that the H0 hypothesis could be rejected with complete confidence. This showed that Roman roads affected the discovery pattern and that this survey method resulted in a distorted picture of the real settlement pattern. In contrast, the sites Potter surveyed (listed in Potter n.d.) located in average at 550 m from the Roman roads. The chi-squared test showed that the chi-squared was clearly lower than the µ-value at the 95 % level of significance. The distance from Roman roads did not affect the finding of sites.


Coarelli F., and Patterson, H., 2008 (eds). Mercator Placidissimus – The Tiber Valley in Antiquity: New Research in the Upper and Middle Valley, Rome, 27–28 February 2004 (Quaderni di Eutopia 8). Rome: Quasar.

Downs, R. M., & Stea, D., 1973. Image and environment: Cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.

Downs, R. M., and Stea, D., 1977. Maps in minds: Reflections on cognitive mapping. New York: Harper & Row.

Ekman, G., and Bratfisch, O., 1965. ‘Subjective Distance and Emotional Involvement: A Psychological Mechanism’, Acta Psychologica, 24, 446-53.

Frederiksen, M. W., and Ward Perkins, J.B., 1957. ‘The ancient road systems of the central and northern Ager Faliscus (notes on southern Etruria, 2)’, Papers of the British School at Rome 25, 67-203.

Gibson, J. J., 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gould, P.R., 1965. On mental maps. Discussion paper no. 9. Ann Arbor: Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers.

Gould, P.R. and White, R., 1974. Mental maps. London: Penguin.

Guttenplan, S., 2000. Mind’s Landscape. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell.

Patterson, H. and Millett, M., 1998 ‘The Tiber Valley Project’, Papers of the British School at Rome 66, 1–20.

Potter, T. W., n.d. An archaeological field survey of the central and southern Ager Faliscus. Unpublished manuscript.

Potter, T. W., 1979. The changing landscape of south Etruria. London: Elek.

Rajala, U., in press. ‘Political landscapes and local identities in Archaic central Italy – Interpreting the material from Nepi (VT, Lazio) and Cisterna Grande (Crustumerium, RM, Lazio)’, in S. Stoddart and G. Cifani (eds.). Landscape, ethnicity and identity in the archaic Mediterranean area. Oxford: Oxbow.

Rajala, U., Harrison, A., and Stoddart, S., 1999. ’The enhancement of the south Etruria survey. GIS in the study of the research history of the southern Faliscan area’, in Archaeology in the age of Internet. CAA97. British Archaeological Reports, International Series (CD).

Gifts from the Distance: flotsam as a cultural resource in island societies

To a continental/ mainland mindset, islands can often seem marginal, although in fact they may have been at the centre of widely-connected seaborne trade routes. Despite the scope for maritime trade, material acquisition may be difficult. Island flora and fauna are usually impoverished relative to continents, particularly with respect to terrestrial species, and mineral resources may also be quite poor. In this scenario, items cast ashore by the sea (for simplicity I’m going to call them ‘flotsam’, although that term implies a specific provenance much narrower than the range of things I’m going to be talking about) can represent a valuable source of raw materials This post is going to briefly consider this in relation to the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, because those are the islands with which I’m (archaeologically) most familiar.

The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) lie to the north-west of Scotland, separated from the mainland by a sea called the Minch, some 50 – 80 km wide. There’s a deep trough in the Minch, which means that there was unlikely to have been a land bridge to the mainland at any point during the Quaternary. To my eyes, raised in the gently hilly, verdant and closely managed landscape of southern England (see Colleen’s comments on this at Middle Savagery), the Western Isles are a wild, rugged place. It rains a lot, and is very windy. Although pollen and snail records indicate that there was fairly extensive tree cover in earlier prehistory, human activity and a change in climatic conditions with the onset of the Little Ice Age have left the islands virtually treeless. During the last glaciation most, if not all, of the island land surface was under ice some 400-700m thick, therefore the terrestrial plants and animals of the Outer Hebrides are all post-glacial arrivals. The geology of the islands is almost entirely Lewisian gneiss, which dates to the Precambrian, almost 3 billion years ago. It is not a good building material, as it is friable, does not produce regular blocks, and disintegrates when heated (Barber 2003, 21).

Part of Pobull Fhinn (Fionn's People) stone circle, North Uist, Outer Hebrides (photo by Matt Law)
Part of Pobull Fhinn (Fionn's People) stone circle, North Uist, Outer Hebrides (photo by Matt Law)

Despite these conditions, humans have lived on the islands for at least 9000 years. The earliest known site is at Northton, on the Isle of Harris, although no occupation dating to the Mesolithic has yet been found, most likely because sea level rise and the advance of blanket bog conditions across much of the interior since then make older sites difficult to find. In these resource-poor circumstances, the sea becomes incredibly important. There is open sea between the west coast of the Outer Hebrides and North America, and driftwood is frequently cast on the shores. Driftwood timber is a source of building material as at Iron Age Dun Vulan on South Uist and Dun Bharabhat on Lewis, as well as fuel for fires. At Norse-period Mound 3 of Bornais on South Uist, larch or spruce charcoal was identified. Neither taxon is native to Britain – the wood must have originated in North America or northern mainland Europe (Gale 2005, 163). Finds of probably North American spruce charcoal have also been reported from Barra and from Barvas on Lewis (Dickson 1992, 50). As late as the nineteenth century, household dressers were generally made from driftwood (Webster 1999, 59). An especially interesting piece of driftwood – a carved statue – is on display at Kildonan museum on South Uist (see

Stone may also be cast ashore. Pumice (which can float), most likely from the Katla volcanic system in southern Iceland, is a relatively frequent find at Hebridean sites (e.g. Newton & Dugmore 2003), and is occasionally fashioned into perforated floats for fishing nets, or used as sharpening stones. Similarly, flint tools found at archaeological sites in the Outer Hebrides may be from beach pebbles as there is no natural source on the islands. There is, however, a flint source at nearby Skye (Finlay 2003, 113).

Beached marine animals are another important resource. Whale strandings in particular are reasonably common. Whale bone is useful as a raw material for building and for tool and ornament production. In the Outer Hebrides, whalebone artefacts include combs, knifes, mattocks, pegs, plates, chopping boards and “pot lids” (Mulville 2002). The bone also has a high fat content, and is useful as fuel (blubber may also be used as fuel). At Iron Age Bornais, a number of burnt whale bones were found in association with metalworking debris (Mulville 2002, 44).

Beached whale on South Uist, September 2010 (image by Matt Law)
Beached whale on South Uist, September 2010 (image by Matt Law)

The utility of these gifts from the distance (as well as more local coastal resources such as fish, shellfish and seaweed) has implications for the organization of island societies. Routine exploitation of the coastline is an important task, and the unpredictable nature of, for example, driftwood landings, requires vigilant monitoring of the shore (Sharples 2005, 162). Access to these resources may be subject to close controls (indeed in the UK, items washed ashore are still subject to the control of the Receiver of Wreck). In the context of island and coastal archaeology, the distance implicit in the wide expanse of the oceans can be a positive influence, capable of bringing in materials otherwise unavailable (or only available via complex and potentially expensive trade arrangements) to past societies.


Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at

Dickson, J.H., 1992. North American driftwood, especiallyPicea (spruce), from archaeological sites in the Hebrides and Northern Isles of Scotland. In: J.P. Pals, J. Buurman and M. van der Veen (Editors), Festschrift for Professor van Zeist. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 73, pp. 49-56.

Finlay, N., 2003, Lithic Assemblages, in Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at, pp.133-134.

Gale, R., 2005. The Shore. 3. Wood, in N. Sharples (ed.), A Norse Farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: excavations at Mound 3, Bornais, South Uist. Oxford: Oxbow. p. 163.

Mulville, J., 2002. The role of cetacea in prehistoric and historic Atlantic Scotland. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 12(1), pp.34-48.

Newton A.J. and Dugmore A.J., 2003. Analysis of pumice from Baleshare, in Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at pp. 135-138.

Sharples, N., 2005,  A Norse Farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: excavations at Mound 3, Bornais, South Uist. Oxford: Oxbow

Webster, J., 1999. Resisting Traditions: Ceramics, Identity, and Consumer Choice in the Outer Hebrides from 1800 to the Present. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3 (1), pp 53-72.

Memories of haunted places: An Andean village after the violence

In the small Andean village of Pomatambo, ruined adobe houses stand next to new brick ones. Decay and renewal dot the landscape just as people are struggling to balance painful memories of war and loss with new optimism for community unity. Landscape and place activate certain memories of the past and aspirations for the future in Pomatambo.

Villagers and visitors celebrate the annual patron festival of Pomatambo by dancing through and around the borders of Pomatambo.
Villagers and visitors celebrate the annual patron festival of Pomatambo by dancing through and around the borders of Pomatambo, August 2006. In the valley is the burnt ruin of the hacienda of Ayzarca, where Sendero Luminoso assassinated the administrator on Christmas Eve of 1980.

Pomatambo, a village of about two hundred people, is nestled high in the Andes in the province of Vilcashuamán. The Vilcashuamán area was at the epicenter of a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. During the violence, over a third of the villagers abandoned Pomatambo. Every family in Pomatambo lost at least a member during these years, and abandoned houses and memorials mark where people lost their lives. In Pomatambo, people are generally reluctant to talk about those painful years and for good reason. During the violence, not only were the villagers caught between the army and the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, the conflict also entered their families, dividing loyalties and increasing mistrust in the community.

A small, subterranean cave atop 'Aya Orqo' or the 'Hill of the Dead.'
A small, subterranean cave atop “Aya Orqo” or the “Hill of the Dead.” This cave was filled in by the villagers during the 1980s to prevent the Peruvian army from “disappearing” people into it.

When they walk or dance over the landscape, however, the villagers open up about the past unprompted. A cave: filled in by the villagers so that no one would be “disappeared” into it. A ruined adobe house: the place where two children became orphans. A cross amongst the stones of a wall and thicket: where a local had lost his life while walking away from the army, not understanding he needed to stop. Through the stories that accompany such places, a fractured, but mending, social landscape is revealed.

An abandoned adobe house facing the 'Hill of the Dead.'
An abandoned adobe house facing the 'Hill of the Dead.' This house was where Sendero Luminoso had executed a couple for allegedly being informants for the state, leaving orphans who refuse to return to the village.

How can we as archaeologists make sense of the material remains of memory and landscape? More specifically, how do we reconcile abstract distance, both temporal and spatial, with the ways people experience distance on the ground? And what social significance do such differing views of distance hold?

In Pomatambo and elsewhere in the rural Andes, temporal depth and spatial distance are highly variable depending on how certain memories are practiced. The daily circuits going to the fields, maintaining the roads, herding, and visiting relatives activate non-chronological recounting of different histories. Hundreds of years may be compressed into the same story. For example, while atop Aya Orqo, or hill of the dead, someone may tell you that the cave on top of the hill was covered by the community in the 1980s to prevent soldiers from disappearing people into it. Then he may tell you that, before it was covered, his son explored it to discover it was like an ancient temple with stone figurines. Then he may point in the direction of a rocky feature that is said to cry blood. Someone else may chime in that Aya Orqo was the base of an Inka bridge that was kilometers long, and that the Inka had an iron staff with which to command the huge stones into place. Looking in the same general direction, he may notice the burned hacienda of Ayzarca and recount how the Shining Path had assassinated the hacendado as one of their earlier actions. Then looking in the opposite direction, he may point out the abandoned adobe house where the Shining Path had executed a couple for allegedly being informants to the state, leaving behind orphans who refuse to come back. Then turning to the right, he may point out the church that the community was currently building, emphasizing how everyone is working together again. All of the stories were unprompted. Though the details and chronological order of any history may change depending on location and the individual recounting, the process is similar: the long history of suffering and fracture is also a long history of constant renewal. History is a cycle situated in the present.

Women sing the <em>harawi</em> to a community <em>minka</em>, or house-raising.
Women sing the harawi to a community minka, or house-raising. The house is made of brick and financed by one of the sons of the community who left the village permanently during the violence.

Something similar happens with spatial distance. I have been visiting the area since 2004, and no matter which village I am in, I always find myself exhausted getting to my next destination. When I ask, “How far is so and so?” The answer depends not on absolute distance, but on how familiar the person is with that location. Because most people in the area do not make a habit of using watches, they have a compressed sense of distance. You may be told half an hour, when in reality, it is two hours (or an hour and half for someone more athletic than I). If where you are trying to get to is on their daily circuit, then the time will be even more severely underestimated. During festivals, villagers will dance with their extended families around the limits and through the important landmarks of the community, further strengthening such familiarity with the geography. Therefore, from an abstract point of view, space and time around familiar or personally historically relevant places are compressed, making those places seem present. One can imagine a density map showing “hot spots” of such places. They are the nodes and pieces with which people make sense of their daily lives and social obligations.

While we generally interpret the invention of historical depth as a means to legitimize political claims, we could view the same phenomena not as the invention of historical depth but of historical nearness. Through daily circuits in the village, the villagers are reminded of their personal understandings of history, and through the seasonal and annual festivals, they are reminded of their cohesion and nearness.

How could we as archaeologists begin to infer the sense of nearness or farness in the archaeological record? Perhaps by understanding how well trodden certain places and paths were and any drastic changes to such movement, we could begin to cross-check this with other material changes, for example, the standardization of iconography. Such ruptures may mean changes in how people perceive historical nearness on the landscape and therefore imply drastic social change. Furthermore, such ruptures may point to different education regimes about the past. It was always the older generation who told such stories. As the young were taught in school about people like Simon Bolivar and Manco Capac, the legendary first Inka emperor, they forgot about the  little places in the community and the haunted histories they hold.

The cross memorializes the place where a villager had lost his life as he was walking away from the army.
The cross memorializes the place where a villager had lost his life as he was walking away from the army. Photo courtesy Adam Webb.

What Distance Taught Me in Bioarchaeology

When the topic of distance was proposed for blog posts in archaeology, my first thought was not distance as a spatial measure in ancient cultures, or distance in time between the archaeologist and the material under investigation. I thought of the distance of both theory and space between the various academic programs I have attended. The biological side of Bioarchaeology has been treated in a manner similar to that of anatomy, a hard science with a focus on hands-on lab work and the determination of fact. The archaeology component of bioarchaeology, like all things in anthropology, requires interpretation. How we make this interpretation and how to determine the demographic characteristics of the people we study is highly dependent upon the methods we employ and the theories that guide us.

Over my academic career I have taken a multitude of courses in archaeology and human osteology in three different countries. Not only has this variation expanded my background in the field, it has also shown me the diversity within it. What I have learned from the diversity of bioarchaeology classes I have taken is that it is not a discipline built on fact… unless truth varies by country. From my initial training in New York, to my fieldwork in Poland, then my masters in the United Kingdom, and now back to working on my PhD in Michigan I have learned a valuable lesson about the distance between theories and methods.

US - UK blended flasg
Source: commons/9/9a/US-UK-blend.png

My primary osteological training came from SUNY Geneseo, a small state school in Upstate New York, and my first fieldwork in bioarchaeology was in Poland (although it was taught by US graduate students). In bioarchaeology, analysis is conducted through the use of standards. These standards have been well defined, and any student who’s taken bioarchaeology knows that when you want to know something about a skeleton you check your Buikstra and Ubelaker’s Standards (1994) or Bass’s  Human Osteology (1995) or White’s Bone Manual (2005). These were my sacred books, they were my guide to reconstructing populations in the past, and they were the only way I knew how.

Then, in 2009, I moved to Scotland and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh to obtain my MSc in Human Osteoarchaeology. Given my prior experience, I wasn’t too worried about the coursework. The overall skeletal identification was the same, excluding the slight shifts in pronunciation. It was when we began learning about the methods for determining demographic characteristics that I began to see that what I had assumed were universal standards were actually a selection of methods from a wide range of possibilities. It was as if I had been wearing blinders for the past five years. I learned new methods for aging, since the emphasis was on dentition rather than other indicators, and a different way of cataloging remains. The most salient moment was when I was working on an independent volunteer project for the city of Edinburgh. I needed to classify the preservation. Instead of using my Buikstra and Ubelaker Standards (1994), whose method for classifying preservation relies on a study and method done on animal bone, I used the method in the UK standards by Brickley and McKinley (2004). The UK standards for classifying taphonomy were based on human remains and were easier to apply than the US standards. I had never considered preservation to be important to bioarchaeological reports, because the method for classifying it seemed too clumsy to be applicable, but with this new method for preservation analysis I now found it an important part of my assessment.

The archaeological world is one of interpretation. This applies to all aspects of archaeology, including bioarchaeology. As archaeologists, we can benefit from recognizing the diversity of approaches that are out there, as well as understanding their advantages and disadvantages. With the introduction of new technology and new perspectives we need to be open to them.

Had I not gone to the UK for school I wouldn’t have had this lesson so strongly demonstrated. Now, my methodological tool kit includes a combination of methods from a variety of countries. I think its important that we grow beyond the theories and methods we are first taught. I don’t think everyone needs to travel across a great distance to make this realization. With the rise of the digital resources (and blogs such as this one) there is increased communication between countries.

Through increased international collaboration we can bridge this distance. With an increasingly digital world, we can directly connect to other nations, we can share new methods and techniques, and we don’t have to be limited by distance.

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

Photo by Colleen Morgan

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?