February 2010

Insight of the day: a great percentage of being an archaeologist is actually being a hustler for grant money.

I just had this thought right now, as I am in the process of surfacing from a near-death experience drowning in applications for scholarships, fellowships and study abroad admission. I am now in shoulder-height paperwork, but holding steady treading reams. And clay tablets– but more about that later.

As previously posted by my illustrious colleague Tiffany Tsai, we spent a whirlwind weekend in Argonne, IL, about 26 miles south of Chicago. Tiffany had been to Argonne before and had experienced the intensity that is 18-hour shifts with little else to look at but screen captures, code gobbledigook and XRF graphs. This, however, was my first time.

This is the second time that Professor Dodd had been awarded “beam time” by the Argonne committee (side note: Professor Dodd is like… the ultimate hustler of grant money. She was sitting at the Advanced Photon Source (the name of the synchrotron beam), already a huge grant, writing an NSF grant). Her project this time investigated imperial control over strategic resources (metals) such as bronze. We used bronze arrowheads from five sites across the Near East on loan to us from UChicago’s Oriental Institute: Chatal Hoyuk (not associated with the Stanford/Hodder dig), Tell al-Judaidah, Tell Tayinat, Megiddo and Persepolis. Our readers may recognize the last two, those being extremely significant sites in the ancient world (and one the root word of every crazed  eschatologist’s favorite noun “arMEGEDDOn”).

I arrived at O’Hare at midnight central time, and was greeted by the strange slang for various types of cars for hire– cab (pronounced KYAHB), limo (meaning pre-arranged kyahb), and a limo (meaning stretch limo). After a little confusion and freezing my bum off waiting at the cab line (it was 25 degrees F), I made it into a luxurious limo (pre-arranged cab) Navigator, driven by a man who was too tired to answer my questions. Argonne was about 30-40 minutes away, and boy was I confused. In LA we use San Diego, Santa Monica, San Bernardino and Sacramento to orient ourselves with cardinal directions (that are in the state). Many of the signs around Chicago orient you to weird places– Minnesota, Iowa, St. Louis, Indianapolis, etc. I was concerned about where I was going… I had never really looked at Chicago too closely in relation to everywhere else. I never realized that it was so close to so many state lines. Enlightenment number 1 of my stay in Illinois.

Argonne security is tighter than a medieval vice. I was stopped at the main gate, and given a police escort to the guest house, which is located some distance from the gate. After checking in with Professor Dodd, I passed out. The next morning, we went to Sector 1 of the synchrotron beam. Professor Dodd gave me the down low on what we were going to be doing, who is who and what is what. The who is who is what was confusing at first– when I say we were “rolling deep”, I mean that we had about 4 physicists from Argonne staff, Dr. Friedman from IIT, Dr. Mini from NIU, two physics grad students, one post-doc, Tiffany, myself, and Dr. Friedman’s daughter who is an undergrad physicist at IIT. That was about 13 people overall working together on this project. So much brainpower pooling together for this project!

The general rule of the project was this: don’t touch anything. This isnt to say that we had nothing to do with the project. On the contrary, we non-Ph.D’s moved the stage around with a remote computer to find the appropriate point to shoot high-energy x-rays at the artifacts. We manned the books, taking extensive notes about every detail of our experiment. We did documentation of every bronze arrowhead that went under the beam. This is to say that everything was placed PERFECTLY. Bumping something would most likely mean locking you in the x-ray hutch with the beam shutters open!

At first the project was a little rough. Keep in mind that this project is a new kind of collaboration between people of varying academic fields. I tried to keep up with the discussion about keyences and measurements and what not, but ended up just waiting for the show to get on the road. It was difficult to get everything to work together all at once and perfectly. After awhile though, we were on our way. We worked through the night for three nights, taking 5 or 6 samples from each point. This entailed taking photographs of beam placement, screen captures of beam placement from cameras set up inside the hutch, moving the stage with the artifact on it (which was a very long process), and running the x ray fluorescence and diffraction. Overall, we managed to photograph and collect data from over 40 different artifacts from all five sites.

Something interesting to mention is that the main synchrotron beam is ~3,000 ft. in circumference and 2km long with a beam that runs 24/7- except when someone trips up the beam. I dont know what the issue was, but sometime on Friday the beam shut off and everything went still. We were in the middle of taking an XRD when nothing showed up on our screen. We began to panic a little bit (oh no, not again!), but it wasn’t our fault for touching the wrong button of kicking the off switch on a CPU. This was a nice break, and I spent some time shopping on Amazon looking for new fantasy novels that were recommended to me by our post-doc associate from University of Toronto. The beam came back on about an hour later, and again we were off shooting high powered beams.

Beyond the 18 hour shifts, we had some pretty decent food. I performed a very scientific gastroethnographic experiment on the delicacies of Chicagoan deep-dish pizza– or, as it turns out, a cheese pie with tomato sauce on top. The experiment ran rather smoothly, and I am pleased to report excellent results to my Californian counterparts: EAT IT, IT’S SO GOOD, WHY DOESNT THIS EXIST IN CALIFORNIA.

Tiffany’s post picks up most of the details I left out…. Keep reading down.


The Monday after my return from Chicago, I was up and at ’em at 8AM to participate in USC Archaeology’s new outreach program, ArcSmart. The project was created by archaeology students (Cara, actually), run by archaeology students in cooperation with LAUSD and JEP, and designed for middle school students in the USC area to get their hands on some real artifacts. We brought in some artifacts from the LAUSD collection to teach kids about Roman coins, seriation, cuneiform tablets, and various other sundries/trinkets of the ancient world… And boy were they excited. My group (also consisting of Heather and Alyssa), each manned a table to teach kids about our artifacts while they circulated from table to table. I was in charge of the cuneiform tablets. I had three in front of me, all of them documents discussing commercial and agricultural items such as livestock, grain, etc. It had been awhile since they had learned about Hammurabi, but after jogging their memories and telling them about the elaborateness of the cuneiform language, their age (~4,000 y.o.) and cylinder seal “signature”, they were incredibly enthusiastic to jump right in and touch and examine the artifacts. Overall, it was a great success, and I look forward to going back next month.

Last week saw a foray into snow and rain, beams and bunker-like laboratories.  Professor Dodd received her second award of beam time in 6 months (the first application took years!) and as a result, Sarah Butler and I got to travel to the Argonne Advanced Photon Source with her to watch and participate in a project.  The project was comparing various copper alloy artifacts from three different places within the Persian Empire to see if manufacturing technology changed in some pattern with the advent of empire, and also the differing effects of imperialization on a central city and a formerly autonomous region.  Examining the crystalline structure of the artifacts through XRD would produce information about forging techniques and degree of fineness, while elemental XRF analysis would tell us what kinds of minerals were being alloyed with the copper.  At least that was my understanding.  Most everyone working on the project held advanced degrees and had a much more legit knowledge of what was going on, either on the physics side or the archaeology side.  Fully interpreting the data from XRD and XRF requires as much study as being well-versed in Persian history – but, as the title says, USC undergrads get to go wonderful places.  Sarah and I actually gained a lot of experience working camera controls and “driving,” or operating the software that controls the laser beam.

To recap: I arrived at the Argonne Guest House (no tents here) on Thursday and bounced over to the synchrotron facility, where the rest of the project members had already been for a day and a half.  The beam is housed in this storage ring of over a thousand meters, which nests in a Costco-sized circular experiment hall clad all over with postmodern white sheeting.  I walked down a flight of stairs to Sector 1, commonly lent out to “users” from the public since Argonne is funded by the Department of Energy and by extension our taxes.  As she put it, Prof. Dodd had gotten the equivalent of a quarter million dollars with her 72-hour beam grant.

People were patient, but patiently frustrated.  They had already spent a whole day fussing with hutch cameras and the setup of the lasering platform, and a very intense kind of pent-up expectancy translated into a sourceless hum.  Argonne’s beam scientists from last time were there again as were Prof. Dodd and Dr. Friedman, both Ancient Near East/Anatolian specialists, and new faces including two Toronto archaeologists and a conservator from the Oriental Institute.  Dr. Friedman took us up to the rooftop upon arrival so that we could see the entire beamline, which was cloaked in white this time of year.  From the balcony we looked in vain for the totally white deer, which may or may not have been collateral damage from a secret radiation incident.  Inside she showed us posters listing which organizations had collaborated with Argonne, and what some projects were across the disciplines.  If you go to the 2008 Argonne visitor’s book you can see her project involving metal bangles.

We went back down, hung around the hutch for a bit, and watched people make miniscule adjustments on a small rotating motor that moves the object to be X-rayed up and down.  After a while, one of the physicists rounded up the newcomers for a safety orientation.  I didn’t go with them, my training being valid from the summer, but this is the part where you get shown all the nasty, dangerous chemicals in pod-like lab spaces along the wall and great silvery tanks you don’t want to knock over.  A guide walks you through the steps for evacuating, for calling for help, and what to do in case there’s  a tornado (bathrooms are certified tornado shelters).  Then they give you the instructions for beam usage: you go into the open hutch and push a green button, then another green button on the other wall, and listen to a robot woman’s voice say “CLOSING STATION THREE – PLEASE EXIT IMMEDIATELY” over and over again.  Heavy pneumatic (?) blue doors slide closed, and then you can open the shutter that lets the beam out.  The first time I kind of panicked when this happened and fled out of the room; after a night or two, everyone in their sleep-deprived loopiness usually falls to imitating the voice.

The first night shift was mine and two archaeologists’, which shows you the incredible amount of license given to us there – nobody was the least worried that we’d screw up the delicate scientific equipment, at detriment to ourselves or the beamline.  One person sat in the driver’s seat, manning two keyboards under a panoply of 6 monitors and calling out numbers to the other two, who alternated between reading a K- and L-energy level graph (XRF), watching for faint rings on a black screen to appear (XRD), and capturing and renaming files (cameras).  Out of sheer generosity the conservator, Laura, had stayed well into the a.m. preparing artifact foam pads for us, so the changing process was very simple: take artifact out, lift up new foam server with a gloved hand, stabilizing top of artifact with your index finger, and slide between metal posts on the lasering platform. Progress was slow-going but steady, and at 8 a.m. I walked back to the Guest House excited to find out later what new information had been gleaned while I slept.

When I returned, I was told that while I slept, the beamline had been bumped into not working for a little while, which Sarah can tell you about.  But the second night went much more smoothly, and we found an interesting anomaly, higher concentrations of tin at the shaft and tip of Megiddo artifacts, as well as cleared up bizarre readings of strontium and some heavy atomic elements that had been worrying us earlier.  Some extra beam time was given to us at the end of the 72 hours, which eagerly sopped up put our total batch count at 40 artifacts.  Considering the data files (XRD and XRF) are huge, this will yield quite a lot of information!  Anyway, that’s an abbreviated version of USC at Argonne version 2.0.  It was a great experience, and though the Persian Empire is not my focus I am extremely eager to see what research comes of it.

The STARC website!

Yes, we finally have a website for the Society of Trojan Archaeologists. It’s still being modified, but here’s the link!


Check it out!

~Sarah Hawley