Saturday, July 4, 2015

This time, on the road from Paris!

Hello blogosphere! As always, my apologies for the lack of updates recently. So, this is to confirm I am still alive, very busy at work plumbing the chemical secrets of the ancient dead (the usual), writing, applying for jobs, etc. I'm on the road again, this time from the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists conference, to be held at Universite Nanterre de la Defence.

Myself and a colleague will co-chair a panel on antiquities trade issues, with situations in Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, and perhaps maritime Indonesia being covered. Everyone is really here, to be honest, to enjoy as much of Paris as possible! I will live Tweet as much as I can (given the very spotty WiFi on everyone's phones, apparently), and write again to debrief once home on the 12th. Happy 4th of July to all my American colleagues or readers!

Friday, April 17, 2015

On the road from the SAAs

Just a quick check in from the road, the road that's led to San Francisco. This, the 80th Annual SAA conference, is proving to be just as exciting and hectic as I suspected. I have enjoyed staying with family, getting some opportunity to explore locations inside and outside of San Francisco proper, reunite with old friends and colleagues (if only in passing), and learn a fair amount.

My first talk is tomorrow, in the long-awaited illicit antiquities trade panel hosted by Dr. Donna Yates and featuring a number of leaders in the field. I will provide what I hope to be an informative update on the research that Prof. Chappell and I have been doing on the global online trade in human remains which we began in Huffer and Chappell 2014.

My second talk will introduce preliminary results of the isotopic work I've been doing on some Bronze Age Mongolian faunal remains, in the context of provious/ongoing studies of human remains from the numerous khirigsuurs (burial mounds), in light of Smithsonian Anthropology dept. colleague's larger efforts to understand the origins of pastoral nomadism on the Central Asian steppe. I look forward to meeting in person some individuals I only know from their published work, and hope I do the cause some sort of justice.

So, wish me luck and good tidings. Fun (if tiring) times had, and more to come!

Friday, March 27, 2015

The SAA Archaeological Record on "Archaeological Practice on Reality Television"

Many in the North American and global archaeological community are undoubtedly awaiting the upcoming Society for American Archaeology conference, to be held this year in San Francisco in three weeks time. If blessed with the proximity, time, and money on any given year, then attending a "mega" conference such as SAAs is a great (if tiring) opportunity to present one's work and learn from or meet experts covering just about every subfield and topic in archaeology imaginable. There's enough going on to fill three conferences and keep everyone moving; not to mention the after parties. This will be my third time, and I've always left glad that I attended and inspired.

While those of us pursuing an archaeological life via academic, museum or CRM (cultural resource management) avenues might prefer the intimacy of smaller, region or time specific conferences in which we're much more likely to have a comfortable home for our work, sometimes taking the plunge is necessary. There is no escaping the fact that it is conferences like the SAAs that have become the discipline and its active practitioner's key means of getting our work (and the realities of this life) out there en masse. Usually in a forum in which we the producers of that knowledge should have the most control.

However, sometimes events can be written about or portrayed on television in the name of archaeology that are very far removed from it, thus spurring outcry, anger and disgrace. So it was with pleasure that today, as the next conference approaches, I open my mailbox to find the latest edition of the SAA Archaeological Record magazine; full of eight intriguing articles specifically addressing archaeology and "reality TV."

Although I admit to not having read it cover to cover yet, I wanted to bring it to people's attention anyway (or those of you readers who aren't already SAA members). Covering such topics as the portrayal of archaeological practice on 'reality' TV, Time Team America: Archaeology as a gateway to science; creating a preservation ethic through 'reality' TV; the possibility of televised metal detecting as a force for public good, and, importantly, other outreach options beyond TV, this edition seems full of promise and is sure to inspire debate.

Blogging archaeology is becoming increasingly common (and has been  its own session at the SAAs for two years now). Many websites explain how participants can "hack" conferences, many of us engage in "live Tweeting," etc. All well and good and important to do as individuals to spread word of our own work and share our perspectives on the realities or controversies behind the headlines.

I would argue that in much of the world, television and movies still play the primary role in shaping public opinion and perception of us and our discipline. Since we can't change this, we have to keep working to steer it in directions we can rest easier with. It's a dilemma with no easy answer, so I look forward to seeing what the authors have to say on the subject. I know what I'll be reading on my Monday morning commute!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Faint Traces, Grand Prospects?: Isotope Geochemistry and the Antiquities Trade

In the world of antiquities trade research, reporting and prosecution, especially where the seizure and repatriation of recently surfaced items is concerned, one of the most challenging tasks we all face is discerning whether or not what is stated about a piece (in documents or by suspects) is actually true, and known to be so at the time of sale or donation. The problematic legal loophole that a claim of purchase in "good faith" can represent, and the challenge often placed on claimant countries to meet the "burden of proof," instead of insisting that the defendant demonstrate that a contested item was not in fact looter or illegally exported; can make restitution challenging.

In an ideal world, the process of due diligence would always run smoothly. Every high-profile piece purchased by a museum, at auction, or online would automatically come with complete and independently verifiable documents attesting to legal export and import before the UNESCO convention, as well as before the passing of any State ownership legislation for the country in question.

Of course, the provenience, age, and archaeological culture stated in the paperwork would also match reality as determined by "subject matter expert" assessment. I don't need to tell you that the scenario above can at times be far off the mark. The very fact that the reality of the trade at all levels remains so messy is what keeps much illicit antiquities trade research, numerous federal investigations, and related calls for policy and legal reform, alive and well.

In this post, I'll provide some general background to what I think is a relatively overlooked and under-explored means to address some of these pressing cultural property concerns using the methods and tools of science! So let's start at the beginning. Forgive me for getting technical for a moment as I attempt to summarize the complex.

The Basics of Stable Isotopic Research

Every element on the periodic table has a variable number of 'isotopes' that differ in the number of neutrons in their atomic nuclei, but not the number of protons or electrons. Therefore, each separate isotope will have the same elemental properties, but slightly different atomic masses (deemed 'heavy' or 'light' based on neutron numbers).

For example, carbon has isotopes referred to as C12, C13, and C14. Numbers 12 and 13 are 'stable,' in that they always have the same mass and have never been known to decay. On the other hand, measuring the rate of decay of C14 against a known 'half-life' and relevant calibration curves gives us "carbon 14 dating." Isotopes that decay as a function of time are termed 'radiogenic.'

Although stable isotopes have consistent mass, they can vary in concentration ('abundance') across a geologic landscape, with altitude and latitude, through time, between species, or between materials. Measurements of variation in abundance ('fractionation') between what is sampled, and known or suspect naturally occurring background rates (primarily using IRMS: Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry) has opened a wide variety of new research avenues in many fields.

Geologists remain the main practitioners of isotope geochemistry, usually relying on the concentrations (not isotope ratios per se) of rarer 'trace elements' to drive new research on topics ranging from the origin and composition of meteorites, to planetary formation. However, since the 1980s or so, isotopes (especially carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, strontium; occasionally sulfur, calcium or barium) have seen exponentially increasing application to fields and diverse as palaeoclimatology, palaeontology, ecology, and my own human bioarchaeology.

In these fields, it is generally agreed that a 'multi-isotopic' approach can best serve attempts to reconstruct ecosystem trophic level, the complexities of diet, variation in water source, and migration across the lifespan of animals and humans both living and dead.

Whether one's topic is the impact of human activities on marine ecosystems over time using squid as a proxy measure, or my own postdoctoral research seeking to reconstruct changes in ancient human diet and community structure across various spatio-temporal contexts in the Near East and Mongolia; the goals are similar and the isotopes used are the same. Yet every day, labs around the world strive to push the frontiers of what's possible and devise new applications.

The Wide World of Applications

This brings us back to what I first set out to discuss; possibilities for stable isotopic research to inform antiquities trade questions. Can it be done? Is there precedent? Yes, there is! As a means to clarify a most-likely region of origin and simultaneously indicate that something might not in fact derive from where it's said to, stable isotopes are revealing their potential in numerous 'applied' contexts.

From tracking poaching patterns (here and here), investigating suspicious food origins (here or here), tracing illicit drug shipments (here and here) and even forensic homicide investigations, their use continues to grow. Even within archaeology, the analysis of food residues from ceramics is a hot topic.

And yet, work that utilizes isotopes (primarily oxygen and strontium) to understand how an artifact's raw material source does or does not correlate with known or suspected archaeological provenience and any dealer or museum records that may exist; such work is still in its infancy. Any artifact with an organic component to it (shell, bone, wood, fiber, hair, you name it) is fair game.

So, why isn't this done all the time, you might ask? A couple of caveats do need to be mentioned, such as the need to destroy an albeit tiny amount of the artifact in question, and thus the need for permission to sample and keep good records. Furthermore, all such investigations must be cognizant of the fact that a multi-component artifact with unknown origins can not be fully investigated by sampling just one component.

To develop the full potential of isotopic research within the antiquities trade arena, criminological and legal expectations will need to be matched to the reality of what the science can provide at the moment through as many different test-cases as possible. This is no quick-fix or palliative. I've wondered in the past if there are too many variables, but it's my opinion that it just hasn't been looked at hard enough.

Sneak Preview

I personally remain convinced of the untapped potential, despite the trial and error that will be required. Is it not worth it to add every tool possible to the global fight against the trade? This post is the first of what I hope to be a short series exploring this possibility in more detail via hypothetical scenarios, as well as sharing details of an actual project that myself and a few colleagues currently have in pilot stage and are working to take further.

In the meantime, for those of you also on Twitter, I am pleased to announce that you can now follow a brand new Twitter feed I've created. @FaintTraces is dedicated specifically to news, views, job postings, etc. pertaining to bioarchaeology, isotopic approaches to archaeological science, and applications to cultural heritage questions. This is in addition to my usual @DamienHuffer.

For now, my own labwork continues apace with the data starting to come in. Skeletal sampling also marches forward, nearing its end, and I am gearing up for a busy Spring. As I continue to prepare for conferences in February and April, various talks, and the quest for continued employment (beginning more or less now), I look forward to once again sharing my musings on this and other exiting topics.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Season's Greetings to One and All

In case you're wondering where I've gone, this interim post is to wish one and all the warmest holiday season....and in so doing, confirm that I live. Or that I have risen from the dead at least. As you can imagine, postdoctoral research and writing responsibilities have kept me super busy, and I must admit that unique topics to blog about (beyond rehashing the news-something I already share on Twitter and Facebook, or discussing my personal schedule), have eluded me of late.

However, I feel that I am slowly getting back into the spirit of blogging, and therefore, a couple of lengthy expose style posts are in the works. What prospects and challenges might arise from the application of stable isotope geochemistry to the antiquities trade? Stay tuned to find out! Also, my thoughts regarding what I heard and learned at this recent Drexel University workshop will be coming to a SAFE blog near you. May one and all have as good of a 2015 as I hope to. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New human remains trade research in the SAA 2015 illicit antiquities panel

Its been awhile, so here's wishing everyone well! I am still brainstorming new ideas and directions for this blog in among the continued deluge of post-doctoral research and writing obligations, plus the added bonus of having family and future in-laws in town (tour guiding around DC...feeling like a local now). Life is good, but oh so hectic.

Therefore, this is just a quick place holder post to announce the excellent panel on illicit antiquities trade issues put together by Dr. Donna Yates for next year's Society for American Archaeology conference. San Francisco!! I am really looking forward to participating; working once again with my friend and mentor Prof. Duncan Chappell to present an update of the ongoing research into the online trade in human remains that we began with this paper and continued discussing here. Several new cases have come to light, and more undoubtedly will before April, thus providing new angles to explore, legal scenarios to examine, and further our ability to discus how better to achieve transparency. There promises to be plenty of pictures for sure.

The panel itself will be very hard hitting; covering diverse regions, numerous high-profile cases, grounded in comparative theory, and cutting-edge in focus. If you will be attending the conference (or will be in the San Fran area and want to crash the world's preeminent gathering of archaeologists), then come on by. More details of exact day, time, and place to come.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Bare Bones of Summer

Wonder of wonders, I'm back! After a long hiatus as the summer schedule continues to ramp up (like the brilliant 4th of July fireworks display I viewed from my rooftop), I finally have the time to provide an update on my goings on. To be completely honest, the delay is posting has also been due to my being uncertain of this blog's future direction. Besides just describing my own work and activities, where do you readers think I should go?

Should I return to trying to find and disseminate solely Southern Hemisphere looting related news stories? Perhaps return to identifying and asking the tough questions of online dealers whom I suspect of not performing due diligence, or providing their potential online clientele of real proof of said diligence? Where should "It Surfaced Down Under" surface next?

In the meantime, the first thing I can report is that the Geneva conference went very well. A small group of legal, criminological and archaeological professionals, including reps from INTERPOL, Christies and Sotheby's (both encouragingly and surprisingly), the Art Loss Register, and my colleagues over at Trafficking Culture; all gave stimulating talks and/or participated in informative round-table discussions.

The latest cases were discussed, including such current controversies as the recently-sold Sekhemka statue, Nazi art restitution, legal situations from around the world, and even a great example of a small museum (Menil Foundation) "doing the right thing" in working with a country (Cyprus) to display, document and return pieces known to have been looted (Lysi Frescoes). Hats off to Dr. Derek Fincham for that one.

Although I wouldn't liked to have seen more talks or another panel focus on on-the-ground looting situations, all in all, it was informative. I think most delegates left united in thinking that the time is now to redirect much more attention towards breaking down criminal networks as opposed to repatriation after the fact, when it's "too late." As Dr. Neil Brodie  so eloquently put it: "If someone throws a brick through my window, I don't want the cops to bring me the broken glass. I want them to bring me the guy who threw the brick!"

My own talk, summarizing the general findings of the Hanoi fieldwork that myself and Prof. Duncan Chappell undertook in January, provided some South East Asian perspective on the problem and helped to continue to (slowly) put Vietnam on the map, in terms of what we know about region-wide trafficking. Food was delicious (fondue!), accommodation generously provided for two nights, and the time I took before and after to explore rewarded me with lakeside hiking, trips to museums as varied as Red Cross and Natural History, art galleries, and more.

The Uni-Mail campus has a bit of a Bauhaus feel to its design, but was located in a cool student-y neighborhood and the whole city was easy to navigate by (numerous!) public transport options. The deep history of the city was reflected best in the Old Town with its huge St. Pierre Cathedral and the massive excavation underneath it. A must see! All in all, a very worthwhile trip. Even just to visit (if you have the $...expensive!), Geneva is worth a look.

Back in DC, work at the Smithsonian continues apace. Four of my seven-eight skeletal assemblages are now located, preliminarily examined, and sampled, with the addition of a 2nd Bronze Age (c. 4,000 BP) group from Bahrain and a group of Romans from c. 3rd century AD, Jordan. This latter site should be particularly interesting, as some previous research by others suggests this (salvaged) cemetery represents a military garrison population of men perhaps sent to the provinces with their families. Much more research will ensue, and it will be great to see whether or not the isotopic chemistry (once it begins...) can clarify things. An in-house talk I given just after I returned (with times!) at the Smithsonian Conservation Conference gave an overview of what's in the works.

The summer interns chug along; almost finished in fact. They represent an array of projects across numerous areas of museum conservation research, but also archaeological science, two bioarch projects, and folks interested in isotopes in totally different fields such as paleobotany, marine biology of living squids, etc. Its been really cool to learn from them, help when I can,  and have some other enthusiastic people around the office commons and labs. Science can be isolating; cherish when it's not!

In that vein, I am also working towards getting involved in the excellent Q?rius program of school-group outreach in the fall, and trying to work in a day/week to volunteer on a local excavation. I attended the small but vibrant local DC "Day of Archaeology" fair this past Saturday; a great opportunity to meet and network with numerous CRM firms and community outreach groups. With lab work coming out my ears, digging for data (and the people it represents) will make a welcome change. A top contender so far is volunteering on a project that is trying to locate and define the extent of the "negro burying ground" on the former estate of George Washington at Mt. Vernon!

The last bit of news I'll report only briefly here, as I am writing a more in-depth blog post about it over on SAFECorner. I am happy to announce that my and Prof. Chappell's first of two certain publications for this year has been released in early-view online! In it, we provide what I feel is a respectable update and 'snapshot' of the nebulous, poorly-understood, trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains (mummies, trophy skulls, curios, etc.) c. 2013. Wish me/us luck for a speedy and positive review of what we have waiting in the wings!

With background, case studies, and visuals, we discuss what we know about who's buying and selling from a legal, criminological and physical anthropological perspective. Given that this represents preliminary work on an ever-changing topic, there is more we wish to do with this. As always, finding time and/or funding is the challenge, but let this be a first step.

So, until we meet again, good luck in all things, and constant vigilance! Change is afoot here, but I think that can only be a good thing.