Thursday, February 28, 2008

Archaeology and the Public: A Complicated Relationship?

A. Rossi and E. Webb have a brief report in the March 2008 issue of Antiquity detailing sediment loss apparently caused by dramatic increases in the number of tourist visits at Mulka's Cave, a major rock art site in southwestern Australia. To sum up, they reconstructed changes in floor level based on dated photographs which result in the following chilling (archaeologically, at least) composite profile of the ground level at the cave's entrance:

Courtesy of Antiquity (Rossi and Webb 2008).

Here's what the authors make of this observation that the level of the cave floor has dropped roughly one meter in just over half a century!

"Comparison of photographs we took in 2004 and 2006 showed that the shape of the entrance had changed; prompting us to research datable pictures of Mulka’s Cave on file at DIA. The resulting figure (Figure 3) shows that between 1952 and 1988, 0.5m of sediment was lost. By 2004, another 0.5m of deposit had disappeared. That erosion was accelerating is shown by the amount of sediment lost between 2004 and 2006. Had the walkway not been installed, erosion would have continued unabated because the deposits outside the cave were probed to a depth of -1m, without reaching bedrock."

"We attribute this erosion to trampling (Rossi & Webb n.d.). There are few places within Mulka’s Cave where visitors can stand comfortably to view the artwork because it is full of boulders (Figure 4); while the floor at the base of the rock pile measures 2 x 7m. These limitations became a problem with increased tourism, particularly visits by commercial tours. These groups often comprise 30 people, two of whom are crowded into each square metre of floor space. We believe the resultant trampling has eroded 1m of the cave deposits in 50 years. That sediment is now spread over the slope outside, but the stone artefacts it contains lack stratigraphic context." (Rossi and Webb 2008)

These are sobering observations about the potential impact of uncontrolled tourist visits at archaelogical sites. First, there's the clear conclusion of a one-meter drop in floor level over 50 years. More alarmingly, the most recent 50cm drop took place between 1988 and 2004, or 16 years. This means that the rate of tourism-mediated erosion has tripled relative to what it was between 1952 and 1988, in tandem with increasing peaks in the numbers of visitors at the site (Rossi and Webb 2008: Figure 2).

This raises the age-old question of what the interface should be between archaeology and the public. Much archaeological research is financed by public funds of one sort or another, and archaeologists can thus be argued to have some kind of obligation to make the fruit of their work available to the public. The problem, of course, is how to do this.

There is a lot to be said for doing for science in the interest of furthering science, in the sense of refining of our understanding of various phenomena even if this understanding cannot be immediately be translated for the public at large. On the other hand, we also have a duty to make the public appreciate the importance of publicly-funded research, in this case archaeology. This is made especially salient for archaeology due to the public appeal of archaeological research and the fact that it takes place 'in the real world', that is in space most people can access and occasionally even see as part of their lived landscape. In other words, archaeology can take place, quite literally, in your backyard, making this kind of research immediately engaging to contemporary people, at least on occasion. This is a far cry from most laboratory research where unquestionably important discoveries are made in contexts far removed from people's everyday reality.

While I think public education in archaeology and history is very important, I'm still open about whether this is best achieved through access to data, access to material, or access to sites. Access to data is a great thing, and potentially the easiest of the three to effect. However, archaeological data can take a very long time to analyze fully, resulting in delays in publication and therefore in public dissemination. Additionally, archaeological data are unlikely to be the easiest to digest for the untrained public, even a comparatively educated one.

Access to materials is perhaps the best way to make archaeology accessible and "tangible" to the public at large. The conservation and display of artifacts in museums is a tried, tested and true method of doing this, provided this is done well. Badly organized displays do very little to effectively carry across the importance/relevance of given archaeological collections.

Access to sites is much more tricky - visiting a site is unique manner of experiencing what 'doing archaeology' might be like, albeit very superficially. Visiting Paleolithic sites was certainly a formative experience for me, on at least one level. Visiting ruined cities, etc, also can give a sense that "people in the past" were a lot more like you and me than one might otherwise think, which is a good realization for anyone to have in an age of growing intolerance. However, while a one-off site visit may well convey the excitement of 'doing' archaeology, it transmits little to none of the tediousness that can characterize actual fieldwork, where you might be stuck working in the same square meter unit for days on end (see this post for more on this and another one by Kris Hirst). Personally, this was something I only learned when I finally got to do fieldwork, and that's coming from someone who loves being in the field – imagine what it must be like for people who don’t enjoy digging that much!

On top of that, as Rossi and Webb’s study demonstrates, unchecked tourist access can have serious impacts on the integrity of the archaeological deposits remaining at a site. This can be true of even extremely modest and highly controlled visit regimens, as the ongoing Lascaux crisis demonstrates. I’d surmise that even very large, very resilient sites (e.g., cities, temples, and the like) deal with very similar issues albeit perhaps at a different scale. Allowing the public to visit sites is thus fraught with conservation issues, but also a unique way of making people "experience archaeology" first-hand, resulting in a sort of tug-of-war over the value of making sites accessible to visitors. That said, I’m still not sure either is necessarily the best way to get across why archeology is important as opposed to simply being a cool thing to research.


Rossi, Alana M., and R. Esmée Webb. 2008. The erosive effect of tourism at an Aboriginal rock art site on the western edge of the arid zone in south-western Australia. Antiquity 82 (315):

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

AVRPI Coffee News: Starbucks to close... for three hours!

We care deeply about all things coffee here at A Very Remote Period Indeed. So this comes as very good news indeed:

Starbucks to close all stores for three hours.

In related news, yours truly to be seen dancing in the streets for those three hours! By all means, take that time to get to know your local coffee shop(s), if you don't already!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Spoken too soon? More Dmanisi news

I'm finally back from various unexpectedly lengthy pursuits south of the border, and now enjoying the light snow lightly caking everything in MTL, like so much powdered sugar on a delicious sfogliatella...

Two weeks ago I posted about a new study on the potential impact of volcanism on the accumulation of hominin remains at the Lower Pleistocene site of Dmanisi, Georgia. One of the appealing aspects of the conclusions of that study by de Lumley et al. (in press) is that it accounted for the presence of fully five distinct individuals at the site, since large accumulations of hominin remains at single localities tend to be rare.

The situation at Dmanisi may, however, be slightly more complex than this, suggest M. Calvo-Rathert and his colleagues, in a paper in Quaternary Research. They claim that, in fact, the individuals recovered at Dmanisi come from two distinct geological units. How distinct, you ask? Distinct enough that one (Unit A, the volcanogenic one) has normal magnetic polarity, while the other (Unit B, ) evidences reversed polarity. This, they infer, means that Unit B could be as young as 1.07 mya, while Unit A dates to 2.0-1.8 mya, which they interpret as meaning that the various hominins found at the site oculd have been deposited over a very span of time.

If the results from the present study are compared with the
geomagnetic polarity scale, and available radiometric data (1.8
to 2.0 Ma for the underlying lavas and the volcanic ash level)
are considered, the lower part of the section shows a clear
correlation with the Olduvai subchron (Fig. 1). If considered
reversed, the upper levels cannot be correlated with any specific
point and could be as young as 1.07 Ma (age of Jaramillo)
because the whole section is not continuous and so the smaller
events might not be recorded, even though the data set from this
study is composed of continuous subsections. If directions of
the upper-lying Unit B samples are considered intermediate,
those data might correspond to a polarity change between
Olduvai and any of the normal polarity subchrons shown,
although because of the reasons outlined before we do not favor
that interpretation.

Despite the morphologic differences observed between mandible
D2600 found in layer A1 and the remaining hominin
findings (Rightmire et al., 2006), different data sources (i.e.,
stratigraphic and sedimentological) suggest that the time frame
spanning the Dmanisi lithostratigraphic section is not long (e.g.,
Gabunia et al., 2001). On the other hand, human remains and
artifacts have been found in volcanic ashes (Unit A, normal
polarity), pipe features (reversed polarity) and Unit B (reversed
polarity), and the Olduvai/Matuyama reversal is not recorded in
the discontinuous sequence presented in this study. A conservative
analysis of these observations suggests that the age of the
Dmanisi site could at least span several ten thousands of years,
although a much wider period of hundreds of thousands of years
cannot be excluded. All this might point to more than one
human population occupying the studied area. (Calvo-Rathert et al. 2008: 96)

It therefore seems that the Dmanisi hominin sample might have accumulated under much less 'catastrophic' conditions that implied by de Lumley et al. (in press), and that some of the morphological variability in said sample might be due to the fact that it contains individuals belonging to distinct populations potentially separated in time by hundreds of thousand years.


CALVORATHERT, M., GOGUITCHAICHVILI, A., SOLOGASHVILI, D., VILLALAIN, J., BOGALO, M., CARRANCHO, A., MAISSURADZE, G. (2008). New paleomagnetic data from the hominin bearing Dmanisi paleo-anthropologic site (southern Georgia, Caucasus). Quaternary Research, 69(1), 91-96. DOI: 10.1016/j.yqres.2007.09.001

DELUMLEY, M. (2008). Impact probable du volcanisme sur le décès des Hominidés de Dmanissi. Comptes Rendus Palevol DOI: 10.1016/j.crpv.2007.09.002

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2008 Paleoanthropology Society Meeting preliminary program is available

The preliminary program of this year's Paleoanthropology Society meetings (March 25-26, 2008) is now available as a pdf. It looks like it will be another exceedingly interesting year to attend!

Can you feel the magic in the air?

Oooooh yeah - it's that day of the year again, and people are playful all over their blogs, living today to a slo-funk paleo soundtrack. You've got John Hawks talking about monkey (actually ape) love, Greg Laden talking about cookin' and matin', and Laelaps sending out cute Valendinos.

So, I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and post this archaeoromantic pic, for all you lovers (of the past) to enjoy... it's from a Neolithic site near Mantua, in Italy (where else!). I know, I know, the story's a year old, but it's just such a fine find, I can't help it!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Four Stone Heart #34...

... is up at Our Cultural World. You might just want to check out that pit-stop along the information superhighway if you dig your bloggin' anthropological.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ups and downs in experimental archaeology

Have you ever wondered about just how glamorous the lifestyle associated with experimental archaeology can be? If so (and even if not!), you should head on over to The Real Eolith to find out a bit more about the (literally) gut-wrenching details of a recent experimental project on cut marks on decomposing fish remains conducted by L. Willis and M. Eren. Hold on to your stomachs!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Volcanism at Dmanisi
A paper in press by M.-A. de Lumley and colleagues suggests that the five Lower Pleistocene hominins recovered at Dmanisi, Georgia, entered the paleoanthropological record as the result of a volcanic eruption. Here's the abstract:
"The human remains unearthed at the Lower Pleistocene site of Dmanisi (Georgia), are numerous, well preserved and show no evidence of transportation or predation. They were discovered over a small surface and correspond to at least five Homo georgicus individuals, whose age at death is regularly distributed from the teenager to the elder over 40 years old. These characteristics evoke a family group who died suddenly. Granulometry and chemical analyses of ca. 30 volcanic tephra samples prove its unicity and its primary position. Since this tephra cannot correspond to a nuée ardente, it is probable that the Dmanisi Hominids were surprised and asphyxiated, 1 810 000 years ago, by volcanic ashfalls." (de Lumley et al., in press: 1)
Not impossible, I suppose, and it has the advantage of explaining why you find five relatively well-preserved hominins in direct association with volcanic ash. As far as where the eruption itself took place, the authors state, in the abridged English version of the article, that
"The volcanic ashes were sorted during aerial transportation from the emissive point, presumably located ca. 20 km west of Dmanisi (Emliki heights in the Džavacheti Mountains). From such a distance, the ashfall does not burn, but when inhaled, it mixes with naso-bucco-pharyngeal secretions and forms a mixture that provokes suffocation by obstruction of respiratory and digestive tubes...

"In Dmanisi, the concentration of Hominids in a depression may represent a search for shelter. The ashfall, cold hence non-mortal, could have allowed the Hominids to gather in a natural depression. Tephra inhalation, mixed with natural secretions, may have led to animal and human death by obstruction of respiratory
and digestive tubes." (de Lumley et al., in press: 4)
It'd be interesting to see whether the faunal assemblages at the site reflect a similar pattern, and whether the lithic assemblages differ from most contemporary ones by their more or less 'systemic' character (sensu Schiffer 1972). That is to say, whether the stone tools differ from archaeological assemblages comprising purposefully discarded items as opposed to representing an assemblage 'frozen in use' by a volcanic eruption.


de Lumley, M.-A., J.-M. Bardintzeff, P. Bienvenu, J.-B. Bilcot, G. Flamenbaum, C. Guy, M. Jullien, H. de Lumley, J.-P. Nabot, C. Perrenoud, O. Provitina, and M. Tourasse. 2008. Impact probable du volcanisme sur le décès des Hominidés de Dmanissi/Probable volcanic impact on the death of the Dmanisi Hominids. Comptes Rendus Palevol: in press; doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2007.09.002

Schiffer, M. B. 1972. Archaeological context and systemic context. American Antiquity 37:156-165.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rock Art Radio!

Over at Archaeozoology, there's mention of a program on BBC radio entitled "The Drawings on the Wall" about rock art that will unfold in five episodes between February 3rd and March 2nd, 2008 (check out also Tim's take at Remote Central). You can listen to the broadcast after they've played live. I'm especially excited about the first episode which is all about the rock art at Creswell Crags (which I posted about a long while ago), a site in the UK where they found some Paleolithic incisions and near which they're planning to build a museum/interpretive center.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Quote of the day

"Moreover, because the academic payoff to finding exceptions to any rule is quite high, we can be confident that cases to the contrary have been reported." (S. Kuhn and M. Stiner. 2006. What's a Mother to Do? Current Anthropology 47: 955).