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Where There's Smoke...

Learning to see the archaeology under our feet


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

cigarettes butt collection


One morning in 2008, while waiting for a light to change at the corner of Wilshire and Sepulveda Boulevards in Los Angeles, archaeologist Anthony Graesch jumped out of his pickup truck. In the 75 seconds between green lights, much to the mystification of his fellow commuters, he swept all the garbage—primarily hundreds of cigarette butts—that had accumulated against the curb of the median into a 10-gallon trash bag. Graesch tossed it into the truck bed, hopped back in the cab, and continued to his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology and archaeology.


Like many archaeologists, Graesch says, he looks down a lot, reflexively observing the bits of urban flotsam around him, and he had developed a minor obsession with cigarette butts. “I couldn’t stop seeing them,” he says. A few years later, when he took a full-time position at Connecticut College in New London, where he is now chair of the anthropology department, this interest and that bag of L.A. curbside trash went cross-country with him.


cigarettes butts archaeology labGarbage has long been a critical part of the human material record to archaeologists, middens, privies, and trash heaps are consistent sources of knowledge, full of bones, potsherds, broken tools, pipestems, and more, across the world and throughout human history. “It’s pretty much the bread and butter of archaeological research,” says Graesch—so much so that when archaeologists began to look at the contemporary world, garbage was a natural target. In the 1970s, William Rathje, a legendary archaeologist at the University of Arizona, pioneered the field of garbology, or the study of modern waste using archaeological methods. There have been many other examinations of modern artifacts, but decades later Rathje’s work remains the most cited example of archaeology of the contemporary—how modern material culture reflects behavior and society.


Graesch’s impulse to collect trash, which grew from the work of Rathje and others, has again brought the archaeological eye to modern rubbish and is providing a useful approach for teaching theory and methods to his undergraduate students. Among the challenges of teaching archaeology, Graesch explains, is demonstrating why archaeology matters. Modern artifacts, he has found, can help illustrate how behavior relates to community and how modern questions and problems appear, and can be studied, in the material record.



The Acropolis of Athens

The decades-long project to restore the site to its iconic past


Wednesday, October 07, 2015



It’s much easier to build a new building,” says Vassiliki Eleftheriou, “than to rebuild an ancient one.” Eleftheriou, an architect by training, is director of the Acropolis Restoration Service, where she oversees what could be considered the most daunting project in the history of archaeological conservation.


For thousands of years the monuments of the Athenian Acropolis have been regarded not only as examples of extraordinary skill and beauty, but also as potent symbols of religious devotion and civic and national identity. “Although there were many important sanctuaries and public spaces in Athens and across Attica,” says classical art historian Jeffrey Hurwit of the University of Oregon, “the Acropolis stands as what might be called the central repository of Athenians’ conceptions of themselves. These monuments and sculptures presented images of the gods and goddesses—Athena herself above all—and also of the Athenians and their heroes.” The intention, says Hurwit, was to represent Athens as the greatest of Greek cities and the Athenians as the greatest of Greeks. “To walk through the classical Acropolis was to traverse a marble paean to Athens itself,” he says.


The Acropolis rises nearly 500 feet above the Ilissos Valley, measures about 360 feet north to south and 820 feet east to west, and has a surface area of about seven and a half acres. The site was leveled with artificial fill, in places as much as 55 feet thick, to create a surface upon which to build. Atop it sit the four major standing structures dating to the city’s massive building program of the fifth century B.C., initiated after the destruction of earlier monuments in 480 B.C. by the Persians: the Propylaia, Temple of Athena Nike, Erechtheion, and Parthenon. Over the millennia the deterioration of these monuments as a result of the passage of time, and the damage to them from myriad other causes including wars, improper or overly intrusive excavations, new construction, earthquakes, previous restoration efforts, the vast number of visitors to the site, and, most recently, the ravages of pollution and acid rain, have been almost incalculable. In 1975, the Greek government began a large-scale, multidisciplinary project to address the declining condition of these structures, as well as of a lesser-known building called the Arrephorion, the defensive walls encircling the Acropolis, and the so-called “scattered members,” the thousands of complete, nearly complete, and fragmentary pieces of stone and marble that lie all over the surface of the Acropolis.


What began as a project to rescue the monuments from further decay and instability has evolved into a comprehensive effort not only to restore them, but also to re-create their original appearance insofar as possible. When faced with this exceptional task, the Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments followed a governing principle that is applied to all their work. Since the project’s inception, teams working on the Acropolis have employed anastylosis, an intervention technique dating to the beginning of the nineteenth century whereby a structure is rebuilt using original materials. New materials are employed only when necessary, must be easily distinguishable from the old, and must be replaceable should better materials or technologies be found. According to Eleftheriou, this has always been one of the greatest challenges. “It’s important to use as much ancient material as we can, but there is a limit to how much we can actually use,” she says. This is especially true when the team confronts previous efforts at anastylosis. “When we work on sections that have been restored before, it’s difficult not to use new materials because previous restorers often put ancient materials in the wrong places and damaged them. So we try to use compatible materials in a compatible way,” she explains.


The most ubiquitous and catastrophic of these previous efforts were those of the engineer Nikolaos Balanos, who, between 1898 and 1940, supervised an early attempt to restore the Acropolis. Although the techniques he employed, primarily the use of Portland cement mortar, steel reinforcements, and iron clamps, were generally accepted at the time, after only a short while, the materials started to deteriorate and rust, damaging and often cracking the ancient stone.


After four decades of intensive work by hundreds of experts in archaeology, architecture, marble working, masonry, restoration, conservation, and mechanical, chemical, and structural engineering, much has been accomplished. Already the restoration of two of the major buildings, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike, has been completed, as has much of the work on the Propylaia and on large sections of the Parthenon. In the process, the team has acquired new information about these emblematic buildings. “The Acropolis restoration project has added immeasurably to our knowledge of the fifth-century B.C. monuments atop the Acropolis. Not only has it recovered, identified, and repositioned many once-scattered blocks,” says Hurwit, “it has also revealed new features, such as evidence for previously unsuspected windows on the east wall of the Parthenon.”


Despite the magnitude of the tasks that remain, Eleftheriou takes both heart and inspiration from the work that she and the team of more than 150 do every day, and also from the ancient artisans who created the Acropolis’ monuments. “What I have learned,” she says, “is that the ancient architects and engineers faced the same challenges we still do.”





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