Pondering the Sea (of unpublished notes)

As I sit here in a Tel Aviv hotel overlooking the city’s marina, I’m pondering the future — well, at least the next month.  I’m going to Akko tomorrow to join the Penn State field school taking place there.  The project, co-led by Ann Killebrew, associate professor, Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Jewish Studies and Anthropology in conjunction with the University of Haifa, is called Total Archaeology@Tel Akko and includes a field school, underwater archaeology, survey, community outreach and excavation. It also includes a component aimed at documenting past excavations.

birds eye view of Tel Aviv marina
View of the Tel Aviv marina from 11th story of hotel. Public beach visible in foreground

Why?  Well, a dirty little secret of archaeology, especially in the past, is that many, many archaeologist never really published their findings.  The situation has gotten better, especially in the U.S. where state historic preservation offices often require field reports of surveys and excavations or at least strongly request them, and where funding agencies also require reports. But beside these field reports, there are often few places to publish the findings.  Compared to other fields, there are few peer-reviewed journals and the alternative is a book, which takes many hours and dedicated effort.  Researchers are often already off on the next project.

It is estimated that for every day in the field, another 5 to 7 days are needed to process artifacts, create maps, interpret the site and write reports, papers, etc.  Digging just for the sake of digging wastes precious resources and deprives future generations of knowledge.

This is not the first time I’ve dug in Israel.  I did my field school at Tel Sheva, the biblical location of Be’er Sheva.  There was supposed to be a book about the first seven years of that excavation.  I even prepaid for the volume.  Unfortunately, the researcher involved died and no book appeared.  I suppose somewhere, someone owes me $20.  That was a lot in the early ’70s.

I worked at a site called Halutzah in the Negev in 1980. Nabatean and Byzantine.  Very cool.  It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but I’ve never seen anything published on the excavations there.

Which brings me to Tel Akko.  The site was first excavated from 1973 to 1989 by Moshe Dothan and a team from the University of Haifa, in cooperation with Diethelm Conrad from the University of Marburg.  Part of the Total Archaeology project in 2010 and 2011 was to document and re-investigate Dothan’s excavation in three areas with the idea of publishing that work.  From my point of view, actually documenting past work and making it available to all researchers is incredibly important.  Too much of archaeology is so called grey literature — papers presented at conferences but never published and only available from someone who managed to get a copy or the original author, if they will supply it.   And then, the papers often say, “Please do not reference this work.”

Researchers say that because they have every intention of publishing, but often that just does not happen and the only record is a paper that exists in the grey shadows, presented, written, meagerly distributed but not officially published.

I admire anyone who tries to publish old data or figure out if old data can be reused. They are doing important work. Once archaeological sites are excavated they really can’t be re-excavated.  Artifacts are gone and more importantly, the stratigraphy — the pattern in which the layers of dirt formed — is forever destroyed.  But reading someone else’s field notes cannot be easy either.  Much as I try, I can’t always read mine.  So reconstructing unpublished past excavations is a daunting task.

We’ll see where this goes.

The Lighter Side of Science: My Own Research Questions

Flickr–Creative Commons

Research at Penn State covers just about every field imaginable.

For the university’s researchers, their intellectual pursuit starts with a question–something that stirs their curiosities.

During the past few years, I’ve talked to researchers who are exploring everything from how highway equipment can influence the spread of invasive plant species to possible treatments for deadly diseases.

This is nothing new. The rich legacy of Penn State research is almost as old as the university itself.

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History: Alive and Well in Gettysburg

The North Carolina Memorial on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. A few feet from this memorial, park restoration experts are working to make the battlefield look like the way it was in 1863. The work is giving visitors and historians a fresh look at how the battle was fought. (Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Ron Cogswell)

One of the highlights of covering research at Penn State is meeting with some of the nation’s — and, often, the world’s — leading experts in their fields.

It’s a little intimidating, too.

OK. A lot intimidating.

Recently, I had a chance to travel to chat with noted Civil War historian Carol Reardon, Winfree Professor of American History, in Gettysburg. Reardon wrote Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory and is wrapping up her year as visiting professor at the Army War College in Carlisle. We talked about her new book, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, about the strategic challenges that the North faced during the Civil War and how those challenges may have caused the war to be longer and more deadly.

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Wonder and Lightning

My dad has a habit of calling to tell me about random things he sees on TV. It is (usually) endearing because I know it means he’s thinking about me. Sometimes it’s to tell me about the awesome play Jimmy Rollins made in last night’s Phillies game; when I lived in Philadelphia it was often to tell me about the latest crime that happened somewhere in the city and to make sure I was still carrying the pepper spray he bought me.

The latest thing he called about was a tidbit he heard on the news: apparently your car is not necessarily a safe place to be during a thunderstorm. Cars have steel-belted radials! he tells me. Like I have any idea what a radial is. So Dad continues to explain — some tires have steel belts in them. If you’re driving while there is lightning outside, your tires might not be grounded because of these steel belts.

We were both a bit skeptical of this. But hey, it was on the news. It must be true, right? Since Penn State has an excellent department of meteorology right here on campus, I decided to investigate further.

I contacted Nels Shirer, an associate professor of meteorology, who has done some lightning research — including mapping lightning clusters.

“The answer is not a simple one,” Shirer starts. No, of course not.

It depends on lots of things, he says, like “the make of the car, whether or not it is wet, and whether or not you are in contact with any electronic devices, such as iPods plugged into the cigarette lighter.”

It never even occurred to me that my iPod could hurt me. In fact, according to the super-helpful web site Shirer directed me to, the National Lightning Safety Institute, you’re not supposed to touch any metal objects in your car during a lightning storm, like a metal door handle or metal radio dials. This makes perfect sense . . . I just never thought about it.

Shirer said, and the web site points out, the best thing to do during a lightning storm is to pull over, turn your vehicle off, and put your hands in your lap.

So the moral of the story is that whether or not you have steel-belted radial tires, your car is probably as safe as it can be, with metal accoutrements. This reassured my father, when I reported back. And I got to hear the story (again) about the time he was working for the New York state highway department and his truck got hit by lightning. But I guess when you’re a dad you have some prerogative to tell your stories as many times as you like. And he was fine, by the way — just a scorch mark in the bed of the pick-up truck.

I wonder what he’ll call about next.

Also, a shout-out to Paul Knight, the Pennsylvania State Climatologist and a senior lecturer in the department of meteorology, for directing me to Shirer. Thank you!

Oh, the URMANITY!

You know that word-nerd friend of yours who relishes correcting everyone’s typos and grammatical slip-ups? Now picture dozens of that type in the same place for four days. Yes, that’s the basic scenario of the annual meeting (from which I just returned) of URMA, the University Research Magazine Association, a professional organization for those who write, edit, design, and publish magazines about academic, non-profit, or institute research. If you’re an URMAn (a member of URMA and the wider URMAnity, naturally) the chance to get together with our own kind— pencils sharpened, iPads charged and glowing, and Twitter accounts chirping—is exactly the kind of geeky career development experience we look forward to all year.

Continue reading Oh, the URMANITY!

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