Book Review: Stories in Stone


Keister, Douglas. (2004). Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith. 256 pp., ISBN: 008-2552023218 (hc). $24.99

I purchased this book from Amazon in hopes of finding a text that I could use in the field or at least handy at my desk as I record historic cemeteries in a professional capacity. Its size, and accompanying description on the product page sold me on it. “Stories in Stone provides history along with images of a wide variety of common and not-so-common cemetery symbols, and offers an in-depth examination of stone relics and the personal and intimate details they display-flora and fauna, religious icons, society symbols, and final impressions of how the deceased wished to be remembered. Douglas Keister has created a practical field guide that is compact and portable,…”

The book itself is beautiful. No doubt. Even though it is small in size, the cover and the photos are gorgeous. The layout is great and logically planned in chapters with titles like “Flora,” “Fauna,” and “Religious Devotion.” There’s even a nice, woven-fabric bookmark built in. The size is thoughtful as well: you can easily slip this text in a back pocket (though it’ll stick out some) or in a messenger bag or day-pack. The coverage of symbolic motifs is wide and the author is very descriptive of what these individual motifs mean.

I afraid, however, my compliments end here.

For all its beauty and convenience, the book simply cannot be used for any serious purpose. And it should not have carried the subtitle, A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. A better title would have been, Stories in Stone: A Photographer’s Opinion on What They Say.

None of the book is referenced with how the author arrives at the conclusions he does. In no instance does he cite the work of historians, archaeologists, mythologists, folklorists, etc. As i read through the book, I found myself wondering “how does he know?” at every page. The reader is forced to either accept it all at face value or dismiss the text altogether. I’m no expert in cemetery symbolism (hence the desire to obtain a serious text on the subject), but there are some things I was aware of prior to reading Stories in Stone. And, as I encountered item after item of things I knew or suspected to be contrary, different, or incomplete from the author’s description, I realized that none of the descriptions can be taken at face value regardless of how many he gets right.

Weeping Willow and Urn
As an example, Keister describes the weeping willow and urn motif as “one of the most popular gravestone decorations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” and that in “Christianity it is associated with the gospel of Christ because the tree will flourish and remain whole no matter how many branches are cut off.”

Specifically, this motif peaked in popularity during the 1820s “following a report that the exiled Napolean sat under one for daily mediation on the island of St. Helena and loved it so much that he asked to be buried on that spot” (Linden 1980). Linden goes on to describe the willow and urn motif as a popular design in American folkart where it was used in embroidered or painted mourning pictures. Keister gets it right when he says, “although the form of the weeping willow certainly suggests grief and sorrow,” but misses the broader meaning of a more post-Puritan, post-Calvinist notion of meditation and association of the rural landscape with heightened “Pleasures of the Eye” to quote Aldous Huxley. Contrary to Keister’s claim that this is an association with the Gospel of Christ, the willow would seem to be a very secular, yet still spiritual, motif.

A motif that I think Keister gets partially right but somewhat incomplete is depictions of the rose. He states, “the red rose became a symbol of martyrdom, while the white rose symbolized purity. In Christian mythology the rose in Paradise did not have thorns, but acquired them on Earth to remind man of the his fall from grace; however, the rose’s fragrance and beauty remained to suggest to him what Paradise is like. Sometimes the Virgin Mary is called the “rose without thorns” because of the belief that she was exempt from original sin. In Victorian-era cemeteries, the rose frequently adorns the graves of women.”

The rose has been called an “ancient symbol of the Magna Mater” by some authors (e.g. Jordan 2010), meaning that it represents the idea of the “mother goddess” that predates even Christianity. Such pagan ideas are said to survive the dominance of Christianity because the new religious ideas re-purpose the meaning of the old (much like the Yule Tree to Christmas Tree conversion). But what matters most is how the living see the association with the dead when the motif is chosen for a stone. Keister say’s it “adorns the graves of women” but, to be more specific, it adorns the graves of mothers when depicted in full blossom and thorns. Rosebuds or partially blooming roses often adorn the graves of infants, children, or teens. A broken rosebud will almost always reflect the “life cut short” of a young person. Lindley (1965) notes that the inspiration for roses on gravestones is clearly inspired by the Southern and British folk custom of planting rose bushes in graveyards.

Keister might have most of the symbols correct. The book might be 90% or more on-point. But the reader will never know. Nor will an inspired reader have anywhere to explore Keister’s conclusions on “how he knows” the symbolism he describes, as there is no “further” or “suggested” reading sections much less a bibliography.

Soon after my purchase, I rated it on Amazon with 2 stars for the design, photos, and layout of the text. If you’re looking for a pretty book with pretty photos to sit on your coffee table, this one will fit that bill. But if you want something you can cite or a reference that you can rely on, this isn’t it. A better choice might be Jordan’s work listed below in my references. His is a book that is really more about southern cemeteries than the title lets on.

Linden, Blanche M. G. (1980). “The Willow Tree and Urn Motif.” Markers: The Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies I: 149-156.

Lindley, Kenneth. (1965). Of Graves and Epitaphs. London: Hutchinson.

Jordan, Terry G. (2010). Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy. University of Texas Press.

photo by: dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA
photo by: dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA

Daily Mail Click-baits with Pyramid Math

Screen grab of the Daily Mail's false headline about the "world's oldest pyramid."
Screen grab of the Daily Mail’s false headline about the “world’s first pyramid.”

Floating around some of the archaeology and science groups is a new “discovery” of a pyramid “older than those of Egypt” found in Kazakhstan. And the headline bills it as the “world’s first pyramid.”

Is it? Not quite. And the answer is actually in the article itself if you take it at face value. Here are some quotes:

“The structure is now substantially in ruins but it is believed that it was a lookalike of the famous Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt, and built around 1,000 years earlier.”

“It was built more than 3,000 years ago.”

“Pictures of the archeological site emerged today highlighting a ‘step mausoleum’ named the Begazinskaya (or Begazin) Pyramid, built between 3,000 and 3,500 years ago.”

“The Djoser ‘step pyramid’ is an archeological jewel in the Saqqara necropolis, northwest of the Egyptian city of Memphis. It was built around 2700 years BC for the burial of Pharaoh Djoser.”

2700 BCE was over 4700 years ago, putting a construction time for Djoser’s pyramid over a 1,000 years earlier than the discovery in Kazakhstan.

The reign of Djoser was between 2630-2611 BCE so his pyramid was probably built sometime during that 19-year period by his architect, Imhotep.

This, I think, is an example of a writer simply not paying attention in his desire to create a headline that grabs attention (the click-bait). “World’s first pyramid” certainly appeals to an audience immediately and creates a need to click and see–even if you don’t believe the claim. I admit, it was my skepticism that made me click it.

But reading these things with a critical eye helps spot the problems. It’s just too bad Stewart didn’t catch his mistake early. If I’m right, the Daily Mail will retract or amend the headline since it’s false, and that’s why I included the screen grab above.

The Begazy mauseoleum dating 1500-1000 BCE (about 1100 years after Djoser’s reign in Egypt).

There are other problems with the article as well. For instance, Stewart writes that, “Archaeologists discovered it last year but until now have kept their ‘sensational find’ under wraps.”

This is probably only partly true. They shared data with the professional community about the necropolis in Begazy in 2014[1] along with photos. They probably didn’t share with the media until the majority of excavations were complete to avoid potential looting. I would imagine they expect to wrap up their work this season since they’ve made the site more public.

The other thing that bothers me is the literature I’ve seen from the professionals so far have not used the word “pyramid.” They’ve described their excavations as uncovering a necropolis and a mausoleum. And in the photos of the site, there doesn’t seem to be enough material lying around the footprint to be part of a pyramid. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a description completely made up by the writer or an editor at the Daily Mail.

References and Notes:
  1. Beisenov, A.Z., et al (2014). Architectural features of the burial sites for elite of Begazy-Dandybai culture of Central Eurasia (e.g. Begazy Necropolis). Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 122, 248-352 []

Book Review: Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History

Cracker: The Cracekr Culture of Florida History, by Dana Ste. Claire.
Cracker: The Cracker Culture of Florida History, by Dana Ste. Claire.

Ste. Claire, Dana. (2006). Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. 255 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8130-3028-9 (trade paperback). $19.95


I grew up in rural Virginia before moving to Texas in my teen years, so I heard the term “cracker” through media like television and movies, as well as in person?occasionally directed at me—but often toward others. The term was always used to refer to a white person and always used in a pejorative manner. I honestly never took offense. I reasoned at an early age that white folk have many words that can disparage people of color that we certainly deserved our own. During a recent visit to St. Augustine during a vacation in Florida, I noticed the term being used a little more liberally. There was even a business—a restaurant—named the Florida Cracker Cafe, which made me wonder instantly about the origin of the name for another, more famous restaurant: Cracker Barrel. It was in St. Augustine, while browsing the artifacts on display in the Visitor’s Center that I happened upon Dana Ste. Claire’s book, Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History. I had to know more.

Dana Ste. Claire is currently the director of the Heritage Tourist Department in St. Augustine, FL. At the time Cracker went to press, he was Curator of History at The Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach. As a professional archaeologist, he also served (or may still serve) as Chair of the Secretary of State’s Historic Preservation Advisory Council in Tallahassee. He’s also the author of True Natives: Florida’s First People, and his expertise in Florida cultures emerges effortlessly in Cracker.

My interest in Cracker as a culture, now sparked, I found Ste. Claire’s book to be both broad enough to not exclude the concept outside the borders of Florida, yet specific enough that I came away with a new understanding of a term not solely the pejorative I grew up with, but a valid culture worthy of study and appreciation.

Although he’s an archaeologist, Ste. Claire doesn’t spend much time on archaeological aspects of exploring Cracker culture. His primary focus is on its history, including several possible origins of the term “cracker,” and on providing an ethnographic perspective. There are, however, several pages of architectural diagrams, sketches, and photographs of Cracker houses, structures, and artifacts one might expect to find on a Cracker site.

Brief Overview

Ste. Claire begins with chapters that set out to define “Cracker” as a term and to paint an outline of Cracker culture in Florida. He then steers his focus the culture itself, spotlighting “Life in the Backwoods,” material aspects of Cracker culture such as architecture and furnishings, and “Cracker Cuisine.” These chapters are supplanted by sidebars that take fascinating and informative dives into subjects of native plants and animal foods, moonshining, and a very informative interview with locals on all things corn. The final chapters of the book provide reference for the serious student of Cracker culture. A bibliography, a glossary of “Cracker” terms where you might learn that a “scrub chicken” is actually a gopher tortoise, a one-time Cracker delicacy that is now illegal to hunt since they’re a threatened or vulnerable species. There’s also a section of Cracker literature which includes some poetry, and a short chapter that lists locations for a self-guided tour of Cracker heritage sites and museums.

Ste. Claire does a fine job of organizing his research into the history of Cracker culture in Florida into a concise, easy to read, text. There’s not dumbing down of the material, yet he presents it in a way that isn’t wordy or over the top with academic jargon. The sidebars are many, but well-written and informative. Ste. Claire’s writing style is one that conveys his ideas without boring the reader. The lay-public as well as the academic will find Cracker an informative and entertaining read. For historic archaeologists working in the south, the book offers a context for which to create a baseline understanding of how people thrived with very little in the way of material goods. This isn’t a book that was just released—but it is one that will be a pleasure to read for anyone interested in local history for the southeast United States.

My one wish is that more emphasis would have been placed on archaeological remains and how Cracker culture shows up in excavated sites (or doesn’t show up due to the paucity of material goods when compared to other historic sites.

If you’re interested in purchasing, click this link to Amazon Doing so will push a little kickback my way in the form of affiliate pennies.

By the way, Cracker Barrel was given its name in 1969 so that it had a “down home” and “country flair,” according to Dan Evins, the restaurant’s founder.

Hutton Pulitzer’s so-called “Roman Sword Report”

On Andy White’s blog, I noticed the link for Hutton Pulitzer’s “Roman sword report” which is a very strange read. He constantly refers to it as a “200 page report” but it really just boils down to about 30 pages of diatribe. What follows is my critique of much of it.

Hutton’s claims are bolded and my critique follows.

1) The sword is 2,500 years old.

Yeah, not according to the real scientist with an actual degree and training to assess it. But let’s examine why he feels this way. I have a sword just like it hanging on my wall by the way. Bought it on Amazon.

2) “The approved party line date for the earliest is not based on its historic use for several thousand years, but based on only one fact: The date of when Electro-winning of metals was first demonstrated in 1847, and then the practice was first patented in 1865. Thus, they say “must have been electro-winned and thus that was not known until 1865, and then the systems were sold, so lets use 1880 for good measure.”

swordWhile zinc was known by Indian metallurgists before 1000 BCE and recognized as a unique metal around 800 CE, it wasn’t isolated until 1746. The use of refined copper and lead in the alloy suggest… well… refining. The earliest refining method was electrowinning which was started in the mid-1800s.

3) “The ONLY logical reason to introduce electrowinning into the testing of the Oak Island Roman sword by Dr. Brosseau is to use electro-winning as a “date setting” method. “

Brosseau noted the purity of the copper and the lead, the latter of which pooled as slag in several regions of the sword. The lack of contaminants within the copper and lead were consistent with them being refined. The earliest method to refine these two metals was the process of electrowinning, which was first done in 1847 (no evidence of electrowinning has been shown prior). Therefore, the logical reason for her to mention electrowinning is it was the earliest known refining process. The metals could very well have been refined by some other process at a much later time.

4) “However, when electro-winning is reviewed one finds the very metals such technology is designed to remove are still fully present within the Oak Island Roman Sword.”

The metals that remained in trace were probably introduced during the alloying process. The copper and the lead were apparently refined very refined, but within the alloying process, sometimes it’s helpful to add other elements. Nickel, for instance, can help the alloy resist corrosion (which the oxidized lead patina would also do in addition to creating an “aged” look). Nickel has a very high melting point and wasn’t isolated until the mid-1700s.

5) “Why did the Brosseau Report select only certain metals to
show in its analysis?” If they where to show all the metals contained, then one would be able to see the metallurgy fingerprint pointing to the swords antiquity.

The report by Brosseau showed what was relevant to the results. This is what reports do. Reports aren’t meant to publish complete data sets and drone on and on about data (though some do, unfortunately). Reports are meant to be quick, easy to follow explanations of results. But Brosseau’s data showed that there was 56% copper, 35% zinc, 2.6% lead, and 2.3% oxygen. Trace elements included nickel, iron, tin, aluminium, and arsenic. Since the main constituents add up to 95.9%, we can assume that the trace elements are the remaining 4% or so (there was a plus/minus of up to 1% on the main elements).

What isn’t clear in Hutton’s diatribe he calls a report (see, I told you some people drone on and on), is how the trace elements would be a “fingerprint pointing to the swords (sic) antiquity).” Here, it would seem, he’s simply making things up. For instance, since nickel wasn’t isolated until the mid-1700s, its use within the alloy (if intentionally added) also places the age of the sword much closer to modern times than Hutton’s claim of 2,500 years. All the trace metals are found in modern alloys even today. Aluminum wasn’t discovered until 1825, so if it was intentionally added, then–again–we’re looking at a modern sword.

Hutton says over and over things like Brosseau’s report “is based on predetermined bias and only talks about that which can be used to point to a ‘modern manufacture,’…” but fails at actually showing her “predetermined bias.” But, when a proponent of a pseudoarchaeological claim speaks about “predetermined bias,” you can bet they’ve heard that accusation more than once! He comes close to justifying his accusation a few times, each leaning on her comment that includes this passage:

“There is 30% zinc in this Oak Island Sword and we have been taught if there is zinc content then we must call it brass and not bronze and further, we are only allowed to identify something which is considered brass by the system as modern because even though brass is several thousands years old there was not a patent granted for it until 1865. Thus, using brass and its official patent date as the basis, we are able to use technicalities to discredit numerous real and authentic artifacts finds, which challenge the system.”

I can almost understand Hutton’s confusion. Almost. The fact that a patent was issued means that an idea is controlled, but that idea existed before the patent and, therefore, one can’t simply pin a date on the patent and call that the item’s oldest possible age. But that’s assuming that the isolation of zinc was something that happened long before Andreas Marggraf in 1746 since isolation of the metal would allow it to be used in sufficient quantities to create Gamma brasses (brass with at least 33% zinc). But the addition of 2.5% lead indicates a type of “360 brass” (brass with 2.5% lead and up to 35% zinc), which is used for machining (the lead helps keep the machining blades “lubricated”). Machining brass like 360 is a much, much later invention than 2,500 years ago.

So, yes… zinc was understood and used in the manufacture of brass in antiquity. But, zinc melts at 420ºC and boils at about 950ºC, below a temperature that would reduce zinc oxide. Ores containing zinc were added to crucibles of copper which reduced the ore to metallic state but didn’t melt the copper. Vapor from the zinc permeated the copper to form brass. The brass was then be melted to produce a uniform alloy. So you can see how there would be small amounts of zinc until it was isolated in the 16th century and more fully understood in the 17th century.

Okay, so Hutton’s nonsense about Brosseau not “adhering to scientific method” etc is dismissed. We can see how things aren’t quite the way he imagines it. He spends a lot of time trying to convince readers that zinc was common in percentages above 28% in ancient Rome, but never shows it.

6) “…there are more Archaeometallurgy studies which prove a greater than 30% zinc content proves the veracity and authenticity of Roman artifacts (sic).”

I think what Hutton is trying to say here is that there are data which show Roman artifacts dating to about 2,500 years ago (~430 BCE) which have greater than 30% zinc content. Except he doesn’t show one. Or refer to one. Not even in that very section where he made the claim.

He then does one of his cutesy little question/answer side bars on page 76 with this question: “From a historical perspective, have there been other bronze or high Zinc content Bronze Swords, which have been recovered through history and proven authentic?”

what follows are photographs of bronze swords and artifacts (none of them attributed at the photo, though presumably from museum collections). Why he shows bronze artifacts is not entirely clear. Bronze is a copper-tin alloy that sometimes has other metals in it. Lead was added to increase fluidity, for instance. Some metals, like zinc would end up in trace quantities. The addition of zinc in the earliest times would have been accidental since it occurs with deposits of other metals. But the inclusion of zinc would have been at a much, much lower percentage than the tin (generally around 12%). There simply is no such thing as a “high zinc content bronze sword.” If there was, it would be called a brass sword.

7) Hutton seems to be under the impression that XRF is a better testing method than scanning electron microscopy.

He would be right. If one needed testing done in the field. The SEM controls much better for contamination and has a much higher resolution than the portable XRF. If not used correctly, XRF can give false results. This occurs most frequently when inexperienced operators don’t properly line up the sample.

So what about Hutton’s own XRF data? He doesn’t show it. About it he will only make unsubstantiated claims:

• The ore was volcanic in nature
• The ore contained unique Zinc Oxides
• The ore had a naturally occurring high concentration of Zinc
• The ore came from a region known for Coal production thus being subjected to condensation of Coal-derived gases
• The ore mine shows a specific Ferris oxide contained within the ore, however the Brosseau reports calls Ferris Oxide an agent used to age an item, when it occurs naturally at the mine site

Hutton’s “200-page report” is really just a 30 page diatribe on how he doesn’t like being told he’s wrong. He wants it to come across as a scientific analysis yet also a presentation of “facts” to be judged by [insert audience]. What it really ends up being is a pseudoscientific rant using made up “facts” and a seriously misapplied theme. The theme that results is “there is a lot of zinc in old stuff, therefore Brosseau is wrong” but he fails to support this assertion. He shows some graphs and charts of zinc content prior to the 17th century that reaches percentages of 28%, which is consistent with what we know archaeologically. But these are all roughly around the first century BCE to the first few centuries CE in coins. None are over 30% and none are as old as 430 BCE. The upper limit for zinc content in antiquity was 28% and this was because alloys that exceed this percentage require a two-phase alloying method where one phase precipitates out into another. These methods simply weren’t around until the 18th century.

So it wouldn’t really matter what the concentration of zinc was in the ore his XRF allegedly shows. One could drop pure zinc ingots in a crucible with copper and the zinc will vaporize before the copper is molten. Or vaporize in contact with molten copper. In the latter method, you get percentages as high as, but very often lower than, 28%.

Unless Hutton shows the data produced by his XRF, then I call bullshit. I don’t think he has XRF data at all. He has 5 claims that he’s made based on it in the bullets above, so the burden of proof is upon him to back up what he says.

A pseudoscientist would not.
A genuine scientist would do so cheerfully with hope that peers could criticize it thoroughly.

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.

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