I’d like to bring your attention to this post by my colleague and friend Annemieke exploring who does the research in experimental archaeology, and why many conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt since they’re studying crafts performed by laypersons and not skilled craftspeople.
We took a few trips outside Limassol to see archaeological sites and beaches. We were always told where we were going rather late in the game, with little information about anything and no real time to look them up (especially after I ran out of mobile data).
The first weekend, I went with a few students to Amathous, an archaeological site about 20 minutes east of our apartment (reachable by the beach road bus, #30). Entry was €2.50 (the standard for all archaeological sites there), and a series of informational placards gave us details about Cyprus’ being the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, and the history of Aphrodite worship in the area, featuring images of Aphrodite figures from many eras. A second set of placards described the excavation by a French team in the 1960s-70s. The site itself was a large city, the extent of which could be seen from the Acropolis set on a hill above town. It had a well-preserved agora, a central road leading into town, and domestic areas built towards the hill. The Acropolis had the remains of medium-size temple with some absolutely massive stone vases, and in addition to the town, we could see the submerged remains of the ancient port. On the way down, I had the realization that the site was presented in a very midcentury manner: all the information was architectural, with no details on the people who lived there (or even the artifacts). Very “observe the wonders the ancients built!” without considering who built them or why. In light of the port, I’d expect there to be extensive evidence of overseas trade, but that wasn’t even mentioned.
Our first group trip was to Paphos, an hour to the west. The first archaeological site was the Tomb of the Kings, a Hellenistic-era mortuary site. The tombs consist of natural rock superstructures with chambers carved into them, and sometimes columns and other architectural features. It had a splendid view overlooking the sea and could be described as “low-budget Petra”. I can’t really tell you anything else, because of the paucity of information available at the site. After the tenth rock-cut tomb with a basic sign indicating its number and an architectural drawing, I decided I was hot and bored. Who were these people? The entrance sign stated they were actually wealthy people rather than kings, but where was the evidence? Were they buried with grave goods? Jewelry? Were the tombs reused over the years? Were they covered over at any point?
Next we went to the old port to have lunch and see Old Town Paphos, another site. I mistakenly decided to eat lunch first and to visit the castle (really more of a small fortress which is currently hosting a photographic exhibition), leaving only half an hour to see Old Town. It turns out that this site, while still just as low-info as the previous two, had massive mansions built by Roman governors with really impressive mosaics. The houses were destroyed in an earthquake, preserving the floors. One house built around a central courtyard had mosaics in almost every room, with realistic human and animal figures depicting scenes from mythology and complex geometric patterns. It was still a shame that there was no indication what any of the rooms were (usually judged by their location and what artifacts were found in them), as Roman homes often used mosaic themes to echo a room’s purpose. Having more description beyond the artistic/aesthetic would really make the ancient world come alive. I know site managers with the bottom line in mind will argue that people are already visiting the site and enjoying it for its great preservation and stunning views. The site has a 4-star rating on Google. But: wouldn’t it be nice if those visitors actually knew what they were looking at, and left with a greater understanding of the place of Cyprus in the Roman world? Or had an insight into the ancient mind?
On the way home, we stopped at Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach with rocky towers within swimming distance of the shore. One of them, purported to be the place Aphrodite was born from the seafoam (Zeus’ sperm), is said to have the power to unite people with their true love if they swim around it. I have a strong inclination that this is a tourist attraction and a modern (heteronormative, traditionally romantic) belief; in Greek the same feature is called Roman Rock. Anyway, I like a challenge and the water looked amazingly inviting after a long day in the sun, so I swam around it declaring “I can have many true loves of any gender!” There was also a much bigger rock that we saw people jumping off of. It took some effort to clamber out of the water and up the side; only once I got to the top did I find out that the other side had a much easier way up. I also remembered that I’m actually quite scared of jumping from heights and had to have three students swim around and coax me into jumping.
In the first few weeks, I was connected to some local performance artists through my friend Sara in London. Elena and her partner Emmidio, after finding out that I was in their town and friendless, collected me and took me to a concert in Nicosia, the capital. It was an evening of dedicated to Cyprus’ first electronic artist, and his pieces were recreated both using synthesizers and by a string quartet. I’d never before thought of electronic music as something that could be recreated live note-by-note, and this was absolutely fascinating. The performance was in an Ottoman-era courtyard, and as the sun set the music was accompanied by bats swooping and cats scampering. Elena also invited me to a music festival she was hosting at a reservoir in the mountains. It was an evening of ambient electronic music called The Gathering, featuring an opening didgeridoo meditation, visualizer art projected onto white sheets, and pillows on the sloping edge of a ravine so we could lie down while listening. (My favorite! No need to dance for hours!) The second night (and apparently third and fourth) was a rave, but I couldn’t stay for that long. The day after, I went to the Cyprus Archaeological Museum in Nicosia, which was much larger than it appeared from the outside. It was presented in the “cultural-historical” framework, investigating cultural change through the successive waves of seafaring inhabitants. The star exhibits were a recreation of a tomb containing over 1000 statues of gods and an impressive jewelry collection showing stylistic change over the centuries.
Our second trip was to the north side. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided into north (east) and south (west); the north calls itself the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, but the south doesn’t quite agree. In between is the green zone, where nobody can live because it’s contested. I’m by no means an expert on the division, but basically as the British were leaving, the two ethnic groups on Cyprus (Greeks and Turks) had to decide what to do. Some Greek Cypriots supported a return to Greek authority, others supported self-rule. Cyprus was an independent country encompassing the entire island from 1960-1974, when Turkish forces invaded, a coup was staged, and war broke out. At the end of it, the country was divided roughly in half; currently, the north is economically depressed but has the good beaches, and the south has just made it out of poverty in the last 15 years. A friend of Elena’s told me that only recently have people been able to eat meat regularly, within her lifetime – meat being an indicator of wealth, as it costs more and uses more resources to produce. Anyway, we drove up to the border and handed in all our passports. Ten minutes went by. Twenty. Xenia got back on the bus and informed us there was a problem – three “unusual stamps” on our passports, from Somalia, Qatar, and Jordan. I am completely convinced, based on my experience with border crossings, that the people who work there take the job because they get to exert supreme authority with no actual regard for rules. I’ve had border guards confiscate food (but only snack food) because it was “not allowed”, had an entire car searched, and been held because they didn’t like the look of us. Turkey has diplomatic relations with Jordan and Qatar, so there’s no way those were an actual reason to stop us. Their goal seemed to be getting us to hire a “guide” to escort us around. So we had to wait a while for our guide to come and meet us. It turns out she was a lovely older lady called Jancal, a social worker who had recently trained as a guide.
We first stopped at the archaeological site of Salamis, another Hellenistic-Roman site. It had a colonnaded road to the sea, a rebuilt theatre, and a huge bath complex adjacent to the agora. Seriously, you could’ve fit 40 people into the caldarium. Much respect for that bath. Also near the agora was a 20-seater latrine. Still no site interpretation. Next we went to Famagusta (Ammachoustos), another port city with Venetian walls and a building called Othello’s Castle. While there wasn’t a real Othello, Shakespeare based the character on the Venetian ruler XXX, and in subsequent centuries the castle was renamed after the fictional equivalent. The town has streets of warehouses that are now tourist shops and a tasty Turkish patisserie where we had goat milk ice cream that was strangely impervious to melting. The street looked familiar, and I recalled that the 1964 film “Exodus” had been filmed there – a re-watch online showed the same street, but filled with British army vehicles, boxes of produce, and fish. The town also has a Gothic church converted into a mosque, with gorgeous asymmetrical stone cutouts in place of windows, allowing a filtering of light and a cool breeze. Finally, we went to the beach at Famagusta. Before we got off the bus, Xenia warned us: “The west side has barbed wire going into the ocean. This is the green zone. Beyond it are abandoned apartments. Do not take pictures, do no go near, do not try to cross the border, or you will be shot. Have fun!” These are the buildings that had to be evacuated in the war, and they have not yet been cleared as they’re in no-man’s land. There’s about a mile of beachfront condos with peeling paint, windows blown out, left to the elements – apparently one of the few people to get clearance to visit was the author or “The Earth Without Us”, for research purposes.
Our third excursion, also to the north, was to the Castle of St Hilarion and Kyrenia. This time we drove through the border at Nicosia and had no problems. On the south face of the mountains just north of the city are massive flags made of painted rocks – one of the Turkish flag and one of the TRNC flag – clearly visible from the city, just so you know what’s what. As the bus climbed higher into the mountains, my sinuses felt worse and worse. We reached the pinnacle of a mountain overlooking the sea with St Hilarion perched on top and had an hour to explore. It was built in Lusignan and Venetian times, and is stretched over the ridge of a few mountaintops. While attempting to maintain the necessary bits to indicate “castle” – keep, quarters, kitchens, courtyard, walls – it struggles to maintain them all in the usual post-medieval order due to the terrain, making it a fascinating obstacle course of stairs and narrow, angled chambers and steep cliffs (for the closest imaginable fictional representation, it’s the Aerie in Game of Thrones). We saw a goat inside at one point. We drove down the mountain to Kyrenia Castle, which was more of a portside fortress, with sloping ramps for troops rolling cannons and a moat and drawbridge. There wasn’t much information about the castle, but we had a good walk around the walls and then ice cream outside.
Finally, the last weekend my friend Cynthia was in town and we went to visit the archaeological site of Kourion. It was also easy to get to by public bus (the #16B from Limassol Bus Station), although we forgot to push the stop button and were dropped off at the beach instead. After realizing our mistake (and having beach lunch) we began the hike uphill to the site. I decided it’d be quicker to hitchhike instead of walking in the hot sun, so I stuck out my thumb and were soon picked up by some beach visitors going home, who graciously dropped us off at the top of the hill (maybe a 2km walk). The whole site, spanning the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods, is on a hill overlooking the sea and some dramatic cliffs. The reconstructed theatre is still in use, and can seat up to XXX for performances of music and traditional Greek drama. The site has a few well-preserved houses and mosaics, the best-interpreted of which was destroyed by an earthquake, killing the family inside and their donkey. It is an unfortunate fact of archaeology that the fastest devastation leaves us with the best picture of ancient life. Afterwards, thoroughly sun-blasted, we walked back down to the beach to cool our feet and wait for the bus.
Overall, the sites in Cyprus suffered from a lack of interpretation. While there must be differences in finds and interpretation between Amathous, Salamis, and Kourion, as it stands the only difference presented is the scenery. I’d be hard pressed to tell you why each of them is special and worth a visit. I did feel like Cyprus lacks a strong identity, both in archaeology and in my daily interaction with culture. In Greece, Egypt, and Israel, (the latter two of which you can see on a clear day!) you know where you are. They are proud of their heritage, and sites are presented thoroughly, if idiosyncratically. Cyprus has an interesting archaeological history as it’s in the middle of a number of Mediterranean cultures, and obviously has strong feelings about land and heritage. But I didn’t get a sense of what Cyprus is all about. I’m not sure if this was a result of my not moving in the right circles, talking to the right people, having so little free time to explore, so much Western influence (almost all the mall shops and restaurants were American or British brands), or the inevitable tourist tat takeover. I did find the Cypriots (and immigrants to Cyprus) I talked to friendly, giving, open, and argumentative. But unlike Greece, where every other sentence is about how great Greece is, nobody was really stressing what Cyprus has going for it.
Finally, I didn’t get to talk to many people about the north. Compared to other divided places I’ve been, nobody really piped up about it. I found a few posters and graffiti in Nicosia indicating that the north is an occupation, not a legitimate country, but I wasn’t expecting the plaque in the departure hall of Larnaca airport. It was a piece of wall art from the Nicosia airport, abandoned since 1974, with an interactive display of photos of the airport. It was nothing special, really – another modernist architectural piece from the early 60s – but the display mourned its loss, remarking that “the north part of Cyprus still remains under impermanent Turkish occupation.” Perhaps there’s an undercurrent I didn’t pick up on.
I have spent the last six weeks half in charge of a field school and set of osteological training programs in Cyprus. It has been a massive effort, particularly since I’ve had bronchitis for the past four weeks. Needless to say, I am completely burned out.
On the plus side, I have a job for this year – I’ll be a Visiting Lecturer at Glyndwr University, which is coordinating a distance MRes in Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology. The program starts in January, and I’ll be coordinating classes, teaching, and supervising masters’ dissertations. Some of my students this summer will be my supervisees, so I’ll get to guide their projects.
The first week and a half were the Human Remains Training Certificate. I taught a bunch of undergrad and masters students, mostly American, about bioarchaeology and osteology, and was joined in the second week by Elzbieta, a Polish lecturer who specializes in cremains (cremated human remains). She was absolutely great, and gave me pdfs of all her cracked editions of osteology books and lectures to re-appropriate for my own teaching. She also taught me the Polish word “prowizorka”,which refers to things that shouldn’t last a long time but do, like my $2.50 flip flops that I’ve used since 2009.
The next three weeks were the field school, in which we excavated a commingled pit in Limassol’s historic cemetery. In this culture, family tombs are rented long-term. When a family leaves the area or doesn’t pay, the residents of the tomb were evicted and put in a secondary mass grave. The pit is enclosed on all sides by concrete walls and unshaded, so we had to work in shifts and take frequent breaks. Aside from the Jackson Park project in Chicago (2009), this is the closest I’ve ever worked to toilets and cafes. We woke up at 5 and took a local bus in to site, arriving by 6:30. We’d take levels, then dig with haste until 8:30, at which time the students would go to Coffee Island for snacks and air conditioning while I’d start off a map. We’d then work again until around 11, or whenever it got too hot. Napping students were frequently seen lazing over graves, often covered in cats.
We had an abundance of cats on site. Cyprus holds cats to be sacred, apparently, and there’s a legend that Constantine’s mother Helena sent a delegation of cats to conquer Cyrpus’ snake problem. There’s even a monastery dedicated to cats. The cemetery has a huge population, and people come by with kittens they’ve found (or want to abandon). A few locals feed them and provide veterinary care occasionally. We named a few – Dreamsicle the orange and white kitten, Mama the pregnant one, and Skitty the shy one. One morning, a student heard mewling and went to investigate. She found two dead kittens, less than a week old, in a flower pot and their sibling clinging to life a few feet away. She and the other students took it to the vet and got some kitten formula and a box and took it home to feed in shifts. We named it Bean. Unfortunately Bean was just too young to survive without its mother and died after two days between feeds, and we buried him in a park. I buried three kittens this summer.
It took us a week and a half to get down about 50cm, when we started seeing bones. After that, it was all bones all the time, which meant we had to proceed carefully. Fortunately, the bones were in no particular order, and seemed to be random collections of long bones and skulls. This is really exciting for the students, and also quite easy to lift compared to complete primary burials. By the end of the season we’d excavated so deep that stepping into the trench required three points of contact, and getting to the other side to work in the test pit was a mission. We developed some great bucket chains to get the dirt out. This was the first time I’d been completely in charge of a site as opposed to a grunt or a specialist, which was slightly nerve-wracking at first. I tried to balance wanting to be in control of everything to make sure it’s right, teaching techniques, and managing everyone being hot and tired. Some days scorched over 90, and the humidity made us feel sticky even in the shade. There was no breeze on site.
At noon, we’d have lunch delivered by a lady from the local church, usually a pasta or veggie stew, which we’d eat voraciously with the addition of lemon juice and salt. On days when there were bean dishes, I’d go to a cafeteria-like restaurant around the corner that offered a weird mix of Cypriot foods like bamia and lamb kleftiko alongside Asian fried noodles. In the second week, we discovered our closest bakery. Bakeries here smell completely different than French or British bakeries. Greek bread isn’t very fluffy, and for whatever reason, the baking doesn’t produce the hearthy bread smell. The bakeries are also “zacharopoleios”, or sugarworks, meaning they make cookies. These cookies were some of the more amazing I’ve had. I mostly had jam-filled biscuits or the local homemade Oreo, which I used to bribe students to complete unpleasant tasks. The bakery also had selections of hors d’oeuvres-size spanakopita and tiropita and other savory delights, a few of which would make a decent lunch.
Unfortunately, in the second week I started to cough. It started as a reaction to the dust. It got worse with the humidity, particularly at night. We didn’t have air conditioning in the flat; really, we had AC units but no remotes for them, for no particular reason. We were still waking up at 5 and digging as fast as we could before we were hit by direct sunlight, but we (I) began to get progressively more tired and grumpy. I did find that I coughed less in the café and the gym, both air conditioned spaces.
By week 3, we’d found a large number of bones and opened a subsidiary trench. We then connected that to the main trench, forming a Tetris T-shaped hole. Mapping was slow going, as there were many elements to place, and I wanted every student to get mapping experience. I continued to cough throughout. Later in the week, I approached our building manager to ask why we didn’t have AC. “It wasn’t included in your program rental agreement,” he said. “But you can pay for it separately.” At last! We had a beautifully cold night, waking up fresh and rested. We were positively glowing. My cough seemed to abate. We closed the site and backfilled Wednesday of the final week, but didn’t have enough time to process and catalog the bones, so they’ll have to wait for next year.
The final two weeks were the Advanced Paleopathology course, with a new influx of students. Our Canadian undergraduates left and were replaced by mostly British postgrads and more advanced researchers seeking professional development. I was able to teach on some of my favorite topics (epidemiology, untangling sex and gender and the interplay of socialization and biology, the history infectious disease), and gave quite a long lecture on tuberculosis while coughing. My cough continued to get worse as I had no time to rest and recover, and the students told me I needed to see a doctor. Our director told me there was basically no way to do that besides going to the hospital, so that’s what I did.
Of course, I do enjoy being a participant-observer in a medical anthropology experience. I arrived at 11:30 and struggled to figure out what to do. I followed some other people who had just entered to a triage station, where the nurse explained I should have gone to the local clinic, and I explained why I couldn’t (no local referral). I then went to the registrar, who didn’t care that I forgot my passport, and had me write down my name and address and pay 10€. It was all a bit run-down, but I’ve been in worse. Then I sat and waited. The wait was ok, as I’d brought lunch, snacks, tea, and my laptop, and there was even WiFi. Occasionally a name was called. Sometimes people would get up and go in without their name being called. At 4, I was called in. The doctor took me behind a curtain on the triage room, where other people were being seen to, and listened to my lungs. She asked if I smoke. When I said I didn’t, she made a face of grave concern, handed me a pink form, and said “go to x-ray.” I followed the signs and found the radiology department completely abandoned and shuttered. There wasn’t even anyone to ask if the radiologists were on break. I sat down and texted my supervisor, Xenia, who at that point had finished teaching, and she said she’d come see what was going on. When she arrived, it turns out there was another queue for regular x-rays and I had been in the wrong place. The radiologist took me and another woman into the x-ray room together and then sent us into individual changing rooms. I came out first, so I got the first x-ray. The radiologist asked if I was pregnant, I nodded no, and he took the shot. Five minutes later we walked into the treatment area, where the doctor looked at the chest x-ray and sent me into a cubicle to get a steroid inhaler. The trainee nurse chatted with Xenia in Greek, and we got to peek out at other people’s x-rays in a hugely HIPA-violating but fascinating glimpse into Friday’s set of injuries: a broken hip, a broken finger, a chest mass. After about 20 minutes, Xenia went out to find what was going on and called me over to the desk. The doctor wrote declared “bronchitis” and me a prescription for amoxicillin, which I filled at a local pharmacy. This was probably the easiest experience I’ve had at a foreign hospital despite not knowing what to do – in fact, I’ve had more difficult times in the UK. [However, it’s now 3 weeks later and I’m still coughing.]
The final few days both Xenia and I were totally overworked and alternated taking days off. This was the first year the Advanced course had run, so we were still figuring things out. Her lecture on medical implants was really fascinating, as my experience with human remains stops in a period long before surgery for hip replacements was possible. The final day was the exam, consisting of a multiple-choice portion and a bone portion, where students had to identify a diagnostic category for bones with pathological formations. I also got to stretch my exam-writing skills; I hate trick questions and lack of clarity, but I fear I often go overboard on this and make them too easy. One student pointed out a typo (the shame!), but to be fair the editing process was rather brief. I flew out the evening after the exam with the worst sinus pain of my life. While clutching my ears during the descent, the pilot announced over the intercom “There is a state of emergency…” and everyone looked up in panic and I struggled to clear my ears to hear more. I feared we were going to be flying into a new war zone or terrorist incident. We were already over Britain! “Excuse me, a state of emergency has been declared in Greece due to the wildfires, and the flight attendants will be collecting donations.” We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and the usual British silence between seatmates was broken as we all agreed the pilot’s phrasing was particularly poor.
I’m going back next year to teach the field school again, but hoping to not get sick again!
For the past month, I’ve been working as a lecturer and field supervisor for the Odyssey Field School in Limassol, Cyprus. It’s been rather exciting to be in charge of my own field site, although there were many times the first two weeks when I didn’t know what to do and looked around for a grown-up before realizing that I am the grown-up. There’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s also been a good test of whether I’m capable of running a site — surprise, I am!
I arrived four weeks ago at 1am. For no obvious reason, flights into and out of Cyprus are scheduled at bizarre hours. I either had to leave London at 6 am or arrive here at midnight, and my flight home (on August 3) arrives at Stansted at 2:40am. (No, it doesn’t make them cheaper.) Our city doesn’t have an airport, and the customs queue was so long that I missed a shuttle. After taking the next intercity bus, which dropped me on the side of a highway at 12:45, I saw an off-duty taxi who took me the rest of the way. I knew the address of the apartment but not the name, which is apparently the important thing here as Google maps has all the numbers wrong. I was informed upon arrival that we’d be waking up at 6am to be at the cafe at 7:30 to meet our director, Xenia. I was to start lecturing at 8. This was definitely the longest lecture I’ve given on such short notice, as I talked all that day and all the following day, giving a crash course in bioarchaeology. My students were mostly American (one British), undergraduate and masters level, and it was a challenge to engage everyone at appropriate levels and keep them awake from 8-4 while jetlagged. I pulled through, and could see by the time they had analysed a few skeletons that they were able to apply theoretical knowledge to actual cases.
The skeletons: as a bioarchaeologist, I’ve primarily looked at individuals from a few thousand years ago to the middle ages. The majority of the individuals I’ve examined – for my thesis, hundreds; for my career, thousands – died before they were 50 (although people in the past did live to old age, it was not very common at the sites I’ve studied). Their bones also suffered from being in the soil so long, making many of them fragmentary and crumbly. This site’s collection houses individuals who died in the 20th century and were disinterred for various reasons over the last 20 years. Most of them are named, and we can look up their dates of birth and death – apparently the oldest one is over 100! Looking at the names of the boxes, I can assess the gender of the individual, which useful when the students are learning assessment of skeletal sex. (The pelvis and skull have traits that differ between males and females, but as with these things — it’s a spectrum rather than a strict line.) In a population where most people are cisgender, it’s useful to be able to say “this skeleton has mostly female characteristics” and then check the box to see if they have a woman’s name. Many of the skeletons here have had medical interventions – dentures, hip replacements, metal screws to fix fractures – that I’ve never seen before, since surgery didn’t exist when the people from my other assemblages were alive! Having complete skeletons is very useful, as it makes diagnosis easier. Many diagnostic criteria for joint diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis) ask whether the joints are affected symmetrically or asymmetrically. If you only have one hand preserved, it’s impossible to tell. I’m learning a lot, and feel like I’m really able to solidify my knowledge of pathology by finally seeing the complete picture.
I should also clarify that while Cyprus has many human remains from the war in 1974, the ones we are working on are not war dead. We can’t talk in great detail about the cases we work on as some of them are forensic, so when we tell local people (like the bus driver, who keeps asking why a horde of Americans get on the bus to the cemetery every day) we are purposefully vague. But everyone is still curious, and assume that if we can’t talk about it, they must be from the war. Nope!
We work in a historic cemetery in central Limassol, using its central ossuary (repository for bones) as a lab and lecture room. It’s underground, which one would expect to be cooler than above, but it actually boiling. Everywhere is boiling. It has ben 40°C and humid all day everyday. At night the temperature drops a bit but the humidity increases. The only way to cool down is to jump in the sea. I wish I could spend all day in the sea.
Cyprus. I’d never been here before. I had very little time to research what I was getting into. I assumed it would be similar to Greece, so I refreshed my Greek and prepared to only eat Greek food for months. I was totally wrong. Cyprus is very international, with lots of shipping, business with Russia, and links to Southeast Asia. We live in a Russian neighborhood with shops that sell furs, and advertizing is in a confusing mix of Greek and Cyrillic characters. (Since I can read both, it sent my brain into a tailspin trying to figure it out.) I go to the Old Town market on Sundays, where one can buy fresh local vegetables, cheap Asian imports of bedsheets, curtains, rather horrifying fashion, and used electronics. I speak to the veg seller in a mix of Greek and Arabic. On the way back, I saw some Sri Lankan women threading each other’s faces in the street. I asked if I could get my face done and they were a little confused; I figured they were just doing it for friends and not as a business, and they only asked for 5 euros. The first meal I ate out was Nepalese. Most people speak enough English to get the message across, which is rather a shame as I wanted to practice Greek.
We finished the Human Remains Training Certificate two weeks ago and then started the field school. Four students left and a few more arrived from Canada and the UK. We were then able to split into two crowded apartments instead of one very, very crowded apartment (one room had three single beds, which was… weird #fieldlife). The site is quite small – it’s a part of the cemetery with commingled remains that need to be excavated and moved. It’s fenced in by concrete walls, with an open top – we can’t put up sunshades because, as mentioned above, people get curious and then suspicious. (At least a few times a week, someone walks by the ask what we’re doing and whether we have permission.) We leave the apartments at 5:50 for the (sometimes on time) 6:00 bus, getting to site at 6:25. We start with photos, measurements, then the plan for the day. After 6 days of bone fragments and dirt (we’ve excavated down over 40cm), we finally reached complete human bones, and I let out a whoop that definitely attracted the attention of a passerby. We were also able to open up an adjacent text pit that contained more bones, and we’ve now joined that onto the main trench. I’m particularly proud of the very very straight trench walls.
This is our final week of digging; next week I’ll be teaching the Paleopathology course, so need to write all my lectures for that. More on the dig and travel later!
Yesterday, Tim Adams at the Guardian wrote one of the most fantastic pieces of local news I’ve read recently. It’s about the fatberg under Whitechapel. If you’ve never heard of a fatberg, it’s the horrifying sewer equivalent of an arterial blockage. Instead of fat clogging one’s arteries, a mixture of wet wipes flushed down the toilet and grease washed down the drain unite in the sewers into a massive blob, with other detritus (used condoms, hypodermic needles, rubbish) and occasional small creatures going along for the ride. There have been a few around London, causing millions of pounds of damage. The article gives this one a number of catchy nicknames – the Whitechapel Behemoth, the East End Mammoth, the Leviathan – and brings in the history of Bazalgette’s sewer works, social history, and the fact that part of it has been conserved and will be in a Museum of London exhibit (called Fatberg!), opening February 9. This led me down so many paths of thought. First: just go read the article. Adams should win some kind of prize for such engaging writing.
One of the reasons this feels like a distinctly London story, is the horrible history of the city and its effluent, a history that until recently seemed happily confined to the past. Prior to autumn 2016, the last time we looked so hard at sewage was during the Great Stink of 1858, when a combination of a hot and dry summer and the practice of discharging the raw sewage of a fast-growing population directly into the Thames, turned the river brown and saw sewage 10ft-deep at the river’s margins. MPs were forced to debate in Parliament with handkerchiefs over their faces. Cholera and typhoid were epidemic. Like the burghers of Hamelin menaced by rats, the government charged the director of metropolitan works, Joseph Bazalgette, with solving the problem. With 318 million bricks and over the course of 16 years he did just that.
Second, he brings up one of my favorite tropes (sub-tropes?): the idea that the apocalypse is best represented by or in London. This is a trope frequently played with in the weird fiction of China Mieville (UnLunDun, London’s Overthrow), Will Self (The Book of Dave), and Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere). The city is often its own character, growing, heaving, digesting. Mieville lectured on cities – London in particular – as palimpsests of history, dark places where occasionally you can see clarity scratching through and enlightening one tiny moment. In this case, the fatberg has covered all the bases, becoming a metonym for London itself. It has grown underground, a vulgar beast composed of waste typical of the modern era, and pressed itself into our lives. The fact that it’s going on display completes its cycle. The fatberg, a chthonic monster, has found its way into the light and has made all of the disgusting practices of modern life (particularly those we shy away from, not just sex and drugs and excrement, but overuse of resources and inability to care about our environmental impact) clear to us. Not only clear, but enshrined in a temple of culture. Yes, this is the apocalypse – not the one we imagined, with fiery rain and four horsemen, but the one in which we reckon with the disasters of our own making, right in the heart of the city.
Third, I should mention that the urban relationship with fat goes deeper, and the history of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris is worth mentioning. Just as London had a Great Stink, so did the Les Halles neighborhood, but theirs was caused by a buildup of human bodies not-quite-buried in the cemetery. There were too many bodies stacked too deep to decompose properly and so they rotted in the ground (which wasn’t dirt at that point, just more bodies) into a mass of bones and adipocere. There was a city-wide effort in 1786 to relocate the bones into ancient mine shafts, which are now the Paris Catacombs. The remaining fat was reportedly used to make soap and candles. Yes, like in Fight Club.
Fourth, it drew a link to another recent article on dystopias, beginning with the wonderful phrase:
This is not the dystopia we were promised.
You thought it would be like Black Mirror, right? With a fascist state and complete surveillance and biohacking. It’s not, though. This dystopia is fatbergs, and fatbergs are us. The fatberg is a perfect representation of the horror and fascination of modern urban life. We live in excess, we waste, and a team of flushers that, in an ideal world, would be mechanized and WALL-E like, are very real human beings have to go and shovel it out by hand while clothed in Hazmat suits. And it’s in a museum.*
*(I should make it clear that I am so excited that’s it’s going into MOL and I will be one of the first to see it.)
UPDATE: Here’s an article from the MOL asking “how do you solve a problem like the fatberg?”
It’s an especially difficult challenge for us as conservators, because we have to protect not just the fatberg, but also ourselves and our visitors. The fatberg in its current state is an extremely hazardous material, teeming with bacteria and releasing small amounts of toxic gases. Given the amount of rubbish that people pump into London’s sewage system, we can’t know exactly what sort of dangers are lurking within the ‘berg. The sample of fatberg we’ve taken might contain hypodermic needles, condoms, or sanitary materials, and are certainly capable of spreading disease.
Last night I gave a talk at Ziferblab, a short lecture series at the anti-cafe Ziferblat (drinks and snacks are free, but you pay by the hour). It was my first public lecture since completing my PhD. The subject was as follows:
How do our bones reflect the type of activities we do? Are there differences based on biological factors? As a bioarchaeologist, I build a picture of what life was like in ancient times by examining the skeletons of long-dead individuals. We can track historic and prehistoric changes in environment, social roles, and diet based on this skeletal data. I’m particularly interested in skewering the common misconception that women in ancient societies were solely performing childcare and household tasks and men were only hunting, a theory proposed in the 1960s and quickly taken as truth for all cultures worldwide.
It was powerpoint-free, so I only had this as my slide:
And I looked like Professor McGonagall, standing on the lectern.
I was really pleased to share the stage (corner) with some other great speakers including my friend Ash, who researches bees and spoke about how honeybees make collective decisions.
If you’ve just landed here from the Ziferblab facebook page, you should probably head straight over to the Linkmania page to read a ton of articles about fascinating subjects. Alternately, you can scroll down and read some things I’ve written interspersed with other fascinating links. Some of my favorites are on archaeological racism, psychological stress in animals, and why you shouldn’t touch things in museums.
I know it’s past Thanksgiving. But I was too busy to post these two articles about one of my favorite holidays, Halloween. It’s my favorite because I love making and wearing costumes and – bonus! – I’m not the only one wearing a costume. It’s completely normal to see witches, zombies, cats, and (once, bizarrely) taffy apples walking down the street, in addition to the more creative and pleasantly surprising costumes.
However. I have friends who hate Halloween. Some come from the “I hate parties and dressing up” perspective and some from a religious perspective. Both of these are valid. As adults, we can like and dislike whatever we want (de gustibus ne disputandum). But when you have an argument that doesn’t make sense, I need to correct it with facts.
First, an explanation of Halloween’s history up to today, from Pacific Standard explaining some of the reasons people dislike it – too commercial, too scary. I also dislike the commercial aspect, and think people should make (if they can), share, and scrummage for costumes. (The preponderance of ready-made sexy costumes – “sexy grad student”, come on – continues to baffle me.) Also, Halloween now has got nothing on the scary game of the early 20th century.
I mean, look at this photo and tell me it won’t give you nightmares.
The second article was written by a PhD colleague of mine, who is both an archaeologist and a Jesuit priest. It provides insight into the Christian history of an originally pagan holiday, putting an Apollonian/Dionysian spin on it.
Either way: Halloween can be whatever you want it to be. Dress up and hand out candy, go for a party, commune with your ancestors in a cemetery, or sit home and mope.
Just gonna say I went out as a teaching skeleton.
Originally posted on the Student Engager blog on 3 July 2017.
A PhD often feels like an unrewarding process. There are setbacks, data failures, non-significant results, and a general lack of the small successes that (I hear) make general worklife pleasant: “I got that promotion!” “Everyone applauded my presentation!” “I moved to the desk near the window!” PhD life is one giant slog until the end, a nerve-wracking hours-long session where you’re grilled by the only people who know more about your field than you.
Hopefully some of you have been following my research here, starting from astronauts and moving on to runners and foraging patterns. It all ties together, I promise. I recently gave a talk at the Engagers’ event “Materials & Objects” summarizing my research, which I can now tell you about in its full glory! I’m pleased to announce: I had significant findings.
The lowdown is that (as expected) there are differences in the shape of the tibia (shin bone) between nomads and farmers in Sudan. Why would this be? Well, if you’ve been following along, bones change shape in response to activity, particularly activities performed during adolescence. The major categories of tibial shape were those that indicated long-distance walking, doing activity in one place, and doing very little activity. Looking at the distribution, the majority of the nomadic males had the leg shape indicating long-distance walking, and some of the agricultural males had the long-distance shape and others had the staying-in-place shape. This makes sense considering the varying types of activity performed in an agricultural society, particularly one that also had herds to take care of: some individuals would be taking the herds up and down along the Nile to find grazing land while others stayed local, tending farms. While it’s unclear how often a nomadic group needs to move camp to be considered truly nomadic, in this case it seems like they were walking a lot – enough to compare their tibial shape to that of modern long-distance runners. These differences in food acquisition are culturally-adapted responses to differing environments: the nomads live in semi-arid grassland and can travel slowly over a large area to graze sheep and cattle, while the farmers are constrained to a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile banks, limiting how many people can move around, and how often.
Perhaps the most important finding is the difference between males and females. In addition to looking at shape, I also conducted tests to show how strong each bone is regardless of shape, a result called polar second moment of inertia (and shortened to, unexpectedly, J). The males at each site had higher values for J – thus, stronger bones – than the females. However, the nomadic females had higher J values than some of the males at the agricultural sites! This is in spite of most females from both sites having the tibial shape indicating “not very much activity”. This shape may be the juvenile shape of the tibia, which females have retained into adulthood despite performing enough activity to give them higher strength values than male farmers. Similar results have actually been noted in studies examining different time periods – for instance, the Paleolithic to Neolithic – and found much more similarity between females than between males. Researchers often interpret this as evidence of changing male roles but female roles remaining the same, which strikes me as unlikely considering the time spans covered. I instead conclude that females build bone differently in adolescence, and perhaps there are subtleties in bone development that don’t reveal themselves as differences in shape. As females have lower rates of testosterone, which builds bone as well as muscle, they may have to work harder or longer than males to attain the same bone shape and strength. I’m using this to argue that the roles of women in archaeological societies – particularly nomadic ones – have been unexamined in light of biological evidence.
Of course, the best conclusion for a PhD is a call for more research, and mine is that we need to examine male and female adolescent athletes together to see when exactly shape change occurs. If we can pin down the amount of activity necessary for women to have bones as strong as those of their male peers, we can more accurately interpret the types of activities ancient people were performing without devaluing the work of women.
My examiners found all this enthralling, and I’m pleased to say I passed! The work of this woman is valued in the eyes of the academe.
It’s not every day that a news article gives me a panic attack. Last week, I found that special piece that sent me reeling on the tube. Perhaps you’ve read it: the New York Magazine article about the effects of unstopped (unstoppable?) climate change. The author, David Wallace-Wells, argues that when the planet heats up by 6 degrees, it will basically be a Mad Max situation with less food, more violence, total inability to go outside in the tropics, and even more severe weather:
In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.
Reading this article, I felt a similar state of heart-in-my-throat horror to two years ago, when the New Yorker article about a potential devastating Pacific tsunami was published. That feeling was appropriately summarized by internet wonder Mallory Ortberg of the Toast (RIP), interspersing quotes about the disastrous consequences with emotional pleas and very appropriate pearl-clutching.
I read the article many times, listening to Florence and the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me” on repeat. I was in a state of shock, and Mallory helped me through it. I wasn’t alone in my fear. Plus, we could move everyone away from the Pacific coast, right? Not this time, pals. This time the whole world’s in trouble. There’s no Captain Planet to come in and fight the bad guys, because there aren’t really bad guys – it’s us and our decisions, and the capitalist need for economic growth.
… in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves.
I can’t handle it. As much as I want to know the horrors our future will bring, I struggled to finish the article. It’s all the apocalyptic scenarios in one. My friends made a facebook chat so we can find each other and skill-share. I’m responsible for foraging, but will the same plants even grow? I only know wild ones, and precious little about farming. In the grocery store, I wondered who had ever thought cultivating peaches was a good idea – so difficult to transport and a total waste considering the caloric value. My mind turned to medicine. What happens when the antibiotics run out and all we have left are antibiotic-resistant bacteria? What happens when our IUDs expire? What happens when… you can’t let someone suffering from anxiety read this stuff. I woke up early, in the middle of a dream that the rising water took my passport.
Then salvation came in the form of a follow-up piece: it’s not as bad as NYM makes it out to be! Apparently climate scientists have taken to twitter to explain that the situation described by Wallace-Wells is overly disastrous.
But what are the odds? That’s the crucial question. In light of current energy trends and the Paris climate agreement, it seems more likely at present that human society will slowly bend its emissions curve downward, missing targets set by climate scientists (and blowing by 2 degrees Celsius of warming) but not hitting these worst-case scenarios, either.
So. Whew. A little bit. I can stop panicking now, right? The Paris climate agreement (which the US has backed out of) ensures we won’t warm 6 degrees, right? Maybe there are some steps I can tale to personally limit my carbon footprint?
This article gives some helpful tips to continue my Captain Planet-ing. Have one less child (I’ve got none! tick), don’t own a car (tick!), avoid one trans-Atlantic flight (as long as the UK doesn’t deport me, sure!). I already feel much better. There’s not much I can do as an individual. Worrying about whether to cut out the greasy bit of the pizza box so I can recycle the rest is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, I still feel awful and personally responsible for the increased temperatures and future wars whenever I don’t bring my spork to a take-away. I mean, at least my six years of being vegetarian has saved 4,920 kilograms of carbon.
Next, this article from QZ supports the decision I made last year to stop buying consumer items by stating that even buying “ethical” goods doesn’t make a difference, because that item still had to be produced and shipped and packaged. (See further: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.)
The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late. For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.
It also brings up the fact that the sustainability movement is privileged and elitist, as quality “ethical” goods are too expensive for the average consumer, which goes back to Terry Pratchett’s $50 boot argument. If you can afford it, make sure the things you buy now are quality, and then stop buying them; instead of going shopping, lobby for change, and instead of spending $20 on a t-shirt, donate it to a charity of your choice.
My friend Elinor responded to this by writing an article on ethical food consumption, which is still something I struggle with:
She ignores the pivotal role of food — which we cannot simply consume less of. She ignores the fact that one of the biggest solutions to climate change comes down to individual food consumption choices. She doesn’t mention that one of the “structural incentives” that keeps some companies with unsustainable business models in business, is the fact that their consumers don’t give a shit. Or we do give a shit, but when we’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to make a snap decision about what to eat for dinner whilst speaking on the phone to a friend about our holiday plans, good intentions do not translate into conscious decisions.
I have this problem daily. Do I spend £1 more on organic canned chickpeas when I don’t know what “organic” means here? Do I avoid the packaging waste by getting dry chickpeas by the kilo in my reusable shopping bag, which will require an additional shopping trip, a day to soak, and the risk that my housemates will throw them out before I get around to cooking them? I often just give up and buy the 50p can, but at least I go for the dented can nobody else will buy. This article directs readers to a further list of climate actions, 17 of which have to do with food, particularly food waste. She stresses that “the fact that the world is in a mess doesn’t make it more difficult to tidy your bedroom, and tidying your bedroom doesn’t really stop you from cleaning up the world.” Change starts at home, and it’s good to set an example. My friend Amy has inspired me to carry my own tupperware and bring my own mug to cafes. I hope my refusal to drink water from disposable plastic bottles inspires someone else. I’ve overcome my phone anxiety to call politicians. Small steps will make small changes; a (slightly nonsensical) Malian proverb says “little by little, the bird builds its nest”.* As individuals we must believe in our collective power to make a bigger difference. Let’s be slightly less doomsday about it: we can’t focus on cutting the grease stain from the pizza box when we’re curled up in the corner panicking.
*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for this.
Later update: having watched the new Game of Thrones season opener, I noted the Archmaester’s warning, summarised thus by AV Club:
The Archmaester tries to convince Sam that this is just another threat to the realm in a long list of threats, and that none of the past ones have truly brought the apocalypse some predicted: however, the whole point of this story is that this is no normal winter, and “Dragonstone” successfully makes clear that everyone but Jon Snow has a long way to go before they realize there is more at stake than the Iron Throne.
I’ve been talking about this article a lot recently – it details the rise of the passport as the source of one’s identity, replacing the actual embodied self.
In 1923, a Danish man traveling in Germany reportedly had to regrow his mustache before border officials would permit him to return home. When clean-shaven, he did not resemble the photograph in his passport, a document that had only recently become essential for travel across national boundaries.
A sub-roundup of AIs naming things. Turns out AI is very good at naming guinea pigs but very bad at naming paint colors. AI is also fantastically inept at punning, discussed in this puntastic interview with the author of a book on the competitive punning community. Looking forward to reading this one!
Joe: Twitter lately is like a sadness gauntlet filled with clowns and Nazis, and the light at the end of it is your house on fire. So yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of a pun competition.
(7/1 Update: AIs are terrible at inspirational posters!)
All you wanted to know about the vaginal microbiome. I mean, I have many more questions.
I was previously unsure of the ethics of market shorting. This article has not made me less sure. Is it a crime, or is it just skeezy? Is activist shorting less skeezy because it exposes more corruption, or more skeezy because it exposes corruption for personal gain? I’m not even sure what ethical framework I should use to analyze it.
UChicago news: the adorable scav team STTR-BBOY recreated the iconic scene of the snake-iguana chase from Planet Earth II in the library stacks, site of the infamous 2007 scav video (since deleted) “Trapped in Crerar”, a parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”. That library is really a quality filming location.