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Mar 16 / aroddick

The conference abstract

Head over to Profhacker for a dead simple way to write a conference abstract.

Mar 8 / aroddick

A few sources on posters

A poster that Daiana Rivas-Tello and I pulled together at last year’s Society for American Archaeology meetings. 

Creighton asked me last week to discuss and explore effective posters. I am planning on doing so tomorrow. But I also just did a bit of poking around on-line. One suggestion is to look for award winning posters in your sub-discipline. Here is what came up when I searched for archaeology poster winners. First, you come across the “state” archaeology posters. These are the high-end, polished one, but also ones that likely don’t have much in the way of evidence or data discussed. (But, are they ever pretty!). You also come across student winners (here is the breakdown of how they are evaluated, which is very useful).  I came across this one from William and Mary. Also helpful here, is an article on this poster that made the University paper, highlighting how to approach them. Places like also have lots of excellent posters, including this award winning one by Amy Fox (and the one above that Daiana and I presented).  Some of the particular groups within sub-disciplines often have their own awards, such as this Society for Archaeological Science — here is a list (with links to the PDFs) of all the R.E. Taylor Award winners.  Perhaps these will get the creative juices flowing!

EDIT: Mary Tobiasz, a recent MA student, just added a comment here about Dr. Cannon’s suggestion (750 words max!) and a link to her award winning poster. Check it out (we’ll be talking about infographics, why we should care about them, and the work of Edward Tufte tomorrow). And hire her if you want impressive maps!

See you tomorrow

Mar 7 / aroddick

New tool to try out

This tool from jstor may not help with the info-glut issue, but may help you put things on your radar that you might have otherwise missed. I’ve had a few goes and it has been a bit hit and miss. Discussed here.

Mar 7 / aroddick

Oliver Sacks’ process

This is a fascinating look into the process of a prolific writer.

Mar 2 / aroddick

Can We Write Big Question Books

Brenna Hassett certainly thinks so. Brief summary here. I find particularly interesting her choice to use the titles of rock/pop songs as chapter titles. And note that she has reviews here from Readers Digest and a museum curator. 


Feb 17 / aroddick

Some examples of videos from previous years.

Hi all,

I promised this a while ago, but here are some examples of video presentations discussed by students in previous years:

The Success of Easter Island: Lessons for Living on an Isolated Island”, by Carl P. Lipo, California State University Long Beach.

L’archéologie historique à partir d’une perspective latino-américaine by Pedro Funari. You’ll have to be good with your french for this one.

Sanctuary at Keros: Questions of Materiality and Monumentality by Colin Refrew. 

How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction” by Beth Shapiro

“Thinking Through Making” by Tim Ingold

Local Biologies in the Age of Precision Medicine” by Margaret Lock

I have more to dig up…so stay tuned.

Feb 12 / aroddick

Valentines Day

Feb 8 / aroddick

Annual Review Blogs…and more public writing

Hi all,

I’ve just had a quick look at your blogs on the Annual Reviews in Anthropology — it looks like we have the full spectrum here. Some of you are finding these to be extremely useful, with organizational structures that are well thought out. Others have met with disappointments over rather superficial treatments. Do have a look at some of the examples discussed, and comment on a few of the blogs — this will serve us well for our discussion tomorrow. As a reminder, we are also having a visit from the media relations folks tomorrow to discuss writing for the public. It might be helpful if you bring some questions for them.

It turns out I have done a bit more public writing for an event happening tomorrow night in Hamilton. I am contributing to a session (in a bar!) on space, along with a city planner and an astronomer. This is a very “TED” like approach – 7 minutes or so to present a bit on the broad topic. I had a very “TED” like strategy planned out — a bunch of provocative pictures I would talk around…until I found out last night that there will be no projector! So, I have been “forced” to write up my presentation, to keep me from going way off track.  I thought I’d throw it up here, in case you all have any ideas or suggestions. For some of you – Sean, Daniel and Beatrice – this will look familiar, as it deals with issues and case studies we have dealt with in class. I have definitely drawn on pieces of writings from other places, re-jigged for this short talk. But hopefully you can see me actively trying to write in a less jargony-way, to engage a different kind of audience.


As an anthropological archaeologist, I have explored issues of space and place in a number of countries and in a range of time periods. I also teach a graduate seminar on space and place at McMaster. I hope to show tonight that archaeologists have a particular way of perceiving the world, just as astronomers and city planners do. Here in North America, archaeologists are part of this larger world of Anthropology – that also includes cultural anthropology, linguistics, and biological anthropology. Anthropologists are interested in “what it means to be human” and the diverse practices of cultures across space and through time. Tonight, I want to discuss space and place, but also perception, time, and social process. I’ll touch very briefly on examples from North America, the Middle East, and end back here in Hamilton.

Archaeologists and anthropologist ask many questions of space. How do people dwell in a landscape? How are places “made” and how do specific spaces become meaningful? How can one space be perceived in distinct ways? How are individual and group memories informed by specific natural and built features, and how do these features play a role in defining kinds of identity? The answer to such questions help us understand cultural diversity, of “different ways of being” in the world.

Let’s start with a North American example, discussed by cultural geographer Tim Cresswell. In 1792, Captain Vancouver was sailing up the west coast, mapping and naming the coast as he went. Naming is one way that space is given meaning, and in this case making the coast a place of empire. In his journal, Vancouver notes his interaction with the native Tlinglet, observing the seemingly bizarre movement of natives in their canoes. They appeared to take complicated routes with no apparent logic. The Tlinglet, it turns out, were reading the sea as a set of places associated with a variety of practical and spiritual dangers. Peering out their ships over the water, the settlers only saw blank space, whereas the natives saw place. The Europeans, in contrast, were focused intensely on the land. They voyaged with “mental chainsaws” and at a glance could strip a hill of the forest. For them, the sea was only about accessing these riches. The settler way of seeing places were eventually enshrined in Canadian laws, and partially explain some of debated precedent law in British Columbia around First Nations land claims.

The Tlinglet help us think about space and place, but how we investigate such issues in places no longer inhabited or the meanings to people who are no longer alive? Part of the answer is that places aren’t just what people think, but also about what they do – whether paddling in oceans and living lighter on the land, or whether it means building monuments, roads, even trampling soil and leaving even more subtle microscopic traces. Archaeologists are “jacks of all trades” – we draw on methods and approaches from a wide number of disciplines. We attend to traces at both the macro- and micro- scale, in the deep past and in far-off places, but also in our own backyards and in contemporary time.

Since we have an astronomer here tonight, let’s go up, to the space above. It turns out that NASA provides key “remote sensing” tools to recognize cultural landscapes. In a recent TED Talk, Sarah Parcak shows how tools from NASA can be harnessed by archaeology. Many of you may know that is possible today to explore archaeological sites from our couch, using Google Earth. (In fact, you can access all the sites I’m discussing today via your smart phone as I talk – how amazing is that?) Parcak has recently used the $1,000,000 she won from TED to develop a citizen science platform called GlobalXplorer. You can now lie in bed with a laptop and help identify new sites and track the looting of known sites. Such satellites can help us see through clouds and forests to reveal differences in the vegetation below. For instance, archaeologists working in Central America have used infrared photography taken by a NASA aircraft a mile up to detect low causeways, or sacbes, associated with the ancient Maya. These roads are revealed because of differences in vegetation growth. Understanding these roadways has been essential for tracking interaction and transportation.

The relationship between transportation and cultural landscapes can be seen without satellites – as our urban planner would point out. But travelling by plane can also reveal such places. If you are flying on an airplane between, say, Montreal and Chicago, try to snag a window seat. Looking out, you’ll see variation in the agricultural fields – specifically between square/rectangular farmsteads and ribbons agronomy. This is because the French settling Canada focused on ribbon farms to facilitate intensive settlement. This system goes back to medieval times in France. But these choices had unintended consequences, specifically shaping future attitudes toward transportation.  The French set up their ribbon farms carefully, thinking through transportation and access. In contrast, American settlers set up square farms, and transportation logistics were sorted out after the fact. This is perhaps why American feel the way they do about transportation – If no way exists, they build it. Roads, arterials, highways, Interstates, and so on. Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance in the US, in part because of these farmsteads. They were destined for the automobile all the way back in 1787, when they first decided to carve up the countryside into tidy squares.

So, archaeologists can look at cultural landscapes with a particular eye to longer term consequences of spatial practices. We can also take much more detailed look at long term occupation at specific places, a view that extends back to our our earliest ancestors. I have colleagues, for instance, looking at the sustained use of caves in paleolithic France over 100s of thousands of years. (Werner Hertzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a good place to see some of this). Or we might look to some of the earliest dense settlements such as the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which was first occupied over 9,000 years ago and is one of the earliest cities in the world. Two hills form the 37 ha site, with the taller eastern mound contains eighteen levels of Neolithic occupation between 7400 bc and 6200 bc, including wall paintings, reliefs, sculptures and other symbolic and artistic features. This is a marvellous example of place-making, and scholars are following the traces of changing social organization as humans took on a sedentary life. Archaeologists are investigating how a city emerged over the course of 2,000 years, a streetless settlement of houses clustered back to back with roof access into the buildings. These houses were meaningful not just as places or the living but also the dead, as many bodies were found buried under the house floors.

My wife works at this site as an archaeological illustrator. As such, I have visited the site and watched her visualize what this place would have been like (If we had a projector I’d show some of her beautiful reconstructions). As an illustrator, she draws in evidence from a wide range of cutting edge tools – from Geographic Information Systems to clever ways to understand ancient ecological systems. One of my favourite tools for exploring space and place is geoarchaeology. This technique consists of taking blocks of earth which holds lenses of hundreds of years of occupation, and studying them chemically or under the microscope. (This technique being investigated by several archaeology and geology students at McMaster).  Geoarchaeologists at Çatalhöyük have looked open areas, to examine how heavily trampled they were. They have looked at the crusty soil generated from many years of water dripping from roofing that has long disappeared. Within the houses they have looked at plastering, finding thick layers of white plaster alternating with thinner, soot-covered plaster lenses, a pattern that in some cases repeats over and over again leaving 70 layers. (I was thinking about this painting my bathroom last weekend!). The archaeologists think that an average house last about 70 years here, suggesting that there was in some cases annual replastering. What is also remarkable is that they can ascertain that they are using the same materials from plastering — a kind of invariance and traditionalism that suggests a kind of ritual practice.

Let me now turn to the South American Andes, specifically the Lake Titicaca basin, where I’ve been working for 15 years. This landscape, sitting at 4,000 meters above sea level, is defined by the world’s highest navigable lake. My work here has focused on period from 3,500 years ago up to processes occurring in the last century. The space itself is incredibly dynamic. The lake rises and falls through dry and wet seasons — meaning that where you fish and where you farm can change, particularly through the great droughts of periodical El Nino Events. We know in the deeper past there were dramatic changes — long period of climate change that meant that great swathes of Lake Titicaca opened up to new land for cultivation of crops such as potatoes and quinoa. I have several colleagues actively involved in underwater archaeology projects, and they are finding large sites several meters below the current lake level. Studying the pollen grains found in sediments in Lake Titicaca, we know that to dwell in this environment thousands of years ago would have meant a very different ecology. Members of our project have used high power microscopes to identify the cellular structure of carbonized wood, species that were deforested form the landscape 2,000 years ago.

But if this landscape is defined by change, it is equally about persistence.  We might turn from the shifting lake, to the relatively stable high mountain peaks. We know that mountains are significant to inhabitants of the Andes for some time. This is an extremely animate landscape, where rocks can be persons. Upon their arrival, the christian Spaniards quickly enacted policies to convert the population, and struggled to rid the landscape of the old gods, deities that could take the form of streams or rock outcrops. In fact, even today shamans visit andesitic outcrop to learn their arts. Evidence of such an animate landscape persist into the deeper past, from stone buried like people, and human sacrifices near important outcrops on mountain peaks, to political efforts to re-assemble parts of mountains rock by rock, pebble by pebble, in new places. Such places quickly become centres of social memory — people tell places about the landscape, and they are passed down across generations. But it isn’t just the stories, it is also the ritual practices, the specific things that are done at such places to keep memories alive.

In fact, archaeologists are quite interested in how collective memory works. After all, cemeteries, public buildings, or even houses are places that are meant to evoke the past. Some archaeologists work to provoke memories, as is the case of historical archaeology. Here, researchers examine the recent past to question our dominant stories or narratives about specific places. This brings us back to modern North American cities. For example, about 15 years ago, a new federal building was being constructed in New York. In doing the necessary investigations before construction, contract archaeologists discovered an African-American burial ground. Historical records suggest this was a significant for over a century, before fading from memory. The project brought about attention of a little-known history of New York, one that until then had been silenced from history.

Such insights can be used in thinking about our own urban landscapes here in Hamilton. In fact, I have a new project I am developing to combine the tools and perspectives of archaeology with cultural anthropology’s attention to stories and beliefs, surrounding the changing urban landscape of Hamilton – from the industrial spaces of eastern Hamilton, to revitalized Victorian homes, to the consequences of a very different approach to transportation in the 19th century on life in the 21st century. Anthropological archaeologists, as “jacks of all trades”, can and should bring our way of perceiving the world not just the ancient and distinct, but to “bring to the surface” the unquestioned spaces of the present.

See you tomorrow!


Feb 8 / aroddick

Crichton on editing

Jan 27 / aroddick

Mitch Allen’s Blog, Johnson’s book, and how to Read a Book (seriously)

Hi all,

Later this semester we will have Mitch Allen skype in to chat with us. He spent his considerable career running Left Coast Press, a publisher that had a very good relationship across the various Anthropology sub-disciplines. He has let me know that he has a blog that you might want to check out. (We’ll be reading some sections from his book in the coming weeks).

I also wanted to share a couple of books that I am always pushing on people. Let’s start with an oldie but goodie (which is also available for free on the internet as a PDF)


I’ll discuss the book in more detail next week, but for now, here is a great quote from his Chapter 9:

Every book has a skeleton hidden between its boards. Your job is to find it. A book comes to you with flesh on its bare bones and clothes over its flesh. It is all dressed up. I am not asking you to be impolite or cruel. You do not have to undress it or tear the flesh off its limbs to get at the firm structure that underlies the soft. But you must read the book with X-ray eyes, for it is an essential part of your first apprehension of any book to grasp its structure.

You know how violently some people are opposed to vivisection. There are others who feel as strongly against analysis of any sort. They simply do not like to have things taken apart, even if the only instrument used in cutting up is the mind. They somehow feel that something is being destroyed by analysis. This is particularly true in the case of works of art. If you try to show them the inner structure, the articulation of the parts, the way the joints fit together, they react as if you had murdered the poem or the piece of music.

That is why I have used the metaphor of the X ray. No harm is done to the living organism by having its skeleton lighted up. The patient does not even feel as if his privacy had been infringed upon. Yet the doctor has discovered the disposition of the parts. He has a visible map of the total layout. He has an architect’s ground plan. No one doubts the usefulness of such knowledge to help further operations on the living organism.

Well, in the same way, you can penetrate beneath the moving surface of a book to its rigid skeleton. You can see the way the parts are articulated, how they hang together, and the thread that ties them into a whole. You can do this without impairing in the least the vitality of the book you are reading. You need not fear that Humpty-Dumpty will be all in pieces, never to come together again. The whole can’t remain in animation while you proceed to find out what makes the wheels go round.

This reflects some of the themes that I have been bringing up all semester. Underlying structures of writing matter…but they should also impact how you read and annotate.


The other book, which I’ll put a section from up onto zotero (that is completely optional), but it may be a nice complement to my discussion of PDF management and info-glut next week. This book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is written by Steven Johnson. It is a fascinating read (and you can watch a short animation here of some of the ideas), but in particular his discussion of common-place books.

The philosopher John Locke first began maintaining a commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over the next decade he developed and refined an elaborate system for indexing the book’s content. Locke thought his method important enough that he appended it to a printing of his canonical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here’s an excerpt from his “instructions for use”:

“When I meet with any thing, that I think fit to put into my common-place-book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example that the head be EPISTOLA, I look unto the index for the first letter and the following vowel which in this instance are E. i. if in the space marked E. i. there is any number that directs me to the page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first vowel after the initial letter is I, I must then write under the word Epistola in that page what I have to remark.”

Locke’s approach seems almost comical in its intricacy, but it was a response to a specific set of design constraints: creating a functional index in only two pages that could be expanded as the commonplace book accumulated more quotes and observations. In a certain sense, this is a search algorithm, a defined series of steps that allows the user to index the text in a way that makes it easier to query. Locke’s method proved so popular that a century later, an enterprising publisher named John Bell printed a notebook entitled: “Bell’s Common-Place Book, Formed generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke.” Put another way, Bell created a commonplace book by commonplacing someone else’s technique for maintaining a commonplace book. The book included eight pages of instructions on Locke’s indexing method, a system which not only made it easier to find passages, but also served the higher purpose of “facilitat[ing] reflexive thought.”

The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association. The historian Robert Darnton describes this tangled mix of writing and reading:

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings.

But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.”

A few pages later Johnson discusses DEVONthink as a useful way to do such work digitally. I’ll discuss this software next week.