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 jetlag...fun 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.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Suisse Incroyable!

Just a quick update from the middle of a very busy storm. Post-doc work is going well as I locate and continue to do preliminary recording and sampling of my skeletal assemblages. This sees me running between my office, two different collection locations, and the various labs at MCI, all the while dodging the very productive undergrad summer interns who've now arrived. I look forward to working with them and helping with at least one project.  

This summer should also contain my first extended period of time working at U. Maryland-College Park. Once the bureaucratic overlords are appeased, I look forward to diving into the Sr (strontium) chemistry. I will also present SI-internally at this conference; sharing a general overview of isotopic bioarchaeology and what I will do for my project.

On the antiquities front, I am off to Switzerland tomorrow (!!!) to present at the first All Art and Heritage Law Conference on behalf of my U Sydney colleague and I, in regards to nascent investigations of the Vietnamese/Hanoi antiquities trade. Very excited to see a new city (Geneva) that I've never been to and meet/learn from some true experts in this area. Hope I do it justice. As usual, not looking forward to the long, draining flights... For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I will attempt semi-live tweeting as well, provided I get good WiFi.

In other news, I am pleased to announce that my and this same colleague's recent paper on the global online human remains trade will be released soon in Crime, Law, and Social Change. Long time coming, but we feel it's a good start to updating, and thus better understanding and monitoring, this overlooked aspect of cultural property trafficking. A week ago, myself, several colleagues old and new (including members of SAFE and The Antiquities Coalition) attended the CPAC hearing at the State Det. to decide on an MoU with Egypt. The room was packed to hear arguments both for and against...but I feel the outcome will be a clear win. You can read more about it here and here.

I am also happy to help to drum up press for the new book due out in October, in which a chapter by us (submitted from a talk given in February 2013!) will be found. Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime (Ashgate Press). As other articles, chapters, and parts of my PhD enter and hopefully survive the review-process wringer, you'll hear about 'em!

That's me, signing off. There will be stories and a conference summary when I return. Till next time, constant vigilance!






Wednesday, May 7, 2014

DC: Initial Journeys

Just in case y'all were wondering, this post can confirm I'm still alive! I've hit the ground running here in DC, diving head first into my exciting new project. Despite the seemingly never-ending admin necessary to enter the Smithsonian network, I have managed to find the time to travel and (begin) to explore around DC, make an empty apartment into a home, and enjoy the wonderful spring weather (while it lasts). Life has been very hectic but fun, and a routine is now more or less established. While I have yet to work within the grand old Natural History Museum building (photo courtesy of the author), I will, and I can't wait! Wish me luck, and a good map; that place is huge!

On the illicit antiquities trade research front, things also continue to go well. Especially now that I am on the ground, I am only just beginning to appreciate the number and variety of relevant events I can potentially access and learn from, whether at the Smithsonian or not. I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by SAFE Beacon Award winner Dr. Monica Hanna (reviewed here) at the Woodrow Wilson Centre (very prestigious, but a good audience). On the other hand, I was also fortunate enough to attend a small workshop entitled "Round table on Reform: U.S. Cultural Property Policy, Law and the Public Interest," held at the National Press Club. Quiet the eye opening event! 

A full transcript of the April 10th, 2014 symposium on which the round table followed on from is available here, but myself and a colleague are working on a more in-depth op-ed that lays out our reflections on what we saw (just as soon as I gather mine from among my notes and the myriad other tasks that accompany the start of a post-doctoral project). Suffice to say, while a few fair points were raised by the speakers, I (and probably any other illicit-trade savvy archaeologist in the room) left with a bad taste in our mouths... That being said, it can only be a good thing that such meetings are accessible and free to the (registered) public. This can only bolster further dialog. 

Speaking of new research, I am also happy to report that (by some miracle) some funding has been found for me to attend a small but important art crime and cultural heritage law conference in Geneva, Switzerland, this June. On behalf of my colleague Prof. Duncan Chappell, I will present a summary of our pilot research in Vietnam this past January, to an audience that (excitingly) includes many big names in the biz...people whose work I admire and who I've wanted to meet for some time. How I, perhaps the sole archaeologist and/or bioarchaeologist in the room will be accepted is unknown, but perhaps that just means my talk and perspective will be that much more unique? Hope so! 

So, to those who follow my exploits, please "watch this space" as things continue to develop into the summer. Publications will be submitted, released and shared, cool guest lectures will be attended, museums explored and written about, and science will march onwards! Summer undergraduate interns arrive soon, and all Fellows are expected to give a presentation related to their project as well as help staff advisers manage the mob. Exposing eager minds to cutting-edge archaeological research at the Smithsonian as it happens will (should be...) a treat. If the rising humidity (and the rising tide of tiny school children touring the stately halls) don't swallow me up first. What will happen next? Stay tuned!