Saturday, February 28, 2009

Smithsonian exhibit: Written in Bone

I'm thinking ahead to my Spring break in a couple of weeks. I might make it down to Washington, D.C., to see this exhibit at the Smithsonian, among other things.

From the Smithsonian web site:
James Fort skeleton. Image courtesy of Chip Clark

Written in Bone examines history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists teetering on the edge of survival at Jamestown, Virginia, and those living in the wealthy and well-established settlement of St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

The forensic investigation of human skeletons provides intriguing information on people and events of America's past. No other inanimate objects make us feel the same passionate curiosity as the remains of once-living, breathing individuals like us. And nothing else can answer our questions in quite the same ways.


The exhibit is there until February, 2011. If I go, I'll let you know what I think.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lucy, our Australopithecus ancestor

I had somehow missed that Lucy, a 3 million year old australopithecene, had been on tour in the U.S. She's been at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and now she is at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In the meantime, she stooped off at the University of Texas for a high resolution computer tomography scan as part of the Digital Morphology project. Listen to a story about the scan at NPR. Her visit has not been without controversy, as concerns have been raised about her fragility. And ticket sales have been lagging. Maybe because of the $20 price tag in these slightly challenging economic times? Now future stops on her planned 6-year sojourn in the U.S. remain unclear.

Bob Walter, a colleague who helped do the Ar-Ar dating on the rocks around Lucy, recently gave a guest lecture on that project in my Archaeometry course. What an exciting combination of paleoanthropology and geochronology!

Have a look at Lucy's jawbone in 3D:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yes we can! SAS to elect new Vice President

Every two years SAS has an election for a new Vice President. That person becomes President after two years. At this year's business meeting at the Society for American Archaeology meeting, President Thilo Rehren will step down, and current Vice President Sandra López Varela will take over as our new President. In the meantime, we are due to elect a new Vice President. We plan to have a slate ready for consideration by our members in mid-March. Please let us know if you have suggestions for whom we might consider.

Our officers have the opportunity to forge new directions for our organization. You can read the official responsibilities in our by-laws at the SAS web site.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Get ready for summer field work

Looking for a field opportunity for the summer?
Or do you have one to post? Visit the Archaeological
Institute of America's:
AFOB Online - Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin.

"AFOB online continues to be one of the foremost fieldwork resources. There are over 250 listings for archaeological projects around the world. Each AFOB listing features a project profile window with icons to provide information on the size of the project, age requirements, and academic credit availability. The listings continue to provide in-depth descriptions of the projects and accommodations, as well as bibliographies and other detailed information."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AAAS session - Casting New Light on Ancient Secrets

This session was held yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

"In many cases, our knowledge of the past has had to wait for technological advances to provide the tools required to learn more about the origins of life and ancient history. Today, the fascinating secrets of our ancient world are being uncovered with the assistance of state-of-the-art, nondestructive, X-ray techniques. This symposium presents an insight into the capabilities of the many light source research facilities located around the world in relation to archaeology, palaeontology, and anthropology. Samples that are being studied are wide-ranging and include fossil primates and hominins, Peruvian mummy teeth dating from the early 1500s, T. rex dinosaur remains, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, priceless irreplaceable works of art, and 10th century parchment never seen before in modern times. In the case of parchment, the experiments cannot only help with the conservation of the documents, but can also reveal text that has, until now, been hidden from modern society. Anthropologists are interested in what ancient people ate, and archaeologists are on the hunt for the oldest collagen on the planet. International researchers will share their latest discoveries and explain their research aspirations for the future." (Picture: the Archimedes Palimpsest)

Symposium Organizer--Silvana Damerell, Diamond Light Source, Didcot, United Kingdom
Symposium Co-Organizer--Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke, Diamond Light Source, Didcot, United Kingdom
Moderator--Murray Gibson, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL
  1. New Light on Ancient Secrets: An Overview--Ernest Fontes, Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, Ithaca, NY
  2. Archimedes Palimpsest: Reading the Unreadable--Uwe Bergmann, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, Stanford, CA
  3. 21st Century Science Helps Tell Story of Early Chinese Dynasties--Francesca Casadio, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  4. Imaging Fossils To Reveal the History of Life on Our Planet--Paul Tafforeau, European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, Grenoble, France
  5. Gentle Giant To Answer the Unanswerable--Jen Hiller, Diamond Light Source, Didcot, United Kingdom
  6. Advancing Detectors To Peek at the Past--Pete Siddons, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day, archaeometrists

My photo from the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church, Rome

Thursday, February 12, 2009

AAAS Meeting, Chicago, Feb. 12-16: We are what we have eaten?

"Piecing together relationships between the diets of hominids several million years ago to that of early and modern humans is allowing scientists to see how diet relates to the evolution of cognitive abilities, social structures, locomotion and even disease, said University of Colorado at Boulder anthropology Professor Matt Sponheimer. Sponheimer organized a session titled 'The Evolution of Human Diets'" (Eureka Alerts).

I have never been to a AAAS meeting, even though they always sound so interesting. But after all those geophysics, geology, archaeometry, and archaeology meetings, well, there's not enough time or money. Anyway, at the meeting coming up this week, here are some archaeometrically oriented sessions:
  • The Evolution of Human Diets (podcast)
  • Visualizing Earth: Teaching Geoscience Using New Technologies
  • Beyond the Beagle: Evolutionary Approaches to the Study of Social Behavior
  • The Origin of the Human Species
  • The Future of U.S. Accelerator Science
  • Genetics Meets Anthropology: How DNA Unravels the Roots of Human Society
  • Climate and Disease: Quantitative Insights and Interdisciplinary Challenges
  • Origins of Complex Societies in Primates and Humans
  • Internationalization of Science: Looking Ahead
  • Svante Pääbo, A Neanderthal Perspective on Human Origins (plenary lecture)
  • Casting New Light on Ancient Secrets
And tons of stuff on global change!
From the AAAS web site.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Measuring radioactive decay

Ellery Frahm made a good comment on the last entry. Measuring radioactive decay is a great way to help students understand radiometric dating, not to mention data collection, graphing, and analysis. I do have a lab with my archaeometry course, and we will be doing an activity in two weeks on radioactive decay. We use an isotope generator made by Spectrum Techniques, which generates a low-level radioactive 137Ba isotope, which has a half-life of just under 3 minutes. The emitted gamma rays may be readily detected using a Geiger-Muller or scintillation radiation detector.

Below are some of my test results.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching radioactive decay

In my archaeometry class, I am getting ready to do several lectures on radiocarbon and potassium-argon dating. This applet isn't bad for a starter:
Run it yourself!

But it seems like there ought to be some better animations/simulations/applets out there.

What are your favorite teaching aids for radioactivity?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Michael Phelps and cannabis - proud upholder of our human heritage

So, Michael Phelps was busted for partying with a bong. (Disclaimer: As for cannabis and me, I have to admit, I'm with Obama on this one.) I think Michael should have proudly proclaimed his connection with his human paleo-ethno-botanical heritage. According to the study below, humans have been enjoying this plant's effects for almost three millennia. That's even older than the Olympics! At right: Photomicrograph of 2700-year old Central Asian cannabis leaf fragment, showing retention of chlorophyll and green color. Below: front page of article from Journal of Experimental Biology (click for larger image).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Archaeometry teaching tip: tree-ring dating

This week I started several weeks of labs on dating methods in my undergraduate archaeometry class. For tree-ring dating, I like using the skeleton-plotting exercise from the University of Arizona Tree-Ring Research Laboratory's web pages. You can start with a good overview of the method, and then go on to Try Skeleton Plotting for Yourself! You get a cool Java applet which generates a tree-ring "sample" for you to work with, a master chronology to match against, and the chance to peek at the Answer. You can make your life tough if you want to by including missing or double rings.

Click above for larger image


Try it for yourself. What do you think? Do you know of other useful online resources, especially applets, for teaching archaeometry?