Thinking about Neolithic Figurines: Making them

My master’s thesis is a study of anthropomorphic figurines from the Neolithic of Southeastern Europe and Southwest Asia. So I thought I’d try my hand at making a couple. Disclaimer: I’ve never worked with clay before today. And I’ve made exactly two anthropomorphic figurines ever.

These two:

SONY DSC SONY DSCYou’re probably dying to know what my inspiration was so here they are:gm10 GimBirthGiv

The first is a Cucuteni figurine of probably 4500 BCE in Romania. The second is a Sesklo figurine of around 6500 BCE found in Thessaly, Greece.

The originals are both at around 6 cm in height and my attempts are about double that. So, as small as mine are (they fit in the palm of my hand), the originals are much smaller.

What I’ve learned is that making a figurine that is obviously female is tough. Sculpting the genitalia on the Sesklo figurine and getting the hips just right on the Cucuteni was time consuming. A sexless figurine would have been much easier. Hell, a male figurine might have been easy if I simply made a sexless one and resorted to a bit of plastic applique (three bits of clay in the crotch).

One of the things my thesis research has shown is that while there are a significant number of female figurines compared to male, there are nearly as many that are sexless. Of the figurines I included in my study (n=403), 45% were female, 7% were male, and 1% were androgynous or a twin with one of each. The other 47% were of unknown sex.

What does this tell us about gender and identity in prehistoric times? Were figurine makers simply lazy and found it easier to make figurines without regard to sex? If so, then depicting the female gender was important given the number of figurines, but what of the sexless ones? Did they simply serve different functions? Were their genders defined by their non-durable attachments (textile clothings, jewelry, painting, etc.).


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Walmart Endangers Cultural Site? Gets Building Permit Through Bribery?

Walmart exteriorcropped
Walmart exteriorcropped (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: View of the Avenue of the Dead and th...
English: View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon (Pyramide de la Luna) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From the I’m-shocked-to-find-bribery-and-deceit-in-Walmart’s-plans department.

The New York Times is reporting through an expose a laundry list of wrongdoing on the behalf of Walmart that resulted in the building of a supercenter very, very near the grounds of a major cultural resource in Mexico. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: Teotihuacán[1].

The Times article is extensive and pretty damning, but the gist is that Walmart offered up bribes and “donations” to manipulate local and federal governments in Mexico City to look the other way as they built their store.

Wal-Mart could not build by the pyramids without a permit from the agency that protects Mexico’s cultural landmarks. Wal-Mart de Mexico offered a “donation” of up to $45,000 and a “personal gift” of up to $36,000 in exchange for the permit, records and interviews show.

And that’s the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg.

If you ever wanted a reason to avoid shopping at Walmart and accusations of near-slave-labor to get cheap prices wasn’t it (or the fact that a Walmart puts mom and pop businesses that are locally owned and operated out of business), then this is it. Walmart as a corporation cares not about the people they service and their cultures. It’s concerned instead with the money of those people.

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References and Notes:
  1. The largest city in pre-Columbian America, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Mexico City. Built c.300 bc, it reached its zenith c. ad 300–600, when it was the center of an influential culture that spread throughout Meso-America. It was sacked by the invading Toltecs c.900 []

Richard III Remains Confirmed!

Richard III SkullI’m a little late with this, but I’ve been busy all day. The remains found at a carpark in Leicester, England have been confirmed to be that of King Richard III by Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist of the University of Leicester: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”

This is interesting on many levels, not the least of which is the efficiency and accuracy a team of archaeologists and historians pinpointed first the location of the Greyfriars friary where Richard was alleged to be buried as well as the methods the team used to methodically excavate and locate the grave itself. Still, there was an element of chance woven into this story. The carpark was apparently the last open space, so if the friary’s garden wasn’t located within it, chances were good the grave would have not been located.

Then there’s the matter of confirming the remains. Researchers did so by sampling the DNA of the remains and then matching them to the last known survivor of Richard III’s maternal-ancestral line. Canadian born Michael Ibsen is a direct descendant of Anne of York, Richard’s elder sister. Michael, himself, has no sister, so the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is only passed along the maternal line ends with him. Had Anne of York’s maternal line ended a generation earlier, or had the discovery of the remains come a generation later, the identification probably wouldn’t have been made.

In addition to the mtDNA, there are some other identifying features of the skeletal remains, including scoliosis, which deformed Richard’s spine. King Richard III has been historically described as being physically deformed and with “one shoulder higher than the right.” The spine found in the grave seems to confirm this. In addition, the skull shows signs of mortal injury, perhaps with a haldberd as indicated by Jean Molinet, the Burgundian chronicler that accounted such a death after King Richard’s horse became stuck in the marsh. Overall, the skeleton had 10 wounds, 8 of them on the skull.

There is much, much more to the story of Richard III. I’ll let you google it… I’ll note one interesting point then leave you with a question: the excavation revealed that the hands were crossed in front, as if they were tied together. This is apparently an unusual pose for a burial of this time. The nature of the wound, if it occurred while he was on horseback (as history has told) would have been severe enough that he would likely have died before his body hit the ground.

So why tie the wrists?

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Pseudoarchaeology Meets Archaeology… in court?

Ossuary. Cast
Ossuary. Cast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Simcha Jacobovici -an apparent purveyor of pseudoscientific “discovery” related to biblical mythology is suing Joe Zias for “libel.”

This is a tactic skeptics have seen of those peddling in woo lately, particularly in Europe where libel laws are a bit more lax than they are in the U.S. Simon Singh was recently involved in a legal battle with chiropractors for saying out loud (and quite publicly) that their claims are untrue. He won, but the ordeal still cost him some money. The hope for the chiropractors is, of course, that fear of litigation would cause the opponent to back down. I even came under attack by a “scientific conference” that I publicly criticized (elsewhere, not on this blog). An attorney sent a cease and desit/takedown demand to my dean and the president of my university. I told the attorney to stick it if the plantiff wasn’t willing to be specific with what he found disagreeable. Never heard from them again.

I suspect Joe Zias might not be so lucky, but I think he’s got a good case. Simcha Jacobovici is a hack. He’s produced several questionable “films” of demonstrable pseudoarchaeology and Zias has called him on it -as a scientist should. Zias has long had little patience for those that begin with a conclusion and then start looking for data that are agreeable.

Points of contention have been Jacobovici’s films and written works. In 2002 he created the film James, Brother of Jesus, which featured an ossuary (a bone box) alleged to have belonged to the person of the films title. This was later discovered to be a colossal forgery. Although the defendents charged with the forgery were ultimately acquitted, a fair amount of legitimate scholarly examination of the artifact revealed it to be a fake. One of the defendents had the materials to “age” the box in his flat when he was busted with the ossuary itself being stored on his toilet tank.

More recently, Jacobovici had a documentary film about the so-called Talpiot Tomb where 10 limestone ossuaries were found that in which he claimed were the remains of Jesus and his family. The names Jacobovici claimed were on the ossuaries were Yeshua bar Yehosef, Maria, Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Maramene e Mara, and Matya. Very little else was known and Jacobovici and his tiny group were about the only ones that thought they were as claimed. In fact, nearly every scholar thought they were largely insignficant.

Still, that didn’t stop Jacobovici with getting a scholar to put together some statistics, which have been called into serious question.

Zias has been on Jacobovici like glue through it all. And, it would seem, rightfully so. And it’s had some effect: National Geographic pulled out of one of Jacobovici’s projects. Zias has cost Jacobovici money and he’s pissed that Zias has accused him of “forging archaeology,” but that’s what it appears Jacobovici has done to date. He begins with a conclusion then finds data that are in agreement.

This isn’t a case of two scholars duking it out. It’s a case of a hack /

pseudoarchaeologist getting called out by a genuine archaeologist.

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Native American Marker Trees. Interesting, but is the Science Sound?

Dennis Downs sitting next to an “Indian Marker Tree”

Today, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Dennis Downes at the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, Texas.

There were perhaps 100 or so people in attendance, many elderly or retired types, and many seemed to share interests with the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition and Audubon. Quite a few hands in the audience went up when the hostess (Mary Ann Graves?) pointed out DHTC members.

Downes’ presentation left me less than convinced of his conclusions. The conclusions seemed to be just about any tree that was bent at the trunk only to grow skyward again (like this ?? )are anthropogenically altered. I have no doubt that Native Americans marked trails this way. I think I even did it as a kid, trekking through the woods of Virginia -though I didn’t expect the saplings bent over to stay that way for generations.

There’s a certain bit of intuitive logic to Downes’ hypothesis. A  bent sapling can grow to a tree that marks a trail for many generations, pointing the way to copper or chert deposits, marking springs, delineating a place on a bank where you want to beach your canoe and find an upland trail, etc. A full grown tree can stand above a winter snow-line, wet season flood-line, etc.

And there is a bit of archaeological theory to back the notion of storing information through symbols and signs (Colin Renfrew has written a bit on this).

Downes also points out several known anthropogenic examples and claims that ethnographic study bears out the notion that Native Americans marked trails in this fashion.

But I still felt less than convinced by his presentation. Perhaps it was the manner in which it was presented or the way he seemed to hype the significance of just about everything except the data. Certainly not short of anecdotes and stories of people he met as he visited these trees over the last 30 years, Downes provided photo after photo on slides of trees that were bent. Some were taken in the past few years, others were from the early 1900s and perhaps 1800s. Interestingly enough, nearly every photo of the last decade or so included him!

Downes dropped name after name, pointing out the qualifications and “renowned expertise” of several “foremost authorities.” I’ve no doubt these are well deserved experts, people like Raymond Janssen and the recently departed Helen Hornbeck Tanner. But it kept me wondering what Downes’ own expertise is. His bio included “artist, author, and researcher” written on something at the talk (banner, pamphlet, … ? I don’t remember which). He’s certainly a talented artist, one of his sculptures was on display which showed amazing attention to detail. Of a marker tree, of course.

The “researcher” part might be a little overly stated, however. I approached Downes at the end of the talk and asked a quick couple of questions about the data. Essentially, where are the data? What are the data? I specifically asked if GIS and other data have been provided to the SHPOs of states he’s worked in. He didn’t answer. I don’t think he intended to be rude, I think it was a kind of question that simply caught him off-guard. Instead, he stated “email me… I gotta sign this” and he turned to a book to sign for another attendee. To be fair, the other guy just gave him 40 bucks… I was asking for free info :)

My concluding thoughts:
Until now, I’d not heard of Indian Marker Trees. I remember the discussion on the Texas Archaeological Society list a few months back, but I didn’t really pay close attention to it then. It seems an interesting topic, particularly for a graduate student looking for a thesis or dissertation project since it could involve data collection, synthesis, and a decent paper as a result. Possibly even a book. I suspect, however, that the results might not be favorable to Marker Tree community (and there is a clear community devoted to this). Steve Hauser and others of DHTC were in attendance today, and they showed a few photos of trees they seemed certain were marker trees, but there was no mention of dating, statistical analysis, correlations to known prehistoric sites and resources (springs, copper, etc.), non-anthropogenic comparisons, etc. There was an anthropologist in attendance from the DHTC (her name escapes me) and she mentioned the need for volunteers with GIS expertise, so this is certainly a step in the right direction. I think a detailed scientific study of these trees might reveal some inconsistencies that prevent anthropogenic conclusions. Sitting there, I thought of many non-anthropogenic ways these could have formed: tornadoes, wind sheer, bedding deer, dead-fall from other trees…

That’s not to say that Native Americans didn’t mark their trails in this fashion. I’m sure they did. I just don’t think that because the tree is bent like this ?? that it’s a marker. It might just be a fouled up tree.

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Wannabe “diggers” Destroy Part of Gettysburg National Park

I previously blogged about the “American Digger” trash-TV show that features a former fake wrestler as the star of his own show digging up relics for profit and how there’s a movement via to get this show cancelled.

If you haven’t signed their petition, please do so. I’ll post the link at the bottom of the page. And, if you needed a reason, here it is:

This is an image of the Spangler’s Spring area of the national park at Gettysburg where “diggers” have left 23 holes as they ravaged the site for “relics” -artifacts of the Civil War that have intrinsic value to collectors. The resources of the park belong to the public, yet these greedy individuals seek to claim them for their own. The mission of the Gettysburg National Military Park is to ensure that the resources, including artifacts, are left for future generations.

On federal land, digging, for artifacts or just for fun, can earn you a $100,000.00 fine and up to 10 years in jail. Simply possessing a metal detector on national park property can get you a $75.00 fine, even if it is stowed in the trunk of your car. And the risk of being caught isn’t slight. Over 100 volunteers patrol the park regularly along with rangers, often camouflaged, who have technology on their side. The “diggers”, therefore, didn’t just happen along. This was planned and considerable effort must have been used to avoid detection.

If you have information that can lead to the arrest or capture of these criminals, please contact the Gettysburg National Military Park at (717) 334-0909.

Also, be sure to visit and sign the petition to  Stop Spike.TV from Looting Our Collective Past. You can also visit the Facebook cause, People against Spike TV’s “American Digger” for stimulating and informative discussion on the problem of looting and “digging” in general.

In the words of Susan Gillespie, “…these shows promote the destruction and selling of artifacts which are part of our cultural heritage and patrimony.” We don’t know that the “diggers” who broke the law above took any inspiration from “American Diggers” (Spike.TV) or “Diggers” (NatGeo), but its clear that they aren’t going to be dissuaded by the shows.

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Iced Joe

A new friend recently re-introduced me to an old friend. I was at the TAS (Texas Archaeological Society) Field School in June where I made a lot of new friends. One of these friends always had a iced coffee drink in a Starbucks cup -one of those reusable ones with the straw. It’s important to note that there is no Starbucks in Del Rio, which is where the Field School was this year.

It turns out that he was topping off with coffee, milk, and ice from the hotel’s continental breakfast each morning.

I first drank iced coffee on fishing trips with an aunt and uncle. They mixed milk and coffee together in a gallon milk jug and refrigerated it the night before. It was a great treat while out on the lake in the early summer mornings.

Since then, I’ve always taken my coffee with no additives. Just hot, black and strong. This afternoon, however, I still had about a third of a pot of coffee left from the morning. Since it never tastes good reheated, I decided to pour it over ice and added some milk. No sugar. Just milk, ice, and coffee. I still prefer a nice, hot cup of joe, but iced joe ain’t half bad.

The related links below seem to offer “recipes,” but I say keep it simple. Let your coffee reach room temperature (you know… that pot you brewed this morning that still has some left over). Fill a cup or glass half full of ice. Pour coffee over it to about 2/3 full. Add milk (I prefer whole, but 2% or skim if you like). If sweetener is your thing, go for it. If you use hot coffee, you’re going to need more ice.

Hat tip to Paul, my archaeologist friend with the mystery cup of Starbucks!

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‘Diggers’ are to archaeology as pro-wrestling is to sports: fake

Looter pits in Georgia

“Professional” wrestler (former) Ric Savage now has a television show on Spike TV called “American Diggers.” They’re Americans and they dig. Anyone with a garden shovel can make this claim.

The problem is, they fancy themselves as “diggers” of artifacts and relics. And this is a problem because they really don’t know what they’re doing.

I’m not being “snobbish” or trying to appear aloof. I sympathize with why someone would want to dig up a yard or field for historical relics and artifacts. They’re valuable. They’re cool. They’re history. There’s a story behind every single bullet, belt buckle, button, and even thrown out pig bone that can be recovered.

But that story cannot be told if the contexts of the finds aren’t carefully and meticulously cataloged, diagramed, and documented. In addition, some artifacts need to be conserved with great care. A common misconception that those not trained in archaeology have is that removing it from the dirt starts the act of preservation. In fact, the opposite is probably true. A given artifact is now being exposed to variables it wasn’t previously: oxygen, water, wind, oily human hands, etc.

Ric Savage, the trained “professional” wrestler, was quoted as saying:

“Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,” Savage said. “The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.”

I think Ric got it half right. Diggers are looked on as trailer trash. They’re not looked on as being a part of the archaeological community at all. That’s because they are not. To be a member of the archaeological community, you would first need to be trained as an archaeologist. Savage takes the low-road of ignorance when he attempts to berate those with educations as snobs, but such criticism only works with those that refuse to obtain an education.

Archaeologists are the brains of archaeology. That is an undeniable truth. It isn’t that their educations increase their “snobbishness” -rather it’s that their educations increase their knowledge. Like I said, I understand the motivations behind wanting to dig up relics and artifacts. But, my education has shown me why this is ethically wrong. “Digging” in this manner utterly destroys context. And context has far more value than the few dollars Savage gets from selling the metal bits he rapes from the ground since this is what we can use to understand the past. Where an artifact is in relation to other artifacts and features can tell us how it was used, by whom, when, how it was disposed or left in situ, etc. Context can tell us about trade, conflict, social hierarchy and stratification, and much more.

I realize there are probably many who consider themselves to be”amateur archaeologists” and take their roles seriously and care deeply about history and getting it right. But “diggers” aren’t amateur archaeologists. They negotiate with land owners to rape their lands for cultural artifacts with the promise that the land owner gets a cut (either in artifacts or money). They plunder the landscape with holes in roughshod manner and, in a few hours, can remove all the “valuable” artifacts from a site, leaving a scarred and raped patch of land that can more closely resemble the pockmarked surface of the moon than an archaeological site. Artifacts are quickly pulled from the ground without regard for their positions or placements and chunked in a bucket, sometimes a bag.

Contrast this with a true archaeological excavation that is meticulous and planned and can take days, even years to properly excavate as every layer is documented with diagrams and coordinates of artifacts and features as they are uncovered one centimeter at a time.  Artifacts are carefully extracted, sometimes preservation begins in situ as the artifact is carefully handled to prevent destruction or damage.

Diggers treat artifacts as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder on Ebay and Craig’s List.

Archaeologists treat artifacts as evidence of past cultures and civilizations that need to be carefully managed for further analysis or to be shared with the public through museums.

We cannot ever get back the contexts lost to looters (a.k.a. diggers). It would be better not to recover the artifacts at all if the choice is to remove them in the roughshod fashion of looters. Better to leave the remains of a long-lost culture buried until proper excavation by trained archaeologists is possible or feasible.

I say diggers are looters. Not because what they do is illegal (many times it is -but they will never admit to digging public or government lands), rather because what they’re doing is stealing from future generations. They’re stealing the possibility of understanding a culture or civilization. They’re going for the loot, and leaving the data behind in the piles of dirt they discard in heaps, forever lost as contexts to the past. There’s no question that private land owners have the right to do with their land what they please. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Join me in making a change. Click the link below and sign a petition at to have “American Diggers” removed from Spike.TV. The Petition is titled Stop Spike.TV from Looting Our Collective Past and it has, at the time of this writing, over 13,000 signatures. It could use yours.

Grave Dowsing?

Survey of possible graveyard site along a highway destined to be four-laned.

What’s a water dowser do when his method is demonstrated time and again to be nonsense on stilts? Turn to dowsing for graves, I suppose. It wasn’t mentioned if the dowser who worked for Mississippi landowner about to lose a strip of pastureland to a new highway project used a forked stick or metal rods, but one thing is clear, he didn’t actually find any graves (click “A Grave Matter” for the story).

But that hasn’t stopped MDOT from sending out a CRM team to clear the area. It’s their due diligence, after all. If all they had to go on was a “dowser’s” word, I would say they should dismiss it out-of-hand and get on with the highway project. Imminent domain can be a pain in the butt when you’re a landowner, but at least he isn’t loosing his home. And the highway addition will benefit the whole of society in his area. Not to mention they probably offered him reasonable compensation.

But since there were some anecdotes from local residents, the CRM survey is the right thing to do (plus, it means some archaeologist are gainfully employed!). The landowner hired an attorney to intercede on his behalf and they’re complaining that the equipment used is a single-antenna GPR (ground-penetrating radar) instead of a dual-antenna.

“The research is pretty clear that the dual-antenna system gives you a better depiction,” the attorney said. “The rules have been changed, so it’s frustrating.”

The dual-antenna is probably nice to have, but not necessary for something as straight-forward as locating graves. The single-antenna GPRs are also called monostatic since they use the same antenna to transmit and receive the electromagnetic (EM) wave, whereas a dual-antenna GPR is considered bistatic since it transmits on one antenna then receives on another. Both have their advantages, the monostatic probably being the easiest and fastest to use. The bistatic GPR works a little slower, but it’s datasets are somewhat smaller and give better resolution. Bistatic is what you want for the precision of locating pipes and cabling under city streets. Monostatic is plenty sufficient to find a few graves. But the CRM team was also using a magnetometer, which could be very useful if gravestones are buried.

That the landowner used the services of a “grave dowser” is laughable, but the response of MDOT and the CRM team to the possibility of genuine cultural resources was appropriate. Particularly since there was some apparent anecdote suggesting an otherwise undocumented graveyard was present as well as some alleged “Indian mounds.” Clearly the landowner is hoping to deflect the project away from his own property.

Bad news mister landowner… if they find a graveyard that isn’t Native American, they’ll very likely just move it. The good news is, major highways are good for picking up cans so there’s a potential opportunity for income!

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SciCulture – A New Site

I’ll still be blogging here, but I’ve also just launched a new site called SciCulture ( and it’s my hope to entice a few new bloggers to make it their home. So if you know anyone that might be interested, have them contact me at cfeagans AT sciculture DOT com.

I’m still working out some of the kinks, but SciCulture will be more or less a hub for science news and discussion. I’m working on some news feeds, but there’s an active discussion forum (The Science Forum) linked as well as an example of the blogs format (WordPress).

Potential bloggers would have their own subdomain that can be linked to directly (eg. and control of their content, style, and ads if they so choose. The only requirement is a sidebar section that links to other SciCulture blogs and the main site.

SciCulture is in the development stage, but I hope to see it grow! Please offer me any suggestions or constructive criticism you might have.

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