National Geographic ignores ethical considerations yet again

In recent years National Geographic has been knowingly contributing to the destruction of archaeological sites through their TV programming.  The original Diggers show, which is a reality program depicting a team of relic hunters in the United States, aired despite serious concerns from professional archaeologists.  The measures NatGeoTV took to present these concerns as valid were insufficient.  Diggers still promotes looting, lacks diverse perspectives, and contributes to continual misunderstanding of archaeological science.  The latest incarnation, Nazi War Diggers, goes even further into the territory of glorified grave robbing.  The hosts of the show have no training in bioarchaeology, physical anthropology, or forensics and are shown to have little understanding of how to excavate and handle human remains.  The Society for American Archaeology, Society for Historical Archaeology, and National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers have all reached out to NatGeoTV, urging them to not air the show.  Archaeologists around the world have expressed dismay over the utter lack of cultural sensitivity on which these programs thrive, but it is also helpful for those outside the field to protest.  Archaeology is nothing if it does not collaborate with the communities it studies.

So, what can you do?

I would like to say that I expected better from National Geographic, but the reality is that they are a corporation out to exploit culture for money, with natural history only a secondary goal.  The thin veneer of popular science poorly masks their weak ethics when shows such as Nazi War Diggers make it into production.

Learn more about the issues involved by browsing Conflict Antiquities’ Nazi War Diggers tag and Alison Atkin’s letter to National Geographic (UK).

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Petition the US House of Reps to continue publicly funded archaeology!

Petition the US House of Reps to continue publicly funded archaeology!

Please consider signing this petition from the Society for History Archaeology to tell the US House of Representatives not to cut NSF funding for archaeology projects.  Click the link for more information and to sign the petition on Change.org.  You can also read about the issue in this SHA blog post: Why Archaeology Matters: A Petition.

Cooking with Bone Charcoal

When conducting zooarchaeological analysis, I often come across bone fragments that have been heavily charred or even calcined—burned so badly they become a chalky white or gray with varying degrees of distortion.  To calcine a bone, it must be heated repeatedly at high temperatures.  I usually interpret this in 19th century contexts to mean that the household was disposing of their animal remains from meals in their stoves.  Bone grease not only provided extra fuel, but by burning off the remainder of the flesh and marrow before putting bones in the trash, housekeepers greatly reduced the smell.  In large cities where people lived close together, trash pits were in close proximity to residences for easy of disposal before municipal trash removal became a common service.  Naturally, people in the past would want to reduce the smell of their trash as much as possible, as we do today with covered trash bins and plastic bags, so they would burn it, bury it, or throw it in the privy.  However, I’ve never been fully satisfied with this answer.  It leaves too many unanswered questions, such as why wouldn’t burying the trash be sufficient to reduce the smell in most cases and why leave the bones in the stove long enough to become calcined?

Archaeologically, this doesn’t tell us a whole lot about foodways beyond a basic human practicality.  I know I haven’t given it more than a passing thought in my previous projects.  Food studies today have progressed far beyond subsistence, nutrition, and disposal into the realm of identity and cultural meaning.  Old animal bones can tell us quite a bit more than just what people had to eat, and this is what I was thinking about when I opened today’s news from Mother Jones and clicked on an article about sexism in the field of haute cuisine.  What struck me what not the fact that women are being trapped under a glass ceiling in the chef profession (old news, honestly), but that the restaurant Blue Hill in New York is using pork bone charcoal to add a special smoke flavor to certain dishes.

I may be late to the party on this, but the idea of bone charcoal to me opens a door into foodways of the past.  Regular charcoal briquettes that we use in our grills today are charred and compressed carbon matter, which turn white or gray when burned.  Bone charcoal made today is heated twice, once when created, and again when used as fuel, which would be sufficient to turn charring into calcination.  In the 19th century people must have been using some kind of fuel to cook, but the question of where they were getting it is important.  I’ve never made the connection before, but this is the exact same process that produces the calcined bones that we find in archaeological contexts.  I’ve already mentioned the use of bones as fuel, but it is possible that burning bones was not always an exercise in practicality, but rather a deliberate choice in taste.  If we consider taste, which is a combination of biology, learned behavior, and aesthetics, those burned bones suddenly become a lot more interesting.  The problem now is how to link current practices with the archaeological evidence.  Personal documents might be one line of evidence, as well as experimental archaeology to tease out further answers to questions of disposal and historic techniques for making charcoal.  Origins, cultural meaning, gender, and many other factors could have been involved in developing such a cooking technique in addition to taste.  Likely, there is no single answer and each instance will have to be interpreted according to historical context.  And one final question to consider in terms of taste: what else were people using to make charcoal and how were they making it?

If any of my readers have thoughts or information about bone charcoal from any time period, I would love to read them!

Video: The Kish Expedition, 1927-1928

Before joining the MSU anthropology graduate program, I worked on The Field Museum branch of the Kish Project. One of my projects was digitally restoring a short, black and white film that had been shot during the 1927-1928 Kish Expedition field season by an unknown cinematographer. The film is a historical gem that shows scenes from the excavation itself, as well as daily activities, landscapes, local wildlife, and ethnographic material. The following are some clips that have been posted on Youtube by The Field Museum and associates.

Science at FMNH – Exploring Kish (5:44): This video shows researchers Karen Wilson and William Parkinson talking about Kish, the history of the expedition, and the goals of the project, interspersed with clips from the film.

Field Museum-Oxford University Joint Expedition to Kish, Mesopotamia (1923-1929) (23:40): A shortened version of the film showing primarily excavation scenes.

The Field Museum KISH Collection (6:17): Learn about the collection of Kish artifacts housed at FMNH.

For further information, check out the Kish website: http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/kish/index.html. A full publication and site report as a result of the Kish Project will be available in the near future.

Day of Archaeology Recs Part 2

More favorites from Day of Archaeology:

‘And warm with human love the chill of space’: the archaeologist in orbit by Dr. Space Junk

Punk Archaeologist Without Borders by Andrew Reinhard

Valuing Archaeological Finds by Ian Richardson

Photographs as Sources: Documenting a World War II PoW Camp

Ancient Tree Hunts: Linking the Cultural and the Natural, Both Past and Present by Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership

It’s only a box, what’s the worst that could happen? by Sarah Jane Harknett

Sometimes You Just Have to Debunk It by Serra Head

Day of Archaeology Recommended Reading

Now that posting is winding down from Day of Archaeology, I’ve started reading about everyone’s exciting days. Here is a selection of some of my favorites:

Medieval Graffiti in the Waveney Valley by Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group

Metal Detecting and Archaeological Advocacy – Some Observations and Ideas from a Detectorist by Scott Clark

High Crimes – Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes by Donna Yates

A love letter to my village by Guy Hunt

Archaeology Stories and Discovery by Beth Pruitt

Academic Archaeology with Kids by Alexis McBride