Assessing Value: Reflections on the Royal Alberta Museum

I spend a lot of time these days angry; there is so much to be rightfully angry about and I want to write about it all but don’t have enough fucks. Sometimes writing isn’t the best way to respond, however, in this case I know that the only way I might be heard is to write about it. So what has me so angry that I am actually writing about it? This “review” of the newly opened Royal Alberta Museum (a.k.a. the RAM). This opening was a much anticipated event; the original RAM closed its doors to the public after a wonderful 48 hour long celebration in December 2015.

My attention was first drawn to the opinion piece via Facebook, when many friends who had not yet visited the museum expressed their hesitation to visit after it received such a negative review. As someone who has eagerly awaited the opening, who also knows several people who work for the museum, and also has research communication, particularly that of cultural heritage, as an expertise I felt compelled to comment, which I did:

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Now that I’ve visited the RAM I have much much more to say about the opinion piece and why I think it is unfair and misguided.

First, it is challenging to calculate and negotiate cost versus value when assessing cultural and natural resources. As I’ve been discussing with my Issues in Archaeological Methods and Interpretation (Anth395) course students, yes archaeologists are involved in assessing the significance of cultural resources and yes this should include considering the economic significance of said resource BUT it represents only one aspect, is one criteria under which significance or value is assigned.

Yes a museum is a building that requires raw materials, resources, time, energy, labour, and effort to build. These are costly and sure one could reduce them by sourcing alternative materials, cutting down on square footage, etc. BUT a museum is NOT just a building. It is a place. Yes the RAM is a beautiful building; I love its overall design and layout. It has great curb appeal with design features that connect it to other buildings in our downtown cultural hub (the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Winspeare, the Citadel Theatre, the Shaw Conference Center, Churchill Square, City Hall, the under-construction downtown branch of the Edmonton Public Library, Ice District, Rogers Place, MacEwan University); it just “fits” in yet is unique. But a building does not make a place – a place is made by people for people.

The RAM is all about people. I would encourage my colleagues at the museum to share their stories over the next few months and years; the public need to hear about how decisions were made, how much time, effort, and intellectual and emotional labour went into creating a place for everyone to experience – in their own way. Note that I say experience not “enjoy”. Some parts of the museum will not be enjoyed and are not meant to be enjoyed; the section on residential schools, for example, should make us uncomfortable (the part of the opinion piece on the residential school display is particularly problematic but I’ll return to that in a second). How you experience the RAM is up to you and this is a good thing. Other than having to enter or exit through the one entrance to each gallery, you can wander through each gallery however you would like. It also doesn’t matter which order you visit the galleries in. I was there with my five year old and so we just took in whatever caught her eye. I asked her what she wanted to do after reading the titles of the gallery. She made the decisions including when to leave each gallery (so we didn’t actually see everything but that’s what multiple visits are for). Having her take the lead, which she loved, worked because we weren’t forced to go in any particular order nor were there any narratives or descriptions that were unclear if you went through the “wrong way” or “missed” reading something else in the same space. I get that some people won’t like this – they want a “story” that has a start, middle, then end but this approach means telling only one story. How can the curators choose a single narrative? Which one is the “correct” one? Should they choose the “epic” or “dramatic” story as our opinion piece author implies ensuring that “colour” is added to keep the attention of the viewer?

What the author of the opinion piece misses is that this is a museum where the visitor can connect with the objects presented in a way that is meaningful to them. Instead the author states “The whole point of a provincial museum is to highlight the things that make Alberta special. Instead, most of the square footage is devoted towards cataloguing quotidian aspects of Alberta life that existed pretty much everywhere.” This is only one kind of purpose for a museum. Yes things that are special should be celebrated in a provincial museum, but as an archaeologist I also recognize that the “quotidian aspects” are ALSO very important when it comes to understanding and connecting with our past. As James Deetz (1977:161) argues

it is terribly important that the “small things forgotten” be remembered. For in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured. We must remember these bits and pieces, and we must use them in new and imaginative ways so that a different appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past, can be achieved.”

It is in these small things, like the canning equipment, radios, and benches the author so disdains, that people connect with the past. For example, last summer when we excavated at Mill Creek Ravine we excavated three GWG buttons and, having owned an excellent pair of their jeans, I was SO excited. One can then imagine my delight in seeing a WHOLE room dedicated to this made-in-Edmonton brand! When my kid asked why I wanted to “look at clothes” I told her about the buttons we’d found (at a site she’d visited several times) and she became excited too. I can imagine other small and large things throughout their galleries that will capture the excitement of one individual and go unnoticed by another. AND THAT’S OK!

FYI: My kid loved the megafauna fossils and reconstructions, in particular the Giant Ground Sloth – after our visit she climbed the stairs in our house “like a sloth”. She also loved putting her face on rocks, playing with kinetic sand, and seeing the tiny baby bear that looked like a dog. We left when she grew tired but only agreed to leave when I promised we’d return again so she could explore more things.

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My kiddo loved this Mantis Shrimp, squealing with glee when it poked its head out to check her out.

Also the author’s suggestion that visitors “could have gazed in horror at a scene of a Cree village plunged into famine when those bison disappeared” is just gross (side note: if you want to understand the importance of bison, go visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage Site). There are other ways to get at the horrors of colonialism without exploiting our indigenous peoples’ suffering and reinforcing colonial narratives at the same time. For example, my favourite part (aside from the GWG exhibit) was the respect and honour given to Manitou Asinîy and to the Elders who provided teachings on this sacred being. The intentional, consistent, and thoughtful recognition of indigenous peoples and being on Treaty 6 territory and the traditional lands of many indigenous people, the acknowledgement of the teachings of Elders that informed the presentation of items, and the use of indigenous language, images, and voices IS powerful and important. As I mentioned in my pre-visit Facebook post, the author also missed the point when they state:

Among the small number of artifacts chosen to represent the province’s gut-wrenching history of residential schools, one of them is literally a pile of the bricks used to build one of the schools. It’s not the only artifact on display, but it’s telling that bricks made the cut. It’s like representing a gulag by simply displaying a bunch of plates and saying “here are the plates that gulag prisoners used.”

In my opinion, residential schools should be physically reduced to a pile of bricks. This was an exceptional choice because it is not the building that is the focus but the stories of those who experienced them that is highlighted an emphasized. If the author was less focused on assigning dollar signs to “tacky kitsch, random antiques and straight-up garbage” they might have instead sat and scrolled through the haunting images present on the interactive displays or listened to the stories of resilience told by those who survived that can be heard in that space.

Sure, maybe the names of well known provincial figures Nellie McClung and Peter Lougheed are missing at the RAM (I didn’t see them but honestly didn’t look for them either). But that’s okay; they are present on buildings, schools, and/or statues/monuments and are part of the curriculum across the province so we won’t forget them anytime soon. They also are part of our colonial heritage – figures that have loomed large in a particular narrative about Alberta’s past – so maybe this new museum is shedding light on others that were previously made invisible by their absence from these kinds of spaces. This again is why the treatment of Manitou Asinîy is so profound and important – it can be visited by anyone free of charge; it is also explicitly described and presented as spiritually significant. It is an object, a being, a rock, a spirit, a story that cannot be assigned any monetary value.

Finally, this opinion piece fails to acknowledge the people – the curators, workers, consultants, teachers, Elders, designers, educators, etc. – who worked on this museum. Their labour is valuable and I bet their wages made up an important chunk of the budget. As previously stated I hope we hear more from them as the RAM settles into its place in our community. We need to make sure that funding for the RAM to grow and change, to represent different voices, and to share more of the small things that tell the stories of our province (see Dr. Shulist’s post on what is really lost when museums don’t get funded adequately and consistently).

So to those who hesitated to go to the RAM, I say go. Have your own experience – that is what it is there for – and assess its value in a way that is meaningful to you.

To the author of the opinion piece, I’ll acknowledge it as that – your opinion – but I’ve decided to not value it as worth the paper it was printed on.

Editor’s Comment: I’m glad to see the Archaeology One sufficiently fired up to provide us with a critical, engaging post after her long, but much needed, break from blogging. While I’m optimistic that we’ll hear from her again soon (maybe about her field work from this summer hint hint), I believe that rather than waiting for her next post at my desk with my red pen poised and ready to edit whatever swear-ridden rant she throws my way, I’ll take advantage of my downtime to visit the RAM and the other downtown places she mentions in her post. Well argued Dr. Biittner.

 

 

Reference Cited: Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

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Eight Years Later: Report from the Field #1

Iringa town

It has been eight years since I’ve been here – here is Iringa town, Iringa Region, Tanzania. Suffice to say much can change in eight years but things also stay the same too. For example, eight years ago I was still trying to finish my PhD and I had *only* left my husband behind while now I have not only finished my PhD but have a tenure track position at an incredible institution. My husband is the same but the arrival of my kid five and a half years ago has made me a mom. The last time I came as a student, this time I have brought along my own student to mentor (Editor: you’ll hear from Dr. Biittner’s student in a future blog post).

Upon arriving in Dar es Salaam – the City of Peace, or just simply “Dar”, after three long flights (Edmonton to Toronto, Toronto to Zurich, Zurich to Dar via Nairobi), I was happy to see the airport was pretty much the same. The line to get visas stretched long but we could bypass it having already secured our visas from the embassy in Ottawa. The lines through passport control were short but progress through them was slower than I expected as it was here I had my first sign of real change – finger print scanning technology wasn’t used the last time I passed through. The air outside the airport smelled and felt the same – different from Edmonton but still home.

I was travelling with my student Keyna and a PhD student from the University of Alberta, Jeff, who is part of our research team. We arrived at night so we did not see much of Dar as we made our way pole pole (slowly) to our hotel. It was a familiar drive as traffic was heavy (yes even at 11 pm at night) and vendors and piki piki (motorcycles) wove through the cars and dala dalas (city buses).

We checked into the Heritage Motel – a new place for me as the hotel we’d stayed in previously was unsafe to stay in any more – and the familiar greetings slowly crept back in. Hujambo (Hello). Sijambo (Hello). Karibuni (You are welcome). Asante sana (Thank you). Habari za usiku? (How is your night?) Mzuri sana (Very fine/well). Pole za safari (Sorry for your trip). Asante sana (Thank you very much). My swahili is not very good but greetings are well rehearsed and practiced.

Our rooms were clean and comfortable. I remembered that first night to let Keyna know about the call to prayer so it wouldn’t surprise her. Hearing it again first thing in the morning – as the sun rose – only reinforced my feelings of being back home. Breakfast at the hotel (included!) would trigger my other senses – delicious smells and tastes of chapati, plantains, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, donut-like pastries, and chai.

My place memory kicked in as we walked around Dar to recover from jet lag our first full day. We bought SIM cards to be able to stay in touch (though it looks like most hotels have wifi – another new change). I was able to remember the way to the kanga market at Uhuru Street, to the City Center market, and then to the National Museum. We walked every where – so I could remember again and so Keyna could experience Dar for the first time. We got caught in the rain and that was ok too. We bought snacks at the supermarket – loading up on goodies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and South Africa. We stayed up late to try to get on local time but hit our beds hard as we’d successfully tired ourselves out.

The second day in Dar we connected with my dear friend Dr. Pastory Bushozi. It had been eight years since I’d seen him in person and I was so happy to give him a hug and share news of our families. Bushozi introduced us to our driver Nico (we’d arranged transportation through Bushozi), and then he was off to do other work – as the head of his unit at the University of Dar es Salaam and a collaborator on several international projects, Bushozi is incredibly busy but he promised to join us in the field shortly. Nico took us to a famous tourist shopping spot – the Slipway – to try to stay busy in the most relaxing way possible as we’d be heading to Iringa in the morning.

In the past we would drive straight through to Iringa but the drive often extended to eleven hours or more and for safety sake we’d decided to stop over night in Morogoro. I was surprised at what a busy city it is; we’d only passed through before so I hadn’t realized its extent. We had a pleasant night (even without water and power for most of the evening – definitely a familiar experience in Tanzania!) at a small hotel run by the most pleasant woman (we’ll definitely stay with her again on the way back).

To get to Iringa we have to drive through Mikumi National Park – my favourite part of the drive. We were treated to seeing giraffes, baboons, warthogs, zebras, wildebeest, and so so many antelopes; they were grazing on the fresh shoots of grass growing out of the recently burned landscape (note: this is prescribed burning done to address wildfires; it ensures the burn is controlled versus wild, protecting the park, people, and animals).

Following Mikumi we begin the long slow grind up into the mountains. As much as I love the animals of Mikumi, I really start to feel at home once we begin our ascent. Iringa is in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania and it is truly beautiful. Baboons frequently line the road way and it is not surprising to find men roasting full cobs of corn at small turn offs along the highway. The stands in villages sell onions, tomatoes, and green peppers but the bucket full. One valley is full of baobab trees, which are beautiful and haunting – I love them so much they are on my list of tattoos to get. The air is cooler and drier here too – much cooler than the high temperatures, high humidity of the coast.

Finally we reach the turn off to Iringa town – the highway splits with one way heading further south to Mbeya (and eventually the southern most extent of the East African Rift Valley) while the other way heads up to a flattened playa of sorts upon which sits Iringa town. The number of piki piki and boda bodas (passenger trikes) surprised me as a new development as did some of the new buildings but mostly Iringa town was the same. I was able to direct our driver to my home away from home – the Isimila Hotel. We’d been booked into the newly upgraded rooms (including a larger bed and bed nets, hot water on demand, a mini fridge, and a tv!!!). I couldn’t believe that we would even have free wifi during our stay; in 2006 we relied on internet cafes while in 2008 and 2010 we had internet sticks and plans we could purchase for our laptops.

Home and yet not-home. Same and different. It feels good to be back. Karibu sana. 

Preparing for the Field (2018 Edition)

Iringa town

It’s been eight years since I’ve traveled to Tanzania for field work so yes I’m more than a little anxious about it. I have been in the field locally (i.e., the Mill Creek field school, which I documented here, here, here, here, here, and here) but there is a heightened sense of importance when one is heading to another continent for an extended period of time even if you’ve done it several times before (I did field work in Tanzania in 2006, 2008, and 2010, and traveled there for a conference in 2009 and to Senegal for a conference in 2010 too). As I tell my students, it is not like I roll out of bed and decide one morning “time to do some fieldwork” and then just grab my trowel and go dig somewhere. There is so much preparation that needs to be done and this is often not communicated well when we talk about going to the field. In recent years I have discussed this at length in all of my archaeology courses (and my Anth101 course too) because I think it is important to demystify the process of setting up a research program including all of the steps that are required before a single shovel can dig into the ground.

Note: I’ve previously covered this topic on my personal blog but I’ve updated it as some of the steps have changed. Also this is pretty specific to Tanzania but does give some insight as to the kinds of things you should look into no matter where you plan on working. Finally, I’m presenting this from a professor’s point of view – students will likely not have to complete many of these preparatory steps but I firmly believe that they should be aware of what they are and provide input and receive updates at every stage.

The first step in any research project is to apply for funding. Our project, the Iringa Region Archaeological Project (IRAP), is currently funded through 2022 by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. We budgeted two field seasons into this grant as field work is a costly endeavour (Ed. – Another blog post on this later perhaps?).

In terms of planning to do actually field work, we have to first and foremost apply for research clearance from COSTECH (The Tanzanian Commission on Science and Technology) for all participants. This is typically done approximately 6 months before we intend to go. It currently costs $50 USD to apply (one fee for the single application, does not matter how many people are associated with the project) and $300 USD per person for the permit once approved. We also notify at this time the Director of the Department of Antiquities (Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism) that we are applying for COSTECH clearance as they will be reviewing our file. We cannot receive an excavation permit, that actually allows us to dig and collect artifacts, without COSTECH clearance and will not receive COSTECH clearance without the approval of Antiquities. We are required to have a local collaborator for our COSTECH application as well; we are fortunate to be working with Dr. Pastory Bushozi.

Once we receive notice of approval from COSTECH we can apply for our visas from the Tanzanian High Commission in Ottawa. This is where it also really helps to have our Tanzanian colleague located in Tanzania to assist us as we need to include copies of our COSTECH permits with this application. Our colleague picks up and scans our COSTECH  permits to email them to us; we then include the scans with our application. There is also a cost associated with the visa (and yes, while you can apply for the visa once you arrive there, we find doing it in advance helps speed up other permissions).

Once we have our COSTECH permits confirmed we can then book our flights. While this can occur at any point during the planning process, we tend to wait for COSTECH because without that permit we cannot do the research. We need to have the dates for our visas and our departments so at this point we start to have many things on the go at the same time. We rely heavily on checklists and communication between all of the people who are going to be involved in the field work becomes really important; we schedule frequent lab meetings and are in constant email contact. Around this time we also arrange for our vaccinations and get prescriptions for anti-malarial pills and take care of any other personal medical requirements to ensure we enter (and can leave) the field healthy.

Other tasks include communicating with the appropriate people in our department and any other appropriate offices at our universities. This includes things writing up and submitting ethics approvals, field safety/hazard assessment reports, emergency field response forms, itineraries, etc. We also register with the Canadian High Commission in Dar es Salaam via their webpage (www.travel.gc.ca). This ensures that should any issue arise which may prove a concern to our safety, the High Commission can contact us and get us out if necessary. So yes SO MUCH PAPERWORK. But it is so critical and important. All of these steps ensure we aren’t only doing responsible, safe, and ethical research but also that all of the right people know what is going on and can be kept in the loop.

We also arrange to return any collections we borrowed for study in previous years; we have been fortunate to be able to export artifacts and other materials for study to the lab at the University of Alberta. While we are doing this we are also taking inventories of gear and purchasing whatever supplies we need to take with us.

Then we can pack (this takes me weeks because I pack and unpack until I am satisfied that I have the minimum I need) and also get our personal lives sorted so we can finally make our way to the airport. This is the first year I’ll be leaving a kiddo behind at home so this has added an extra layer of stress to the planning but I’m so grateful for my husband and family who will be supporting her in my absence (I’m also so happy that I can check in all the time – thanks internet!).

There are some additional steps that have to be completed once we arrive in Tanzania. This season the Principal Investigator of our project and her PhD student have gone a few weeks early to take care of some of this before the rest of us (myself, my student, and another PhD student arrive); they are currently there now! After we arrive in Dar and recover from jet lag, we now need to head to the capital city, Dodoma, to visit the Department of Antiquities to officially pay for and pick up our Excavation License (again this process is sped up by having our colleague drop off our application a few months before we plan on arriving). This application includes a short project proposal and budget, 5% of which is what we will pay for the excavation permit. Once the fee is paid, typically in USD, we receive a copy of the License, which notifies us as who is our Antiquities Officer for the duration of our field season. This Officer will accompanies us during our work to ensure that we are conducting responsible and ethical research to the standard required by the Government of Tanzania. Part of our budget requires that we pay them a salary and cover their room and expenses while in the field with us. They also provide us with letters of introduction, which are necessary for visiting government offices in our particular study area.

We also visit the Tanzanian Department of Immigration because as researchers we are required to have our immigration status changed to a Class C “resident’s permit” – our visa just gets us in the country. It is quite the process involving filling out a form (in duplicate), providing 5 passport photos, and copies of your Curriculum Vitae (CV), any diplomas received, COSTECH permit, passport photo and passport visa pages. We submit our application and are given an receipt that provides the date we can pay for and pick up the permit. We are lucky that again our colleague facilitates this  by dropping off the paperwork as soon as we can get copies of everything to them. The first time I did this it meant staying in Dar for two weeks but now we can begin working while it is being processed (though it is typically ready when we arrive).

Once all the steps above are completed we can finally head out to our field site – Iringa Region – to do some archaeology!

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Check back regularly for posts from Iringa!

 

Gender Role “Reversal” Requires Revision

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Recreated ad by artist Eli Rezcalla

I’ll admit that my first response to these vintage sexist ads where the photographer, Eli Rezcalla, “reversed” the gender roles was “lol :D”. By “simply” switching the genders of the subjects, Rezcalla was easily able to show how these ads, much like many today, reinforce sexist gender roles. Now I’m always a fan of calling out the patriarchy and sexism, however, as I scrolled down through the images my initial feeling of glee was overwhelmingly replaced by feelings of grossness. Why? Because with many of the ads selected, for both the original and the reversal, toxic heteronormativity is represented and reinforced. So what do I mean by heteronormativity and what about it is toxic? Well as is well described here and here, heteronormativity packages ideas like there are only two genders representing two sexes, that members of these two sexes/genders are heterosexual, that this heterosexuality must be strictly monogamous, and that sex serves for reproductive purposes only and then argues that these are the only “normal” or “natural” ways to be human. This is toxic because it has serious consequences for individuals who aren’t heteronormative simply and importantly because it invalidates their existence. Clearly it’s not just ads that represent toxic heteronormativity; this article is a good discussion of toxic monogamy in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because yes, heteronormativity dictates not just who we have sex with but what kind of sex we can/cannot have, how many partners we can/cannot have, and what is/is not acceptable in relationships in terms of jealousy, commitment, competition, and communication including whether or not you can have other kinds of relationships like friendships (*coughs* “But we were on a break!”*coughs* smdh). So really heteronormativity is toxic for everyone including heterosexuals and cisgender individuals.

I was also bothered by the choice to represent domestic violence. As several commenters noted on the “if your husband/wife ever finds out” ad – it’s not o.k. or funny to hit your partner. Listen I get that spanking can be a very exciting and healthy part of a consensual relationship (especially if it IS being used as “punishment”) BUT there’s nothing about that particular ad that reads as consensual (and no it’s not representing BDSM and I am also tired of that being misrepresented in media too!). And I won’t accept “but it’s supposed to be funny” as a counter-argument because no, domestic and/or sexual violence are never funny. The broader use of domestic and/or sexual violence in advertising is a problem that only serves to promote misogyny and sexism.  I know that challenging all of the problems represented by the “everyday sexism” of these ads wasn’t the point of the project but simply “reversing” the players only serves to reinforce other toxic aspects of heteronormativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Re)considering the Genus Homo: Reflection on What was Reported in 2017

So it’s less than a month into 2018 and there’s already controversy over a femur. I started writing this post back in 2017…I’m sorry but I just can’t keep up everyone. I really wish I could and I have so much respect for those bloggers that are cranking out responses to all of the <<startling new discoveries that are shaking the foundation of everything we thought we knew about human evolution>>. So mad props y’all.

I say this because 2017 was jam packed with new articles regarding two of the most controversial members of our genus, Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi, and some new dates for the earliest members of our species Homo sapiens. These announcements have been sensationalized in the media (as I attempted to capture above with my statement italicized and bracketed above) so it can be hard to understand what these discoveries actually mean.  Spoiler alert: no foundations shook, just more confirmation that human evolution is complicated! Here’s a very concise summary of the debates/issues as I understand them followed by some of the thoughts I have regarding the most recent findings. Also I’m not going to comment on the Sahelanthropus debate I started off linking to (at least in this post) as that species is clearly not part of the genus Homo but it does serve as good reminder that even the question of who gets to be a hominin can be contentious.

 

The Hobbits

Thanks to some new publications/articles/blog posts in 2017 (like this one or this one or this one) discussion about interpreting the fossil and archaeological record Homo floresiensis was pretty hot. Homo floresiensis captured everyone’s attention when first announced because of their resemblance to Homo erectus (physically and culturally…well depending on who you ask) yet australopith-like size. Quickly dubbed “the Hobbits” because of their small or “dwarf” size, the debate was on as to how to interpret their unique morphology. Most pathological conditions were ruled out and with the recovery of more remains from a second site in 2016 the general consensus seemed to be that they did indeed represent a separate species from all previously recorded ones. The dates for the material culture from the same sites were interesting but seem to be “good” dates; initially the archaeological record indicated that these small hominins were contemporaries of anatomically modern Homo sapiens meaning that oral histories in the region talking about the little people of the forest are supported by these fossils but the lack of fossils providing an overlap means this is debated too.

 

Naledi

So this species seems to have had Kardashian-level publicity even before it was fully recovered and reported. Let me start by saying I think the whole Rising Star Expedition is very cool; I LOVE and RESPECT how open access, public this research project has been and continues to be. I loved following the excavations on social media. I really respect many of the people involved in this project (note I’ve actually never met them but through their public outreach I feel like they are “my” type of people – researchers who are really trying to do good, accessible work), but this also makes it tougher as there are a lot of personalities and public personas involved and the “dark side” of public outreach is that some academics argue it impacts the quality of the work being conducted. So let’s focus on the data because that should be easy especially considering so much is open access right!?

This is where it continues to be tough. The site, while extremely cool (a cave system with a passage called “Superman’s Crawl” – doesn’t get much cooler than that) is very complicated in terms of both recovery of the fossils and of their interpretation. As I tell my students, context is everything. The context of the finds is complicated. The primary researchers doing the excavation and analyses argue that there was intentional, deliberate, disposal of the remains but this is hotly contested.

2017 brought us the announcement of “Neo” (that the nearly complete remains of one individual had been recovered from the assemblage representing at least three individuals) and dates for the finds. The dates are particularly interesting because they are much younger than the morphology of Homo naledi would suggest, and that they overlap with the earliest dates for the members of our species, anatomically modern humans. So we have a really small brained member of our species running around at the same time as us in Africa.

 

Anatomically Modern Humans from Morocco

Up until this article came out, the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) remains dated to 180 thousand years ago (or kya) from East Africa, which is supported by genetic evidence that also places the origin of our species to East Africa. Now the oldest specimens of our species are directly dated to 290 kya from a site called Jebel Irhoud. They are associated with lovely stone tools dating to between 280 and 350 kya. So while this does not blow up everything we know about the origins of our species, it does demonstrate that we need to focus on Africa as a continent.

 

Summary Thoughts on the genus Homo

What links these recent discussions on H. naledi and H. floresiensis is that they both challenge what a “late” member of the genus “should” look like. Importantly both have small crania and it has been long held that we should see an increase in cranial size over time leading to us big brained humans. The Moroccan evidence simply requires us to consider a much broader region for our origins.

Now I’m sure someone has remarked this before, and remember I’m not a geneticist, but what if the reason why humans are the only hominins left is because we were the only ones who could successfully interbreed with other hominins? That successfully incorporating and retaining the genes of other hominins into our genome increased our genetic diversity making us better adapted to life on this planet, period. Further what if evidence for interbreeding really is what we are seeing, that shared genes are not simply just remnants of a shared common ancestor?

Genes are a critical piece of the puzzle because as with the new dates and location for the anatomically modern humans, they are suggesting a different origin and one that is slightly later.

As always more data (fossils, dates, etc.) clearly does not mean more answers, just more questions. What is clear to me is that we need to reconsider how we define the genus Homo and how we assign species to this genus. Maybe the genus Homo is the problem; it is honestly poorly defined so I say let us start there. Part of this new definition means that we need to decouple the fossil record from the archaeological record; I know how problematic this sounds (humans are humans because of how we think and behave and this is reflected in our material culture) but direct and clear associations between specific types of material culture and specific species are few AND fail to account for other equally plausible explanations. We assume X species were responsible for Y tools because they are found in the same sites and date to the same time periods but there are so many contemporaneous species why do we continue to insist it’s only the largest brain variants that had the culture. This seems so outdated to me and poorly supported by the very large body of evidence we have. What if some of the variations we see in the so-called tool traditions are because differences in WHO was making them?

As a colleague on twitter posted “I’d love to see a fossil discovery that makes things simpler instead of more complicated” because right now the story of human evolution seems already complicated enough.

Do Better CBC! Thoughts on “Ice Bridge”

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Dammit CBC! You are better than this ffs.

Ok so I’m not the first anthropologist/archaeologist/geneticist/scientist to write about this extremely problematic episode of The Nature of Things but I do want to use this platform to reinforce some key critiques, elevate some important voices, and to SHAME CBC (and all media outlets producing pseudoscience especially pseudoarchaeology) into doing better.

A disclaimer: I didn’t watch it. I probably won’t. I can forgive shows that are meant to be entertaining (though this previous post demonstrates that my leniency towards misrepresentation of science is limited) but I cannot forgive shows that intentionally disregard critiques and concerns of the scientists they are engaging as experts and distort evidence to fit failed, problematic, racist, colonial ideas, and theories.

Here is a brief summary of some excellent critiques and discussions:

  • This excellent article captures not just the problem of poor representation of Indigenous perspectives, which are diverse and not singular, but also how this model and narrative of the past is used to “de-legitimize Native Americans’ connections to their own history”.

  • This twitter thread by one of the experts CBC used for this documentary, Dr. Jennifer Raff, and this blog post outline the evidence (archaeological, genetic) that overwhelmingly disproves the main arguments used to support the model.

  • Other archaeologists tweeted about issues relating to problems with giving outdated, pseudoscientific theories authority, and highlighted the colonial history and contemporary racist uses of this model:

During my first year at MacEwan I did have a student who did an independent research project on the Solutrean Hypothesis. They were very interested in why this hypothesis was usually only briefly mentioned as a disproved hypothesis and glossed over, so they approached me about looking more in-depth at the theory and the data used in support and against it. I said sure and they produced a solid poster about it with columns showing the evidence and arguments used in support and against it, and in which they rightfully concluded that it is not a well supported theory. But in retrospect I failed this student. I didn’t engage them in the broader historic and contemporary context of this theory; I didn’t challenge them to consider how it is used to reinforce colonial, racist narratives of the past. So assisting them in seeking out and critically examine evidence and arguments, and to come to a conclusion on their own is not a failure but I could have done better too.

So if I can see the need, the importance, the requirement to do better, surely the CBC can too.

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Weeks 6 & 7 in Review

Okay so I think we can agree that I have fallen epically behind on posting about the field school, but I’m going to insist that it is valuable for me, and for you dear reader, to wrap things up. Good news is I have only this last post for you. The bad news is here are my notes for what I should cover (Good work, Past Katie btw! Also I really wish there was a dedicated sarcasm font.):

On looting…fuckers…

On the mad rush at the end to back fill, re-seed, etc…

On the last push of lab work and final research papers…

On the importance of a feast…

So yeah, the site was looted. After spending weeks carefully revealing the bones and contents of the midden/garbage pit, our students excavating in Unit 3 arrived one morning to find it had been disturbed. It was immediately clear that several bones (mostly cow skulls) had been stolen from the unit (this was confirmed through consulting the maps precisely drawn at each level and through reviewing notes and photographs), Haeden reported the looting to the Archaeological Survey, while several students, and myself, took to social media to express our anger and our outrage. Honestly I tweeted without thinking – something I usually am better about when it comes to ethical and legal issues like this – and while I didn’t say anything horrible I wasn’t thinking about appropriate procedure nor ethical or legal implications and consequences. Luckily it wasn’t illegal to publicly discuss the looting, instead I will argue that the media coverage and public attention we received about the site and our work goes a long way towards informing the public regarding the importance of protecting, preserving, and not-looting archaeological and other heritage sites. So several media sources, who had covered and were continuing to follow the project, saw our tweets, instaposts, and Reddit forum comments, and contacted us for follow up interviews. I was particularly proud of the thoughtful comments made by my students on Reddit who had been patient science communicators and represented our work, our course, the site, and our discipline articulately throughout the field season. I think these personal accounts by the students – how they were angry and hurt that someone could so thoughtlessly destroy the careful work they’d done over weeks, that questions would go unanswered because of the loss of critical information we could have obtained from those bones – really resonated with the public. Further we had several community members stop by the site or contact us to let us know how upset they were by the looting as well. See that’s the lovely thing about projects that welcome community members, they too become interested and invested. While we never recovered those bones (and likely never will), the students also learned one of the harsh realities of archaeology – looting is a common part of the experience of field work.

Here you can see holes in the unit wall (look for the “fresh” or darker coloured sediment that was exposed) and the dirt on the floor from the looting of Unit 3. 

Following the looting, work at the site was simply a blur. We had more rain to deal with (meaning we were yet again bailing out units) followed by some really hot days. There is so much that needs to be done to wrap up work at a site. First we needed to finish excavating all of the units we started. Units 4 and 5 were already close to completion leading into the week so we weren’t too worried about them and we did finish them by the Thursday. However, Units 3 and 6 were our biggest concerns. The profiles for Unit 3 were taking quite a bit of time simply because there was so much left in the walls; we typically leave objects in the wall unless they are at risk of damaging the wall (i.e., are too loose and may fall out). We continued expanding and excavating Unit 6 until the Friday (technically our last day on site). We’d encountered some more cement and a few pipes and needed to determine their relationship to the cement feature in Unit 1. While we finished excavating it, Haeden and JP decided they would come back over the next few days to finish up the profiles and requested that we all return to the site on the following Tuesday to backfill the units.

Revealing a pipe feature in Units 1 and 6, and preparing wall profiles for Units 3 and 4. 

Why Tuesday? Because on the Monday we went on a field trip. I really wanted to make sure the students visited another archaeological site at some point over the term. It’s valuable to see how other research questions are approached, what other strategies are used in different contexts, and to examine different kinds of material culture. I’d originally hoped to visit another field school, and possibly do an exchange of sorts, but the other ones occurring in the province were Spring Term courses so it didn’t work out with our Summer Term schedule. I decided then we’d drive out to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center, where one of our former students was working and where I’d previously excavated, then swing by the Viking Ribstones. I love the Viking Ribstones; they are situated in the most beautiful spot and I always feel so calm and peaceful after visiting and making an offering there.  All the driving and the multiple stops made for a long day but we all agreed it was well worth the trip.

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Field trip to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center. Note I’m talking in the photo because of course I am.

So the following Tuesday we returned to the site to backfill. Backfilling involves replacing all of the sediment excavated from the units back into place and we also had other site reclamation we were required to perform (in this case we had to re-seed the surface of the units where sod had been removed). We also had a bunch of housekeeping to do: all of the gear must be cleaned and repaired (as needed) then returned to storage (or to those individuals we begged and borrowed from).

For the rest of that last week (technically week 7), the students were also busy wrapping up their final “research projects” and trying to complete any remaining lab work. They really accomplished a lot in the lab; we had very little left to clean and catalog once the course was finished, which Haeden and JP completed in just over a week. The students’ final “research reports” varied in content and form. Most wrote a paper either looking into the history of the site/ravine or a particular category of raw material in more detail. One student wrote a wonderful reflection on how prepared (or not!) our current Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course made them for field school. Another prepared an “unessay” of sorts; they designed a poster and exhibit proposal for a space in our Centre for Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE); paired with my personal photos, this student’s work is currently on display in CAFE as a curated art exhibit called “One Site, Two Histories”.

Finally we had a feast…of sorts. It’s tradition to have a wrap-up party so I hosted all of the students, their guests, and our volunteers at my home. We did a simple BBQ, where we ate, chatted, and decompressed. During the party I presented them each with a Certificate of Excellence “for digging real good”; a silly tradition started when friends of mine presented me with one after a particularly intense field season. They also received from one of our volunteers a special camp stool to mark their transition from field school student to archaeologist; we had two of these stools on site and they were much coveted by the students. It’s hard to capture the meaning of gifts like these; they truly represent the bizarre and lovely microcosm that can develop on a field site between team members during a project. No outsider will ever understand why eating a whole cucumber with rice cakes for lunch is hilarious. No outsider will ever understand why we’ll forever cringe and roll our eyes upon hearing a dog named “Precious*” being called. *The name of the dog has been changed to protect the innocent dog. All dogs are good dogs. This dog just had a really obnoxious owner who was not a good dog owner.*

 

And then it was done.

 

I want to finish by acknowledging my fantastic students (Lace, Jesse, Kat, Kathryn, Emily, Keyna, Tara, and Josalyne), volunteers (Erika, Lisa, Andrea, Thomas, and Kendra), Haeden and JP. It was a honour to have worked with you this summer. I’m proud of what you accomplished and the work we did. It was archaeology at its best.

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Last day photo of Team MCHAP 2017.