Fossils and the Future: Taphonomy and its Influence

Since it was rediscovered over 250 years ago, Pompeii has been an intriguing and popular destination for generations across the world. For its most recent resurgence, millennials have manifested their own captivation in site through the 2013 Bastille song about the city and a popular meme currently circulating around the internet. The meme, that began after CNN posted pictures from a dig site, shows an unnamed skeleton who appears to have initially escaped the volcanic ash, only to be then killed by a falling boulder. The irony of the situation inspired many to apply it to their own lives and it became a phenomenon on social media platforms.

A recent photo of an excavation site at Pompeii, Italy, most likely a similar setting to where the unnamed man was found. Photo provided by The Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii, May 17, 2018.

However, in a Forbes article published in June, archaeologist Kristina Killgrove reports that through examining the skull of the skeleton, the archaeologists found that the man’s skull remained completely intact (Killgrove 2018). This helped them conclude that man had actually not been killed by the boulder, but instead, the upper part of the body had sunk during a previous excavation, causing it to appear that the boulder had been fatal. He most likely died due to asphyxiation.  Although this essentially discredits the meme, the study of the man after he was buried led the team to further understand the context of Pompeii and the fate of one of its citizens. This type of inspection–the study of how an organism is buried and the processes that affect it after burial–is called taphonomy, and it remains widely important in the fields of archaeology and paleontology to explain why we find certain fossils and why we don’t, and how that affects the greater scheme of studying the past life (Renfrew 2010:41).

An artificially fossilized lizard foot, evidence of the some of the new technology being used by archaeologists to better understand taphonomy. Photo provided by Evan Sattia, Field Museum/University of Bristol and Tom Kaye, Foundation for Scientific Advancement

Through greater advances in technology, archaeologists are investigating how to replicate the fossilizing process, in order to better examine and understand decaying, and how one organism becomes a fossil. Evan Sattia of the Field Museum in Chicago explains in a July article for Popular Science that his team is essentially “baking” samples in clay tablets at 3500 psi, which is roughly the temperature of the level of the Earth’s crust where fossils are found. By replicating the process, scientists are able to probe into what temperature, gas, and other environmental effects lead to the fossilizing process and what materials are able to survive, a breakthrough in understanding how we find fossils and why we find them.

 

Although it is sometimes overlooked, taphonomy is a crucial part of the entire archaeological process within a site. The fossils that are left behind, allow archaeologists to peek further into the past living and provide a greater context of the past culture and environment of an area. And as evidenced through technological advances, taphonomy will continue, and should continue, to grow and improve along with further discoveries.

 

Further Readings:

Curren, Thomas.

2017  Archaeology as Blood Sport: How an Ancient Mastodon Ignited Debate over Humans’ Arrival in North America. Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-cerutti-mastodon-20171222-htmlstory.html#, accessed September 16, 2018.

Pickrell, John.

2018  Here’s How Humans Can Make It as a Fossil. Reader’s Digest, February 15, 2018. https://www.rd.com/culture/human-fossils/, accessed September 16, 2018.

 

Reference List:

Blakemore, Erin.

  2018  To Understand Fossils, Scientists Are Baking Their Own. Popular Science, July 25, 2018. https://www.popsci.com/easy-bake-fossil, accessed September 16, 2018.

 

Killgrove, Kristina.

  2018  That Meme-Worthy Pompeii Skeleton? Not Crushed By A Block, His Skull Shows. Forbes, June 28, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2018/06/28/that-meme-worthy-pompeii-skeleton-not-crushed-by-a-block-his-skull-shows/#7a375b9a1c61, accessed September 16, 2018.

 

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn.

  2010  Archaeology Essentials. 2nd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

 

Images:

Blakemore, Erin.

  2018  To Understand Fossils, Scientists Are Baking Their Own. Popular Science, July 25, 2018. https://www.popsci.com/easy-bake-fossil, accessed September 16, 2018.

 

McGrath, Maryellen.

2018 Extraordinary discovery of the archaeological site of Pompeii. ABC News, May 19, 2018. https://abcnews.go.com/International/extraordinary-discovery-archaeological-site-pompeii/story?id=55237858, accessed September 16, 2018.

 

 

 

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Trash in a Changing World: Patterns of E-Waste Dumping

Bill Rathje’s research of the American landfill painted a dark tale of the direction of our consumerist society. The immense waste of resources and lack of accountability will, according to Rathje, eventually lead to a culture collapse. Looking into today, we face more challenges despite the enormous technological progress we’ve enjoyed. Rather than improve our situation and more effectively use our resources, we face new issues in the form of electronic waste, the discard of electrical and electronic devices.

Today, much of the world’s e-waste originates from developed nations in the Western World such as the United States and Europe. The United Nations estimates that over 50 million tons of e-waste are discarded each year. And as our world’s reliance on technology grows and our current products updated, this number is sure to increase.

It is estimated that 75% of all e-waste is exported to developing countries around the world such as Ghana and Pakistan. The recycling of e-waste is often too costly in developed countries, making dumping a more economical option. Additionally, exporting out e-waste likely prevents the environmental and health dangers of recycling.

In cities where e-waste is dumped, such as Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and Karachi, Pakistan, the local communities have repurposed the e-waste into an economy based on the recycling and reuse of the dumped appliances. They are either repaired in order to be resold, or more likely, disassembled to recover raw materials such as copper, silver, gold, and steel.

Figure 1. A worker burns away wiring insulation in order to extract the copper in Agbobloshie, Ghana.

The dumping of e-waste presents enormous health and environmental concerns to the local community. In the case of Agbogbloshie and Karachi, people are continually affected by the toxins and chemicals released by the burning of e-waste. Workers, especially, are affected by the toxic chemicals as they extract the raw materials from the e-waste. Almost everyone becomes at risk from exposure to lead, cadmium, and other disruptive chemicals.

Figure 2. Various electronic components are transported to be recycled in Karachi, Pakistan.

Studying communities such as Agbogbloshie and Karachi reveals the patterns that affect e-waste dumpsites around the world. For example, even in such an environment such as Agbogbloshie and Karachi, there remains a stark divide between those who utilize the e-waste. ‘Resellers’, often able to receive old or unused electronics, are able to make profits of thousands of Euros a month. Meanwhile, the majority of e-waste workers rely on a subsistence scavenging for grams of materials at a time. Also, the exploitation of developing countries as dumping grounds hark back to previous colonial exploitation of natural resources. And finally, it is the poor that are the most affected by the dumping of e-waste.

In summation, the dump of e-waste in developing countries does not represent an adequate solution as our world becomes both more technologically advanced and consumerist. The dumping of e-waste reflects just a transference of the root problem to other groups and cultures. All in all, e-waste represents the denial and postponement of developed nations actively addressing the growing environmental and health dangers of our trash.

Works Cited:

Blau, John
2006  UN summit on e-waste. CIO UK. CIO UK, 28 November 2006.
.
Accessed September 16, 2018.

Kuper, Jo
2008   Poisoning the poor: Electronic waste in Ghana. Greenpeace. Greenpeace, August 2008.. Accessed September 16, 2018.

2016  ToxiCity: life at Agbobloshie, the world’s largest e-waste dump in Ghana. YouTube. Youtube, 01 June 2016. .
accessed September 16, 2018.

2016  The Toxic E-Waste Trade Killing Pakistan’s Poorest. YouTube. YouTube, 11 July 2016. . accessed September 16, 2018.

 

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Roman-Era Trash: An Excavation in South Devon, England

The small town of Ipplepen is located in the southwest corner of England, in South Devon.  As of 2011, Ipplepen is a small town with fewer than 3000 residents. Although it has such a small population, the area has a very long history, with settlements stretching back to the Iron Age.  Since 2010, archaeologists from the University of Exeter and the British Museum have been excavating the sites, which in total span 1200 years of history.

Recently, a team has excavated several locations containing garbage from the end of the Roman era.  Analysis of the recovered artifacts has allowed researchers to piece together elements of the residents’ lives, such as their diet.  In the garbage piles, animal bones have been preserved for thousands of years. According to the lead archaeologist on the team, Stephen Rippon, these animal can be used “to reconstruct past patterns of farming…Some of the bones that have been found have cut marks from when they were butchered.”  The age of the animals when they were butchered gives information about local farming practices. For example, lambs would have been killed for meat, whereas older sheep would have been kept around for milk and wool.  Through reconstructing the diets and farming practices of Roman-Age South Devon residents, researchers are able to better understand the area’s history.

Archaeologists excavating at Ipplepen in 2016.

The garbage has also provided clues into the financial status of the town.  Among the artifacts recovered are some pieces of ancient pottery. Some of it is amphora, a type of pottery used to carry olive oil and wine made in the Mediterranean.  Elsewhere at the site, a piece of an expensive cup was discovered. The style of the cup suggests that it was originally made in southeast England, and likely would have been someone’s valuable possession (until it broke).  Residents were not, then, just poor farmers, as one might be inclined to think. Instead, these artifacts suggest that at least some of the residents were well-off, since they could afford Mediterranean wine and expensive pottery.

Some examples of amphora vases, used to hold wine and olive oil.

Throughout the Ipplepen excavation, researches have made a number interesting discoveries about the history of South Devon.  Among those are a Roman road that once ran through the area, a graveyard from medieval times, and roundhouses from the end of the Iron Age.  But trash tells a different, less obvious story than these structures do; it tells us about the day-to-day things that people did that they didn’t view as remarkable, such as eating meat and drinking wine.  However, to an archaeologist, these discoveries provide valuable information about the living habits and status of a people or a settlement, such as in South Devon.

Sources:

Phys.org

2017  “Rare Archeological Find Could Be the First Time Unique Pottery Seen in the Southwest.” Archaeology & Fossils, Phys.org. Electronic Document, June 28, 2017, https://phys.org/news/2017-06-rare-archaeological-unique-pottery-south.html, accessed 13 September 2018.

University of Exeter

 2018  “Ancient Household Waste Gives More Clues About Devon’s Roman History.” Research News, University of Exeter. Electronic Document, September 5, 2018, http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_679888_en.html, accessed 12 September 2018.

Wikipedia

 2018  “Ipplepen.” Wikipedia. Electronic Document, September 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipplepen, accessed 12 September, 2018

Image Sources:

Ipplepen Archaeological Project.

 2016  “2016 Excavation Day 2.” Ipplepen Archaeological Project (blog), June 8, 2016, http://ipplepen.exeter.ac.uk/2016/06/2016-excavation-day-2-7th-june/, accessed September 15, 2018.

Wikipedia.

 2018  “Amphora.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphora, accessed September 15, 2018.

Further reading:

“Digging Up the Roots of Modern Waste in Victorian-Era Rubbish”: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/06/01/480268469/digging-up-the-roots-of-modern-waste-in-victorian-era-rubbish

“Trash or Treasure?”: https://www.cnn.com/2011/10/04/world/europe/archaeology-ancient-trash/index.html

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Sitting with Stella

Today’s post comes from Ruby Mayer, class of 2020 and Art Center Summer Docent

After a morning in the galleries of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, I cross campus to eat lunch in the grass. I choose a place in the sun to lose the AC-chill of the museum, and slowly survey the same tree-trunks and rooftops, finding the predictability of the hour surprisingly tonic

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