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.

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.

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.

Value at a Distance: Coins in early Australia

Spanish dollar - reale - pieces of eight

It’s stating the obvious: coins are important for archaeologists and historians alike.  They last a long time, they tell us when and where they were minted, and often indicate something about the preoccupations of the state or other entity that produced them.  Crowns or kangaroos?  Images or inscriptions?  People carry coins, and hoard them, and deface them in interesting ways – by clipping or splitting or over stamping them.

They can also deceive, particularly because coins, with their intrinsic metal value, travel in people’s pockets well beyond their original origins.  So the discovery of a Chinese, or Portuguese, or Dutch coin somewhere along the Australian coastline does not necessarily demonstrate the existence of a mysterious Chinese explorer or Portuguese shipwreck or unknown Dutch settlement.

The first British settlers of New South Wales in 1788 were convicts and soldiers.  Neither had much use for money.  Some British coins came with them, but most early local trade was conducted by barter, or promissory notes for larger items.

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and other coins began to circulate as trade.  In October 1804, Governor King published a general order in the Sydney Gazette, listing the coins then in circulation, and their value in sterling:

Governor King - Proclamation

Governor King - Proclamation cont.

King’s list tells us a good deal about the patterns of trade between Sydney and the world in 1804.  The guinea, shilling and copper coins were English.  The Spanish dollars were silver reals.  These coins could have come from anywhere, for they were in general circulation throughout the Pacific, but ships from Sydney sailed to China via Manila, in the Spanish Philippines, while a few Spanish ships were captured by privateers off the South American coast during these years.

The Johanna and half Johanna were Portuguese.  These also probably reached Australia via China merchants based in the Portuguese enclave of Macao.  Australia also had early to the Portuguese settlement in Timor, the first European settlement that ships encountered sailing west through Torres Strait en route to Java.

The Dutch guilder and ducat come from Java, or perhaps from trade with more easterly Dutch settlements in what is now Indonesia.  During food shortages, the early colony bought rice and dhal in Lombok, and this trade continued.

British Museum, in Wikipedia Commons

The gold mohur and silver rupee probably come from Bengal, while the East India Company struck the pagoda in southern India.  All illustrate the close ties, economic, cultural, and sometimes familial, between the East India Company and the Sydney traders.

Governor King set exchange rates for government purchases.  In other contexts, they were only suggestive.  18th and 19th century traders were used to dealing with multiple coinages.  I’ve no evidence for early New South Wales, where a population of less than 10,000 didn’t allow for much specialisation, but in Calcutta or Canton, merchants used professional ‘shroffers’ to deal with their mixed bags of coins. According to Hobson Jobson’s dictionary,

The word is used by Europeans in China as well as in India, and is there applied to the experts who are employed by banks and mercantile firms to check the quality of the dollars that pass into the houses.

These experts assessed coins for the weight and quality of their metals.  Many small denomination Asian coins were designed with this in mind, with a central hole so that they could be tied together, and traded according to weight, regardless of their minted origins.

Ching dynasty coin, from Yale images, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Which brings us back to Australia, and New South Wales’s most celebrated early coins.  By 1812 the shortage of coins in the colony had become a serious problem.  That year, Governor Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish dollars, and had them split into 2, an outer circle of silver with a nominal value of 5 shillings, and the central inner piece, to be worth 15 pence.  These quickly became known as the Holey Dollar and the Dump.

Holey dollar and dump

Macquarie’s actions are usually interpreted as a clever way to get two coins for the price of one.  True enough, but since Macquarie had served in the Indian army, he knew what Asian coins looked like.  A coin with a hole it in would make perfect sense to him.

Sydney Gazette in Trove Newspapers, National Library of Australia

Image of Spanish Dollar from Museum of Australian Currency Notes, Reserve Bank of Australia

Image of Gold Mohur from Wikimedia Commons

Image of Ching coin from Yale images, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Image of Holey Dollar in Recollections, National Museum of Australia

Edited 15 June, in response to comments on Spanish coins. Thanks.

CFPo: Tools

Every discipline has its own tools of the trade. Archaeologists, however, tend to have a unique toolbox, often comprised of everyday items reused to meet our needs. Some are more practical than others. And for every tool, there is a unique story attached. It could be the trowel you have carried with them since their first field experience, or the pair of boots that carried you through many excavations. Perhaps it’s a trademark hat, or a lucky compass, or the dig van that has served admirably in the service of archaeological discovery. Regardless, the tools we carry all have special uses, and special meanings. This is the purpose behind July’s themed issue: to investigate the tools we use as archaeologists, and the stories behind them.

These posts can come in many forms, and I encourage you to try to look at a number of different types of tools and to be creative (we could very easily do a whole month of “my first trowel” posts, but I’d like to see more variety). Is there something in your bag that you have a special attachment to? Is there a tool that you can’t live without? Perhaps there is a great story about a tool you had to MacGyver in the field to solve a tricky archaeological situation. Maybe you have a tool that is a bit obscure, or that came from a unique place in the world, or that reminds you of a certain moment or important archaeological mentor. Maybe you have a tool that is just so damn awesome you want everyone to know about it (don’t try to sell us anything, though. This isn’t the place for that). If so, then you have the kind of post we’d like to share.

Posts will be presented during the month of July, and are due by June 28th. We need at least 8 posts, and are only looking for 500-1000 words. Please include images, as well. Please contact Terry Brock (brockter [at]  if you are interested in participating as soon as possible, and include your post topic in your message. Or, leave a post in the comment section below or on the Facebook wall, or ship us a tweet @ThenDig. And of course, if there is something not related to the CFPo that you’d like to write about, check out our submission types and guidelines.


[Image courtesy of Campus Archaeologist on Flickr and the MSU Campus Archaeology Program Photo taken by Kim Brock Photography copyright 2009]

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.

Stop the Press? Paper, e-books or both?

Welcome new readers. This post could also be titled “How not to launch a blog”. We’ve been testing the site with content for a little while with some archaeological content. Tomorrow our first post on this month’s theme Distance goes live, so I had a tech post scheduled for today.

This post has been shuffled through a few drafts. Before I bought a Kindle is was along the lines of “Am I a techno-curmudgeon?” After I bought a Kindle it became more “Duh! I am a techno-curmudgeon!” By curmudgeon I don’t mean Luddite. I mean people who can use technology but for reasons other than failings of the technology choose not to. Here’s an example that I might have agreed with till a couple of years ago.

Airminded Blog on Kindle
Airminded Blog on Kindle

I attended a couple of workshops on publishing, one involving academic publishers. The printed monograph was held up as the peak of publication to which all graduate students should aspire. And the emphasis was on print, not e-publishing. There was one go-to argument that all the speakers shared. “The problem with an e-book,” they would say with a sardonic rise of an eyebrow, “is you can’t read it in the bath!” We all laughed and ignored the fact that you’d be mad to read a cheaply bound ~£100 academic book in the bath. Still, if you feel this is a problem, not only can you read an e-book in the bath, you can read one in the shower and while diving at a depth of up to five metres, thanks to this waterproofing device.

If reading in the bath really was the killer app for dead tree books, then I’ve single-handedly revolutionised the publishing industry. In fact the problem is more likely that “The problem with e-books raise eyebrow is they’re not printed books.” True, but this is not a strong argument for nor against them. There are advantages in favour of both formats.

The unassailable advantage of hard copy for me has been its readability. I can read short texts on a computer monitor, but a monograph has simply not been practical. Long periods of monitor use give me eye-strain. The prime measure of any text format has to be ‘Can you read it?’. The iPad is readable, but I still prefer paper. The Kindle in contrast is extremely readable. Amazon has a difficult job selling it to sceptics because the display is essential to its success and its display is primarily shown to non-owners through a computer monitor, which kills it flat. If we are comparing default settings, then I still think a book beats a Kindle but it’s close. It’s not just that the dots per inch are better with a book, there’s a tactile experience.

If I’m reading a book I know roughly how far I am through it by the feel of pages in my left hand. A Kindle is light, but it feels the same regardless of whether you’re at the start or the end. The same is true for the lack of tactile sensation for other e-readers. There’s also a matter of turning pages. Turning a physical page gives your eyes a micro-break from the script. You don’t get this so much with a Kindle, and if you’re scrolling text you positively have to concentrate on moving script to keep your place. This is all part of the reading experience. But reading is not always default. I can change the settings on an e-reader and some print books have their own problems.

For example the Western Greeks by Caratelli is a lovely book and if it ever falls of my bookshelf and onto my head, I’ll be hospitalised. There are a few books I have that are simply too big to read comfortably. Book size is not a weight problem for electronic books. An e-version would be light enough to be hand-held and read for long periods.

Print-size is another obvious issue, or it will be as your sight gets worse. A great deal is made of the fact you can read a book after a couple of centuries. This is true. At the same time if your eyesight goes then the physical presence of your bookshelves are little comfort. E-books are more easily converted into talking books.

I’m also wary of how meaningful the claim you can read books after centuries is. You can’t read a centuries old e-book yet, but there’s a very obvious reason for that. Some of the scepticism is well-founded. There are unreadable electronic formats that are lost. I need to get a USB cassette player to copy an Orb album I have because I don’t have the physical means to play it and it was deleted on the day of release so there are no MP3 versions to buy. I also have unreadable floppy discs and USB sticks will pass soon. However, what is changing is that information is moving from fixed formats. My thesis went through several from .doc, .pages, .whatever-open-office-is, a brief period on Google Docs and finally .docx and .pdf for submission. There are, and will continue to be problems with readable formats, but ASCII is proving durable. Format translation looks like a soluble problem – though some texts may be lost.

In contrast hard copy books are tied to their physical format. Shelves upon shelves of them sit in libraries mocking e-books with their permanence. Libraries don’t keep empty shelves of all the books that have been lost. It may be different for modern historians, but if you’re working in the medieval period or earlier there’s a good chance that you’ll find key texts are missing. Again there are obvious reasons for that, but if we seriously consider the possibility that all electronic repositories could be turned off at the same time as a mark against e-books, then equally we have to accept the possible evolution of a self-igniting bookworm and the damage it could cause to physical books, especially those with painfully small print runs. The limit physical numbers of many monographs makes them susceptible to loss through reckless deaccessions or accidental damage.

The thing that finally persuaded me my preference for paper wasn’t rational was note-taking. Historiann (ignore the bath reference) makes a good point that it’s easier to make notes in the margin of a printed book. I thought you couldn’t with an e-book. Ignore the fact that I don’t write in books, and that even if I wanted to I’d never have a pen handy, it’s nice to have the option. There are reader programs that store annotations with a file, but usually the notes are tied to a specific file, and it’s a pain to cut ‘n’ paste the text into a document. I didn’t spot that book-written notes are tied to the one copy of a text till six months ago. About the same time I realised that cut ‘n’ paste from a regular paper book is rubbish.

It turns out that Kindle notes can be shared between devices, but that’s something to explore another time.

It wasn’t simply that e-books have their drawbacks, it was also that the ‘e-‘ leads me to have much higher expectations for the usability of an e-book. Concentrating on the limitations of an e-book meant I wasn’t considering in what ways an e-book is better and in some ways e-books are better. These days indices are afterthoughts in some books. Searchability is a big bonus. At the same time you have a lot fewer headaches if you accidentally drop a book and tread on it than if you do the same with a Kindle. I’ve done the experiment. DRM means it’s so much easier to lend a physical book. I don’t condone cracking Amazon’s DRM, and more importantly I don’t know how to do it yet. Academics could be asking why books need DRM, but for now it’s something we have to live with. There’s also no second-hand market for e-books which will make it more difficult to buy cheap gems in the future.

The paper versus electronic argument interests me because it’s the most serious challenge to paper books yet. This isn’t a genre shift like claiming film, television or radio will kill books. It’s closer to the shift from parchment to paper. There are good reasons why paper books are still a good idea, but the arguments are all stacked in favour of the one format. The one factor I have missed out above is that electronic publishing is potentially so much cheaper. This could be a way to preserve texts in both formats. The high-priced library market can still be served with physical books, but e-books should make affordable editions for personal use feasible. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but I don’t think it’s in the consumers’ interest to be forced into one format or the other.

For this reason something I’d like to do is experiment with a Kindle version of the blog. If the authors are happy, and time allows it’s possible we will produce a Kindle Single based on ‘Distance’. The first post on the theme comes up tomorrow. This is not because pinning the blog to a fixed volume makes it ‘better’. The new format is different. It opens the opportunity to access new audiences and new opportunities. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore what you can do with archaeology and new media, rather than fit within a rigid definition.

For Distance we have opinion pieces, some referenced discussions and a photo-essay. These will be scheduled on Tuesdays, and some Thursday. That leaves plenty of room on Wednesdays and Fridays for people to blog about other things. If you’d like to take part, leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.