Recording Rock Art: Using DStretch

As you might imagine, a large part of recording rock art involves the use of photography. And among the tools used by those recording and analyzing images both in the field and in the lab is software that digitally enhances photographs to make the rock art clearer or even to reveal elements that are no longer visible to the naked eye due to erosion and weathering.

The software of choice is increasingly a small plugin for a freely available Java-based image processing application called ImageJ. The plugin is DStretch, developed by Jon Harman. To run the plugin, you simply drop the .zip file into the “plugins” folder of ImageJ and it’s done.

Drag an image you wish to enhance into the ImagJ application, start the DStretch plugin, then select one of the enhancement options, like “LAB” or “LDS.” Or select the Cycle button to cycle through each. Once a particular decorrelation algorithm shows the image you like, click the “Save” button to save a sample.

The image below shows an example of DStretch being applied to an image I took of the Halo Shelter in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands last year. Note how the different pigments change contrast and in one enhancement the spalling of the shelter wall is clear. All this is vital to the researcher creating an illustration from the photographs.

Two of the things I love about DStretch used with ImageJ are the cost and the ability to replicate results. ImageJ is public domain, yet very powerful; DStretch is free for use unless you’re a professional and then the suggested donation is $50. This is all several hundred dollars cheaper than the industry leader for photo enhancement, Photoshop. And minus the intense learning curve. The algorithms Harmon has built into DStretch are button pushes, rather than the infinite combinations and permutations of Photoshop slider bars.

Once the images are enhanced, I typically use The Gimp for further editing. In fact, I created the .GIF animation above through Gimp by opening each of the DStretch file saves at once as separate levels then resizing and saving as an animation.

Pseudoarchaeology of the Serapeum, a 19th Dynasty Egyptian Site in Saqqara

Browsing Facebook not long ago, I came across a page called “Science of the Remote Past.” Cool. Just the kind of thing I like to read about. The article I stumbled on seemed interesting so I “Liked” the page so I’d get feeds from it. Then, over time, I started to notice not everything seemed all that scientific. I finally had to question them when the admins dropped a post on “Earth chakras” and then another regarding the “high technology” of ancient Egyptians.

Someone thoughtfully responded to my dig at the pseudoscientific approach of the page admins and recommended that I watch a 15 min video titled A Visit With Yousef Awyan at the Serapeum. And I did.

I saw nothing in the video that demonstrates any sort of “high technology.” In fact, “high technology” and “high civilization” are buzz words of pseudoarchaeological proponents who discredit the abilities of ancient peoples and cultures. Awyan seems to be channeling a particular pseudoscientific proponent by the name of Christopher Dunn, who suggests that the Serapeum is part of a “power plant” complex that includes the Great Pyramid which “resonates vibrations” and “harmonic mumbo jumbo.”

The tell-tale signs of this bromance with Dunn is in how he finds undo significance with the craftsmanship of the stone work and the level of difficulty these Egyptians were faced with. Also in how he discredits the writings within the Serapeum as not related to it because they were “using a different technology.”

Both Awyan and Dunn have to cope with the fact that the writings within the Serapeum date it to the 19th Dynasty, well after the Giza Pyramids were constructed. The fact that different technologies were used really isn’t a problem and would be more of a concern had they used polishing and shaping technologies to carve hieroglyphs.

Writings within the Serapium

Awyan is a significance-junkie. He can’t imagine how it could be done and assumes that 19th Dynasty Egyptians were somehow less intelligent and unable to make use of their resources, which is an affront to humanity and the ancestors of his own culture. Experimental archaeology has demonstrated the methods that Awyan and Dunn ignore and refuse to acknowledge on more than one occasion. Moreover, the tools of their trades as well as writings of how it was done shows up in the archaeological and epigraphic records of the region. To put it simply: the Egyptians have written of stone working and positioning; the evidence that corroborates it is in the archaeological record. Never have the pseudoscientific positions of Awyan been demonstrated in either record. Moreover the conclusions that require the fewest assumptions are the ones that do not include “high technology” (whatever that is) and do include tools and methods available to ancient Egyptians.

The Serapium of Saqqara was a site that appears to be dedicated to bull worship. Often cited, and Awyan does so in this 15 min video, is fact that without electric lights the tunnels of the Serapium are quite dark. But there are some fire-blackened niches in some places, though this would likely not have been the primary source of light. These Apis (sacred bull) devotees would have used a series of mirrors to reflect light into the tunnels to avoid the fumes and smoke in the poorly ventilated chambers.

It’s a shame that so many buy into this pseudoarchaeological nonsense, though I can see its appeal. Suspending my skepticism and rational thought is fun when I’m watching an episode of Stargate SG-1, but the fact is our ancestors were smart folk. They were actually able to accomplish things we’ve long abandoned a need to replicate in the same manner. The wonder and awe isn’t found in fantasies of ancient aliens and “high technology” of long lost civilizations -rather it comes with the understanding that we are more than the sum of our parts when we decide to do something together. A fact that our ancient ancestors understood all too well. For better or worse.

?Nazi War Diggers: Why it’s a Bad Idea for NatGeo

National Geographic has long captured the hearts and imaginations of those interested in far-away cultures, history, and the world in general. The vivid and often striking photographs captured, accompanied by detailed narratives take us around the globe and through time for just a few pennies. Now they have the Cosmos redeaux with Neil deGrass Tyson. It’s easy to have a lot of respect for what they do. NatGeo the channel has perhaps borrowed some of the reputation of it’s parent organization, The National Geographic Society, but it has some of its own as well.

Unfortunately, I think they’re about to piss it away.

First they aired Diggers starting in 2012, which featured a pair of metal detectorists who are “invited by land owners” to haphazardly snatch metal artifacts from the ground. I caught an episode of this while flipping channels recently. This dastardly duo was “assisting” archaeologists in locating a canon before a bulldozer cleared a swatch of land for a highway bridge. They located a canon ball, which they very quickly dug out of the ground -one of them even did somersaults with it in his hand scant seconds after prying it from the dirt. No measurements. No soil profiles recorded. No evaluation of context. Just a haphazard hole dug to the item.

Sure. A bulldozer was coming in the next days or weeks. It might very well have been lost to us altogether anyway. Or it might not have. It was a large field. But the sensationalism behind it was unprofessional and irresponsible and can be argued to promote irresponsible behavior that can destroy sites in ways that context cannot be understood. The NatGeo Diggers website even has a Metal Detecting 101 section. But they also have a section on “responsible metal detecting” that encourages respect for culture and history. Personally, I think it’s an obligatory and superficial response to the overwhelming dismay archaeologists have had for NatGeo and its Diggers show.

Enter the new show: Nazi War Diggers.  A recent promotional video that has since been removed from the show’s site, featured three personalities that were very haphazardly removing body parts (one even misidentified a leg bone as that of an arm). They’re apparently targeting Eastern European battlefields and their respect for contextual archaeology is as nearly uninformed as their respect for the dead. The video that shows this was not only removed from their own site, but NatGeo pressured YouTube, where it was being hosted by concerned members, to remove it as well based on copyright.

There is, however, an informative video on YouTube that was not taken down since it complies with Fair Use as a journalistic commentary (link below). Near the end of it, you can see this trio of diggers literally yanking a femur from the ground. It is so clearly a femur even on a video of a video, yet one of them boldly pronounces “that’s his shoulder.” They were perplexed at how the leg was over the dead soldier’s head. And the way they yanked his remains from the ground, we can never have an informed understanding.

Excavation of human remains like has one of two purposes (though they need not be mutually exclusive). Either it’s a scientific endeavor that uses established scientific protocols (bioarchaeological excavation techniques and meticulous recording of the unit stratigraphic layer by stratigraphic layer for instance); or it’s a humanitarian effort in which the dead are intended to be identified and repatriated to their loved ones, decedents, or homelands.

Say what you will about diggers vs. archaeologists. And if you’re a metal detectorist that was pissed about my dismissal of Diggers early in this article I want you to ask yourself this: were this a show on a Vietnamese or Chinese channel that showed a similar level of sensationalist disrespect by Asian metal detectorists, yanking the bones of American MIA’s in Vietnam and Cambodia out of the ground, would you feel it was okay?

Further Reading:


Of What Use is Archaeology?

This is a question that arises in conversations with others in academia from time to time. I’ve even pondered it myself, particularly since presenting archaeology in a positive light to the public has always been an interest of mine.

Today, I noticed two articles online that speak to this. I’ll mention the second one first, which is a post at Doug’s Archaeology. Doug writes a quite informative post on this very topic, sharing with us a work first published in 1857 by Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, titled, “The Practical Advantage of Accruing from the Study of Archaeology.” The monograph (I’m not sure of the published context as yet) begins with:

THIS age boasts of being a practical one. Before a scheme is adopted, the question is constantly heard—”What is the use of it ?” Every study, every enterprise, which does not tend more or less directly to increase our wealth, our power, or our personal comforts, is discountenanced. Within certain limits the principle is a good one. Life is too short to spend any part of it in idle speculation.

But Bruce goes on to paint a very relevant picture of how the study of the past can benefit the present or the future with “solid, tangible commercial advantages.” As example, Bruce describes early Roman heating methods (hypocausts) and what benefit such an effort might have provided British commanders during the Crimean War in keeping their soldiers warm when fuel was scarce. Bruce offers other examples and a lengthy discussion on the benefits of studying antiquity and past cultures.

The first article I saw today, which I mention second, is at PLOS One: On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). This authors (Binder, et al 2014) describe a human skeleton found in Sudan that dates back to 1200 BCE and exhibits evidence of metastatic cancer -the earliest example known in the archaeological record. This is rather exciting because analyses of DNA in remains such as this can lead to discoveries within the field of genetics about mutations that are involved in the pathology of cancer. To quote Michaela Binder, the lead author:

Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer.

Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.

The skeleton is of an adult male, age at death was approximately 30 years, and it was interred within a painted wooden coffin along with a amulet of glazed faience.

Along with understanding human pathology, archaeologists are also

Credit: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute/Courtesy of Aaron O’Dea

able to gain a better understanding of how humans impact the environment, such as with the research into Strombus pugilis, the fighting conch, found in the shallow lagoons of Panama’s Boca del Toro. O’Dea et al (2014) discovered that since prehistoric times, humans have been selecting the largest conchs for food, making it advantageous for the conchs to mature at smaller sizes. Modern fighting conchs of the region contained as much as 66% less meat than their ancestors 7,000 years ago due to long-term subsistence harvesting. Fortunately, these data are being used to promote protected areas to revitalize, protect, and maintain genetic diversity.

My own research into anthropomorphic figurines of the Neolithic in Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe has yielded some insights into gender and identity that I hadn’t necessarily expected. Perhaps continued research into gender and identity of our prehistoric ancestors can help us navigate the tumultuous seas of misunderstanding and ignorance that modern notions of gender and identity seem to present. If insights into prehistoric notions of gender can soften the hatred or inform the ignorance of a single person’s modern notion of gender, isn’t archaeology worth the effort?

There are good reasons for doing archaeology. Understanding who we are and from whence we came may be vital to understanding who we can become and what we can accomplish.

And isn’t that the very essence of progress?

Binder, Michaela et al (2014). On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC). PLOS One, 9 (3).

O’Dea, Aaron et al (2014). Evidence of size-selective evolution in the fighting conch from prehistoric subsistence harvesting. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Vol. 281(1782)

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.

Archaeology, anthropology, science, and skepticism

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