Finally, some snow! And birds at the feeder…

The Town of Ballston, where my mother lives, has been fairly lucky as far as snow this winter.  They’ve gotten some, but haven’t really been hammered.  As a result, it was a white Christmas, but only just, and the snow was getting a bit worn-looking.  The storm that has been creating havoc in the eastern US for several days was expected to miss entirely, but by Christmas it was tracking close to the coast, and so we did get some after Christmas snow.  It was a pretty decent nor’easter along the coast, but we just got outer snow bands, for a total of about 5-6″ overnight.  The trees were all snow-covered, and the bare patches and dirty spots disappeared, making everything clean & bright and new when I went out to get the paper (Paper delivery!  Something we don’t have in Barrow.  We can’t even get paper sent to the stores, apparently.  And the newspapers wonder why readership is declining…).  It’s hard not to feel optimistic when one goes out after a snow storm is over.  The winds weren’t too bad here, although we did get enough gusts to take much of the snow off the evergreens over the course of the day.

The other thing was that the snow covered many of the plants, so the seed eating birds were looking for something else, and found the seed bell we’d gotten them for Christmas.  We had a pair of cardinals, juncos, a blue jay, and tufted titmice and chickadees.  Only the latter two stuck around until I got my camera out.

Action at the seed bell.
Tufted titmouse.

As far as I could see, there were no deformed bills in the bunch, unlike the situation in Alaska, where they are becoming alarmingly frequent.

Adventures with journalists; or, I never said anything about 45,000 yr. old Eskimos

Obviously, I think that archaeology is interesting. In my experience, so do most non-archaeologists I meet. People ask lots of questions, and it’s amazing how many of them say they always wanted to be archaeologists (hey, we take volunteers!).

So, I imagine that there’s a reasonable audience for journalism (print, broadcast or Web) that covers it. The Arctic, as the canary in the climatic coal mine and home to endangered charismatic megafauna (AKA polar bears), also seems to be a hot journalistic topic. Given that Barrow is served by at least two jet flights a day and has decent connectivity, we get our fair share of journalists, and a fair number of them want to talk to me.

The public pays for most archaeology (and other science) so I think they deserve to hear what they’re paying for us to learn, especially since most people are interested in other people and their doings, as opposed to, say, permafrost or midge hatches, for which the interested audience may be smaller. So I take the time to talk to journalists. I also try to find out a bit about the journalist in question. If I get the sense that they are not very experienced with science or research, I’ll offer to at least check dates and spellings in their story before it goes to print, pointing out that that’s less embarrassing than having to issue corrections of errors later. Some take me up; some don’t.

I also take the time to attend panels on working with the media at scientific meetings. They are usually composed of a variety of people who are public information officers for scientific organizations or institutions and science journalists, often quite well-known ones who write for national science magazines or newspapers. They are all very earnest and full of good advice. They are usually amazed at the questions asked by the audience, and horrified by those of us who want to see stories prior to publication. They seem bewildered that the archaeologists making up the audience don’t all see journalists as friends and a great help.

Of course, if all journalists were like the ones on the panels, we probably would see them that way. I’ve worked with some great folks. Angelika Franz, a German writer who has done several pieces about Nuvuk, actually has a doctorate in archaeology, so she’s been great to work with, knowing what sorts of information are critical to get right, and understanding technical terms so we can concentrate on the interesting parts of the story. She has done pieces for Spiegel Online Wissenschaft, a magazine called Epoc and now she’s got a book coming out with a number of pieces she’s done.

I had great fun being interviewed (in Danish) by some Danish journalists who were retracing Knud Rasmussen’s travels across Arctic America. The story wound up mostly being about the fact that I have a complete set of the 5th Thule Report, in Barrow. We also had a nice trip to Nuvuk in the local tour van, which resulted in some good polar bear pictures for them.

Most of the others have been reasonably competent, and haven’t garbled the stories too much, although they haven’t written stories that answer the sorts of questions people ask me.

And then there are the others. There was a group of filmmakers working on video for a major producer of science programming. They had decided to focus on an ice scientist and his (cute female) grad student. It was spring, so there was not much to see at Nuvuk, but they wanted to go there anyway. They wanted to film them pulling up on snow machines. The tracks aren’t the best thing for the site, but we had already excavated the area near the bluffs, so I said that would be OK there. Of course, they didn’t like the shot, or the light, and wanted to have them coming from a different angle, and retake it, and I kept having to tell them to stay in the cleared area. Then they decided that the scientists/protagonists should start scraping away gravel from logs (actually a NARL-era sled shed base) projecting from the bluff, with their mittens. Since this is precisely what we want the public to avoid, it didn’t’ seem like a good idea to show them SCIENTISTS doing it on a reputable science TV series. I pointed that out, to no avail. So I told them I couldn’t be party to that, on film or off, and since they seemed bent on damaging the site, which belonged to my employer, I was going to have to ask them to leave.

Better yet was a Barrow reporter for the local newspaper, the Arctic Sounder. The Sounder is not a bad paper given the area it covers and the budget it has. However, I doubt that the editor considers this fellow one of his better hires. He was an odd duck. He once asked me to help him set up the Mac that the paper had given him so that he could file electronically. I got everything set up, and then went to plug the modem into the phone line (this was some years ago). He would not let me. I suggested that we could test it, and then he could plug it in to file and unplug it. No dice. He also thought there was a hole at the North Pole. He interviewed me about some work I had been doing, and in the course of the interview asked me how long people had been in the Barrow area. I said it was hard to be sure, since sea levels had risen and between that and erosion the earliest evidence was probably gone, but that there was some Arctic Small Tool Tradition (ASTt) material there, which was probably “4 to 5 thousand years old”.

Imagine my surprise at being quoted (in quotation marks, no less) as having said that there were “45,000-year-old Eskimos” in the Barrow area! I got calls from folks as far away as Pennsylvania (Tiger Burch for one) who basically wanted to know if I was off my rocker. When I suggested to the reporter that perhaps a correction was in order, he refused on the grounds that “someday they’ll find 45,000-year-old sites here, and then you’ll have been the first to say it in print.” I have heard, although I can’t confirm, that he was removed from town in a straitjacket.

And they wonder why archaeologists view journalists with a somewhat jaundiced eye…

A mystery tooth

One of the fun parts of the job is that people find all sorts of things around Barrow.  Often, they show them to me, or at least send me pictures.  In a lot of cases I can ID them, but I’m not expert on extinct fauna, and the printed/online resources available are not as good as those for modern critters.

I usually send pictures to some folks at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks), since they actually have a pretty good collection.  Unfortunately their current curator of mammals flatly denies any knowledge (!) of extinct animals, and doesn’t seem inclined to rural residents of the state that pays his salary by taking a peek in the collections to try to make an ID.  So I’m broadening the search.

This particular tooth was given to the current owner.  Matu believes it was found in a gravel operation near Barrow, AK.  He’s really anxious to know what it is.  If you have any ideas what it might be from, please let me know.  If you have any colleagues who might be able to ID it, we’d appreciate it if you’d give them the URL for this post and ask them to take a look if they have time.

The following pictures aren’t great.  I didn’t have a tripod or photo stand, or decent lighting.  If you think you know what it might be, but need better pictures (not hard to imagine) or a particular angle, let me know and I’ll see if I can have him bring it to the lab for a better-lit portrait.

Mystery tooth from near Barrow, AK.
Root of mystery tooth.
Close-up of mystery tooth. Any comments on traces at photo center?

Mysterious sea Creatures

One of the things we collected a lot of from the strand lines was a variety of sea creatures.  There are a lot of pieces of what we thought (in the field) was gut, which is a useful raw material.  Now that we’ve gotten them into the lab, we think most of it is some sort of marine worms.  There are also a variety of other small marine creatures (plants or invertebrates–they have lost their orignal colors) and mollusks.

Marine worm? from 300-400 AD
Another sort of sea creature
Some sort of seaweed?
Maybe some type of sponge-like creature?

Obviously, I know a lot more about mammal bones & teeth than these things.  So we’ve sorted out a bunch, and Claire will take a couple of each type to Fairbanks, along with the shells. With any luck, we can get some IDs.  If we’re really lucky, the species in question will turn out to have fairly narrow habitat requirements, and we’ll know something about what the ocean was like near Barrow when the big storm happened between 300 & 400 AD.

If you happen to recognize any of these, please let me know what you think they are.  If you know anyone who might be interested in these creatures, send them my way.  The “worms” are very well-preserved, and still flexible.  It occurs to me that it might be possible to extract DNA from them (and maybe some of the other creatures as well), which would be a pretty rare opportunity.

Back Home Again–Finally

The conference wound up on Saturday with a really interesting circumpolar archaeozoology session, organized by Max Friesen of the University of Toronto.  I’ll do another post about the papers; this one is about coming home.  A bunch of us went out to dinner at a restaurant on a little square up Rue Lacépéde from Rue Monge.

The next day I started home.  My flight was late in the day, so I had a while to hang around Charles De Gaulle (the airport), which resulted in spending money at the duty-free shops on chocolates (for Glenn) and perfume (for me).  The Air France flight had really good food, and was even a bit early into JFK.  Passport control and US customs were the usual slow lines winding around like snakes, but eventually I made my way (by train) to the place where the hotel shuttles stop and got to the room.  A few glitches with the card keys (apparently their machine is on its last legs and only one of 3 worked) and I was able to sleep.

I had to get up quite early Monday, which wasn’t such a chore since I was still on Paris time, since my flight was at 7AM.  While checking in, I discovered that what had appeared as a JFK-ANC flight actually stopped in Salt Lake City.  And that’s where the trouble started.

We arrived in a perfectly good plane, a bit early, and were told that we were going to change planes.  They re-boarded us an hour or so later on the new plane, closed the doors, and discovered that an engine light was on.  They replaced a part, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, did something else, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, went looking for some other parts, found them, started replacing them, decided that they should deplane us because one of the parts was hard to get at and it would take a while  (they didn’t know that until they started doing the work?  what kind of mechanics are these?),  but we could leave larger luggage on board to speed re-boarding.  They handed us $6 meal vouchers and told us not to leave the boarding area (where there was only one place to get food for 100+ people).  Several hours later, it was clear that I would not be making my connection in ANC to go to Barrow.

When I went up to get re-booked, they were not able to find me a seat from ANC to Barrow until Wednesday.  I had them book it anyway, so I didn’t wind up having to wait even longer.  Eventually, they had us go on the plane five at a time to get the stuff we’d left there, and then sent us to another gate with another plane.  We finally made it to ANC about 4.5 hours late.  A few of us were stuck overnight, but at least the large contingent of senior citizens from the Midwest heading for a cruise ship didn’t miss their sailing.

It took them quite a while working on my ticket, and in the end they took my email and emailed me the itinerary later.  I did wind up standing around so long that when it was time for hotel vouchers, I’d checked the room availability, and was able to get them to put me in the Millennium, which has a decent restaurant and a gift shop that sells T-shirts (which I needed since I didn’t want to do laundry), instead of the Puffin Inn.  I think the problem was that they managed to book me on a Tuesday flight to Fairbanks, with a layover until the Barrow flight arrived, but hadn’t canceled the Wednesday reservation, so the prices weren’t coming out right, and the poor fellow didn’t have a calculator and was having to do all the math by hand.  They handed me more meal vouchers (which didn’t go that far in ANC in the summer) and off I went to catch the shuttle.

The flights on Tuesday went smoothly, Glenn was there to meet the plane, and my bag was one of the first out, so it was only about a 45 minute wait.  We then went over to the library where there was a BASC-sponsored talk going on, to hear the rest of the program, and pick up our daughter and an archaeologist friend, Rick Reanier, who is in Barrow getting ready to do some survey for Shell Oil down the coast.

Naturally, the first couple of days back have been a zoo.  One client has a procedure where they need to get letters estimating how much you are likely to charge them until the end of the fiscal year (September 30) so they can move money around.  The person who does that is going on vacation, so they needed this done ASAP.  So I made those letters, only to have them discover they didn’t have enough money in the projects to do that, and they didn’t have time before the woman left to move the money.  So I had to rewrite the letters to fit their budget!  I really don’t know why they don’t just do it themselves…  That took most of the last 2 days.

In between rewrites, I had a group of Secretary Salazar’s staffers (he’s in Barrow holding a public hearing) tour my lab while touring the building.  Fortunately, they were busy so the tour was brief.  Then I had a regular teleconference with clients, which I got called out of to go and photograph a very large tooth for a local man, Matu.   We think it may be a saber-tooth cat.  Photos have been forwarded to various paleontologists & mammologists, and we await the verdict.

Off to a conference of archaeozoologists

… or zooarchaeologists or faunal analysts (people who study animal remains from archaeological sites), in Paris. The trip over was a two-day affair, involving not one, but two red-eyes. We had a good tail wind, so the Salt Lake City flight was about an hour and a half shorter than expected, which made up for a late departure due to bad weather.

The conference is feeding us lunch every day, and it’s pretty impressive for a university cafeteria. One starter, one main course, one cheese, one desert and one drink. The folks I ate with didn’t see it, but there are rumors that wine was available. The coffee breaks have great pastries and fresh fruit.

The opening reception was amazing, and they didn’t run out of food, frequent problem at such events. They held it in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (Great Hall of Evolution) of the National Museum of Natural History, which is just amazing. A few pictures from there follow. I took them with my phone, so the quality is not the best.

Skull of Nile crocodile
Blue whale skeleton
Southern right whale skeleton
Arctic or Pacific loon, probably Pacific. They look alike, and the ranges overlap.
A small portion of the assembled multitude.

There are also some neat older mounts.  The one of the tiger on the elephant is because a French duke was hunting on elephant back in India, and a tiger leaped onto his elephant.  He was only saved because she was so heavy she broke the basket he was riding in.  She was shot, and that’s the tiger in the mount, which he had made and donated.  It didn’t say if it’s the same elephant.

A hippopotamus, closer-up than you'd want to get in real life.
Tiger and elephant, with howdah (the basket).