Adventures in Russia – Mammoths, Pleistocene Park and De-Extinction: Charlotte Wrigley

Mammoth sculpture in Yakutsk, Russia, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

We had been speaking for almost an hour when I asked Charlotte Wrigley if the average person understands her research.  To which she simply replied,  “No.”

“Does your family?”

“No.”

We laughed, but I wasn’t at all surprised. Her chosen field of study can’t be defined in a word. It’s too new, too complex.  And what had initially piqued my interest in her research is but a footnote now: mammoths.

She first thought of working on Passenger pigeons, a focus that lead her to the Long Now Foundation in the US.  Long Now (through Revive & Restore) is interested in recreating the bird that went extinct in the 19th century. Recreating extinct life is now referred to as ‘de-extinction,’ but at the time Charlotte was trying to determine her life path, this was not a well-known term. Today, it is synonymous with the fascinating and controversial effort across the globe to recreate a version of the mammoth.  Ultimately, however, that charismatic megafauna is not what drew her attention; it is the ancient world in which it used to live.

“I changed the focus [of my PhD],” she explained in a Skype conversation, “from de-extinction of the mammoth [to the] recreation of the mammoth steppe ecosystem.”

It is that very ecosystem that Sergey and Nikita Zimov, creators of Pleistocene Park, have spent their lives trying to recreate, and it is one of the reasons she traveled to Russia that summer.  

Many people may not realize just how crucial permafrost and its preservation are to our planet.  Global warming causes permafrost thaw, and this thaw initiates an avalanche of destruction.  It changes the local ecosystems, which in turn affects the people and animals who depend upon those very ecosystems.  It causes slumping, landslides, and craters.  It dries up lakes. And it releases a host of greenhouse gases.

According to Adam Wernick at PRI (Public Radio International), “In some areas of Siberia, permafrost extends 5,000 feet below the surface…The top 3 feet alone is estimated to contain twice as much carbon as what’s already in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Equally alarming, permafrost thaw can release pathogens once frozen in the ground. One long-dead reindeer surfaced in 2016, infecting local people and killing a young boy with Anthrax. 200 previously frozen pits containing toxic petroleum waste are now leaking into local freshwater ecosystems.

Given these scary realities, it is yet scarier, that, according to Ed Struzik in Yale Environment 360, “…an estimated 2.5 million square miles of permafrost – 40 percent of the world’s total – could disappear by the end of the century…”

Permafrost is central to Charlotte’s research. And what better place to start than the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, Siberia.

Charlotte Wrigley in front of the mammoth sculpture in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

“[The Institute] was quite pioneering back in the Soviet [era],” Charlotte said. “Now, it’s barely funded. That was quite hard to see because they used to be very well-respected there. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, money has dried up. The pioneering research from that Institute is the reason an entire city was built on top of permafrost. The requisite engineering to do so is incredible! And that all worked really well until climate change began to make itself known. Now they’re looking at a situation where they need to start thinking about doing proper repairs to their buildings or evacuating people from these high-rise buildings because something really bad is going to happen. Buildings are going to crack and collapse. Pipes are bursting. Roads are kind of buckling.”

The Finnish anthropologist who owned the apartment in which she was staying introduced her to Gera, a local mammoth tusk-hunter, a mural artist, and an employee of the Mammoth Museum. Gera took Charlotte to that museum, which is where she met Semyon Grigoriev. Dr. Grigoriev offered to show her the Ice Age specimens stored within the museum’s freezer.

“It’s just a walk-in freezer,” Charlotte began, “and then, there in the corner is just a plastic bag with a mammoth in it! Bunched up. Curled up. There had been autopsies performed on it. It had been sliced, diced, prodded and poked. It looked very sad, really. This beautiful creature was just there in the corner. But, you know, they find a lot of them! And this was just one in a line of mammoths.”

Mammoth carcass in the Mammoth Museum, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

Even more exciting, he announced that they had recently found a 42,000 year-old horse.  He and his colleagues were going to perform an autopsy; would she want to attend?

While there were a number of scientists she didn’t recognize, the one she did was an important figure in the de-extinction race: Hwang Woo-Suk.  Based in South Korea, he intends to literally clone a woolly mammoth.  His hope with any frozen Ice Age creature discovered in Siberia is to find useable DNA with which to clone.  Herein lies the challenge: DNA doesn’t preserve well over thousands of years.

 

Autopsy on a 42,000 year-old foal in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

 

 

On the other side of the world in Massachusetts, George Church and his team are attempting to create a hybrid mammoth/elephant—largely in a laboratory–using synthetic biology.  Their method is to engineer a creature that has some of the traits of the woolly mammoth.

“[W]e don’t necessarily want them to be exact duplicates of mammoths,” Dr. Church explained at a 2018 public talk at the Museum of Science, Boston. “We want them to have some features that make them better for modern life. [For example], we’ll probably want them to have very short tusks so it won’t tempt poachers to come in and kill them.”

Among other ethical concerns, this method relies on impregnating Asian elephants—an endangered species. 

These two teams are not the only groups of scientists trying to reengineer or recreate extinct life, but they are some of the biggest players.  And their work is important to Pleistocene Park, because–if or when they do succeed–the plan is to transport the mammoths to the vast acreage comprising that park.

The mammoth steppe ecosystem relies on the environmental impact megafauna such as mammoths would have on the permafrost.  These hefty animals would compact the ground, keeping it frozen and keeping greenhouse gases trapped inside.  Grasses, rather than tundra, would appear, and these grasses would reflect solar radiation.

Sergey and Nikita Zimov welcome mammoths (or customized, reengineered animals that are part mammoth) to their Park, but at the moment, they are trying to populate it with existing species: musk ox, bison, Yakutian horses, yaks, sheep, Kalmykian cows,  moose and reindeer.

“Their fix for permafrost thaw is to get as many animals on the landscape as possible. This is why they’re not holding their breath for a mammoth because that might be 10, 20, 30 years away,” Charlotte stated. “They’re just getting as many animals as they can and just kind of throwing them out there and seeing what happens. Unfortunately, a lot of them die because you’re moving animals from a southern ecosystem—from southern Siberia, from Europe, from Mongolia—and you’re introducing them to a winter that can reach -50, -60 degrees Celsius.  So a lot of them die, and a lot of them refuse to procreate. [Additionally,] there’s a lot of human labor that goes into trying to force this change. And that’s why it’s fascinating and kind of humbling to see: how much of their lives they give across to that.  It is very much a could-all-collapse-any-moment situation, really!”

“I have reservations about trying to control Nature,” she admitted, “which it is in a sense.  But I can’t deny the passion and the drive. They’re just putting their lives into it completely.  It’s wonderful to see. And it’s an absolutely stunningly beautiful, incredible place: the Arctic tundra, the 24 hours of sunlight, and the silence. There is just complete silence, the likes that you or I have probably never heard. And so it will always be a very special place.”

There is no question that Charlotte regards the Zimovs with great respect.  Her time with them, in which they generously welcomed her into their home, made a significant impact.

“As a social scientist,” she continued, “I’m much more interested in why these humans are creating this world, this ecosystem, at great personal expense and hardship.”

Which brings us back to Charlotte’s field of study: permafrost, climate change, and the various ways in which humans across the globe are causing and attempting to address global warming.

One of the words she uses to describe her field is ‘biopolitics.’ Within that, there is ‘cryopolitics.’  Cryopolitics examines the various structures behind natural and artificial cold in a world in which ‘cold’ is increasingly valuable.  In other words, how do economics, industry, technology and those in power contribute to the web of hot and cold that impacts each and every one of us?  Both Pleistocene Park and de-extinction—at least, such are the claims of those engaged in de-extinction efforts—are attempts to circumvent natural disaster. Ways to halt the permafrost thaw and prevent further climate change. These are far from our only options, however.

Mammoth fossil in the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

“This is how I see de-extinction: Paving the way for humans to maintain control of the planet.  I’m not the biggest fan of de-extinction as a practice. I think it is an extension of human dominance. And when I say human, I’m referring to a particular notion within the Western capitalist world that loves the idea of a techno-fix for problems that they have caused!”

Charlotte’s path from Passenger pigeons to permafrost has lead her to author a book to be published at a future date.

“Now that I [understand] permafrost a lot better, I love it!  The media isn’t talking about permafrost in the context of climate change. Not really – although admittedly it’s starting to get better. But it’s always about the ice caps; it’s always about the glaciers; it’s always about flooding. I think perhaps permafrost just isn’t as sexy or shocking as those things, but it is so much more important than people give it credit for.”

Whatever the future holds, it is reassuring to me that Charlotte Wrigley is actively engaged in analyzing the world around us–critical of how we meet the challenges we face and ready, with intelligence and humour, to offer her insights.

 

Connecting with you, Charlotte, was not only an honor, it was enlightening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly delightful! Thank you so much for your generous help, your time, your gorgeous images, and your humour!  I look forward to reading all that you write in the future!

Mammoth fossil in the Mammoth Museum, Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

References:

  1. AFP in Moscow. 12 March 2015. Russian scientists say climate change to blame for mysterious Siberian craters. The Guardian UK.
  2. Andersen, Ross. April 2017. Pleistocene Park. The Atlantic.
  3. Douclef, Michaeleen. 3 August 2016. Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Thought to Be Result of Thawing Permafrost. Morning Edition, NPR.
  4. Heilman, Susan; Church, George; and Mezrich, Ben. 2 February 2018. Return of the Woolly Mammoth. Public presentation at the Museum of Science, Boston. Recorded and transcribed by Jeanne Timmons.
  5. Hogenboom, Melissa. 24 February 2017. In Siberia there is a huge crater and it is getting bigger. BBC – Earth. 
  6. Luhn, Alec. 1 August 2016. Anthrax outbreak triggered by climate change kills boy in Arctic Circle. The Guardian UK.
  7. Mann, Paul. 11 May 2018. Could resurrecting mammoths help stop Arctic emissions? The Conversation.
  8. Pleistocene Park, website.
  9. Radin, Joanna and Kowal, Emma. 2017. Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World. The MIT Press.
  10. Struzik, Ed. 21 January 2020. How Thawing Permafrost is Beginning to Transform the Arctic. Yale Environment 360
  11. (unnamed reporter) 17 April 2019. Scientists dissect 42,000 year old extinct male foal preserved in permafrost for cloning – video. The Siberian Times.
  12. Wernick, Adam. 30 April 2017. A bold plan to slow the melt of Arctic permafrost could help reverse global warming. PRI.
  13. Wrigley, Charlotte. 17 May 2018. PhD Student Set to Embark on a Mammoth Journey. School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London

 

 

Further Reading:

 

Triceratops Fossil Will Remain in Boston!!

The triceratops fossil, named “Cliff”* after the grandfather of the man who originally bought it from the Christie’s auction in Paris and loaned it to the Museum of Science, Boston, WILL STAY IN BOSTON!!  The goal of $850,000 was actually exceeded (only 11 days before the deadline!) Additional money raised will go toward fossil maintenance, per the article in the Boston Globe.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE who donated to this cause or made it known through word-of-mouth or online venues!!

CONGRATULATIONS, MUSEUM OF SCIENCE!

Goal reach for Mos.org

Screenshot of mos.org/keepcliff as it appears today

*Gender is not known in triceratops fossils, as I understand it, so this is not necessarily a male triceratops.

Thank you to Erin Shannon for keeping me in the loop!

Here is the Boston Globe’s article: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/06/18/museum-science-gets-keep-cliff-triceratops/goTIqJg9hTslNm9xwWg48O/story.html

These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 1 Triceratops Fossil in Boston

 

UPDATE 19 June 2015:  FUNDING HAS BEEN EXCEEDED.

———————–

Earlier, I wrote about the undetermined fate of a Triceratops fossil.  The Museum of Science Boston has until June 30th of this year (only weeks away!) to raise $850,000 in order to keep that fossil.  So far, the total raised is $450, 961.  This is significant, but it’s not enough.

You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Keep Cliff MOS screenshot

Screenshot of mos.org/keepcliff, Museum of Science Boston

Triceratops Boston Museum of Science

Image of the Triceratops fossil at the Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

cliff skull & museum

Image of Triceratops’ skull, Museum of Science Boston, taken by the author

Keep Cliff 1

 

A “Keep Cliff” panel at the Museum of Science Boston, image taken by the author

 

More information can be found here: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/the-undetermined-fate-of-a-rare-triceratops-fossil/

Fossilized Footprints – Dr. Karen Chin on the work of Dr. Martin Lockley

There is something uniquely spectacular about trace fossils.

Trace fossils—or ichnofossils—are fossilized remnants of animal activity. They are echoes of animal life, many that are millions of years old, that we can see and touch, tantalizing clues into their behavior and environment.

These traces take a number of forms, including coprolites (feces), gastroliths (stones ingested to help digestion), burrows, nests, and footprints.

 

 

[image of dinosaur tracks, Colorado, courtesy of David Parsons and Getty Images]

Footprints are the focus of Dr. Martin Lockley’s work.  Over 30 years of his fossilized track research now resides at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dr. Karen Chin, another trace fossil specialist with decades of experience, is widely known for her work on coprolites.

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOS

 

MOS - Dr. Karen Chin coprolite

 

[images of coprolite and display info from the Boston Museum of Science, taken by the author]

The work of these two scientists comes together in the exhibit “Steps in Stone,” now at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.  Showcasing some of Dr. Lockley’s extensive collection, the exhibit is curated by Dr. Chin.

Steps in Stone entrance

[image of exhibit entrance, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

Originally from the UK, Dr. Martin Lockley began teaching at the University of Colorado Denver in the 1980’s.  He retired in 2010, but his research continues today.

“When he decided to retire from his professor position,” Dr. Chin explained in a phone interview, “he wanted his research collection to go to a place where it would be cared for in perpetuity and would still be available for people to study.  And since the University of Colorado Boulder is a sister institution to the University of Colorado Denver, it made sense for the collection to come to us.”

An accompanying website, with text written by Allison Vitkus—one of Dr. Chin’s graduate students—Dr. Karen Chin and Dr. Martin Lockley, describes in more detail the type of tracks Dr. Lockley has collected and donated to the University.

“Because of Prof. Lockley’s efforts, the University of Colorado’s Fossil Tracks Collection is exceptional in having specimens that represent tremendous temporal, taxonomic, and geographic breadth. It includes around 3,000 original or replica specimens of footprints and trackways, as well as about 1,600 full-size acetate footprint and trackway tracings. These specimens come from over 20 countries on five continents (including 21 states within the USA).” – Allison Vitkus, Dr. Karen Chin

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/trackways/index.php

Moving such a collection from one university to another is not a small enterprise.

“Martin Lockley and I applied for and received an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to help us transfer the tracks to our museum.”

Dr. Chin described the process of creating the current exhibit, a team effort of about 15 people from various departments within the Museum of Natural History.

“Allison and I had already been writing about different aspects of fossil track research.  We sat down and asked, ‘what are the things that we think are the most fundamental and interesting concepts of fossil tracks that would be interesting for people to learn about?’  We then put together a list of things we wanted to write about and matched that with tracks in the collection.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents

 

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and exhibit docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“We decided we wanted people to think about the concept of ‘moving’ and to recognize that fossil tracks tell us about locomotion in the past. ”

In other words, it is not just a look backward in time; it encourages the visitor to think about movement in all forms today and the evolution of that movement over Earth’s history.

Embed from Getty Images

Consider, for example, how fish might make tracks: fins brush the ground while swimming in shallow water.  Consider, too, the tracks animals make while running, walking, limping, or even swimming.   The type of footprint remaining and the length between each step (or stroke) offers valuable insight to scientists. Insects, mammals, birds, pterosaurs, dinosaurs….all of these species have left their marks in stone, and all of them are represented in this exhibit.

To help highlight how different body structures affect the type of tracks an animal leaves, members of the museum’s educational department procured imitation animal tails that kids can wear.  Kids are also encouraged to ‘Walk Like a Pterosaur!’ in which they can don representations of pterosaur forelimbs with wings.

“There’s a portion of the exhibit that’s called ‘Locomotion Without Legs,’ that reminds us that not all animals that leave tracks or traces have legs,” said Dr. Chin. “Modern snails and sea urchins and are good examples of this.”

“We discuss the oldest evidence that we know of for movement in the fossil record, which is about 565 million years. We don’t know what kind of animal made the trace. It may have been something like a sea urchin, but we just don’t know.”

“There are a certain number of deposits around the world that preserve weird impressions of animals from before the Cambrian,” she continued. “Actually, we don’t even know whether all of them were animals or plants! There are no modern analogues of these organisms because they went extinct.”

“One of the oldest deposits of this particular biota comes from Newfoundland.  Researchers found an unusual trace in this deposits that extends for several inches.  The trace appears to provide evidence of locomotion.  This suggests that an animal had the capacity to move itself, which further suggests that it had muscles.  This is a huge deal because the fossil trace is so old. I think this is very cool because we often take our ability to move for granted.”

This particular trace fossil was described by Dr. Alexander Liu, Dr. Duncan McIlroy, and Dr. Martin Brasier in 2010.  How fascinating to think that something this small and from an organism that remains a mystery provides important evidence for movement when the Earth was still relatively young. (First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland) The actual trace fossil is not part of the exhibit, but its image is available for visitors to see.

“We often automatically think that animals have the ability to move from point A to point B,” Dr. Chin mused. “But there are a number of very successful animals that live without relocating from one place to another, such as sponges and corals.   So it is interesting to think about when animals first developed the ability to move. ”

Another example of the variety and importance of tracks are the Laetoli trackway: a set of prints from Tanzania.  The exhibit displays a life-sized cast of the trackway, footprints from two hominin adults and a smaller set of footprints that might have been a child.

“Their footprints were preserved when they walked on recently deposited volcanic ash. These tracks are important because they provide some of the earliest evidence that our ancient relatives, the australopithecines, walked bipedally.”

“As Dr. Lockley has continued his research on tracks,” explained Dr. Chin, “he has often acquired replicas of fossil tracks from around the world.  That is what is great about tracks: that you can make a lot of different casts of them.”

“It’s an intense process,” Dr. Chin stated, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “There are so many details. But I gained new appreciation for the great work that the exhibit designers and the museum education people do.”

In response to whether it was a positive experience, she said, “I did enjoy it!”

“Now, I have to say,” she laughed, “it’s a lot of work.  I didn’t mind the work, it’s just that I’m also teaching and doing research, so it’s kind of hard to juggle doing all of that at the same time.”

“I think there are two larger points that I’d like people to take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to gain a sense of appreciation for the tremendous amount of research Dr. Lockley has done on fossil tracks all over the world.

“I also want people to appreciate the informative value of tracks and other trace fossils.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents 2

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“At many times we tend to focus on body fossils: the bones of mammoths and the bones of dinosaurs, for example. They are very interesting, and they really fire up our imagination in considering what those ancient animals were like.

“But, I also want people to appreciate that trace fossils–which provide evidence organisms’ activity—also offer important information on the history of life.

“It’s very much akin to walking on a trail these days and looking for animal sign.  You look for tracks and scat and scratches and toothmarks.  And we do the same when we look for trace fossils in the fossil record.  Tracks are just one exciting example of trace fossils.”

 

Embed from Getty Images

——————–

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Karen Chin for her time, her fascinating insight and for generously helping me understand Ediacaran biota!  It was a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to connect with her.  An enormous thank you to Cathy Regan as well for providing wonderful images of the exhibit!

Steps in Stone” is available through December 31, 2015: http://cumuseum.colorado.edu

If you are interested in learning more about trace fossils, Dr. Martin Lockley has written a number of books.  Dinosaurs Without Bones by Dr. Anthony J. Martin was published this year, and this author highly recommends it!

The Undetermined Fate of a Rare Triceratops Fossil

If you’ve visited the Museum of Science, Boston, and you’ve seen its fossil room, then you’ve seen Cliff.

Cliff - triceratops

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]

It is an impressive specimen, and it is named after the grandfather of its anonymous donor.

“Cliff is mostly complete,” wrote E. James Kraus, Jr., the museum’s Executive Director of Development and Campaign Director, “making it one of the world’s rarest paleontological finds, and one of only four other largely complete Triceratops fossils on display in the world.”

The basic details of its excavation, purchase and temporary home in the Museum are in the public record:

  • It was excavated in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota in 2004.
  • Because it was discovered on private U.S. land, the fossil could be sold, and it was.
  • It was prepared by a commercial fossil company and mounted in Italy.
  • Its first owner was a private collector from Germany.
  • The fossil was auctioned by Christie’s in Paris, 2008; the asking price was not met.
  • Ultimately, the winning bid of $942,797 was from an anonymous man who was raised in Boston.
  • That man contacted the Museum of Science and offered to loan the fossil for a period of 7 years, as a way of giving back to the community.

TRICERATOPS
Fin du Crétacé, entre 67 et 65 millions d’années avant notre ère, découvert en 2004, Nord Dakota, Etats-Unis
T.Horridus Marsh 1889
Longueur: 680cm.

La longueur totale est de 6m80 avec le montage actuel.
The total length of this lot as currently mounted is 268 in.

Le squelette pourra recevoir le nom choisi par son futur acquéreur. Une plaque de détermination est placée sur le socle avec une surface vierge destinée au nom de baptême futur du dinosaure et au nom de l’acquéreur.

Le socle à gradin en bois et la monture en inox d’inspiration moderniste participe à la préciosité de l’ensemble.
[info from Cliff’s original catalog listing at Christie’s, courtesy of Christie’s]

That 7-year loan is about to expire, and in order to keep the fossil, the Museum of Science is currently trying to raise $850,000 by June 2015.

“At auction, Cliff is now valued in excess of $2 million, and Cliff’s owner has agreed to gift $1 million+ if we can raise the $850,000,” E. James Kraus, Jr. explained.

“We are planning several fundraising events,” he continued, “but the details are still being finalized.”

If you visit the museum and buy anything from its gift shops, you will see donation jars, and you will be asked if you’d like to round up the sum of your purchase to the nearest dollar to go toward this effort.

There is also on online campaign to raise money here: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Twitter: #KeepCliff

The requisite sum might seem extraordinary. And, if nothing else, it calls into question the concept of fossil ownership in this country.  Most people cannot afford to buy such fossils; few would donate them, on loan or otherwise.

This particular author is extremely grateful to be able to gaze at Cliff, stare at it from various angles and ponder what the animal might have been like in life, not to mention what it took to actually excavate the skeleton. The opportunity to see something that enormous and that rare, rather than a replica, cannot be overstated.

This, according to E. James Kraus, Jr., is what the donor hoped.

“He wished to have the fossil displayed for the education and enjoyment of the public and generously offered the fossil on long-term loan to the Museum of Science.”

And yet, the number of unanswered questions—in a field in which questions and transparency are encouraged–leaves this author a little unsettled.  Details that are a normal part of a fossil’s provenance are, in this case, absent to the public.

For example:

  • Who discovered the fossil?
  • Who excavated it?
  • How long did it take to excavate?
  • Who prepared the skeleton?
  • How, if at all, was it preserved?

Further questions, prompted by the situation of buying-and-selling a fossil, are also absent:

  • Who originally sold it to the German collector?
  • Why was the loan to the Boston Museum for 7 years?

And ultimately, the question that rises above all else: If the sum of $850,000 is not raised, will it be put back on auction?

—————————–

You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

The author would like to state–for the record–that personal opinions in this piece are not those of the Boston Museum of Science or of Christie’s.

Truly, thank you to Cliff’s donor for enabling us to share in this wonderful fossil!

Thank you to Erin Shannon, E. James Kraus, Jr., and to Beverly Bueninck!

And thank you to all of those at the Museum of Science for working toward keeping Cliff!

MOS - Cliff

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]

Dr. Karen Chin – Fantastic article in Nautilus

I love this article by Eliza Strickland about Dr. Karen Chin!

http://nautil.us/issue/7/waste/reading-the-book-of-life-in-prehistoric-dung

“Researchers who have spent their lives in the few inches of rock that tell the story of life’s near-extinction say that Chin’s worm-burrow paper adds a nice piece of evidence to the emerging picture of how vertebrate animals survived and repopulated the planet.”

I’m not sure of any other local museums, but you can see her work in the dinosaur exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science:

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOSmos - Karen Chin coprolite

 

Dr. Karen Chin: http://www.paleoportal.org/index.php?globalnav=paleopeople&interview_id=14

 

Boston Archeology Fair – Its origins through the Archaeological Institute of America

This past October 19th was the 7th Annual Archeology Fair, but it was my first experience of such an event, and I LOVED it.  It is the reason I reached out to some of the archeologists who participated and why I asked them about their remarkable work (please see previous posts).  For those who were not able to attend or did not know of the event, I wanted to be able to share how wonderful it was.

The event is the brainchild of Dr. Ben Thomas, Director of Programs for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  As Kelly Lindberg, Site Preservation Program Administrator at AIA, explains below, Dr. Thomas worked with the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to bring this day to fruition.

The estimated number of people who attended that weekend is close to 5500. (“…the AIA and MOS estimate that we spread the wonderful world of archaeology to around 5469 people over the weekend.” from: http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14283)

That is phenomenal.

Kelly very generously responded to further questions about the origins of this fantastic event:

————————————

1. Per the flyers, this is the 7th Annual Archeology Fair. Does this mean it’s been held at the Boston Museum of Science for the past 7 years, or that it has been celebrated for 7 years?

Both, actually. The AIA began working with the MOS 7 years ago to bring together this great event, and we have held it at the Museum each year.

2. What prompted the AIA and the Boston Museum of Science to work together on this?

The idea for the fair started back in 2005 when our current Director of Programs, Ben Thomas, started working at the AIA. At that time, the AIA held an archaeology fair at each of its annual meetings, which are held in a different city each January across the US, and Ben wanted to start an annual fair in Boston, where the AIA has its headquarters. He approached Mike Adams, an educator at the Museum of Science who had attended our annual meeting archaeology fairs in the past, with the idea and everything developed from there. The AIA and the MOS had our first archaeology fair in 2007, and we have grown and expanded every year since.

3. How are the archeologists and presentations chosen for the fair? Are they always based in New England?

Each spring the AIA contacts a number of different professional organizations (historical societies, archaeological institutions, museums, university departments, etc.) in the New England area who share an interest in archaeology, history, anthropology, and other related fields; all our presenters volunteer their time at the fair.

4. Can you tell me more about your role in the fair?

I am the AIA’s point person for this event. I work mostly with presenters, getting commitments to present and making sure their activity needs are met. I also work closely with my colleague at the MOS to finalize scheduling, logistics, and publicity for the fair. On fair days I provide any support presenters and volunteers may need, from assisting at presenter tables to covering lunch breaks.

5. Do you want to share any anecdotes about the planning process or reactions to the fair?

Each year the AIA and MOS have the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of presenters and volunteers, and we are so glad to be part of these organizations’ outreach and education programs.

In addition, every year we see so many fair attendees with a great interest in archaeology, and we are honored to make this learning experience available to them.

6. Will the fair be on the same date at the same location next year? How far in advance do you start planning for the event?

We try to schedule the fair at the MOS to fall on the same weekend as International Archaeology Day, which is the third weekend in October, though scheduling conflicts do sometimes arise either at the AIA or the MOS. We start planning the next fair in the spring, generally March or April.

7. What do you enjoy most about archeology?

For me the best part about archaeology is learning about how people lived, and thrived, in the past; it amazes me how far we’ve come in a few short millennia.

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I cannot thank Kelly Lindberg enough for her time and fascinating insights, nor Dr. Ben Thomas, for creating such a wonderful event.  An enormous thank you to everyone involved in this year’s Archeology Fair!!

Please be sure to check the AIA’s website for archeological events throughout the year: http://www.archaeological.org/events

Please also check the MOS website for their events and exhibits: http://www.mos.org/public-events or http://www.mos.org/coming-soon

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Alan Leveillee

It is not hard to spot the enthusiasm in Alan Leveillee’s eyes when he talks about archeology.   Speaking with him at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair, I was struck by his warmth and easy-going manner, and I had to remind myself not to monopolize his time as he discussed some of his experiences in the field.

Alan explained that, although he does some teaching at Roger Williams University, he works largely in “cultural resource management” at a company called PAL (the Public Archaeological Laboratory) in Rhode Island.  There, he is senior archeologist and principal investigator.

As discussed in a previous post, “cultural resource management” refers to the work an archeologist does researching a site before any construction or development can begin.  If any archeological resources are found, the archeologist is there to determine how best to preserve those resources.

Alan was researching a site in Millbury, MA when he discovered a Native American cremation site.  This discovery lead to his book in 2002, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site.

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1.     You mentioned discovering an archeological site (a Native American cremation site) at Blackstone River in Millbury.  Can you explain how you determined that it was a cremation site?

We determined it was a cremation because of thousands of fragments of calcined (burned to the point of a chalky-white appearance) bone- both human and animal.  There were also artifacts included as burial offerings.

2.      Were you able to tell when this site was used?

The site was used by multiple generations of Native Americans between 2,800 and 3,800 years ago.  It was also recognized as a burial ground by subsequent Native American peoples in the Woodland Period, approximately 1,500 years ago.

3.      Do you know what Native American tribes used this site?  Or do you have theories on this?

They were the ancestors of today’s Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett peoples.

4.      Have you participated in the Archeology Fair at the Boston Museum before?

Yes, there have been a total of seven fairs- I’ve had the pleasure of participating in all of them.

5.      What do you enjoy most about being an archeologist?

I work with great colleagues at PAL, get to teach a bit, and attend public events like the Museum of Science Archaeology Fair.  With a little academic background, imagination, and luck, I get to time travel- what’s not to enjoy about a career in doing that!!!

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For more information on Alan’s book regarding the cremation site, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?id=65710

Public Archaeology Lab (PAL): http://palinc.com/

Many, many thanks to Alan Leveillee!!

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Dr. George Mutter, Egyptian Images in 3D

I’d like to return, on this post, back to October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair.

One of the featured events was referred to as “3D Images of Egypt”, and it was held twice on that Saturday.  I was able to catch the second presentation (held directly after the “Ask Dr. Dig” panel discussion), but I did so based on the mention of “Egypt” alone.  I hadn’t been able to read anything about it.

Each visitor was given 3D-glasses, and we were instructed to sit in the middle section of the theatre at the Museum.  This, it was explained, was for optimum viewing.

The lights went down; Dr. George Mutter took the podium; the images began to populate the screen.

And I listened with rapt attention.

This was not simply “3D Images of Egypt”.

This was a fantastically unique slideshow narrated by Dr. Mutter, who peppered his descriptions with fascinating details of what it might have been like as a European traveler viewing Egypt and its archeological sites around 1870.

The images he displayed, largely in black-and-white, became that much more alive in 3D.  Coupled with his narration, one could actually begin to feel as though they were traveling back in time and across continents.

Images of 19th-century Cairo, the people of Egypt, and archeological sites–some with debris scattered everywhere–sent my imagination reeling.  What was it truly like?  What were the sounds? The smells? How was the heat? What did the Egyptian people think of the European people?

As many know, Europe was generally introduced to Egypt (and ancient Egypt) after 1798 when Napoleon made his military conquest there.  The images in this presentation were almost a century later.  Howard Carter wouldn’t discover Tutankhamun’s tomb until 1922.

One of the initial images was of a houseboat, and Dr. Mutter explained that this was used on travels on the Nile, as there weren’t any hotels along the way.  Before each trip, the boat was sunk to “get rid of the bugs and vermin”.

This was the kind of detail I absolutely loved throughout the presentation.

Dr. Mutter is an academic physician trained at Harvard and Columbia, and he very graciously responded to my questions below.

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1. When did you first become interested in 3D images?

I was captivated by the immersive experience of historic stereophotographs about 30 years ago, when I ran across some in a New York City flea market.  It was the images, not taking pictures myself.  A sense of discovery took over, never knowing what would turn up next.

2. Your website mentions that you and your colleague have “access to a unique collection of 26,000 original images of broad topical and geographic coverage from 1855 through modern times”.  From where does this collection originate?

They were produced in the 19th century by commercial studios in Europe and the United States, who sent photographers all over the world.  Mounted on cards, the paired stereoviews (right and left were taken by separate lenses) were sold for education and entertainment.    Piles of stereoviews collected in Victorian parlors but became gradually dispersed over time, and today are generally available through flea markets, auctions, and specialised dealers.   Its hard to re-aggregate a large collection now, but easy to get a few.  The 26,000 images at Photoarchive3D were collected by myself and collaborator Bernard Fishman through 60 years of combined experience combing through these sources.  Bernard and I met at a photo show, and decided to create a virtual (digital) single “collection” derived from our separate holdings.  Our goal is to share these treasures with others, getting them excited about history and learning something in the process.  

3 . How did you select the images shown on Saturday?  And have others been able to see these pictures through your organization before?

“19th Century Egypt in 3D: A Victorian Trip Up the Nile”  was designed to simulate a real journey c.1870.  The best available images from this period corresponding to a typical Nile tour were arranged geographically, from Alexandria to the second cataract.   Only 50 or so were chosen from a total of several thousand Egypt views we had at hand.   We are biased towards visually and technically superb images, both in what we acquire and what we showcase for display.  The absolute best are rare stereophotographs printed on glass, as they retain microscopic detail and unparalleled tonal range.   Some subjects, such as local people and mummies, we were careful to include because Egypt is not just monuments and they were part of the experience.

We have shown the Egypt images at a convention of Egyptologists, to college students as part of their coursework, and to a groups of photohistorians.   Our website (www.Photoarchive3D.org ) has a few Egypt images, but we prefer to do it live.   In addition to Egypt, we have done presentations on the Ottoman World, 19th century 3D education, and historical preservation.

4. I was absolutely fascinated (and horrified) to learn that, prior to each journey down the Nile, the houseboats were sunk in order to get rid of the bugs and vermin.  How was this fact discovered?

There are plenty of vintage guidebooks and travelogues which have these everyday details.  There were no group tours before about 1870, so the guidebooks are very explicit about how to plan and execute a successful trip.  My favorite is “1000 Miles up the Nile” by Amelia Edwards who traveled in 1873 and later founded the Egypt Exploration Society.    Just so your readers do not think boats were disposible, I should clarify that they were sunk temporarily in shallow water, and then bailed out, nicely cleaned up, before the voyage.

5. Have you, yourself, been to Egypt?  And if so, what are your favorite archeological sites?
I personally have been to Egypt twice, and Mr. Fishman is a trained Egyptologist who worked at Luxor.  All the sites are special in their own way, and that is the beauty of it.  Alexandria evokes the past without showing much on the surface, Giza impresses with scale, at Amarna you feel like the only person around, and Luxor exceeds all expectations.     

6. Your presentation focused on images of Egypt, but do you have a favorite time-period and set of pictures in your organization’s collection?  Why is it your favorite?

The biggest appeal is a sense of being able to freely journey anywhere, going back 150 years, and seeing something that would not be encountered today.  I like ephemeral showcases like the Crystal Palace in Victorian London, or worlds fairs such as the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.   Classic archaeological sites such as Rome and Pompeii are beautifully captured before they crumbled further.  For atmosphere there is no better place than Ottoman Constantinople (Istanbul).  Natural history museums are a favorite, as the displays remind me of my childhood boiling skeletons in the basement.

7.  Were it not for photoarchive3d.org, would these images be lost?

No one knows what fraction of original production remains, but most views were “published” as many identical copies which have been preserved by virtue of being scattered about.  This means there is a lot out there still to be discovered, but 25-30% of our inventory is potentially unique, as I have not seen other examples in all the years of searching.     Although many individual images do exist outside of Photoarchive3D, there is added value to reassembly of groups of images which create a thematic virtual experience for the viewer.   This is our strength.

8. What do you hope people will learn from your organization?

It would be wonderful if our audience could see a bit of themselves in the people and places of the past.  We do that by putting them in unfamiliar environments, and letting them react with their own sensibilities.  Wouldn’t you sink your boat to kill the rats and fleas if you had to live on it for several months?

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An enormous thank you to Dr. George Mutter for his generosity, his insight and his fascinating responses!

Please be sure to visit the website of Dr. Mutter and Mr. Fishman: http://photoarchive3d.org/

And check back to see their events; I cannot recommend them highly enough! http://photoarchive3d.org/DOCS/Events.htm

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Matthew Lawrence

One of the presentations on October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair was “Ask Dr. Dig“, a panel discussion with four archeologists who work in four different milieus: one who works largely with road and bridge construction sites at the NH Department of Transportation, one who works as a city archeologist in Boston, one who works in Egypt, and the other who works in and around the ocean.

Highlighted on this post is Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archeologist who works at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod.

This was a fascinating discussion.

Because two of the four work at development sites, there was talk of “cultural resource management.” In other words, archeologists are often required to investigate a site before development can begin.  It is their job to make sure any archeological artifacts are removed appropriately.

Of particular note to me was something that Matthew Lawrence himself said in response to this part of the conversation: “It is only when things are being disturbed that archeology is undertaken.”

Ask Dr. Dig

(Information on screen highlighting the panel members at the Boston Museum of Science; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Dr. Dig Panel

(Picture of panel members. From left to right: John Nolan, Joseph Bagley, Sheila Charles, and Matthew Lawrence; picture thanks to Sheila Charles.)

Matthew generously responded to my follow-up questions below:

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1. Have you always wanted to be a maritime archeologist?

Growing up I participated in an archaeology club at my local museum and once I learned to scuba dive, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a career.

2. What kind of training does one need to be able to do archeology underwater?

In addition to learning about the theories and methods of archaeology, its usually necessary to become a proficient scuba diver. Alternatively, experience with advanced marine technology, such as remotely operated vehicles, can allow you to conduct archaeological research without getting your feet wet.  For those who would like to try out underwater archaeology, but not pursue it as a career, there are a number of avocational training programs available to teach the basics.

3. How do you preserve things that are found underwater once you bring them up?  Do you work in conjunction with other people and other fields to do so?

Artifacts recovered from the oceans require a lengthy and expensive conservation process that involves the removal of dissolved salts and the stabilization of the artifact’s structure.  Artifacts recovered from a freshwater environment may only need structural stabilization.  Specialists in the field of conservation are a vital component of any underwater archaeological research project.  These individuals typically have a greater understanding of chemistry than most archaeologists.  As in all archaeological research, much of the information learned about a site is found out in the lab.

4. During the discussion, you mentioned that the archeological artifacts you’d most want to find would be Paleoamerican artifacts.  What kinds of artifacts would these include?  And how would one find them (by digging underwater? is there any underground technology that might help?)

Evidence of paleoamerican habitation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary could be found in the form of fire rings or stone tools.  It possible that organic materials also might be present in a buried context.  To locate these materials, archaeologists would use optical survey systems, sub-bottom profilers, and coring.

5. In your work at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, do you often see whales?  Do you have any fun anecdotes about marine life you encounter?

I frequently see whales and other marine life on the surface, while conducting archaeological survey work.  When investigating shipwrecks on the seafloor, I usually find them teeming with a variety of fishes and invertebrates.  While diving on a shipwreck a few years ago, a large gray shaped passed close by me in my peripheral vision.  My first thought was BIG SHARK!!!!, but it turned out to be a large mola mola, a large, flattened, unusually shaped fish that I had never encountered near the seafloor.

Mola Mola Matthew Lawrence SBNMS

(photo of mola mola courtesy of Matthew Lawrence)

6. What do you like most about being an archeologist?

Archaeology is fun! The thrill of discovery when I find a new site or new information is followed closely by the enjoyment I get interpreting that information for an interested audience at a presentation.

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For more information about Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: http://stellwagen.noaa.gov/

Many, many thanks to Matthew Lawrence for his fascinating answers and lightning quick response to my emails!