Tools of the Trade

Archaeological tools
Tools of the trade for terrestrial archaeologists.

This tool role, the prize possession, and creation, of one of my great friends and fellow archaeologists, Chris Valvano, always seems to have the right tool for the job. Created over years, with colorful strips of leather scraps, the roll itself is as much a tool as the tools it carries. The photo was snapped last summer, at the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program’s Field School, at which Chris and I were supervisors. The photo was taken by MSU Photographer Kurt Stepnitz, a regular visitor of our excavation sites all over campus. You can catch more of his archaeology photos here. Special thanks to Michigan State University for giving us permission to use this photo.

“Photo by Kurt Stepnitz, courtesy MSU University Relations

These Boots

Boots by Colleen Morgan
Time to retire another pair of boots. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

This week, we begin a new themed issue: Tools. Archaeologists have always had a unique tool set, often adapted from other disciplines: we use masonry tools, gardening tools, and paintbrushes. Whatever will help get the job done, and done well. It was a post by Colleen Morgan on her blog Middle Savagery that sparked the idea for this issue: her tribute to her boots, which carried her through many countries and many excavations, made me realize that, often, our tools can be more than the items we use to do our jobs: they can illicit memories, carry stories, and have special meaning to us and our discipline. For the rest of the month, you will get to enjoy posts about archaeological tools. These range from a post about archaeological tools discovered archaeologically, tools given as gifts from other archaeologists, or why certain tools are important to the discipline.

So, in tribute to Colleen’s post, our photo of the week is her photo of her boots. Hopefully, they will be able to last us through the month…

Photo: Boots by Colleen Morgan. Licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Ruined Church

Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico
Ruined Church, Hacienda Tabi, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by Larry Miller.

It’s the last week of the distance theme this week, so I thought to close with this image from Hacienda Tabi, Mexico of a ruined church. Hacienda Tabi was the largest sugar plantation in the region. I know this because Larry Miller helpfully linked to an abstract on the topic. I chose this because it has both space and claustrophobia. You can see the arches going into the distance, but at the same time it’s clear that Nature is closing in from all sides.

Next week the topic is Tools, curated by Terry Brock. Having had a sneaky peak at some of the drafts going into the system I can say it looks like it’ll be well worth reading. You can get in contact with him @brockter on Twitter or via the Facebook page if you’d like to take part.

Photo: Untitled by Larry Miller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.


Stonehenge in the sun.
Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin

I’m taking a break from Distance photos for this week, though there is a post on the topic spanning the distance from the USA to Ireland tomorrow. Tonight starts the preparation of an annual ceremony driven by the turning of the seasons that culminates tomorrow. These people will gather amid the crowds and chaos on Salisbury Plain to perform their enduring task regardless of the weather. It’s easy to be cynical or mock. “Who are these people?” you may ask. “What gives them the right to grab the best spot?” you may enquire or even more harshly affirm, “It’s people like these who fill NatGeo and History channel with clichés, nonsense and clichéd nonsense.” But I beg to differ, what would the solstice at Stonehenge be like if it weren’t for the dedicated cameramen and photographers recycling the same shots of people cheering at a sunrise that’s obscured by cloud?

Photographers and Cameramen getting the same shot of the sun at Stonehenge.
They come every year heedless to the mocking.

I was there last year and while I got many photos, they were all varying degrees of awful. I much prefer this photo by Jacson Querubin. This photo was chosen for the colours and the angle. It doesn’t have the sun rising or setting behind it, but by getting low Jacson Querubin has managed to put the stones into the sky. Lots of photos do this, with Stonehenge between the earth and the heavens, but this view gives me more of an impression of the stones reaching up to the sky. With so many shots of the same place, he finds something which doesn’t tread the same path as everyone else (including me).

Photo: Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Egypt Pyramid Cairo

Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad
Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad

Chosen because the difference between foreground and background gives a nice sense of distance. It does raise another question though. This photo is clearly manipulated. Does that make it fake?

I don’t think so. It’s clear Espen Faugstad has an artistic vision in mind, and he’s using the tools to get the job done. Crucially it’s also so obviously manipulated that there’s clearly no intent to deceive. What I think is interesting about the question is that back asking if this photo or that photo has been faked implies that some are real and I’m not sure how likely that is.

For a start there’s the matter of focal length. I used to just zoom in or out to fill the frame when I took a photo. The focal length also affects how a photo is distorted. If you’re using the equivalent of a 50mm lens then you have something like a human eye view of a place, but wider angles or telephoto shots give different views that have different narrative effects. I’ll be blogging about that when I can get some sunnier photos. There’s also the matter of exposure and rendering colour. Often these are left to camera, but ignoring the choices doesn’t mean a choice wasn’t made. If you use auto as a setting then you’re delegating the decisions to a programmer with no thought as to how or why those decisions were made. Given the limitations of current cameras, that might be an issue if you want your photos to be objective records. That’s why I like this image. It’s lack of pretence to objectivity gives it a kind of honesty as art.

Coming up this week, tomorrow we have Gifts from the Distance, flotsam as a cultural resource in island societies by Matt Law, and on Thursday Distances in Landscape archaeology by Ulla Rajala.

Photo: Egypt Pyramid Cairo by Espen Faugstad. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

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.

Terra Cotta Trio

Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber.
Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber.

These are obviously Terracotta Warriors, from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They date from around 210 BC. Me, I would have focussed on the near warrior and looking at this hat could be a mistake. The foreground is blurred, but the left face is pin-sharp and perhaps gives a better sense of looking at the middle of ranks of soldiers.

Tomorrow’s post escaped early, so I’m not sure what I’ll do for tomorrow. Work and migraines are complicating matters. However, for Thursday we have a photo-essay from Di Hu on memory in the Andean Highlands.

Photo: Terra Cotta Trio by Kevin Harber. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

Terres Rouges, Luxembourg

Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.
Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.

This is the abandoned Arbed Steel Works, at Esch-sur-Alzette in the south of Luxembourg. I picked it as it’s a well-lit photo and it also has a great sense of distance, which is handy for the coming month. It turns out the site is more iconic than that. From British Pathé there’s a video showing “a molten stream of French ore, Belgian limestone, Dutch and German coke watched over by Italian labour and pouring out of a Luxembourg blast furnace marked the formal opening of the common market for steel of these six European countries.” So this abandoned structure is possibly a birthplace of the EU.

The site launches this week. So far the plan is that I’ll put up a Kindle post on Wednesday, partly because I’ll be at KindleCamp that day. Thursday will see the first Distance post, with Katy Meyers on Bioarchaeology. We have theme posts for Tuesdays and Thursdays for the first couple of weeks, but that still leaves plenty of space on the other days. If you’d like to blog here leave a note below or on our Facebook page, and Colleen or myself will get in touch.

Photo: Terres Rouges by Geoffrey George. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-BC-ND licence.

Machu Picchu, the classic view

Machu Picchu by Pedro Szekely
Machu Picchu by Pedro Szekely

The LA Times is currently going through 100 facts for 100 years of Machu Picchu. It is a lot older, but its existence was revealed to archaeologists in 1911, so this summer marks the 100th anniversary of work at the site. Exactly what the site is has been debated for many years. Current favourite is that it was a royal estate, but this does not rule out important ritual functions at the site as well. This is the view most people try and take of the site towards the peak of Huayna Picchu, which also has temples on it, so it is possible that Machu Picchu was placed intentionally at a specific point in the landscape, in this case about 2.5km or 1.5 miles up in the landscape.

The ability to farm at high altitude might be due to the llama’s habit of defecating communally, according to a report on the Guardian website. This made the llama dung easy to gather and then use as fertiliser.

As an experiment, you can download wallpapers for June based on this photo in 4:3 or widescreen formats. I’ve prepared them at hi-res, so they may need to be scaled down to fit your monitor. Let me know if they work in the comments below and I can produce more for July onwards.

Photo: Machu Picchu, Peru by Pedro Szekely. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.

Wukoki Ruins

Wukoki Ruins
Wukoki Ruins. Photo by Anita Ritenour.

The Wukoki Ruins are part of the Wupatki National Monument in Arizona. The area seems to have been occupied between AD 500 and AD 1225, with the Wukoki Ruins occupied between 1110 and 1210. The National Parks Service has a nice line on their website saying that the current native peoples in the area still see the site as having spiritual significance so, despite no one living there anymore, the site is not abandoned.

This photo uses High Dynamic Range imaging, in order to get the sky and shadows properly exposed. Using the more traditional point ‘n’ click method there’s a good chance the sky and shadow areas would show a lot less detail. For more information on HDR photography in archaeology, see High dynamic range imaging for archaeological recording from the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory by David Wheatley (doi:10.1007/s10816-010-9100-1). A pre-print of it is available in Southampton’s archives.

Photo: Wukoki Ruins by Anita Ritenour. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.