Posts tagged with "Archaeology":

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An interview with archaeoacoustician Steven J. Waller

Steven J. Waller practices archaeoacoustics, an emergent subdiscipline of archaeology that studies the sonic dimension of archaeological sites, including a location’s capacity to produce resonance. Waller’s research focuses on rock art. He was the first to theorize that echo, when interpreted by ancient people as spirit beings living in rock, was a motivational factor in rock art image placement. In preceding a science of acoustics, rock art, in Waller’s conception, begins to function as a tool for phonetic transcription or proto-recording, pointing toward the ability of materials to talk back to us—if only we listen.

Emma McCormick-Goodhart: What are the prevalent architectonic and sonic characteristics of rock art sites in the American Southwest?

Steven J. Waller: Much of the rock art in the Southwest is sited in canyons and on cliff faces, rather than in deep caves. A canyon is almost like a cave without a roof on it. Sound still bounces around; it’s just that in deep caves, it’s much more reverberant or resonant. Reverberation is like a thunderous sound, whereas in shallow shelters—canyons or cliff faces—it’s more like a distinct echo that speaks back to you, sometimes with multiple repeats. Shelters are interesting, because they can act like a parabolic reflector, just as antennae dishes focus sound and help to magnify it. There’s a place in Chaco Canyon [in northwestern New Mexico] called Tse'Biinaholts'a Yałti (Curved Rock That Speaks). An artificial mound was built at the focal point of this curved cliff face, and you can actually get an echo that’s louder than the original sound, because it focuses it. There’s a legend associated with a spirit being that’s in the rock. In fact, there’s a whole mythology about portals that open up into a spirit world. Sound reflection helps to give that illusion. It’s like when you look in the mirror, you look in the mirror—and sound reflection gives that same illusion of depth. Even though you can see the rockface, what you’re hearing is depth, as if there’s something beyond there: a chamber or something, where spirits are living. It’s an interesting illusion of space. In the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon [in northern Utah], for instance, it’s like the paintings speak back to you. Sound reflection, as a general phenomenon, would have been inexplicable to ancient people—whether it was a distinct repeat, or a reverberation that blurs together like thunder—because they didn’t know about sound waves. Instead, they had a supernatural explanation for this phenomenon. Hearing it as communication with the spirit world, they sought these spirits deep in caves or way up on cliffs, where sound appears to come from.

How did you “hear your way” into this theory?

I don’t think that it was a Flintstone kind of sound system for their music; I think that it was spiritual. I made my discovery, by accident, at the cave of Bédeilhac, in France. I was standing outside of the cave, waiting for my wife to get a sweater from the car, and I asked myself, if I were a caveman, why would I go deep inside the cave? Why would I only decorate certain chambers? Why would I only depict certain things—and what was taking her so long? I yelled, “Hey, Pat,” and the cave spoke back. My subconscious heard that echo not as an echo, but as a voice speaking back—and I instantly remembered learning about the legends of echo spirits that live in the rock. My subconscious realized ancient people would’ve heard it like an echo spirit calling back to them, calling them into the cave. That was in 1986, and I’ve been going to as many caves and canyons as I can ever since to test my hypothesis about the correspondence of sound and rock art. The more places I go to, the more I hear it.

You argue for the preservation of soundscapes at sites of rock art. Can you elaborate what’s at stake in facsimile production?

It’s a natural offshoot of my theory: the realization that a rock art site is not simply the panel of images, but also the experience of the sound environment around it, which is, I think, what inspired the rock art. There’s effort dedicated to documenting and “preserving” rock art, which to me means keeping the original, but to a lot of people means making copies. They’ll spend months recording every stroke, yet they make no effort to document or study the sound. I think that if they’re making a facsimile or replica and they want people to have a realistic experience, it has to include sound—it has to be audiovisual—or it’s going to be misleading. Lascaux II is completely misleading—it might as well be your living room. The sound is dead. They gave no thought to acoustics at all, even though millions were spent reproducing the shape of the cave to the centimeter, and art to the brushstroke. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical replica of the cave; this can be accomplished with virtual reality.

What might explain this recurring sonic omission?

I think that it’s twofold, at least. One is that we, as modern people, know about sound waves and reflections. We know what an echo is, so it’s trivialized. It’s such a contrast to how echoes were viewed in the past as spiritual phenomena, revered to the point of worship. There are legends around seeking echo, like the Acoma migration story. They would go to places and test for echo, and if the echo was no good, then they would move on. The legend describes a place just to the east of Acoma, where they found the perfect echo. The land area of the Acoma tribe has the Petroglyph National Monument [outside Albuquerque, New Mexico] at its eastern boundary, and it is one of the strongest echoes I’ve ever recorded. There’s also another myth: “The white man calls it an echo; these are witches that live in snakeskin and inhabit sheep. That’s where the echo spirit lives.” Some legends don’t call it an echo, but a “talking rock.” The other thing is that the very name of the thing that we’re studying is rock art, so the attention is focused on the “art,” or the visual. I think it’s more interactive and audiovisual, because of the evidence I’ve collected showing the correspondence between locations that were selected and their sound reflective intensity—so it seems like they purposely chose places with the best echo and reverberation. I don’t think that the art was an afterthought, but an auxiliary part of the ritual.

You’ve written about the percussivity of stone tool production as another source for interpretative “mishearing.”

When you’re flint knapping and making stone tools, those percussion noises—when they echo back—sound like hoofbeats. That’s why certain engravings are of hooved animals. They might’ve even purposefully chosen places like that to make their stone tools, thinking that it might endow tools with magical qualities reinforced by spirits. You could also speculate that that’s how they discovered making tools; that they were banging rocks together to make echoes, and some of them happened to break. Some people have been looking at the tonal quality of some of these blades. It makes you wonder how much sound impact was important for stone toolmaking.

Sound is still physically measurable in rock art sites. Sound doesn’t fossilize, per se, but might it be useful to think of sound as a living fossil layer—a form of what UNESCO would term “intangible heritage”?

That’s an interesting way of looking at it, because it’s not that the sound itself can still be heard, but that the structure of the place—the characteristics of the rock, and the shape—still produces the same phenomenon as it did then. Any effects of erosion add statistical noise or statistical uncertainty, but I think that most of these places are spatially similar enough now to how they were in the past that you can figure the sound is going to be quite similar. You’re not hearing the same airwaves as our ancestors, but the same acoustic response. I try to apply my scientific methodology and hypothesis testing as a basis for arguing for the conservation of soundscapes in order to study rock art not just with our eyes, but with our ears, too.

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Border wall construction could destroy 22 archaeological sites across Arizona

A new 123-page report by the National Park Service (NPS) has detailed the potential loss of ancient artifacts at the southern border as the United States continues to construct an extensive border wall. The culmination of a project conducted by NPS archaeologists at Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the report highlights up to 22 endangered archaeological sites along a short stretch of the wall's path. The report, obtained by The Washington Post via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), is especially significant because of its authorship; the internal report shows concern coming directly from a sector of the federal government. The Organ Pipe Cactus area, which is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, received U.S. National Monument status in 1937. The area covers 330,688 acres of desert land southwest of Phoenix, and the 11.3-mile strip along the border has already seen significant physical damage from increased traffic of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents using all-terrain vehicles. The proposed plan to replace the existing 5-foot-tall vehicle barrier with a 30-foot illuminated steel wall has the potential to cause irreparable damage to archaeological fragments spanning the area’s 16,000 years of inhabitation. Concerns also stem from the ecological implications of dropping such a towering structure in a designated biosphere reserve. Environmentalists have repeatedly fought the federal government’s plans to run the wall through protected areas like the this, citing impositions on wildlife migration and the neglect of critically endangered species. Of particular concern is the Quitobaquito Springs area, an oasis 200 feet from the barrier that is inhabited by a number of threatened and declining species. The identification of these risks comes at a time when CBP is scrambling to complete 500 miles of barrier before the 2020 election at the request of President Trump. As the president continues to share the wall’s progress on social media, his administration continues to fight off lawsuits over construction on protected lands. Construction on the Organ Pipe Cactus reserve-area border wall officially began last month, as construction geared up for part of a 43-mile fence span that also cuts through Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Regufe. Kevin Dahl, Arizona’s senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, described how the time constraints are eliminating steps in the careful process of protecting Arizona’s archaeological sites: “Archaeology takes time, and they have a deadline,” Dahl told The Washington Post. “Putting a wall there is insane. This is just one more reason why ramming this wall through, using illegal, unconstitutional money, is damaging to these public resources. We’re destroying what the wall is supposed to protect.”
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Texas judge halts school construction after 95 bodies unearthed on site

Last week, Texas judge James Shoemake ordered the Fort Bend Independent School District to halt construction after the remains of 95 black prisoners were unearthed on a property it was building on. The site, once known as the “Hellhole on the Brazos,” was the former Imperial State Prison Farm, the infamous home of numerous prison camps and sugar cane plantations where slaves lived and worked in hellish conditions before their subsequent deaths. The property is located in Sugar Land, now one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing cities in Texas just southwest of Houston, but which once served as a graveyard for slaves. It was there, after the district broke ground for a new school, where archaeologists exhumed a massive, 19th-century graveyard of nearly 100 bodies that had been concealed five feet beneath the soil in dilapidated pinewood caskets for decades. According to NBC affiliate KPRC, Judge Shoemake ordered the school district to halt construction so that the human remains could be examined and investigated at the site. “This find is very different from any other,” Judge Shoemake said in an interview with KPRC. “We have a history that’s different. I want some more effort. This is important stuff. Families and communities are affected by this. You came here for permission [to build]; I’m not going to give you permission.” Sugar Land has a unique and shocking history. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the town, located along the Brazos River, served as the epicenter of the country's sugar industry. The convict-lease system flourished throughout the region, targeting former slaves who were leased by the state to private businesses and forced to work in coal mines, plantations, railroads, and state projects. According to The Washington Post, the black “convicts” were imprisoned into the system for offenses as minor as homelessness, flirting with white women, or petty theft, yet they were made to work from sunrise to sunset in the fields, occasionally until they “dropped dead in their tracks.” The Fort Bend Independent School District’s construction site encompasses land that was called “Imperial State Farm Prison Camp No. 1.” Conditions were so horrific that prisoners wrote songs about how they would rather die than live another day of beatings, whippings, and slaving under the hot sun. Private contractors did not care about the health and well-being of their workers. According to W. Caleb McDaniel, a history professor at Rice University in Houston, the convict-leasing system experienced tremendously high levels of disease and mortality. If a prisoner died, a contractor would simply demand a replacement prisoner from the state. More than 3,500 prisoners of ages ranging from 14 to 70 years old died between 1866 and 1912 when lawmakers finally outlawed convict leasing out of utter shock at the death rates. This past summer, a team of archaeologists requested permission from the Texas Historical Commission to conduct a more thorough investigation of the human bones salvaged from the cemetery. Their main goal is to perform DNA testing on the remains in order to identify the prisoners. The Fort Bend Independent School District shares this ambition, telling KPRC that “our sole mission is to educate students and we only exist to learn. The more knowledge we have the better. We want DNA testing. We want answers, we want to connect the body with the name, and we want to tell the story of an individual.” As of last week, Judge Shoemake said he hopes to reconsider his decision to halt construction by March 2019.
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Snøhetta masterfully creates a new museum setting for 17,000-year-old cave art

When I tell people my daughter lives in France, their first thoughts are of Paris. When I say the south of France, they think of Cannes, Nice, and Marseilles. Actually, she lives two hours east of Bordeaux in a beautiful region known as the Dordogne. Buried amongst the stately chateaus and castles is a collection of artwork that has captured the imagination of the world—the cave paintings of Lascaux. Discovered in 1940, these prehistoric works of art were created more than 17,000 years ago in Montignac, France. At first, the caves were open to the public, but were closed in 1963 when it was discovered that humans exhaling carbon dioxide were damaging the artwork. Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original, opened in 1983, and is located 600 feet away. But, even still, human traffic was damaging the original. Subsequently, in 2012, Lascaux III was created as a traveling exhibit and it is currently touring Asia. To bring this whole fascinating story back to life, after it had been closed to the public for over 50 years, a design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. Its mission was to bring this world heritage site out of the darkness and back into the public’s eye, to provide access to the Dordogne region of France as an international cultural and scientific attraction, and to create a greater understanding of the history and meaning that spawned this Paleolithic cave art. The design competition attracted many of Europe’s leading firms, including Mateo Arquitectura, Auer+Weber, and Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Ultimately, in 2013, the jury selected the design team led by Snøhetta, of Oslo, Norway, working with local firm Duncan Lewis and interior-exhibition designers Casson Mann of London. Jury member Bernard Cazeau, a senator representing the Dordogne, said, “From the point of view of the scenography—which was, in our eyes, an essential factor—it’s the most successful project.” Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, one of the founding architects of Snøhetta, explained that “during the process of copying, you discover new information. It was a huge research investment.” The architects and exhibit designers learned how the ancient artists thought and acted. Those painters would draw multiple heads on a horse to simulate movement as the horse swam across a river. The building and its multiple exhibitions work beautifully as an integrated sequence of spaces. Snøhetta is recognized for its integration of landscape and architecture. The Lascaux IV Museum is masterful in this regard. The museum forms the edge of a sloping forest adjacent to a broad field. “The building is an insertion,” Thorsen explained, “a negotiation between the forest and the agriculture.” It is possible to walk from the entry plaza up a slope to the top of the building, not unlike Snøhetta’s design for the Oslo Opera House. “The building is not an abstract,” Thorsen said. It brings the museum experience to a new reality, reminding us we are all part of a 20,000-year continuum. Many people, including this writer, were skeptical about the value of a museum with copies of the cave art. I had visited the original cave paintings in the nearby French town of Rouffignac and have been trained to value original artwork. So how would this team of architects and exhibit designers create a place that could teach us new things, touch our hearts, and move our minds? With imagination, innovation, and technology, they created a whole new world worth every hour of your time and then some. I envisioned a fake cave and a gift shop, but as I approached this bold incision in the landscape, set against the forested hillside, I realized there was much more to this museum than I had imagined. The building is partially buried in the hillside near the original caves. The sequence of spaces skillfully takes the visitor from outside to inside and back outside again. There is, of course, the re-creation of the original caves; with a change in light, acoustics, and humidity, you feel like you are entering down into the cave as the artists did more than 17,000 years ago. Your eyes adjust to the dim light, and the paintings come alive. Over 50 artists and sculptors from the Perigord Facsimile Workshop labored for three years to reproduce the shape and texture of the cave, and, using the same materials as the original artists, captured the color, shape, and form of over 600 animals, 400 signs and symbols, and one human with a bird’s head. The gentle curvature of the cave walls was used to simulate the curvature of the animals’ bodies. It’s impossible not to wonder about who these Paleolithic people were and how they lived. And why did they spend the time and effort to tell us their stories? After exiting the caves, you enter a series of additional exhibition halls and theaters. Pieces of the cave are re-created and suspended from the ceiling. Digital images, projected on the paintings, explain how the artists created layers of meaning over time. Thorsen explained that “the cave has a meaning in its own right. The cave is itself an artifact.” Three mini-theaters trace the history of discovery in the caves since 1940. Then, a separate space, framed by multiple suspended digital monitors, explores how the cave paintings have influenced contemporary artists. Museums have a dual function: first, to display the art within in a visually stimulating way that allows visitors to learn, to grow, and to explore. And second, to create an architecture that engages the community and makes a design statement of its own. Snøhetta achieves both with a deft hand and a keen eye. The image of the building against the forest at dusk is a dramatic sight, expecting to draw nearly half a million visitors per year.
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On View> "Roads of Arabia" Exhibition on Saudi Arabian Archaeology Opens December 19 in Houston

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia The Museum of Fine Arts Houston 5601 Main Street Houston, Texas December 19 through March 9, 2014 The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) is hosting an eye-opening exhibition this winter that will uncover the rich history of the ancient trade routes of the Arabian Peninsula. Organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., in association with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Roads of Arabia will feature objects recently excavated from more than 10 archaeological sites, and give insight into the culture and economy of this ancient civilization. Recently discovered objects along the trade routes include alabaster bowls and fragile glassware as well as heavy gold earrings and monumental statues. All of the artifacts are testament to the lively exchange between Arabs and their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, and Greco-Romans.
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Archaeological Survey in Angkor Reveals Intricacies of Pre-Industrial Urbanism

The US National Academy of Sciences has published the results of a survey performed in April 2012 of the forests of Cambodia, which uncovered a monumental, intricate landscape of low-density urban sprawl connected to ancient ruins of Angkor Wat that dates back to more than 700 years, invalidating archaeologists’ current understandings of pre-industrial urbanism. Until now, scholars have based their thoughts of medieval cities around the world on European cities. This study has revealed a colossal low-density urban system with working citadels and vast infrastructures in Cambodia. Lara Dunston of The Guardian wrote that the “high-tech survey of Khmer Empire sites has rocked the archaeological world and captured travelers’ imaginations.” The densely populated, sophisticated landscape system consists of and links Angkor cities such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon, along with seldom visited medieval city ruins of Phnom Kulen, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, over 62 miles away. Koh Ker, 75 miles from Siem Reap, and Beng Mealea, 32 miles away, were thought of as isolated structures, but the study has revealed that they were actually large outlying service centers for Angkor.