Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Howdy from Atlanta and ASOR 2015

Greetings all. Just a quick note to say I've arrived in Atlanta for the ASOR (American School of Oriental Research) 2015 conference! I will write a debriefing blog when I return to DC to share highlights of what I learned, as this will be my first foray into the Near Eastern archeology community. I will talk on Friday in the one and only bioarcheology panel (line-up visible in the PDF version of the program on the website).

I am really looking forward to that conference phenomenon of finally putting names to faces, presenting some highlights of my postdoctoral work, and seeing where to go from here in terms of future publication and collaboration.  And exploring the city and indulging in good BBQ. Etc. If you want to follow along on Twitter as I live Tweet what I attend, look for #ASOR15. Wish me luck, and catch you again when I do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Life musings + following the dead to Ottawa.

Well hello again. My apologies for the long absence, but like every time that you might think I've vanished or decided to stop blogging: fear not! I have just entered hibernation mode or taken an unavoidable break due to the nearly overwhelming load of lab work, writing, science outreach (e.g. today in Natural History's Q'Rius space to an unfortunately rambunctious group of middle schoolers), or just wading full throttle into the onset of job application season.

All of the above combined takes a lot of time. I like to imagine that I'm fishing in the stream of life with a hook baited with stable isotopes and bone collagen. Not only am I applying to every relevant academic job in the US I can find, but also two grants in Australia, a government job here, three separate grants or jobs at the Smithsonian that would keep me around through 2016, a possibility at the Field Museum, etc. Whatever I can think of.

So, with all that on there's been precious little time to think new profound thoughts or create and share novel research beyond my current efforts to finish postdoctoral data collection and begin to write it up. And just survive, really; working to find interesting things to do each day to keep my spirits and energy up. Not to say that I've gone totally quiet on the illicit trade front. I'll share below two things of note.

Firstly, I was honored to be invited to chair a panel at the 16th annual Central Eurasian Studies conference, just held here at George Washington University in DC. The conference was hosted by GWU's Central Asia program and the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. Speakers were asked to think about the means by which new archeological data and databases from excavations can and should be used to aid in understanding the growing threats to Mongolia's cultural heritage and where current legal and CRM (cultural resource management) efforts can be strengthened.

You can view the final program here; full of great talks on numerous topics, but most not archeology related. It was a pleasure to host speakers from Yale's Anthropology department, and importantly, Mongolia itself (Institute of Archeology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences).  Just as I'd hoped, I was able to learn from experts, a thorough summary discussion was provided, and everyone was very comprehensively updated on the still-urgent situation in the country. Mongolia and Central Asia as a whole has been rather overlooked in global discussions of the antiquities trade, so this is long overdue, I say.

Secondly, I am very pleased to announce that tomorrow morning I am off to Ottawa (photo at left) for four days of a "working" vacation. Due to the good graces and hard work of my colleague and friend Dr. Shawn Graham (originally a Twitter contact, or "tweep"), I am being flown up to Carleton University to present a guest lecture on my and colleague's ongoing research into the online trade in human remains. My colleagues and I (Prof. Duncan Chappell, U. Sydney; Dr. Nathan Charlton, U. Technology, Sydney; and Mr. Brian Spatola, National Museum of Health and Medicine) are actively working to update Huffer and Chappell 2014 and expand upon what I presented at this year's SAA conference in San Francisco. Sharing with hopefully eager undergrads and grads, and having other informal chats with them about grad life and beyond will be great! I will be realistic but fair.

As this research continues and we work on a book chapter, we look forward to following more leads down the various "rabbit holes" that this trade represents. Where are grey areas between licit and illicit? How can or should social media platforms be held accountable for their role in facilitating this trade? How can the legitimate reasons for the acquisition of genuine teaching specimens be separated from private and collection of the dead? What about the trade in War dead? Watch this space.

For now, following the dead will take me to Canada and I can't wait. Haven't had a vacation of any sort for awhile now, so I revel in the opportunity. Perhaps the election of a new Prime Minister the other day will bode well for my trip? Now to finishing packing and get some sleep. Poutine, a beaver tail, and good maple syrup awaits me. Catch you soon!

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.