Eliann Stoffel – Unlocking the Secrets of a Forgotten Mammoth

A rather large bone, revealed by his bulldozer, prompted William McEvoy and his crew to cease work on the road and call the police. The police then called the local archaeological society, who, in turn, called an archaeologist at the local Natural History Museum.

When word got out that a mammoth had been discovered, visitors began pouring in to see the site.  Just a few miles outside of the town of Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada, the excavation of these fragile bones from the hard clay was witnessed by an ever-growing number of people.  It is estimated that 20,000 visitors came to see the site that autumn in 1964.

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Eventually, the plaster casts protecting the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum (now known as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum); radiocarbon dating was conducted.  Possible museum displays and skeletal reconstructions were discussed.

And then?


Once the cause of great local excitement, the bones of the Kyle Mammoth faded from view.

The references above to archaeology are not errors.  Although the bones found were paleontological in nature, the focus on the find—and, indeed, the very reason they were recently resurrected—was to determine whether there was any evidence of human-proboscidean interaction.  When no stone tools were recovered in the surrounding sediment and with no obvious signs of butchering on the bones, interest in the fossil seems to have collectively disappeared.  For over 50 years, the various bones found on that stretch of road have been shelved in the Museum’s collections.

“I had always planned on doing my thesis at the University of Saskatchewan and I knew I wanted to do my thesis on hunting and butchering strategies utilized by Paleoindian people,” explained Eliann Stoffel, a recent graduate, in an email.

Her interest was not specific to any one species of megafauna. She hoped to study any and all large animals ancient people may have hunted: camels, bison, horse, proboscidea.

“I had approached my supervisor, Dr. Ernie Walker, with this topic and he had spoken with a member of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Frank McDougal, who had suggested taking a look at the Kyle Mammoth.”

Which is how the long-forgotten fossil came back into view in 2015.

“We knew that the mammoth belonged to a time when people were in North America and actively hunting mammoths so we had the possibility of finding some sort of evidence of humans on the Kyle mammoth.”

This evidence is rare in the area known as the Northern Great Plains, an area that encompasses Saskatchewan (as well as another Canadian province and five U.S. states).

“It was one of those projects,” she said later by phone, “that, as soon as it came up, I couldn’t turn it down.  It needed to be done.”

Travelling between Saskatoon and Regina (where the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the fossil are located), Eliann spent many hours studying and analyzing the bones from the 1964 excavation.  This included five boxes of bone fragments as well as 56 complete or near-complete bones, such as vertebrae, mandible, a partial tusk, and ribs.  Also included were ungulate bones, which—like the mammoth—did not comprise a full skeleton and did not present any clear association with its proboscidean fossil companion.



About 20% of the mammoth skeleton survived; image courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan


Eliann’s thesis presents a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the mammoth bones, and this was done because she and her advisors “knew that we needed to keep in mind that we might not find any evidence of human involvement.”

The idea of determining who or what made any kind of marks on a fossil seems like an overwhelming challenge.  This was not an animal that died the other day.  In this case, it died roughly 12,000 years ago. That is a considerable amount of time in which—after an animal is butchered, killed or otherwise dies of natural causes–it can be scavenged after death, it can be moved and scraped by natural elements, it can be affected by its fossilization, and then possibly affected by the process of discovery (in this case, by a bulldozer). How is anyone able to read the marks on fossil bones and know what they represent?

“[T]he first giveaway is the colour,” she wrote. “Bone, when it has been buried for a long time, tends to become stained from the surrounding sediment but only the outer surface. So when someone (an excavator) knicks the bone, the unstained inner portion of the bone is exposed and tends to be a lighter colour.

“The other indicator can be the clustering of marks. [With] butchering, there tends to be more than one cut mark on the bone in the same general area, usually at muscle attachment sites, and they tend to be orientated in the same direction. Rarely do you find cut marks that intersect each other. They are usually parallel. In accidental knick marks there is usually just the single mark and it tends to be located in a spot that you wouldn’t generally find cut marks (i.e. on joint surfaces or midshaft of a long bone).”




Photo of the Kyle Mammoth right mandible from her thesis; courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan


Contrary to initial review in the 1960s, Eliann discovered a few tantalizing signs that this mammoth may have, indeed, suffered from trauma induced by ancient humans.  From a suspicious-looking lesion to a possible puncture wound on vertebrae to a puzzling set of lines in a bone fragment, there was reason to wonder whether humans had been responsible for these scars.

Ultimately, however, the first two were determined to be pathological. The lesions conform to known understanding of malnutrition in the form of osteolytic lesions.

Knowing her hope to find evidence of human interaction, I asked if this was a bit of a disappointment.

“[I]t was a bit of a kick in the knees,” she admitted, “but still a super interesting avenue of study in terms of pathology. I am more than thrilled with my findings though!”



figure-5-1-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesisImages courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan


Another startling discovery appeared in what she describes as a “spongy” bone fragment, shown above, which contain traces of blood vessels.

“I remember bringing it to my supervisor and we both scratched our heads over it…So we called on our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. [Angela] Lieverse to take a look and she wasn’t sure but suggested possibly something vascular. Sure enough, when I searched for studies fitting that criteria, a couple articles turned up. So it seems that it is an occurring phenomena but possibly not that common,” Eliann wrote.

Ultimately, Eliann determined that this was a young male woolly mammoth (between 28 – 35 years old) that was still growing at the time of its death.  She estimates it was 328.66 cm (approximately 10.8 feet) tall.  While the large open wound on one of the vertebra points to a possible puncture wound from Clovis weaponry, other pathological features point to a mammoth suffering from malnutrition.

Eliann’s enthusiasm for those who helped her in her research was apparent.

“[T]he folks at the [Royal Saskatchewan M]useum were more than happy to help in any way possible,” she expressed, “and it is something that I have always appreciated! Also my major funders [were] the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and, of course, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the [University of Saskatchewan].”

More than just a strenuous academic endeavor, Eliann’s research has painted a picture that has been missing for decades on a significant local paleontological find.

“The [people in the] town of Kyle identify with this mammoth.  As you come into Kyle, there’s this statue of a mammoth.  Their sign that says ‘Welcome to Kyle’ has a picture of a mammoth on it.  It’s clear that they identify with it.”



A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Eliann Stoffel—not only for her time in emails and by phone–but also for her gracious permission to use a number of pictures from her work!  Her thesis is fascinating and well written.  I recommend it to all!  Eliann, may you find many mammoths with evidence of human association in the future!

Another enormous thank you to Dr. Angela Lieverse, head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who was also responsible for the generous use of images from Eliann’s thesis!

And I am very grateful to Dr. Emily Bamforth at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for connecting me to Eliann! I could not have written this otherwise. THANK YOU!!



  1. The Kyle Mammoth: An Archaeological, Palaeoecological and Taphonomic Analysis, Eliann W. Stoffel, July 2016, University of Saskatchewan
  2. Shedding Some Light on the Kyle Mammoth, David Zammit, Swift Current Online, Nov. 13, 2016; the article that brought Eliann Stoffel and the Kyle Mammoth to my attention!
  3. PDF about the Kyle Mammoth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Screenshot Kyle Mammoth RSM

Screenshot from the aforementioned PDF of the Kyle Mammoth, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

The Ancient Graffiti Project – Ancient Words Revived by Modern Scholars

What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do.

Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly.

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Image of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius by Frans Sellies, courtesy of Getty Images


She, herself, has been studying Ancient Roman epigraphy for years. Most people might recognize the wealth of text carved in stone throughout the Roman Empire.  But what most might not know is just how much ancient graffiti remains.

“One of the fascinating aspects of ancient graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel said, “is that when they do survive, they survive exactly where they existed in a way that stone inscriptions almost never do.”

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Electoral campaign messages in Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii, Italy; October, 2004; photo by Raphael Gaillarde, courtesy of Getty Images.

Stone, inscribed or not, could be reused in ancient, as well as not so ancient, structures. (This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt.  Originally a public notice carved in stone, one of Napolean’s soldiers discovered it amongst reused construction material when rebuilding a fort—a stone saying the exact same thing in three languages: ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Graffiti, on the other hand, exists in the very place it was etched into plaster by their ancient writers.  This is significant, and not just because where people left their messages might surprise us today.

“[U]nlike modern graffiti, we find [ancient graffiti] inside people’s homes,” offered Dr. Alex Pappas, Assistant Professor of Classics at San Francisco State University, “which invites questions about who’s reading these, who’s seeing them, who’s understanding them inside as opposed to just outside on the street.”

Dr. Benefiel’s enthusiasm for epigraphy is infectious.  We connected by video conference to discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project this past summer.  In August, the project held a 5-day workshop on Ancient Greek Graffiti at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC.  It was on the last day of that workshop that I was able to ‘meet’ Dr. Benefiel, her colleague, Dr. Holly Sypniewski,  their students and other members of the Ancient Graffiti Project such as Dr. Alex Pappas.  From the position of the camera, I was able to witness an entire room full of scholars at work.

The energy in that room, the passion expressed by both professors and students as they answered my questions, was almost palpable.  And really, that level of enthusiasm is very easy to understand.

So much of Earth’s history is abstract. That abstraction is wonderful for the imagination, but frustrating when one genuinely wants to know who ancient people were, what they hoped and dreamed, what their daily lives were like, how they may have struggled or thrived.

Ancient writing reaches through the ages in ways that artifacts do not. It has the power to revive—even if only slightly–those who lived so long ago and are now gone.

And because the eruption of 79 CE buried so much of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we are able to see graffiti in-situ in ways that other ancient sites might not provide.  Unlike text carved in stone, anyone could scratch their message into plaster walls.  Much like today, those messages are from everyday people and include political sentiment, sexual conquests, the simple declaration of “I was here” and more.


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Frescoes in the Criptoporticus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. The six domus restorations were carried out under the 105-million euro Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Commission and aimed at safeguarding the unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.


Studying those messages, however, is not new.  When I asked about the resources available to those who wish to work with ancient Roman graffiti, Dr. Benefiel mentioned a series of books entitled the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (“CIL” for short).  She pointed the camera to the end of the table, where scholars were pouring over two enormous tomes.

There are currently 17 volumes in that series, not including supplemental volumes, each volume specific to the graffiti within a modern country or region that was once part of the Roman Empire.  These books were first published in the 1800s.  Since that time, more sites have been excavated, new graffiti has been discovered, not to mention that the entire system of mapping and naming within Pompeii has changed.

Oh, and the entire series—including directions to the graffiti themselves—is in Latin.

“Working with CIL is certainly not a quick or easy process,” explained Dr. Benefiel.  “It requires a lot of correlation and patience.”


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Floor covered with mosaics in the Pacuius Proculus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.


Dr. Benefiel’s own scholarship—the questions she pondered as she tried to work with ancient graffiti—and her work with the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) helped to bring about the Ancient Graffiti Project.

The EDR is another staggering endeavor to bring ancient writing to the 21st century. This resource, in conjunction with other databases, seeks to provide free online access to inscriptions made throughout the entire Ancient World.

The idea for the Ancient Graffiti Project arose after she and her students digitized an entire Pompeii city block for the EDR.  What if there were a resource, she wondered, that provided information regarding where each graffito was found?  Rather than studying ancient words in isolation, she wanted to give that writing context.

Working with a colleague in computer science, they and their students created a search engine that pulled in information of that digitized city block.  The Ancient Graffiti Project is the result, and it is the remarkable work of ever-growing collaboration.

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Photo of Dr. Holly Sypniewski and a student experimenting with an iPad for photo documentation of a graffito at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project


As Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director for Digitization (Ancient Graffiti Project) and Interim Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at Millsaps College, explained, “Rebecca and I both teach at liberal private arts colleges and universities where we have pretty considerable teaching loads. We’re not at large research institutions, and we don’t have graduate students to work with us on our projects. We have our undergraduate students, and this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of this project: finding ways to get my students involved in hands-on research that gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in exciting ways.  Our students conduct research on inscriptions, use technology to manipulate images, organize data, and work on the coding end of the Ancient Graffiti Project Database.   We are lucky to work with such talented students!”

In addition to those from Millsaps and Washington and Lee, students from the University of Richmond contribute to the project under the supervision of Dr. Erika Zimmermann Damer, a project member.

“They’re working with primary evidence in a way that you often don’t get to when we’re talking about 2000 years ago,” added Dr. Benefiel. “And they’re building something. They’re helping design a tool, a tool that we want to be able to be used both by the scholarly community and the public at-large because graffiti, they fascinate! They capture your attention. So if someone wants to know how you might draw a camel 2000 years ago, they can find it!”

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Photo of two students measuring a graffito for Ancient Graffiti Project records at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project


The sheer amount of graffiti within homes in Pompeii—not to mention their very central and visible locations—might give modern readers pause. Certainly, there was graffiti upon ancient walls and structures (even tombs!) But what does that indicate?  Why were people writing inside?  Why weren’t these messages written in less-trafficked areas or painted over by their residents?

Dr. Benefiel poses these questions and others in the book Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, co-edited with Peter Keegan and published this year.  Discussing graffiti in Pompeii alone, she mentions that 1700 examples were found outside on building walls and 1000 examples on public buildings (including about 100 examples in the purpose-built brothel).

The number of graffiti found within homes?


It is important to note that, although graffiti may have been etched into central rooms and hallways within a home, one could easily miss it.  These were not brightly colored declarations; they were etchings in plaster.  Interestingly, those who wrote these messages took pains not to write over existing graffiti. Rather, messages may occur near and around each other.  These messages also avoided all wall paintings, respecting the artwork contained within.

Seeing examples of writing prompts even further questions.  Who was writing these messages?  What percentage of the population was literate?  Can one decipher the gender of the author?

“We have many more names of men appearing in the graffiti, however, we have women who are being addressed in the graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel responded.

Examples she gave are:

“Greetings to Quartilla.”

“Greetings to Sabina.”

“And we do have some graffiti that are written from the perspective of a woman. So we have ‘Methe’, the female name, ‘loves Chrestus’ and then a prayer: “May Pompeian Venus be propitious to both of them, may they live harmoniously.”

Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, states that anyone could have written the graffiti in Pompeii; this was not just a function of the elite.  All members of ancient Roman society appear to have participated.  In one example, she suggests that the imprints of coins, pressed into the plaster close to the floor, is the work of a child. In another, she wonders whether ancient looters may have etched the words “House tunneled” near the door of one house, referencing the type of entry required for anyone to access the buried rooms.

The example given by Dr. Benefiel above illustrates this even further. When discussing her favorite graffito, she added details as to why this same graffito was her favorite.

“1) It starts with the name ‘Methe’ and then it says, 2) ‘She’s a slave of a woman named Cominia. 3) She’s from the town of Atella.  4) And she loves Chrestus.’ So she’s a slave, she’s a female, and she’s got three identifying markers: We know who she is, we know where she comes from, we know who she belongs to.  She’s expressing her love.  And then she’s writing—in a public space—to Pompeian Venus, who was the divinity for the city, and she writes a remarkably touching prayer.”

“I like the fact that [graffiti] can sometimes tell us a little bit about the people who are writing them,” she continued, “and they can tell us what they were thinking, but also what mattered to them.”

Artifacts, artwork and writing with Pompeii and Herculaneum indicate that these were multicultural cities with influences that extended beyond the Roman empire.  Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this lies within the statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess.  Graffiti within those cities appears in both Latin and Greek, sometimes a mixture of the two in the same graffito.

HGP-2014-June-26-185 Ancient Graffiti

Photo of the entire Herculaneum Graffiti Project team from summer 2014 in the Augustalium in Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project for which Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (University of the South) serves as the Field Director.


“[There are] all sorts of fun obstacles to overcome,” Dr. Benefiel replied with a laugh when I asked her about any difficulties when translating the graffiti.

“They were written by individuals, in their individualized handwriting, with their individualized thoughts. There is no mediator between the person who’s writing and the final text.

“So you have to understand the handwriting, you have to understand the inside joke, you have to understand abbreviations or non-abbreviations, you have to understand that an ‘e’ can be written as two vertical lines or as we write an ‘e’.

“When we get to the Greek graffiti, there’s something even more special happening because we’re operating in an environment where you’ve got a mix of cultures.  So some people are bilingual (some people are speaking Latin and Greek). Some others are much more comfortable in Latin and could throw a word of Greek in here and there. Others are native Greek speakers that are now living in a Latin environment. Others are travelers passing through.”


Musquash contemporary graffiti

Contemporary graffiti on a picnic bench at Musquash Conservation Area in NH; photo taken by the author of this blog


After working and researching so many different graffiti, presumably written by so many different people, I wondered if either Dr. Benefiel or Dr. Sypniewski gained any insight into these ancient people.  Did they, for example, see any big differences between those writing ancient graffiti with those who do so today?

“I would say that you see the exact same range of graffiti in antiquity, for the most part, as you would today,” said Dr. Sypniewski. “Perhaps with the exception of the simple artistic tagging. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on decorative letter shapes because the medium doesn’t allow for that. It’s much harder to draw into plaster than it is to spray paint, for example, or to paint over something.”


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Contemporary graffiti; photo by Mr. Din, courtesy of Getty Images

“I would suggest,” Dr. Benefiel offered, “that what we see from the ancient graffiti is that in antiquity people were using graffiti to communicate positive messages much more frequently than we do today.”

Matthew Loar, then a PhD graduate from Stanford, now an Assistant Professor at the University Nebraska-Lincoln, had the following to say: “I think oftentimes when people study Classics, they study Greek and Latin literature. They’re looking at words on a page; it’s very 2-dimensional.  You get this sense of a society that was highly literate and was reading and writing high forms of literature. At least, this is what I thought once upon a time as a young undergraduate.

“But I think the thing about graffiti is that you realize that this was a really playful culture, that writing was very much an everyday practice. It was very ad-hoc. Every surface was game for writing. I mean, there are words all over the city in every place that you look, on every wall—inside, outside—homes, taverns, brothels, forums….you name it; there is writing on the wall there.

“I think that was a really surprising thing for me to learn at first. And it makes me feel like I can still wax poetic. I can commune with the ancients when [I] walk through the city of Pompeii or Herculaneum.”


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House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum; photo by Images Etc. Ltd, courtesy of Getty Images


“I think one of the fabulous things about graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel mused, “is that when you look at them, there’s an immediacy.  If you get a sense of what the handwriting looks like, it takes you to the person that was writing that graffito.

“I think that it’s hard to think about a graffito without the person behind it. And so in that way, when we are thinking about these writings, we are repopulating the city.”


I cannot thank Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students or colleagues enough for graciously enabling me to interrupt their work at the Center for Hellenic Studies this past summer!!  Given the collaborative nature of Dr. Benefiel and the Project entire, it is not surprising that she generously invited me to speak with multiple scholars, rather than doing a one-on-one interview.  I was excited and amazed then; I remain excited and amazed now.  Thank you all for your remarkable generosity and thoughtfulness!  I cannot wait to learn more and see for myself how your project evolves!

You, too, can follow the Ancient Graffiti Project or test out their search engine at http://ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu!



  1. Ancient Graffiti Project website
  2. The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 80 – 110 of Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Edited by Rebecca Benefiel and Peter Keegan, 2016, Brill Publishers
  3. Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 65 – 79 of The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry,  Edited by Jan Kwapisz, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, 2012, De Gruyter
  4. Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii, Rebecca R. Benefiel, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 1, January 2010
  5. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard,  2008, Belknap Press of Harvard University


Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 2) Searching the Jungle for Maya Artifacts

“I talk to students and the last time they probably discussed the Maya was in the 4th grade. So they have a 4th-grade understanding of it. Which is kind of interesting to me.  I’m always like: when are the American kids going to learn about American history?”

Along with his work at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) as Director of Programs, Dr. Ben Thomas teaches Mesoamerican art at Berklee College of Music.  His undergrad and PhD work focused on archaeological sites in Central American countries.

The ‘American history’ of the Maya goes back to about 12,000 BCE, and it is a culture that continues to exist today in Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula.

The ancient Maya were the first known to create the zero—an extraordinarily complex mathematical concept. They were astronomers. They were, among many other things, writers, artists, scientists, farmers, builders, engineers.  Remnants of their great cities exist in the pyramids and stone structures that survive amidst the jungles.

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Group A plaza at Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize; photo courtesy of Tom Schwabel, Getty Images.

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Mayan Temple at Caracol, Belize; photo courtesy of Steve Geer, Getty Images.

It is the writers and artists that pull at my imagination the most.  Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya people were prolific writers.  They created thousands of books, known today as codices, filled with pages of beautiful Mayan characters inked on pounded bark.


Image of the Madrid Codex (also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex or the Troano Codex) at the Museo de America, Spain; in the Public Domain, courtesy of Michel Wal, Wikipedia.

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Page 49 of the Dresden Codex; photo in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.


With the exception of four, all of them–these doorways into the minds and thoughts of ancient people–have disappeared from history. Religious zeal (a belief that these books were ‘the work of the devil’), colonial arrogance, and the desire to Christianize Mayas prompted the Spanish to have these books destroyed.  It is a loss that I cannot fathom, but one that I felt profoundly, physically in the pit of my stomach, gazing upon one of the four remaining Mayan codices at an exhibit last year.

Codex from exhibit

A rather poor image of the codex on exhibit in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed; taken by the author last year at the Boston Museum of Science


Linda Schele and David Freidel, in the book “A Forest of Kings”, state that the Mayan word its’at means “one who is clever, ingenious, artistic, scientific, and knowledgeable” (page 379).  It is also, according to these authors, another word for a scribe or an artist.


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Maya scribe ink pot (a conch shell), in which different ink colors would be placed in each section; taken by the author at the Harvard Peabody Museum.


Although the majority of Mayan codices have been lost, some of their writing survives in stone. Mayan glyphs—carved upon stone altars, giant stelae, and other stone facades—were finally understood in the 20th century.  This remarkable achievement was thanks to years of work by a number of individuals, culminating in final decipherment in 1986 by a teenage epigrapher.

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Casts of Maya stelae from Guatemala and Altar Q in the foreground from Copán, Honduras at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.

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Detail of a cast of a Maya stela from Guatemala at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.  An important contributor to our understanding of Mayan glyphs and writing used to work at this museum: Tatiana Proskouriakoff.


Did this relatively recent discovery correlate to our understanding of the Maya?  Are we only now beginning to unravel the depths of ancient Maya culture?

“Maya archaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, I wouldn’t say it’s in its infancy,” Dr. Thomas replied. “We’ve been doing this now since the late 1800s, but really systematically with scientific methodology since probably the early 1900s.

“I think we know a huge amount about the ancient people of the Mesoamerican region.

“Some things we [once] had no idea about we know a lot about now: about settlement patterns, about construction techniques, about trade networks, linguistics. So I wouldn’t say that the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology is in its infancy, but certainly there’s a ton more to find.”

But, he added, “[s]ome of it will never be discovered because it’s under modern construction.”

Dr. Thomas spent time in Guatemala during his grad school years, but his dissertation fieldwork took place in Belize.  He was part of a group at Boston University called XARP, the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.  The Mayan ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’; hence, XARP is pronounced: sharp.  Xibun is another way of spelling ‘Sibun,’ the name of both a river and an area in central Belize.


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Map of Belize by Poligrafistka, Getty Images.


“When we were looking to do our research–to pick a new area,” he explained, “[the Sibun region] was very attractive to us because so much of it was not really understood.”

Part of the reason may have been due to the Sibun River’s frequent flooding; part of it may have been how inaccessible the area was—miles upon miles of dense jungle.

Looking at the sheer scale of the area, the massive distance on either side of this river, and seeing pictures of the dense brush and tree cover of the jungle, the task of finding anything remotely recognizable as an artifact from the Maya seemed insurmountable.

As Dr. Thomas had mentioned, “The organic material is gone, especially in Belize and the tropics in general in that area because it’s so hot and humid. And the soil is acidic. Organic materials do not preserve well.”

Absent enormous stone structures, how would anyone know where to even begin to look for ancient remnants?  Surely, they could be anywhere, and this was not an enormous team of archaeologists, equipped with technology like LiDAR to help them locate buried ruins.

The answer?

“We did a lot of research: looking at everything that was published about the area, we interviewed landowners, we talked to local people to get an idea of what they had seen on their property, we looked at all the maps and the geological surveys that had been done for Belize.

“Because of all the research we’d done, we [had a better understanding of] Maya settlement patterns. All of the studies would say, [for example], 70% of the Maya settlements are within a kilometer of a river.  There are things that you can look at to sort of try to set up a predictive model of where Maya sites would be.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - surveyor setting up the Total Station

Setting up a survey in the jungles of Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“The big thing I always tell people is that if it’s good for us to live there today, then it was good for [ancient people], unless something bad and really drastic has happened. [Generally speaking,] if there’s a good water source, plenty of good land for agriculture, food sources—whether it’s animal or plant—and some raw materials, that’s where people lived.”

“We had people walking through the jungle looking for things. And what you’re looking for is clusters of artifacts and features, but sometimes they’re so overgrown that you may not see them.”

“We had machetes, and we used them to clear as we were walking along.”

Despite this, I still couldn’t understand how Maya ruins—the soft limestone of their structures eroded over the centuries—could be found in such conditions.

“[When it comes to finding the archaeologically important mounds,],” he said, “you realize you’re walking uphill. Or, you know, you might be able to see [them directly.] After a while you get kind of used to it, how the land should look and what you’re seeing.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation

Walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation in Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

XARP - same pyramid that we were walking over after we cleared off the vegetation

The very same area as in the photograph above, but cleared of all vegetation, revealing the remnants of an ancient Maya pyramid. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Images of dense jungle immediately brought another concern to mind: snakes.

Dr. Thomas smiled. “Snakes [were] an issue. Scorpions. But the things that [were] really, really annoying [were] the bugs: mosquitoes, ticks.”

Eventually, the XARP team sought answers to four questions about the Maya in the Sibun:

  1. What was the nature of Maya settlement along the river?
  2. What was the role of cacao in the Sibun and could we find evidence of ancient Maya cacao production?
  3. What was the effect of Christianity on the Sibun and could we find the visita mentioned in the Spanish records?
  4. How were the caves used?

Unfortunately, they were unable to find evidence of ancient cacao production.  Part of the issue was not knowing what, exactly, to look for.  How does one find remnants of ancient orchards?  And after years of modern cacao growth in Belize, in which hybrid cacao has been introduced, what does ancient cacao even look like?  Other clues to cacao production—the ceramics involved in drinking cacao, for example—would have provided evidence, but these could not be found.


 Cacao pods; image courtesy of nullplus, Getty Images.

Caption from Getty Images: Cacao Plant with Fruit (Theobroma cacao). Maya are generally given credit for creating the first modern chocolate beverage. They ground cocoa seeds into a paste, and mixed it with water, cornmeal, chile peppers, and other ingredients. Photo courtesy of SPrada, Getty Images.


Their quest to find a visita, a Christian church built by Spanish conquerors, was also unsuccessful.  In the 1500s, Spanish overseers known as encomanderos were each given pieces of land (encomiendas) to use as they saw fit.  Visitas were built on this land to further Christianize the local people.

Because the Maya did not employ metal, anything made out of this substance would indicate a colonial presence. They may not have found a visita, but the team did find remnants of colonialists in the form of clay pipes, lead shot, a rusted knife, and gun flint.

“Before we started all this, we knew of 3 sites,” he explained, referring to the only known Maya sites in the Sibun region by the 1990s, one of which is on land owned by the Hershey Corporation.

Ben Thomas - Excavation in progress at another site along the Sibun

Excavating along the Sibun River. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Ben Thomas - excavation 1

Ben Thomas - excavation 2

Ben Thomas - excavation 3

Ben Thomas - excavation 4

Ben Thomas - excavation 5

Stages of excavation. Photos courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project. Samuel Oshon–upon whose property these excavations were conducted–remembers seeing Charles Lindberg fly over his land!


“By the end of it, we had 22 sites, [19 of which we had discovered.] And we had mapped and explored about 18 caves in quite a bit of detail.”

Caves were, and continue to be, a particularly sacred place to the Maya.  They are, among other things, believed to be connected to Xibalba, the Maya Underworld, which was both feared and revered in equal measures.

Ben Thomas - cave

Photo of XARP exploring a cave, courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“They were bringing things in [to the caves],” Dr. Thomas said of their discoveries in local caves. “So you find pots with the remains of food. But then some of [the pots], they’re upside down, and they had holes in them. They were doing something else with them.”


Ben Thomas - cave ceramics

Ancient Maya ceramics in a cave. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.


A particularly significant artifact located in the caves were metates—the stone tools used to grind maize, perhaps the most important crop throughout the Maya universe.

“But those things are heavy!” he emphasized of the metates. “These things can weigh 40 – 60 pounds. It’s solid stone. And there [are] several of them.”

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics and metate

Photo inside a cave with ceramics and metate (grindstone) on the right courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.


He described not only how difficult it was to get to, but then enter one particular cave.

“The fact that they’re bringing [metates] in there, [when] it’s not easy to do, I think it does speak to the importance of the rituals.  They’re willing to invest the time and the energy for these rituals.”

“But they’re also taking things out! We noticed on the sites [outside of these caves that] they would have stalactites or stalagmites, [sometimes] on the house floors, sometimes they’d be in burials.

“We think of a cave as a sacred space with spiritual energy [so], I think, taking something from there would have that spiritual energy connected to [it].”

“People still do it,” he said, referencing relics in many of today’s Christian churches, in which the bones of saints are enshrined.

Dr. Thomas and I had been conversing for well over an hour at this point.

“[Archaeology],” he concluded, “[is really] a database of human behavior, starting from thousands of years ago to now. We’re chronicling it: how people behaved, how they reacted to things.  A lot of times the collapse of societies is brought on [by events such as] climate change,  [for example; or] it’s brought on by overexploitation of natural resources; [or by] people not adjusting or adapting to their circumstances.  [Those are] all data-points that we have that people should be looking at. What are we doing to our environment now? How are we reacting to things now?”

“Because in some ways, none of this is new. I think what has changed now is the scale of things.”


I extend an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Ben Thomas.  Not only was it a great honor and pleasure speaking with him for such an extended period of time, but it was no small task to find time in his extraordinarily busy schedule.  He helped pave the way for my increased interest and enthusiasm for the Maya culture. I am very grateful!
A huge THANK YOU to Caitlin Davis for connecting me to Dr. Thomas!


  1. “A Forest of Kings”, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow and Co., 1990
  2. “Breaking the Maya Code”, by Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1992
  3. “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World”, by Lynn V. Foster, Facts on File, Inc., 2002


Image of Palenque, a Maya city-state in Chiapas, Mexico; courtesy Getty Images.

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 1) International Archaeology Day

“I think the main thing about archaeology is that people love the idea of discovery,” Dr. Thomas mused.

“The thrill of discovery,” he amended.

I sat across from him in his corner of the office, an ocean of research and paperwork between us.

Our conversation proceeded to the symphony of phones ringing and professional conversations throughout the room: the soundtrack to daily work in most offices. Traffic—constant and, at times, unruly—was a barely muted cacophony just outside the nearest window.

But all other noise seemed inconsequential when he spoke.  It wasn’t just the content of his words and how quickly they drew me in, it was also the cadence, the honey-soaked lilt, the music of his voice. I didn’t realize English could sound so lovely.  Listening to him brought my favorite language to mind and for one of the very reasons it is a favorite.  In French, the words of a sentence are pronounced fluidly in one beautiful linguistic stream. And this is exactly how he speaks.

We were discussing archaeology in general, his work at the AIA, the ideas behind the annual Archaeology Fair in Boston, and his fieldwork in Belize.

Dr. Ben Thomas - AIA 5.6.15

Image of Dr. Ben Thomas at his desk in the AIA office, Boston; taken by the author


It was an absolutely gorgeous Spring day in Boston.  Against a cloudless blue sky, the streets were lined with pink and white cherry blossoms, the kind that dance like confetti whenever a breeze tickles the branches.

Dr. Thomas and I had been trying to connect for quite some time, our schedules finally meeting in the middle of the week.  With the address in my mind, I scanned the brick homes and then the commercial buildings for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), where Dr. Ben Thomas works as Director of Programs.

The AIA may have loomed largely in my mind, but it is housed discreetly on the 6th floor of a building owned by Boston University.  And it was there that I learned how one of the most exciting annual archaeological events came to fruition.

It started with Jane Waldbaum, one of the AIA’s governing board members, later the AIA President, who organized a family-friendly fair at the AIA’s annual meetings.  These meetings—like those of other large scientific organizations—are held at a different location each year, and they are geared toward professionals in the field.  The fair was a way of including the general public.

Dr. Thomas and his staff took that idea several steps further.

They brainstormed how to bring archaeology to more people, how to create a positive event—something that would engage a wider audience, not just the occasional announcement of a huge discovery and not in reaction to negative impacts within the field: looting, theft, vandalism.

“We wanted an event that said: ‘This is something that’s worth celebrating: our past, our culture, our cultural heritage, archaeology itself.’”

So they created National Archaeology Day.  There was no fee attached, there was no agenda. Any group could celebrate it and create its own set of events.  The idea was simply to highlight archaeology in all of its forms.

Meanwhile, he called Mike Adams, Outreach Manager at the Museum of Science Boston, and together they created the Archaeology Fair, now held each October at the museum.

“We wanted to tell people that archaeology can be local,” Dr. Thomas explained. “You don’t have to go to Egypt to experience archaeology; you can experience it in your own community. There’s always something going on.”

And, he continued, “[w]e wanted people to connect with each other, especially professionals and laypeople.”

The fair succeeds on both counts.  Thousands of people attend the event in Boston each year.  Tables of archaeological artifacts and archaeologists are dispersed in multiple areas throughout the museum. The day is filled with panel events and guest speakers, and anyone can ask any archaeologist questions about their work. While archaeologists who work in Egypt are often present, most of the fair consists of New England archaeologists who work in the area.  It is now in its 10th year.

mos - arch - welcome sign

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools


mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

Images of the Archaeology Fair at the Museum of Science Boston in 2013; taken by the author


Another goal of the fair is to clarify what archaeology actually entails, a confusion that persists today with paleontology.  Often, the two distinctly different fields are believed to be one and the same, when, in fact, archaeology revolves around ancient people and their artifacts; paleontology studies extinct creatures—those that are not human.

“[The general public appears to have] great enthusiasm for archaeology,” said Dr. Thomas.  “But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. For a lot of people, [archaeology is] just about finding stuff.

“We try to emphasize the fact that the ‘stuff’ is just the means to an end. I mean, ultimately, what we’re trying to study is human behavior: what these people did, where they lived, how they behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with each other.  And the artifacts are just the clues.

“It’s: Why? Who? When? How? Those are the things that we’re trying to get to.

“Finding things is just the first step. I shouldn’t say the first step; it’s the middle step, because you’ve already done a ton of research, you know why you are looking for something where you’re looking, and then, when you find it, you have to figure out what it means.

“What it means, I think, is the most fascinating, although not the most visibly glamorous, because you’re in a library somewhere doing research and typing up reports on the lab.”

National Archaeology day quickly transformed into International Archaeology Day—a reflection of its popularity well outside US borders.  The number of organizations that supported and celebrated it surprised everyone at the AIA.  Sponsors of the day now include the National Park Service and National Marine Sanctuaries.

International Archaeology Day 2015

International Archaeology Day 2015, screenshot from the AIA website


You can find local events for this upcoming International Archaeology Day in October here: https://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday/events

Previous posts about the Archaeology Fair in Boston:

  1. Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
  2. Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
  3. Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
  4. Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
  5. Dr. George Mutter: Ancient Egypt in 3D Photographs: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-dr-george-mutter-egyptian-images-in-3d/
  6. Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/

Before Porcelain Came To Pompeii: A Tale of Toilets (and Sanitation) in Ancient Rome

Here is something I never learned when researching the Dead Sea Scrolls for an exhibit: the toilet habits of an Essene sect from the first century BCE.  They are apparently described in two different sources: one of the Temple Scrolls (11QT) and from Flavius Josephus, an ancient historian.

Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, archaeologist and professor at Brandeis University, mentions them while comparing the sanitation records of other by-gone cultures in her latest book.

No such detailed records yet exist for ancient Roman society, but for Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, this is not a deterrent.

Using ancient literature, Roman graffiti, artwork, and the structures themselves, she pieces together an intimate and unique portrait of Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ancient Rome during the 3rd century BCE through the 2nd century CE.

The mere existence of sewers and aqueducts might lead one to believe that the engineers of Ancient Rome were millenia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cleanliness.

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[[Image courtesy Getty Images, the ancient roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard in France. It crosses the Gardon River in the Gard département of southern France. It was built in the first century CE and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The author of this blog was delighted (and awed) to walk across the top of it years ago.]]

The evidence seems to point in that direction, especially given that public toilets were built in many Roman cities.  Ancient Rome itself had latrines designed for 47 – 60 people in a row.

But do these structures actually indicate what we, in the 21st century, might assume about their function and purpose?

This is one of the many questions asked by Dr. Koloski-Ostrow in “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” released this past April by the University of North Carolina Press.

Archaeology of Ancient Sanitation


[[Image of the book cover, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” courtesy of UNC Press]]

In it, she focuses on a largely ignored part of ancient life, a subject that most people today might, quite frankly, find slightly repugnant.

Since 1992, prompted by the remark of a colleague into how little has been done with this topic, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow has been researching the structures related to toilets within Ancient Roman sites.

“Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy.  If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods and maintenance.  While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles, this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world.  Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing.  As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits.   These early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.” –pg. 38, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Surprisingly, this is not a discussion of artifacts found within sewers (although certainly this work has been done by other people).  Rather, this is an intriguing tour through an ancient society at-large, viewed from the perspective of urban design.

She attributes two theories as major influences upon her work: formation processes and the social theory of architectural design.  Viewed from these lenses—in which human behavior and decisions are tantamount–sanitation and its related structures become a fascinating puzzle to decipher.

The social theory of architectural design encourages one to ponder the motivation behind the building and location of an archaeological find. Why, for example, were many private toilets in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia positioned in or near the kitchen?  What decisions were made to include or not include windows in public latrines?  And therefore, was odor a concern in either of these cases?  When sewers were available, and no laws existed to prevent builders to connect to these sewers in town, why were so many private homes still using cesspit toilets? (More on this subject below.)

Embed from Getty Images

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, a street in Pompeii. Notice the raised stones.  This enabled citizens to cross the street and not get their sandals wet or dirty–from both water run-off and potential toilet refuse from those homes that connected their toilets to the street….]]


Formation processes, as its name suggests, focuses on the reasons behind “construction, use and ultimate abandonment” of archaeological features.

Aside from chamber pots, wealthy Roman citizens eventually had either cesspit toilets or toilets connected to city sewers within the home.

Not so for the general public.

“We know…that elite attitudes toward the masses and their living conditions were, at best, dismissive and, at worst, callous.” –pg. 75, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Within the crowded tenements of Ancient Rome, multi-storied buildings had shared latrines, if any at all.  Some were located on the ground floor; some, surprisingly, were constructed on higher levels.

And here we arrive at latrines.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow believes the term “latrina” meant a public toilet in the 3rd century BCE.   The later word “forica” (“foricae” in plural) referred to multi-seat public toilets.  As already mentioned, the Largo Argentina in Ancient Rome provided seating for 47 people in one latrine; up to 60 people in another larger latrine constructed in the following century. Public latrines were not always part of Roman cities, and Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wonders whether these may have originally been built as a practicality: a way to keep human refuse out of city property, rather than a concern for human needs.

There were no apparent stalls or partitions.  A latrine consisted of either wooden or marble benches, and the holes were placed at the same distance from each other (with variations of just centimeters) throughout the centuries.  They were generally constructed over a main sewer branch.


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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, sea sponges.  Ancient Romans are believed to have used such sponges on the end of a stick as toilet paper.]]


The windows, at least in early latrines, were small and built high up into the wall; she describes these facilities as “grim, dark and dirty.”

And she ponders who frequented them, whether social status mattered in their use.

“Another knotty question frequently asked about latrines is whether men and women used them simultaneously.  We might also ask if women used them at all.  The best response is probably not to seek a definitive answer, but to accept the fact that in all likelihood mixed latrine use varied from region to region or even from establishment to establishment, and certainly from country to city.  Personal choice must have played a role, and there were both prudes and perverts afoot in Roman life.  Chances are that if women entered a latrine on occasion, they were women of the lowest social order, enjoying the use of a public facility, a privilege that was rarely otherwise afforded them by the Roman city administration.” –pg. 31, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy”

When I asked what alternative a woman might have had, she responded by email, that it “is very related to the hierarchical nature of all of Roman society.”

“Women of high social status,” she continued, “would not have entered a dark, dank public facility any more than a man of high social status would.”

“First of all, women of high social status did not tend to be out and about in the Roman city during the day.  Their slaves and freedwomen would have done the necessary errands and shopping for these high status women.

“If a woman of low status (slave or freedwoman) were out of the house and needed to use a toilet, she may have stepped into a public latrine, but I’m guessing that she would have thought twice about it—given worries of robbery or assault.  Such places were convenient, like nasty toilets in the New York subways, for unsavory types to lie in wait.  So, women (low status) would have done their business outside the house and then rushed back home.  In the home were chamber pots and cesspit toilets for their needs.  You can see that I cannot prove any of this, but I have outlined whatever evidence I was able to find in the sources.”

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow relied on ancient writers to help give her a sense of what import, if any, sanitation played on cultural perspectives of the time.

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, bathing hall, Pompeii.]]

Praise for the Cloaca Maxima—the Great Sewer of Rome—can be found in Pliny the Elder, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Strabo (a Greek geographer) and Vitruvius (himself an architect), among others.  But, she notes, these writers ultimately focus on water as a vehicle for cleanliness.

Discussing this sewer in the ancient city of Rome itself and its connection to the Tiber River, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow makes an important distinction between what we today consider “hygienic” and the possible ancient ideal of visible “cleanliness.”

“The Great Sewer undoubtedly did drain off into the Tiber excess street water, mud, animal dung, and other refuse that would have otherwise cluttered urban vistas, but I am unwilling to view it as part of a Roman sanitary revolution, despite the fact that the concept of ‘health’ and the sewer are closely interrelated…A truly important interrelationship to note is that between water and its potential to clean, to refresh, and to inspire economic growth, urban development, and industry.  The sewers did the job of moving stagnant and polluted water from where it was not wanted in the urban environment to someplace else.  Another way to see this is to say that the sewer—assuming it was not hopelessly blocked—moved dirty water from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, development and industry.

“As Romanized cities spread across the Mediterranean, the hydraulic technology, time, and expense that were necessary to lay underground sewers surely rivaled the effort required for all other parts of the urban infrastructure, including construction of multistory apartment buildings, streets, and aqueducts.  Just as networks of pipes were necessary for bringing clean water to fountains, public baths, and private houses, in many Roman cities sewer systems were there to take it away.  Connections between these aquatic underground networks and concrete concepts of hygiene, as we would understand them, really do not exist. The most we can say is that the Romans seemed to define hygiene as the removal of visible dirt.” –pg. 66, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Remember, germ theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.   We might take for granted knowledge of microbes and their potential for disease, but this was not a solid connection in earlier human history.  This is not to say that ancient cultures were not clean (although by today’s standards, this might be debated), nor that refuse in all of its forms was not something they wanted to remove, but—as Dr. Koloski-Ostrow asserts throughout her book—it is a mistake to project 21st century understanding onto ancient structures.

From 1683 when Holland’s Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw “small living animals” in his microscope to the late 19th century when France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch gave us concrete evidence of germs and disease, we have only just recently made this connection.

Sewers, in today’s mind, are a way to help keep disease out of our living arrangements.  We equate sewers with toilets, filth, and the often out-of-sight water treatment facilities that take care of the sewer contents.

“I want my readers to understand that having the ‘equipment’ to remove urine and excrement (sewers and latrines and house toilets) does not automatically translate to strong ideals of cleanliness and hygiene,” Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wrote.

When asked whether this was a controversial assertion in archaeological circles, she responded, “The scholarship on matters of filth in the Roman city have gone back and forth over the years. (‘Romans were clean freaks’ or ‘Romans were filthy, lice and stench ridden creatures.’)”

“…I’d rather say about it that my work will cause more discussion on the topic (rather than being radically ‘controversial,’) and I just hope that in the book I’ve provided enough careful research to show the complexity and richness of the topic.”

Bocca della Verita - Cosmedin


[[Above, Franco Sgariglia and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow pose with their hands in the Bocca della Verità–the ‘mouth of truth’– in Rome, Italy.* (*Thank you to the person who corrected my original statement that it was in Cosmedin; not, in fact, a city in Italy!) Situated outside the Church of Santa Maria, brides and grooms place their hands in its mouth and say their vows.  It is believed that  this mouth will shut on anyone who does not tell the truth.  But Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, after studying the water wear on its face–determining that water flowed into rather than out of its openings like a fountain piece–believes that this stone piece was actually once a sewer cover!]]

[[Image from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SANITATION IN ROMAN ITALY: TOILETS, SEWERS, AND WATER SYSTEMS by Ann Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu]]

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[[Another image of the Bocca, from Getty Images]]

And certainly, she has done so.  Along with providing the reader new perspectives on what might have occurred in ancient construction, she describes fascinating anecdotes and possibilities.

As mentioned earlier, many private city toilets were cesspit toilets—something that some unfortunate person had to constantly empty when full—instead of simply connecting to the city sewer system that would carry all refuse away.


Consider two things: frequent flooding and the lack of systems to prevent methane and hydrogen sulphide gas build-up. Now consider what this means: in the case of flooding, unfortunate back-flow from the sewer right into homes.  And in the case of gases, the potential for frequent (and perhaps inexplicable?) explosions.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow mentions how many archaeologists, from the first Pompeii dig to the present, were unwilling to focus on any of these ancient structures.  But this continues to be an unseemly topic for many people to openly discuss, in scholarly or other circles.

She prefaces her book with this concern.

“At times I have had my own fears either that everyone would gradually abandon me on account of my fascinations for the underside, or worse, that I would be known in scholarly circles as ‘Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet,’ which, it seems has happened.” – pg. xv, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

And while she describes the overwhelming support she’s received over the years from colleagues and friends, I still wondered how people react to her research now.

“Well,” she wrote, “I’d say that people snicker when they first hear about it.  When I explain, however, that I do not ‘just’ research Roman toilets and sewers, but the ancient technologies of water supply and distribution, urban infrastructure, ancient plumbing, and the social ideas that accompanied these topics, those snickers usually turn to rapt attention and interest.”

“I do not consider the work ‘trivial,’ but a serious new probe into the realities of life in the ancient Roman city.  My readers seem to agree after they engage with the research too.”

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read, written for those who are familiar with ancient Roman history, but readable for those who are not.

In response to whether she was surprised by anything she discovered, she answered, “I guess I was most surprised by how much work was necessary to do before I could sit down to put it all together—studying the archaeology on the ground at so many ancient sites, reading and assessing ancient Roman graffiti, and searching such a wide variety of classical texts (ranging over two to three hundred years of Roman writers) and analyzing Roman wall paintings.”

“It was a labor of love,” she concluded, “but a labor, nevertheless.”


For more fascinating details about ancient sanitation, including murders and bodies thrown into the sewers, please buy and read the book!

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow for her time; her open, generous and fascinating responses to my questions–especially in the midst of an incredible work-load on her part–and her graciousness in enabling me to use so many quotes from her book!  I am so grateful that she took the time to contact me directly. It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with her!  I look forward to reading her upcoming book, Pompeii and Herculaneum: Roman Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius through Cambridge University Press.

Many, many thanks to Regina Mahalek and Matthew Somoroff at UNC Press for both connecting me with Dr. Koloski-Ostrow and for the pictures provided.

A big thank you to Colleen, the brilliant mind behind this post’s title. I am not good with titles; the original was a bit of a bore.  Thank you (coupled with a smile and a roll of the eyes) for the many ‘helpful’ titles offered by friends and family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of this blog read an article about Dr. Koloski-Ostrow’s work in 2014, then requested and received a review copy of this book in 2015. I am profoundly grateful to the UNC Press for that book, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!



  • The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
  • Handbook to life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Facts on File Inc., 1994
  • The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed the Way We Think About Disease, John Waller, Columbia University Press, 2002
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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, buildings of Pompeii situated below the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius]]

An Ice Age Wonderland – Yukon Paleontology, Part 3

In 2004, scientists in the Yukon discovered a rare and surprising remnant of the Pleistocene: an Ice Age meadow. And some of the grass, although at least 30,000 years old, was STILL GREEN.

Gold bottom turf_30,000 year old grass below ash

[Fossil grass below layer of tephra at Gold Bottom Creek, part of a 30,000-year-old grassy meadow discovered in 2004, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. To see a picture of some of the green grass, please see page 33.]


In Ice Age Klondike, Dr. Grant Zazula and Dr. Duane Froese explain that this layer—at least 40 meters long–was buried by volcanic ash, or ‘tephra’.


30,000 year old bed of Dawson tephra

[The layer of tephra is the whitish colored portion toward the bottom; 30,000-year-old tephra, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


Few places in the world offer us such a concentrated wealth of information about the Pleistocene, and the Yukon is one of them.

“There are a lot of common animals like woolly mammoths and bison and horses that we find all the time,” Dr. Zazula said. “But it’s really exciting when we find the bones or the fossils of the rare species, things like camels, or short-faced bears, or lions. Probably for every 500 bones we find, we might find one bone of a carnivore.”

Susan Hewitson in field with lion humerus

[Susan Hewitson holding an Ice Age lion humerus, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

lion mandible

[Ice Age lion mandible, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“I think that one of the things that has really been exciting for me,” he offered, “is that, in the last 10 years, the field of ancient genetics has really taken off in terms of being able to extract DNA from Ice Age bones, then study the details of evolution and how these animals are related to one another.”

beth shapiro with horse jaw 2

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro examines a partial upper jaw bone of a Yukon horse emerging from the frozen mud at Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


fossil horse jaw

[Yukon horse jaw uncovered by placer miners on Quartz Creek near Dawson City, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


“[The Yukon is] one of the best places in the world to do that because of the bones being found in permafrost. [There are] so many Ice Age bones that are being found, and they’re really accessible.

“So we work really closely with the geneticists all the time; we’re working on all kinds of different projects together. It’s nice to be able to collaborate with a field like that and make fossils from the Yukon available for study.”

Geneticist Mathias Stiller - tusk - BonesnBugs.2010.TKuhn_082

[Geneticist Mathias Stiller with tusk found in the muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

This author writes from an area within the United States that is fossil-poor (finding one mastodon tooth is an enormous deal, and most years pass without a single reported fossil). In comparison, the amount of fossil bones found in the Yukon staggers the imagination. But that is not all that the Yukon has to offer.

Even those not generally interested in paleontology get excited when they see or hear about mummified Ice Age animals. There is something so much more dramatic, that much more intriguing, about seeing an extinct animal in the flesh.

Dr. Zazula was frank about being slightly envious of Siberia’s wealth in that domain. Outside of Blue Babe, a steppe bison carcass found in Alaska, the most spectacular mummified animals have been found on the other side of the world.

And yet, one cannot ignore that mummified remains—partial or otherwise—are also an exciting part of Yukon paleontology.

mummified ferret

[40,000-year-old mummified black-footed ferret discovered by the McDougall family’s dog, Molly, at their placer gold mine on the Sixtymile River, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


One of the more remarkable finds was a partially mummified horse, discovered by Lee Olynyk and Ron Toews in a gold mine.

26,000 year old mummified Yukon horse (Equus lambei) foreleg recovered a....Canadian Museum of Nature


[26,000-year-old mummified horse (Equus lambeii) foreleg showing preserved hair, hide and muscle tissue, recovered at Last Chance Creek, Yukon, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.]


horse tail

[Image of mummified horse tail, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


Internal organs as well as a significant portion of the hide (with mane and hair!) were recovered. One can see this at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, the museum in the capital city of Whitehorse.

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Also exciting, but from the neighboring Canadian Territory, was a discovery in the village of Tsiigehtchic. Dr. Zazula participated in uncovering this animal.

“[We excavated] a good portion of a carcass and a skeleton of a steppe bison, which turned out to be about 12,000 years old. There was still a bunch of hair and stomach and intestines and some of the limb bones were still articulated with muscle.”

He wrote about this in more depth with Dr. Beth Shapiro (image above) and several other colleagues in 2009. Not only remarkable for its level of preservation, this was also the first reported mammal soft tissue from the Pleistocene in “the glaciated regions of Northern Canada.

fossil steppe bison skull quartz creek

[Large fossil steppe bison skull found Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Not the same bison fossil mentioned above.]

Then in 2010, Derek Turner and Brent Ward found the “oldest reliably dated” Western camel fossil found in what was once Eastern Beringia. As mentioned in previous posts, Beringia was the area that covered most of Siberia, Alaska and Yukon when the land was connected in the Pleistocene.

Derek Turner, Brent Ward and Dr. Zazula explain, in their paper about this discovery, that North America was once home to possibly six different species of camel. (There appears to be some dispute about whether six distinctly separate species existed.) And, contrary to what one might expect, Camelops—the camel genus—originated in Central Mexico.

ice age camel metatarsal (foot bone)

[Ice Age camel metatarsal (foot bone), courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

For someone who has never participated in the excavation of either a mummified animal or fossils from permafrost, it was interesting to learn that there is a distinct smell when working with the muck.

Monitoring Dominion Crk (1)

[Placer gold mining monitor, Dominion Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“The only thing that’s kind of similar is the smell of a barnyard. But this is a barnyard from 30,000 years ago, and it’s from mammoths and horses and camels. All this rotten stuff that was [once] animals and plants that died a long, long time ago, frozen in the ground, and it’s now starting to thaw.”

The ever-growing research and discoveries from the Yukon paint a vivid picture of a by-gone era. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to a window into the Ice Age that we have.

When asked if there was anything that had not yet been found that he would be thrilled to find, Dr. Zazula didn’t hesitate: a woolly rhinoceros.

“We know that woolly rhinoceros are, so far, only found in Siberia,” he said, explaining why this would be so significant. “They extended all the way to the Bering Sea essentially, but they seem to never have crossed Beringia into North America. There is no fossil record of Ice Age rhinos here. But if they did [cross Beringia], that would be pretty amazing to find one of their fossils.”

Dinosaur enthusiasts, however, may be disappointed.

“In the Yukon, there’s almost no record of dinosaurs or Mesozoic fossils at all. I’ve been working with colleagues over the past handful of years, trying to find dinosaur deposits. But there’s no record of dinosaurs here except for a few handful of things. So, it’s not really [the place to be] if you’re interested in dinosaur paleontology. And that’s fine for me because then I don’t have to get involved in dinosaur work.”

“The Ice Age,” he continued, “is definitely what I’m interested in.”

Zazula with horse skull selfie

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with Ice Age horse skull, discovered this past summer, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

Dr. Zazula began grad school in Alberta studying anthropology. Initially, he wanted to become an archaeologist. His undergrad studies focused on Arctic people and research. A strong theme, he explained, centered on the first humans to cross the land bridge into what is now North America.

“I found myself becoming more interested in the environments that those first peoples in North America were encountering,” he mused. “Instead of just trying to study the people themselves, [I wanted to understand] them in more of a wider geographic or environmental context. So, I switched gears during my grad school days from anthropology into biological sciences.”

After doing paleoecological work in the Old Crow region of the Yukon, Dr. Zazula was invited to join a group of researchers working in the Klondike.

“We started doing fieldwork at these gold mines, and we kept on running into these strange balls of hay frozen in the frozen mud, in the Ice Age sediments. And we didn’t really know what they were at first.”

So he contacted Dick Harington—a well-known paleontologist within Canada for his decades of work with fossils and gold miners in the Yukon. Dr. Harington thought they might be Arctic ground squirrel nests, and in further conversation, explained that they had not yet been a topic of study. In other words, not much was known about them.

25,000 year old fossil arctic ground squirrel nest at Quartz Creek, summer 2005 (photo by G. Zazula)

[Fossil nest of an Arctic ground squirrel, 30,000 years old, found at Quartz Creek in summer 2005, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Over the first summer of fieldwork, I think I collected almost a hundred of these ground squirrel nests. And what was really cool about it is that the group that I was working with specialized in glacial stratigraphy [and] using volcanic ash beds to date sediments.

“Because they knew the age of these different volcanic ash layers that are found in the sediment, we could actually place these ground squirrel nests in different points in time in the past. We were able to develop sort of a time series of these Arctic ground squirrel nests.

“[Over] the next four years, I picked apart Arctic ground squirrel nests that [dated] between 20,000 and 80,000 years old or so.”

 Nest with squirrel skull


[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

These nests are also known as “middens.” In his paper on the topic, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues describe these underground Ice Age homes. What these middens revealed, not just about these specific Ice Age animals, but about the Pleistocene environment at the time, is incredible.

Contained within these middens were ‘caches’ of food—seeds and plants from the area. These tiny plants give scientists a much better understanding of the climate and environment thousands of years ago.

squirrel nest - quartz creek

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]


squirrelnest - cache


[Arctic ground squirrel nest, cache highlighted by author, per the paper on this subject.]


“I think we’ve identified over 60 different plant species in them, and I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

In addition—and much to this author’s surprise–they found fossil insects, including beetles.

“Fossil Pleistocene beetle remains are actually quite common in sediments,” he said. “And they’re actually pretty useful for climatic reconstructions, because most beetles have a very narrow temperature or climatic envelope that they can live within.”

Squirrel nest - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_254


[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the squirrel skull?]


[Extant Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) hibernating in burrow, Fairbanks, Alaska; Getty Images]


In all of Dr. Zazula’s papers, one can see scientists from a variety of fields as co-authors or in the acknowledgements for their help with research. This was reiterated in our phone conversation: he is uniquely positioned as Yukon paleontologist to provide Ice Age material for a wide-range of study to a wide-range of fields.

“Especially with the Pleistocene,” he explained, “there are so many interconnected aspects of research. You need to have a geologist around. And then, in terms of putting the big picture together, you want to have someone that can reconstruct plant fossils. If you’re just doing it alone, you wouldn’t get much of the [big] picture anyway.

“So we’ve really kind of developed this way of doing things as a team.”

Morehouse, Zazula and Stiller

[Archaeologist Jana Morehouse, Paleontologist Grant Zazula and Geneticist Mathias Stiller, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“To me, it’s all so interconnected: the geology, the ecology and the mammals and then the archaeology. You might as well work together to try to accomplish goals, and that’s how we’ve done it. It’s been pretty successful.”

“And,” he added, “it’s a lot more fun that way anyway.”

Beth Shapiro_withHorse

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro with Ice Age horse jaw, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Prior to the Yukon government establishing the paleontology program, all of the fossils that were being collected went back to Ottawa for the National collection and the National Museum. So most of the material that has ever been collected from the Yukon is actually not here. It’s in Ottawa.

“The Yukon government decided in the mid ‘90’s that they would like to establish its own program in Arctic archaeology and paleontology. Since that time, fossils collected here, stay here. And the position [of Yukon paleontologist] was created to oversee that.”

It’s a position he’s held for the past eight years, and one can hear his genuine enthusiasm for it in his voice.

“It’s a great job,” he stated. “Sometimes I’m shocked that I get paid to do this. It’s pretty exciting.”

Over the years, Dr. Zazula has been featured in some of the most prominent global media. Some of those include NPR, the CBC, the NY Times, and the National Post. This past summer, he was filmed with paleontologist Dick Mol from the Netherlands by a German documentary team. That documentary has been aired in Europe since this past December.

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[Paleontologists Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, photographed by Florian Breier, the director of the German documentary; image courtesy of Dick Mol.]

Not everyone, regardless of their profession, is as comfortable with media or journalists.

“I think there are a lot of people that stay in labs and put their heads down and don’t really interact with the media, but I think it’s really important,” he said.

[I]t’s one thing that’s never taught: how to conduct interviews or how to take your scientific work and present it or make it relevant to the public. And I think that’s a real problem, because if you are a practicing scientist after graduate school, you’re undoubtedly going to do research that attracts interest, and if you don’t have the ability to speak about it or to present it, you lose a lot of traction. In a lot of regards, science is kind of a big competition. It’s like a big science fair. If you don’t produce results and attract attention, you won’t continue to be funded. You can be an excellent scientist and sort of fade away if you don’t have the ability to attract people’s attention.

“I work for [the] government, where we’re publically funded by tax dollars. [F]or some people, [paleontology] might not seem very relevant for society. Still, I think it’s pretty important whenever we have something new to talk about, in terms of new results or new and interesting things, we should make sure it gets out to the public through media.

“Politicians are the people that decide if these programs continue to be funded. And if they see that there’s a lot of media interest and a lot of people learning because of it, then they’ll definitely keep funding these kinds of programs. And I’m grateful that they continue to do so.”

paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University_bison jaw and mammoth tooth

[Paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University,courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you pick out the mammoth tooth?]

Explaining the reasons for his fascination with the Ice Age, Dr. Zazula said, “Dinosaur paleontology doesn’t really tell us much about the modern environment. If we’re interested in what we have today and how it’s changing because of, say, climate change, or environmental change, we’re not going to get much information about environmental processes by studying dinosaurs.

The study of the Ice Age, [however], is how the modern world came to be.

“When you think of tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, it may seem like a long time ago, [but] it’s just a geological instant. And in that short time period–in that geological instant–the changes that have happened to result in what we have here today are amazing!

“To think of giant elephants and lions running around North America: it’s such a different world. And yet so many aspects of that world can inform us of what we’re dealing with today.”

sixtymile mammoth 1

[Image of mammoth skull found by Hawk Mining along the Sixtymile River, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

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This trilogy of posts on the Yukon–with all of the beautiful images and the fascinating information they contain–could not have been possible without the generosity of Dr. Grant Zazula.  He is an adept and engaging speaker; the Yukon is incredibly lucky to have him at the helm of the paleontology program!  Once again, and with great sincerity, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to him.

This trilogy would not have occurred without the great generosity and wonderful thoughtfulness of Dick Mol, who is a wonderful, wonderful person.  With great sincerity, I wish him, too, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU!


If you haven’t already checked out these publications by Grant Zazula, Duane Frose and Tyler Kuhn, please do! They are available online:

Other articles referenced:


Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/index.html

Terra X – German Documentary: Mammuts – Stars der Eiszeit, http://www.zdf.de/terra-x/mammuts-ikonen-der-eiszeit-35507636.html

[Repost] Echoes of Egypt – Online Exhibit from Yale Peabody Museum

Last year, Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University, discussed their fascinating Egyptian exhibit.  It was, at that time, available to the public in both physical and online form.  The physical exhibit ended this past January, but one can view the artifacts and read remarkable details of their history and significance at any point online.

Below is a repost of the original piece, in honor of International Archaeology Day, October 18th.  Please be sure to check your local museums for events or follow @ArchaeologyDay on Twitter!

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We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt online

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”


To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 2

 In the previous post, Ronald Richards discussed the current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. In this post, he described what it is like to excavate fossils in that state.

Ronald Richards’ self-described “obsession” with fossils began when he was ten.

This interest only intensified when—at age 12—he discovered scientific books on the subject. He found his first bone in a cave when he was 16; he published his first paper as an undergraduate.

And when he arrived at the Indiana State Museum, he took an interest in the fossils within its collection that had yet to be studied, publishing a paper of his research. This was when he began to focus on proboscideans: the mammalian group to which mammoths and mastodons belong.

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons has enabled Ron and his team at the museum to share extensive knowledge of these extinct animals with visitors.

He summarized the three main points of this exhibit about Indiana proboscideans: “They’re everywhere, we’ve dug them, and it’s fun science.”

Ron noted that the fact that people from the State Museum actively excavate fossils is a surprise to many visitors.

“I’d say we’ve salvaged or had a full dig—and most of it’s a full dig—on 16 sites in all different parts of Indiana,” he explained. “Most are northern Indiana. That’s the formerly glaciated area, where the glaciers stagnated. They left behind all these blocks of ice, and they melted. All these former glacial lakes fill up with sediment and mud and plant vegetation and bones of mastodons! And so up north we have a lot more complete skeletons.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Image of Bothwell mastodon dig, 2005.]

“There is a lot of science going on. We’re still dealing with site preservation: you know, interpretation, cataloging, trying to get profiles, dates and all that.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Close-up of Bothwell mastodon jaw, 2005. Water is sprayed on the fossils to prevent them from drying out.]

Excavating fossils is not an easy process, nor is it something one can plan in advance. Many of the fossils excavated by the museum were found by members of the public, digging for peat moss, for example, or when building a pond on private property.

“My general rule to the landowner is: we’re not going to lay one shovel in the ground until we determine ownership,” Ron said.

“We can’t help a private land owner solve their problem on public funds,” he explained further. “We can do it if we get the skeleton. If we can handle it, we can dig it. We cannot dig it and have them get the skeleton. That would be a misuse of public funds.”

“So, we always have a deed-of-gift before we go in and understand that everything we find—all remains, all samples and this and that—will be donated to the state museum or sold for a certain amount. And we’ve had to do that a couple times. There’s always a written agreement.”

Confusion amongst the general public remains constant about bones found within Indiana. The truth is that, while there are strict rules in place for archaeological artifacts, there are none for those related to paleontology.

“[Archaeological laws are] very tough in Indiana. If a person were to go and systematically try to dig up an archaeological site–even on their own property to recover those artifacts–they are in big trouble,” said Ron. “The conservation officers can move anywhere in the state of Indiana. They don’t even need to have permits. They can come onto your property, and they can investigate.”

Not so with fossils. And as such, if a person finds any on their land, it is within their rights to attempt to sell it.

“We try to get people NOT to sell them on eBay, bone-by-bone, to the highest bidder,” Ron continued, “because it’s part of our heritage. But [fossils are] still not protected by law.”

Remarkably, about 85% of the fossils in the Indiana State Museum were donated.

 ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon humurus

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Notice the orange tint of this mastodon humerus. This color indicates a fresh bone, pictured right after uncovering it. Bones change color from the moment they are excavated. Benedict mastodon, 2008.]

Some might equate digging for fossils with dry, hard rock. But this is not always the case, and certainly not in Indiana.

ISM - 2006 Lewis mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Lewis mastodon dig, 2006.]

Unlike excavations in the drier Western regions of the country, digging in Indiana means one will need to de-water the site. In other words, the appropriate type of pumps are necessary to remove the water, another pit needs to be dug in order to contain that water, a substantial amount of gas needs to be purchased to run those pumps, and volunteer diggers can expect to work in wet and muddy conditions.

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

Ron explained that he will try to encourage a landowner to enable them to dig in the drier months of the year, but it is not always possible.

Describing digs in either April or October, he noted that “you’ve got people in water screens all day with big fire hoses, and they’re soaking wet. That’s not the time to be cold. We’ve screened with icicles hanging off of our raincoats.”

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig volunteers

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Here, volunteers skim the surface with their shovels a few inches at a time. Removed soil is screened for small remains. When a large bone is found, excavators stop shoveling and get down on their knees with their trowels. Day mastodon dig, 2006.]

“I don’t enjoy the process,” Ron admitted, referring to organizing and leading a dig site. “Anybody on the dig that doesn’t have to run it, does.”

ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon spine

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Benedict mastodon spine, 2008.]

“It’s one of the most stressful things you can do. You have to let go what you’re doing if you can, do the dig while all the same deadlines are still backing up at the museum. Everybody needs other things from you, so it’s a highly stressful time usually before we launch [a dig].”

“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”

“But when you get back,” he said, “it’s horrible.” And then chuckled.

“I feel we really do some satisfying things, we do some important things, but I don’t have time to have fun doing it. It’s a rare moment, you know, usually at the end of the dig, [when] I can finally relax, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

“So it’s satisfaction. Great satisfaction. But it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing.”

The number of fossils collected, the new facility in which they are stored at the Indiana State Museum, and the way in which they are preserved impressed neighboring paleontologists Dr. Chris Widga and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum. They visited as part of a research project regarding proboscideans and extinction within the Midwest.
Dr. Widga outlines that research in his first blog post about it on Backyard Paleo:

“We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct, and 2) the ecological mechanisms that might have played a major role in how they went extinct. The major foundation of this project is a museum-by-museum survey of mammoths and mastodonts in collections from nine states and one province (MN, WI, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, KY, MI, and ON). Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve documented mammoths and mastodonts from 576 localities.”

Dr. Widga and Dr. Saunders anticipated a relatively short visit, but the depth of the Indiana collection caused them to stay longer.

“We’re not really driving a lot of research,” explained Ron of the Indiana State Museum, “but we’re driving some of the best collections.”

ISM - Anderson mastodon skull front

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139C 71.3.226 Anderson A]

“I really just have to do the best job with discovery and preservation in Indiana and get general site reports out, with dates and all that, so we can really document it,” he said. “Basically it’s like a crime lab! You have the crime, and you have to gather all the evidence you’re going to need. They didn’t know 50 years ago that they needed to save samples for DNA, you see? But I know that.”

He alluded to possible future scientific improvements in paleontology, and how the samples he preserves now might be able to help new generations of scientists learn more.

ISM - Anderson mastodon

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139D 71.3.226 Anderson B]

“So my focus is doing a good job, with documenting and preserving and interpreting, what we’ve found in Indiana.”

“And the bigger high-level stuff,” he concluded, “that’s for the people like Dan Fisher.”


Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: now through August 17th, 2014 in Indianapolis! http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278

You can read more about Dr. Widga’s and Dr. Saunder’s project here: http://backyardpaleo.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/midwestern-mammoths-and-mastodonts-the-m-cubed-project/

Once again, a Mammuthus-Columbi-sized THANK YOU to Ron Richards.  His generosity, his time, and his enthusiasm were wonderful. What a great honor and pleasure speaking with him!

Happy International Women’s Day!

Here are highlights of some truly remarkable women.

Where My Ladies At? – an exceptionally well-done video by Emily Graslie at the Field Museum in her BrainScoop series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRNt7ZLY0Kc

World’s Smallest Mini Mammoth – a video about dwarf mammoths hosted by Dr. Victoria Herridge at the Natural History Museum of London: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/dinosaurs-other-extinct-creatures/dwarf-mammoth/index.html

More info on Dorothea Bate (1878 – 1951), a remarkable paleontologist, and one I had not heard of prior to the work of Dr. Victoria Herridge and Dr. Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum:  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/dorothea-bate/index.html

An engaging interview with Dr. Karen Chin, Associate Professor, Department of Geological Sciences and Curator of Paleontology, University of Colorado Museum, with a CU Boulder student: (move to minute: 5:02) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeAGtotGtDI

And–a personal favorite–an interview with director Mira Nair on the Tavis Smiley Show: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365005247/


Have a wonderful International Women’s Day!


Archaeology for kids! DIG Magazine

A very nice woman volunteering for the Archaeological Institute of America handed me a few copies of Archaeology Magazine on International Archaeology Day.

Somehow, the fact that I had nieces and nephews came up in our conversation, and she handed me a copy of a magazine I’d never seen or heard of prior to that moment: Dig Magazine.

First, I was excited: what a fabulous magazine!! Published in NH, no less! I wish this publication had been available when I was growing up.

And then, I was puzzled and a little frustrated.  Why wasn’t this magazine more widely available?

For anyone interested in archaeology (or paleontology–as they are including more of this topic as well), “Dig” offers fun facts, interesting articles, games, and great pictures throughout its pages.

Kids are encouraged to ask questions (online and by mail), take quizzes, and draw pictures.

It is a marvelous and entertaining way to introduce kids to these sciences.

And, for young girls–for whom strong and intelligent role models in many magazines can be rare–the archaeologist behind “Dr. Dig” is a woman.

I wanted to know more.

Rosalie F. Baker, Editor of Calliope Magazines, was extraordinarily kind in her responses to my emailed questions.

Dig Magazine March 2013

(March 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

1.  How long has “Dig” been published?

DIG began publication in 1999.

2. What prompted its creation?

A desire to inspire children to be inquisitive about the past. Even more, we wanted to further their understanding of how archaeologists uncover the past and then analyze finds to expand the known “picture” of the past.

Dig Magazine Dec 2013

(January 2014 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

3. How did the archeologist (Dr. Dig) come on board?

Everyone thought it would be a great idea to have a department where kids could ask questions about archaeology. We felt the best way to personalize this for kids was to create a character who would be present in every issue—Dr. Dig!

Her full name is Angela Murock Hussein. She has a doctorate from Brown University in Classical Archaeology and is married to an Egyptian Egyptologist.

Dig Magazine Oct 2013

(October 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

4. Why isn’t “Dig” more widely available?  Often, the only option kids have along these lines in local bookstores is “Kids” (National Geographic). Does this reflect challenges to magazines in general?

Getting the message out about the magazine is always a challenge. We are trying to become better known. But the magazine is available on most newsstands that carry children’s publications, such as Barnes and Noble. We’re also in hundreds of public and school libraries across the country. We believe the addition of our digital edition will also increase our visibility. A PDF version is currently available and a fully interactive digital edition will be launched in 2014. We believe the articles in each issue are exciting, engaging, and offer the latest information known on the topic as they are written by people in the field. We hope our content and our marketing push will help the magazine grow.

Dig Magazine May 2013

(May 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

5. How did you become involved in the magazine?

My husband and I had founded CALLIOPE magazine in 1981 and merged with Cobblestone Publishing in 1982. We featured an archaeology section in CALLIOPE. It seemed a perfect fit for me when Cobblestone took over DIG in 2001. And I have enjoyed every minute of it since.

Dig Magazine Jan 2013

(January 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

6. Has the magazine grown since its inception?  Are there any significant changes that have been made over time?

Yes, the magazine is continually growing. In fact, we just added a new department (Blogosaurus) —a column that focuses on the latest news about dinosaurs. While their study falls under the field of paleontology, many of our readers send us questions about dinosaurs and the new theories and finds. So, we thought we would feature a one-page department that presents a new find, a new way of thinking, or a fascinating discovery and then encourages readers to send us their thoughts on the topic. In January we will introduce a second new department – Field Notes—which is done with the Leon Levy Expedition, whose work focuses on the site of Ashkelon in Israel. We will be right onsite with the authors, engaged in digging, learning what tools are used, what happens when a find is made, and much more.

Dig Magazine July 2013

(July 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

7. Do you have any anecdotes about publishing the magazine or its readers that you’d like to share?

I think what is most exciting now are the Ask Dr. Dig programs we are developing. We have done four so far in different parts of the country. Some have been at large venues, others at small venues. Our intent is to offer more in 2014. The Dr. Dig program is about 60 to 90 minutes (last one, however, ran 120 minutes). An archaeologist dressed in the character of Dr. Dig lets attendees ask “Dr. Dig” questions they have always wanted to ask an archaeologist in person. Sometimes the archaeologist also does a presentation – a project that is related to some practice in the field of archaeology.

Check out the DIG Magazine website! http://www.digonsite.com/index.html

Ask Dr. Dig a question: askdr.dig@caruspub.com

Or see questions she has already answered: http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/index.html

Learn more about Dr. Dig (Dr. Angela Murock Hussein)! http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/AboutDrDg.html

Do you have a child (or a niece or nephew) who loves to draw?  Check out their Art page: http://digonsite.com/awesomeart.html

If your local bookstore doesn’t carry this magazine, please ask them to start doing so! Your voice matters.

Many, many thanks to Rosalie Baker for her generous responses and her time! And many, many thanks to Ann Dillon at ePals Media for the images of Dig covers!

Dig Magazine Nov 2013

(November 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)