Monday, August 11, 2014

The season comes to an end

Another season comes to an end at Poggio Colla. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

2014 Season, Here We Come

The new season at Poggio Colla is underway and we are back on top of the hill exploring the ancient Etruscan past. As usual, brambles overtook the site, but this time, we made the students help us remove them. Ha! Suckers.

We are finally finished unbackfilling two trenches, after days of picking, shoveling, and wheelbarrowing. PC 45 has been unveiled!

We broke ground in my old trench after leaving it abandoned last season. Interesting new info about the site's construction history has already been revealed and, for once, it makes sense. I am in stratigraphy heaven!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lessons from Feral Cats, or My Year as the Cat Lady

This last year, while teaching at the University of Tennessee, I lived at a place that hosted a pre-existing feral cat colony of 20-30 beastlings. During the year, I therefore learned quite a bit about ferals; most of my neighbors had no desire to deal with the cats or feed them, and I couldn't stand strong against the cats' protruding ribs and desperate meows.

Policy nowadays with feral cats is ‘TNR, trap-neuter- release.’ Local feral cat groups will help by supplying traps and paying for the procedure at participating vets. I trapped and neutered the majority of the cats (with a little help from one kind neighbor, who took in a few herself). It’s a slow process, depending on how many traps one has available and how many spots the vets have open on their ‘feral fixin’ days.

Momma Cat, her kitties, and Yellow Cat, investigating the traps.

The other problem is that wild cats are prone to feline leukemia, a truly vicious disease that is spread through grooming and sniffing and sneezing on each other. It manifests in a wide variety of horrible ways, including pneumonia-like symptoms, stomach problems, or slow starvation. And so, after TNRing so many, I found two dead on my doorstep and five more had to be put down. It was a depressing and draining several months.

Then there was the problem that, the first few times I encountered a sick or injured kitty, I rushed it to the vet. I did not realize that various vets charge dramatically different prices for the same procedure. I learned to my intense frustration that one should ALWAYS call several vets to get price quotes before tearing down the road. One should also feel confident about refusing to pay for poor service. After Powell Animal Hospital mistook a loose baby tooth for a shattered tooth that HAD to be pulled immediately, only to discover on the operating table that it was actually a simple offering for the Kitty Tooth Fairy, I was still charged several hundred dollars for all the surgery expenses. Certainly I complained and asked them to reduce the price due to their ineptitude, but like a fool I still paid them. In the end, my first few months with the ferals cost me nearly $1500 that I could not afford.

The lesson? Feral cat groups actually have accounts set up with certain vets and they will help you in dire situations, so always call your feral contact person first!

It’s not all trials and tribulations, of course. As soon as I moved in, a momma cat with three kittens showed up and over the year I gentled them and turned them into perfect pets. Phantom went on to find a home at the Pet Smart Saturday Adoption Event. She is happy and healthy and has a family that adores her now.

Phantom, still in the wild.
Phantom’s Brother, who I contemplated naming Lover, Rake, or Mr. Darcy, stared boldly and deeply into your eyes while being petted. Alas, after losing all interest in playing with his sisters, dropping weight, and beginning to look fragile and creaky, I discovered he had leukemia and he had to be put down. I held him in my arms and wept the entire time.

His last sister is the ever-demanding, hilarious, and extremely energetic Mayhem. This kitty wants to play all the time and to my surprise, taught herself to play fetch. Whether it’s a bit of plastic or one of the crocheted ropes I made her, she loves nothing more than to go galloping after it and drag it back to you. She was the one I couldn't bear to give away. As an archaeologist involved in fieldwork overseas, the pet situation can be complicated. Mayhem will be spending the summer with my mother, where she is gamboling about, safe, full of food, and no longer a hollow-eyed feral cat.  

Mayhem, in October, napping.
Keep yourself educated about feral cats - why they can be good for neighborhoods, how you can build them winter shelters, and most importantly, how to control their population. Check the web for your local feral cat groups, or read these sites:                                                                                                                        

Education material from Alley Cat Allies

Feral Feline Friends in East Tennessee (w/o these ladies I would have been buried by my feral cat disasters)       

Friday, June 6, 2014

The excavation season begins

Things are picking up in the ancient Mediterranean field season. Many digs started in early May, in order to follow the summer schedule of universities on the semester system. I myself won't head over until the end of June.

If you'd like to keep up with some of the people I know (sort of) already working in Greece, here are some links:

Follow along with Kostis Korelis, who will be mapping tiny villages and houses in Greece (Objects-Buildings-Situations) Always interested in domestic architecture, Kostis will examine houses that still stand, as well as houses long gone (via archives). Not only will you find great insights on this blog, but you'll also get to see Kostis' wonderful drawings and sketches. Additionally, a Poggio Colla student is representin' on the house project, our very own Joel Naiman!

Then there is Bill Caraher's The Archaeology of the Mediterranean (recently moved to Wordpress from here), which follows Bill's fieldwork with students in the Argolid. It includes some beautiful pictures and discussion of archaeological methodologies, such as surveys.

For pictures of Roman villas destroyed by Vesuvius, follow archaeologists such as Angela Trentacoste on the Oplontis Project Facebook page.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What to Bring to Poggio Colla

Every year a list goes out that advises the Poggio Colla Archaeological Field School students what to bring. I think, now that I am in my fifth year with the project, I am become wise in the ways of the Mugello Valley (or as scientists will correct you, the Basin). It behooves me, then, to add some to that advice and create a  list of my own. Let me share my wisdom, or more plainly, the list that the ever illustrious Trench NW 6 helped me make last summer.

1)  Gloves. The Right Kind. Every year I am pleased to see that eager students bring a pair of gloves, but saddened to find that they’re the wrong kind of gloves, the kind that won’t last the season and sometimes even the week. Don’t get me wrong, no one brings lacey numbers fit for a Regency Ball, but usually the big mistake in evidence is the purchase of gardening gloves.

Ahem. Let me say first that archaeology is not gardening. Archaeology is heavy manual labor. Fabric gloves and those rubbery doodads disintegrate with a quickness, especially in a woodland environment. So, in the interest of your daily happiness, be sure to bring true work gloves, leather being the best sort, in my opinion. Because I have tiny hands, I prefer thin leather gloves which also allow me to ‘feel’ the soil and artifacts being handled (thick heavy-duty work gloves hinder that oh-so-vital sense of touch so important in fieldwork). If you would like something softer that won’t shred your hands but will still hold up, go for something like this, which is what I use:

You might get a hole in the finger, but generally they hold up pretty well. 

2) Clippers. You’ll be asked to bring a pair of clippers, something that surprised me when I first came to PC, thanks to my background in archaeological contexts that might include four roots in an entire trench. At PC, you will be digging in a woodland environment and there will be roots, roots, roots everywhere. This leads to the clipper problem, because the standard hand clippers that you can buy at Lowes and Target just won’t cut it. (See what I did there?) They’ll break or jam and will generally be useless. Indeed, the garage at Guardia the Dig House is overflowing with buckets of cast-off clippers, none of which work. So invest in a strong, good-quality pair of hand clippers and prepare to guard them with your life. To be honest, in my dream world, everyone would also bring their own personal Cyndi Laupers (aka Loppers, but ha, ‘tis only a fantasy.)

3) Trowel. Duh, this is archaeology and trowels are important. Be forewarned, however, that hardware stores mostly carry brick laying trowels, which are too big when it comes to the blade and include handles uncomfortably large for smaller hands. Since the trowel will become an extension of your limb, it wouldn't hurt to order something from Marshalltown. I use a Battiferro.

My first season working in Italy I was thrown off to find that Italian archaeologists don’t use trigonos. The trigono (‘triangle’) is used as often as the trowel at Greek sites. I always liked it because it doesn’t put the same pressure on your wrist and (in my imagination at least) eases trowel tendinitis. So this year I am bringing my own trigono, too.

More commonly known as the 'shavehook.'

4) Mugello Microclimate Appropriate Clothes. I froze during my first season at Poggio Colla. I was a Greek archaeologist, used to islands in the Cyclades and hot breezy days in Naufplio. The thick opaque mist encasing my house when I awoke in 2010 was not at all what I was expecting, and not at all within the bounds of appropriate excavating weather, in my experience, thank you very much. With my t-shirts and gym shorts and single hoody, I felt like I was an extra in Frozen. But now I am aware that the Mugello Valley is far north of those baking Mediterranean sites I so adored and in fact exists within its own microclimate. This means that Poggio Colla can experience some searing hot days (as we saw in the drought-cracked summer of 2012) but it can also be surprisingly chilly and rainy.

For this reason I suggest: a pair of jeans and house pants for home, a pair of work pants for the site. Sweatshirts and hoodies for at-home and on-site. Jammies that are WARM, flannel and long-sleeved. I even bring one of those travel style down jackets from Target. This does not mean that at times you won’t be dying of heat stroke and wishing for a miu miu, but you’ll need to be prepared for a weather-pattern that varies significantly throughout the season.

5) A Mini Flashlight. Comes in handy, I promise, even on-site for the badger holes.

6) Dude, Granola Bars. You cannot buy granola bars cheaply in the Mugello, and I promise you will be hoping for easy snacks when you’re on-site. I bring a case of Cliff bars.

7)  Deodorant. Yes, yes, I know, I shouldn't have to tell you this. Due to the potential fine for overweight baggage, most travelers usually suggest forgoing your own shampoo and heavy bath products, since you can get them at the Coop (grocery store). But packing your own deodorant is a ‘must’ because in the Mugello the only kind of roll-on deodorant you can get is the wet kind. Ew, gross. Texturific in a bad way. (I just made that word up, btw.) Every summer there is a great deal of distress caused by the deodorant issue, so please, bring your own.

Note well, however. If you use a special personal product of some sort, like a face cream or what have you, keep in mind that you won’t be able to buy it in the Mugello and you are best to bring it with you. (Heavy duty hand cream, for example. This year I am actually bringing this, for archaeology hands.) All the normal stuff will be available in Vicchio, but if a lack of Chanel no. 5 will make you cry, bring it with you.

8) Sunscreen and Bug Spray. As a follow up to the last point, you can buy both of these at the Coop, but the bug spray will include 9 kinds of deet and the sunscreen will be a paraben colony. Which is fine, if you’re into that. If you have favorite all-natural products, you know what to do.

9) Mosquito Net.  Note Angela the Bone Lady’s nest from last year.

On that first night, as she acrobatically maneuvered ropes over the ceiling beams and I read my Kindle in bed, I chuckled at (what I thought to be) her over-zealousness. Two days later I was wrong, and wished I could steal her mosquito-free nest. This will be even more important in Vigna the Student House, where people come and go, doors open and close in the night, and mosquitoes thrive as the unconquered fifth column. I almost suggest bringing a second mosquito net so you can duct tape it over your window and doorway!

10) Ear plugs. Crucial. I find these useful because the mosquitoes flying around my head can’t faze me. But more importantly, other people snore. Or stay up late. When Sleep and I have a date, silence must reign.

11) Something For the Pain. And there will be pain. This is archaeology after all. You think Indiana Jones wasn't sore and stiff after a busy day destroying Nazis and crushing antiquities? This year I am trying out this product, on the advice of my physical therapist:

You'll know if it works, depending on how much I groan and grumble about my old person's body.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Teaching Mondrian and 'The Matrix'

Abstract art, so they say, hasn't been well received by the general public in the United States since the 1913 Armory Show in New York. As it was presenting the likes of Picasso, Duchamp, and Cezanne, the public was not especially overjoyed by the contents. Since then, many Americans still find abstract art to be baffling, offensive, and most frequently, something of a joke.

I get a somewhat similar reaction when teaching 20th century abstract art in the art history survey. As an art that was more interested in high concepts rather than accessibility, it can be a difficult subject to make interesting for art n00bs.

That's why I find that Mondrian is actually my favorite of the abstract artists to teach in class. He was dogmatic, inflexible, and I think rather inflexible in the end, but for me he is a perfect teaching example.

Mondrian’s art was rooted in philosophy. He was interested in Theosophy, Blavatsky, and Schoenmaekers, believing that beneath the deceptive world around us lay the hidden structure of the universe. That underlying universal truth found expression in mathematics. Think, for example, of the inevitable expressions of math in nature: the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden ratio, hidden spirals in conch shells. It now appears that even hunter-gathers participate in the Lévy walk, a mathematical pattern of movement observed in bees and sharks.

Especially important for Schoenmaekers was the visual contemplation of this hidden cosmic reality (according to White (p. 25), a result of Shoenmaekers’ background as a Catholic priest combating Protestant ‘inwardness’). Artists could access this hidden mathematical structure of the universe using that oh-so-very visual branch of math, geometry. And so Mondrian stuck with squares and rectangles, lines, and, of course, the three primary colors (the subatomic particles of color, if you will). Naturalism in painting was deceptive, a lie, and it should be the goal of artists to reveal the true cosmos that exists beneath the world around us and perpetuate that truth for others.

This is some pretty heavy stuff  for an introductory class, but I can’t help but get excited about it because it relates to my research interest in iconographic theory. Yet, how to easily get across to students the point that Mondrian paints the core elements of the universe that lay beyond the lying natural world that lies?

For me, and probably anyone born after the creation of Star Trek TNG’s holodeck, a parallel between virtual reality and Mondrian's world quickly comes to mind. This is most helpfully articulated by ‘The Matrix.’ In that movie, humans are trapped in a fake world, a world made of lies that they don’t see and cannot recognize. The entire world is a computer's creation, while humans happily putter along, oblivious.

But Neo, like Mondrian, can access the hidden structure of the world, he can ‘see’ what lies beneath. And for Neo, is it mathematics? 

No, it’s code. But, of course, what is code? Numbers. Zeros and ones.

Like Neo, Mondrian wants to reveal the hidden reality to all, to make it clear as day. But alas, Mondrian finds that cosmic structure to be beautiful and wants to celebrate it, while Neo wants to destroy it. Because in ‘The Matrix,’ that mathematical structure of the universe is just another level of deception.

Nevertheless. ‘The Matrix’ and Mondrian. It’s still a pretty fun comparison – if one were to break down the visual world into its base code, the fundamentals of visual programming, wouldn’t it just be lines, shapes, and primary colors?

Who knew Keanu Reeves could help me teach abstract art?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Here Lies Bonita, UTK Pup

Before the summer began and Poggio Colla's excavation became my primary blogging topic, I was engaged in a mini-project about what I dubbed 'heirloom archaeology.' This referred to locally significant objects in a domestic structure inhabited for over 60 years by my family. When it came to the blog, I never quite made it inside the house, mostly focusing on historically interesting objects outside in the yard, such as plantsreligious images, and tools.

There is one class of items that I did not address, however, yet an emotional and archaeologically significant one: sixty years worth of pets. Most recently Tigger, after bravely falling in battle against stray dogs, joined his predecessors in the garden. My aunt and uncle's house is not unusual in this regard, and I recently came across an unexpected example here at UTK.

I should note first that it's only been in recent years that theorists have begun to reconsider the common divide between mortuary and domestic archaeology. While cemeteries were often separated out from living areas (the tombs located outside ancient city gates being illustrative examples), ever since Jericho bodies have been buried within houses. Indeed, sometimes they ARE houses. Kostis Kourelis, for example, conceptualized the Byzantine house as one constructed not just of harder architectural materials, but one built from the organic materials of flesh, bone, and burials.The living and the lost inhabit the same space in the archaeological record far more frequently than previously recognized.

I've been thinking about mortuary archaeology lately thanks to UTK's campus, which provides several examples of a rather thought-provoking nature. First, there's the Woodland-era Native American burial mound in the UT gardens, which might date back to the 7th c. CE. Then there is the Body Farm with its in-situ remains studied by students working in forensic anthropology, together with over 2,500 human skeletons stored under the football stadium in the anthro department.

And then there is the modern burial of that domestic pet next to the library, in what used to be the back garden of the Tyson family's home. The Neoclassical ('Colonial Classic') Tyson House is now part of the campus' office building collection. No Tysons live in it any longer and the six acres of their luxurious property, complete with a ballroom for their daughter's 1913 debut, has in the hundred years since its construction been swallowed up by the campus. That daughter Isabella had a puppy who, supposedly, her father brought home to her from a military stint in Puerto Rico. Named Bonita, the puppy would be lovingly interred in a back garden, much like pets today.

The former back garden with the back of the yellow Tyson House.

Little Bonita's grave would be attached to the deed when Isabella sold the house in the 30s, with the result that all future owners must leave it inviolate. My first thought on learning about little Bonita's spot was that it seems like a great comparative example for teachers covering ancient sanctuaries and abatons. The beautiful back garden of the Tyson home, where the city elite wandered at the beginning of the last century, is now a parking lot. A parking lot with this strange thing under a shady tree:

Here lies Bonita.

There's no inscription, there's no image, no marker with an Ode to Puppies, flowering bushes, red ferns, or other such clues as to what lies beneath. There is nothing whatsoever to indicate to the passing students that such an interesting (and rather touching) remnant of history rests here, on their path to Starbucks.

Just a boundary marker and a blank stone. I have to say its a bit strange to me that this is the case, especially at a university with a mascot that's a dog! If nothing else, it's certainly a reminder about memory, mortuary archaeology, and how easy it is to forget.