ArtiFacts: Recent News in the Field of Archaeology

Current News in the World of Archaeology

Nautical Archaeology: Egyptology
A Roman city is found submerged off of Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea.
Bronze vases, pottery, and buildings that include a Roman castle were found that date back to the Roman period of Egypt.

ABC News

Archaeoastronomy
An observatory in the Peruvian Andes is, perhaps, the oldest in the Americas. Built at the top of a 33-foot pyramid, the 4,200 year old observatory marked the summer and winter solstices. Its age rivals some of the megaliths of Stonehenge and the culture that created it is a complete mystery since it predates writing by 2,000 years. From the article, “[s]ome archaeologists call them followers of the Kotosh religious tradition. Others call them late pre-ceramic cultures of the central coast. For brevity, most simply call them Andeans.”

Columbus Dispatch
SFGate
Story with photo at Agutie.com
LATimes.com (photo 1; photo 2)

Rescue Archaeology
Bakun period burials are found in the Bolaghi Valley of Iran as Iranian archaeologists work with Italian and German colleagues to gather as much data as possible before the Sivand Dam is completed and the valley inundated to the point that the sites would be inaccessible or even destroyed, since the resulting siltification will completely cover the sites being excavated now. The dam is meant to provide irrigation and water control for agricultural purposes and the completion has been set back several times because of archaeological efforts under way, but is currently scheduled to inundate the valley in late spring 2006.

One of the more recent finds in the region include a Bakun period burial of a mother clutching a child, dating to the 4th or 5th millennium BCE. From the Mehr News article #2, “[t]he existence of three skulls and scattered bones shows that we have discovered a mass burial. The shards found in the grave show that the skeletons date back to the Bakun period.” Also found in the valley were Bakun pot sherds that still had very clear designs and pottery kilns that will be excavated and removed before the reservoir floods.

Mehr News 1
Mehr News 2
Mehr News 3
Payvand.com

Looters and Amateurs
Self-described “amateur” archeologists loot sites and destroy any context or provenience on a regular basis. The Washington Post ran an article that described the lootin’ antics of civil war buffs and their metal detectors during a relic hunt called Diggin’ in Virginia. Meanwhile, the Austin American Statesman ran an article along the same grain that noted the exploitation of the low lake levels by looters in Texas, particularly at Lake Travis.

Organizations like Diggin’ in Virginia and the Texas Amateur Archaeological Association are nothing more than looters that lease private property and charge people to come in and dig. Moreover, these organizations are clearing houses of information on where and how to illicitly loot public lands. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why TAAA’s website requires “membership” before getting access to their forum and chat areas. Sites that are ravaged by the shovels and picks of the indiscriminate looters of these digs resemble the surface of the Moon or and artillery target area with the craters and holes left behind, particularly when they are looting public properties like the Lake Travis area. The Statesman article even describes the discovery of a looter site where a tent was abandoned over a looter trench. Trees are dug up, and topsoil removed, creating conditions that cause massive erosion and destroying the local environment and ecosystem.

Moreover, the looters are after the goods they can sell and easily remove: small lithics like points and scapers; plates and belt buckles; bullets and pistols. They could care less about documenting the locations of these finds or the features that they obliterate in the process like hearths or foundations.

Washington Post
Austin-American Statesman
Showing off the loot 1
Showing off the loot 2

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One hemlock tea to go, and will there be fries with that, your Majesty?

Test digs at the site for new homes and apartments in Birmingham have revealed to British archaeologists what may be the grave of an ancient warrior queen, Boadicea. Tacitus tells us that Boadicea ended her life by poison following a great defeat that ended the lives of “little less than eighty thousand of the Britons” and only “about four hundred” Roman soldiers. Boadicea led a rebellion against the Roman Emperor after the death of her husband and the rapes of herself and her daughters by Roman centurions and slaves that took the Iceni kingdom as a spoil of war after Boadicea’s husband, King Prasutagus allied himself with Rome after the conquest of Claudius.

Wikipedia cites a London legend which has it that Boadicea is buried under a platform of Kings Cross railway station at Battle Bridge Road, where the battle is thought to have occurred, though its exact location has been unknown –perhaps until now. Archaeologists working the site at the Birmingham McDonalds say that Boadicea’s final battle took place in the Midlands and that the McDonalds sits on Parson’s Hill “on the route to Metchley, the Roman fort in Birmingham and it’s for this reason, if no other, that we think this could be where the battle took place.”

Archaeologist Mike Hodder is quoted by the Telegraph as saying, “”There’s no doubt it’s an important archaeological site. Whether it has anything to do with Boadicea is nearly impossible to prove, but there are certainly Roman remains found there.” News sources only indicate that the artifacts found so far include Roman “pots and other implements” and no mention (to date) of identifiable grave goods or items that may have been Boadicea’s.

What I found interesting in the few stories that have made the various news outlets so far is that we have, yet again, another example of an important archaeological find in the midst of modern society’s advancement. Cultural resources like this can easily suffer terrible fates if steps aren’t taken to properly survey sites of development and document or preserve artifacts found. Obviously, British cultural resource management techniques have snagged a potentially important find and, even if it turns out not to be Boadicea, the artifacts themselves are priceless in the information they can provide. Information that may not be useful to researchers now, but their contexts may provide the critical link in some future research endeavor.

Sources for the “Boadicea” story
The Telegraph: Fact, myth and legend
The Telegraph: Boadicea may have had her chips on site of McDonald’s
24dash.com: Boadicea’s grave ‘under McDonald’s restaurant’ in Birmingham
Wikipedia: Boadicea
CinemasOnline.com: Braveheart with a Bra

The 35th Skeptics Circle at Skeptico

The 35th Skeptics’ Circle is up at Skeptico (the real one) and it’s featuring a creationist “guest blogger!” If you don’t already know, Skeptico has a copy-cat on Blogger that is using his name and making pseudo-skeptical posts on various blogs. Be sure to head over to the creationist-skeptico (the fake one) and congratulate him on an intelligently designed carnival!

The Tangled Bank 54!!

The Tangled Bank #54 is up at Science & Politics! My favorite entry so far is on the Dracorex hogwartsia in Harry Potter Meets Paleontology, an entry by “Hedwig the Owl” aka “GrrlScientist.” Check it out! I’ll be reading the rest after I get off work tonight!

Homo floresiensis: New Species or Modern Human?

One of the more fascinating debates in anthropology right now is the explanation of LB1, a.k.a. “the Hobbit,” –the proposed new hominid species Homo floresiensis. Found in 2003 in the Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia.

There’s been some recent buzz in the journal Science as, first; Falk et al (2005) reported that the specimen may be that of a dwarf species descended from Homo erectus. Then; Martin et al concluded that LB1 isn’t a new species at all, but rather a microcephalic modern human. Falk et al used endocast reconstructions of LB1, a chimpanzee, H. erectus (ZKD XI), a modern human, and microcephalic. Endocasts are 3 dimensional representations of the inside of the braincase and reveal structures like sulci, vessels, and such and also cranial capacity can be derived. Falk et al used female comparators in all cases except the microcephalic and possibly LB1 itself, which has recently been described as a probable male (Culotta 2006).

Falk included the microcephalic because there had been some sharp criticisms of those that heralded the “discovery of a new species of hominid,” which insisted that a sample size of one is not cause for excitement and because the find could simply be the result of a pathological cause not evolution. Microcephalic implies that the individual has an abnormally small head and can be caused by a wide range of conditions.

Martin et al (2006) responded to Falk et al with a critique that suggested their microcephalic sample (AMNH 2792a) was inappropriate since it was of a male that only reached an age of 10 years and LB1 is of an adult. Microcephalics can be classed as both “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” and the latter rarely reach adulthood. Martin et al suggest that this is reason enough to eliminate AMNH as a comparator. Falk et al responded that Martin et al used incomplete line drawings that provided little detail and point out that death among low-functioning microcephalics “typically occurs within the first several years of life.” My first thought reading that was if my own daughter were to die for any reason at age 10, I don’t think I could quantify her life with terms that exceed “several” or “few” when referring to the number of years I spent with her.

But hair-splitting aside, Falk et al also point out that LB1’s endocast was “highly convoluted” in appearance while the microcephalic endocasts that Martin et al provided in their line drawings did not appear so. They also draw point out some other morphological differences with LB1 and Martin et al’s comparators. Martin et al point out that the cranial capacity of the single microcephalic (ANMH) that Falk et al used was abnormally low for the microcephalic mean, to which LB1 is closer to.

At the end of the day, we are left with: the fact that LB1 is a sample size of one with regards to cranial artifacts, though additional finds were located in the cave from other individuals; the cranial capacity is consistent with the microcephalic mean of modern humans; stone tools found at the site were consistent with those of full-sized Homo sapiens; and, as Martin et al suggest, it may be that the site may even have been culturally influenced as a place where sufferers of microcephaly were brought by society to which they belonged. If a pathological cause in antiquity created multiple microcephalics, is it so inconceivable that that their culture would find them different or even special? If they were modern humans, as Martin et al suggest, then I think we have a few modern day analogs that can be used to demonstrate the tendency for humans to single out those they find different.

References

Culotta, E. (2006, 19 May). How the Hobbit Shrugged: Tiny Hominid’s Story Takes New Turn. Science, 312(5776), 983-984.
Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., et al. (2005, 8 April). The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. Science, 308(5719), 242-245.
Falk, D., Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., et al. (2006, 19 May). Response to Comment on “The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis.” Science, 312(5776), 999.
Martin, R., Maclarnon, A., Phillips, J., Dussubieux, L., Williams, P., & Dobyns, W. (2006, 19 May). Comment on “The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis. [Full Text Free] Science, 312(5776), 999.

The 40th edition of the Carnival of the Godless

The 40th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Science & Politics and coturnix deserves the “chained to the computer” award! I don’t know how the guy keeps generating so much material all the time, much less how he’s able to manage multiple carnivals in a single day!

Congrats, Bora! I’ll spend a good few hours in the morning with a mighty fine cup of joe and a page full of great links to great blogs.

Health Facts and Fears: pseudoscience from a pseudo-skeptic?

Most skeptics have no real agenda beyond truth. Sure, they’re often passionate about their doubts of UFOs, Uri Geller, Kevin Trudeau, Don Lemmon (hello Orac!), cold fusion and the like, but the bottom line is always the truth. A true skeptic won’t say “there’s no such thing as alien spacecraft” or “cold fusion is impossible.” Instead, they’ll say, “there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting,” and “cold fusion hasn’t been demonstrably feasible.”

But there is a class of skeptic, a pseudo-skeptic if you will, that crops up here and there. Bjørn Lomborg and Steven J. Milloyare two that come to mind as those that seem willing to play around with statistics until they get the effect they want. In other words, they seem to have desired results and look largely at the data that are supportive. I’ve read much of what both Lomborg and Milloy have to say in their books and agree with some things and not with other things. They raise good questions here and there, but I’m consistently left with a bad taste -a flavor of an underlying agenda that suits their politics. Are they really skeptical, or are they just wearing skeptics’ clothes to get in the door?

I have Google News set for one or two topics that are sent to me when they become news and, in my inbox tonight was a link to an article by another apparent pseudo-skeptic: Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). Whelan is a contributor in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer and, in the article she wrote, she raised some very sensible questions regarding a couple of legitimate issues. But, again, is she donning a mask to get her foot in the skeptical door to further another agenda? She’s the apparent editor of the ACSH page titled Health Facts and Fears and the writer of an article called Environmentalists’ Quest to Ban Life-Saving Flame-Retardants.

As is typical with conservative pseudo-skeptics, she includes much gloom and doom about how the environmentalists are out to destroy us all with their tree-hugging ways. I certainly don’t agree with every environmentalist position, but in this case I think Whelan is overreaching a bit. In this article, she makes use of several logical fallacies, perhaps most chiefly the non sequitur. Whelen says:

What is now coming into clear focus is a band of anti-chemical advocates who have no concern that their agenda is contributing to the human death toll around the world.

She goes on to say:

The most obvious historical example of this life-threatening advocacy is the banning of DDT — a chemical that curtailed the spread of malaria by killing the vectors of that disease, mosquitoes.  Following the environmentalist-inspired banning of DDT in 1972, the death rate from malaria soared in countries around the world.  People died because a life-saving chemical was removed.

Except DDT isn’t banned in nations where malaria is still problematic. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) gives a specific exemption for the use of DDT in public health programmes. It is, however, banned in the United States, where malaria isn’t an issue. Her argument is: because environmentalists were against DDT that they’re for malaria. It’s the same debunked argument she used in the past and is now recycling (pun intended) for a new non sequitur. The article above suggests that the same environmentalists are now responsible for the continued deaths of 4,000 Americans by fire in their homes because they seek a ban on flame-retardant chemicals:

Incredibly, as a result of pressure from environmentalists in recent years, most flame-retardant chemicals have been banned both in the United States and Europe, and those remaining are very much under assault.  Why?  Because activists — and their surrogates at the Environmental Protection Agency — argue that the chemicals can be found in blood and breast milk samples and may cause cancer in laboratory rodents.

It isn’t the activists that are saying this, it’s the U.S. government. But, more importantly, Whelen is clearly misleading her readers. Indeed, I say she is out-right lying:

As the EPA regulates against flame-retardants, Americans die and suffer.  Banning the very few flame-retardants now left on the market will have the dire consequence of increasing the risk of fire injuries and death here and around the world.

Either she is stupid or she is lying. Could someone who so proudly adorns her own name with so many obscure trailing letters of accomplishment really be stupid? Perhaps. But the fact is that there exist no bans on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) that are affecting the safety of Americans. There are two types that have been shown to be more likely to cause health effects, which are pentaBDE and octaBDE (Zhou et al 2002). They’ve been banned in only six states and only penta- and octa-BDEs were affected. Deca-BDEs were not. And the only company that makes them has voluntarily discontinued them. According to the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation press release on 11/3/03:

…citing years of research, advances in technology and a favorable environmental assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of what the company calls the “new generation” of flame retardants, today announced that it will voluntarily cease production of two widely-used flame retardant chemicals, penta- and octa- polybrominated diphenyl ether, by the end of 2004. Great Lakes will replace Penta-PBDE with a new product called Firemaster® 550.

But that doesn’t stop Whelen from closing her pseudoscientific article with this:

Until consumers, scientists, and policy makers make a commitment to confront these activists with facts — and hold them responsible for the consequences of banning life-saving technology — pseudoscience and the precautionary principle will continue to prevail in regulatory policy, and all of us will suffer.

Should we be at all worried about PBDEs? The results aren’t conclusive, but whether you accept rat studies or not, the fact remains that PBDEs are showing up in humans. This is a synthetic organic chemical that has as yet unknown effects. Whether you subscribe to the “precautionary principle” or not, it has to give one reason to pause just knowing that it is showing up in breast milk and it is being fed to infants. Questioning the applicability of rat studies is good science; dismissing their results simply because people aren’t rats is foolish. Moreover, there is growing evidence that these PBDEs are showing up in wildlife in significant quantity.

The presence of PBBs and PBDEs in sperm whales, the high levels of particularly PBDEs in seals and dolphins, and the on-going industrial production of these compounds suggest that an environmental problem may be on its way (de Boer et al 1998)

But then, why listen to activists like the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research? More research clearly needs to be done, but the doom and gloom of pseudo-skeptics is out to prevent the critical eye from looking too close. Being environmentally friendly and exercising proactive behavior is costly in the short-run for industries like chemical manufacturers. The pseudo-skeptics tried the same tactics with chlorofluorocarbons when it was discovered what their effects were on ozone production in the stratosphere. Luckily, science won the day; restrictions were placed on chlorofluorocarbon manufacture and use; and the ozone levels over Antarctica have improved.

Maybe I’ve missed the mark with regard to Whelan (maybe with Lomborg and Milloy, too). Maybe there are legislations that planned that threaten Deca-BDEs and other flame retardants. Maybe there are EPA regulations that prevent manufacturers from using existing PBDEs that have not yet been banned. Maybe every state in the union is planning bans. But I didn’t notice any such legislations, regulations or plans in the brief literature review I did. Nor does Whelan include a single source of information that a true skeptic could follow up with.

As a skeptic, I have to question both her motives and her logic.

References

de Boer, J; Wester, P.J.; Klamer, H.J.C.; Lewis, W.; and Boon, J.P. (1998). Do flame retardants threaten ocean life? Nature 394, 28 – 29

Whelan, Elizabeth M. (2006) Public health’s credibility crisis. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(3), 14-15.

Zhou, T.; Taylor, M.M.; DeVito, M.J.; et al (2002). Developmental exposure to brominated diphenyl ethers results in thyroid hormone disruption. Toxicol Sci 66:105-116.