Sunday, December 09, 2007

Moving to Wordpress

I'm making the move to Wordpress. Sorry, Blogger, but I can't risk the chance that you might delete this blog too.

Hot Cup of Joe (at WordPress)

I'll make the move gradually and will post simultaneously between the two blogs for a while, but eventually all business will be at the new blog address:

Can you believe it? Someone snatched up " just a few days ago? And they aren't doing a thing with it. Meh.

The reason for the move is that I have another blog, which I keep totally separate and anonymous from this one that was removed/deleted. Ostensibly because the Blogger software picked it up as link-spam. Over a week ago, I notified blogger and their automated response to the "restore blog" link was something along the lines of "give us a few days to review your blog."

There was no more advertising than is here (adsense, which is owned by Google -which owns Blogger!) and the content was all original and the links were to legitimate sites. This is outrageous and I urge anyone that has a Blogger account that they blog with to archive their favorite posts and make a back up of your template. You might even consider putting Blogger behind you. I've been blogging on blogger in some form or another since the 90's!

Anyway, I hope that the move to Wordpress will be a good one. It might even inspire me to write more since Wordpress is so much easier to post to and update. It doesn't have the flexibility that Blogger has in that you can't update the template or use javascript, but I'm digging it so far.

Go there and see. And, if you check my blog regularly and usually don't post, please leave me a comment at The Move to Wordpress and let me know what you think. Are you willing to update your blogroll links (if you have a blog with my blog listed)? Are you willing to keep checking me at the new blog site? Are you okay with the new look (couldn't stand the old look)?

Hot Cup of Joe (at WordPress)


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Four Stone Hearth XXIX @ Remote Central

The 29th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is now up at Remote Central.

I was going to say a word about the next edition, hosting, and submitting, but let me just quote the good people at (i.e. Kambiz, without whom we wouldn't have the Four Stone Hearth to begin with):

The next edition of 4SH will be at The Greenbelt, two weeks from now on December 19th, which would make it the equivalent of the Christmas 2007 edition, as well as being the last one for this year, so if you wish to submit content you can do so by following this link:, or indeed by submitting direct to the host site.


Monday, December 03, 2007

The Anthropology of Catastrophe: Volcanoes

Humans have always been afflicted by natural catastrophes ranging from tectonic to weather related and, possibly, even impacts from space! But none, perhaps, have found the significance both culturally and destructively, as the volcano. Throughout the history and prehistory of man, volcanoes have erupted, obliterating entire islands, destroying settlements and cities, ruining local crops and affecting climate on a global scale. And, while volcanoes have also long been anthropomorphized to attribute blame or malevolent intent, not a single one ever intended to cause human destruction.

Notable volcanic eruptions in the archaeological and historical record include Thera, Vesuvius, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Pinotubo, among many others.

Erupted 79 CE – Pompeii and Herculaneum, Italy
This was the first documented volcanic eruption in history and was responsible for the instantaneous deaths of thousands who found themselves in the path of the eruption’s heat, poison gases, pyroclastic flows of rock and ash, and the sheer trauma of the blast wave. As most people who have heard of Pompeii are no doubt aware, the site is often billed as an archaeologists’ dream since it represents a “snapshot” in time. The main reason is that settlements like Pompeii and the closer Herculaneum were inundated with volcanic ash and rock in a rapid and hot pyroclastic flow, trapping some residents in death poses until excavated nearly 2000 years later. Recent discoveries at Herculaneum include a wooden throne, preserved in the volcanic ash for over 1900 years.

Thera (Santorini)
Erupted 1627-1600 BCE Aegean Sea
Generally accepted to have brought about the demise of the Minoan civilization and ash layers from the eruption are evident in localities like Crete, and the Santorini archipelagos which includes Thera. The Minoan civilization spread across each of these and other Cycladic islands, with Crete being about 100 miles from Thera. In the Satorini archipelago is Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement buried by the 17th century BCE eruption in volcanic ash. Desturction from this eruption was primarily caused by pyroclastic flow, tsunami and ash deposits. For Minoan settlements on Thera and the Santorini island chain, civilization ended abruptly as they were vaporized, cooked, and buried alive. For the Minoan cities and settlements further away in Crete, they may have had a few more moments until the tsunami created by the massive amount of ash, rock, and other ejecta suddenly plunging into the sea, displacing the water. And, while some Minoan settlements did survive, the eruption of Thera is considered to have contributed greatly to the civilization's demise.

Mt St Helens and Mt Pinotubo
Erupted in 1980 in Washington, USA and 1991 on the Philippine Island Luzan, respectively
Mt. St. Helens was considered a major volcanic eruption, responsible for 57 deaths and thousands made homeless, not to mention the devastation to the environment. However, it small in comparison to its 20th century colleague Mt. Pinotubo, which erupted in the Philippines just a decade later. This one took 800 lives and left 100,000 or more homeless. The Pinotubo eruption was also 10 times larger than that of Mt. St. Helens. In the case of both of these eruptions, scientists and researchers were carefully monitoring the geologic activity associated with the volcanoes and were able to use the data to evacuate and warn local residents. Indeed, of the 800 killed by Pinatubo, the majority lost their lives due to the ash fall which mixed with rain and caused roofs to collapse.

In the case of each eruption, the cultural effects included the cost of rebuilding and recovering infrastructure and private property. The St. Helens eruption cost $1.1 billion to recover from the catastrophe. The residents of Luzon only faced about half that cost, but they, perhaps, suffered far more economically since the Luzon economy was ruined. Clark Air Base, which the U.S. occupied was evacuated and the Air Force never returned, which, by itself, would have spelled trouble for the local economy. The last I heard, the region is still trying to recover the economy and rebuild infrastructure.

How volcanoes destroy
Lava Flows
Although instantly associated with volcanoes, lava flows only account for a fraction of a percent of the total number of deaths due to volcanoes in the last xx years. Lava is slow and can be outrun, but it does damage property and infrastructure in places such as Hawaii where the Kilauea volcano regularly spews forth a basaltic magma that becomes lava as it leaves the ground.

These kill slightly more people than lava. Denser than air carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide are the most dangerous as they flow into and fill low lying areas. Carbon dioxide is colorless and odorless and can asphyxiate people who breath it unawares. Hydrogen sulfide has a "rotten egg" smell, but a single breath can kill in high enough concentrations. Fortunately, such concentrations are relatively rare. Other gases can also be problematic for humans, albeit indirectly. In 1783, the laki fissure eruption killed an estimated 10,000 Icelanders, but due to starvation and famine after the loss of crops and livestock due to long-term exposure to hydrogen fluoride.

Tephra, Ash, and pryoclastic flows
Tephra includes the fragmented rocks and blocks ejected in the air by the eruption itself. Fortunately, tephra and ash typically affect the regions closest to the volcano, having increasing less effect the further from the eruption you go. Ash, however, can be ejected high into the atmosphere, allowing it to be deposited many miles away. But its that ash and rock that lands near the volcano that is the most problematic. Much of the tephra and ash comes back down into the volcano's crater, but this often results in pyroclastic flow which can leave a wake of destruction in its path as hot ash and rock are forced down and out away from the volcano's cone due to the force of the eruption.

Relatively few people have actually lost their lives due to tephra and ash falls, however, the danger ash poses most is the accumulation on the roofs of homes and buildings, particularly if the ash becomes wet. Wet ash soaks up water, and creates a very heavy mud, about 10 inches of which are sufficient to collapse a roof, injuring or killing the building's occupants.

Pyroclastic flows have claimed far more victims, however, making this one of the more dangerous features of a volcanic eruption. 27 percent of the lives lost in recorded volcanic eruptions were due to pyroclastic flows, the effects of which are most notable in Pompeii and Herculaneum, where pryroclastic flows of ash, rock, gases, and bits of lava quickly rushed in along the ground, burying both cities. Residents had seconds to realize what had occurred, and probably each killed instantly as the heat from the flows cooked their bodies and boiled their brains -the ash burying them along with the buildings, homes, and artifacts of their cities. Alun Salt discusses a recent find of a throne at Herculaneum at Clio Audio, describing the effects of pyroclastic flows and preservation of material remains.

Lahars and Tsunamis
Another immediate killer from volcanic eruptions are the occasional lahars as well as the tsunamis some volcanoes create due to earth quakes caused by the eruption or pyroclastic flows that dump into the sea, displacing water. Lahar is an Indonesian word that refers to the mud flows created by large amounts of ash and water. The heat from a volcanic event can melt snow and ice and, as the resulting water mixes with ash, a mud is formed which then flows down the mountain, obliterating towns and settlements. Lahars and tsunamis are together responsible for a whopping 34% of the deaths that have been recorded due to volcanoes.

But that isn't the most significant killer that results from a volcano. The most significant killer is, by itself, responsible for a full 30% of the deaths related to volcanoes (remember, lahars and tsunamis are two different things -17% each). That killer is post-eruption famine and disease that takes place months later. Gases and ash ejected into the atmosphere can affect crops and livestock and even global temperatures! 1816 was called the "year without summer" due to the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Global temperatures dropped to between .4 and 1.0 Celsius and crops were affected around the globe. In Europe, particularly in Great Britain, a typhus epidemic that broke out that year was blamed on the unseasonably cold weather.

Volcanoes and Human Belief, Religion, and Superstition
Volcanoes don't seek human attention or appeasement. But its easy to see how others might think so. Humans have long had very tenuous relationships with their volcanoes, which remain oblivious to the anthropomorphizing applied by cultures in South America, Indonesia, Polynesia, and Mesoamerica. Volcanoes gods exist in many cultures even today and many sacrifices have been made to these gods in the way of virgins and material possessions in attempt to appease the god.

Perhaps the most familiar volcano god to Americans is Pele, since this legend is still told (albeit mostly tongue-in-cheek) in the state of Hawaii where the Kilauea volcano is still active. According to the legend, Pele is the goddess that lives in the volcano and she created (and is still creating) the islands of Hawaii.

In Japan, Mt. Fuji is the source of several myths and legends, including that the goddess Sengen resides there, tossing off the mountain any pilgrim of impure heart. Legend has it that the mountain was created in a single day at around 86 BCE, though the mountain itself can be geologically dated to as far back as 8500 BCE when it was volcanically created. There was, however, an eruption at around 86 BCE, which may have inspired the legend of its creation.

The myth of Atlantis, a story first created in two dialogs by Plato, may have had its inspiration in the oral stories that surrounded the fall of the Minoan civilization and the sudden demise of several of their cities. If true, Plato certainly embellished the account and modified it to fit the the lesson he was trying to teach through Critias and Timaeus, the two dialogs in which he mentions Atlantis. It is fascinating to consider the appeal that the story has on even modern humans and their beliefs.

Finally, it mustn't be overlooked that the very term "volcano" and the study of volcanoes, "volcanology," is derived from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

One might ask why bother living near such an unpredictable god? One reason, of course, is that the god provides a bounty by way of rich soils for cultivation and other resources such as an abundance of chert and obsidian needed for manufacture of stone tools.

For all the difficulties volcanoes have created for man, we, perhaps, have reaped far more benefit.

Additional reading

Appeasing the Volcano Gods
Feldman, Joanne and Robert I. Tilling (2007). Danger Lurks Deep: The Human Impact of Volcanoes. Geotimes, 52(11), 30-35.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Four Stone Hearth #28

Thank you for reading this edition of the Four Stone Hearth. As most of you are aware, the Four Stone Hearth (4SH) is a bi-weekly blog carnival dedicated to anthropology, welcoming post submissions on all aspects of anthropology. The name is taken from the "four" major fields in anthropology: archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics.

If you're new to blogging, a carnival is an event much like a magazine in that it is usually a regular event that has a common theme and includes articles by many different authors. The difference being that this magazine has editors who take turns "hosting" the event and by publishing it on their own blog. That makes the host's blog a hub to the articles. The benefit to the host and those that submit articles is increased web traffic and the opportunity to get your writing noticed by people who share their interests. If you would like to host an upcoming 4SH or if you're interested in sending articles and posts please send an email to (hosting), or (article/post submission).

This week's edition is below the fold, so please click the "Read More…" link and visit the authors of some of the best anthropology writing in the blogosphere!

-Carl Feagans

Cosmopolitan - Bringing Archaeology into Forensics

This is one of my favorite articles so far. Anatoly Venovcev, a 2nd year archaeology student in Canada, discusses an experiment directed by his professor in which archaeological technique is applied to forensic examination of a house fire, complete with pig carcasses! Everyone listed in the 4SH today wrote some good stuff, but I'm sorry, Anatoly wins this week's Editor's Choice Award. Did I mention he included pig carcasses?

Archaeozoology - Exploitation of Wild Mammals in South-west Ethiopia during the Holocene
Archaeozoo is the nom de blog of the author of this article, which is a very interesting read. The author compares and contrasts the biodiversity, particularly with regard to faunal populations of past and present-day Ethiopia and the Afar rift of Africa. Human activity truly can be inferred from examining faunal remains and this article reveals a few tidbits of information on how this is possible. - Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya
Kambiz discusses recent PNAS paper on the Nakalipithecus nakayamai, a Miocene Ape from Kenya, and goes into some detail regarding the dentition. Included in this article are photos of a mandible and upper canine of the Miocene ape. For any student of primate evolution or anyone interested in primate evolution, this article is a must.

Remote Central - Professor Teuku Jacob - December 6, 1929 - October 17, 2007
Tim Jones highlights the career, achievements and, perhaps, the shortcomings of Professor Teuku Jacob, the most senior palaeoanthropologist in Indonesia who recently passed away. Jacob was recently criticized regarding the damage suffered to the Liang Bua 1 fossil set (Homo floresiensis, a.k.a. the hobbit), but, as Tim shares with us, Jacob was very influential and notable in paleoanthropology and Indonesia. Our condolences to the family and friends of Teuku Jacob.

Shared Symbolic Storage - Evolutionary Metaphysics V
Michael writes that this is an article that should be of interest to anthropologists since it relates to the evolution of the human mind and language. It's so rare that we get posts on linguistics that I dived right into this post almost as soon as it arrived in my inbox. I plan to read his other stuff as well, since linguistics is a field that I find fascinating.

Hot Cup of JoeRock Art Analysis
My own short post on rock art analysis. This was originally hosted at, but I think it got lost in the server change earlier this year, so I thought I might give it new life.

The posts above were submitted directly by the authors, and I thank them, as I'm sure you do. But this isn't the limits of anthropological writing in the blogosphere. There are hundreds of blogs that deal with some form of anthropology or another, so I took the liberty of piecing together a list of articles available, most of them from authors we all know and love already, but, hopefully, there will be some new blogs you can add to your own personal list. If you're like me, your feeds are out of control, but I try to read them all! For those blogs included below that normally contribute regularly to 4SH but didn't get around to it, we understand! It's the holidays… your busy! (Note, if I included anyone that would rather not be listed, please send me an email or leave a comment and I'll remove your post. Maybe).

Thank you, Tim, for providing links to most of these!

The rest:

Aardvarchaeology - Anders Söderberg on Sigtuna Metalworking

A Very Remote Period Indeed - The modern Stone Age family Archaeology - New Dating Technique Tested at Lene Hara Cave

Afarensis - Dover Comes to PBS - The AAA decides to oppose HTS Anthropology and More on the AAA's decision to oppose the HTS

Antiquarian's Attic – Two Brothers

Bad Archaeology – Modern Ruins

BLDG Blog – Inside The Vault

Centauri Dreams - A Technological Civilization by Night

Dieneke's Anthropology Blog - How humans became warlike altruists

Exploring Our Matrix - The Atheist Contribution to World Civilization

Greg Laden's Blog - Modern Humans and Neanderthals: Did they "do it?"

Hominin Dental Anthropology - New Kenyan fossil at 10 Ma

John Hawks - An interview with Mica Glantz

NorthState Science - Exploring Our Matrix - And Why Intelligent Design Forced Me To Leave The Church

Old Dirt, New Thoughts – A Cold End to the Church Dig

Savage Minds - Family Affair, II: "traditional" families and child abuse

Writer's Daily Grind - Cavemen, the TV show

Yann Klimentides - Recent revisions regarding how the genome works

Remote Central - 7,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings Found Near Chichen Itza


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rock Art Analysis

Rock art analysis has received a bad rap in archaeology over the years, but in the last decade or so, some advances have been made to begin changing that. It’s easy to see why many archaeologists might have a hard time with rock art in general: rock art is near impossible to accurately date and its artistic nature makes interpretation very subjective. Is the image a symbol for an idea or concept that is consistent from site to site and even cross-culturally, or is it merely the artistic expression of the individual who created it? Does the scene depicted in a rock art panel represent a real event, a myth or story, or is it just the daily musings of an artistically inclined hunter-gatherer?

Despite past marginalization of rock art analysis, the glyphs and images painted, etched and carved are artifacts of the past. They’re material remains of an ancient culture and, in some cases, are all that remain to speak for that culture. Luckily, new techniques and standards are being developed to overcome the marginalization of rock art and look at it with an objective and scientific eye.

Among the chief concerns of archaeologists in examining a rock art site is dating. When were the images on the rock created? Where they created at once? Were there earlier registers with later ones added in stages? Was maintenance done over the millennia on one or more registers? If one register was maintained by re-applying pigment, and not others, why is this so?

There are a few different relative dating techniques that can apply to rock art: examining how one motif overlays another; dating intrusions like water stains; dating artifacts found in the vicinity; and so on. But these only give relative dates to each other and no absolute date from which to begin. There are, however, a few techniques that are being developed that can absolutely date rock art.

Rock Varnish Dating

Microbes on the rock surface capture fine particles of dust that build up laminations in a micro-stratagraphic sequence. From this, several methods can be used to derive an age of the varnish and, thus, the earliest possible age for the glyph. The first involves measuring the cation-ion ratio. The chemistry of the rock varnish is examined at the microscopic level to determine the rate at which major trace elements like potassium and calcium are leached out compared with other elements like titanium. While not the most precise of dating methods, CR dating does compare very well to dating a site based projectile point and ceramic styles.

A second technique involving rock varnish is VML (varnish miscrolamination). This technique looks at rock varnish layers in a way similar to dendrochronology in that it depends on the consistent application of varnish layers over time with exception to significant climatic interruptions. And, it is these climatic interruptions that are depended upon to create visible markers in the layered sequence since they result in micro-stratigraphic layers that are rich or poor in manganese for wet and dry conditions respectively. There appears to be good use for such techniques in samples with ages over 10,000 years.

A third method involves accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) radio-carbon dating of organic matter that can become trapped in small crevices and cracks. Like each of the rock varnish techniques, AMS depends on the fact that the varnishing of the rock surface occur after the glyph has been etched. The AMS method can also be used on pictographs, however, if the pictograph was painted with a charcoal-based paint or one created with an organic binder like blood or saliva, assuming that he organic compounds can be extracted. Pictographs can also be dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) of wasp or swallow nests since the period in which the quartz granules contained in the nest matrix have been deprived of sunlight, all the while building up luminescence, can be determined. Such a technique doesn’t tell when the pictograph was painted, of course, but it can tell at least how long it’s been present.

The subject of rock art analysis is one that is fascinating and it’s a topic that I, for one, intend to follow more closely. One of my primary interests in archaeology is that of ancient religions and beliefs and, for the pre-literate, pre-pottery societies artistic representation on rock surfaces is among the only material remains these societies have left behind. Indeed, being pre-literate in no way implies that these people did not have stories to tell and a desire to share them with subsequent generations. If one assumes that these people were aware that oral traditions naturally suffer from accident omission, forgetfulness, and exaggeration, wouldn’t it follow that they would want some sort of framework from which subsequent story-tellers can flesh out the tale? Tales of origins, tales of tricksters, tales that answer the why and how questions that burn in all of us. Are we so different today with our blogs and our YouTube and countless other means of recording our histories and the things that we find significant in our attempts to answer the questions of why and how?

The following is a bibliography that I hope others may find useful. Much of the above was derived from it, but I’ll include a few sources I have yet to read but are on my list.

Further Reading:

Dorn, Ronald I; Jull, A.J.T.; Donahue, D.J..; Linick, T.W.; Toolin, L.J. (1989). Accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of rock varnish. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 101, 1363-1372.

Dorn, Ronald I.; Whitley, D.S. (1983) Cation-ratio dating of petroglyphs from the Western United States, North America. Nature, 302, 816-818.

____ (1984). Chronometric and Relative Age Determination of Petroglyphs in the Western United States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74, 308-322.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Dorn, R.I. (1996). Understanding spatial variability in environmental changes in drylands with rock varnish microlaminations. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86, 187-212.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S. (2000). How fast does rock varnish grow? Geology, 28, 183-186.

Liu, Tanzhuo; Broecker, W.S.; Bell, J.W.; Mandeville, C.W. (2000). Terminal Pleistocene wet event recorded in rock varnish from the Las Vegas Valley, southern Nevada. Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology, 161, 423-433.

Valledas, H.; et al (1992). Direct Radiocarbon Dates for the Prehistoric Paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux Caves. Nature, 357, 68-70.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Call for Submissions: Four Stone Hearth

The next edition of the Four Stone Hearth will be hosted here on 11/21/07 –that's Wednesday!

Think about it: lots of folks will be off for Thanksgiving… sitting around… reading blogs on the computer since they're not at work. Get that exposure for your blog this week! Send your latest anthropology writing to me at cfeagans AT gmail DOT com.

So far, I have 2 submissions! The latest is in linguistic anthropology. Send articles, posts, and blog entries related to archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical/medical anthropology, and linguistics. If I don't get anything, I'll browse the anthro-blogs and find something, so if you see an article of your listed and you'd rather it isn't, send me an email or leave a comment and I'll remove it.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Carnival Time!

The 27th edition of the Four Stone Hearth is up at Sorting Out Science. Sam Wise has done a great job presenting some of the best in anthropological blogging in the last week or two.

I'll be hosting this carnival here in a fortnight, so if you have posts you'd like to suggest from your own blog or others, email them to me at cfeagans -AT- gmail -DOT- com.

In the meantime, visit Sam and check out the other anthro blogs linked in the FSH this week.

If you're interested in hosting a Four Stone Hearth blog carnival on your blog, send an email to Martin Rundkvist through Submissions for upcoming FSH's can be sent to and they'll be redirected to the host.


Monday, November 05, 2007

The "Number One on Google" Meme

By way of Northstate Science, who saw it first at Pharyngula, and apparently originated from World's Fair about 2 weeks ago (I'm behind on my blogging...), comes a meme with "the premise that you will attempt to find 5 statements, which if you were to type into google, you'll find that you are returned with your blog as the number one hit."

Here is my five:

  1. Hot Cup of Joe
  2. Kevin Trudeau Pseudoscience
  3. Chariots Egyptian Abydos
  4. Howler Monkey Vocalizations
  5. Pseudo-Archaeology Bosnian Pyramid


Cavemen Liked Big Butts and They Cannot Lie

Acouple of online editions of U.K. newspapers reported the recent finds of 30 carvings recovered at an archaeological site in Poland, dating to about 15,000 years ago. Most anthropologists and archaeologists would probably be immediately familiar with the Venus Figurine motif, but the recent media report was been picked up by a few blogs, each appealing to the title gag.

(Note: This post originally appeared on in March 2007 and I was considering a follow up post linking to it, but couldn't find it in the archives. I think a few posts were lost Kambiz's server move. I'm reposting it here and using it for my Four Stone Hearth entry this fortnight with more (hopefully) on the Venus Figure motif in the future.)

Venus Figurines of the Paleolithic and Their Caricatured Features

Admittedly, the gag is funny, but looking deeper at the Venus Figurines reveals an interesting and fascinating motif and one that, amazingly enough, spans large geographic and chronological ranges. The distinctive motif has been found from Spain and France to Russia and back down to Anatolia and Mesopotamia (Turkey and Iran/Iraq). They date to as far back as 24,000 years and as recent as the Bronze Age, perhaps about 5,000 years ago.

Venus of Willendorf
The motif itself includes several prominent and relatively consistent features. In almost all cases the figure is obese, often very obese. Voluptuous breasts and thighs, and an overall curvaceous appearance are features present almost without fail. Other frequently occurring characteristics include the presence of unusually small arms and legs, prominent buttocks, the lack of feet, and obvious vaginal features like a pronounced vulva. Regional features are also notable: the Venus of Willendorf, perhaps the most recognizable Venus Figurine, appears to be wearing a hat or headdress. The goddess figurines of Çatalhöyük are depicted seated in a throne flanked by felines with her hands resting on their heads. She’s also presented as giving birth and James Mellart, who excavated Çatalhöyük in the 1950s, interpreted the shrine where such a figurine was discovered to be a birthing place. A goddess seated between two felines was also found in a Çatalhöyük granary, suggesting that fertility may, indeed, be a theme there.

But did cavemen prefer big butts? The recent media reports about the Polish Venus carvings note that historians attribute this reverence for curves and voluptuousness as attributes that were considered to be ideal for prehistoric societies since they implied wealth and healthy diet.

They also suggested she would be a successful mother, able to produce lots of children and sent out a message to other men that her partner was a strong and successful hunter – making him more attractive to other women.
But this is the Venus Figurine simplified. The fact is, any speculation on what the figurines really meant is, well, speculation. It’s a fact that they span many societies and still have a relatively common appearance. It’s a fact that they greatly out-number male figurines. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines accurately represented what a fat woman looks like, so there must have been fat women from whom the craftsman / artist derived inspiration. It’s a fact that the earliest figurines included details like vulva. And it’s a fact that some features were prominent (breasts, stomachs, buttocks, vulva) and detailed while others were not (feet, arms, face). It’s a fact that red ochre has been found in association with some of the figurines.

When these facts are considered, it becomes clear that the artist spent some time on the details that he wanted to be noticed and diminished the details that were insignificant. The Venus of Willendorf, for instance had a hat: a very detailed and complex representation of a woven textile that must have involved much of the artist’s time. Seven concentric rows that circle a rosette comprise the headgear and dimples, folds and rolls of adipose were carefully crafted. Yet, the artist omitted a face and feet. Could this mean she’s an anonymous representation of the “perfect” woman for the sophisticated hunter-gatherer? Or could it have been a way of representing a generic mother goddess? The pronounced vulva and red ochre that the Willendorf figure was painted in may have, together, been reminiscent of menstruation and thus fertility. Certainly a prehistoric woman with large stores of fat would be better equipped to nourish children and a caricatured, obese representation might have been used to refer to the mother goddess who nourishes all life. Her lack of feet (they weren’t broken off –they were never added) may have been intentional, affording the goddess figurine no way to depart from her assigned station (a birthing shrine or granary); or, maybe, the artist simply wasn’t good at feet and didn’t find them important. Without feet, the figurine couldn’t have been stood up nor would it sit or lie in any manner that appeared natural or intended. But it could be held and the person holding it would feel the curves and the shape of the figure.

Originally, the Venus Figurine was named “Venus” as a joke. A pejorative meant to demean the “uncivilized” and “primitive” opinion of beauty that the “caveman” obviously had. The irony isn’t lost, however, if the figurine motif is, indeed, a goddess. Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of beauty and love, an analog of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and consistently depicted in the nude. The Roman/Greek version, however, is more in line with the modern (or, at least, Western) idea of beautiful, sensual, and sexually attractive with her thin form and ample, but not pendulous, breasts. Nor was her pubic region depicted as more than a mere space, absent of vulva, vaginal lips, and the details present in her more ancient predecessor.

There is much more that can be written on the Venus Figurine, so perhaps I’ll revisit this subject again in the future. But I’ll close with the following thought: the most convincing evidence to me that the Venus of Willendorf (and, therefore, probably most of the Venus figurines) was a goddess and not a representation of an actual person is the hat and lack of face. Traditionally, representations of elites (kings, queens, nobility, and gods) include headgear. That the face was omitted might signify that there was more anonymity involved than a female ruler, shaman, oracle, or other elite. Certainly the reverence for feminine attributes might indicate matriarchal societies existed, or at least a much less patriarchal one than more recent human cultures are guilty of.

Further Reading:

Evans, Martin (2007). Why cavemen liked curvy cavewomen ... like Kylie. Daily Express, Tuesday, March 13, 2007.

Soffer, Olga; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000). The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology 41, pp. 511-537.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tutankahmen on Display - the Anniversary of the Discovery of his Tomb

Gold—everywhere the glint of gold! These were the words of Howard Carter as he recalled first seeing the antechamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb as he flicked his flashlight back and forth. Revealed to Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were effigies of Tutankhamen himself, falcon-headed figures, a golden throne, overturned chariots, a gilded snake, and other treasures. It must have been a terrific sight -one that most archaeologists never come close to seeing as they meticulously dust and scrap matrix away from broken potsherds and dull-by-comparison hearths. And today, November 4, marks the anniversary of Carter and Carnarvon's discovery of Tutahnkamen's tomb, perhaps the single most celebrated pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

And this week, archaeologists removed Tutankhamen's mummy from its sarcophagus, placing it on display in a climate controlled display case. According to the BBC, "only about 50 living people have seen the face of the boy king, who died more than 3,000 years ago" until the display that took place today. Part of the reason for the new venue is due to the heat and humidity introduced into his tomb each year by tourists. But I'm sure another consideration is revenue:

"The golden boy has magic and mystery and therefore every person all over the world will see what Egypt is doing to preserve the golden boy, and all of them I am sure will come to see the golden boy," Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass told reporters before the body was moved.

Howard Carter and his team (Lord Carnarnvon died a few weeks after the tomb was opened from an infection brought on by a mosquito bite, giving rise to the "curse" myth) set a standard for meticulous excavation of the tomb. It took him nearly a full decade to photograph and record all the details of Tutankhamen's tomb which contained 5,398 items! This, in spite of the fact that thieves made off with at least 60 percent of the original jewelry based on calculations made from comparing the 200 or so pieces that remained with packing inventories. Most of these that remained were actually in Tut's sarcophagus and wrapped in his linens.

The mummy itself didn't fare so well by today's standards of excavation, however. While removing the treasures, Carter dismembered Tutankhamen and "used hot knives and wires to remove the gold mask which was fused to Tutankhamen's face by the embalming process."

Tutankhamen was actually laid out in the sun so the heat would soften the resin and allow the team to remove the wrappings and the artifacts.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Anthropologists find evidence of earliest "Double-Dog Dare:" over 164,000 yrs ago!

One of my favorite movies during the holidays is the 1983 classic "A Christmas Story" depicting the schemes of Ralphie Parker as he tries to convince Santa Clause (and his parents) to bring him a Red Ryder BB gun, which every adult (including the department store Santa) warns, "you'll put your eye out." In this classic film, a bunch of kids gather around a flagpole, bundled in their winter coats, and dare one of their peers to lick the pole. It's below freezing. The result, of course, is that the aptly named character, Flick, sticks his tongue to the pole. Where it gets stuck.

Flick: Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That's dumb!
Schwartz: That's 'cause you know it'll stick!
Flick: You're full of it!
Schwartz: Oh yeah?
Flick: Yeah!
Schwartz: Well I double-DOG-dare ya!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] NOW it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a "triple dare ya"? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare.
Schwartz: I TRIPLE-dog-dare ya!
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat!
As kids, most of us have been witness or party to the Double-Dog-Dare (and a few unfortunates may have been subjected to the "Triple-Dog-Dare"). But where does it come from? How long have people been "daring" each other? Before the DVD player and VCR, was there a "Jackass" culture that simply lacked a reality-television to properly proliferate?

Anthropologists have shed some new light on this enigma. Read below the fold for more!

Listening to Morning Edition on NPR this morning, between guilt-ridden appeals for pledges (its that time for my local NPR station, ugh...), I heard the following story: Scientists Make Rare Find in S. African Cave.

What was that find, you ask? A petroglyph or pictograph depicting an early human with tongue affixed to a rock while fellow hunter-gatherers look on? Not quite. Admittedly, I've taken some literary license with my blog-take on this story. But throughout the broadcast, one thing kept coming to mind: who was the first person to look at a clam or oyster after prying open the shell and think to himself, "I wonder what this tastes like?"

You see, the scientists above are anthropologists who explored a cave on Pinnacle Point in South Africa on a rocky bluff near the ocean. In this cave, the anthropologists (among them Curtis Marean of Arizona State University) discovered evidence of shellfish and whale used for food, small stone blades, and red ochre with grinding marks where it had been used to create powder to mix a paint. All dated to over 164,000 years ago.
Not only do we see them eating shellfish, but there is a whale barnacle, a special species of barnacle that only appears on the skin of a whale," Marean said. "So that's a clear piece of evidence that they brought in a chunk of whale skin and blubber and ate it at that site, so what we have is the earliest dated systematic use of marine resources.
I missed it during the broadcast, but the online, text version of the story quotes Jonathan Swift's line, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster" and I'm happy to discover I'm not the only person that was pondering the motivations of the first person to slurp an oyster from its shell.

It's humorous to think of people standing around, 164,000 years ago, bodies painted red from the ochre paint, urging a peer holding a half an oyster shell to "do it!" Perhaps the first person to slurp an oyster was also the first in his clan to paint his body red. I'll never look at an oyster bar or hors devours during happy hour the same again.

But the true motivation behind that first oyster was likely hunger. Perhaps someone in antiquity observed a sea bird or a starfish dining on an oyster (or other shellfish) and realized its potential as a food source seeing an abundance of bedded oysters or dug for clams or mussels in shallows during low tide. I've heard arguments from several anthropologists and archaeologists that a move to shellfish and seafood in the human diet during antiquity may have contributed greatly to our evolution to homo sapiens due to increases in Omega-3 fatty acids and various proteins. Terra Amata near Nice in France is said to have evidence of shellfish consumption by hominids at around 300,000 years ago, so the Pinnacle Point find may not be the first human shellfish use, but it is certainly among the earliest sites where we have evidence for it.

Jonathan Swift's "bold man" may not have been among these early humans, but whoever he was, I'm glad he took that Double-Dog-Dare! I've been a fan of oysters and clams my whole life and I try to have a fried oyster sandwich or steamed clams whenever I return to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia where I grew up. If you've never tried an oyster or clams, I recommend butter sauce after steaming. Dee-lish!


Thursday, October 04, 2007

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology

Among the Headlines In Archaeology this Week:

  1. 50 Fifth Graders Participate in Urban Excavation
  2. Third Graders Get to Watch Archaeologists at Fort Hawkins
  3. University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Anthropology Gets $500,000 Award
  4. Computer Software Reveals Ancient Coastline

Click the "Read More" link below to read each news item one-by-one or the topic link above to take you directly to the item and a hyperlink to the original story and related links.

50 Fifth Graders Participate in Urban Excavation
Actually there were both fourth and fifth graders from John Muir Elementary School who teamed up with archaeologists from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington to participate in an urban dig in the Rainier Valley. Artifacts of glass, pottery, and metal have been found. Artist Donald Fels will incorporate artifacts and casts of artifacts into sculptures placed along a hillside path in the neighborhood. Students learned basic archaeological techniques, how to use maps, and how the landscape changes and develops over time; and by learning the local history, these students gained a valuable insight into history and hopefully there are a few who will take this to a life-long interest.

Third Graders Get to Watch Archaeologists at Fort Hawkins
Third Graders in the Macon, Georgia area had the opportunity to watch archaeologists at work during a dig at the historic Fort Hawkins, named for Benjamin Hawkins, the man charged with the responsibility for preventing a Creek Indian uprising and protecting local settlers. The fort was established in 1805 and was a supply hub during the War of 1812 as well as an embarkation point for soldiers headed for the First Seminole War. The fort was decommissioned in 1822. Now, a team from Lamar Institute is working to establish the fort's original location and excavate artifacts in order to build an on-site replica of the fort.

University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Anthropology Gets $500,000 Award
The Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on East and Southeast Asian Archeology and Early History is making the award of $500,000 to the University of Hawaii's Manoa Department of Anthropology and it will help fund their Asian archaeology program.

Computer Software Reveals Ancient Coastline

The changing shape of Australasia can now be seen in a new interactive digital map that mimics the rise and fall of sea levels over the past 100,000 years.

The map also has pop-up images and text about key archaeological sites and possible routes humans took from Asia to Australia during the last ice age.
Matthew Coller of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia developed the map, based on Google Earth, but with the added dimension of time. He presented a paper on the topic at the Australasian Archaeological Conference titled, SahulTime: a Web-delieverable Temporal GIS for Archaeological Visualizations. The map itself is fun, and I spent a few minutes playing around with it. If I were instructing a class on Hominid Evolution, I think this is one I'd like to put up on the overhead to demonstrate the changes in sea level over the last 100,000 years.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Italian Antiquities Trial - a Brief Review

During the summer of 2005, a trial began in Italy with the goal of deciding the guilt or innocence of Marion True along with Robert Hecht, Jr in conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The trial is still underway in Rome and has certainly fulfilled the 2 year prediction some gave. The result is that several museums have already returned antiquities of illicit origin to their countries of origin, pariticuarly Italy and Greece.

True, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Hecht, the descendent of the department store mogul, didn't begin their portions of the trial until Wednesday, November 16, 2005. Hecht was implicated following the 2004 conviction of Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer found to be responsible for one of the most sophisticated and extensive illicit antiquities smuggling rings in the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Giacomo Medici probably sold more antiquities at Sotheby’s than any other single owner. Over the years, thousands of objects from Medici had passed through the London salesroom and millions of pounds had changed hands. None of the antiquities had any provenance because all were illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy (Watson & Todeschini, p. 27 ).

True resigned from her position, recently filled by Karol Wight, in October 2005 under the fire of criticism with regard to her handling of acquisitions that had questionable origins. As she and Hecht began the trial in November 2006, Italy was demanding the return of 52 artifacts that were deemed to be stolen or looted and in the possession of the Getty. While Italy was also in negotiation with other museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks with the Getty were the most difficult. The Getty initially only agreed to return 26 out of the 52 artifacts and the point of most contention seemed to surround the fate of a bronze statue, known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, snagged in the nets of an Italian fishing trawler of the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1964.

In December of 2006, however, The Getty returned several antiquities to Greece, including a funerary wreath, a kore, and a grave marker with a marble votive. And it was in this month that Marion True sends a letter to the Getty reflecting her bitterness of the museum board's treatment of her in the media. She accuses the Getty of using her as the fall guy for a practice of antiquities acquisition that was the board's own responsibility.

By March, however, the Italian court gets to hear the contents of a 1992 letter that True wrote to the Getty board in which she informed them that the wreath mentioned above was "too dangerous for us to get involved with." On the surface, it would seem that her intentions are pure, but Swiss antiquities dealer, Christoph Leon, stated that she advised the board to go ahead with the purchase the following year for $1.15 million. Leon is also on trial.

One of the interesting developments of the antiquities trial in Italy is the attention that has been spotlighted on the role of the collector as well as the museum in the antiquities trade. Indeed, without these entities, there would simply be no market for illicit antiquities. In June of 2007, the Italian court turned its attention to the American antiquities collectors who have collections that include objects looted from Italy as well as other countries. An Italian archaeologist, Daniela Rizzo, named Texas oilmen Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of whom liquidated their collections along with other assets after loosing their fortunes. Others were also mentioned, including Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, the art philanthropists who once loaned True $400,000 allegedly repaid at around the time the Fleischmans sold part of their collection to the Getty for $20 million.

Its worth noting that 90 percent of the art collections in American art museums are the result of private donation. The collectors aren't simply being altruistic, the donations result in tax deductions equal to the current market value of the object being donated -often far beyond the price they paid for it. And museums struggling for funds are all-too-eager to accept these donations to increase their presence, particularly when the antiquities are top-rate. About a dozen of the 52 artifacts that Italy wanted returned was donated by the Fleischmans.

Most recently, while the trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continues, the Getty has agreed to return some 40 artifacts to Italy, including red and black figured craters and kylixs and amphorae, statues and bronzes. They're even returning the Cult Statue of a Goddess. Most of the artifacts are destined to be transferred in the next several months, but the Cult Statue of a Goddess will remain on display until 2010 at the Getty Villa. The agreements that have been arrived at are important. Even though the artifacts are illicit in origin, they do serve to represent a cultural heritage and cultural ties between nations is extremely important in the field of archaeology.

The fates of Marion True, Robert Hecht and the Victorious Youth remain to be seen. Italy and the Getty agreed to "defer discussions" of the disputed bronze "until the outcome of the ongoing legal proceedings which are now underway in Pesaro, Italy."

Related Sources

Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia (2006) The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy 's Tomb Raiders to the World's Great Museums. New York: Public Affairs

The Getty (2007). Italian Ministry of Culture and J. Paul Getty Trust Reach Agreement. Press Release.

Povoledo, Elisaetta (2006). Italy Expresses Dismay with Getty's Stand on Disputed Art. The New York Times, 11/24/06, E,1.

Higgins, Charlotte (2006). Getty returns disputed works to Greece: Antiquities may have been exported illegally: Museum tightens policies on provenance of objects. The Guardian, 12/13/06, pg. 5.

Felch, Jason; Frammolino, R. (2006). Getty lets her tak fall, ex-curator says; The trust's silence in the art looting case is taken as sign of her guilt, Marion True asserts. Los Angeles Times, 12/29/06, Home Edition, B, 1.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Avast Ye Scurvy Dogs!

Today be talk like a pirate day! Arrr!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Bosnian Pyramid: a Brief Summary


n the Spring of 2006, the self-qualified "archaeologist" Semir Osmanagic announced that he discovered pyramids near Visoko, Bosnia. And not just any pyramid, but the largest pyramid in the world. And not just any largest-pyramid-in-the-world, but the oldest largest-pyramid-in-the-world!

And throughout the remainder of 2006 through 2007, Osmanagic and his followers pursued an incredible hypothesis regarding what geologists have previously and since regarded as hills. The core hypothesis they hold is that the hills at Visoko are man-made pyramids created between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, which they claim will "change the history of Europe and The World as we know it (Ahmetovic, 2007)."

If nothing else can be said, it must be admitted that the Osmanagic PR machine is good. The mainstream media jumped on the story, accepting at face-value what Osmanagic was claiming seemingly without consulting anyone in academia on the issue. Because of this, an interesting phenomenon occurred, one that even I fell victim to: there was tacit acceptance that something genuine was found since the media billed Osmanagic as a legitimate authority. They also implied that his methods were valid as well.

It wasn't long before science bloggers were pointing out some of the fallacies and I quickly realized the error of my assumptions as I reviewed Osmanagic's site and things just didn't add up. I initially assumed that since media sources like the BBC and The Economist were giving credibility to Osmanagic's "discovery," that there must be something to it. But with even my first post on the subject, I noted that one should be skeptical when comments like "nature does not make geometrical shapes" are used and it seemed strange that a researcher would make a direct appeal to the public rather than publish such a find in academia. This was, of course, before I knew who Osmangic was or what his qualifications (or lacks thereof) were.

Semir "Sam" Osmanagic is a Bosnian-American and entrepreneur from Houston, TX who is also an author, having written The World of the Maya (2005), which provides for some very outlandish ideas of the Mayan civilization, placing as their ancestors the Atlanteans (yes, of Atlantis not Atlanta, GA). The Atlanteans, of course, came from Pleiades –according to Osmanagic (Osmanagic, 2005):

These beings of Atlantis are to be found in various locations through-out Mexico – from Tula (north of Mexico City) and Oxkintok to Chichen Itza […] [t]he Mayan hieroglyphics tell us that their ancestors came from the Pleiades… first arriving at Atlantis where they created an advanced civilization […] [t]he Maya inherited knowledge from their ancestors at Atlantis and Lemuria (Mu).

Even in light of the skeptical questions being asked by those of more qualified authority through science blogs and publications, and even though there were some very rational and informed criticisms being offered, mainstream media continued to present the story as if it were a valid one. On October 27, 2006, ABC's Nightline, anchored by Martin Bashir, aired a segment in which Nick Watt reported on Osmanagic, interviewing him and allowing him to continue his PR push and his appeal to the public. In this report, Osmanigic was given several soundbites including, "If you've found stone blocks built by man, then it will be obvious for everyone that this is a huge man-made structure in the shape of the pyramid" (Watt, 2006).

Except that it hasn't been shown that "stone blocks built by man" have been discovered. Geologists recognize the features at Visoko as examples of orthogonal jointing and tectonic uplift. The very systematic, "ladder-like" pattern that I've seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, and then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original (Bai, Maerten, Gross, & Aydin, 2002). Imagine the force necessary to break a cracker in half, then half again in the other direction. Other claims of a similar vein by Osmanagic included that there exists a man-made "pavement," which is contradicted by the presence of geologic evidence once again. The "pavement" stones are more examples of tectonically influenced jointing and fracturing –the evidence is the presence of ripple-marks created before the tectonic events, when the sediment was just underwater. Needless to say, this sediment has been above water for millions of years –long before the evolution of hominids, much less hominids that were able to construct pyramids.

The Osmanagic team of mystery-mongers and the significance-junkies that follow them closely have gone back and forth in their efforts to "excavate" the site. Several geologists and archaeologists have visited since Osmanagic made his claim, and even before, and the professional opinions of those that are qualified to assess the site are that geology explains the curious features and that there is an archaeological significance to the region. It just isn't one that fits the hypothesis that Osmanagic has established. The archaeology of the area is of the Roman period and in genuine danger of being destroyed by the pseudoscientific actions of Osmanagic. While it was reported in June of 2007 that government funding for excavating the site was cut (Ljubić & Barić, 2007), Osmanagic's website ( reported in August that "excavations were fully underway," but this is most likely on private lands using money fleeced from duped contributors.

Fraud and Deception?

There is also a hint of fraud or, at the very least, deception on the part of the Osmanagic team as they perpetuate their pseudoscientific claims. Alun Salt wrote about Grace Fegan (Salt, 2006), an Irish archaeologist whose name was initially listed as one of the professionals employed by the Osmanagic team. Unfortunately for Fegan, it appeared that Osmanagic not only drafted her name for his cause, he did so without informing her. Moreover, her email address link in the Osmanagic press release (according to Salt), wasn't hers, leaving the rational conclusion to be that there was someone willing to answer questions of her involvement by email on behalf of Osmanagic's team. There's also the matter of Dr. Ali Abdallah Barakat, the Egyptologist Osmanagic "consulted" with. In a letter to Mark Rose, the online editor of Archaeology Magazine, Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, stated (Hawass, 2006):

Mr. Barakat, the Egyptian geologist working with Mr. Osmanagic, knows nothing about Egyptian pyramids. He was not sent by the SCA, and we do not support or concur with his statements.

Other archaeologists, such as a specialist in Prehistory at the National Museum in Sarajevo named Zellika, have stated that Mr. Osmanagic is giving out false information. What can Mr. Osmanagic use to show the age of the "pyramid?" No archaeological materials have been found near the pyramid.

Ultimately Barakat's conclusions were that the site was not a man-made feature but it may be a hill that was subsequently shaped or modified by man. I don't think I've seen the Osmanagic PR machine point that out, but after spending 45 days at the site Barakat was quoted to say, "they are natural, completely natural," with regard to the sandstone blocks uncovered (Woodard, 2007).

Another possible (and probable) deception involves the rock with "inscriptions" that is claimed to be further evidence of a man-made pyramid. In an interview with Dr. Collette Dowell, Francesco Garufi quotes Dowell (Garufi, 2006) as saying:

This was the famous stone with the letter 'E' and other inscriptions on it. We were told by several scientists who first examined the tunnel with the stone slab, there were no inscriptions on it; they were added on at a later date.

One or two other pages at Circular Times, written by Dowell, report a similar story. I don't know who these "scientists who first examined" the tunnel are nor when they examined it –she does say that at least one was a geologist. But I do know that I've yet to see any qualitative analysis done on the alleged inscriptions by experts in epigraphy, rock art and petroglyphs. What is the status of the patina within the inscriptions as compared to that of other places in the same stone; or other stones within the same context; and so on.

The list of questions that a genuine scientist or archaeologist would have for Osmanagic's claims seems endless. Never are there details such as context and provenance. Never are there detailed analyses of phytoliths, pollens, carbonates, etc. Never are there site plans or stratagraphic sketches of the sites "excavated." Indeed, the very word "excavation" would only be proper at Visoko if used in the context of a construction site rather than an archaeological one since Osmanagic is using a backhoe to quickly shape the hill into his preconceived pyramid rather than small trowels, brushes and dental instruments to carefully and methodically remove the matrix in the slow, painstaking manner of real archaeology.

Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology

Real archaeology begins with a research question and ends up wherever the evidence in the form of artifacts, features or the lack thereof takes it. Pseudoarchaeology, however, begins with a conclusion and only conducts that research which is guaranteed to support that conclusion. Indeed, most Pseudoarchaeologists do not excavate at all –Osmanagic, at first glance, would seem to be the exception. But as I said, he really isn't excavating in the archaeological sense.

Politics, Nationalism and Economy

Finally, it's worth noting that the Bosnian Pyramid debacle, which is still ongoing, appears to appeal more to nationalism and politics than it does to actual science. After all, Bosnia and Herzegovina is dealing with the double whammy of recovering from a war and rebuilding an economy. Not only are tourists desperately needed for a post-war economy in reform (the country's GDP dropped 75% in the 1990s), but the people are also in desperate need of cultural reasons to be proud. Critics of Osmanagic are quickly labeled by his followers as political detractors, or Serbians who just hate Croatians. Osmanagic is of Croatian descent and there's seems to be special disdain for Serbians who dare criticize Osmanagic and his followers.

The amount of information that exists on the Bosnian Pyramid debacle is enormous and could, perhaps, fill a book. There is much I'd like to have discussed such as the attempt to get UNESCO to visit and apply a World Heritage Site label to the region; the completely wrong claims about "geometric symmetry" and aligning "precisely with cardinal directions;" the local geology; the poor methodology of pseudoarchaeologists; and so on.

Perhaps I'll leave those for later, shorter posts.

Works Cited

Ahmetovic, S. (2007, September 20). Live in New York: Presentation on the "First European Pyramids". (The Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun, Performer) Florentine Room of the Radisson Hotel, New York, NY, USA.

Bai, T., Maerten, L., Gross, M., & Aydin, A. (2002). Orthogonal cross joints: do they imply a regional stress rotation. ournal of Structural Geology
, 24, 77-88.

Garufi, F. (2006). World's Largest Pyramid? or Hoax? (C. Dowell, Editor) Retrieved September 10, 2007, from Circular Times:

Hawass, Z. (2006, June 27). Personal Correspondance with Mark Rose. Retrieved September 9, 2007, from Archaeology Magazine:

Ljubić, T., & Barić, I. (2007, June 11). Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Loses Funding. Javno .

Osmanagic, S. (2005). The World of the Maya. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Salt, A. (2006, May 29). Bosnian Pyramids: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Atlantis. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from History News Network:

Watt, N. (2006). Ancient Pyramids of Bosnia? Many are Believers. Nightline.

Woodard, C. (2007). The Great Pyramids of ... Bosnia? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (30), A12.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vikings in Recent Archaeological News

A Viking ship is apparently parked at a pub near Liverpool. The pub wasn't there when the ship was "parked," however, since it has been there for over 1,000 years. Its now sitting about 2 meters below ground and was discovered by a University of Nottingham archaeologist using ground-penetrating radar. And in Norway, a Viking burial mound was opened on Monday by archaeologists who were hoping to learn about the tomb's occupants who were laid to rest at least 1,173 years ago.

Ground penetrating radar creates three dimensional maps of subsurface features like pithouse floors, hearths, and Viking ships by sending radar pulses through a surface antenna which then reflects back to the surface antenna after encountering objects of a density higher than the surrounding soil. The three dimensional possibilities arise when the pulse travel time is analyzed and the results of multiple transects are organized in a grid.

The archaeologist that found the ship admits he hasn't any hard evidence that a Viking ship is actually there -he's basing the hypothesis on the GPR profile, and he would like to raise $5 million to excavate the site properly. The location is in Merseyside near Liverpool, but still some distance from the coast. The search for the ship began when the archaeologist obtained information that it was originally uncovered in 1938 after a previous pub was demolished.

The two women in Norway were originally excavated with different Viking ship in 1948 and their remains were reburied in aluminum caskets placed within stone sarcophagi. The idea was that future scientists might be able to exhume them once again to study their remains once technology advanced.

The mound that they were reburied in is the original mound that they were found in along with the Oseberg Viking Longboat, one of Norway's "greatest archaeological treasures." It was originally discovered in 1903 by Knut Rom, who dug into the burial mound on his farm, and excavated by Gotlander Gabriel Gustafson. This discovery led to Norway's prohibition of the export of antiquities since it was realized at the time of excavation that there really wasn't any law protecting cutural resources in the nation and the farmer could, if he chose to, sell the artifacts and the ship itself to anyone, including foreign collectors. The Oseberg Ship was a celebrity in its own right and the find created a sense of national pride -the realization that that national treasures and cultural resources had little protection under early 20th century Norwegian law created a stir. Luckily a wealthy Norwegian purchased the ship and donated it to the state. Soon after, legislation was passed to protect future cultural resources.

In Norway today, archaeology still seems to create a sense of national pride. According to various news sources, the event on Monday drew quite a crowd, upwards of 300 people, including school children. I wonder if an event like this would get media coverage and a similar turnout in the U.S.? The two women are estimated to be in their 60s and 30s, the eldest assumed to be a woman of power such as a queen. The younger may be a daughter, making her a princess, or a slave, buried with the matriarch for companionship and servitude in the afterlife. Modern DNA techniques may reveal the answer.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology provides a bit more information on the mound's dating (834 CE) and an alternative hypothesis to the burial of the women: the barrow was actually a male grave in which the two female bodies were unceremoniously deposited after being murdered. The male skeleton never found in the site? Removed by Viking period or later relic hunters, possibly even decendents of the man buried.

Interesting stuff.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

The 7th Humanist Symposium

… is up at at Bligbi. Go! Read! Enjoy with a hot cup of joe.

The next HS is at Elliptica three weeks from now so submit your entries here!


Sunday, August 26, 2007

10 Million Year Old Ape Found in Ethiopia

Not alive. I just wanted to clarify that first.

But the fossil remains of what is being dubbed Chororapithecus abyssinicus by the Ethiopian-Japanese team that discovered the ancient ape "represents the earliest recognised primate directly related to modern-day gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos."

Found were a single canine and eight molars which show that Chororapithecus was either an early ancestor to the gorilla or an independent branch of ape with the same adaptations. While he admits this is an exciting discovery, Peter Andrews, a paleontologist at the British Natural History Museum, was skeptical enough about characteristics of the teeth to indicate it may be hasty to name a new species ancestral to gorillas. Andrews noted that if it is, indeed, a new species, the ape-human split must be pushed back on the evolutionary timeline.

The point at which a humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor is generally held to be at around 7-8 million years ago.

"Chororapithecus indicates that a reconsideration of this assumption is needed," the researchers [who discovered Chororapithecus] said. "In fact, if the orang line was present in Africa prior (to the) first migration of Miocene (some 23-25 million years ago) apes from Africa to Eurasia, then the human-orang split could have easily have been as old as 20 million years ago."

More on this story can be found at this Reuters article: Researchers find prehistoric ape fossils.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Defining Psuedoskepticism

One of the points about my blog that I’ve tried hard to adhere to is being skeptical of pseudo-archaeology1 and even of other claims made in the name of science or medicine2. To date, I have at least 37 posts which I’ve given the label “skeptical3” including Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming and Pseudoskepticism from the "Junkman.4” In these two posts, I use the term “pseudoskepticism” as I refer to individuals whom I perceived as pretending to be skeptical about the topic of global warming. Both of the pseudoskeptics featured in these posts were presenting biased and fallacious arguments regarding global warming as a means of meeting the needs of a separate agenda.

The first pseudoskeptic I discussed was a journalist who writes for a blog and syndicates a right-wing conservative column to print and online media. This writer presented a skeptical position on the then recent documentary by Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, but failed to provide any logical reason or critical analysis to inform his pretended skepticism. In searching for a way to describe his position and the illogical arguments he presented via email with me after I commented on his critical article, I ended up with the only term I could think of that best summarized this writer’s position: pseudoskepticism.

The second pseudoskeptic I wrote about was the “junk science” author, Steven Milloy, who writes articles and books that give the appearance of presenting a skeptical viewpoint also about global warming (among other topics ranging from cigarette smoking to pollution). Even Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science and the weekly newsletter What’s New characterizes Milloy as a pretender and a pseudoskeptic that actually seeks only to further the agendas of industries like that of tobacco and oil.

The interesting thing is, when I decided to use the term “pseudoskeptic” to describe these gentlemen and their less-than-genuine positions, I googled the word to see what had been already written about it, thinking I could use comparisons to other pseudoskeptics or see if others had been similarly critical of Milloy. I harbored no delusions that I’d just coined the term and assumed that it was the logical way to refer to a “fake skeptic,” someone who wants to be seen as skeptical but really doesn’t take the time to give fair evaluation to all data or is willing to revise their position on the things they are skeptical about with the introduction of actual evidence.

I’ve been a long time skeptic and avid reader of journals like Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic, and, more recently, Free Inquiry. I listen to podcasts like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepticality on a regular basis. I participate actively in various internet communities and blogs (often under a pseudonym) giving the skeptical voice to topics ranging from religion to ESP to UFOs to archaeology. I’ve a pretty good and fair understanding of what it means to be a skeptic. And, as a skeptic, I find the easiest way to argue a position that includes extraordinary claims of the supernatural, the paranormal, or some aspect of pseudoscience is to demand evidence to support the claim and to show counter evidence of why more parsimonious explanations are both more probable and plausible.

Like most bloggers, I like to look at my stats from time to time to see where readers are coming from and, today, I noticed that there was a hit from a Wikipedia Talk page. Specifically, Talk: Pseudoskepticism where I found a discussion that was far more informative than the actual Wikipedia entry for Pseudoskepticism. I had previously read this entry when I was writing the first global warming post above, but I hadn’t read the Talk page until today. The problem I had with the Wiki entry was that it seemed to favor the pejorative description of “pseudoskeptic” that gets tossed around by woo-woos and cranks that are being criticized by skeptics. Rather than admit that their claims are without merit, they accuse those who dare to be skeptical of not being “open-minded,” not “thinking out of the box,” or as being “pseudoskeptics.” Apparently, they’re good skeptics as long as they don’t question the woo-woo’s beliefs, but pseudoskeptical if they criticize the mystery-monger and significance-junkie.

The Wiki entry begins by quoting the late Marcello Truzzi, a professor of sociology and founding member of CSICOP (now CSI) who later fell into disfavor of the group due to his apparent bias to the pseudoscientific and paranormal. The quote by Truzzi and the characteristics of a pseudoskepticism listed are useful and Truzzi is attributed as the first to coin the term “pseudoskepticism.”

Still, it’s the Talk page that I found some of the more interesting discussions on pseudoskepticism. There is definitely a camp that favors pseudoscience and woo that seeks to slant the Wiki entry to refer to something akin to militant debunkers. But there is also discussion that favors the definition I’ve used in this blog: “fake-skeptics.” One of the discussion threads on this page is about how science should be “agnostic” and scientists shouldn’t have opinions until all data are in:

IMHO, that "neither disbelieve or believe it" thing is a myth used by Truzzi and others to define their own point of view (the neutral one) as the only one allowed in science. This trick allows them to use ad hominem arguments against CSICOP and others whose point of view they don't like, and I really wonder why skeptics let them do it. [...]I think that scientists should be allowed to believe whatever they want. If a scientist makes a mistake because of his bias, other scientists with other biases can correct him. That's what the scientific method is all about. But your model, where every scientist has to think in a certain restricted way, is a poor environment for the exchange of ideas because all scientists think the same. The diversity is missing. Your scientists are closer to robots than real people.

The discussion thread that linked to my “Junkman” article above was with regard to colloquial and “mechanistic, literal” usages of pseudoskepticism that varied from Truzzi’s own definition. My article was linked to by one editor and commented on by a second, though only as a point to show that there were uses of the term that may be beyond Truzzi’s. The responding editor rightly pointed out that my article only included the word pseudoskepticism in the title and not within the article itself. I left it up to the reader to infer what I meant in the title by “pseudoskeptic.” I must say that I agree with much of Truzzi’s definition, particularly the characteristics listed by the Wiki entry. However, I find some difficulty with how one might apply these characteristics to a critic in order to define them as pseudoskeptic or not. Does a single characteristic suffice? Must there be 6 out of 11 (as with diagnosing someone with ADHD)? Do some characteristics have more weight than others?

Here’s the list:
  1. The tendency to deny, rather than doubt
  2. Double standards in the application of criticism
  3. The making of judgments without full inquiry
  4. Tendency to discredit, rather than investigate
  5. Use of ridicule or ad hominem attacks in lieu of arguments
  6. Pejorative labeling of proponents as 'promoters', 'pseudoscientists' or practitioners of 'pathological science.'
  7. Presenting insufficient evidence or proof
  8. Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof
  9. Making unsubstantiated counter-claims
  10. Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence
  11. Suggesting that unconvincing evidence is grounds for dismissing it

These could all be good habits for the skeptic to avoid, particularly when debating promoters and practitioners of pseudosciences like creationism, intelligent design, psychics, and Bosnian pyramidiots. But in that single sentence I violated the fifth and sixth of Truzzi’s characteristics. For the individual who is even slightly educated in biology or geology, would he then be a pseudoskeptic if he should criticize creationists without demonstrating proof of evolution? Would I be a pseudoskeptic if I remark that it’s far more plausible that the bright light in the sunset sky with a contrail is jet than it is an alien spacecraft leaving “chemtrails?” By Truzzi’s strict definition, I’m a pseudoskeptic if I say that a video of man bending a spoon he produced from his own pocket is unconvincing of his telekinetic powers.

Sorry Wikipedia guys. I like Truzzi’s characteristics... they’re good guidelines for how to avoid creating fallacious positions when debating mystery-mongers and significance-junkies, but the definition of pseudoskeptic is someone who is a fake skeptic. That someone pretends to be skeptical about an issue when he or she actually harbors credulous opinions or has a preconceived conclusion about a topic for which actual skeptics would be apt to criticize. QED.

Related Posts and Links:
  1. Blog Labels: Forbidden Archaeology; Pseudoarchaeology
  2. The Pseudoscience of an "Infomercial" Conman; Review: Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures, Part 1; Review: Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures, Part 2; Yet Another Kevin Trudeau Con; Kevin Trudeau: Pseudo-Advocate for the Consumer
  3. Blog Label: Skeptical
  4. Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming; Pseudoskepticism from the "Junkman.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Forbidden Archaeology? The Nampa Image Hoax

XIn a recent issue of Atlantis Rising, the ragazine that appeals to the significance-junkie, the mystery-monger, and skeptics like me who are fascinated with the first two, Michael Cremo’s latest column “Forbidden Archaeology” highlights a figurine of dubious origin. The article in question is “the mystery of the Nampa image,” Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/August 2007.

According to Cremo, the figurine (dubbed the Nampa Image) was recovered by workers who were drilling a water-well in Nampa, Idaho in 1889. The figurine, about an inch and a half long and made of baked clay was reported to have been recovered by the sand pump from a depth of 300+ feet. Cremo’s account of the “artifact’s” discovery is both credulous and inconsistent. Cremo is critical of Michael Brass, who wrote in his book, The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored, that it would have been destroyed by the drilling equipment upon retrieval as it was brought up to the surface. Cremo's response to Brass is that a tube was used after drilling through the lava layer to pump out the sand but, previously, he mentions that the figurine was brought up with a “core sample.”

This is a small quibble to be sure, but it is relevant since if it were brought up in a core sample, the figurine would be stable and not bumped about. In the tube of sand pump, it would be subject to the laws of physics and knocked around at least enough to pulverize the fragile clay figurine. At the very least, the abrasive effect of the sand in the pump would have rounded it to the point of being unrecognizable to even the most gullible.

The crux of Cremo’s claim with the figurine is that since it was found in a geologic stratum that was of the Plio-Pleistocene, at a depth of 300 feet, the culture that created it must have been in the region about 2 million years ago. As usual, Cremo is credulous to the point of ignoring any parsimonious or realistic explanation, which makes him the utter laughing stock of real archaeology. Unfortunately, the lay-public, eager for stories of mystery and intrigue, get only a portion of the story when they read his perspective. Cremo says in the article, “scientists will go to great lengths to make up some story in order to explain it away,” and is critical of more parsimonious and possible explanations as “powers of the imagination!” and as “speculative tales.” The irony is deep.

What Cremo misses in his account of the “Nampa image,” the little, fragile clay figurine common to the local Native Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the voices of reason with regard to the find. More likely, he was aware of them, but cherry-picked which criticisms he would be willing to be counter-critical of. He does make short work of one suggestion that the figurine may have found its way at the stratum naturally through a rock fissure or natural geological process. I agree, the explanation is far from realistic, not to mention the same problem of fragility is encountered as the clay figure makes its way to a depth of 300 feet through a rock crevice or fissure as yet undiscovered or exemplified elsewhere in the Glenn’s Ferry formation.

However, there were many criticisms of the object itself, which was heralded by one George Fredrick Wright, an amateur geologist that began as a Christian Darwinist then later turned to active fundamentalist (and was even an author of some of the essays called The Fundamentals, which started and defined this now obnoxious movement of Christianity). There’s an added irony that Cremo, an ancient-Earth Vedic creationist is using a young-Earth Christian creationist to make his point of an exaggerated antiquity of man. Cremo cites Wright’s book, Origin and Antiquity of Man, but makes no mention of Wrights contemporaries who were critical and nearly unanimously dismissive of his work. Indeed, actual geologists and anthropologists of the period remarked that Wright was pseudoscientific:

Dr. Wright's last example is the feeblest of all-the Nampa image, a "beautifully formed clay image of a female," said to have been brought up from a depth of 320 feet (!) in the holing of an artesian well, at Nampa, Idaho. It is sad to destroy illusions; but when this same image with its story was laid before a well known government geologist, and he at once recognized it as a clay toy manufactured by the neighboring Pocatello Indians, the person displaying it replied with engaging frankness, "Well, now, don't give me away!" (Brinton 1892).
And that “well known government geologist?” This was J. W. Powell, who wrote in Popular Science Monthly (1893):
In the fall of 1889 the writer visited Boise City, in Idaho. While stopping at a hotel some gentlemen called on him to show him a figurine which they said they had found in sinking an artesian well in the neighborhood at a depth, if I remember rightly, of more than three hundred feet. The figurine is a little image of a man or woman done in clay and baked. It is not more than an inch and a half in length, and is slender and delicate, more delicate than an ordinary clay pipestem, and altogether exceedingly fragile.

Hold the figurine at the height of your eye and let it fall on the hearth at your feet, and it would be shivered into fragments. It was claimed that this figurine had been brought up from the bottom of an artesian well while the men were working, or about the time that they were working at the well, and that as it came out it was discovered.

When this story was told the writer [Powell], he simply jested with those who claimed to have found it. He had known the Indians that live in the neighborhood, had seen their children play with just such figurines, and had no doubt that the little image had lately belonged to some Indian child, and said the same. While stopping at the hotel different persons spoke about it, and it was always passed off as a jest; and various comments were made about it by various people, some of them claiming that it had given them much sport, and that a good many " tenderfeet" had looked at it and believed it to be genuine; and they seemed rather pleased that I had detected the hoax. When I returned to Washington I related the jest at a dinner table, and afterward it passed out of my mind. In reading Prof. Wright's second book I had many surprises, but none of them greater than when I discovered that this figurine had fallen into his hands, and that he had actually published it as evidence of the great antiquity of man in the valley of the Snake River.

Consider the circumstances. A fragile toy is buried in the sands and gravels and boulders of a torrential stream. Three hundred feet of materials are accumulated over it from the floods of thousands of years. Then volcanoes burst forth and pour floods of lava over all; and under more than three hundred feet of sands, gravels, clays, and volcanic rocks the fragile figurine remains for centuries, under such magical conditions that the very color of the burning is preserved. Then well-diggers, with a pump drill, hammer and abrade the rocks, and bore a six-inch hole down to this figurine without destroying it, and with a sand-pump bring it to the surface, to be caught by the well-digger; and Prof. Wright believes the story of the figurine, and places it on record in his book!
And Michael Cremo places it on record in his book! It’s a lengthy quote, but the full context of the account is important. Cremo also cited F.F. Jewett (1890) who described having done “experiments” on the clay that led him to the conclusions that it “must be of considerable age.” What experiments, specifically, aren’t mentioned. But he goes on to declare that “the accumulation of iron upon the grains of sand” can’t be accounted for “except by supposing to have been the result of slow decomposition of substances containing iron.” Perhaps this was the prevailing scientific assessment of the 19th century, but what, precisely, is Cremo’s excuse for failing to recognize that iron oxidation occurs on clay when intentionally fired this way. A process well-known to archaeology and should be understood even for a pseudo-archaeologist.

The “Nampa image” is a hoax. Pure and simple. It was presented at a time in which hoaxes were popular and people liked the notoriety. A contemporary of this little figurine is the Cardiff Giant, which was just being exposed for its fraudulent nature at around the time the worker in Nampa, ID claimed to find a modern clay doll in the sediments of a time when people simply didn’t live in North America, much less make fired clay dolls.


Brinton, D.G. (1892). Man and the Glacial Period, a book review. Science, 20 (508), 249.

Cremo, Michael (2007). The mystery of the Nampa image. Atlantis Rising, no. 64, July/Aug.

Jewett, F.F. (1890). Report to the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, vol 24, 448.

Powell, J.W. (1893). Are there evidences of man in the glacial gravels? Popular Science Monthly, vol. XLIII, 324


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