Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Digging Out: What an archaeologist thinks about while shoveling snow

There's been a record amount of snowfall in Boston this February and we might break the seasonal snowfall record by this weekend.

That means a lot of time shoveling snow, and that means a lot of time getting lost in thought.

My latest essay was published in the Good Men Project.

An archeologist shovels through the Boston snow and his memories while preparing for a dig in Sudan. 

It’s been a snowy winter in New England and I don’t have a snow blower. As I toss shovelfuls of snow over my head, or carry them to a lower snowbank, I think about August days gone by on the Anatolian plain, and anticipate flying to the eastern Sahara desert at the end of this week.

I am an archaeologist. Archaeology is both fun and tedious. The fun involves seeing things that no other human has seen in centuries, accumulating data to make conjectures about how ancient people lived, and literally re-writing history books.

The tedium involves moving dirt.

But moving dirt doesn’t have to be tedious. That’s what I learned from T. Cuyler Young, Jr.

Read more 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dig Libraries

As I prepare for another dig later this month (i.e. ignore clothes and such but trying to find the perfect book for the airplane), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for Booksense.com. That website is no longer available so I guess the rights reverted back to me.

Dig libraries can be described in a manner analogous to how Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia described the animal kingdom: the books can be divided into (a) books once read long ago, (b) books that never get read, (c) books that resolve arguments, (d) books of mysteries, (e) books by Patrick O’Brien, (f) books that are passed around so much their spines are broken, (g) books in multiple copies, (h) books about academia, and (i) books of mysteries that are written as thrillers, (j) books about places that are cold, (k) classics, (l) books you would never have read at home and (m) books about the dig.

Digs -- archaeological excavations--build up libraries in an organic manner. An archaeologist in Michigan packs a couple of books with her before she heads to Syria or Turkey and when she’s done with them, she leaves them behind, leaving more room to bring back an oriental carpet or two. Sometimes, if she’s in the middle of reading something she found on the shelf, one of the books returns to America (or gets left in Damascus, or Heathrow, or the seat pocket of a 737).

Archaeology (at least in the Middle East, where I work) is not practiced, for the most part, by swashbuckling Indiana Jones types. (If you must, think boring Professor Jones lecturing in a drone -- but without the girls flirting with him.) Archaeologists tend to be a bookish, not to say nerdy, lot from anthropology and ancient history departments of big universities. Academics, in other words. After a hot day trying do communicate with workers in a foreign language, an adequate dinner, and a couple of beers, we often find ourselves enjoying our books around the dinner table, or reading in bed by flashlight.

The dig libraries I’m familiar with vary in size from a couple of crates of books to a dining room lined with bookshelves, one of which is filled with archaeological reports and two of which are filled completely with mysteries. The latter was at a dig house used for over four decades—and one long time archaeologist there claimed he had read all the books in that library, some of them twice. I write this sitting in the dining room of a dig in Syria and looking at our library: two planks, each about six feet long, filled mostly with paperbacks and one or two hardcovers (who was the fool who brought those out?).

To look at the library is to recall the Chinese encyclopedia, and to remember previous seasons on site: there’s the two copies of John Fowles’ The Magus (Jean took the third one home with her), there’s the Time Magazine Almanac we brought to settle arguments of various kinds (“Who was Prime Minister of Canada when Nixon was in office?” [this was before accessible internet]), there’s the picture book left behind by the camera crew who were documenting a Japanese doctor’s quest to bicycle across Asia and Africa (and through our site last year).

There are two copies of Agatha Christie’s autobiography here, as well as Come, Tell Me How You Live and Murder in Mesopotamia. The biography just mentions this site briefly but Come, Tell Me is a memoir of her travels and work in Syria with her archaeologist second husband, Max Mallowan. An interesting contrast is found reading her account of how a workman died tunneling under the Eye Temple here and then reading Max’s official excavation report that no workmen were injured in all the months they dug here. (The workman was tunneling on his lunch break, and not anywhere he was supposed to be, so Max took no responsibility for it.) Murder in Mesopotamia is a fictionalized account of how the obnoxious wife of Max’s former boss might come to an appropriately archaeological end (someone drops a big pot on her head).

I had a hard time getting into Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues whenever I tried to read it in America, and I thought that bringing it to a dig would force me to read it, given the lack of selection there. It was the perfect dig book, and I recommended it highly, earning it a place as one of the books that gets passed around and read by four or five people over the season. What makes it a perfect dig book? Well, out here, without television, telephones, e-mail and the general bombardment of information, there is more time to contemplate (as Agatha might put it) how we live, and so Robbins’ philosophical ramblings had a receptive audience. Plus, it gets lonely out here and the sex scenes are appreciated.

There are always books that I bring that I don’t read. Some of them were meant to be improving—Madame Bovary, Plutarch’s Lives of the Romans—others are just paperbacks that I didn’t need to carry back across the ocean. And there are books, like Lolita, that I enjoyed so much I had to bring them home for re-reading.

By far the most popular genre in dig libraries is the mystery. Clearly, that’s how many archaeologists see themselves. Our lives are filled with clues. A footprint, a broken pot, a piece of flint. How do these tell a story of the past? Was this room used for the manufacture of bowls, was it attacked by invaders? Grab a trowel Watson, and when we’re done digging for the day, we’ll sit back with Ed McBain, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters, or Agatha herself.

Last year, when it was still cold at the beginning of the season and our canvas tents weren’t providing much insulation, I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and could empathize with the characters. This year, I’m reading John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, about the Alaskan wilderness. When it gets really hot, books about cold climates are welcome.

There are certain books that I would never read in America, but I read out here. Sometimes it’s just a book I never got around to reading when they were “hot,” like A Thousand Acres, or The Mosquito Coast. Sometimes it’s a genre issue. I don’t like horror much, but I was encouraged to read Hannibal by someone who wanted to talk about it. The complaints about the ending have now spanned multiple seasons.
A limited book supply results in an instant book club. In fact, when browsing a dig library for a book to read, you can be almost certain to find someone who’s read it and can critique any given tome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out here at the dig just to read; I do, in fact, get quite a lot of work done while I’m here. But I’ve been here for four seasons—about 8 months total—and 12 feet of books isn’t that much for that amount of time. I may finally get to the Plutarch. And then I’ll start re-reading the top shelf.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Turtle Acupuncture in Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2014

For a while now, I've been fascinated by the work of Claire McManus, an acupuncturist whose patients have included dogs, bongos and warthogs. I spent an afternoon with her at the New England Aquarium's Rescue and Rehabilitation center to watch her treat sea turtles.

In the Sept/Oct 2014 issue, Orion Magazine published my story about turtle acupuncture. I'm pretty flattered to be published in Orion -- it's a beautifully produced magazine focused on nature and environmental issues with some heavy hitting contributors and advisors. It first caught my eye when I read an article by Sy Montgomery about octopi.

My own article is not available on Orion's website, but I'm posting it here:

Reptile Recovery

his shoulder. He lies on a table, his belly
placed on a clean white towel, while Claire
McManus, a specialist working with Dexter’s
primary care-giver, Dr. Charlie Innis,
palpates his limbs, pressing her fingers
gently along his skin to locate the bones
and muscles underneath. The lights in
the room are turned down to relax the patient,
and McManus pulls a small needle,
the width of a human hair, from its sterile
package. Carefully, she taps one into Dexter.
A dozen more will be placed into his
head and limbs.

“Unfortunately, we can’t get to his
back,” McManus says.

Dexter’s shell makes that impossible.

Claire McManus is an acupuncturist,
and today she is working at the New
England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation
center, where Dr. Innis is the
aquarium’s head of veterinary medicine
and a specialist on sea turtles. Innis
doesn’t believe that Dexter’s occasional
movements are signs that the needles
cause him any pain. “Even if you’re not
[performing acupuncture],” he says,
“they’re as active as he’s being now. They
definitely don’t withdraw their flipper
like they would if it was a larger needle.”

McManus emphasizes that her practice
is not “alternative medicine,” because
it is not mutually exclusive with Western
medicine. In this case, the procedure is
a complementary therapy, working alongside
science to aid in healing. Or, as Dr.
Innis puts it, “Doesn’t matter what works
as long as the animals improve and can
be released to the wild.”

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese
medical practice based on the regulation
of the flow of qi through the body.
In humans, pressure points have been
mapped out, each corresponding to a
specific area of the body. “A lot of them
overlap with muscle bundles and when
these pathways are blocked, there’s some
sort of imbalance or pain,” says McManus.
“It could be difficulty moving a limb,
depression, anxiety—it could be a whole
range of things from something physical
to something emotional.”

Dexter can’t tell us if his trauma is
mental as well as physiological—for all
we know, it might be both. Members of
Dexter’s species, the Kemp’s ridley sea
turtle, are born on beaches in Mexico
and travel up and down the East Coast of
North America following warm currents.
Unfortunately, Cape Cod juts east into the
Atlantic and acts like a giant barrier, confusing
and trapping southbound turtles in
Massachusetts Bay. Most years, anywhere
from 30 to 80 of these endangered turtles
are found stranded on New England
beaches and tended to by the aquarium’s
rescue and rehab department. The winter
of 2012 to 2013 was a particularly bad season,
with 242 turtles brought to the aquarium
and more than 100 others found
dead on shore. Many rescued turtles are
treated by the aquarium staff and released
within weeks, while others stay as long as
a year and a half. When regular veterinary
medicines are not working, the aquarium
sometimes calls in outside help.

“When they called me, I did a little
online research and found a rehab place
in Israel, where a vet had treated turtles,”
McManus says. “I talked to them about
styles of needling, gauges of the needles
they would use. There is a small community
of researchers and vets out there who
are doing this kind of work.”

The first time she treated a turtle, McManus
asked one of the veterinary assistants
how she would know if the turtle
was going to bite her. “He said, ‘He’ll
do this,’” and then mimed a slow motion
turn of the head and opening of the
jaw. If a turtle tries to bite, she was told,
“You’ve got a lot of reaction time.”

More and more animals—both wild
and domestic—are seeing acupuncturists.
Numbers are hard to come by, but
major veterinary schools like those at
Tufts and Cornell offer some acupuncture
training to students who request it.
Anatomical maps of acupuncture points,
like those used for the human body, are
being created for animals too, especially
domestic livestock. Chinese practitioners
have made charts for dogs, horses, camels,
and elephants. “You and I aren’t all
that different, structurally, from a dog,”
McManus explains. “We all have femurs,
tibia, all the same bones and a lot of the
same muscles.”

After about twenty minutes, McManus
removes the needles from Dexter,
five from each limb and two from his
head. Since his treatment started a
week ago his appetite has increased; the
acupuncture seems to be working. Following
the procedure, Dexter returns to
his tank, where Dr. Innis will monitor
his progress and, eventually, release
him back into the ocean. With luck, he
will live a long life and never set foot on
land again.

This article originally appeared in Orion.

Proper Citation:
Cheng, Jack "Reptile Recovery," Orion Magazine 33:4, Sept/Oct 2014, p. 12-13

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Parent Child Romantic Comedy

I recently identified a new genre of movie, the Parent-Child Romantic Comedy, and an analysis of these films helped me understand something about being a parent.

My essay was published on the New York Times Motherlode blog here: http://nyti.ms/1wwP0qi

Second favorite reaction to my essay: "That was yours? I saw that in a friend's Facebook status."

Favorite reaction: "I liked your essay; it made me realize what a terrible parent I am."

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Roomnet

The Boston Globe Connections column yesterday printed my essay on my experience away from the Internet, forced to actually connect with the other people in my presence to learn anything -- and enjoying it. I coined a phrase to describe the collected brainpower in a room: the Roomnet.
Earlier this year, an archaeological dig took me to a rural part of the world with spotty Internet service. In this village, it came through cell towers, but the signal was weak and shared by hundreds of people. So functionally, I lived without the Internet. 
Researchers have written about how video games and the Internet have changed our brains. My time on the dig required a reboot of my pre-Internet brain. This earlier brain, I quickly realized, was not without resources: Lacking digital search engines, I still had the “Roomnet.” Just as the Internet is the collective intelligence (or lack thereof) of a few billion people, the Roomnet is the collective intelligence of everyone in a given room. 
Read more
I love the illustration by Gracia Lam that accompanied the piece:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rise of the Black Pharoahs

While in Sudan earlier this year, a film crew from National Geographic came to El Kurru to document our work and interview the dig director, Geoff Emberling. The fruits of their labor aired on PBS on October 1 as "Rise of the Black Pharaohs."

Here's the PBS description:

About the ProgramThe Egypt of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings was an empire of indomitable might. Then, around 800 BC, the impossible happened. Kush, a subject kingdom from the south, rose up and conquered Egypt, enthroned its own Pharaohs, and ruled for nearly 100 years.
These were the mysterious Black Pharaohs of what is today Sudan—the Nubian kings—whose reign has become legendary among Africans and written off as heresy by early archaeologists who refused to believe that dark skinned Africans could have risen so high.
But now, in the heart of Sudan, exciting new archaeological finds are revealing the truth about the great Kush dynasty. A sacred mountain holds the key to the Kush kings’ spiritual claim on the Egyptian throne; stunning statues are providing details about the true color of their skin and their long and prosperous reign; and a long-hidden tomb complex is shedding light on the trappings of their royalty and the extent of their empire.

As of this writing, Rise of the Black Pharaohs is streaming online here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sudanese Hug Revisited

In January, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about my friendship with Mahmoud, a Sudanese archaeologist, and a greeting I had never seen before, the Sudanese Hug.

The basic gesture is a right handed pat on another person’s left shoulder while they do the same to you. The Sudanese Hug is more formal than an embrace, but conveys more warmth than a handshake. In fact, with good friends you might start with an embrace, greet each other while giving the Sudanese Hug, and end with a handshake.

I went back to Sudan this spring for an archaeological project and it was fun to revisit The Hug.

I watched families greet one another with it at the airport, and kept my eye out for it on the journey north to the dig site.

At the site, a Sudanese archaeologist friend named Mortada sauntered up to me and gave a stylish side glancing brush to my shoulder, rather than the squarely vertical downward pat that is the norm. “You remember the Sudanese hug, don’t you?” he asked me. Sure I did, but I had never seen it delivered in such a suave, cool way.

After our dig season was over, we went to visit Mahmoud at his home in Khartoum. I was happy to be able to give him a paper copy of the magazine so he could see the article in print.

“You know,” he told me, “a lot of Sudanese have seen this article online.” Apparently, English speaking Sudanese had passed the link around to their friends. What prompted this popularity? “It’s not often that the international news has something about Sudan that is positive, instead of bad news.”

Mahmoud’s sister, the matriarch of his family, came in. Mahmoud introduced each of us in turn, and then pointing at me, he said, “I introduce Jack with just two words: ‘Sudanese Hug.’”

A huge smile spread across her face and she raised her hands in astonishment. “Mashallah! You wrote that? It’s special to Sudan!” Another Sudanese woman I know in the United States had made the same point: the hug was such a natural part of her physical vocabulary that she didn’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon from her home country.

In fact, I had contacted a few anthropologists who work in Sudan and neighboring countries in northern and eastern Africa and they all commented that The Hug was a uniquely Sudanese phenomenon.

Mahmoud told me that he had heard from strangers who read the article and used some internet sleuthing to piece together that he was the archaeologist I had written about. They wanted to know that the story was true and that he was a real person. Old friends and family also wrote to confirm his identity -- “This is about you, right?” His favorite response came from a cousin who was working in the Persian Gulf. “This must be you. Now I know that you must be doing drugs or something with the foreigners you work with -- you are having too much fun.”