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Anthropology As…What?

Anthropology as action. 

Anthropology as applied. 

Anthropology as insight.

Anthropology as a tool. 

Anthropology as f**k. 

We started this blog because we teach, research, live, and breathe anthropology, and we needed more work (Ed: no, you didn’t) opportunities to share what it is and why it matters. We are anthropologists of various stripes – in terms of fields of study, regions of interest, personal backgrounds, and academic positions – based at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We are passionate about the power that anthropology has, not only as a subject in academic institutions, but as a way of understanding, explaining, critiquing, and possibly even transforming, this messed up complex world we live in.

Our name reflects our belief in this potential. Our posts will all share a theme of demonstrating “anthropology as…”. As instructors at an undergraduate teaching university, we are committed to making what we do accessible to a broad audience, including those outside the walls of academic institutions. We intend to use this site as a teaching tool in our classes, a platform for informally thinking through anthropological ideas, and as a way of starting (or continuing) conversations with folks both currently known and yet to be encountered.

A few quick caveats:

  1. We make no guarantees as to timing or frequency of posts. It is reasonable to assume we might disappear during heavy grading times, and rest assured once we crawl out from under piles of papers, we will reemerge with Phoenix-like energy and passion (Ed: good luck with that).
  2. While anthropology will be the unifying thread of posts here, and we are committed to a four field approach, the content reflects us as individual authors (see our “About” page for descriptions of who we are), not our department, institution, or professional organizations.
  3. Following on #2, while we hope to include voices from many colleagues, the two main authors at the time of this writing share a few common features. We are both white settler women from Canada, we are both feminists (Ed: please clarify this in future posts, because feminism be complicated), and we both place a lot of emphasis on Indigenous rights and decolonization, in however imperfect our ways (Ed: you are also giant nerds).
  4. We are committed to creating safe environments for discussion, including around difficult topics, which means that, should a situation arise, we will have no qualms about moderating comments that are abusive with a very heavy hand. That said, we love profanity, we will use correct anatomical terminology, and we will assume that y’all are grownups about that.

In sum, our goal is to demonstrate anthropology as a force in everyday life, and to unabashedly and unashamedly show that anthropology IS awesome.

Let’s do this, nerds.

 

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Maps, Vocabulary, and Enregistered Identity

I admit it – I love a good map as much as the next giant nerd. As a kid, I literally spent hours in our home office, pouring over atlases that my geography major dad had kept  on hand. Maps are great tools for visualizing the distribution of social relationships in space. So language maps in particular, which help us to examine the ways language is used different across space, are guaranteed click bait for me. I’m clearly not alone on this one, as recent ‘dialect survey’ maps have gone viral over the last few years. This one for the US came out a few years ago, and includes tests that purport to guess where you’re from based on your preferred word for nine or ten common items. I tried it myself, and it wanted me to live in either Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo. While I’ve lived geographically close to a couple of those places, it still felt off.

So now, finally, someone’s done the same for Canada (though I haven’t seen a quiz version), and mapped out various expressions across the country. I’ve seen it linked a lot, and I’ve looked through it with my language/map nerd brain going ‘ooh, that’s fun’. But at the same time, I have to ask – what else is going on when we create maps like this? Note this CBC article reporting on the project, with the title “Lost in Translation“. The story suggests that English Canadians are “not all speaking the same language”, and that there is a “surprising amount of diversity in vocabulary and pronunciation”. Popularizations of research are, of course, notoriously frustrating, and it’s fairly easy to push back against this framing – are a few words, many of them relatively infrequent items in people’s lexicons (the sport either called ‘kickball’ or ‘soccer baseball’ is not one that I refer to more than, say, once a year, for example) really sufficient to define as major differences? Are we actually unable to understand each other across these differences – are people from Saskatchewan unaware of what a hoodie is? And even if these differences are significant, is it really that surprising that expressions are regionalized?

Beyond the journalistic accounts, though, there are also questions about the research process itself, and how well it captures what it says it does. Ben Zimmer touches on this in a Language Log post on the US version – the data emerges based on self-reporting, from a multiple choice format, using online participants. This has an advantage of gathering a quantity of data from a range of geographical areas, but it also has a number of significant limitations. We are often surprisingly unaware of what we actually say (especially when it comes to pronunciation), a multiple choice list may make a number of assumptions about what the options even are, and, of course, the sample of people who do online surveys is not exactly representative of the population as a whole.

The most interesting point, to me, though, is how these visualizations don’t just represent regional variations, but also create and enshrine regional variants as identity markers. I was thinking about this while doing the reading for my Language & Power seminar this week, which includes Barbara Johnstone’s (2013) article “100% Authentic Pittsburgh”. i-speak-fluent-canadian-canada-humor-funny-vacation-souvenir-blue-t-shirt-m-0b8972b813fe1ce48315898cb05ffb32One point that Johnstone makes is that the creation, selling, and wearing of t-shirts that include certain expressions, under the headline of local ‘authenticity’, do a wide range of types of semiotic work, creating a character image that is rooted in certain forms of class, racial, gender, and personal identity. It’s fairly easy to jump from Johnstone’s Pittsburgh example to Canadian versions – like the one pictured here. Artifacts like these t-shirts – or, I would argue, these dialect maps – shape the meanings of the linguistic resources that people choose to use, as well as the identities that are purportedly represented by them. As with some of the people Johnstone interviewed, I look at this list of supposed markers of speaking “fluent Canadian” and don’t really see myself in them. What are the features that we associate with supposedly Canadian phrases like “Take off, ya hoser”, and what does it imply that they are used to market an entextualized Canadian identity?

The maps are a good deal more sophisticated than McKenzie brother parodies of Canadian English, of course, but some of what they accomplish is the same – especially when they are repackaged by journalists looking to create a narrative out of them. They highlight a few select items that can be used to index certain regions, erasing many other aspects of the language in these areas, and possibly attaching other semiotic baggage to the mix.

That said, having moved to Alberta from Ontario, I really wish the maps had told me what a “windrow” was, because it took me 2 years to figure that one out.

 

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Public Archaeology Day & Week 5 in Review

Public outreach was a huge component of how I designed my field methods course. I’m a huge proponent of public outreach, of community archaeology, and of students demonstrating what they’ve learned by teaching others all about it. As I knew we were in a high visibility and high traffic area I wanted to formally acknowledge that this kind of labour was needed and necessary, but I also needed to then assess how students engaged with the public, particularly how well they communicated the research objectives and the purpose of the field school. While I knew we’d have plenty of opportunities to give informal “tours” throughout the field school and answer questions from people passing through/around the site, I also wanted to host a formal Public Archaeology Day.  This day would feature tours, activities for kids, and artifacts on display for handing, as a way to formally invite the public to our site and to allow our students’ friends and family an opportunity to see what they’d been up to all summer.

We had over 160 attend our Public Archaeology Day on Saturday July 29th. I was so pleased with this response and the students were too. I was even more impressed by just how excellent the students were at doing tours, explaining archaeology, and answering questions – I mean I’d pretty much figured that out by this point but they really were exceptional on a very hot and busy day. Tours departed approximately hourly; the students met with people at a designated meeting point, then brought them down to the site to see what we’d been up to. Other students hung around the station we’d set up with cleaned and catalogued finds for people to handle and examine. We also had “learn to be an archaeologist” activities that kids could complete to earn stickers.  The media was also on site so our coverage of the project continued.

Highlights of the Public Archaeology Day. From top left clockwise: examining artifacts, the calm before the storm, the guide signs used for the tours, and screening for artifacts. 

After a single day of rest we were back on site and back to work. Week 5 was all about:

a) Routine. At this point in the field school the students have learned that they really can do archaeology (bolstered by the positive feedback and energy of the Public Archaeology Day) and things pretty much just happen. Every morning we unload the gear. We dig and screen and talk about food all day (seriously, we talked about food a lot. At the end of the day we pack up the gear (in a super efficient manner now that it is routine) back into the vehicles and call it a day.

b) Concrete. In Week 4 we opened up three new units and during Week 5 we found that all of these new units had concrete features. Unit 4 had an interesting concrete “floor” The concrete in Unit 5 was a smooth “floor”; it had a unique pattern on it that we eventually figured out was the impressions left from brick “frogs” (bricks with material cut away to reduce weight and to allow more mortar/cement to adhere); to track this feature we expanded the unit by an additional 1 m to make a 1 m x 3 m unit.  Unit 5 also had a concrete “floor”. It was much smoother than seen in Units 1 and 4 but seemed to line approximately up with the concrete feature in Unit 1. It was also much larger. Instead of a narrow line of concrete, the entire 1 m x 2 m unit was concrete so we made the decision to expand it into a 2 m x 2m unit to see if we could assess the extent of the floor. Unit 6 also had a concrete feature that was perpendicular but not attached to the feature in Unit 1.

You can see the impressions left behind in the cement by a brick “frog” in Unit 4. 

Work continued in Unit 3 but the quantity of material recovered had finally started to decrease. The students excavated some articulated cow foot bones, a surprising number of bullet casings (later lab analysis would put the total over 150), and some leather that we initially identified as belonging to a belt. Luckily one of our students had horses and corrected us that it was likely part of a bridle. The preservation in the midden really is remarkable.

Always grateful for students who bring in their items to show their classmates (Thanks Lace!). On the left some harnesses from the 1920s, 1960s, and 1990s are shown; on the right is the piece of buck chinstrap that we recovered from Unit 3. 

With only one week of digging left the pressure was on to finish as much excavating as possible. The students were starting to get anxious about their research papers and I was also busy planning our field trip!

 

So It Begins

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The beginning of a new school year is a thing. Even from my lofty, fictional, editorial position, I see the plans, the excitement, the resolutions. So as we head into this new school year, let’s check in with our people.

Ed: What are you most excited about this year?
Sarah (the Linguistic One): 
So many things! MacEwan has a new president, and while I’ve only heard her speak once, she articulated a vision for our school as a place that serve the entire community, that places justice and access at the centre of its mission, and that promises to take real action toward implementing the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I feel like we are at an amazing place right now.

Katie (the Archaeology One): Yeah our new president is ah-maze-ing! I’m really pumped that we are being led by someone who shares so many of the values that are important to me – community, caring, accessibility, activism, justice. Wow. I’m all fired up and feel empowered to create the kind of learning environment I think is important and needed.

Ed: What are you excited about in your teaching?
SS: Five out of the six courses I get to teach this year are linguistic anthropology! Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching sociocultural stuff too, but linguistic anthro is my one true love, and I will be swimming in it this year, with 2 seminars (Language & Power and Language & Media) and a third year course (Language, Gender, and Sexuality), along with 2 sections of intro to ling anth. I feel some definite blog incorporation work coming along…

KB: Can I sit in on your third year course? Because it sounds awesome! I’m redoing my written assignment for my Anth 110 course (Gender, Age, & Culture) to more explicitly involve this blog so that’s exciting. Anth 110 really has become my passion btw so overall I’m just jazzed to get back into it. I’m also really looking forward to finding new/better ways of bringing our lab resources into our classrooms. For example we have this rad new Neandertal skeleton, which we will definitely use in Anth 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) but it could also visit our Anth 101 classes as well.

Ed: OK, you know you have one – what’s your resolution?
SS:
 This year, I swear will be the one where I finally break out of the shackles of email notifications controlling my life. Really. I promise. Hold me to it.

KB: Boundaries. I really really need to be clear about what my open door policy is and how it works. Turns out that I need to have times when my door is closed.

Ed: What advice do you want to give your students?
SS: Whatever happens this semester, you’re a human first and a student second. Take care of your needs. Admittedly, some profs are better than others about hearing that, and sometimes your grades end up taking a hit because life. A bad semester, or a bad few classes, is something that can be overcome, and there are people who want to help you with that. Find them, and let them.

KB: ^^^THIS^^^ And read the syllabus #sorrynotsorry It really is an important, useful document.

Ed: New semester on – Got meme?
SS: 

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KB:

 

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 4 in Review

NOTE: I really fell behind in writing these week-in-review posts but that’s one of the realities of fieldwork, it is physically, emotionally, and intellectually draining so sometimes non-fieldwork things get set aside. But luckily they are review posts so it’s not to late to reflect back upon what happened. This is why we take good field notes right?!

Week 4 began with what we called our “Big Bonding Day”. Unit 1 was flooded from all of the rain we’d had over the weekend; as the lower strata in the unit was clay, drainage was an issue, and all the rainwater just collected and sat in the bottom of the unit. Luckily archaeologists always have an abundance of buckets, so we bailed the unit out and got back to digging (Note: this wouldn’t be the last time we’d need to bail out this unit…).

The students finished Unit 1 this week and opened up Unit 5, a 1m x 2m just north of Unit 1, and Unit 6, a 1m x 1m just west of Unit 1. These were placed to capture some more of the cement feature found in Unit 1 and get a better idea of what it represented (foundation? wall? ramp/sidewalk?). Unit 6 was specifically placed to try to find more of a possible wooden beam found in a Shovel Test Pit in that location.

IMG_7884This is what Unit 1 looked like after we bailed it out!

Unit 2 was completed; upon reaching and excavating “sterile” levels (sediments with no cultural materials in them) the students drew wall profiles to capture the stratigraphy seen in that unit. This is a labour-intensive task but critical for making interpretations post-excavation; it challenges students to use their best mapping, measuring, drawing, sediment analysis, and communication skills. The Unit 2 team was partially disbanded – one of the students was sent over to Unit 3 to help with the midden/bone bed, and the other two opened up Unit 4, a 1m x 2m unit located just west of Unit 2.

Work was proceeding well in Unit 3 now that three students were dedicated to its excavation and mapping. Having a third student working on that unit was really needed at this point – there was much that needed to be done, we weren’t sure how much deeper the bone bed would go, and the clock was ticking.

So it wasn’t clear what that cement feature was in Unit 1 and it wasn’t clear how much midden there was in Unit 3. It was clear, however, that we’d just passed the midpoint of the field school; several students missed a day or two as they were sick. We didn’t have a single day where everyone was working on site. The air quality was still not great so it seemed like we all were having headaches. Overall body pain was not too bad as we’d all reached the point where we were used to the physical work but some students were starting to have symptoms of more serious, potentially chronic pain (elbow, hip, and foot pain/numbness). We talked about self-care on the site and shared tips and tricks (yoga, shower beers, bath salts, massage, etc.). All of this was not surprising as field work is extremely taxing mentally and physically; so I supported and encouraged students to take days off when they weren’t feeling well and to leave early/arrive late to accommodate appointments. Part of my mandate to have an accessible, ethical field school was ensuring that students felt comfortable to take time off when needed, no questions asked. I also ran the field school around “regular” working hours (8:30 am – 4:30 pm, Monday – Friday); this selfishly also supported my childcare requirements. These policies were the direct result of my personal experiences as a student and my concerns about overwork, stress, and work-life balance. I know as a young archaeologist in my first CRM job, I worked insanely long hours in really long stretches (12-18 hour days for two or three weeks) and did not feel like I could take off time when I became sick (and ended up being very very sick with giardia for an unnecessarily long time as a result). All of these concerns about health, safety, and risk were constantly on my mind.

Haeden and I appeared on Global News at 7 am on the Thursday morning; it was an opportunity to discuss the project and field school, but also promote our Public Archaeology Day (more on that in another post). It was my first time doing a studio interview but I think we did a great job in the 3 minutes we had.

The week ended with a day in the lab as usual. We spend some time talking about and planning for our Public Archaeology Day; we pulled artifacts to display, prepared signage, printed stickers, and planned some simple activities for kids. It was clear that building in a lab day was really worth the “loss” of time in the field; the students were making excellent progress in cleaning and cataloging the finds.

IMG_7906The site at the end of Week 4. Unit 1 was “closed” – it is under the plywood. Unit 4, under the green tent was opened. Unit 5, under the grey tent, was opened just north of Unit 1. Unit 6, in the process of being made, was opened just west of Unit 1. 

 

IMG_7897This neat red plastic car was found in Unit 4. We were super excited by it. Children are often “missing” in the archaeological record so to find a toy was fun. We posted some photos and video of its big reveal on social media and the response was really interesting and informative. Someone commented on my Instagram post that their husband said he had a car just like this when he was a kid in the 1960s in Saskatoon; he revealed that Donald Duck was its driver (no, we never found Donald!). 

Speech, Action, and Freedom

It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.

Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.

I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.

The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.

How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.

It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.

All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.

Film Review: Conlanging (Warning: May nerd-splode)

This past weekend, I was lucky to be able to attend the premiere of the documentary film Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues. For those unaware, “conlang” is short for “constructed language”, so “conlanging” would be the verb form, because of course it

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Film logo from http://conlangingfilm.com/

needs a verb form. In contrast to natural languages, which develop in social groups without a large scale plan by a single creator (or a few creators), conlangs are consciously developed for various purposes. This is a film that engages with the people who create languages, professionally or privately, and those who learn and use them. It’s a film that cares deeply about the conlang community, and many of the people in it were present at the premiere because it was scheduled to coincide with the 7th Language Creation Conference. I will cut to the chase in my review here: this movie is fantastic. If you are in any way a language nerd, it is amazing. If you are some other kind of nerd, I think it would also be amazing. If you are not a nerd at all, I don’t know what you like, so I have no idea, but maybe one of you can tell me what you think after I make you watch it for my class. [Full disclosure: One of the executive producers, Christine Schreyer, is a close friend of both of the bloggers here, and the reason I went to the film in the first place. You should still believe what I have to say about it].

 

The film traces the history of constructed languages, which dates back to the 11th century or so. I was fascinated to learn that the first known (incomplete) conlang was developed by a relatively anonymous nun, who was subsequently followed by some well-known luminaries in philosophy, like Sir Thomas More. From the beginning, the filmmakers establish a thread of examining what motivates people to create languages, and this human focus is what gives the examples weight beyond the fun language nerdery. There are two main threads that run through these motivations, which actually pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, encapsulated in relatively well-known languages like Esperanto, there is the desire to overcome the messy baggage of trying to communicate across deep differences. One woman, raised with Esperanto as one of her native languages in the former Soviet Union, expressed her appreciation for the language as transcending culture and politics  (something that made this anthropologist give the screen a little eyebrow raise, but it’s an interesting view of linguistic utopia). On the other hand, several language creators found something profound in this craft because they were able to give voice to the profound difference that they felt, to a sense of self that was indescribable using the limited tools of socially developed and agreed upon tongues. One of the most powerful expressions of this view comes from a young trans man who found not only honesty, but also safety and secrecy, in a language his abusive parents could not access.

What all of the creators share, and what I think many linguists and others would find surprising, is a deep sense of the artistry of what they do. Language creation is complex, planned, expressive, and creative. This might make sense, as many of the most well known conlangs (like Klingon or Na’vi) are part of elaborate alternative worlds, but there are also those who play more directly with the forms available to them in their chosen medium of language. When they share their creations with others, whether it’s through conference presentations, online chats, or actively learning the languages someone else has created, there is a powerful admiration for and consciousness of both form and meaning embedded within them. The film highlights both product and process, giving examples of languages based on communication by handholding touch (developed by a couple who can communicate subtly when in a crowd), languages that are exclusively written (drawing attention to all the ways that this would be different from the ways we currently use writing in a linear way to represent speech), or even to creative ways of expressing verb tense. A resonant image comes from the language creator who articulates how, when pre-existing language is stripped away and you try to imagine how you would describe an object like a flower, you see that flower differently, recognizing its component parts, its placement, its smell and feel.

And of course, there were also some wonderful pieces of pop culture and behind-the-scenes anecdotes of language creation for film and television, which is probably the easy draw of this film. Finding out how constructed languages change differently from natural languages (a lot of weight can be given to what happens when an actor makes an error in their Klingon, for example) was something I desperately wanted more of (and, fortunately, was able to get, as Paul Frommer, who created Na’vi, and Mark Okrend, who created Klingon, were both extremely forthcoming in a Q and A session, as well as in conversation afterwards, revealing patterns of emergent language ideologies in conlang communities that I have filed on my list of research topics for when I run out, because that will totally happen). I also appreciated the amount of time dedicated to what I know to be my friend Christine’s incredibly insightful work on how revitalization efforts for endangered languages can learn from conlang communities. In both cases, traditional second language learning methods are not necessarily available (you can’t just move to Pandora for a summer for immersion Na’vi, for example), speakers and learners may be geographically and socially distant from one another, and an awful lot of work may have to be done from written texts. This is a connection that, I noted several times in conversation, more endangered language activists need to think about.

I walked away from the film inspired to try my hand at conlanging, just to see what I might find myself having to say if I did it (and if I do, I will definitely blog what I learn). If I do, I may also find an answer to my most burning question: what makes a bad conlang? I can’t imagine a bad language, so it feels to me that as long as the language is a complete one, it will have something interesting in it. A few creators talked about their earliest efforts as teenagers, noting that, like my old terrible teenage poetry, these would be better left uncovered, and…that just made me want to uncover them, to see what a bad language might look like. The only clear consensus on bad language creation was that not bothering to create the language (putting up meaningless gibberish) would be bad (note: during the Q and A, both the panelists and the conlangers in the audience were clearly anti-Arrival on this basis).

In sum: The film should be available to order in August, and if you are interested in language, in diverse arts, or in how people see the world through multiple lenses, you should buy it. If you teach in a linguistics or anthropology department, you should get your library to buy it, and you should show it to your intro classes. It does a better job articulating what is fascinating, exciting, and fun about linguistics than just about anything I’ve come across.

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 3 in Review

One of the toughest parts of archaeology is that no matter how much time, effort, planning, people, and/or money you put into a field season, the weather can and will throw a wrench into the works. Edmonton is particularly problematic; it has a reputation for having terrible weather…well… year around. The winters are cold (but it’s a dry cold! even if there is too much snow) and the summers are hot or wet or plagued by extreme weather (thunderstorms and/or tornadoes). By undertaking an early field season (say May) you may be able to avoid the worst of what the summer can throw at you but you may also find yourself dealing with late snow or too much rain anyways. A July-August field season was what worked for the head of the research project so we knew we’d need to be flexible and deal with what is thrown at us. So to briefly recap: week 1 was hot and week 2 was wet. Week 3 was too smokey. Where there’s smoke, there’s no fieldwork.  At least for us there isn’t. The week started off with air quality alert warnings, which would only get worse as the week went on.

I notified the students, after a Sunday with an air quality index of 7, that we’d still meet at the site Monday as usual. Monday started off chilly and overcast but warmed as the day went on. While we got the occasional whiff of smoke, it really wasn’t too bad out. I took advantage of having several volunteers on site that day to spend some time with each and every student individually to talk about their research papers. Typically I’d have students write up a technical report about their 1 m x 1m unit to submit at the end of the season but because the students were working collaboratively on 1 m x 2 m or  2 m x 2 m units and because they were contributing to the research of a PhD student, I thought it could be more informative for them to be flexible with what they wrote up. Some are addressing the types of materials recovered from the site (bricks, glass, or clinker), others are examining the change in land use/place over time (one via plants, others via peoples), another is applying the knowledge obtained from an internship at an art gallery to propose a curated exhibit about the site, and finally one is interested in critically reviewing how our introduction to anthropology course (Anth206) lab assignments and exercises do or do not prepare for our students for the technical skills required in the field. As an instructor I appreciated the thought the students had clearly already put into the topics so tried to take the time to make sure that they were taking on manageable projects. With less than four weeks to research and write the papers up I really wanted to make sure the scale of their projects was appropriate. Otherwise work proceeded as normal at the site. Unit 1 had finally dealt with most of the really tough sediment and were starting to proceed faster through level 2. Unit 2 was working on level 4 and taking out the wooden plant feature they’d uncovered the previous Thursday. Unit 3 was finding a lot of metal objects and glass, and started to find animal bone – this was in line with what the associated test pit had found so the shift quickly became getting the level down to the bone bed originally identified in that test pit.

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Tuesday began as another overcast day with light drizzle in the morning. We met again in the field; we’d discussed on Monday that for the week the plan was we’d always start in the field if the air quality in the morning was low so we’d get at least a half day in and retreat to the lab if necessary. The day got off to a slow start; people trickled in late and it took some time before the units were uncovered and work was actually started for the day. I knew that this would be the case as we reached the half way point of the course as it is always a challenge to keep students motivated and engaged once the initial excitement of a new term, a new course starts to wane and as the workload starts to increase. I was also aware my own dwindling energy reserves were not allowing me to be as enthusiastic as I needed each day. Such is the reality of courses and especially of field work. But we still had a productive day. Unit 1 was finishing levels and doing an excellent job of uncovering and mapping their feature 1 (the cement feature); compared to their slow initial progress, they were really “flying” through their levels now (soft, unconsolidated sediment really is a blessing). Unit 2 was closing out the unit – the last level was pretty much sterile so they focused on”cleaning” the walls of the unit; we ensuring the walls are as flat as possible so the stratigraphy can be clearly seen then captured in a profile drawing.  Unit 3 was focused on mapping the bone bed, which they had reached and carefully revealed by the end of the previous day. Both stratigraphic or wall profile drawings/maps and floor plan maps are valuable pieces of the record of the site. They are used to illustrate the context of the finds and as such are important interpretive tools.

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I made the call Wednesday morning to again start in the field. The morning was a little smokey but not too bad. Units 2 and 3 continued with their mapping; I checked in regularly with the students, who were doing an excellent job with their maps but really focused on helping Unit 1 screen. Unit 1 had encountered another tough sediment – clay. For those of you archaeologists when I say their AHN was a G you’ll know what they were facing. For those of you non-archaeologists, AHN is a type of “tests” we do to figure out what the overall composition of the sediment is (sand, silt, and/or clay) based on its texture. An AHN of G means that when a handful of sediment was collected and a little bit of water was added (or in our case no water was added) it could be kneaded into a ball then rolled out into a cylinder which could then be thinned out into a longer tube that could then be joined into a loop (i.e., we could make a donut with the clay). The clay was first hard but pliable quickly turning into wet, sticky, and sterile. It was hard work to dig out and even harder work to screen. We had to hand sort through all the lumps of clay feeling for the smallest inclusions that might represent artifacts. By the end of the day everyone was helping squish their way through the buckets of clay coming out of unit 1 as the air quality had gradually gotten worse over the day to the point that we needed to not be outside any longer. My eyes were sore and it felt like I had a brick on my chest.

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We woke up Thursday to an air quality that was close to what it was at the end of Wednesday – far too bad to head to the field so I emailed everyone to tell them to head to the lab. The conditions can be best described like the filter you see in a horror movie – an orange sun surrounded by dulling fog. It was gross. The air conditioning in the lab was much appreciated and we had a really productive day cleaning and cataloging. Haeden and his partner JP still had to venture out to the site to meet with people from the Archaeology Survey (the branch of the Provincial government that provides permits for and oversees archaeology in Alberta) but were happy to report upon their return to that the Arch Survey was very pleased with the work done on the site and that we’d passed inspection. Haeden, JP, and I chatted and decided that it was best to stick to our usually schedule and spend Friday in the lab as well.

Our Friday lab was a little different. We spent a little time first thing talking about our plans for the Public Archaeology Day, which is quickly approaching (see poster below). One of the students and I went down to CAFE to see their space as they’d shown interest in hosting an exhibit relating to our work. We also were visited by children from the MacEwan University Early Learning and Child Care Lab School; my daughter was so proud to show off her mama’s lab and the children loved running around with the magnifying glasses I loaned them looking at what we’d found so far and interacting with my students. It was a great burst of energy and activity and a nice way to end our week.

The air quality has improved since then so we’ll be back on site this week. So far it looks like we’ll get wet then be very hot…so typical Edmonton weather.

Week 4 update to follow…