Far Westerner Gets Grant from National Science Foundation

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Lucas Martindale Johnson, Senior Archaeologist at Far Western and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, received a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation.

Congratulations to Lucas Martindale Johnson for receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation for his research on ancient Maya flaked tool artifacts!

Find out more about Lucas’ upcoming research at the National Science Foundation website and his past research and scientific illustrations at Academia.edu.

Read the research abstract below!

Dissertation Research on Ancient Maya Obsidian Artifacts from Caracol, Belize

Social scientists continue to explore the processes by which raw materials and crafted objects move about in complex webs of political economic exchange. The evolution of exchange networks underscores the need to know how people construct their identity through consumption. Therefore, there is an increasing interest within archaeology to explore the presence of pre-capitalist market exchange in ancient states, and to question how these institutions structured material value, consumer communities, cities, and states. Situated within this broader context, the project will investigate the processes of how regional trade, state exchange, and household identity changed with the advent of marketplaces within a pre-Columbian urban cityscape in Belize, Central America. Through analyses of obsidian (volcanic glass) artifacts – a durable and economically vital stone material – this research will (1) reconstruct and trace their movement from distant raw material sources into the exchange network of a major urban center; (2) determine how obsidian was distributed to the population through regulated or unregulated political controls; and (3) explore how the crafting and exchange of obsidian helped to construct and concretize a shared local identity that endured for centuries. As crafted materials circulate, they expose political/economic/social mechanisms that provision consumers (e.g., market and/or gift exchange). Archaeology has a unique historicized perspective to study the cultural and socioeconomic value of certain objects and materials within different cultural groups as they were exchanged over vast distances. The data generated will enable the emergence of a comprehensive picture in which a study of materials exposes different societal dynamics. The research also encourages an increased collaboration whereby archaeologists as material analysts can expand technical student training through the open sharing of research methods and data.
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Under the guidance of Dr. Steven Brandt (University of Florida), Dr. Diane Chase, and Dr. Arlen Chase (University of Central Florida), Lucas Martindale Johnson will investigate ancient Maya regional obsidian exchange, craft production, ritual and daily events, and the communities that carried out such actions at the ancient Maya site of Caracol, Belize. Research at this ancient Maya city-state provides an ideal setting to demonstrate how a study of obsidian explores regional connections to distant obsidian-rich locations in the highlands of modern day Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras and the economic mechanisms by which the general population were provisioned. By sourcing obsidian to chemically unique geological locations, the project will discover the distance and the different social and physical pathways materials traveled before arriving at a craft production site. By conducting a sourcing analysis in which elemental composition is ascertained through the use of a portable X-ray fluorescence machine, this project will determine trade routes and regional connections. At a later date within the city of Caracol, local household consumers obtained obsidian crafts to for use as casual tools and/or ritualized materials. Caracol’s crafting and internal exchange mechanisms will be studied by mapping artifact distributions at more than 200 ancient Maya households spread over nearly 170 square kilometers (65 square miles). Through mapping artifact distributions, this research will explore how crafting and craft exchange may or may not have been controlled by the politically and economically powerful, as well as investigate how identities are produced through the production and use of obsidian artifacts.

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San Francisco SAA 80th Meeting Successes

Far Western at SAA Meeting

Laura Brink and Stephanie Bennett at the Far Western table for the 80th Annual SAA Meeting.


The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) met in San Francisco for their 80th Annual Meeting – their largest meeting yet! The SAA is an international organization dedicated to the research, interpretation, and protection of the archaeological heritage for the Americas. This year, Far Western was well-represented with many successful presentations, including the opening session, and poster sessions. Learn more about the Society for American Archaeology HERE.

Use the buttons below to see abstracts from Far Western presentations and collaborations!

Angela Arpaia
Plant Remains Assemblage in Santa Clara Valley

Angela Arpaia

The Santa Clara Valley has an archaeobotanical record that spans from the central California Early, Middle, and Late periods. Sites CA-SCL-12, -478, -674, and -919 have robust plant remains assemblages from distinct periods that can be used to evaluate change in plant use and land management practices. Temporal context and habitat will be compared for each site to understand variation in plant diversity and intensification.

Laura Brink
Reconstructing Mobility in the San Francisco Bay Area: Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analysis at Two California Late Period Sites, CA-CCO-297 and CA-SCL-919

Laura Brink, Jelmer Eerkens (UC Davis), Alex DeGeorgey (Alta Archaeological Consulting), and Jeff Rosenthal

Analysis at two California Late Period sites, CA-CCO-297 and CA-SCL-919 Stable isotope analysis can reconstruct individual mobility of prehistoric California on a scale that can distinguish movement between different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. This study uses strontium and oxygen isotope analysis to compare individual mobility patterns of two Late Period sites, CA-CCO-297 and CA-SCL-919. Three life stages are used for comparison, including early childhood from first molars, early adolescence from third molars, and adulthood/time of death from bone. Isotopic ratios from bone resulted in consistent and site-specific signatures for both sites, while enamel ratios were much more variable, suggesting higher mobility during childhood and adolescence than during adulthood. CA-SCL-919 is composed mainly of non-local individuals born in a wide variety of locations, while many individuals interred at CA-CCO-297 were born locally. Both sites revealed mobility shifts from childhood to adolescence, possibly due to post- or pre-martial residence changes. The data also suggest sexual differences in movement patterns, which may inform on post-marital residence patterns. This work gives insight into ancient kinship organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, differentiates site-specific mobility patterns from life-history mobility signatures, and provides testable hypotheses on the structure of post-marital residence patterns during the Late Period of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ryan Byerly
Geochemical and Physical Characterization of Lithic Raw Materials in the Olduvai Basin, Tanzania

Fitzgerald, Curran (Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Charles Egeland (Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina), Ryan Byerly, Cynthia Fadem (Department of Geology, Earlham College), and Audax Mabulla (Archaeology Unit, University of Dar es Salaam)

The study of raw materials has traditionally been deeply embedded in analyses of the Early Stone Age, and the impact of source rock characteristics on early human ranging behavior and technological variation is now widely acknowledged. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, apart from being one of the most well-known paleoanthropological sites in the world, is also home to a great diversity of potential sources for the production of stone tools. While the lithology and mineralogy of these sources have been well described, quantitative data on inter- and intra-source geochemical and physical characteristics are still rare, which makes it difficult to rigorously test models of early human home ranges and raw material selectivity. This project reports preliminary quantitative studies of variation in the geochemical (via portable x-ray fluorescence) and physical (via standard engineering tools) characteristics of primary and secondary rock sources that presumably served as important supplies of toolstone for Early Pleistocene hominins at Olduvai Gorge.

Brian Byrd
The Neolithic Houses of California – An Ethnohistoric Comparative Perspective on Household and Community Organization among Complex Hunter-Gatherers

Brian Byrd

The talk addressed the built environment of complex hunter-gatherer villages of the contact period in California. Although not agriculturalists, they constitute one of the most diverse and well-documented amalgam of complex hunter-gatherers in the world. The study explores the interrelationship between vernacular architecture, households, community organization, and their socio-economic underpinnings. In doing so, highlighted case studies will include the Chumash of coastal southern California, the Patwin of central California, and the Wintu of northern California. Finally, consideration is given to the potential for ethnohistoric vernacular architecture of California hunter-gatherers to provide insight into fundamental variables in the development of Neolithic households worldwide.

Brian Byrd
Wadi Madamagh, Western Highlands of Jordan: Lithic Evidence from the Late Upper Paleolithic and Early Epipaleolithic Occupations

Olszewski, Deborah (University of Pennsylvania), Maysoon al-Nahar (University of Jordan), Daniel Schyle (University of Cologne), and Brian Byrd

Wadi Madamagh, a small rockshelter in the Petra region of the Western Highlands of Jordan, contained high-density deposits of the Late Upper Paleolithic and the Early Epipaleolithic periods. It was first excavated in 1956 by D. Kirkbride, who placed two trenches into the site and briefly reported on the lithics, which have since been studied in detail (B. F. Byrd). A small test along one of Kirkbride’s trenches was conducted in 1983 (D. Schyle), and more intensive excavations were pursued in 2011 (D. I. Olszewski and M. al-Nahar, as well as D. Schyle). As a result of decades of exposure due to the open trenches left by Kirkbride, the remaining deposits at Wadi Madamagh are unfortunately quite limited, especially those of the Early Epipaleolithic. In this paper, we address this issue in part by combining data from the lithic assemblages recovered from all three excavation seasons. This is thus the first comprehensive examination of the stone artifacts recovered from this site. It examines their significance for understanding the behavioral strategies of Late Upper Paleolithic and Early Epipaleolithic hunter-gatherer-foragers in this part of the Levantine Middle East.

Daron Duke
Haskett Spear Points and the Plausibility of Megafaunal Hunting in the Great Basin

Daron Duke

Recent Haskett projectile point finds from western Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert provide a compelling case for megafaunal hunting in the Great Basin, a region that stands out in North America for its lack of direct evidence. The Haskett style is likely the oldest representative of the Western Stemmed series of projectile points, and radiocarbon age estimates on black mat organics at the locality suggest a date range between ca. 12,000 and 13,000 cal BP. In this paper, an argument for megafaunal hunting is constructed for critical examination against alternatives. Images and technological attributes for the collection are presented, including one 22.6-centimeter specimen that is the longest Haskett point documented archaeologically and another that tested positive to proboscidean antiserum via protein residue analysis.

Tod Hildebrandt
Divergent Histories: Prehistoric Use of Alpine Habitats in the Toquima and Toiyabe Ranges, Central Great Basin

Tod Hildebrandt

Alpine villages are extremely rare in the Great Basin. To date, villages located at elevations above 10,000 feet are only known to occur in the White Mountains and the Toquima Range. Demographic forcing and climatic change has been used to explain the existence of these villages, but these propositions do not identify more specific selective pressures that led to the establishment of high elevation villages in some ranges but not others. Comparison of artifact distributions and environmental structure in the Toquima Range, where a village exists, and the Toiyabe Range, where one does not, supports the notion that alpine villages may have been subsidized by intensive exploitation of mid-elevation pinyon groves associated with low-cost travel corridors, which facilitated transport of pine nuts to upland village locations. This study also reveals that limber pine may have played a role in alpine village subsistence, and identifies the need for further research on the value of this resource.

William Hildebrandt and Kelly McGuire
Middle Archaic Expansion into High Elevation Habitats: A View from the Southwestern Great Basin

William Hildebrandt and Kelly McGuire

Several researchers have hypothesized that high elevation habitats were not intensively used until after 4000 cal BP when lowland settlements became more stable and logistical hunting organization emerged. This paper evaluates this hypothesis by comparing the relative frequency of Pinto versus Elko/Humboldt series projectile points across a variety of lowland and upland settings in the White Mountains/Owens Valley area.

Philip Kiajankoski, Jack Meyer, and Paul Brandy
A Land Transformed: Holocene Sea-Level Rise, Landscape Evolution, and Human Occupation in the San Francisco Bay Area

Philip Kiajankoski, Jack Meyer, and Paul Brandy

Occupation in the San Francisco Bay Area The effects of landscape evolution on the archaeological record of the San Francisco Bay Area have been profound, primarily due to rising sea levels. These changes are illustrated through a trans Holocene “tour” of the bay that incorporates the landscape context of many sites featured in subsequent papers. For the region’s first inhabitants, this area was a vast inland valley rather than the state’s largest estuary. The Holocene transgression is illustrated utilizing a new sea-level curve developed for region, which is based on an analysis of over three hundred radiocarbon dates from marsh deposits in the bay and delta. This curve is used to reconstruct the extent of the bay at various times in the past, illustrating just how much of the landscape once available for prehistoric human populations is now submerged. The terrestrial response to rising sea levels during the latter portion of the Holocene included infilling of formerly incised stream channels, alluvial deposition on surrounding floodplains, and the formation of extensive wetlands and dune fields, as illustrated by recent geoarchaeological studies from the region. These examples show how large-scale landscape changes structured the region’s archaeological record, and likely explain why the early portions of California’s past are poorly represented.

Lucas Martindale Johnson
Preliminary Interpretations of the Reduction Technology and Distribution of Obsidian Cores at Caracol, Belize: Learning to Reconsider Maya “Eccentrics” and Social Relations of Ritual Objects

Lucas Martindale Johnson

To the uninitiated, Maya “eccentrics” are vague archaeological labels applied to flaked obsidian objects placed in ritual caches during the Classic Period (AD 250-800). Although labels of humanoid, deity, animal-like, or other shaped objects are often unclear, lithics analysts have tried to define eccentrics based on technological attributes to enable comparisons between contexts, sites, and regions. Those studies that reconstruct a complex chaîne opératoire demonstrate many eccentrics had a dynamic socio-technological biography prior to their deposition in ritualized contexts. After 30 years of systematic investigations, the Caracol Archaeological Project has recovered many ritual cache deposits of Maya “eccentrics”. Caracol eccentrics are typically terminated or disabled exhausted polyhedral blade cores, but can also be broadened to include (modified) macro-core shaping flakes/blades, platform preparation, and core rejuvenation debitage – all those objects that help to create and maintain, a socio-technological blade industry. The broad household ritualization of these objects through specific crafting acts demonstrates that non-blade objects were essential to social relations between obsidian crafters and socially diverse household ritual practitioners. This paper defines these ritualized objects technologically to highlight the performative production by obsidian crafters and presents their distributions at households to understand their circulation to non-crafters for use in household ritual events.

Jack Meyer
Holocene Transformation of San Francisco Bay and Transbay Man Site Stratigraphy

Jack Meyer

San Francisco Bay was created by post-glacial sea-level rise during the span of prehistoric human occupation. The Bay is the single largest Pacific estuary in the Americas (4,160 square kilometers) and is the outlet for California’s largest freshwater drainage system that carries 40% of the state’s runoff. The earliest known evidence of widespread human use of the estuary or tidal resources in the Bay Area first appears at shell midden sites located around the Bay in the middle Holocene (6300-4600 cal BP). Recently, however, an intact human skeleton (“Transbay Man”) was found at an elevation of 12.8 meters (42 feet) below sea level in downtown San Francisco, which is the fourth, and oldest (~7600 cal BP) such skeleton recovered from a submerged context in the region. The stratigraphic sequence and paleoenvironmental context of this rare and unusual find are examined in relation to Holocene sea-level rise and landscape changes that transformed the Bay Area into an ideal place for prehistoric human settlement.

Michelle Rich
From A Forest of Kings to the Forests of Peten: The Mirador Group at El Perú-Waka'

Michelle Rich

More than 10 years of research at El Perú-Waka’, carried out under the co-direction of David Freidel and several Guatemalan collaborators, has resulted in a wealth of information about this ancient city and the role its rulers and residents played in the Classic Maya world. Enhanced through his work with Linda Schele, Freidel’s persistent focus on the interplay between ancient history and archaeology—on stelae, buildings, and people—has shaped research at Waka’, located in Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. The Mirador Group, one of the site’s principal civic ceremonial settings, was an initial focus for the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project. While the Mirador Group’s stelae are either blank or largely eroded, archaeological investigation of the monumental architecture has shed light on topics explored in A Forest of Kings, including the role of Teotihuacan, Tikal, and Calakmul in Classic period interactions. This paper will explore Waka’s involvement in these relationships, particularly as evidenced by the Mirador Group’s royal interments and the narrative figurine scene depicting an elaborate courtly ritual.

Nathan Stevens and Jeffrey Rosenthal
Geology, Historical Contingency, and Ecological Inheritance in California's Southern Sierra Nevada

Nathan Stevens and Jeffrey Rosenthal

The Late prehistoric archaeological record of the Southern Sierra Nevada can be distilled down to two very visible elements: bedrock mortars and obsidian. Both were imported from outside the area, with obsidian coming from the east and the idea of the bedrock mortar coming from the west. We argue that the presence of transported obsidian, much of it deposited prior to 1000 cal BP, and the later establishment of bedrock mortars encouraged more persistent use of this landscape. We see this as an example of the downstream effects of niche construction.

Adrian Whitaker and Brian Byrd
An Ideal Free Settlement Perspective on Residential Positioning in the San Francisco Bay Area

Adrian Whitaker and Brian Byrd

We present an Ideal Free Distribution Model to explore the successful establishment and spread of hunter-gatherer residential settlements around the perimeter of San Francisco Bay, California. Our objective is to illuminate underlying ecological and social factors that best explain the spatial distribution of occupation in the region. Our model determines relative habitat suitability based on a series of environmental factors including drainage catchment size, rainfall, terrestrial productivity, and littoral productivity. In doing so, we also account for diachronic shifts in shoreline location and its impact on resource distribution. Then we test this model using a robust database of more than 500 prehistoric residential sites around the Bay (of which more than a third have produced chronological data), and ethnohistoric insights into settlement location by linguistic group. The talk concludes with consideration of the effect of social as well as ecological factors in structuring temporal trends in settlement configuration and subsistence strategies that formed the basis of this rich archaeological record.

Eric Wohlgemuth
Environmental Constraints and Plant Food Intensification in the Sacramento Valley

Eric Wohlgemuth

The Sacramento Valley bottom is a rich environment for faunal resources, notably fish, but lacks staple nut crops found elsewhere in interior central California. The absence of key nut resources appears to be the key factor in intensified production of geophytes and the early intensification of small seeds, especially Chenopodium spp. These features are absent in other regions in the rich archaeobotanical record of central California.

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