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Digs & Discoveries

Off the Grid

W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite, Great Barrington, Massachusetts


Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs OTG Massachusetts Burghardt HouseOff of Route 41 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a trail leads visitors around the childhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American author, scholar, activist, and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Born in Great Barrington on February 23, 1868, Du Bois witnessed and chronicled the journey of African Americans through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the early Civil Rights movement. As editor of The Crisis magazine, he penned essays on politics, race and class disparities, pan-African identity, and the injustices of colonialism. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.


Before he became a public intellectual and world traveler, Du Bois grew up on a small rural homestead belonging to his mother’s family, the Burghardts, who had been brought to the region as enslaved people sometime prior to 1743 and occupied the property starting around 1820. Since the early 1980s, archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the house, which was demolished after Du Bois sold the property in 1954, as well as thousands of artifacts. According to archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, many of the objects reflect the fact that from the mid-nineteenth to the twentieth century, mass-market products became more available to Black consumers. “Because a lot of the materials come from the turn of the century, we see a shift from homemade to mass-produced goods, which became accessible to African Americans via catalogs,” Battle-Baptiste says. “People no longer had to go to local stores, where they might be overcharged or be refused service. Consumption as a practice wasn’t always there for everybody.”



A parking lot on Route 41 just a five-minute drive from downtown Great Barrington is the start of a trail around the site. Interpretive displays provide background on the history of the Burghardt family and the experience of African Americans in the region. The foundations of the original house are marked with a platform. Up-to-date information about tours, events, and exhibitions at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Amherst can be found on the center’s website.



Have lunch at one of Great Barrington’s many cafes and restaurants and check out the town’s historic Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center before walking along the scenic Housatonic River, where you will find a park and garden dedicated to Du Bois.

Siberian Island Enigma


Monday, August 10, 2020

Digs Mongolia Por BajinIt’s hard to imagine that a tiny tree ring could help solve one of the medieval world’s most puzzling mysteries. But by applying the familiar technique of radiocarbon dating in a novel way, scholars have been able to answer the confounding question of why no one ever lived in, or even used, a striking complex of buildings at a site in the Tuva Republic called Por-Bajin.


Por-Bajin, or “Clay House” in Tuvan, is located on an island more than 4,000 feet above sea level in southern Siberia’s Lake Tere-Khol. Archaeological explorations of the site started in the late nineteenth century and an extensive research project has taken place there since 2007. It was known from the recent excavations that the 700-by-530-foot complex was constructed by a Uighur khan in a short time, probably a span of two years, in the eighth century A.D. But there has never been a consensus as to which ruler commissioned the complex—or even what its function was. It seemed an ideal place to test something new.


In 2012, Japanese scientist Fusa Miyake identified two spikes in the carbon-14 levels present in tree rings of known age from dendrochronological archives—one in 775, and the other in 994. These surges, now called Miyake Events, were likely produced by massive bursts of cosmic radiation and can be seen in tree rings throughout the world. Por-Bajin was originally thought to have been built in 750 by Bayan-Chur Khan (r. 747–759), ruler of the Uighur Khaganate, and his Chinese princess wife. But this date, as well as the identification of the site as a palace, was based on an inscription found elsewhere. Earlier efforts at radiocarbon dating the larch beams that supported the clay structures were frustratingly inexact. “The problem with routine radiocarbon is precision,” says archaeologist Margot Kuitems of the University of Groningen. “You always end up with a range, usually a few decades. For some periods or monuments this may not matter as much, but for Por-Bajin, with all the questions surrounding it, you really do want to know when, exactly, it was built.”


Digs Mongolia Por Bajin MapKuitems was able to identify a Miyake Event in the forty-third ring of one of the wooden beams, but the real excitement came when she saw that it was only two rings away from the final ring, meaning that she could confidently conclude that the tree had been felled in 777. She was even able to determine that the tree had been cut down during a warm season, likely the spring, because the ring consisted only of so-called early wood, which is not formed during cold Siberian winters.


Sometime before 777, the Uighur ruler Tengri Bögü Khan (r. 759–779), Bayan-Chur Khan’s son, changed the Khaganate’s official religion from Tengrism, a shamanistic tradition, to the Gnostic faith of Manichaeism. In 777, the researchers’ findings establish, he began construction of Por-Bajin.


The khan’s conversion was to be his downfall—in 779, he was assassinated during an anti-Manichaean uprising. Based on the precise date of the complex and the fact that it showed no signs of ever having been occupied or used, archaeologists now believe that Por-Bajin was not, in fact, a palace at all, but a Manichaean monastery that was abandoned after Tengri Bögü Khan’s death and the Khaganate’s return to Tengrism. “We began our research hoping to achieve a proof of concept,” says Kuitems. “We didn’t expect to be able to solve a mystery with science.”