More elongated skull drama.

skull3Cranial modification, particularly head-shaping, is not an uncommon practice in antiquity. I’ve written on it previously here and here. Recently, April Holloway of Ancient Origins writes that more DNA results are in on the elongated skulls that Brien Foerster and LA Marzulli, two self-described researchers, sampled.

In a nutshell, they sampled the skulls by collecting hair samples and powdered bone collected by drilling into the foramen magnum. The results showed that all the hair contained mtDNA that included the H2A haplogroup, most common in central and western Asia. They report a single mtDNA result from “the most elongated skull” of the samples, which tested as belonging to the T2B haplogroup, which ranges from the British Isles to Saudi Arabia. The highest concentrations are in the latter region.

The collection methods for the bone powder included drilling into the bone while wearing “full protective clothing.” There’s no mention of how the hair was sampled. In fact, there’s very little we know about the collection and handling methods or even the lab methods since all Brien Foerster’s camp reveals is that they were sent to “three separate labs for testing – one in Canada, and two in the United States.” There’s no inclusion of test results and lab methods for review. There’s no mention of the labs.

They rightfully predict that critics of their claims will attack the results by pointing out their lack of training and experience in sample collection, though Marzulli words it differently by saying that he’ll be attacked for not being a scientist. Yep. Pretty much.

The hair of these things might not even be original. If the hairs are original, then they’ve doubtlessly been handled and contaminated over course of decades. The collection methods of “drilling” for the powdered bone are also prone to contamination, so much so that even trained people follow very careful protocols, which they carefully document.

I, personally, have my doubts that the samples are genuine. Even the “lab work” is suspect. Where are the results? What specific labs were they sent to? Were these “family tree” labs? Or were they properly trained and experienced labs that are familiar with mtDNA recovery and analysis methods? What percentage of tested hairs and bones of these labs actually yield results is a key indicator of their experience. Contamination controls with labs that are experienced are greatly increased.

In their paper, Authenticating Ancient Human Mitochondrial DNA (Montiel et al 2001), the authors write, “The use of ancient DNA techniques in human studies haws been hampered by problems of contamination with modern human DNA. The main problem has been that the object of study belongs to the same species as the observer, and the complete elimination of the contamination risk is seemingly unlikely. Contamination has even been detected in the most specialized laboratories in this field[1].

There are other assumptions that Foerster and Marzulli would like us all to accept without question. Mostly having to do with cranial featres of the skull themselves. Things like the absence of a sagittal suture, cranial size. They assert that the single parietal bone is analmous, (therefore aliens?) and that the cranial volume is “up to 25 percent larger […] than conventional skulls.” Yet there is no mention of how the volume was measured and what that measurement is. With regard to the single parietal bone, LA Marzulli acknowledges that a condition called craniosynostosis exists, but then says that there is “no evidence of this disease in the Paracas skulls.” The evidence for this disease is… wait for it… the lack of a sagittal suture. Regardless, I suspect the suture he’s looking for is displaced due to the headbinding. It’s hard to tell since we are shown only a single photo of Marzulli holding a skull in front of him like a trophy fish.

The nonsense generated by Ancient Origins, Foerster, and Marzulli about elongated skulls is affront to the cultures that practiced various forms of cranial modifications. It looks strange to them, therefore aliens. A preposterous conclusion that removes practice and meaning from an ancient and beautiful culture. In many ways, the ancient aliens concept is a completely racist and definitely ethnocentric explanation. Notice how quick they are to associate an ancient culture with white people from Europe.

The DNA testing these guys are purporting to do create more questions than they seem willing to answer. Not questions about the origins of the DNA, rather questions about the veracity and validity of the science they’re pretending to do.

References and Notes:
  1. Montiel, Rafael; et al (2001). Authenticating Ancient Human Mitochondrial DNA. Human Biology, 73(5), pp. 689-713 []

Looters and Stone Box Graves

A Mississippian culture stone box burial with the body in the flexed position.
A Mississippian culture stone box burial with the body in the flexed position. Source: Wikipedia

A phenomenon in the region I currently work in with the Mississippian culture is the use of the “stone box grave.” Essentially, when a person dies, the relatives place the body in a kind of “coffin” made made of large flat stones on all, or mostly all, sides. Within, there are sometimes grave goods, such as pottery vessels. Perhaps this is a way of ensuring the dead have something to store water or food in for the afterlife. Perhaps these are sacrificed goods in honor of the dead.

The Wikipedia entry for stone box graves says that grave goods often accompanied the dead, but at least one source I read elsewhere seemed to indicate that grave goods were not so frequent.

Flagging tape nearly a decade old and marked “looter pit.”

Sometimes the dead were laid in the box in a flexed position, but often they were extended. Often these graves were associated with mounds, but not always. And not all who died were interred in this fashion. Sometimes the stone boxes were re-used, with the previously interred’s bones disarticulated and moved aside for the newly deceased.

The ground at the talus of dirt removed from an armadillo burrow. There are several flakes and sherds and lots of green plants I was not eager to handle.

One thing is for sure, looters in search of grave goods were proficient at locating these graves on the landscape. Many of the known stone box grave sites in and around the forest I work on were looted in the recent past, definitely as recent as the 1970s. But these sites are known within the collector communities of the regions they’re in -once looted, their locations, if protected by resource stewards, are now also protected as “good hunting spots” for artifacts.

A rim sherd with finely-ground bits of shell for temper.

Recently, a colleague and I had the opportunity to visit the location of a looted stone box grave site that is very, very near our Forest. It was public land with public access, so I’ll not be sharing the location information. In fact, the geotag references from the EXIF section of the metadata in the photos have been stripped.

Two shell-tempered sherds. One of them is rather thick, but both have shells that are very obvious in the matrix.

The site was interesting, very near a modern reservoir but it would have been near the Cumberland river confluence with a seasonal or perhaps permanent stream. Other federally hired archaeologists were on the site nearly a decade ago, doing shovel tests and determining the extent of the site and what was left after years of looting. So we weren’t expecting to find artifacts. We were more interested in the lay of the land for comparative purposes.

Arriving at the former locations of the graves, we began seeing decade old flagging tape and, eventually, heavy steel rods for datums. Then we noticed the armadillo burrows. Nature’s little shovel testers! In the dirt removed from the burrows, we found many, many shards of shell tempered pottery and broken flakes, some showing use. All the kind of stuff looters disregard. They like the whole pots and intact “arrowheads” (though most are decidedly not arrowheads.

It was an interesting walk in the woods. Now, if we can only find this sort of site, untouched by looters, on our Forest.

Dowsing in Archaeology

dowserI have previously written about dowsing, once recently and once not-so-recently. The first time was a couple years ago about a story I discovered of “grave dowsing” in which a land owner tried to defeat his local or state government’s attempt to take a portion of his land through imminent domain in order to widen a road. It was either his corn field on one side or the homeowners on the other. He argued that there was an historic cemetery in the field (which he was plowing?) and he knew this because he “witched it” with dowsing rods. Ground Penetrating Radar found no such cemetery, nor could one be found in historic documents. The second, more recent, mention of dowsing was after reading Hume’s Historical Archaeology[1] and noticing a mention in it of “angle rods.

In reading another text, also titled Historical Archaeology, but this time by Charles Orser and Brian Fagan, I’ve noticed yet another mention of dowsing. This text, written by two rock-stars in the world or archaeological literature, takes a somewhat more cautious stand on the topic. Written in 1997, they have this to say:

We should mention a distinctly low-tech detection method–dowsing. Some people can find underground water using a forked stick, In a similar procedure, others use two bent, metal coat hangers, which they prefer to call “angle rods,” to locate buried metal objects and substantial underground features, such as stone walls. Ivor Noel Hume introduced dowsing to historical archeology in the 1950s, and wrote about it in his well-known book Historical Archaeology. He mentions having success with the method at Colonial Williamsburg, but does not elaborate. But he tells us he felt “a little idiotic walking across a field intently watching tow pieces of coat hanger.” perhaps his most curious discovery was that 80 percent of men can make dowsing rods work, but hat only 30 percent of women can use them successfully. Perhaps this say s more about how is will to walk around archaeological sites looking idiotic, than about anything else![2].

Or that men are more susceptible to idiomotor effect.

Orser and Fagan then point me toward another text as they conclude:

The authors of Dowsing and Church Archaeology[3] complain that professional archaeologists have “bitterly attacked” them as occultists because their technique has “no underpinning theoretical explanation.” These British dowsers swear that their method of subsurface surveying works, and they provide a serious argument for it. We present dowsing here, not because we have every tried it or, for that matter, even believe that it works, but because it is an unusual method that some historical archaeologist[s] have used with apparent success. Perhaps some day all archaeologists will include “angle rods” in their tool boxes!”

Cover of Dowsing and Church Archaeology (Bailey et al 1988).
Cover of Dowsing and Church Archaeology (Bailey et al 1988). Source:

Placing the Church Archaeology text aside for now, I’m wondering if dowsing is getting a more skeptical eye from authors of mainstream archaeological texts, so I picked up my copy of Renfrew and Bahn’s Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice (1991). On page 97 the authors say:

In concluding this section on subsurface detection, we may refer in passing to a controversial technique that has a few followers. Dowsing (in the U.S. witching)–the location of subsurface features by holding out a twig, copper rod, coathanger, pendulum–has been applied to archaeological problems for at least 50 years, but without being taken seriously by mot archaeologists. In the mid-1880s, however, it was used in a project to trace medieval church foundations in Northumberland, England, and the skeptical archaeologists involved became convinced of the technique’s validity. While keeping an open mind, most archaeologists remain extremely doubtful. Only excavation can test the predictions made, and in the church project digging confirmed some of the dowser’s predictions, but not all of them: this is hardly surprising, since a dower often has a good chance of being right–either the feature is there or it is not.

So, it would seem, that as each decade passes, authors of mainstream archaeological texts show more skepticism on the topic of dowsing. The more recent 6th edition of Renfrew and Bahn also lists “dowsing” in the index, but not having this edition, I’m not sure what they say. I’ll certainly turn to the page next time I see it on the shelf. I’m hopeful that they’ve increased their skepticism.

Meanwhile, the journal Archaeological Prospection published a skeptical review of dowsing as method in 1998 in which Martijn van Leusen((van Leusen, Martin (1998). Dowsing and Archaeology. Archaeological Prospection, 5, 123-138)), took the authors of Dowsing and Church Archaeology (Bailey et al 1988) to task for their poor methodology and lack of explanation for the mechanisms behind their tests of dowsing. Van Leusen points out the tendency for the Bailey et al to set parameters, allow the dowsers to record their hits, then move the goalposts somewhat to redefine what consists of a “hit” or a “miss.”

For instance, two excavations trenches were opened to specifically test the dowsers’ results. At one, a wall foundation was uncovered. At another, no remains were found. And, at a third location, apparently not excavated, an apse was predicted though none was present. One hit; two misses. Bailey et al, however, consider them two hits and one “undecided” since documentary evidence indicated a temporary wooden structure was at one of the “misses” and an apse was actually destroyed and completely removed in antiquity at the other. They argued that the dowsers picked up the “imprints” (whatever that might be) of these now missing features.

St. Mary's Church where Bailey et al did their apparently poorly designed dowsing experiments.
St. Mary’s Church where Bailey et al did their apparently poorly designed dowsing experiments. Source: Wikimedia

Van Leusen concluded that the authors of Dowsing and Church Archaeology did well in describing the actual archaeology, which is what got the book past some reviewers, but they remained “vague” with the dowsing tests that not finding archaeological features would have been surprising. Old churches and the sites they’re constructed on are palimpsests of archaeological data. Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, Bailey et al were showing the world how they were successfully able to find needles in piles of needles.

All scientifically controlled tests–where properly established test protocols, blinding, and controlled conditions are in use–show that dowsing is bunk. It doesn’t work. But it does seem to have more sympathy from people in the archaeological community than it might find in other fields of study. Admittedly, this sympathy does appear to have waned much of the last few decades. But I’ve personally encountered it’s use among lay-people, and have talked with archaeologists who still admit “there seems to be something there…”

Ostensibly, they’re keeping an “open mind.”

References and Notes:
  1. Noel Hume, I. (1969). Historical Archaeology. New York:
    Knopf []
  2. Orser, Charles and Fagan, Brian (1997) Historical Archaeology, Prentice Hall, NJ. pp. 138-139 []
  3. Bailey, R. N., Cambridge, E. and Briggs, H. D. (1988).
    Dowsing and Church Archaeology. Wimborne: Intercept []

The Noah’s Ark Pyramid

Noah’s Ark is one of those mythical ideas that continues to find its way in both the fringe and the mainstream media. This week, Ken Hamm unveiled his new theme park based on Noah’s Ark. You’d think that the premier week would be the largest turn out, but the videos I saw say otherwise. You might say, “well, wait until the weekend!,” but it’s summer in what seems to me to be the homeschool capital of the United States, so I would’ve expected the throngs that Six Flags and amusement parks are getting.

Opening day at the Ark Encounter, courtesy
Opening day at the Ark Encounter, courtesy

Nope. At around 1:00 PM on opening day, The Friendly Atheist reports the queues were empty.

But this isn’t an article about Hamm’s version of Noah’s Ark, it’s about the recent news by Dead Sea Scroll researchers about the ark’s appearance. As Jason Colavito says, “Fringe writers have gone a bit bonkers [over the fact that] the author of one of the scrolls considered Noah’s Ark to be pyramidal in shape.”[1]

Apparently the new information about the ark comes from the application of high-resolution photography: each fragment of the scrolls is photographed 28 times at differing wavelengths of light, allowing parts of parchment that had been burned, erased, or otherwise illegible to be visible.[2]

At a recent conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Dr. Alexey Yuditsky, a researcher at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, discussed a section on Noah’s Ark that included a previously illegible word, ne’esefet, which was revealed with the new photographic methods being employed. The section that included ne’esefet was already understood to refer to “the ark’s tallness.” Yuditsky’s interpretation of ne’esefet is that it means “gathered” and that the section is describing the ark’s ribs, which were “gathered together at the top,”–that the roof tapered to a point.

Of course, Yuditsky probably didn’t say the word “pyramid” at the conference. He certainly isn’t quoted as using it in the Haaretz article on June 28. But that doesn’t stop the fringe community from leaping straight to it!

At, they put it right in an article title[3]. They write, “According to Yuditsky, this fragment of the text is interpreted as a pyramidal shape.” goes a bit further with their title, which just comes right out and says, “Digital Analysis of Dead Sea Scrolls Says Ark Was a Pyramid.” Not pyramid-shaped, pyramidal, or pyramid-like, but and actual pyramid! They do, however, include an interesting video from the Israel Antiquities Authority that shows a DSS fragment under various wavelengths. It reminds me a bit of using DStretch, a plugin for ImageJ that does a similar job.

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube Direkt

The Gilgamesh tablet that details the account of the flood, dated to around 2100 BCE

What the fringe and the mainstream are missing in their reporting is the perspective provided by the lens of mythology.

The Dead Sea Scrolls date to between 400 BCE and 300 CE[4]. The most conservative, hardcore religious (read: young-earth creationists) estimates put Noah’s Flood at around 2348 BCE since the flood took place 1656 years after creation which was in 4004 BCE.

This, of course, is nonsense since we have many, many archaeological sites that go unbroken during this period, showing no destruction layers or lack of continuity you might expect from such a global catastrophe. Indeed, continuity exists in the archaeological record in all suggested periods of time for the Noachian flood myth.

And there’s a reason. It’s a myth. Borrowed from a much earlier story. One that can be dated to around 2100 BCE[5], a little before the supposed date of the Noachian story.

Demonstrably, the Gilgamesh epic is a literary progenitor of the Noachian myth. I’ll include passages from both Genesis and Gilgamesh here in a line-numbered format to compare:

2. At the end of forty days
3. Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and released a raven,
4. Which flew back and forth as it waited for the waters to dry up on the earth
5. Then he released a dove to see whether the waters were receding from the earth
6. But the dove, finding nowhere to perch, returned to the ark, for there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Putting his hand out, he took hold of it and brought it back into the ark with him.
7. After waiting seven more days, he again released the dove from the ark.
8. In the evening the dove came back to him and there in his beak was a freshly-picked olive leaf! So Noah realized that the waters were receding from the earth.
9. After waiting seven more days, he released the dove and now it returned no more.

–Genesis 8:6-12

Now Gilgamesh:

2. When the seventh day arrived,
3. I sent forth and set free a dove.
4. The dove went forth but came back since no resting place was visible, she turned around.
5. Then I set forth a swallow
6. The swallow went forth but came back, since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.
7. .
8. .
9. I then set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not around.

–Gligamesh XI, 145-54

The first lines in each story above refer to the receding flood waters but in different ways. In the Gilgamesh passage, I left two blank lines to maintain the correlation between the two and show the parallels. The Genesis passage shows clear embellishments (lines 7 and 8), a common literary device of the period. I took the Gilgamesh passage from Pritchard[6].

There are clear parallels and evidence of borrowed motifs between earlier flood myths and the Noachian one and you can apply this pattern throughout much of the biblical narrative. This isn’t evidence of “intellectual dishonesty” on the part of the authors of Genesis and other books of the bible, rather this is evidence of the practice of the day. Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples (as well as many sedentary peoples) had strong oral traditions (and still do) in which they pass on information from one generation to the next which they find important or vital to their culture. In so doing, embellishments naturally occur in the evolution of the story. What may have once been a factually based account of a real event becomes convoluted and embellished to the point that it can only now be considered a myth. Myths and stories get embellished also due to the encounters of the story-tellers with other story-tellers.

We must consider that even Abram (later “Abraham”) admits that he is nomadic and originally Sumerian. The myths in question are, indeed, Sumerian (a.k.a. Chaldean). There is even emerging evidence of a diaspora in the Persian Gulf region, perhaps due to inundation of the Persian Gulf basin before 4,000 BCE, which may be the progenitor for the flood myths themselves. Certainly the origins of the Sumerians (they come from “Dilmun” according to their own writings, a place described as “eden” and “paradise”) is largely a mystery: their language is a linguistic isolate and their religion acculturates itself gradually -almost seamlessly- with the earlier Ubaid culture at around the Jemdat Nasr period (4000-3100 BCE).

So, in all the news about Noah’s Ark in the mainstream and fringe sources, don’t lose sight of the deeper, mythological evolution of the narrative.

References and Notes:

  1. Fringe Writers Shocked By Text from Dead Sea Scrolls Claiming Noah’s Ark was Pyramid-Shaped []
  2. Was Noah’s Ark Shaped Like a Pyramid? Digitized Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal New Secrets []
  3. New study of the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals Noah’s Arc was shaped like a Pyramid []
  4. Doudna, G. (200) “Carbon-14 Dating”, in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Schiffman, Lawrence, & VanderKam, James, eds., Vol.1, Oxford []
  5. Dalley, Stephanie (1991). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. New York: Oxford University Press. []
  6. Pritchard, James B. (1958). The Ancient Near East Volume I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton University Press., pp 94-95 []

Antique Archaeology: “Angle Rods”

I like to read early writings on archaeology, comparing and contrasting what they did with what we do now. Antiquarians methods of the 19th century and even early archaeological methods of the 20th century are often fascinating, sometimes incredible, occasionally appalling. But they got us where we are today and I wonder if another 100 years from now, archaeologists will shake their heads in wonder, bewilderment, or dismay as they read our own works.

In leafing through Historical Archaeology by Ivor Noel Hume (1968, Knopf, New York), I came across a list of suggested equipment for the field survey crew (p. 63):

List of suggested items for field survey; note the last entry. From Hume (1968: 63)

In the photograph of the page in the book, notice the last entry on the second column: “angle rods.” Nearly all of this list is still in use by archaeologists today and I recognized it all immediately. But the “angle rods” threw me. I simply could not figure out what they were. So I took care to focus a little more diligently in the text. On a previous page, I found discussion of “angle rods.”

As I have mentioned, wire coat hangers provide the most convenient raw materials, and one simply cuts two lengths, each measuring about two feet, with the bend coming eight inches from one end. Holding the wires very lightly, one in each hand, with the bend resting on the forefinger and the short end of the wire hanging down the rough the palm, one walks forward with the knuckles of each hand touching and the wires parallel and about two inches apart. (Fig. 2) As one approaches a buried metal object, the wires slowly converge until they forma  cross close to the hands, and at that point the short ends of the wires projecting downward below the hands are the closest to the object. (p. 37)

Hume is describing dowsing rods! Needless to say, I rushed to turn the page to see figure 2!

Angle rods in use from pg. 39 of Hume (1968).

Hume goes on to say,

There is no denying that one feels a little idiotic walking across a field intently watching two pieces of coat hanger. Nevertheless, they serve a useful purpose and are included in every Williamsburg archaeologist’s box of tricks. (p. 38)

“Witching” and dowsing for water, graves, and metals is still a thing. Two anecdotes I can share are this: about one year ago, I turned the corner in  my small, country town and noticed the water department was doing some work. As I made my turn, I glanced out of the passenger side window of my car and noticed one of the workers holding dowsing rods that had handles that looked like bicycle grips. On another occasion, I was present when a local informant attempted to show me how to use his dowsing rods to “witch” for graves. Being ever polite, I held the rods which moved just as I expected as I traversed an uneven spot, but this was proof to him that I had the touch.

After he mentioned he can use these to find water in addition to graves, I asked the informant, a man I happen to like very much, a question: how does he know that what he’s found is a grave and not water? I didn’t ask to be obstinate or difficult, I was genuinely interested in how he thought about these things. He didn’t really have an answer and it actually seemed to make him think a bit.

I’ve previously written about grave dowsing as it related to an imminent domain case in Louisiana, where a farmer was trying to find good reason to prevent his land from being added to a local highway improvement. To test his claim, the archaeologists brought in a GPR unit to survey the site and found no evidence of burials.

Hume’s book is only less than 50 years old, yet he discusses dowsing on the same page as the proton magnetometer. What, I wonder, will be our “angle rods” from the point of view of future archaeologists?

Jobs in Archaeology

Somebody asked me recently about jobs in archaeology, so I thought I’d list a few links and tips. To find jobs, check these sources:

These aren’t the only places to look, just the most used. Obviously, USA Jobs will be for agency or government work, but the other two will have a mix though they’re mostly commercial Cultural Resource Management companies.

Working for an agency is noticeably different than working for a private company, even though we’re often dealing with the same laws when it comes to managing cultural resources. Working in an agency myself (Forest Service), I can say that it seems as though there’s more of a desire to find cultural remains. With commercial companies, there is at leas some hope that finds will be minimal and a survey will complete at or under bid. A lot of sites found means a lot of additional time on the ground if they were not anticipated.

Another great source of information are a few bloggers:

Bill White at Succinct Research, who has several tools for job hunting in the CRM / archaeology. Look for his Resume Writing for Archaeologists and Small Archaeology Project Management: How to run cultural resource management projects without busting your budget.  I’ve found both to be very useful and well worth the few bucks to get the Kindle versions (which you can read on your computer without a Kindle). Bill also just came out with Becoming an Archaeologist: Crafting a Career in Cultural Resource Management, which I haven’t purchased yet, but may be very soon.

The Field Archaeologist’s Survival Guide is also an excellent read, which I highly recommend. It’s written by Chris Webster, who also manages the Archaeology Podcast Network and is a culmination of information he and others have given in his CRM Archaeology Podcast.

Incidentally, one of his frequent co-hosts is Doug Rocks-MacQueen who has a blog that covers many, many topics relative to careers in archaeology: Doug’s Archaeology. I highly recommend it as well.

So, what are my personal tips and advice?

Work for an agency. I think you stand the best chance of a decent wage and promotion opportunity when compared with the private sector, though I’m not as sure about academia. I’m also not an expert on the private sector (CRM) since I’ve not actually worked it, but I do have many friends and acquaintances who have and I base my opinions on what they’ve told me over the years.

CRM firms like to spend as little as possible to get the most bang for their buck. Which is understandable. They’re a business after all. Agency work (federal, state, local) can be frustrating (bureaucracy and all), but the work is more or less stable and promotion opportunities are clearer. You also seem to be paid according to your education and experience.

Agencies, however, can be hard to break into as a permanent employee. So making your bones in the private sector first might not be a bad way to start.

WOW Archaeology: an actual profession in World of Warcraft

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, but with the movie coming out soon (and staring an actor I like), I found myself looking at Google links, one of which mentioned the archaeologist profession. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed such a prestigious game (even though I’ve not played it, I’ve definitely heard of WoW) having an archaeologist.

There are other games that feature archaeologists: Tomb Raider, Temple Run, etc. But this is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game (MMORP) with a multitude of “professions” ranging from wizard to–now–archaeologist.

So, my first thoughts were, “what is dug and where? And how does this fit with the game?” I’m not a huge gamer, but i’m familiar with the MMORP concept so my curiosity was genuine.

The instruction screen captured during gameplay. Courtesy of WoWPedia.

WoWPedia, the wiki for WoW, describes Archaeology as a secondary profession released with World of Warcraft: cataclysm, an expansion pack for the game. You can learn archaeology once you reach level 20. The “focus is on locating, piecing together, and appraising artifacts unearthed by the Cataclysm.”

The dig sites can be found on all four continents and there are four dig sites on each at any one time, but available based on player skill. Players can dig and collect six finds before the dig site “dries up and a new one is made available.”

I like that archaeology is considered interesting enough to be part of a game like WoW. Public awareness of what archaeology is, how it works, and why it’s important is a good thing. I’m not sure WoW is conveying all or even some of that message, but it could be just the thing to make someone start asking the right questions to the right people; or reading about archaeology in the right places.

Search over 800 Archaeology Related Blogs

Looking for a specific topic of archaeological information?

Wondering what archaeologists around the world are saying about Kanye West? (yeah, me neither.)

Curious about what archaeologists have to say about something in the news?

Try the search bar in the upper left of this page. It’s powered by Google, so there’ll be some ads at the top (hopefully they’ll be relevant ads -I’m experimenting with). But there is a list of close to 900 archaeology-related blogs that are being searched when you type in some keywords or phrases. Search results are limited only to these sites, so don’t expect to see results from CNN or World Nut Daily. No pseudo-archaeological sites were included that I’m aware of, but if anyone sees a questionable result, email me at cfeagans AT ahotcupofjoe DOT net and I’ll delete it.

Now to give credit where credit is due: and that would be Doug Rocks MacQueen, at Doug’s Archaeology. I used his list of archaeology blogs. First I copied the page source, trimmed to the alphabetical list. Used Kate to block select the first few columns to delete the “http://” and then did a search for /”> which I replaced with commas. Saved it to a .csv file, imported to Calc, and deleted the columns after the sites. Then I copy/pasted it into Google’s custom search tool, grabbed the code and set up a widget.

I mostly wanted to use it for myself, but thought I’d share the love. Let me know if you find it useful!


Custom Search

Trail Marker Trees (a.k.a. Indian Marker Trees)

A diagram from Elaine Jordan’s “Indian Trail Trees”

A topic I see emerge a couple times a year is that of the “Indian Marker Tree,” which is a culturally modified tree (CMT) that is alleged to be a feature of indigenous cultures in the United States used to mark trails or locations of sites like springs, hunting grounds, or sacred places. The idea is that the American Indians physically bent saplings over so that they would mark direction for years to come. Perhaps they simply forced the sapling over, leaving it to heal, or used cordage and stakes to hold it down until it adjusted to the new position. In either case, the tree would point in a desired direction for years to come, with new branches becoming trunks to rise vertically from the now horizontal trunk of the original tree.

The first time I encountered the concept of trail marker trees was in 2013 when I attended an event sponsored by the Dallas Audubon Society and the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, which turned out to essentially be a presentation by Dennis Downes to pitch his rather pricey, but admittedly gorgeous, coffee table book, Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness.

In full disclosure, I’m linking to his book on Amazon, which sells for about $40, with my associate code attached. So, if you think the pictures are worth forty bucks (and there’s 264 pages of them), I’ll get a little slice of his action!

The presentation consisted of a PowerPoint slideshow–or perhaps it was  a video–of some very striking tree imagery. Downes is an artist and sculptor and is to be commended for the aesthetics of it all. Even though he seemed to be featured prominently throughout! I was able to leaf through one of his books and listened keenly to his talk, but never was there a mention of evidence that supported the conclusion that these were trees that were modified by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Indeed, never was there a mention of how the age of the trees were known!

At a brief Q&A following his talk, I asked this question: “when you cored the trees for age, what dates did you get?

There was a collective gasp in the room and all eyes turned to me! Who was this apparent infidel who dares to blaspheme with his mention of an increment borer? I was promptly informed that the Dallas Historical Tree Coalition (DHTC) does not defile their trees and aging is done with exterior measurements only.

I was confused by the reaction I got to say the least, but, undeterred, I later posed a question to Downes at his table. Where he was taking credit cards, cash, or check in exchange for the book I’d already leafed through. My question was essentially where are the data? Are there GIS data for the trees he researched available for someone like myself to correlate to springs, known Native American sites, weather events, etc.? Downes, perhaps noticing that I did not have my wallet in my hand, quickly said that the locations were all secret and had no interest in sharing data… then abruptly turned his attention to a customer holding a MasterCard. Browsing his book again, I could find little in the way of source material or data–I had hoped for at least some primary sources listed as ethnographic accounts–so I closed the book and departed.

I had many questions and I was eager to engage the author in conversation, but he was clearly intent on the task at hand: getting paid. I couldn’t fault him for that. One needs to make a living. But the more I thought about the problems with the images I saw and the conclusions that were being assumed, the more I realized that there was probably more bunk to “trail marker trees” than fact.

In order to accept the assumption that a tree bent in a particular manner was done so intentionally by humans, there are certain criteria that must first be met:

1. It has to be shown that it was less likely that the tree was bent by nature than by man. This is a very difficult if not impossible criterion to satisfy unless the act of bending was witnessed and documented. But! I would admit that ethnographic data of bending trees in a given region would be sufficient to further admit that this was a practice that might be expected.

Nature bends trees. It’s a fact. Below are several trees that were bent by natural forces, probably ice accumulating in the canopy which, weighed the sapling down. Couple this with prevailing wind direction, and you get many bent trees pointing in the same direction–seemingly making a path! Walk a straight line in any forest, and eventually you will come to something: a spring, a pond, a creek, a nice place to hunt or live. All the sorts of things people claim their “trail trees” are pointing at.

sm yng bnt
Young tree (car keys for scale) probably bent over by ice accumulation in the canopy a few years ago.
young bent tree
another very small, young bent tree in the “classic style” shown by proponents of “trail marker trees” but this tree is probably 4-5 inches in diameter and less than a decade old.

On the cover of Downes book, and if you search the internet for the title, you’ll notice gigantic trees that are bent far above the head of an average person. Downes stands next to several such trees in his book and he’s the Colonel Sanders-looking guy if you did the internet search. This would seem to be an illogical method of marking a trail since the point at which the bend begins would have been that high in antiquity. Trees don’t grow upward in that manner. It seems far more likely that when the tree was younger, in the post sapling years, ice accumulated in the canopy and weighed it over, bending at a point where its girth was no longer strong enough to support the weight.

2. Age of the tree must be empirically shown to be old enough to have been done by Native people prior to the arrival of western settlers. This is actually very easy to do: simply use an increment borer to age the tree. Damage to the tree is minimal -more damage is done by a deer rubbing his antlers. The whole, “we would never damage a tree to determine it’s age” thing is a cop-out. I’ve never seen a tree suffer permanent damage and you can even plug the hole with the end of the core once you’ve counted the rings in the field. Silviculturists do this all the time. Measuring circumference simply is not a good method of aging.

lg bent tree
An older bent tree that many might say is a trail marker, especially since it has a sibling a few meters away pointing in the same direction. This is a young-growth, mesic forest. I haven’t cored it yet, but my guess is that the tree is less than 60 years old.
tall bent
Bent tree in a more xeric environment but also a young growth forest. The vertical branch has taken off where the rest of the fiber failed and rotted off, probably because its leaves couldn’t compete with the higher canopies of its neighbors (photo is in the winter). This bend is over 5-6 feet from the ground and likely due to ice accumulation or a perhaps a deadfall from a neighbor.

There are many trees bent unintentionally by people as well. Logging or other activities in forests can cause a sapling to be driven or stepped on, or gear or  equipment could be set on a sapling. Once kinked, the sapling grows at an odd angle. Take a drive down a dirt road in a forest and you’ll see examples of bent, angled, and curved trees along the edges.

Did Native Americans intentionally bend saplings to mark direction of travel, direction to springs, trails that could walk, location of game, etc.? I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched of an idea. But without empirical evidence, which is unlikely to be obtained even if the age is known to be supportive, we cannot say with any reasonable certainty. So why bother? I can’t refer to it as an archaeological feature in a way I can other CMTs, and the probability is just too low.

They’re interesting to look at, but tell us absolutely nothing about the people they’re alleged to be associated with.

Silage Trenches on Historic Farm Sites

The Mystery

Not long ago, while recording the remains of an historic farm in a National Forest, I came across a deep, long trench running southwest to northeast on a ridge. It was a very curious feature on an otherwise normal landscape where the forest has reclaimed what was once open farmland. I very nearly fell into it, which would have been bad since the sidewalls were steep, maybe a 25 degree slope at 12 feet deep! The brush was thick and there wasn’t a “lip” or “berm” along the edge of the trench itself, so I felt something like the intrepid adventurer cutting his way through the jungle only to encounter the sudden cliff!


In addition to its 12 foot depth, the trench measured out to 100 feet long, and 10 feet wide. I later discovered some woven-wire fencing with a strand of barbwire along two sides that formed something of an “L” shape along the southeast and southwest sides (the corner was at the south).

Bizarre was the word that came to mind. I stood within and on the edge of this trench, and searched it for artifacts of any kind for quite some time before I left, still scratching my head. There was no pile of dirt removed from its rectangular cavity, it sloped downward somewhat to the northeast, but the slope of the ridge lay just beyond this and there was no obvious other non-natural landform I could discern.

Having other things to worry about (like finishing my recording, finding some water in the summer heat, etc.) I filed this small conundrum away for another day.

Clues Emerge

Months later, I came across a note from another archaeologist who, recording another site a few miles away, indicated a similar, albeit smaller, trench that a local informant called a “trench silo.” I already knew that grain was stored in silos and I knew what a trench was, but understanding how these words fit together to form a new term was not something I got right away. Not having an agrarian background, I had to do a bit of research to get a handle on it, and here’s what I discovered.

The Mystery Solved

“Silage” was the key word I was missing. Silage is grass or fodder cut and stored green for winter feed for livestock. A trench silo, also called a silage trench, is a horizontal bin of sorts that can be used to create an airtight container. The way it’s typically done is the grass (or corn stalks, etc.) is cut and loaded on truck or tractor, brought to a trench cut in the ground, stacked up starting one end to the other. The tractor is driven back and forth on top to compress the silage, removing much of the air. It’s covered with tarps often weighted with old tires. As winter progresses, the silage is removed to feed livestock.


According to the Arizona bulletin, a silage trench 10 feet deep would yield 35 pounds of silage per cubic foot. The standard silage feeding program then was 35 pounds per cow per day. The remnants of the trench I found in the forest that day (which was farmland 60 years ago) was very similar to the drawing below. The strike of the slope went with the trench, the opening at the opposite end was steeper than the middle–but silage2there was no berm along the sides I could see and there was fencing very close to the edge on at least one side. At another trench on another site contemporary to this one, the set up was very much the same and the fencing was obvious on three sides of the trench, leaving the down-slope side open.

Not a lot of history remains that details the lives of the people that once farmed this particular National Forest 50-100 years or more ago, so coming across and understanding features like a silage trench helps put them in new light.

The agricultural extension circulars give many suggestions and instructions that would have been available to farmers of the period, one of which is that trenches like this are only good for a couple years. There are many formulas and figures that can help calculate the amount of feed they’re capable of producing and, from this, we can extrapolate the number of head of livestock these farms had.

If we assume the silage was packed in the trench I described in the opening paragraph to a depth of 10 feet, then nearly a dozen head of cattle could have been sustained for 120 days (perhaps end of November to the end of March). If packed all the way to the 12 foot depth, then obviously add more cattle and/or days.

Trench silos aren’t artifacts the archaeologist can take back to the lab, but they’re definitely worth documenting as features within a site. Photograph them (preferably in winter months when foliage is minimal), measure them, and look for other examples in the region for comparison!


This website uses a Hackadelic PlugIn, Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5.