Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What has the past done for me lately?

(Note: This is the last in a series of three posts discussing UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion Archaeology project. Previous posts are here and here.)

What faculty at universities should teach and do research on is a fraught topic, especially in these days when the funding states spend on their public universities has come under close scrutiny. I mention this here, not because I want to engage in that larger debate (that’s for the citizens of the state and the legislature to argue over, not me), but because the very field of anthropology (which includes archaeology) has, in recent years, come into question  as to whether its study has public value.

If you’ve been reading these posts, I’m curious -- what do you think?

As someone who writes about university research and academic endeavors, I think that there is no question that anthropology and archaeology are worthwhile endeavors, but I also understand why that might not be obvious to many people outside the realm of university life. The scientific study of the human past seems so… academic. But is it, really?

In the first post I wrote, a North Carolina businessman, university graduate student and supporter named Henry Doss already made a very impassioned argument for the value of the Mount Zion project as a learning experience for our students, so I don’t need to say that again.  There are a lot of other arguments that could be made, but here I’d like to make the most basic one: We can’t understand where we are – the dynamics of our world and the issues that confront us --  unless we also know and understand the events and processes that got us here. As William Faulkner once famously said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives.
Consider Jerusalem. It’s one of the world’s oldest cities and it’s a holy city to three of the world’s great religions, each of which have occupied it and controlled it at various times. These succeeding civilizations have left marks, which remain to this day in sacred monuments and distinct populations in different “quarters”: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. When it wasn’t controlled by a religious interest, the city was also a prize and toy to various empires – Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Muslim (there are several of these), Ottoman, British… and so on to today. It’s a complex history that has not only left its marks in the stones and the streets, but is also still playing out in the politics and the social dynamics of the 21st Century. The issue of Jerusalem and who should control it is not only really important to Israelis and Arabs, but also has global ripples that are reflected in the international news media and even reverberates in American political campaigns.

The diggers at Mount Zion see beneath their shovels the ebb and flow of civilizations, and they are reminded that this is still relevant when they walk through Zion Gate every morning, still pockmarked with fresh bullet holes left when the Israeli Army took the city in 1967, during the Six Day War. They have also felt a connection to the past with the Second Intifada, which prevented their project from really beginning for the long period of 2000 through 2007, and in the violence that flared up again last summer, bringing that year’s excavation to an early end. The issue of who controls the city is still being fought over. In Jerusalem, it is impossible to ignore the past because history is still in process.

Zion Gate in Jerusalem. Note the bullet holes.
But not everyone sees the whole picture the way the archaeologists do, as people tend to rebuild cities and monuments to reflect the primacy of current owners and to tell narratives that support political ends.  The past may not be past, but it’s often half forgotten.

The Mount Zion Project, perhaps, is a useful corrective for that – a kind of truth commission for history.  Once it is completed, the project will have laid bare for all to see 2000 years of history, and the physical signs of all the various peoples that have come, gone … and, in part, remained in the current place.

To this end, Gibson and Tabor are in discussion with local authorities to turn the excavation, once it is completed (in the next couple of years), into an archaeological park that will show tourists and residents the history the dig has uncovered – Jewish houses, Byzantine houses, Muslim houses – their stones in layers, the layers intertwined. In the following video, project director Shimon Gibson talks about this proposal:

Click Here to View Video

So, is archaeology merely academic? Are public understanding and the pursuit of peace academic? I don’t think so. Archaeology is a deep look into the past – a past that shouldn’t be forgotten – a past that really “applies” to today’s world.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What the stones say

(Note: this is the second of three posts about UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion Archaeology Project)

Here’s another reason why the Mount Zion project is “unorthodox archaeology,” as I claimed in the last post: it’s complicated.

OK, this isn't exactly what I mean...
Of course most archaeological excavations are complicated in their own ways, but archaeologists tend to prefer to dig sites where, as they say, “the stratigraphy is undisturbed.” Lay translation: they mean where someone hasn’t re-inhabited the area, dug up the site and mixed up the buried layers of history. Once this happens, it’s a little hard to figure out what goes with what period, because older stuff can end up on top of or in the middle of younger stuff.

Stratigraphy: why we nail tags on dirt walls.
“Undisturbed stratigraphy” unfortunately does not describe the situation in Mount Zion. When your site is in the middle of a city, especially a city that has been inhabited and fought over for three thousand years, there is going to be a little messing with the archaeological record of the site and some churning of the layers of history.  Life has gone on here for a long time, untold struggles have occurred, and, as a result, Jerusalem is very complicated. Mount Zion is too.

So why dig there? Well, there are some good reasons that the usual thinking might miss. Like the stuff that’s there anyway.

Dig director Shimon Gibson notes that the oldest houses in the area were  1st Century houses that were abruptly abandoned when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE because of a Jewish revolt. “The ruined field of 1st Century houses in our area remained there intact up until the beginning of the Byzantine period (early 4th Century),” Gibson said. “When the Byzantine inhabitants built there, they leveled things off a bit but they used the same plan of the older houses, building their walls on top of the older walls.”
Some of the complex jumble of the Mount Zion dig.
Subsequently, the sixth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian contributed further disturbance when he completed the construction of Nea Ekklesia up the hillside from the site. The construction involved the excavation of enormous underground reservoirs and the excavation fill was dumped downhill, burying the more recent Byzantine constructions. But for preservation purposes, this disturbance was actually a good thing.

“The area got submerged, “ Gibson said. “The early Byzantine reconstruction of these two-story Early Roman houses then got buried under rubble and soil fills. Then they established new buildings above it. That’s why we found an unusually well-preserved set of stratigraphic levels.” Even out of chaos comes some order.

But, in fact the situation is still far more complex than that because the area is a hillside – some 1st century structures appear to be at a higher level than some structures that are clearly Byzantine and built five centuries later. “In many places, reverse stratigraphy is going on,” Gibson noted. “There is a hodgepodge of levels.” The site is a complex puzzle of historical levels, reflecting not only a complex history, but a complex topography and complex changes to the landscape.

The whole dig at the end of the 2015 season. Photo: Rachel Ward.
This all might be a problem if analysis depended completely on looking at small objects in the soil, but buildings, of course, can tell us even more than artifacts, and the excavation has uncovered several, some sufficiently intact to give the feeling that the lives of the people who abandoned them are still knowable in the spaces they inhabited.

In one of several structures that appear to be Jewish houses from approximately the time of Jesus, a large underground water supply – a cistern – contained something strange – cooking pots and the remains of an oven, indicating that someone may have been living in the emptied tank. What was going on here remains inconclusive, but the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus mentions Jews hiding from the attacking Roman legionnaires in underground water systems, when the city was besieged and destroyed in 70 CE, so this may be the record of a family’s last days.

1st Century Roman-Jewish bathroom with tub: a
sign of opulence. 
The same structure contained other revealing details. Like many large Jewish houses of the time, the structure contained an underground pool – a mikveh --designed for ceremonial bathing, but unlike all but one other Herodian building ( a palace) that has been excavated in Jerusalem, this mikveh also had an attached entry room with a carved bathtub for pre-ceremonial cleaning. This unusual feature, the team believes, was an extravagant add-on, a sign of the fairly extreme wealth of the inhabitants. Intriguingly also found in the structure were a large number of shells of the murex sea-snail – the source of the famous Tyrian purple dye (“imperial purple”), an expensive luxury commodity. Since sea snails are not creatures native to the mountains of Jerusalem, this implies that the inhabitants may have been involved in supplying luxury products.

In other words, the building provides a glimpse into “the lifestyles of the rich and famous” (or at least of the rich) of Jewish society in Jesus’s Jerusalem.  Other houses on the site from other periods – Byzantine, Muslim -- may divulge other telling details of the personal and domestic lives of the people who inhabited them. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, O the stories stones can tell.

A shell of the Murex sea snail,
the source of Imperial Purple dye.
We may never know specifically who those inhabitants were, or whether or not they were famous people from history, so why do these details matter?  Gibson points out that in most cases, all we know about history are the major events and the famous people, but we really know very little about life was actually like in the surrounding worlds of the times.

“In the case of the Muslim history of Jerusalem, we know about the mosques and madrassas, but we hardly know anything about the daily life,” Gibson said. “Here in this site we have three superimposed levels, belonging to the Umayyads (7th to mid 8th Centuries) Abbasids (mid-8th to 9th Centuries) and Fatimids (9th to 11th Centuries) which allow us to reconstruct the cultural life in the houses from these periods.”

What we see at Mount Zion, more than we do at the usual excavations of royal palaces and temples and grand public buildings, is evidence of the lives of real people. We see the lives of many real peoples, in fact, whose times overlapped and replaced each other. The site shows us a history, but it’s the intricate history of life, not just a neat summation of major events, generals and rulers.

This jumble of ruins is messy and confusing – like real life – but it may have more to say to us than what we usually get from the usual stories of the past. It’s complicated, and only time and more digging and analysis will tell us all it has to say.

(Next post: What has the past done for me lately?)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Applied Research

(Note: this is the first in a series of three blog posts about UNC Charlotte's Mount Zion Archaeology Project.)

I know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t about that. There are no stories forthcoming in this post about new nanoparticles that will allow some company to make better solar cells, or molecular biology that is going to lead to a new way to attack cancer and maybe make a pharmaceutical company a lot of money.

We're not in this for the money. This time.

 Not that that kind of research isn’t important stuff, but what I’m writing about here is important too. I’m writing about archaeology. Unorthodox archaeology at that.

Getting hooked on unorthodox archaeology and why 750-year-old fishbones matter. Photo by Rafi Lewis.

I’ll forgive you if you don’t think archaeology is as important a research topic as discovering compound to cure cancer or build a faster circuit. If you think that, you have a lot of company. And how in the world, you’re thinking, can archaeology be “applied”? But please allow me to try to show to you why that kind of “applied thinking” might be a little wrong.

I just got back from a trip to Jerusalem, where I got a chance to visit UNC Charlotte’s Mount Zion project, the only American-university-led archaeological excavation currently licensed in the city of Jerusalem by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  The excavation at Mount Zion has been going on since 2007, and I’ve written about it before, back in 2013, when some interesting discoveries were made. This time, I went not only to look at new discoveries, but also to participate in the dig itself, which was a new experience for me, though I have visited many other archaeological sites in my career as a science writer. This dig is a little different from any of the other digs I’ve written about, and I thought I needed to participate.  I was right.

The dig at Mount Zion, Jerusalem, following the 2015 season. Photo: Rachel Ward

How is this archaeological dig different? Well, to begin with, most archaeological “investigations” (as an archaeologist would call a project) are more “focused” in their goals than this one is. Generally, in order for an archaeologist to mount a major excavation, they need to first get funding to pay for materials, to pay for the dig staff, to pay working expenses in some far away locale. To get funding, archeologists need to get grants, and funding agencies don’t tend to give money to a scientist who says “I think I’ve found an interesting piece of ground, and I want to dig into in and see what is down there.” Instead, funders want a specific goal – a specific important ruin that has just been located and/or no one has ever investigated before or a specific scientific question (“what was the domestic economy of 13th Century Zuni village life based on?”) that needs to be answered.  They want an archaeological investigation to be a lot like a scientific experiment, with a specific phenomenon to be explored or a specific hypothesis to be answered.

 The Mount Zion dig is not like that and is not funded like that – it has been funded by small grants from the university and relatively small, private donations from donors – many of whom have come and volunteered to work on the dig.  This gives the excavators the freedom to cast a wider net. And the dig has been able to make extensive progress over the last seven years working on a shoestring budget because many participants in the effort paid their own way to the site and volunteered their labor – often a lot of hard, dirty labor.

Ah, the glamor of archaeology! (Note the sweat stains.)

 Mount Zion is really different because it is not a targeted exploration of a known set of ruins nor the testing of some sort of anthropological question. Instead it started from very basic historical premises and as a kind of research gamble.

At the beginning, the project -- as conceived by UNC Charlotte Visiting Professor of history Shimon Gibson, a widely respected middle eastern archaeologist, and Professor of Religious Studies James Tabor -- was to explore a couple of acres of vacant land in the old city of Jerusalem (where there is virtually no vacant land and almost everything is some kind of historical structure that can’t be disturbed) on a steep hillside between the Ottoman-built city wall and a modern roadway.

At the project’s start no one really knew what the excavation would find. When Gibson and Tabor first received a license to excavate from the Israeli Antiquities Authority in 2000, they began to get an inkling of the potential of the site, but full-scale operations did not begin until 2007, due to political tensions and unrest in the city. At that time, the information regarding the area was sketchy but tantalizing.

The site was a vacant strip of land that a renowned Israeli historian and archaeologist named Magen Broshi had probed at in the 1970’s as part of a large series of digs he was doing, surveying what might lie buried just beyond the city’s 16th Century Turkish walls. Broshi’s findings were unpublicized, but Gibson had observed the excavations as a child and remembered that some ruins of buildings had been partially uncovered. Though the site’s contents were unknown, Gibson and Tabor suspected that it might contain something important.  “It may look like a vacant out-of-the-way spot in our time, but Jerusalem and its walls have shifted around over the millennia,” noted Tabor. “Back in the time of Jesus, this was at the center of things.” Note that it was a strong knowledge of history, not the presence of some specific data, like a stone wall, that led them to the site – knowledge matters.

They didn’t know what they might find, but they knew they would find something significant. One goal the excavators did have was to explore the wealth of history left by the wealth of cultures that have controlled the city over the last 2000 years, and this rare, abandoned piece of ground in the old city promised to offer some record of that. And so they dug… and found a lot.

Sorting a few of the thousands and thousands of potsherds
from the site. Photo: Rachel Ward.

 It turns out that the site is packed with physical evidence of Jerusalem’s rich history. “We have found material on this site from every historical period from the Herodian Roman through the Byzantine, from the Umayyads through the Crusaders,  from the Ayyubids through the Ottomans,” Gibson noted. Though there are not any plans to dig deeper, the team has also found some even older material from the late Iron Age.

Peeling it back, layer by layer, the site has been a living history book. This year, digging in an area being supervised by UNC Charlotte graduate student Kevin Caldwell and his staff (a diverse group of students, staff, retirees, Charlotte friends and donors) found in the sweat-moistened dust evidence of a once-prosperous market from the time of Saladin (potsherds, coins, fish bones, hooks, clam shells)… then, immediately below that, evidence of occupying Crusaders (pork bones, northern European horseshoe nails) and signs of fighting (pieces of metal from belts that got ripped off in physical struggle).

When you participate in this dig, you can literally touch historical events as your hands clear away the dirt and go deeper and deeper in time.

Kevin Caldwell (far left) and his excavation team in early July. Also in this photo: Henry Doss (back row, third from left) and UNC Charlotte Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Nancy Gutierrez (black shirt, center front) Photo: Rachel Ward
The nearly constant discovery of finds like these are what drive the volunteer workers to work so hard and to keep coming back. It’s thrilling, but more than that, it’s meaningful, as they see the complex history of the city and its many conflicts – conflicts that are still going on today – being revealed under their feet. You understand Jerusalem when you get to touch its depth. Just ask Henry Doss, one of Kevin’s volunteer workers and a Charlotte area entrepreneur who has com to Mount Zion now for several dig seasons.

“Archaeology is about 95% digging dirt and carrying buckets full of dirt and emptying them,” said Doss. “It’s hot and dirty and dusty and tiring. But it’s also part of a process of accumulating, and understanding and learning about this region and its people and its history. “

Doss muses: “It’s difficult to explain how this kind of aggregates over time. So if you look around and see dirt and dust, you see one thing, but the experience -- the total experience of being here -- is really a magical thing. You have this profound sense of place and time. I am absolutely convinced that this kind of experience, especially for young people, undergraduates and graduate students, is one of the most important things they can possibly do.

UNC Charlotte student Brijesh Kishan
Photo: Rachel Ward
“And it’s important in a number of dimensions. Number one is coming to a place like this and participating in this work is a wonderful exercise in leadership development.  Probably the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in leadership development all of my adult life. Students who come here learn to make decisions, they learn how to discern things, they learn how to think in certain ways. They learn how to interact with other people and they learn about history and culture. They have a really, really deep sense of place and time by being here... It’s priceless, absolutely priceless.”

And so, this unorthodox project has unorthodox results, but perhaps better research results than you would expect. By not looking for something specific, the excavation at Mount Zion has found something perhaps more important, more interesting, more relevant… and really useful. It’s applied research – and learning the researchers themselves can apply. If you doubt that, come to the dig next year and see for yourself.

(Next post: What the stones say.)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Into The Hood: A Coyote Story

 Into the Hood: A Coyote Story
Kristina Drye

            Throughout history, there have been various “sightings” that have become infamous. Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, for example, or Bigfoot in the Himalayas. Along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, however, the most common creature sightings are of coyotes. Stuart Wine, Sara Gagne, and Ross Meetemeyer have completed a study that uses citizen science as a means of more accurately tracking the relationship between urban ecosystems and coyote encounters.

In the past, most coyote science has been completed using information on coyote environments and traditional methods like radiotelemetry (a measurement using radio waves from a remote device to gather information). This study is different in that it uses socioeconomic data and citizen science to draw conclusions about human0coyote encounters.
Citizen science is exactly what it sounds like- everyday citizens’ reported observations about their environment. Using public reports of coyote sightings in addition to US Census data tracking building density, household income, educational attainment, and occupation, Wine et. al concluded that the use of citizen science and socioeconomic data in addition to the traditional methods proved highly effective in drawing more detailed conclusions of human-coyote encounters.

Building density, household income, and occupation had a positive influence on the probability of a human-coyote encounter. Coyotes preferred areas with golf courses and large forested parks, which tend to be located in areas of high human densities, high incomes, and high educational attainment. In addition, high building densities mean that there is a higher probability of a human seeing a coyote and thus reporting it. It was hypothesized that higher income and human-coyote interactions were positively correlated because those with higher incomes tend to have more manicured lawns and available resources (gardens, pools, shrubbery, tree cover, etc.) for coyotes.
Though this study offers new insights into the body of information available on human-coyote interactions, perhaps more important is the implications it offers for the use of citizen science as a resource for scientific studies. Though this study suggests that citizen science is highly important and useful for academic work and science that relies on observation, it also suggests that studies shouldn’t rely on citizen science alone. Firstly, citizen science is accompanied by many methodological challenges, including but not limited to observer quality, accuracy of observer recollection, and variation in sampling, all three of which have the potential to result in study error and bias.

 Secondly, the abundance of citizen science data available might not be representative so much of the species in question as it is representative of the number of humans observing them. For example, in a highly dense area, there may be ten reported coyote sightings but all ten individuals are seeing the same coyote, as opposed to a less densely populated area that has three reported coyote sightings, but all three are of different coyotes.
These caveats should not deter scientists from using available citizen data, but it should bring awareness to both the advantages and disadvantages of using citizen science, in addition to sparking discussions on how best to mitigate the negative effect the disadvantages pose.