Friday, September 30, 2011

The Institute’s Autumn Calendar of Events and Microarchaeology

The Athenian archaeological community’s full lecture and events schedule for 2011/12 is now underway. As the Institute’s contribution to the fall program, which is open to the public, we will sponsor two lectures. The program of the Athens Association of Friends of CIG will include a lecture and the opening of a photographic exhibition.

To assist our members and friends in remembering the dates and topics of our program we have created a brochure with the help of Chris Stewart. This will be available at the Institute as a hardcopy supplement to our email, blog, facebook and twitter announcements. So, now’s the time to put these four dates on your dance card!

We look forward to seeing you again at the Institute on Wednesday evening October 19th at 7:30 pm for Dr China P. Shelton’s lecture on Environmental Archaeology.

Book of the Blog
The archaeological record is seen only at the visual level by many archaeologists. There exists, however, an equally important microscopic record, of which pollen, phytoliths, and diatoms comprise only a small part. The study of the microscopic biological remains and residues, geological sediments and chemical compounds introduced into the archaeological record by past human behavior is called “microarchaeology”.

For field archaeologists trained solely in the humanities and/or social sciences it is a daunting challenge to understand this microscopic record and to integrate its recovery and analysis in archaeological discussions and interpretations. Normally, an archaeologist interested in such data sets to assist in answering their research questions would seek out the expertise and services of “tame” natural and earth scientists to undertake this research. One of the problems with this approach is whether or not the scientist co-researcher really understands what the archaeologist is seeking and so to produce relevant data and analyses. Another is whether or not the archaeologist can truly understand the results of these investigations and effectively integrate it into the evidence from the macroscopic record.

What is an archaeologist to do? Become an informed consumer of these data sets and analyses at the very least, and formally educated if the time and circumstances permit. One immediate means to begin this educational journey to understand the breadth and depth of such research is to read Stephen Weiner’s book, Microarchaeology. Beyond the Visible Archaeological Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). In a systematic, careful and detailed fashion he provides a succinct overview of this sub-discipline and then a comprehensive discussion of each of its major components or approaches. The types of information that can be recovered from the microscopic record are given. The most common materials embedded in the archaeological matrix are reviewed, namely, geogenic, biogenic and pyrogenic materials, as well as their potential for alteration by taphnonomic agency. Weiner discusses how one can assess whether the material preservation conditions are conducive to producing the data sought. Biological molecules, macromolecules as well as materials for dating are stressed here. The potential for using ethnoarchaeological approaches to the microscopic record are also explored. He advocates having an on-site analytical laboratory to improve the quality of the data recovered and to assist in making informed decisions on where, what and how to excavate next. As he believes that infrared spectroscopy is one of the most powerful analytical tools for these investigations he treats it more detail.

This book is a treasure of information, approaches, mini-case studies and ideas on how we can investigate and interpret more effectively the complete archaeological record. There are ample illustrative materials to support the text in the form of charts, graphs, tables, figures, b/w and color photographs and reconstructions. The references cited are extensive.

This is not an “easy read”, but the effort made will be amply rewarded. So the offer still stands! “You’re invited to visit the Institute’s Library to peruse this book and others like it”. What are you waiting for, eh?

David Rupp

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