Blogging Archaeology: March Question

Admittedly, I didn’t do so well with Doug’s Blogging Archaeology carnival. I recently finished my graduate work and sort of took a break from any writing -it wasn’t a conscious break, it just happened.

But I like his effort and Doug certainly should be congratulated! Anything that gets this many archaeologists blogging and talking is nothing short of wonderful.

The last question he poses for the Blogging Archaeology Carnival leading up to the SAA conference in Austin, TX (I’ll be there, of course) is:

Where are you going with blogging or where would you like it to go? 

Interesting question. I started blogging about skeptical topics in 2007 (I think). As my education in archaeology increased, this naturally progressed to a blog that I now describe as being about “archaeology, anthropology, science and skepticism,” but I’m also very passionate about the idea of presenting archaeology to the public in general. One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is by criticizing bad archaeology and “new age” notions of antiquity that simply don’t jive with reality. I’ve also devoted some space to posting interesting news about archaeological topics either in the mainstream media or from scholarly journals.

For mainstream media news, I’ve often tried to dig as deep on the story as I can, tracing back to the original research or press release, and basing commentary from there. I always have this idea that what I write is for a lay-audience, but I’ve had family members say it goes over their heads.

One of my future goals for blogging is to continue with what I’m doing but work a little more on presentation. I’d like to write stuff that appeals to readers who know archaeology as well as those that have an interest. I’m also focusing a bit more on social media and pushing news to my Facebook and Twitter feeds, which has had a bit of success. As far as the content, I’d like to delve more into the importance of preservation, the effects of looting and careless damage to sites, and the new advances in technology that help with archaeological research.

Were the Terracotta Warriors of China Inspired by the Greeks?

Could this (or something like it):

A 2500 year-old Greek statue, photo from Reuters 2012.

Have inspired this?:

Terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang. Flickr user:

Lukas Nickel, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, believes that recently translated ancient texts indicate that large statues began to appear in the western-most portions of China in the Qin Dynasty (around 221 BCE), in a region known in the texts as Lintao. And the statues were of 12 giants clad in foreign robes.

The direct evidence of Greek influence seems absent, but Nickel draws some comparisons to the art and culture of the Hellenistic Near East with what was happening around the same time in the 3 century Far East with regard to the sudden and short lived fascination with large terracotta statuary in China.

I’ve yet to read Nickel’s monograph (2013) -still looking for someone with access, but there’s are decent write ups at Live Science and


Nickel, Lukas (2013). The First Emperor and sculpture in China. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 76(3), 413-447.

Not Archaeologists: Vandals!

I’m talking about the two chuckleheads that vandalized the Great Pyramid in order to promote their conspiracy theory about the pyramids being some 10,000 years older than currently believed.

Dominique Goerlitz and author Stefan Erdmann have been working on something they call “das Cheops Projekt” -a pseudoscientific project that seeks to question the origin of the Great Pyramid, specifically that Khufu (Cheops) was the pyramid’s builder and that the pyramids at Giza are significantly older than archaeology has thus far revealed.

Neither Goerlitz or Erdmann are archaeologists. The former has a PhD in plant sciences or Pyramidiotsbiology (my German is rusty) and the latter is a director of a nursing home. Yet this duo has made the news all over the world as “German archaeologists” who stole paint chippings from the inside of the Great Pyramid and smuggled them out of Egypt.

These chuckleheads have made archaeologists look bad in general, particularly German archaeologists. Which is a shame, because some of the best archaeology in the Near East is being done by German institutions and researchers (Klaus Schmidt at Göbekli Tepi for instance). And apparently Goerlitz maintains ties to University of Dresden, probably for credibility, which is giving this respectable institution a tarnished name.

So what was their goal?
To obtain some samples of pigment from the cartouche in the chamber above the King’s Burial Chamber in the Great Pyramid. This, they believed, could then be shown to be much younger than Khufu, thus calling into question the correlation between Khufu (which is written in the cartouche) and the pyramid itself. Leaving the possibility that the pyramid was constructed 10,000 years earlier than currently claimed.

You’re asking yourself a very basic question right now. It probably sounds something like, “huh?”

One of the reasons we know the name of the person the Great Pyramid was intended for is because of that cartouche. But that’s not all. There are other cartouches and other writings that correlate Khufu to the pyramid. But, more importantly, the pyramids at Giza are well-dated already. I honestly don’t know if anyone has tried to date the pigment of the cartouche. I doubt it. Pigment is extremely difficult to date. In fact, one doesn’t date the pigment at all. Instead, what you have to do is get enough of a sample that you can separate the pigment from the binder and emulsifier in hopes that one of these is organic. Red pigment is often iron oxide or red ochre which cannot be carbon dated. But the binder or emulsifier is often gum, egg, or glycerin (all organic binders) or animal fats. These things can be dated if an uncontaminated sample can be obtained.

But dating that cartouche doesn’t seem worth the effort given that there are so many more valuable things to date in the pyramid. Wood and mortar among the chief candidates. This has was done extensively in 1995 (and prior) by archaeologists like Wenke and the dates they arrived at put the construction at around 2690 BCE. They obtained 42 dates just for the Great Pyramid which averaged out to this figure!

So, when people ask what’s the harm in letting pyramidiots and conspiracy theorists believe what they want about things like the Giza pyramids, now you know. When they get into trouble, the media and the world think they’re real archaeologists. And we all suffer a little.

Nitrogen Filled Tires: Scam or Not?

One of my most popular articles on this blog is the one about Nitrogen-Filled Tires that I wrote back in 2008.

I noticed a blog post linking here in response to it “A Rebuttal to Nitrogen Tire Inflation Scams and Myths“, so I had to write a rejoinder (which I posted there, but the comment wasn’t approved yet, so I thought I’d share here). My thoughts really haven’t changed on this… I still think it’s a dealer scam -a way to get more money from buys in aftermarket sales.


I think my evaluation of nitrogen in tires stands. My closing paragraphs point out my agreement that, all things being equal, pure nitrogen filled tires is marginally better than plain air.

However, the *cost* of nitrogen is not worth the marginal benefit. Said another way, the benefits do not outweigh the cost.

My tires get checked and topped of (if necessary) at every oil change. Either by myself or by the professional doing the maintenance -and they don’t charge anything extra.

Oxidation isn’t an issue. Damage to the tire will happen at a rate far less than the wear on the tread. Damage to the steel or aluminium wheel is also negligible. I can’t think of a single person who ever bought a new wheel because of this type of damage to the inside. I do, however, know of two people that did so because of how oxidized aluminum wheels looked on the outside (they just didn’t take care of it and it pitted, though I think it was mainly from road-grunge).

If I were a car collector and had a vintage automobile that I wanted to never drive and I wanted to ensure the tires lasted, I’d probably fill it with nitrogen. But for a vehicle that I commute back and forth to work, drive on the weekends, a work vehicle, etc -I wouldn’t bother. The expense does not outweigh the benefits. Unless I can get the nitrogen for free.

Bottom line: if you have to pay for the nitrogen, it’s not worth it. And, thus, a scam for your money. And by “scam” I mean that it’s a method of fleecing aftermarket money from new cars. There are quite a few of these that dealers will try to use.

Anyway, thanks for the link. I just had to drop a line since I noticed this post has been here for a little over a year 🙂

Blogging Archaeology

BloggingArchaeologyDoug’s Archaeology has invited bloggers to participate in a monthly carnival leading up to the SAAs in April and I’ve agreed to participate, so here’s my entry.

First, some of you might remember the Anthropology blog carnival we did some years back, The Four Stone Hearth. I’m curious if anyone is interested in reviving it, so drop me a line here if you are.

For this month’s carnival, Doug asks “two and a half questions” with an invitation to answer one or two. I’m going to take a stab at all three!

First up: Why blogging? – Why did you start a blog?

I realized I had something to say. It’s as easy as that.

But that would be a boring answer by itself, so let me elaborate a bit! My very first blog post is still out there on the interwebs but it isn’t an archaeology topic. I was sitting in front of the television one Saturday morning, enjoying my coffee and hoping to find something educational. Then I came across what turned out to be a paid advertisement by Kevin Trudeau, who was making some fantastic claims about cures for things like cancer and ADD that were being suppressed by the government. And he was selling a book about it. I quickly saw through his shtick, but I knew other people didn’t otherwise why invest so much money into a paid advertisement designed to look like a Charlie Rose-style interview? So I took it apart in written form, but I didn’t know where or how to disseminate the information. I thought of emailing it to friends, trying to get it published in a magazine… those didn’t seem effective or viable. I posted it to a couple of Internet forums I was a member of and it was received well enough…

Then I thought of setting up my own blog. I was already following bloggers like Bora Zivkovic at “Blog Around the Clock” and Greg Laden’s blog before he moved they moved to “Science Blogs” -then later Orac at “Respectful Insolence.” They made it look easy.

So I started a Blogspot account and pasted my review of Kevin Trudeau in as it’s first article. That was in January 2006.

The first few months, I made a handful of posts, but I then the Bosnian Pyramid flap happened on the Internet and I decided I’d focus my blog on “archaeology, anthropology, science, and skepticism” and found a fun little niche with writing about pseudoarchaeology. I wrote articles about the Bosnian Pyramid, Michael Cremo’s “Forbidden Archaeology,” the so-called tomb of Jesus, new-age hype surrounding Ohio’s Serpent Mound, and just about every claim of Noah’s-Ark-Found in the last 10 years. But I also wrote book reviews, informative reviews of new journal articles related to archaeology, and summaries of archaeological news. And I remained interested in topics of general skepticism as well, writing articles about UFOs, homeopathy and other pseudoscientific ideas.

A Hot Cup of Joe started at Blogspot, moved to, then I staked out my own domain a few years ago here at and
Second: Why are you still blogging?

I still have something to say! And knowing there are those that actually read your work is a good motivator as well. When I was more prolific, I used to get direct emails from appreciative readers, and questions from other students (I blogged mostly during my undergraduate years).

I also feel very strongly about raising the public consciousness on matters of archaeology and science in general as well as promoting critical thinking and healthy skepticism. With the advent of the Internet in the last 20 or so years, pseudoscience and “weird things” have proliferated and it seems as if there is also a decline in science literacy. There are a lot of good fights out there that have their battlegrounds in the public sphere, and the scientific blogosphere is probably one of the most active and important. I think only the political blogosphere rivals it in proliferation of writing, but probably not in quality. Some of the most well-written things in science today are happening in blogs. You need only look at the Open Laboratory submissions of 2012 (for the 2013 issue) to see what I mean.

Third: Why have you stopped blogging?

It seems that way. My blogging definitely slowed to a trickle, which was a perfect storm of many things. I was finishing a master’s thesis in archaeology (those things never seem like they’ll be done), getting bogged down at work, and maybe a little distracted by life in general. It seemed that some of the pseudoarchaeological dried up a bit too. However, with the thesis behind me, I’m ready to start blogging again! And I have a few projects on the drawing board that I hope to draw together: a science forum at (dot org, not dot com), A Hot Cup of Joe (this blog), and SciCulture (where I’d like to draw a few bloggers that want to try science blogging while I’ll be blogging about the culture of science).

I’m definitely looking forward to sitting in on the SAA Blogging Archaeology session and hearing what the panel has to say!

Happy blogging!

Prehistoric Projectiles Potentially Pushed Back

In a recent article at PLOS ONE (November 13, 2013), researchers describe hafted projectile points found in Ethiopia that date to approximately 279,000 years ago.

This is important because, until now, direct evidence for this type of projectile was dated only to about 80,000 years ago. Modern humans have been dated to as far back as about 195,000 years ago (at Omo National Park also in Ethiopia), so this either puts H. sapiens back another 80,000 years or puts projectiles in the hands of an earlier hominid species. Or the interpretation of the artifacts is wrong. Or the dating is wrong.

A revised composite stratigraphic section of the Gademotta Fm. and the placement of major archaeological sites.

With regard to the dating, it seems solid. Argon-argon dating was used, putting the oldest artifacts at excavation units ETH-72-8B and GDM7 to at least 279 ka.

The artifacts were interpreted as “javelin” points due to the way they’ve been fractured. They’re clearly worked points for hafting, so the question then becomes are these hafted points then used for thrusting or throwing? By doing experimental work, archaeologists have been able to determine the impact velocities that hafted points reach when thrusted or thrown. These velocities are very different and, thus, give different fracture patterns. The patterns associated with the artifacts found under Unit 10 in ETH-72-8B and GDM7 show that they were thrown.

So that leaves who threw them. Personally, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that H. sapiens were mixing it up with the wildlife in Ethiopia 80,000 years earlier than we previously thought. But I also think the line between modern H. sapiens and earlier hominin species is probably more blurred than we think, particularly with regards to behavior and social interactions. The real news here isn’t that humans are older than we thought (I think that is a fact many expected), rather it’s that humans were thinking complex thoughts and trading ideas much earlier than we give them (us?) credit for.

Is a homeopathic laugh really funny?

Or is it just a watered down joke?

I found a small package of “medicine” recently in the desk drawer of a former employee and was about to toss it aside as I cleaned out the desk for a new employee. Then I noticed the small word “homeopathic” on it and couldn’t resist looking it over a little more closely.

At first glance, you see this very medicine-like name: Oscillococcinum. Then the “Flu-Like Symptoms” listed at the top, followed by those symptoms: body aches, headache, fever, chills, fatigue.Boiron2


It lists the benefits: non-drowsy, no side effects, no drug interactions, and works naturally with your body. The words “homeopathic medicine” is subdued, but in all caps. But the fascinating thing here is the claim the package makes: “reduces duration and severity of flu symptoms.”

That has to be worth trying. What can a medicine that “reduces duration and severity of flu symptoms” be worth? Walgreens sells this very package for $15.00.

So why is that bad? If it truly relieves the symptoms, can you put a price tag on it?

Well… it’s pure pseudoscience. Essentially, you’re buying confectioner’s sugar for for $2.50 per gram. That should really have been the title of this post: “Walgreen’s sells confectioner’s sugar for $2.50 per gram.” Except it isn’t just Walgreens. CVS sells it. Walmart sells it.

So what’s in it? Let’s look at the back of the package.


“Active ingredient” is listed as “Anas barbariae hepatis […] to reduce the duration and severity of flu-like symptoms.”Boiron1

The amount of this “active ingredient” is listed as 200CK HPUS. That translates to 1 part in 100^200 -that is a 1 followed by 400 zeroes.

Let me be clear: that’s 1 part in a solution that is larger than our solar system. In fact, for one single molecule of “Anas barbariae hepatis” to be present, the solution would need to be much larger than the known universe! And that’s a good thing if you can read Latin. “Anas barbariae hepatis” is essentially a Barbary duck heart that has rotted in a jar mixed with pancreatic juice and glucose.

But if ever taken this “medicine” I promise you ingested no Barbary duck heart -so if you vomited a little in the back of your throat reading this, you needn’t worry about swallowing it twice!

The tell-tale sign that it’s all good is the “inactive ingredients” and the “Other information” sections. Listed are lactose and sucrose and a note that “each 0.04 oz does (1 g) contains 1 g of sugar.”

It’s just sugar. Nothing else.

And it costs $15.00 at your local chain pharmacy.


You Can Now Find the Source of Obsidian Artifacts in the Field in Under 10 Seconds

Archaeologists using the portable XRF to obtain chemical data of pigments in Texas rock art.
Archaeologists using the portable XRF to obtain chemical data of pigments in Texas rock art.

Frahm et al (2013) have recently demonstrated the ability to source obsidian artifacts in the field in just under 10-seconds. A portable XRF is a device that uses x-ray flourescence to determine the chemical composition of rocks. It’s a handy device for archaeologists because it can tell us a bit about pigments such as that used on rock art, but it was used by the authors of this paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science to rapidly determine the sources of obsidian artifacts in Armenia, one of the richest landscapes for obsidian in the world.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that forms during the rapid cooling of lava without crystallization and the physical make up of obsidian is dependent upon the volcano it originates from. Each volcano leaves its own “fingerprint” -or unique chemical signature in the obsidian which remains for millions of years. Obsidian was a highly prized (and still is) resource for tool use since it can be flaked to create some of the sharpest cutting edges known. As you can imagine, obsidian was traded far and wide.

Once one knows the chemical make up of each source of obsidian (thank you geologists!), one need only compare the pXRF data to that database of known sources.

According to Frahm:
“Obsidian sourcing has, for the last 50 years, involved chemical analysis in a distant laboratory, often taking five minutes per artefact, completely separate from the process of archaeological excavation. We sought to bring new tools for chemical analysis with us into the field, so we can do obsidian sourcing as we excavate or survey an archaeological site, not wait until months or years later to learn the results. We can now analyse an obsidian artefact in the field, and just 10 seconds later, we have an answer for its origin.”We carried out the research in Armenia because it has one of the most obsidian-rich natural and cultural landscapes in the world, and the lithic assemblages of numerous Palaeolithic sites are predominantly, if not entirely, composed of obsidian.”

In their words, they’ve switched the role of sourcing obsidian artifacts “from the context of ‘white lab coats’ to that of ‘muddy boots.”

Frahm, Ellery; et al (2013) Ten Seconds in the Field: Rapid Armenian Obsidian Sourcing with Portable XRF to Inform Excavations and Surveys. Journal of Archaeological Science, In Press.

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GMO Hating Squirrels?

There’s a popular Facebook meme making it’s rounds –I’ve seen it at least three times now– about GMO foods and how it’s supposed to be bad for you compared with organic. The meme is a picture of two ears of corn -one is the organic and completely eaten; the other is the GMO and barely touched. The meme creator implies that squirrels can tell the difference between a GMO ear of corn and an organic ear of corn.

The meme is the image below, and it turns out there are some problems with the photo, the alleged experiment, and the assumptions.
First, the photo shows two clearly different ears of corn. One is larger than the other. One is labeled “GMO” the other “organic.” But beyond that, they are quite identical. Sure, the casual observer (myself included) will see the immediate differences above, but this is just as likely to be some slight of hand as anything else. Indeed, if I had to wager, I’d bet a paycheck that these are two ears from the same crop. The kernels are roughly the same size and shape -many have an indentation on the distal end. The color values of the two ears are completely identical.

And one can imagine that the probable hoaxer favors so-called “organic” corn over the so-called GMO. And if, as I suspect, they are from the same crop, he or she picked the larger ear to represent the “organic” corn.

One last problem with the photo is the precise nature of the alleged squirrel’s bite. I’ve seen things that squirrels and other rodents eat. They aren’t quite that neat. The removal of these kernels is more consistent with bare handed shucking than rodent chewing.

Second, the alleged “experiment” is flawed to a fault. There’s no way to know which ear is GMO or organic (if we are to assume one of each is actually represented). We have no way of knowing if the squirrel (assuming one existed) chose on a random basis then stuck with the one it began with until full. We have a sample size of 1 for all variables: 1 squirrel (curiously not present); 1 GMO ear; 1 “organic” ear. The statistical significance is zero in this sort of experiment.

Third, the assumptions are that GMO are dangerous and organic somehow good for you. These assumptions might be correct, but they mostly appeal to intuitive design by the organic farming industry (it truly is an industry) and anti-GMO fear mongers.

No evidence supports that GMO crops like corn are unsafe for human or animal consumption -quite the opposite is true. Crops are genetically modified for a variety of intended outcomes such as ways to make them resistant to pests like insects or microorganisms or to improve their output in volume, nutrition, etc.

Another assumption is that rodents can discern the difference somehow between the two types of corn and that they’d care.

But the meme also assumes that a rodent resistant grain would be a bad thing! If a genetic modification could make rats lose their taste for corn (squirrels are very much related to rats), then this would be a good thing. Alas, if rats were that discriminating, they probably wouldn’t eat rat poison. Interesting how they can’t tell the difference between arsenic and food.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some problems with GMO foods but so far none of them are about “safeness” or their potential to be unhealthy. I’m concerned with the very nature of GMO being controlled by intellectual property rights and look forward to the day that the Open Source movement emerges within GMO.

Perhaps I’ll post more on GMO in the future, but I couldn’t let this meme escape a third time without destroying it.

Still, it’s a good example of how people are easily duped by fear-mongering and pseudoscience.

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Archaeologists Add Drones to Their Survey and Remote Sensing Toolbox

Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over Cerro Chepén, one of thousands of ancient ruins across Peru. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Originally developed with a military purpose in mind, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) –also called “drones”– offer archaeologists an efficient advantage when it comes to archaeological survey in the field.

Most governments have provisions in place to protect their cultural resources as their countries grow and progress: laws to protect sites from looting, laws that ensure sites are explored before development, etc. Looters –those that would profit from the sale of unprovenanced antiquities ripped haphazardly from the ground– are clear enemies of archaeologists, who depend on the carefully documented contexts of artifacts and features, which provide priceless value in the story that can be told about a long-dead culture.

In Peru, where the economy has grown at an average of 6.5% each year over the last decade, progress is fast becoming a more dangerous threat than looters. Near Lima, a 5,000 year-old (est.) pyramid was destroyed by construction firms and pre-Incan ruins of Yanamarca were damaged by quartz miners. Progress happened before archaeologists could get there. The new enemy to archaeologists is time. Effective survey takes time. That’s where the drones come in.

Two primary uses for drones so far seem to be monitoring and mapping. With a UAV, an archaeologist can set and monitor boundaries to sites as well as conduct mapping. Jaime Castillo, an archaeologist at the Lima Catholic University, said about mapping and survey, “with this technology, I was able to do in a few days what had taken me years to do.”

“It’s like having a scalpel instead of a club. You can control it to a very fine degree,” said Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist with Harvard University who has worked at San José de Moro and other sites in Peru. “You can go up three metres and photograph a room, 300 metres and photograph a site, or you can go up 3,000 metres and photograph the entire valley.”

Drone use in the U.S. has become something of a hot-button issue in the last few years, with some seeing them as a cause for alarm when it comes to safe-guarding privacy. Some states have even drafted legislation that prevents or restricts use and there is much talk of “shooting down” drones by private citizens. A town in Colorado has made laws and policy to protect anyone that shoots them down.

In Texas, my current home-state, the Texas Privacy Act (HB 912), sponsored by Republican Rep. Lance Gooden, would make it illegal to take photographs or possess photographs taken from UAVs. On the cuff, this looks like it might be good legislation to protect the average person from nosy UAV owners that want to post embarrassing photos or videos on YouTube, but when you look closely it severely favors businesses or government entities that wish to operate illegally.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a hobbyist piloting a small UAV took aerial photos of the Columbia Packing Company’s illegal dumping of pig blood into the Trinity River. This was a gross violation of law in 2011 that was reported by a hobbyist. And officials acted within minutes.

Aerial reconnaissance is not a new idea to archaeologists. We’ve been using kites, scaffolds, planes, helicopters, gigapan, and even satellites. But drones, or UAVs, will offer a flexibility and control that none of these can provide, allowing the gap of time between archaeological survey and progress to be closed significantly.

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