Dogs for the Dead

Six years ago,  the  Department of Transportation in Washington State stumbled upon a huge, unforeseen problem on the Port Angeles waterfront.  The department was in the midst of constructing a major new dry dock in the city when its workers suddenly began turning up ancient human bone.  Subsequent  investigations by archaeologists, historians, and elders of the Lower Elwha tribe revealed that a Klallam village known as Tse-whit-zen once stood on part of the prop0sed dry-dock site.

But here was the real sticking point.  The site also contained a major burial ground brimming with Klallam  graves:  nearly 335 people had been laid to rest there.   Moreover,  some had clearly perished between A.D. 1780 and 1800,  when diseases such as smallpox,  measles and influenza carried by Spanish mariners  swept through the region for the first time,  decimating Native American villages.  As David Rice,  a senior archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  later told The Seattle Times,  a number of the graves contained more than one skeleton and bore signs of  rare forms of ritual treatment, “which would be a spiritual attempt at trying to stop this event.”

In the end,  the Department of Transportation did the right thing.  It decided to abandon construction of the dry dock,  after sinking nearly $60 million into the project.  But the department clearly learned a crucial lesson from the disaster,  and now it’s trying out a very new approach to its archaeological surveys of proposed development sites along the Port Angeles waterfront.  It has brought in dogs–not just the garden-variety Fido, but four animals trained at the Institute for  Canine Forensics in Woodside,  California.  These are corpse-sniffing dogs.

This was the first I had heard of such canines being used to detect human remains in archaeological sites.  But I think they could potentially save developers,  archaeologists and Native Americans  a whole world of grief.  According to the staff at the Institute for Canine Forensics, dogs can smell human remains that are buried as much as nine feet below the surface.  And they can detect remains as old as 2000 years.  “Human remains have a scent that never,  ever goes away,  especially a bone,  even after it dries out,” one of the institute’s staff members told The Peninsula Daily News.

As the owner of a Labrador retriever,  I’ve witnessed time and again the astonishing olfactory prowess of dogs,  and I don’t doubt they could be trained to sniff out very ancient remains.   If the Port Angeles project pans out–and I can’t imagine why it won’t– I  think bringing in such trained dogs should become a standard procedure when North American archaeologists are surveying proposed development sites for possible ancient Native American cemeteries.

Galileo: Saint or Scientist?

As some readers may know,  I write a regular month-end blog for Archaeology magazine’s website (last Friday of the month to be exact.)  Today I  posted on the recent rediscovery in Italy of two mummified fingers belonging to Galileo Galilei,  the first man to gaze at the night skies through a telescope.   I think this seemingly freakish find in Italy tells us an awful lot about how Galileo’s admirers viewed the persecuted scientist after his death.  Indeed,  I think they saw him as a saintly martyr.

To read more about this,   please visit my blog post at Archaeology magazine.

Definitely Not Space Junk

Image Credit: NASA/LOIRP

In an old, abandoned McDonald’s Restaurant at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California,  a group of space buffs are patching together and preserving a vital artifact from NASA’s glorious past:  the FR-900 Tape Drive. Only a NASA engineer,  I’m afraid, could have given such a critical piece of our collective history such a mundane and boring name.  I say this because the FR-900 Tape Drive is the only piece of equipment on earth that can play back the very first close-up images from space that humans took of the moon. These were shot by the NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft back in 1966 .

In the 1980s,  NASA made a stunningly short-sighted bureaucratic error.   It decided to give away all four of its FR-900 Tape Drives as government surplus to the first person who would cart them off,  forgetting, it seems, that these were the only devices capable of playing back the footage that its Lunar Orbiters took in 1966 and 1967.  One of the Orbiter photos in particular, a breath-taking close-up of the lunar surface,  was described at the time as the “picture of the century.”

Fortunately for all of us,  someone realized that NASA was blowing it.  Nancy Evans,  the co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System agreed to haul off the machines,  each of which weighed 1000 pounds, and she stored them in a barn in Sun Valley for several decades.  She desperately wanted to raise funds to digitize the images,  and in 2007,  she found two partners–Dennis Wingo at Skycorp Inc and Keith Cowling at Spaceref Interactive Inc.

Together,  the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project team has patched together two of the tape drives and is now in the midst of digitizing some 1984  images in the old McDonald’s restaurant that they’ve taken over.  Moreover,  NASA has now recognized the value of what it nearly threw away.   NASA researchers plan to compare the images from the 1960s with new photos taken of the moon by the next high lunar probe to be launched next spring.

I think what happened to the  FR-900 Tape Drive is a superb cautionary tale.  We now store immense amounts of data on very ephemeral technology:  DVDs,  computer hard-drives and  internet servers.   We need to be thinking now very long and hard about how to preserve this for the future.

Virtual Museums and Repatriation

I would like to applaud Google this morning for the  important new project that it is undertaking in Iraq.  As the New York Times reported yesterday,  Google will be creating a new virtual Iraq National Museum,  by imaging the museum’s crucial collections and placing them online.  In a press conference yesterday in Baghdad,  Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Iraq officials and journalists,  “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources  than to make the images and ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world.”

Like many,  I am a little skeptical about what use Google might eventually put these images to. The megacorporation has already digitized vast numbers of books (including two of mine) without obtaining permission to do so,  and the company is now trying to purchase sweeping digital rights to these books in a lawsuit hardly anyone understands.

But leaving that aside,  I’d like to point out that Google is far from alone in its interest in creating virtual museums.   Indeed,  some research teams are already way ahead of Google.   At the Unversity of Arkansas,  for example,  a team at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology led by Angie Payne has already scanned some 350 artifacts from the collection of the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park in Wilson, Arkansas.   The result is the Virtual Hampson Museum.

The Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park holds an absolutely superb collection of Native American pottery,  particularly from the Mississipian era.  Now with the Virtual Hampson Museum,  researchers can perform basic measurements on the artifacts and gather data for analyses,  without scraping together grants for traveling.  This will be very important for struggling graduate students in years to come.

Moreover, as more and more museums repatriate key artifacts from their collections–either to Native American tribes or to  countries of origin– 3-D images of the artifacts can be still be preserved online,  providing access to all.  I’d call this the best possible solution right now to a very sticky issue.