Paddy K Seeks the Bridge of Orchy

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Paddy K is hiking in Scotland without any portable internet connection. He just texted me a request for the coordinates of the Bridge of Orchy. He’s currently in Inverardran, about 20 km SSE of the bridge. People in the area who would like to meet a charming Irish/Swedish blogger are encouraged to write me for contact details.

As the Beatles sang on Sgt Pepper’s, “I get GPS coordinates with a little help from my friends”.

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Cesspit Incavation

I often dig old crap out of the ground, so today’s chore at the summer house provided some novelty. I won’t say welcome novelty: I re-cut the cesspit and emptied the outhouse barrel, burying new crap.

In recent years, there has been a vogue among archaeological museums to host “incavations”. Museum visitors are invited to bring stuff that has meaning to them, and it is ceremonially buried in the museum grounds. It’s basically a pomo version of the time-hallowed custom where the town mayor and his buddies would bury a metal box with papers and coins under the cornerstone of the new post office.

In my mind, incavation sorts with the rest of pretentious pomo museum wankery. But I don’t really belong to the museums’ target audience. I guess anything that entertains the punters and keeps the place funded is good. And professionally, I must of course applaud any activity that leads to find combinations ending up underground. After all — the only artefact I have buried today is toilet paper.

33 Test Pits

Today we dug and sieved our 33rd and last square-meter test pit at Djurhamn, and I took the gear back to the County Museum’s stores. Unless a colleague with better early-modern pottery skillz than mine provides any surprises, it seems that we have not found any of the evidence for 16th/17th century harbour life that we sought. We do however have quite a bit of 18th/19th century household and tavern refuse. And it seems unlikely to be pure chance that the single pit that yielded any bones was the one nearest to the abandoned cemetery depicted on a 1630s map of the area. Osteology will tell.

I also had an unexpected brush with rock stars. One of my digging volunteers turned out to be the mother of Opiate of the Masses’ bass player, formerly of Drain. And the lady told me about the time when she had dinner with Tony Iommi (who is married to another Drainer) and he told her the story of how he hurt his fingers. Two degrees of Black Sabbath! I’m a sorcerer of death’s construction! Whatever that means.

Test Pitting at Djurhamn

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I spent Thursday and Friday digging test pits with a group of energetic volunteers at Djurhamn, the first two of seven planned days in the field. The great Ehrsson brothers are now joined by an equally solid Ehrsson nephew, among other hard-working people. We’re looking for archaeological evidence for historically attested land activity around a harbour whose seafloor is covered with 17th and 18th century refuse dumped from ships. Written sources collected by Katarina Schoerner mention “the big quay” and “the military camp” including an “ale hut”, but we have no idea where they were, really.

Last year I picked up one big whopper of a find — an early-16th century sword with fresh battle damage — but so far there’s nothing else that certainly takes us down to the harbour’s heyday c. 1450-1700. We’ve sunk several pits into the boggy eastern edges of the old harbour basin and struck a thick spongy layer of reed-root peat, and under it we’ve picked up bits of sunken driftwood and small stones (thrown by people?) sitting on top of pristine glacial clay. (It’s been a lot like digging in crème caramel). But no landlocked early extension of the submarine dump layer.

Our earliest metal detector find after the sword is a coin struck in the final painful years of the conquering madman Carolus XII’s reign, 1715-18. It’s in a field that was cleared for the plough some time between 1630 and 1704 according to extant maps. This is one of the few level surfaces near the harbour on which a military camp might be pitched, so I had some hope that we would find a lot of harbour-era metalwork there. Friday we dug and sieved a square metre at the coin’s find spot to check what non-metal objects the plough layer contains. The turnout was impressive, but it’s 18-19th century household refuse, not the sort of thing we’re looking for. Wrong pottery types, and we haven’t got a single harbour-era coin in the whole field. There’s always a lot of modern refuse in the ploughzone, as household garbage used to be put on the manure stack and carted out onto the fields as fertiliser.

My soon 5-y-o daughter and I cleaned the finds last night using her old toothbrushes. Here’s the tally, all from sieving just a few decimetres of a square metre of ploughsoil.

  • Clay pipe stem
  • Bottle glass
  • Drinking glass
  • Relief-decorated glass saucer
  • Window glass
  • Iron nails
  • Flint chips (likely débitage from from knapping for rifle locks)
  • China sherds (some with printed and moulded decoration)
  • Brown salt-glazed earthenware
  • White-glazed earthenware
  • Flower pot sherds
  • Roof tile
  • Brick frags
  • Bitumen
  • Limestone
  • Burnt bone
  • Charcoal

In the following week, we’re gonna sink a line of test pits into the western edge of the basin, and then look for early activity around the site of a seaman’s tavern established in the 1780s. I wish one of those pits would strike a 16th century midden!

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Anthro Blog Carnival

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The forty-fourth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Greg Laden’s blog. Archaeology and anthropology, and all about luta livre!

Luta livre is a broad term referring to wrestling in Portuguese. In Brazil, it may also refer to a martial art that resembles catch wrestling. With the introduction of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where Brazilian fighter Royce Gracie dominated the field with apparent ease, many English language martial arts publications rushed to find and translate older Brazilian articles regarding the history of Gracie jiu-jitsu. It was common knowledge that the practice of no-rules freestyle fighting was common in Brazil, so when those translating the articles saw many references to competitions between Gracie-trained fighters and luta livre practitioners, it was mistakenly assumed that luta livre referred to a specific Brazilian freestyle system.

Submissions will henceforth be sent to my personal email address, not to the old submissions address. The next open hosting slot is already on 16 July. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me. No need to be an anthro pro. But you must be a master of luta livre, like me.

Film Review: Journey to 10,000 BC

i-ca874a8ec597993c3eed6ae37cee2511-journeyto10000bc.jpgJourney to 10,000 BC is a new made-for-TV documentary about Clovis-era North American archaeology and palaeontology (not to be confused with Roland Emmerich’s baroque fantasy feature 10,000 BC). The format of the film is conventional: a voiceover intercut with clips from interviews with scholars. The academics acquit themselves well and get a lot of interesting information across in the brief soundbites allotted them. This is the film’s main strength. The voiceover (written by David Padrusch and Ian Stoker-Long) isn’t too bad either: there are a few sensationalistic bloopers and endorsements of controversial views, but mainly the information given is correct and delivered in a lively way.

Half-way through the film, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institute and David George of Saint Anselm College are given ten minutes to air the controversial Solutrean hypothesis. Briefly, this holds that the Americas were not peopled from Beringia, or not exclusively from Beringia, but (also) from western Europe. The similarities between Solutrean projectile points (France) and Clovis ones (US) are in fact superficial and cannot be taken to indicate any genetic relationship. Yet this is the main argument for the Solutrean hypothesis. Few specialists accept it, and its inclusion is my main scientific point of criticism against the film. As Wikipedia puts it, “The hypothesis is challenged by large gaps in time between the Clovis and Solutrean eras, a lack of evidence of Solutrean seafaring, lack of specific Solutrean features in Clovis technology, and other issues.”

The film pushes the Solutrean angle further by mainly using actors with Europid features (and 80s hair-metal wigs, which kind of tends to ruin the impression) to portray Palaeoindians. Then, ten minutes before the end of the film, Beringian immigrants are introduced into the narrative, and they are played by actors with Native American features. Anyway, the message isn’t one of white supremacy.

Overall, the film has very poor visuals. It looks cheap, it’s repetitive and it conveys a lot of wordless errors. We get endless ugly machinima-level computer animation combined with bluescreened live actors who interact with beasties that aren’t visible to them. There are many cloned copies of each digital being, with jerky movements that Harryhausen wouldn’t have accepted 40 years ago. The same clips recur time and time again: the viewer will grow to loathe a model of a mammoth head whose beady animatronic eye keeps showing up in extreme close-up to scary music. A wounded digital mammoth stomping on the head of an unfortunate hunter in slow motion is pure slapstick.

Director David Padrusch has a whole excavation team march toward the camera brandishing shovels, then cuts to the first Palaeoindian colonists, walking around in a similar group. We see no children, no elderly people, no luggage, no winter clothing, and the actors are looking around with dreamy astonishment at everything they see. It’s as if what they met with in North America were wildly different from what they’d known for all their lives in their area of origin, which in Beringia’s case would have been, like, fifty miles to the west.

Berries and nuts are collected in smooth leather dishes that look like upturned cardboard lampshades. Finely tanned and industrially finished animal skins are uselessly stroked with flint scrapers tilted the wrong way, scrapers that would in any case have been applied only at the messy beginning of the tanning process. Late Palaeolithic people sail across the Atlantic to illustrate the Solutrean hypothesis, and the mast is at the aft of the boat. Painful stuff.

I don’t know who the target audience of this film is, but the production values suggest screenings at underfunded schools and museums. The production company might actually hire the voiceover guy to record a few introductions to the interviewees and then re-cut the film’s soundtrack as a decent radio documentary. But as it is, Journey to 10,000 BC is a pretty sorry excuse for a documentary film.

The film is also reviewed at Archaeoporn .

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Science Blogging Starting to Look Like Football

Here’s an interesting development. Top science bloggers have become a commodity hot enough that a situation like that in European football is emerging. Players are getting snatched from team to team through hostile buyout (Carl Zimmer of The Loom), and the number of really good non-pro players is dwindling (Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer just went pro).

I’m not sure if Carl got offered better pay than at Sb. Both bloggers did get steady writing gigs as columnists for Discover Magazine, which translates to some money (though most likely not much). In an attention-based economy, the market is driven both by money and by access to readers.

My warmest congratulations, Carl and Phil!