fun stuff

On Blades and Boulders

This post includes some trivia and other updates:

• In 1907, the last mountain in Japan thought left unclimbed was Mt. Tsurugi. A team went up the mountain that year… and found that someone had left a sword there. Later this sword turned out to be over 1000 years old* (Wikipedia).

That sword is now enshrined in a museum, and you can read its leaflet here. A sword is a pretty badass way to leave a marker somewhere. Imagine if one had been left on the moon, instead of a flag.

🗡🗡🗡

On the topic of Japanese blades:

• Japanese chefs’ knives are some of the most expensive in the world. Making them is an art craft that has been handed down over many generations.


• I am deciding whether for Semester 2 I would prefer to take a topic on Rock Art or Stone Artefacts.

Fun fact:

• Some Indigenous cultures make markings on cave walls for gender-specific viewing – only women are meant to see some paintings, and men others. If I study rock art this coming semester, I could tell you why. 🎨🪨

• On the other hand, stone tools are the ancestors of knives, which is decidedly awesome.

• The above aside, I have not applied for further topics in Archaeology for 2022; the reason being that a clean multiple of X (ie X, 2X, 4X) number of uni topics have to be completed by December, to keep non-Archaeology options on the table for 2023. I could apply for more later, but won’t yet. Watch this space.

• I turned a year older. Encouragingly, a friend commented over one lunchtime that I was not fretting about the usual existential crises. This might be attributed to currently having partially-baked life goals, or being in a food coma that afternoon, or both.

One of my favourite cartoons. Artist unknown, but they are spot on.

Anyway, how are you? Do you like knives? If you were hypothetically forced to enter and view one of two museum exhibitions by a short and obsessed museum warden – one full of cave paintings and one full of stone tools – which room would you select?

Image credit: pexels.com

*Yes, I did read about Mt. Tsurugi in a viral social media post before recycling this here.

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journal, fun stuff

The archaeology of poisons and medicine

Greetings from a hospital bed in a friendly neighbourhood!

I rocked up to work on Saturday morning with what I thought was bad gas. I thought I would push through the day but it got difficult to stand and talk. Suspecting something was wrong, I left and checked myself into hospital. A few hours of worrying I would pass air in a busy waiting room, four different COVID tests and one blood test later, the doctors confirmed were extremely sure I had appendicitis.

Long story short, I had a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery) and am now minus one vestigial organ, dosed up on a good number of painkillers, and feel great (for the time being, as the drugs are working).

Image credit: pexels.com

In the spirit of what’s been happening, I got to looking around about anaesthesia, then poisons and drugs, and ancient medical procedures. So here is a post on them! Warning: Skip if you are squeamish.

• The word “toxic” comes from the Greek word toxon, meaning “bow”. The association likely comes from hunting, and archaeologists think that Paleolithic humans poisoned the tips of their spears to hunt, but to prove this happened is tricky. The detection of these poisons is an area of archaeological research.

• According to this article on the history of anaesthesia, the ancient Italians would put a wooden bowl over a patient’s head and knock them until they were unconscious so they could carry on with surgery. Certainly seems a lot cheaper than hiring an anaesthetist.

Image credit: pexels.com

• Once upon a time, people tried to get around feeling the pain of doctors cutting them open with opium and alcohol.

• The first successful application of anaesthesia as we recognise it today was done by a dentist, William Morton, in 1846. What a dentist was doing knocking someone out to remove their neck tumour I am not sure, but hooray for Dr. Morton! (?)

Trepanation is the process by which folks as far back as the Neolithic period literally bore a hole in people’s skulls to get rid of something bad in the person’s head. The procedure was possibly superstitious in origin than truly medical (eg to get rid of bad spirits). Trepanation is the oldest surgical procedure discovered by archaeology.

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, c.1488–1516

Couching is the earliest method of getting rid of cataracts. A cataract is the clouding of the crystalline lens in the eye (almost universal in humans as we age), and couching is when you literally poke them with a needle so the opaque lens falls into the eye. It was documented practice as early as 800BCE in ancient India.

Sadly, couching is still practiced in developing countries, and trepanation in … developed* … parts of the world.


How are you this week? Know any poisons/medical related trivia? Do you still have your appendix? 

*See first comment on this post by Ashley L. Peterson.

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news, world

Pestilence and Patient Zero

Pestilence: a topic we can all relate to.

In the mid fourteenth century, a tiny organism (bacteria) hitchhiked on another tiny organism (flea) which hitchhiked on another smallish organism (rat).

Image credit: pexels.com

This little road trip was a costly one, as it happened everywhere in Europe and killed anywhere between 75 to 200 million people.

Of course, I am writing about the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and got its name from “Bubo”, which refers a lump that arises from lymph nodes in an infected individual. Not unlike today, people were checking their bodies for lumps because they were worried about what it meant for their health.

Other interesting facts:

• The Plague also presents in other ways – pneumonic (lungs) and septicaemiac (blood infection). Bumps and lumps are simply the most common way it turns up.

• If a group of 100 infected people were left untreated, the disease would kill between 30-100 of them.

• It was also known as the “Black Death” (mors atra in Latin) to refer to the darkness of how lethal it was, and the term was used to describe such diseases in Homer’s Odyssey.

• This disease still crops up in several thousand people each year across the world. In 2020, one such case was confirmed in California, a first since 2015.

I was interested in this again because it was reported in the news only recently that researchers have found the earliest tombstones in present day Kyrgyzstan, pointing to where the Bubonic Plague first started. This was determined by an uptick in the number of deaths after 1338 and the word “Pestilence” was etched in some of the gravestones. They also excavated skeletons and checked their teeth, and confirmed presence of Yersinia pestis (Link is to the article in The Guardian).

It’s sort of like discovering who Patient Zero was, only seven centuries after the fact. Wild huh?

Image credit: pexels.com

Nowadays I get the impression that people have paid a bit of thought to how they want to be remembered after they die, and I would guess that most people would rather their epitaphs to mention good qualities rather than cause of death. Which is fair enough.

Just for interest – Do you care about what words might be used on your headstone, hypothetically?

Reference

Stenseth, N., Atshabar, B., Begon, M., Belmain, S., Bertherat, E., Carniel, E., Gage, K., Leirs, H. and Rahalison, L., 2008. Plague: Past, Present, and Future. PLoS Medicine, 5(1):3.

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forensics, journal, university

End of S1

Semester 1 is over. Goodbye, Surprise-4000-Word Assignment and 2000-Word Report on Planning A Project.

The plan I wrote basically involved driving a GPR over a disused cemetery where all the markers are missing (aka a Pioneer Park), then plug that data into computer software and create a rainbow “heat map” where all the old burials are.

You see, GPRs normally produce images called radargrams. Radargrams do not look dissimilar to grey TV static, and require a human interpreter to scrutinise patterns + see if they can detect changes in the masses of grey lines to find subsurface stuff. (Anyone who Google Image searches ‘GPR data’ will see examples of what I mean).

Image from pexels.com. Not far off from an actual GPR pic.

In contrast, below is an example of what a computer-modelled gravesite looks like (Minecraft anyone?):

3D plot of a real Cemetery in Nova Scotia, by Kelly et. al (2021)

Buried objects and people should become harder to miss when they are plotted intuitively like this. So this can be useful for forensic scientists too.

I borrowed the idea for this assignment, and that image, from this paper.

Just before I hit submit, I realised the marking rubric said the project had to span 4 weeks. With no good sense of how long archaeology projects take, I had written a lovely long Timeline that would have allowed project participants to dally around for 3 months getting materials together. Had to rewrite that section quick-ish.

Other things which have been happening:

• I found an old piano going second hand for $250, and have been noodling around on that.

• People at work know I’m enrolled in a certificate in Archaeology. I had only said that I had tagged along with researchers on a study when I took annual leave, but ex-students from the uni put 2+2 together. So it’s not really a secret now. Coworkers are pretty good about it. Only Corporate doesn’t know (yet)

• For the second time in my life, I have submitted an application to med school. This is an old dream. It took 15 minutes and was anticlimactic. Now I’m older and have learnt more things, I am okay with whatever the outcome is. We’ll see what happens.

Hope everyone is healthy, happy and well.


Reference

Kelly, T., M. Angel, D. O’Connor, C. Huff, L. Morris. G. and Wach 2021. A novel approach to 3D
modelling ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data – A case study of a cemetery and applications
for criminal investigation. Forensic Science International, (325):1-15.

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Australia, journal, university

Sweet mysteries of antiquity

A long long time ago, in 2012, the remains of the Lord of Ireland and last King of England to die in battle, Richard III, was found in a car park.

Above link leads to info page. Contains images of human remains.

Image: pexels.com

The Wikipedia page also says he happened to be right under a parking space where the tarmac had been painted R (for ‘Reserved’).

It’s a neat coincidence, and I like to imagine that in the spirit realm he trying to use the parking lot as a giant Ouija board* all that time to tell people where he was.

I found out about Richard III because I have been running around for another assignment, trying to come up with a Proposal. AKA: practice asking for money from hypothetical VIPs to invade sites to do archaeology. Number of words written: 0 out of ~2000.

A lecturer told me that in the 1960s and 1970s, some community clubs (think: similar to Rotary or Lions) would go to old cemeteries, and if the headstones were crumbling they would shove them to one side, and place a lawn over the graves so they could have spaces for lovely green parks.

Anything for lawn bowls, amirite?

Image credit: wikimedia commons

This is probably what I will write on when I am done typing frantically for the other 4000 word assignment on Glenthorne. Number of words written for that one: ~3800/4000.

To revisit, Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the 19th Century, and burnt down mysteriously in 1932. Little about it was documented.

An interesting thing occurred yesterday as I was reviewing the historical records. I had a lightbulb moment 💡. The records only point to a vague possibility there was more than one fire, but I am entirely convinced that there were two events, about six years apart, that were critical to the destruction of the house. The evidence was always there, but simply jumbled.

It was quite exciting to have this realisation, and I hope to blog about in more detail once I’ve submitted the assignment. I wonder if they would accept a theory postulated by a student as mainstream.

I hope everyone is doing well! I am still reading WordPress posts in my feed, and will channel words towards commenting again when I have done more homework.


*You could pay me to survey graves but not any amount of money to use a Ouija board, as I find that stuff creepy AF.

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journal, university

Photogrammetry, and then some

At field school, we were introduced to the awesome concept of Photogrammetry.

Image credit: pexels.com

Essentially, it’s taking multiple photos of one thing from slightly different angles, then a computer matches all the pixels across those photos to generate info about the object in 3D – down to, say, the last hairline crack in a brick.

I don’t know about everyone else, but getting something in three dimensions from flat images sounds a little bit like wizardry (yes, our brains do this with our retinas and depth perception, but I meant the fact we’ve worked out how do this with literal metal, plastic and pixels).

Cartoon by Jim Benton, whose books are hilarious. This wizard has generated a 3D lemon.

These are some notes I took from our instructors:

• This method doesn’t like vegetation very much, due to the mess and high detail.

• The software used by the archaeologists at uni is called Metashape.

• Photos can be analysed at any resolution, eg from 4K to potato quality.

• Obviously, the better the res, the more 3D information you have, but the time it takes for your computer to think and spit out data goes up exponentially.

• An interesting application of photogrammetry occurred after a Middle Eastern site (building?) was destroyed by terrorists. The locals asked for people to donate photos, and from the ones that poured in that had been taken by tourists, they were able to reconstruct the site.

Pretty neat!

From my notebook

In other news,

• I made a friend in my class, who also discovered Archaeology after an identity crisis. They came a long way from overseas. We have a fair bit in common, and I think the universe is funny.

• There was a club fair at the university last week. I registered interest in a few of them, and one group told me I won a gift voucher for joining – yay! Although, the people had told me I was their first recruit that day. I sincerely hope it does not mean I was the only person to join the Environmental club.

• I had underestimated the field school topic. I didn’t realise there was a 4000-word report to hand in after the trip when I enrolled – oops. Should be writing that, right now…

• There are some thesis projects available next year along the themes of Forensics and Chemistry and I may/may not get involved.

Current status: assignments within date, but am about a week behind in readings. It has been amazing to me how quickly a week slips by; fingers crossed that uni does not dry up all the words and time I use for blogging.

How’s your week been?

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journal, university

Kindness of others; Detective work

“You will never meet a close-minded archaeologist.”

Unknown

📖

I should have made a note of where I heard or read this in the past week – it was mentioned, and got stuck in my head.

The people running the Archaeology department are some of the kindest teaching staff I’ve ever met. Whenever a student made a mistake and said sorry, more than once I heard, “No! Don’t apologise! You are learning!” And all of them are so nice that I just want to buy all of them weeks’ worth of beers, although you are not supposed to drink on archaeological field trips.*

April’s field school did indeed support the idea that archaeologists are very open as people**. It has been both refreshing and comforting. My experience of teachers throughout uni has now officially been the full range of let’s-belittle-students-until-they-cry (this was elsewhere), to the above.

Bless good folk!

🕊☮️

These are a handful more other things we did at field school:

Pedestrian Surveying is literally walking in a row with your team mates, and scanning the ground for man-made objects with your eyes.

• We sieved through buckets and buckets and buckets of dirt, clay, and rocks, and every time we found even a tiny item of interest, they went into bright containers labelled Metal, Glass, Ceramic and Other. This bit was hard work…

Here is an old bone from an ovine (sorry, fellow vegos). Turns out the land in O’Halloran’s estate was often used for cropping and farming. A morbidly fascinated part of me wondered if there would be any forensic archaeology of 90-year-old crime at this field school, but no, it was just sheep.

🐑

These trays got taken to the Artefact Processing station, where absolutely hundreds of tiny bits of human-made objects were catalogued into Excel Spreadsheets, and we practiced being magpie-accountant hybrids.

I saw first-hand how a lot of detective work goes in to analysing little bits of items that are found.

Good times!

One more interesting idea that I came across while doing assignments is that police, forensic scientists and archaeologists all seek to reconstruct human actions by looking at things and/or bodies left behind – the time periods are generally thought of as different, but the principles are the same. This was mentioned in a paper by Dr Soren Blau.

💻💻

How is your week? Do you think the things around your house reveal some telling things? What has your experience with teachers been like?


Photos: all mine.

*For safety reasons, as levels of sobriety and the incidence of falling into trenches are inversely related, probably.

**I realised, paradoxically, a truly open archaeologist may be open to the idea of there being a close-minded archaeologist.

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journal, university

Between a rock and a hilly place

This appears to be a pile of rocks. It sits on top of a hill, in Glenthorne National Park, South Australia. It was not known about until very recently, when a worker involved in the development of trails stumbled upon it, in the tall grass.

Photo: mine

The worker’s colleagues all said it was probably just nothing, but he said he had a funny feeling it was significant:

• From the hill, you can see many fields, and the ocean in the distance; it is a peaceful view.

• The rocks were clearly not from around the National Park. Some were rounded, which only happens to rocks that have been made smooth by the ocean

• The placement of the rocks looked very intentional, with some edges interlocking, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. This suggests that they were all hand placed.

The deliberate placement of this pile of rocks lead the gentleman to conclude that this was likely a grave.

‼️

The construction workers eventually agreed to fence the rocks off out of respect.

This remains unconfirmed, but likely. In discussions with the head Archaeologist on our team, I gathered that they thought it probably was not a human’s grave, as:

• The present-day National Park was owned by very important, influential colonialists in the 19th Century, and people who died would have had Christian burials down by the Church.

• Non-Christian persons around at the time would have been Aboriginal Australian, who do not like to have hard objects over their resting places, so this is unlikely.

• Another reason this could have been a private burial was that this was a scandalous one, like a lady of the night. However, the elevation, sentimental atmosphere of the hill and the rock placement would seem at odds with this hypothesis.

Glenthorne National Park is on land that was owned by the First Police Commissioner of South Australia, Major Thomas O’Halloran, who sailed to Australia from London in 1838. As mentioned, he was very influential, and he owned stallions in his time, which is like a modern day squillionaire collecting Maserati sports cars.

The worker and head Archaeologist suggested this was likely the grave of a prized horse, if not Major O’Halloran’s most prized horse.

An Arabian horse. Photo by Ealdgyth, from Wikimedia commons.

The grave will unlikely be excavated (I have since learnt on the field trip that it is common consensus in Archaeology that digging is often the last resort for investigating a site, due to its destructive nature*).

The site obviously meant something special to someone, and we now have the technology to analyse/scan what is under the earth without disturbing it with shovels, and so this is what archaeologists are going to do for further research projects.

🐎

So there you have it! Our field trip last week was at Glenthorne. The horse grave was a little diversion from the main project though. Archaeologists are actually looking for this house:

c.1919 Image credit: State Library of South Australia

This three story mansion was called Glenthorne House, built in the 19th Century. It passed down wealthy colonialist families before it was given to the military, who billeted soldiers there.

The house was burnt down in 1932, and questions remain around why it happened: Did the army blow it up on purpose? Where did they hide the rubble?

And that’s what we were digging for – an unresolved 90-yo mystery. I felt a little bit like I was in a Scooby Doo episode when I heard the brief.


*I could rename this blog, but Dreams of Surveying doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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Australia, journal, university

Ground Penetrating Radar

Here is a GPR, which stands for Ground Penetrating Radar:

This $300,000 baby can detect objects and graves, 3 metres in the earth below it, as it collects signatures from disturbances in the soil. It speaks to about 4 satellites in the sky and so its precision in locating artefacts on Earth is accurate down to the centimetre.

It also is (literally) a repurposed lawnmower.

My face really did look like that.

You drive it like a tractor in swathes through the field, and the technology maps that field, telling the archaeologist if there’s anything to investigate.

According to the scientist who recently acquired it on behalf of our university, there is only one GPR in the entire Southern Hemisphere.

Something really awesome that happened by pure chance is that my paired group was the first to to be stationed here, during the first rotation on the first day.

When our professor was done with briefing – “right, who wants to drive it?!” – the other girl in my group, who doesn’t drive a car, looked at me in alarm. I was already itching to clamber on, and so I did. I can now say I was literally the first student ever to operate the only GPR on this side of the planet*. Wooo!

This week I’ve been at my first archaeological field school, and will upload more about what we were researching over the next few posts. I just had to dedicate one post about what we did first on Day 1.


*I don’t need to impress anyone as this blog is essentially anonymous, but this is true, and I was chuffed.

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journal, university

Archaeologists in Court

Last week, there was an optional class teaching fledgling archaeologists to give evidence in court. I thought I’d better make myself available, in case I ever find dead bodies and have to file a report to the police (how on Earth did I get to write such a sentence?)

Some important things:

• Archaeologists hired as expert witnesses are not supposed to be advocates for any party.

POOF! – went some assumptions. I had never questioned that professionals work for their clients, which, in my head, translated to advocacy. Nope nope nope!

In court, Archaeologists give their opinion ONLY what on the uncovered evidence implies. Eg you find a skeleton with nerf bullets, it means the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the victim went down with nerf bullets, and not with a blow-up mallet or via a ninja sword fight.

🔫 🤺

Seems like that’s it. It is out of bounds to reconstruct the situation and say, “Mr Smith shot poor innocent Mr Jones with a nerf gun in cold blood.”

*

I mentioned Emeritus Professor Richard Wright in an earlier post – he was the gent who helped the Australian police uncover WWII mass graves – 550 Jewish victims – in Ukraine, 31 years ago. He wrote:

“In evidentiary archaeology, there is no room for the flights of reconstructive fancy that characterise many archaeological reports.” (Wright 2010:97)

People may be allowed to exercise their imagination a little bit with events in Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, but not in modern investigations.

It is the Court’s job to determine who was likely guilty of a crime, and the Court decides on the social outcome that is meant to benefit overall society the most (eg, victim’s family gets compensated, or a criminal gets put away).

In fact, if the defence lawyer sniffs out bias, you can end up jeopardising the prosecutor’s case…

• A defence attorney can rightfully comb through all your history, your notes and your publications and even your online Twitter account – or blog! – to prove that you are not an impartial person. Yikes.

• If you are a biased archaeologist, they would call you a “Hired Gun” – someone who deliberately weaponises archaeological evidence. The opposing lawyers will try to have you thrown out, and will probably be successful.

Hired Guns have a certain lifestyle, and can make a lot of money by partnering with lawyers but are skirting the lines of ethical conduct. They are blurring the line between the science of discovery and their personal agendas, you see.

Takeaway: work as neutrally, impartially, and objectively as possible, and you are probably all good.


In other news, here is a cool quote from recently:

“Science is about testing the limits of ignorance.”

Dr Neale Draper, archaeologist in South Australia.

📝


Reference:

Wright, R 2010 Where are the Bodies? In the Ground. The Public Historian, 32(1), pp.96-107.

Gun and mallet images from pexels.com

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