Here is my post from the June 29th Day of Archaeology:
My name is Kurt Thomas Hunt. I’m a CRM archaeologist based in New York State and I head up an archaeoblog called Sexy Archaeology. Sexy Archaeology is one way that I provide public outreach within the field of archaeology by sharing the work that I do alongside what I consider excitingly appealing happenings from around the globe. I’m also the president of the New York State Archaeological Association’s (NYSAA) Thousand Islands Chapter, one of sixteen Chapters within the Empire State.
For this year’s Day of Archaeology, I’ve chosen to share a brief overview of the NYSAA’s history, highlight the work of my Chapter, and attempt to persuade those who are not already members to join their local archaeological Chapter or Society.
The New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA) is composed of professional and avocational archaeologists primarily within New York State (though residency is not a prerequisite to join). NYSAA exists to promote archaeological and historical study, and research covering the artifacts, rites, customs, beliefs and other phases of the lives and cultures of the American Indian occupants of New York State up to their contact with Europeans and beyond.
The NYSAA was founded in 1916 and there are currently sixteen regional chapters of the NYSAA throughout the State. Each of the chapters holds monthly meetings where they present programs related to New York archaeology. Some of the chapters conduct their own fieldwork with the assistance of both members and volunteers. The NYSAA also publishes a bulletin and journal and sponsors an annual meeting in the spring of each year.
The Thousand Islands Chapter of the NYSAA was founded in 1994 and hosts over thirty members with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.
Our Chapter recently finished hosting a summer dig for its members along the shores of the Indian River, long known to be an essential byway for indigenous peoples through Northern New York. While a complete understanding of the site is still a ways off, a rough interpretation dictates that the two-acre area was most likely a seasonal Iroquois occupation site.
This rough interpretation is derived primarily from surface finds and excavations performed over the past couple of years. During this year’s dig, 298 pieces of pottery were unearthed within the first five centimeters of a single 1m x 1m unit. Other evidence has included flakes of locally sourced chert, projectile points, and just this year a post mold.
Aside from fieldwork, the Thousand Islands Chapter has, in the past, hosted lectures and discussions from a wide range of professionals, organized tours of historical sites, and has provided educational outreach programs for both children and adults across several counties within Northern New York.
Local or regional chapters of your state archaeological society provide exciting opportunities and come with numerous benefits. Society’s allow the chance for professional individuals to network, avocational archaeologists to hone their craft, and students the opportunity to garner experience from more seasoned individuals. Regional societies or chapters also afford members of the community the opportunity to better familiarize themselves with the history and archaeology of their area.
I invite you to join your local Chapter and Society. Not sure where to get started? The AIA website is a great place to turn, but a simple Google search or an email to your State Historic Preservation Office will also help further your search. Good luck, and make the most of it!
It’s no Mona Lisa, but a smudged red disk in northern Spain has been crowned the world’s earliest cave painting. Dated to more than 40,800 years ago, the shape was painted by some of the first modern humans to reach the Iberian Peninsula — or it may have been done by Neanderthals, residents of the Iberian peninsula for more than 200,000 years.
“There is a very good chance that this is Neanderthal,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, whose team dated dozens of paintings in 11 caves in northern Spain. But Lawrence Guy Straus, an expert on the caves who is based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, calls that “a pretty wild speculation,” because it is based on a single date that could overlap with human occupation.
Until now, Chauvet Cave in central France, which is plastered with images of bears, lions and horses, held the title of the world's oldest cave paintings. The oldest images there are dated to around 39,000 years old, but this is controversial as the assessment relies on radiocarbon dating of charcoal pigments, which are susceptible to contamination from other sources of carbon.
Cave art is notoriously difficult to date because, unlike bones and tools dug up from the ground that can be carbon-dated directly or by their association with nearby bones, it is “not associated with anything but itself”, says Pike.
To solve this problem, Pike’s team dated the calcite patinas that slowly form over cave art as mineral-rich water trickles over the paintings. The water contains trace levels of radioactive uranium, but not the water insoluble thorium into which the uranium steadily decays. The relative levels of uranium to thorium thus form a clock that records when the calcite layer was formed. The layers can take anywhere from several hundred to several thousand years to form, providing a minimum date for the art, Pike says.
His team collected 50 calcite scrapings from 11 caves, and came up with dates as old as 40,800 years, a minimum age for the disk in El Castillo cave1. That image, as well as other slightly younger disks from Castillo and a club-shaped image from Altamira cave, would have been painted at around the time the first modern humans, called the Aurignacian culture, reached the Iberian Peninsula. Younger paintings in the Spanish caves, including handprints and figurative drawings of animals, date to later human occupations.
Just as impressionism gave way to expressionism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, Pike’s team sees artistic trends that correlate with different periods. The first European painters favoured simple geometric shapes such as dots, disks and clubs, whereas their successors painted more graphically complicated handprints and figures.
“You clearly see distinct styles arriving and leaving at different periods,” Pike says, although he cautions against making any interpretations about the minds of the artists. “I don’t think one can say these are multicoloured and these are monochrome to make judgements about the art or even the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals or humans.”
Determining just who created the earliest cave paintings will factor into debates over the relative mental capacities of the two species. Cave paintings appear in Palaeolithic Europe before anywhere else in the world. But beginning around 100,000 years ago, humans in Africa began making shell beads and other ornaments that have been interpreted by archaeologists as evidence for the symbolic thinking that underlies language, art and even religion. There is a lot less evidence, such as beads and ivory pendants, for symbolic behaviour among Neanderthals in Europe, and some archaeologists have raised fresh questions over whether Neanderthals created these artefacts.
The only way to determine who created the earliest paintings is to do more dating, Pike says. If his team can find cave art that predates the arrival of modern humans in northern Spain, currently pegged at around 42,000 years ago, there can be little doubt that Neanderthals dabbled in art. “If we can really nail it, you can walk into El Castillo cave and gaze upon the hand of Neanderthals and that’s really exciting,” Pike says. His team plans to return to the caves to sample calcite on more disks and other early-looking art.
However, Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, points out that only the oldest date, 40,800 years old, butts up against that start of modern human occupation in Iberia. “I think it is far more likely that all of the art in European sites was simply being made by modern humans,” he says.