African Cultural Astronomy eds. Jarita Holbrook, Rodney Medupe & Johnson Urama

African Cultural Astronomy Cover Some books become landmarks through recognition of the scholarship within. Even if they are superseded decades later, people still refer back to them as defining an approach. Some books are landmarks simply by virtue of existing and African Cultural Astronomy is one of these. If it the book were awful, it would still be important as it gathers work on a much neglected area of archaeoastronomy. Thankfully the book has only one major problem.

The book is the product of people brought together by the 2006 Ghana Solar Eclipse conference. It’s part proceedings and part textbook. The textbook element is a necessity as while there’s interest in archaeoastronomy from archaeologists, anthropologists and astronomers, they often aren’t speaking the same language to each other.

I forgot this, so after reading Jarita Holbrook’s excellent introduction, my first reaction to Barth Chukwuezi’s chapter on ethnographic methods was “Oh dear, this is a bit basic”. In fact the whole first section is basic in places, and necessarily so. The following chapter on the geography of Africa by Basil U Eze is probably also elementary to anyone familiar with the continent. In this light, far from being bad Chukwuezi’s chapter lays some much-needed foundations in Anthropological method for astronomers who may have never seriously considered what the issues are. The following chapters on The Astronomical Gnomon (J McKim Malville) and Naked Eye Astronomy for Cultural Astronomers (Jarita Holbrook & Audra Baleisis) talk about basic astronomy, and how you integrate that into cultural practice.

The remainder of the first section is about teaching Cultural Astronomy. Some of this I found a struggle. Its not bad, but teaching African cultural astronomy in the USA clearly has baggage and opportunities that you don’t get with teaching about the prehistoric British Isles in the UK. It’s not irrelevant or of tiny niche interest, at least no more niche interest than archaeoastronomy in general, but it’s going to take me time to pull out what I can use from this section. Some of the chapters here might be focussed on Africa, but have wide appeal. Others are interesting, but personal stories and so less useful to me.

The second half of the book is a about current research. Like all conference volumes the chapters vary, but plenty are well worth reading. J McKim Malville et al. have a chapter on Astronomy at Nabta Playa which makes sense, even if I’m not sure to what extent I agree with it. Nabta Playa is a stone circle in southern Egypt and various claims with varying degrees of sanity have been made about it. I’ve been wary of any of the claims as there’s just the one data point. Malville et al.‘s chapter is thorough about what has been found. While it can’t magically produce a comparative circle, the one circle that is there is placed within its archaeological context rather than being purely about drawing lines to various star rises. I still don’t have a firm opinion on Nabta Playa, but re-reading this will be my first action if I suddenly decide I need to get one.

The White Mosque of Chenini
The White Mosque of Chenini. Photo by Bartek Kuzia.

My favourite chapter is the following one – Romans, Astronomy and the Qibla: Urban Form and Orientation Islamic Cities of Tunisia by M. E. Bonine. The qibla is the direction to Mecca and used as a focus for prayer for Muslims. Inside a mosque it’s indicated by a mihrab, a prayer niche in the qibla wall. Obviously building a wall is an architectural feature and while some mosques do have skewed interiors to indicate the qibla, most mosques are built around the qibla. An analysis of alignments shows that in reality most medieval mosques in Tunisia are misaligned, if the aim is to face Mecca. What Bonine points out is that most mosques are rectangular, and in a city grid, which means the qibla in turn affects the orientation of city streets. This would be fine, except some of these cities are older than Islam, so the grid came first. It means that medieval Muslims weren’t stupid, but quite sensibly following prior orientations and placing the mihrab in the most appropriate wall. But what it interesting is that these misalignments are all wrong in a similar way. They’re all around 90º to the midsummer sunrise. Bonine traces the alignments back in time to the Roman period and the practice of centuriation, the division of agricultural land along fixed axes. This is close to what Michael Hoskin has called Archaeotopography, which he prefers to Archaeoastronomy as a term because it doesn’t assume that an orientation has to have an astronomical significance.[ref]Hoskin, M., 2001. Tombs, Temples and Their Orientations: A New Perspective on Mediterranean Prehistory, David Brown Book Company. 0954086716 (Mendeley)[/ref]

The remaining chapters are much more literary and anthropological than archaeological. The Timbuktu Astronomy Project, the Yoruba and the Igbo all get chapters. The coverage of East Africa is lighter, but not wholly ignored; Opata covers some East Africa astronomy in his chapter on Lore and Literature. I don’t know if the bias towards the west is due to the conference being in Ghana, or a reflection of the focus of current work. It does mean anyone looking for another round of arguments about the Borana calendar and its archaeology will be disappointed. A common theme through all the anthropological chapters is that the wealth of knowledge about the sky in Africa has barely been touched. This is a shame as it could vastly help archaeological interpretations of sites as a reality check on astronomical practices. All in all the research chapters show how more research in Africa could be fruitful.

So what’s the major problem? Shawna Holbrook in her chapter on Leadership points out that one of the difficulties in organising the conference in Ghana was the local attitude “All Americans have lots of dollars.” It might not be true, but you can see where that belief comes from. Publisher Springer-Verlag is not, as far as I know, based in Ghana – so why they’re charging $169 / £112 for 264 page hardback book is a mystery. If you don’t want to pay that for a hardback book the price for the softback is $169 / £112. If the book isn’t Print-on-Demand then Springer have been badly ripped off, because it certainly feels like a POD book. It’s a massive problem for a book of this type because Africa is huge. Few people will be interested in all of it. So if you’re interested in the Igbo, it’s far more sensible to get the chapter photocopied on inter-library loan than persuade your college library to buy the book. That’s a huge shame because it then means you miss out on the other chapters, which could spark some other line of inquiry. It’s reasonable to expect Springer to charge more than plain POD for a book, because they’re going to have additional costs in marketing the book, and if that marketing means that more people get to read the book, that’s a justifiable cost. But if they really do need to charge $169 / £112 to make the book happen they urgently need to revisit their production processes. For comparison Lulu could produce a similar POD book for around £20 hardback or £10 paperback.

I paid £25 for my copy via Abebooks. If you’re interested in African astronomy, and you can find a cheap copy via re-sellers, it’s well worth a look.

Photo Credit: The White Mosque of Chenini by Bartek Kuzia. Licenced with a Creative Commons licence BY-NC-ND.

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?


Post Suggestions

Blogging Woman

We can open the site up to more authors. More authors means more people finding bugs before we start getting a large readership. If you have something you’re burning to write we can set you up with an author account now. Just volunteer on the Then Dig Facebook page. Telling people to write something is a good way to make a mind go blank. Archaeology is good, but if you need more of a prompt than that, here are a few suggestions.

Research Blogging: The Research Blogging website aggregates posts discussing peer-reviewed papers. We can’t get registered on that yet, because we don’t have any suitable posts here, but it would be nice to be able to do that. Teofilo at Gambler’s House is a good source of inspiration if you want to see research blogging done well.

Technology & Techniques: This is verging into ProfHacker territory, but I’d like to see a post of series of posts on how to get the most out of Scrivener. There’s also plenty of scope for discussing teaching issues or outreach techniques. For tech blogging a few subjects that come to mind are Dropbox, Geotagging, Photosynth, Helikite & Balloon based photography, and Twitter. And everyone knows more about iPhone apps than me.

Reviews: I have a book review scheduled for Friday. It’s a volume associated with a conference, but you’re welcome to go beyond books. Books are getting ridiculously expensive these days (see my forthcoming review). What about archaeological content in media we can access? TV, film, games and websites? Seen a good museum exhibit recently? Tell the world about it.

News: The current Big Thing I’m getting on my feeds is the body of a girl found dating from around AD 50 has been found outside a Roman town. The injury in the back of the skull says murder, and the burial indicates ‘a Pagan rather than local burial’. Simply saying “Hey! Dead girl found!” like a few blogs are tells me nothing new. Someone taking the time to explain that actually a female aged 16-20 was not a ‘girl’ in this period would be saying something interesting, particularly if they can tie it in to more that we know about gender archaeology and the ancient world. Another route might be to mention that while AD 50 is technically post-Jesus it’s highly unlikely Christianity was present in Britannia at the time so Pagan is not a helpful term. Here’s what we have found as evidence of the variety of religious beliefs in the Roman Empire…

Links: Sometimes you simply read a post on someone else’s blog that’s cool. Why not link to it? Or the first paragraph or two of a post on your own site if you like. We’ll want someone to do that, so why not you?

Add your own comments or ideas below. You can also claim dibs on these here or on our Facebook page.

Photo: iStillness by David Pham. Licenced with a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

Design Thoughts

This is partly a test to see if the Facebook integration is working, and partly some notes on design for the site. There are still plenty of things to add, and you can feel free to add to the list.

Where to click for the profile page First up I need to write an authors.php file. This will list the posts by each author on the site. In order to do it properly I also want the template to pull out things from your profile here in your dashboard. Click on your name next to where it says Howdy, and you’ll be taken to your profile page. You’ll have the various proof reader options and below that you’ll have the section for your name, website etc. including a section Biographical Info. If people fill out those I can pull this data into the author.php file. I can also, if people want, append it to the post so it appears at the bottom. Your photo will be taken from – which is a pain for me as I have trouble accessing it, but I’ll have to find a way.

Looking at the Mendeley Related Papers plugin, if you don’t tag a paper the page dies. Nothing appears after the killed plugin. No comments, no sidebar and no footer. I edited it for AoB Blog, and I’m sure I can do something similar so that it says “Oh dear I can’t find related posts” and not just kill the process.

I’m looking at adding a pullquotes option. This would work by typing as usual with <span class=”pullquote”>the thing you want to appear in the pull quote</span> being put in a span. This would mean that if the pullquote class were removed from the blog the text would appear normal without any styling. You don’t get pullquotes in serious journals, so why should the blog have them? The reason for this is that reading on a screen is a different experience to reading hardcopy. You can keep track of moving through a physical article by the feel of pages and the small break as you turn a page over. On screen nothing physically moves. You can keep track of distance using the scroll bar, but as solid text there’s little for the eye to keep track of to indicate progress. It’s a monolithic chunk of text. Dropping in an image or a pullquote every four paragraphs or so breaks up the text so that there’s something you work past to give a feeling of progress. Pullquotes can be easier to find in a paragraph than an appropriate image for long chunks of text and can emphasise a key point. If anyone thinks this is a bad idea, now is the time to say.

This reminds me. I also need a make print.css file so that the pages can be printed off sensibly, for exactly the same reason. Screen != Print.

I’m also looking at adding more shortcodes. {cc}licence{/cc} to output “licenced under a Creative Commons licence licence.” So {cc}by-nc-nd{/cc} would produce licenced under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence. The reason is to make photo crediting easier, so you just type “Photo title by name {cc}by{/cc}” to credit a photo. It doesn’t remove all the pain, but hooking into the Flickr API to autoformat credits is likely to cause more problems than it solves. It also allows the cc code to be used for video and audio in the future.

I’m thinking of an {image} shortcode too. At the moment to trigger the projector mode for images you have to insert the photo, go to the HTML view, find the link in the mess of code that is the caption code, type in rel=”prettyphoto”, and then most people will want to flip back to the visual editor. I think {image align=”optional” width=”optional” caption=”optional”}Image URL{/image} could be used instead. You upload the image, copy the file URL and then exit without inserting the photo to type in the code. By default the image would be 500px centre-aligned with no caption.

There are drawbacks to using shortcodes. These shortcodes only worth with this theme, so when the theme changes you’re left with broken shortcodes that don’t display. However, shortcodes can sit in the function.php file, so it’s easy to insert them into new themes. Also this theme uses PrettyPhoto to project images. If we move to one that uses Lightbox then all the rel=”prettyphoto” additions in the code mean nothing. An {image} shortcode could be edited to automatically make the necessary changes to fix the image links.

That’s what’s on my immediate design list with authors.php and print.css at the top of the list. I’ll also get the CFP for the theme posts out as soon as possible.

Graffiti in the Catacombs of Paris

Graffiti in the Catacombs of Paris
Graffiti in the Catacombs of Paris

This is our first Photo of the Week. In fact it’s a Photo of an Indefinite Period of Time Before We Start Changing The Photo Of The Week On A Weekly Basis.

Graffiti is a good choice to open an archaeological weblog. It’s not ‘proper writing’ but that doesn’t mean it has no value. It’s an unauthorised record, much like archaeology is, and layers accrete over the top of each other making the whole a confusing mess. Much like many archaeological sites. It also helps that the catacombs are a liminal place, not entirely were the mainstream public is on a regular basis. In a similar way weblogs aren’t in the academic mainstream in archaeology. Hopefully this weblog will help break that down and in a couple of years time this introduction will seem terribly, terribly pretentious.

Credit: Colleen Morgan. Licence BY-NC-SA.

Plugins for an academic group blog: Referencing & Footnotes

For reasons that have hopefully become obvious I’ve been thinking what plugins would be useful for an academic group blog on WordPress.

Referencing & Footnotes

A plug. Photo by Pulpolux!!! CC BY-NC
Photo by Pulpolux!!! CC BY-NC

In terms of integrating references the three big programs are EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero. It would be easy to get lost in an argument about which of these is the best system. I don’t think that matters. What is best for me is not necessarily best for you. Also two of these systems are on the web, so they could be very different in six months. What is best now might not be best soon. So the best solution for integrating with WordPress is to be able to handle as many systems as possible.
Continue reading Plugins for an academic group blog: Referencing & Footnotes