Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paper or poster?

Martin at Aardvarchaeology has a post that, among other things, discusses how to engagingly present (he calls it "perform") a paper in the context of a scientific conference. Specifically, he suggests:

  • Never ever read a prepared text out loud. Speak from brief notes or a slide show. It is better to have five lines of summary text in ball-point pen on the back of your hand than a manuscript.
  • Do you have reason to believe that a considerable part of your audience a) does not know anything about the subject, b) does not yet care about the subject? Then make sure that you start your talk by setting the scene with some background info (a few maps, a time line, a landscape view or two), and above all explain why you care. Why is your subject interesting?
  • When presenting a scientific study, do not rattle off data and descriptions. Start with questions, explain how you came up with them, and then present only enough data (in overview format) that you can make a plausible argument in favour of some answer to each question. If you have no questions or no argument, do not agree to make a presentation.

This is good, solid advice, if you ask me. Podium presentations need to be somewhat dynamic in order to keep an audience interested, especially those comprised of people that are not necessarily there to hear you in the first place, as is true of too many general sessions at the SAAs, for instance. A derived side effect is that you're unlikely to get good feedback on a paper that's not clear, succinct and well presented. I don't know how I feel about a complete lack of reading... from my perspective, I think that writing a conference paper using colloquial language and reading from it (note: not reading it) can be a good alternative, especially for presenters still new to the practice or whose first language is not English. Ideally, a paper written that way can be rehearsed ahead of time, with the resulting presentation being relatively fluid, comparatively jargon-free and more engaging than a straight read of an academic paper.

For people who don't have a lot of experience presenting (and who have a lot of ideas or material they want to discuss), I actually think that writing out what you want to say is good practice. That's mainly because it takes about 2 minutes to read one page of double-spaced text at a pace that won't lose your audience. So if you have 15 minutes to present a paper, what you have to say should fit in 7.5 pages. Under the best of circumstances, you can then boil down that presentation into a series of key points tethered to specific graphs and figures.

That said, when it boils down to it, why would you choose a paper as the format to present your work? There's a stigma that somehow places papers 'above' posters in terms of prestige and effectiveness in the academic imagination. To a large degree, I think it derives from the fact that professional organizations still implicitly devalue the poster option when they ask questions like "would you be willing to present your work as a poster if there is no room in the regular presentation schedule" during the submission process; I've never seen the opposite option being offered (would you be willing to present your poster as a paper), which I think is pretty telling.

And that's really a shame because, in my experience, the one constant about these two formats is that you unquestionably get more feedback, questions and one-on-one interaction as a result of presenting a poster. From my perspective, the relative merits of posters and papers depend on the context: what are you talking about, what audience are you trying to reach, how comfortable do you feel speaking in public.

First, if you're presenting research that's mainly theoretical, then yes, a paper's probably the way to go. For just about anything else, I think a poster can be just as good - and in many cases, maybe even better - a venue as a poster. If a conference presentation is a condensed version of a research paper boiled down to its most essential three or four graphs, what do you think is the more effective way of presenting these data: on separate slides that the viewer can't go back to, or as a composite on a poster which allows the viewer to jump back and forth between them? In addition, since they're hard copies, posters have the virtue of being more amenable to tweaking to emphasize certain aspects or make a point. By that I mean that I've seen posters comprising all sorts of interesting data visualization strategies that are unavailable to slide and PowerPoint presentations. For instance, I distinctly remember one poster whose presenter overlaid sets of transparencies over the stratigraphic profiles that was the main figure on her poster in order to better show concentrations of artifacts and organic compounds at a site. And at last year's Paleo meetings, there was at least one poster presenter who had set up a laptop next to his poster on which he was running the simulation he had used in his study so he could walk people through the various steps of his analysis. All of that to say, that I think you have a lot more freedom in terms of how you present your work, which overall makes for better communication and more memorable work. Also, each poster means one less potentially horrid, clunky and poorly designed PowerPoint presentation which are unfortunately too common at meetings (and yes, I mean you, Dr. Lightredfontondarkredbackground... you know who you are and you owe me some new eyes)!

But to me, the real plus of giving a poster is the interaction and exposure it can give you. For one thing, you usually have 2-3 hours during which your poster is exposed, which in theory is that much longer than 15 minutes to have people come see it. In other words, posters are easier to fit in a schedule than individual talks... since talks are almost always off schedule for some reason, this means that even people who make it to the time your podium presentation's supposed to take place may not end up seeing it. In that light, posters are good because you're at the same spot for a long time, which makes it easier for people to come see it when they have a bit of time. Additionally, many people will end up strolling through poster sessions as a productive way to kill time between papers they want to try to catch, which means that a wide range of people will at the very least see your poster. And if you see someone whose opinion you're especially interested in, you can always ask them for it when you see them walk by. And you never know who will walk by, really, which means that the likelihood of making useful, unexpected contacts is always there (and for that reason, I usually try to have 11x17 versions of my poster to hand out, along with my contact info).

Which brings me to my last point, namely that posters actually give you the chance to field questions people may have about it, which is not always possible in paper sessions, where papers are often tightly squeezed, with little time for discussion of specific aspects of individual papers. A poster can give you the opportunity to get much better and direct feedback than a paper will. What is more, you also don't have to fret about engagingly reading your poster to an audience: people can either read through it themselves or ask you for a condensed summary, which is more than OK to give in colloquial language since you're actually interacting with someone as opposed to addressing an anonymous audience. So, especially if you're a first-time presenter or not especially comfortable at public speaking, that makes for a great, less nerve-wracking experience. And if you end up standing in front of a poster than no one stops to look at (which I've never seen happen, really), just ask yourself whether that's much worse than the alternative of actually having to read out your paper to an empty room... at least with a poster, you can leave early!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Four Stone Hearth #76

The latest installment of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is burning strong over at Afarensis' neck of the web! Definitely check it out if you have an interest at all in things anthropological.

Monday, September 21, 2009

2009 Loveland Stone Age Fair

I unfortunately won't be able to attend this, but I encourage everyone living in the Front Range with an interest in prehistory to attend the 75th (!) edition of the Stone Age Fair, in Loveland, CO this coming weekend, Sept. 26-27. From a short feature in the Denver Post:

Everything on exhibit is from private collections and institutions, including a pre-eminent display of points from the Smithsonian Institution.

"And everything is legally obtained, all these fantastic collections that have come in from all over the country," says Andy Coca, president of the Loveland Archaeological Society, which sponsors the fair.

Coca is keenly sensitive to the problem of black-market artifact sales like the federal investigation that recently sentenced two Utah women for stealing more than 800 Indian relics.

The events will include a flintknapping demonstration by Bob Patten, as well as lectures by several Paleoindian archaeologists: Jason Labelle (From the High Country to the Hogbacks to the High Plains: Prehistoric Lifeways in the Cache la Poudre River Basin, Northern Colorado), Mike Waters (The First Americans: A View from the Gault and Buttermilk Creek Sites, Texas), Pegi Jodry (Sacred Perspectives from Horn Shelter) and Dennis Stanford (Probing the Past: Seeking New Paleolithic Paradigms). If any readers of this blog attend, I'd love to hear some feedback about the whole thing.

More information can be found at the Stone Age Fair website.

I know what you did last summer

Over the weekend, I came across yet another ill-informed op-ed by some talking head about what to do to 'fix' the university system - in this case, the proposed 'solution' to the high costs of post-secondary education is simply to have professors teach more so their work weeks are similar to those of 'normal' people! Riiiight. Most of it is pretty generic repetition of the remarkably ignorant claim that a professor's work week is adequately measured by how many hours he or she teaches in a given week. To me, that's kind of like saying that the work week of police officers only amounts to the time they actually spend arresting criminals - you know, the rest of the time, they're just drivin' around and talking with people in the neighborhood, not actually putting in any time towards what we're really paying them to do.

Now, I'm obviously somewhat biased, but does it really surprise anyone that an hour of class time requires several hours of preparation beforehand, on top of writing exams, meeting with students and grading tests and assignment? None of the professors I know (and I know many) just show up and pontificate about the day's topic without doing any research on it or providing reasonably structured critical analysis of it, which seems to be the warped perception some pundits have of university lecturing (which may be more indicative of how they do things than how we do them, but I digress...).

What annoys me the most in most of these discussions, though, is when people criticizing professors' work whip out the old "and on top of it all, you have 3-4 months of summer vacation a year!" canard as a final and self-evident nail in the coffin of the defenders of higher education. As an archaeologist with an active field project, this aggravates me to no end. 3-4 months of vacation a year, really? Let me tell you a bit about what I did last summer, then: I turned in my grades on April 30, and on May 5, I was on my way to my field site, which means the May 1-4 period was spent frantically wrapping up lose ends and making sure all my material was ready for the field, where I stayed for two months (until July 6), training and supervising the work of seven students and several volunteers. We had pretty long days this summer: we set off for the site around 6:45AM and were back home around 6:00PM, after getting supplies for the next day - that's 11:15 work hours, 5 days a week. Tack on another two hours of work a day for me to review my field notes for the day, prepare the goals of the next day, and try to keep up with academic responsibilities like reviewing papers and administration that, shockingly, don't mysteriously get put on hold once a term is over. You can also add about another six hours each week for field trips I would organize for the students to get familiarized with the archaeology of the region. Right there, we're already talking about a ca. 72:15 hour work week, and that's not counting discussions/meetings with colleagues in the evening and weekends. All that during my extensive 'vacation' time... no wonder I felt so rested when I started at UCD at the beginning of August!

Mind you, I'm not writing this to complain or to toot my own horn, since I had a dynamite crew this summer and since all archaeologists I know that have an active field project have similar, if not more grueling schedules when they're doing fieldwork. The point, however, is precisely this: most of our research gets done in the summer. Few if any of us spend that time (or can afford to spend it!) sipping exotic cocktails in no less exotic resorts. That research, in turn, provides material and data for us to analyze during the rest of the year and for us to use to provide concrete, empirically informed examples of concepts we cover in our classes, in addition to providing potential research opportunities for interested students (which we then supervise using time that often doesn't get counted as part of our weekly teaching hours). Basically, for archaeologists as for the vast majority of academics, summer is a time to get some research done. And without that research, the quality of classroom education can decrease, which underscores the logic behind the organization of the academic year at the university, and the need for academics to do research. If any pundit out there doubts the veracity of any of this, you're hereby invited to join me in the field next summer... I have plenty of screening and sorting that needs getting done, and after a couple of months of that, I'll be more than happy to hear about your impressions of how academic archaeologists spend their summers.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Possibly one of the greatest scenes of one of the greatest movie of all times to feature Scientists as main characters! Behold, "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra!"

"I'm a scientist... I don't believe in anything." Priceless!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Two sides to every biface

It's been an interesting couple of weeks for people interested in handaxes. On one hand, there was the discovery of honking big handaxes in the Lake Makgadikgadi Basin (Botswana), which is currently dry. On the other, there was the report that the age for the oldest handaxes in Europe needs to be pushed back by as much as 300,000 years, based on new chronological and paleomagnetic information (Scott and Gibert 2009). In a way, these two discoveries are related more intimately than might seem to be the case.

First, the new ages for the Spanish handaxes have several implications, some of which are aptly discussed by John Hawks. The first is that how refined some handaxes are is not necessarily a good indicator of their overall age. That is, biface morphology doesn't simply gradually go from coarse to fine over time, and biface morphology is influenced by many factors and essentially reflect use considerations at the end of an individual handaxe's use-life (McPherron 2000). This was a well-established fact before this new study, but these dates underscore that lack of correlation especially well. A second implication is that the Acheulean (yup, that's how you spell it!) is therefore likely to be much older than previously assumed. The general consensus has been for some years that this industry first appeared in Europe around 600kya (cf. Monnier 2006). The age of 900kya for an Acheulean assemblage in Spain thus pushes back that date of first appearance by several hundred thousand years.

What is more, unless you accept that hominins using Acheulean tools came to Spain directly from Africa (across the Strait of Gibraltar?), this age implies that the Acheulean in more eastern parts of Europe must be even older, though hard evidence of this is currently lacking. The earliest Acheulean site outside of Africa is 'Ubediya, in the Jordan Valley, dating to ca. 1.4mya. Assuming a single origin for Acheulean technology, this would mean that the amount of time it took handaxes to diffuse across the European mainland is effectively cut almost in half and now stands at a maximum of about 500,000 years, a long time to be sure, but much less than the previously accepted almost million year interval. This has some important implications in constraining models of early hominin dispersion in Europe and how that relates to the subsequent development of Neanderthals (e.g., Hublin 2009).

And this would make sense, really, given the usefulness of handaxes as a technological innovation. The thing about handaxes is that they are generally described as unchanging over their 1.6my history, although this impression is based on morphology alone and doesn't really reflect the state of thinking among most scholars involved in Lower Paleolithic research. In a nutshell, handaxes were highly polyvalent from a functional perspective and not putting individual occurrences in proper context is what results in this mistaken impression of stasis (Machin 2009, Nowell and Chang 2009). A contextualized approach to handaxe variability is what allows archaeologists to seize on the richness and diversity of Acheulean behavior (Hosfield 2008). It is also what allows us to make sense of outliers like the Lake Makgadikgadi specimens.

By any standard, at 30+cm in length these things are frikkin' huge! Strikingly, the press release only mentions that these very large items were found, without any discussion of how their size is unusual and what this distinctiveness might mean. These specific artifacts are of uncertain age, and their function is also uncertain - at that size, it is unclear exactly what practical function they might have served, as they would have been rather unwieldy to use, unless they were somehow hafted, in which case their heft might be an indication of their ultimate function. Most people tend to assume handaxes were made and used as stand-alone hand-held tools. This lithic-centric view has led to some conjecture that the skill manifest in handaxe manufacture might have served as a form of 'advertisement' to potential mates by especially technically proficient knappers (e.g., Kohn and Mithen 2009). This has been challenged on both theoretical and practical grounds, most eloquently by Nowell and Chang (2008) who detail how such a model cannot, in fact, be argued to be founded on evolutionary theory as commonly defined.

Machin (2009:35-36) argues persuasively that handaxes morphology cannot be understood by reference to single-cause explanations since "variability is caused by the differing motivations and constraints – ecological, physiological, biological, cognitive and social – which act upon the individual agent at any given point in time." The sheer timespan and geographical distribution of handaxes certainly agrees with her - it's unlikely that handaxes served the same function in all contexts in which they are found. In a way, handaxes are perhaps best understood as an especially useful and versatile technological innovation that allowed them to be if not all things to all (pre-)people at least many things to many (pre-)people.

Getting back to the Spanish handaxes described by Scott and Gibert, this raises some interesting questions. The first among these is why, given their recognized usefulness, such implements would be so scarce when they are first documented in the record - at Estrecho del Quípar (the site dating to 900kya), there is only one handaxe in the assemblage, and based on its morphology (Fig. S4: flake scars are present on both sides of the piece, but is not very extensive at all toward the center of either face) some analysts might consider it a core or bifacially flaked cobble instead of a proper handaxe. To be fair, the authors refer to other studies that show that handaxes are not very frequent in most Acheulean assemblages (i.e., Monnier 2006), and they also describe a contemporary Spanish assemblage that lacks handaxes altogether to explain why and absence or low frequency of bifaces is not necessarily a problem to labeling the assemblage as Acheulean. However, this begs the question of what an Acheulean assemblage actually is if not one that contains handaxes, a question that Gilliane Monnier has addressed in great detail, concluding that

It is time for a comprehensive revision of the Lower/Middle Paleolithic periodization based upon a synthesis of multiple aspects of the archaeological record, including climate, subsistence, landscape use, mobility and exchange, symbol use, cognition, and biological evolution, in order to determine whether we should maintain a two-phase system [Lower vs. Middle Paleolithic] and, if so, how it should be defined. (Monnier 2006: 729)

If that's the case, what can we really say about the oldest appearance of the Acheulean without an in-depth consideration of these complementary - and necessary - lines of evidence instead of only focusing on the presence of large bifacial artifacts?


Hosfield, R. Stability or Flexibility? Handaxes and Hominins in the Lower Paleolithic. In Time and Change: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Long-Term in Hunter-Gatherer Societies (D. Papagianni, R. Layton and H. Maschner, eds.), pp. 15-36. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

Hublin, J.J. 2009. The Origins of Neandertals. PNAS 106:16022-16027.

Machin, A. 2008. Why Bifaces Just Aren't That Sexy: A Response to Kohn and Mithen (1999). Antiquity 82: 761-769.

Machin, A. 2009. The role of the individual agent in Acheulean biface variability: A multi-factorial model. Journal of Social Archaeology 9: 35-58.

McPherron, S.P. 2000. Handaxes as a Measure of the Mental Capabilities of Early Hominids. Journal of Archaeological Science 27:655-663.

Monnier, G. 2006. The Lower/Middle Paleolithic Periodization in Western Europe: An Evaluation. Current Anthropology 47:709-744.

Nowell, A., and M.L. Chang. 2009. The Case Against Sexual Selection as an Explanation of Handaxe Morphology. PaleoAnthropology 2009: 77-88.

Scott G.R., and S. Gibert. 2009. The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature 461:82-85.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mousterian plant and fish use at El Salt?

Belatedly catching up on some Paleolithic news, a short newspaper feature (in Spanish) from Alcoy in Mediterranean Spain describes some of the recent results from the ongoing research by B. Galván at the Mousterian site of El Salt (pictured below at the base of the overhang at the center left).

The site itself is very interesting, sitting as it does at an ecotone and containing some substantial Mousterian levels, but what especially piqued my curiosity is the mention that collaborations with specialists in organic chemistry have allowed the extraction of animal fats from stones associated with some of the hearths at the site that indicate that deer and wild goats were cooked at the site. These analyses also have yielded fatty residues from plants that suggest some cooking/burning of plants at the site. Also of note is the reported presence, in the same hearths, of some burnt fragments of fish bones, which suggest that food resource may have been excavated at El Salt as far back as 50,000BP, when only Neanderthals were present in Europe. Not much else in the way of details, unfortunately.

H/T: Mundo Neandertal