An Artifact is Only Worth the Information it Brings

It’s difficult for people to plan for the future.  It’s so much easier to be so focused in the present that one does not realize that to make a better future one has to be cognizant of what is currently happening around them.  And, not surprisingly, looking into the past can help change and perfect what is happening in the present, therefore creating a better future.  It’s pretty simple, but then comes the issue of not only knowing what happened in the past, but knowing how it affected communities in the present so that we can be proactive in planning for a better future.  Are you surprised to hear that the answer to the question is (drum roll….) archaeology!

By using the archaeological record, which is growing over time, archaeologists can discover an enormous amount of information about past cultures and how their ways of life affected their communities. By studying agricultural techniques of past societies, their failures and achievements, we can alter the way we use agriculture to be more sustainable. For example, by studying the past cultures who came up with the three-field system of agriculture, where land and what is being grown is rotated to allow the nutrients to replenish, archaeologists found that this system works and benefits the communities; thus, today we have a better understanding of how to rotate crops and fields to keep the soil fertile.  This understanding makes us more sustainable in the long run, our future.  Understanding the conflicts that caused wars between past societies can assist us in avoiding these conflicts, and prevent unnecessary wars.  A poignant example is wealth distribution; when unequal, we end up with the haves and the have nots, with a top 1%.  This frequently leads to resentment, which leads to conflict and war. Therefore, archaeologists can evaluate how past societies best distributed resources to create the best environment for all. Looking at how cities were planned out and maintained, and consequently if they could survive disasters can help us plan out current cities in the most logical and beneficial manner to support development and growth. Archaeology has a place in many contemporary social issues that need to be evaluated in the present to preserve the future.

Visual description of three-feild rotation

Visual description of three-feild rotation

Distribution of worlds wealth, the unevenness a source of conflict

Distribution of worlds wealth, the unevenness a source of conflict


Everyone knows that archaeology is the study of the past. However, most people don’t understand that the knowledge archaeologists learn from the past can be applied to the present to better the future.  The excavation and “cool” artifacts the archaeologists discover seem to steal the image for archeology.  It’s important to understand, however, that what archaeologists learn from artifacts, and apply to the present, is what makes them truly valuable.

Works Citied:“climate-policy-is-redistributing-the-worlds-wealth”/

Further Reading:

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008. Print.

Lazy Friday Afternoon, Let’s do….Lab Work?

I’m just going to come straight out with the most exciting, best learned lesson from lab work. I’m a bone expert and can tell the difference between mammal, bird and fish bone to a T. Impressive I know. Besides this mind blowing fact that has changed my view of myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find out two things. First, that archaeology has a lot of work (aka lab work) to do once done with the grueling excavation process most people think to be the only part of archaeology, second that it can actually be quite entertaining and fun.

An array of bones

An array of bones


One could almost deduce that excavation is the easy part. After that, one has to take everything found, and separate it into bags according to what it is. If thats not a lot of work, you have to label everything exactly where it came from. And although we did not need to do this during our two hour lab experience, one also has to clean the artifacts and perve them. A challenging aspect of our lab work, specifically, was having to relabel and separate bags already labeled, we had to fix inconsistencies for artifacts, and didn’t always have the information right or in some cases at all. Therefore, having to label them as surface finds, in a case of a medicine bottle that came with no information. This emphasized the large importance of small details not being overlooked and following protocol to clearly and correctly label everything that needs labeling.


The grandeur of lab work

I think its pretty clear that there are many stereotypes about archeology, how it is basically Indiana Jones, right? Even if someone has overcome that stereotype, many people still don’t picture archeologist in a lab, sitting on turning chairs, in nice work clothes, listening to music, with bright pink painted nails, sorting through everything found at a site. But it is a large part of archaeology, and this lab experience showed exactly this. That without this last step in the lab, excavation would be worthless.

My statement earlier might be misguided though. Sitting in air conditioning singing along, or I was singing my heart out, while my classmates gave me a quizzical glances, to songs I love, learning about history and sorting through artifacts that were actually really cool and intriguing was something I enjoyed on a Friday afternoon.  More importantly though, something very necessary and important to the process of performing an archaeological excavation on a site. People tend to not look past whats put in front of their eyes. In this case, seeing artifacts go straight from digging to a museum. They miss one of the most important steps, and without this step, archaeology would not let us look back in the past, to help the better the future.




Art as a Memory of a Society

The Spanish conquest of common day Mexico altered the lives of the indigenous people immensely. Not only was the land changed, their social and political systems tested and altered, their way of live and religion were violently altered. Italian anthropologist’s, Carol Severi, study of this revealed the new religion that emerged from the situation the indigenous were thrust into. Christianity was delivered to the natives and their old religion was thrown out; but when the priests who taught Christianity left generations later, the natives had to adapt to a religion that used to be taught to them, and they created a blended religion, a mix of the new and old. Interesting enough, this was expressed through their art.  Dona Sebastiana was adapted, a version close enough to Saint Sebastian, but with enough differences to show the blend of old and new and creation of a new symbol. This art tells a great deal about the society.

Image of Dona Sebastiana

Image of Dona Sebastiana

As Severi brushed on in lecture, this relates to Aby Warburg and his study of art, mainly, his assertion that art serves more than visual pleasure. Warburg believes that art constructs the memory of a society, that art serves as a social memory as a society can choose what it what to presents to the rest of the world. This is a completely different spin on the view of art then I have ever heard of, but it is simply logical.  Art is a type of expression. People want to express parts of their lives that mean a lot to them, why else would one spend hours and a countless amount of effort constructing it if it wasn’t important.

Struggles, triumphs, changes, traditions, leaders, commoners, monuments, terror, love and so many more parts of a society are expressed through art as these are the important parts of this society, the parts they want the rest of the world to know.  Take Paris, a majority of the art associated with it is the Eiffel Tower. Because it represents the city and thats what its known for. Art from many societies express their leaders, as they hold much importance and influence the society greatly.

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Art is a form of expression that others can’t change. Sure, there will be art where its non monumental to a society. However, much art holds that emphasis over a society. More than that, images are necessary to exercise a certain kind of thought, thoughts that the societies hold and express and share with the world through art.


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Archaeology or Cold Case Police?

Who knew that one could learn so much about an event from over 50 years ago frozen in time, a picture. We all know that pictures tell stories, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a picture can tell you much more than I had previously thought simply by taking a closer look.  For example, Professor Beisaw, an archaeologist, blew my mind with the interpretations she came up with regarding this anonymous photograph below, all that made perfect sense once presented to my eye.

Photograph taken anonymously in the 1940's, a murder victim, unknown, lays across the floor

Photograph taken anonymously in the 1940’s, a murder victim, unknown, lays across the floor


How the position and crinkles in the rug, along with how it appeared he was folding his work clothes suggest he was struck from behind and there was no struggle, especially as there was a letter opener on his desk he could have used if he had seen his attacker. The “Post” magazines, three in chronological order, along with the recent certificate on his desk (not framed) can give a time frame for this picture. How a pipe, used somewhat but the ashtray being empty, and a gun hung around a lamp suggest his age,  around 16-20. I could go on; however, I think I’ve proved my point.

These interpretations and presentation made me realize that there is another dimension to archeologists and what they can do than I, and others, previously thought. Most people think of archaeology as excavating, digging, finding artifacts, etc. And that is a part yes, but here, an archaeologist was able to dive into a murder mystery from over 50 years ago, by using her trained eye to interpret the photograph just like she interprets excavation sites and artifacts she finds, and bring the dead to the present and tell their story, and most importantly, help the future. To bring closure to the family of this mystery boy even 50 years  late.

This is what people usually think about archeology

This is what people usually think about archeology

There’s much more similarity in between crime scene analysis and archaeology that I knew of until Thursday. The main difference primarily being crimes scenes are generally the present, while archaeologists usually interpret the past. Hey, maybe one day we will start calling on archaeologists to solve cold cases.


Anonymous. 1940s. Photograph. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie,          NY.The Artful Dodger Goes Late Night. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2013. Print.








Let’s Find…..Treasure?

If you’ve stumbled upon a twenty dollar bill lying around, you’ve experienced the thrill of finding a treasure.  Finding stuff is cool. Therefore, most people think that an archaeologist’s job is pretty awesome because they’re always digging up exciting treasures! Well, I was an archaeologist for an entire day without digging anything up.

Most people don’t realize a site must be carefully surveyed and mapped before it can be excavated. That’s what I did last Tuesday; I mapped an area in the Catskills, a region that New York City purchased over the past century and drastically changed to preserve their water supply, a place called Ashokan Reservoir.

Ashokan Resrvoir as seen today

Ashokan Reservoir

Ashokan Reservoir spans over 8,300 acres, previously farm land and towns.  New York City purchased the land through eminent domain in the early 1900s and eventually constructed a dam, creating the largest reservoir in the world at the time, upon the ruins of communities. An archaeologist begins with a hypothesis, and evaluates whether what they find fits what they expected to find. Our team, including Professor Dr. Beisaw, an archaeology major and three eager adventurous archaeology hopefuls did just that.


We wondered how this part of the Catskills was used before New York purchased it. What I found trekking through the forest with two archaeology students, who might or might not have mastered the GPS until the end of the day, helped us answer this question.

GPS and map we used to find our way through the Catskills.

GPS and map used 


The first challenge is to not get lost. Having the right equipment is important (we did, thanks to our team leader), as is being able to use it! You also need to be sure that you’re not trespassing. Keeping everything in mind, we found a clearing with a big tree with branches close to the base. Forest trees don’t have branches near the base as light doesn’t reach here, so we deduced that this tree used to be in a pasture, which explained part of the past of this area. A bone, thought to be either pig or goat, suggested that people in the area had domesticated animals, although it is possible that the bone came from elsewhere, a transposed artifact. Stumbling across a road and finding rusty old cans and trash nearby with fewer items further up the mountainside suggested habitation in the lower area.  Clean, tool cut tree trunks indicated that people used the land there.  An important discovery was a stone wall, parts of which were deteriorating but others in prime condition; this suggested the land was marked for multiple purposes or animals.


Similar stone wall we stumbled upon in the Catskills. With tress fallen upon it, moss and some deterioration.

Stone Wall

While all the finds (yes archaeologists consider a rusty old can, a pile of rocks and tree stumps finds and we had to stop and mark all of them on the GPS) answered some questions, they left some unanswered and raised others. Who knew how much one can learn from walking in the forest if you pay attention? Archaeologists do more than just dig. They learn about the past, answer questions, and more importantly, help plan for a better future.

Works Citied:

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