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Geoarchaeology. Studying Ancient Environments. Ancient Environments. Geology: numerous techniques for studying ancient environments (four main approaches) Petrology : studying characteristics of stone Geomorphology : studying ancient landforms Sedimentology : studying soil processes

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Studying Ancient Environments

ancient environments
Ancient Environments
  • Geology: numerous techniques for studying ancient environments (four main approaches)
    • Petrology: studying characteristics of stone
    • Geomorphology: studying ancient landforms
    • Sedimentology: studying soil processes
    • Climatology: studying ancient climate change
  • How rock changes over time (weathering, erosion)
    • Can help with determining age of material culture
  • Source Areas (where raw materials originated)
    • Thin Section Analysis
      • Looking for characteristic inclusions and crystals
      • Analysis of trade, exchange, social interaction, migration
    • Trace Element Analysis
      • X-Ray fluorescence, Neutron Activation Analysis, etc.
        • Energize sample to stimulate emission of characteristic trace element spectra; can then be tied to a source area
  • Today’s landscape not always what it was in the past
    • Landscape one factor in determine available resources
      • Plants, animals, stone, etc.
      • Understanding landscape and resources helps us understand what sort of world ancient people lived in
    • Changes in landscape affect archaeological record
      • Patterns of deposition/erosion bury or destroy sites
      • e.g., Glaciation, River Erosion, Flood Deposition
  • Nearly all archaeological sites buried
    • Need to understand soil processes
      • How deep do you have to dig? Depends on nature of soils (key to research design; determines how one surveys for and excavates sites)
        • Floodplain (deeply buried); Terrace (intermediate); Uplands (shallow deposition)
      • What comprises culturally sterile deposits?
        • North America: e.g., glacial gravels
      • Classification of soil stratigraphy
        • Plowzone (Ap), A horizon, B horizon, C horizon; “buried A horizons”
  • Climate: another major factor in determining available resources
    • Desert, forest, swamp, prairie, etc.
  • Ecofacts: primary means of determining climate
    • Floral and Faunal Analysis
    • Dendrochronology (a record of climate as well as time)
    • Recovery by flotation
      • Seeds, microfauna, wood frags., nut frags., etc.
    • Pollen/Palynology; Phytoliths
  • Isotopic evidence
    • Stable Oxygen isotopes in Ice Cores
    • Ice Age(s) example
environmental indicators
Environmental Indicators



Animal Bone

Plant Remains

case study in geoarchaeology

Case Study in Geoarchaeology

The Sphinx:

How Old is It?

great sphinx
“Great Sphinx”
  • Located on Giza Plateau, outside Cairo
    • Memphis Necropolis (includes Great Pyramids)
age debate
Age Debate
  • Mainstream History of Monument
    • Built at same time as nearby Pyramid of Khafre (Khaf-Ra, Chephren) in about 2540 BC (face thought to be Khafre)
    • Early documentary references: 1500 BC
    • Construction of monument part of the same program monument construction during the first five centuries of the Old Kingdom (2575-2134 BC)
      • Origins of Pharaonic dynasties
      • Monuments as legitimating social hierarchy
age debate17
Age Debate
  • Controversial Reinterpretations: “Old Sphinx”
    • John Anthony West (“Amateur” Egyptologist): weathering patterns consistent with water, not wind
      • Especially for lower levels of monument (supposedly buried by sand longest, so contain most evidence of “water-weathering”)
      • Area has been arid since 10,000 BC, so Sphinx must be at least that old (and related to “Atlanteans”)
      • Some geologists (e.g., Robert Schoch) have supported the weathering theory
    • Graham Hancock: pyramids and sphinx locations relate to 10,500 BC stellar alignments
    • No recorded builder or building date (minor references that it may predate pyramids, but not by how long)
west and schoch
West and Schoch

(Never trust someone wearing a pith helmet)

age debate cont
Age Debate (cont.)
  • Gauri et al. (geoarchaeologists): similar patterns to West’s “water-weathering” occur in arid environments also
    • West and Schoch ignore basic geology of area
      • Sphinx carved out of local bedrock; geologic characteristics of upper layers (head) different than bottom (body) – increase in porosity in lower parts
      • salt crystals form in rock pores; causes exfoliation due to hydrostatic pressure; same patterns as West’s “water-weathering”
age debate20
Age Debate
  • Critiques of Old Sphinx argument
    • No associated artifacts older than 2,600 BC
      • If a technologically sophisticated culture existed prior to that, you would expect to find some traces beyond a single monument; Where’s their garbage?
    • West argues that Sphinx water weathered, while other monuments wind weathered
      • Why haven’t “wind weathering” patterns obliterated older, “water weathering” patterns?
how to spot pseudoscience
How to spot Pseudoscience
  • Prior Plausibility: how well does a theory fit with what we already know?
  • Occam’s Razor: simpler explanations should be preferred over complex
  • Non-sequitur argument: “They laughed at <insert name>, and he was right, so I must be right also”
  • Public Verifiability: can other people apply the ideas and get the same results?
  • Authority: who is the person making the argument?
  • Humility: not to say that all good scientists are humble, but a crackpot is almost never humble
  • $$$: is someone getting rich off of their claims?