Rolling Deep at Argonne

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.


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