All posts by Andrea Elyse Messer

Fun in the Sun? Well, Maybe

I have heard people scoff and raise a skeptical eyebrow when hearing of a semester abroad or an international summer program.  I know what they are thinking – easy A’s, lots of eating and drinking and well…

I don’t know about all programs or even all Penn State programs, but I can categorically say that anyone attending Penn State’s summer archaeological program at Tel Akko in Israel is not having a grand old time.  Well, they are, but not in the way you think.

Today, the first day was an easy one.  We stayed at the Israel Marine School where we are living.  Began at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast, followed by lectures until lunch at 1 p.m. and more lectures from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m., then dinner at 7p.m.

I’m not sure how the students sat through it all.  We are all jet lagged and the overview spanned the time period from Early Bronze Age to the Crusader period and Napoleon’s failed attempt at capturing the city.  That is a lot of history and archaeology crammed into one day.  But hey, we were done at 7:30, right?

Sure, because we have to leave tomorrow morning at 5:30 so we can have a tour of the site and do clean up until 12:30.  They will feed us breakfast though.

The excavation project is sponsored by Penn State, the University of Haifa, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont McKenna University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Trinity College. Students are enrolled in different programs through their schools, but all students and staff have to attend the lectures.

Oh, and if you think that we’re free after lunch, no, most days we have to wash pottery and then have another lecture.

There are trips on Saturday and a lecture Sunday at 6 p.m.  These few credits are not for the faint of heart, but, besides learning how to dig, uncover the secrets of the ancient past and make new friends, most of the students undoubtedly will think these four weeks were a blast.  And some of them will come back next year.

Pondering the Sea (of unpublished notes)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.

What are you doing Dave?

A while ago I wrote a story about self-replicating, autonomous robots that would clean up debris in our immediate portion of the solar system and then propagate out into the galaxy, returning information and perhaps informing us of our first alien encounter via laser-targeted, light-speed communications.  A very futuristic concept and a cool story.

In the course of my interview with John D. Mathews, professor of electrical engineering, I asked him if there were any concerns about these robots — which would also, by necessity, learn — suddenly turning against their makers.  I was specifically thinking of the replicators on the TV show Stargate.

Mathew’s response was that some form of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” would of course direct the robots:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I pressed a little harder, but Mathews thought that potential problems could be worked out.  I don’t doubt him.  What struck me is that, when it comes to robots that have any greater intellect than an industrial, repetitive, one-armed, pick-and-place machine, we automatically turned to fiction, science fiction, for references to possibilities and potential hazards.

Cylon replica

Running through my mind was HAL of 2001 A Space Odyssey fame going insane, being shut down and slowly and slower singing “Daisy.”  What came to mind were both the Replicators and the Cylons that began as obvious machines and eventually took the form of their makers and tried to kill them.  Or the robotic house in Demon Seed trying to replicate itself via forced impregnation of the house’s female inhabitant.  And even Project 79 in the God Machine, Martin Caidin, who became sentient and tried to take over the world.   I remembered all the stories of robot rage, death and destruction.

Mathews on the other hand pulled out the Three Laws.  A way for robots to be beneficial to humanity while protecting themselves and a basis for a great many stories about good robots, or at least no worse than most humans robots.

Perhaps it is a case of the glass half full or half empty.  I’m not sure.  Today, besides industrial robots, the most contact most of us have with a robotic device is a Roomba and they certainly are not sentient.  Surgeons do robotic surgery, but that is usually a misnomer.  What they are actually doing is teleoperating very small tools.  The military also has robot drones, but as far as I know, they too are teleoperated.  None of our robots are sentient, yet.

But, an IBM computer managed to beat two of the best Jeopardy champs last year.  And beat them soundly.  Certainly the machine could not move on its own, and its process of answering was not actual artificial intelligence, but the possession of an enormous amount of available data and the speed to access it.  But it is a first step.

Will we some day explore other stars side-by-side with robotic companions, helpers, equals?  Will we be able to trust them any more than we would trust a human crewmember?  Would it really be all that different?

Quoth the Raven …

Well we don’t have ravens, but I woke up this morning to the raucous screeching of a crow — cousin of the common raven — outside my window.  Not an uncommon occurrence in State College today, but ten years ago, crows were rarely seen in town or on campus.  Now they are ubiquitous in pairs throughout the summer tending their nests and their young and in groups roosting at night on campus in the winter.

Patrick Mansell, Penn State

I’m told they group together at night in the winter in locations that are slightly warmer and where there is light, and of course trees in which to roost.  This makes campus an ideal location and this winter we saw streams of crows congregating at dusk, a la Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” flying to the front of Old Main to spend the night in the trees.  Continue reading Quoth the Raven …