#237 What Good are Munsell Colors?

Not property of WCRM, in fact.

What have you used Munsell colors for? Have you really had slight variability in soils to a point where it helped you interpret the site in a different way? In many cases the stratigraphy is different enough that a Munsell color is just overkill. Just call it tan, or, light brown. Whatever. OK. Now that I’ve caused you to quit reading and go straight to an angry comment, I’ll continue.

Munsell Variability

Everyone knows that Munselling soil color has a high degree of error. Do you take the sample wet or dry? Should you shade it or do it in sunlight? What about fluorescent light in the lab? Or, incandescent light in your home. I’ve got LED lights in my home; what does that do to the color?

The only way to get a consistent reading from the Munsell book, and even consistency from one person is asking a lot, is to have one person do it across the site in exactly the same conditions.

OK. You’ve designated a person to do all the Munsells. You decided to do them wet and shaded. Great. You’re now project manager of the year. Now what?


What does having a Munsell color do for your analysis of the site? We seem to take a Munsell every time we do something that involves digging. From shovel tests to full block excavations, we always Munsell. I’ve never been on a ground disturbing project that didn’t do Munsells.

I say again, what is the use? Couldn’t you get just as much information by determining the stratigraphy and just numbering the strats? You’d need a key, of course, so people would all have the same definition of Strat 1. This is a trivial matter with tablets, of course. It’s a bit more difficult with paper because you have to make sure everyone has the definitions and that they don’t lose them.

Some might argue that there is value in calling the strat 10YR5/4 rather than a color. Some others would argue that one person’s light brown is another person’s medium brown, or, brownish gray. Would a project manager look at these differences and really thing that there were different strats in those cases? Maybe. That would be a PM that never visited the site, too.

Of course the answer to all of this is to just take a photograph. Photos are cheap and easy and you can take as many as you want. Better yet, take a little video and narrate what you see. There is no better observer than the person standing right there.

What Would Happen if We Stopped?

I want to know what the worse case scenario would be if we stopped taking Munsells. As with everything, there still might be areas where the exact Munsell color is useful. But, on many sites it’s just not useful data. I’ve always been a proponent of taking as much data about a site as possible. You never know if some grad student is going to make a breakthrough with your useless data 50 years from now. Since archaeology is a destructive activity you only have one chance to record as much as possible. This is the only argument I can see to taking Munsell colors. Otherwise, a description and a photograph of the soil will tell me a lot more than a Munsell ever will.

What do you think? Am I way off base here? If so, tell me how Munsells helped you interpret something about a site better than not having them. Have you ever not taken Munsells and found out later that you wish you had? If I don’t get comments on this one I might as well pack it in because it will seem that no one is reading this. I suspect someone will comment though. We get pretty fired up when it comes to Munsells.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!

#103 Dendrochronology and Anthropology

Dendrochronology and Anthropology: What Trees Can Teach Us About History

Here is a great article from Val Williamson at Decoded Science about dendrochonology.  Despite the, apparently unintentional, pun at the end of the first paragraph, some good points are made:

Anthropologists are, among other things, detectives – piecing together evidence to work out how people behave and survive in certain conditions. Archaeology is anthropology of the past, so a proven timeline for dating archaeological artefacts is a great investigative tool. Dendrochronology supplies physical evidence for a timeline compiled through international data-sharing between practitioners. This fascinating branch of science provides anthropologists with accurate dates, and other information, and has roots going back millennia.

I heard a talk at the SAAs in St. Louis regarding the dating of really old trees that I hadn’t thought about.  If you date burned sections of a tree, like from a hearth or fire ring, and you know the trees in that area can be really old, then you have to know where in the tree’s cross-section you are taking your sample from.  The difference between the inside of the tree (older) and the outside of the tree (newer) could be a thousand years or more.  That’s a pretty big set of error bars when you are trying to date a site that may have only been occupied for a few days or weeks.

#45 The Magic of Reality - A Review

"The Magic of Reality" for iPad.  Text by Richard Dawkins (c) 2011; Illustrations by Dave McKean (c) 2011; iPad App Developed by Somethin' Else for Transworld Publishers.  Available on iTunes in the App Store for $14.99

This book is fascinating for at least two major reasons.  It is a phenomenal book that is both insightful and creative while being rational and scientific.  This book is also a great leap forward in the way we read and consume material by way of the iPad application.  By the way, the book is also available as a beautiful paper book and as an audio book.  Although, I would recommend reading this book by one of the two visual methods because that is the best way to get all there is out of this amazing resource.  This review will focus on the iPad app since that is the one I read.

First, let me discuss the app's success so far as an example of how the information is being received by the public.  The iPad app was released on September 23, 2011 and as of October 8, 2011 was listed third in a list of top paid iPad apps in the "Books" category.  The list is based on total number of downloads.

The "Magic of Reality" is listed on another list in the app store.  This is a list of Top Grossing iPad Apps, again in the "Books" category.  This list is based on the purchase price of the book and it is listed fourth.  Not too bad for only being out for a few weeks.  I'd also like to point out that Dawkins' book is three positions ahead of the Bible which, at least this version, has been out since 2009, six months after the iPad's debut.  Do not be confused by the Bible App's listed price of "Free".  There are several pricey in-app purchases that tend to advance it within this list's ranks.  Now, on to the review.

The book is split into twelve chapters.  They deal with everything from magic to the beginnings of life, the beginnings of the universe, aliens, earthquakes, miracles, and much more.  Each chapter begins with common myths surrounding the topic.  For example, chapter 2, called, "Who was the first person?" starts with several myths regarding the beginning of humans from different indigenous cultures around the world.  Accompanying the text are amazing pictures, graphics, and illustrations.  In the image below, the hands descend from the sky to light up the body with a beating heart.  Following the mythology of the topic, Dawkins gives a simplified, yet not dumbed-down, explanation of the subject using current scientific principles and excepted theories.  The book is certainly not written for scholars of these topics, rather it is written for people that have rudimentary knowledge of a few of the topics but not all.  However, the book covers more than most people have a familiarity with and can teach even the most scholarly among us at least something.

The moving images and illustrations are well drawn and keep you interested.

Often, an image is important to the text for several pages.  Using the format of an iPad app, the image can stay on the screen while a page turn simply moves new text onto the page.  The days of referring back several pages to a figure mentioned in the text are over.  Authors now have the freedom to adjust the format of the book to better suit their needs and to more adequately present the information to the reader.

The metaphors and illustrations that Dawkins chooses to use as tools for illustrating the principles of the chapters are easy to understand and clearly get the point across.

There are interactive pages within almost every chapter.  The image above is one such page.  After pressing the hand symbol you are asked to blow into the microphone on the iPad.  This has the effect of moving the iguanas on the debris flows onto the islands in the Galapagos where they experienced a divergent evolution.  This exercise allows the reader to visualize a method in which the iguanas arrived on the islands.

The Magic of Reality is simply amazing, both for its information and it's presentation.  Dawkins represents the achievements of science to explain much of what was mystery a short time ago and it represents an evolution in the way we will read books in the future.  I'm excited for other scientific books to come out in this format with this level of interactivity and highly recommend it to any student of science or anyone who wants to learn about how the world works.

Written in Sparks, Nevada


2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.

Archaic In America, this term refers in a generic sense to a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle involving small bands of people pursuing a pattern of seasonal movements linked to the migrations and periodic abundance of animal and plant foods.

#6 Learning While Earning

Several posts ago I mentioned that I listen to podcasts while I'm doing pretty much anything.  I really like to listen to them when I'm doing a survey.  Often, survey involves a lot of walking and not much talking, especially if it's windy.  Listening to podcasts and audio books are a great way to keep your mind sharp and focused so you can find the next Clovis point that will change archaeology forever!

The following is a list of the podcasts that I'm currently listening to.  Sometimes I include others.  Sometimes they stop having interesting topics and I stop listening.  Most of these, however, I've been listening to regularly for several years now.  The title links lead to iTunes where the shows can be downloaded. Oh, and, PODCASTS ARE FREE!!


The Archaeology Channel covers the week's archaeological news from around the country and the world.  The podcast is 10-15 minutes in length and provides a great overview of the week's headlines.  The website contains links and show notes.  Apparently they have a new video podcast too.  I'll have to check that out.

Naked Archaeology is produced by Cambridge University for the BBC.  The show host, Diana O'Carroll provides a 30 minute discussion of current archaeology in the news and of new archaeological techniques.  Check out the website.  There are other great spin-off shows from the parent show, The Naked Scientists.

Stone Pages Archaeo News is a 20-30 minute podcast put out on a somewhat irregular basis by Diego Meozzi and David Connolly of BAJR.  The podcast is certainly geared more towards the UK but does cover big stories from around the world.  They also have a new iPhone App that will show you news stories where you live.  Check out the website here.


The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast was started in 2009 to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy.  Incidentally, 2009 marks the 400 year anniversary of Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter.  This confirmed without a doubt that the Earth was not special and caused the Catholic Church to admit they were wrong nearly 400 years after their mistake.  Better late than never!  The show is a daily 5-12 minute topic in astronomy read by and written by volunteers from around the world.  After 2009 ended, the show just kept on going and is still going strong.

60-Second Earth is a short podcast produced by Scientific American.  It comes out a couple of times a week, sometimes less.  Topics include Earth-related subjects, usually involving being Green.  No, Kermit is not the host.

60-Second Mind is also produced by Scientific American and has a similar frequency.  Topics include news items from the world of psychology and anything about the mind.

60-Second Science is a daily (M-F) podcast, also produced by Scientific American.  This one is great because you get a short bit about an extremely current scientific news item.

Are We Alone? is produced by the SETI people.  The show hosts are Seth Shostack and Molly Bentley.  They, along with a sizable crew, produce an hour long show every week about different science topics.  It's not all about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, however, the show topics usually tie in somehow.  It's a great show for general science topics in an entertaining format.

Astronomy Cast is a roughly 30 minute long program covering everything astronomy.  I've heard podcasts covering different astronomical missions such as the Kepler Mission (searching for extrasolar planets), celestial navigation, and every planet in the solar system, to name a few.  Fraser Cain of Universe Today and Dr. Pamela Gay bring a thought provoking facts based journey of the universe to your playlist at least once a month.

The Naked Scientists is the show that Naked Archaeology spun off from.  It is an hour long show that airs every week on BBC Radio.  The show host of Dr. Chris Smith of Cambridge University.  He hosts different segments throughout the show that illustrate scientific practices and current science news topics.  The knowledgable reporters that are part of the show ask great questions and interview prominent scientists in a wide variety of fields.  Plus, they all have really great British accents.  The accent just makes me want to believe them.

Nature Podcast is the podcast from the scientific journal, Nature.  This podcast highlights stories and papers reported on in the week's issue and the show hosts often interview the authors.  The show is about 30 minutes long and comes out once a week.  Sometimes there is a short "Nature Extra" that often includes extended interviews with study authors.

Originz is a podcast out of Australia by Paul Rex.  Paul reads stories of all types, usually relating to a science topic or something strange, and he does it in a soothing voice with well chosen light music.  I usually listen to podcasts on my iPhone at 2x speed but I like to slow this one down to normal speed to savor the peaceful sciencey goodness.  Since Paul got his house back together after the Australian floods a few months ago he is back to putting out roughly 70 minute-long podcasts every week.

Science Magazine is the podcast of the journal Science.  Produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this weekly, 30-45 minute long, podcast presents stories from the week's issue.  The show host usually interviews two to three study authors from the current issue.  It's a great podcast for keeping up with a variety of science topics.

Science Talk is the "more or less" weekly podcast of Scientific American Magazine.  The host, Steve Mirsky, presents listeners with science topics from the magazine and often interviews study authors.  The end of the show often includes a "science or fiction" segment where you have to determine which of four stories is a fake.  It's a great way to test your critical thinking skills!


American Freethought is described on iTunes as "An atheist podcast".  The hosts, John Snider and David Driscoll, discuss current issues in the news relating to science and religion and often interview prominent figures in science and philosophy.  Check out the show's blog.

Geologic Podcast is not about geology.  In fact, it's not about anything specifically.  The host and creator of the show is George Hrab.  By day, George, or Geo, is a drummer in a Funk band in Pennsylvania called the Philadelphia Funk Authority.  Once a week, however, Geo puts out an hour or so long podcast with science and skeptical topics presented in the form of music and entertaining skits.  Geo is a multitalented entertainer and is well worth a listen.

The Humanist Hour.  I just started listening to this a couple of months ago so here is the description from iTunes: "A typical episode of the HH podcast features interviews, commentary, news and music.  Notable guests have included Sir Salman Rushdie, Prof. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, E. O. Wilson, Alan Dershowitz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Andy Rooney, Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, Holly Near, Dar Williams and Julia Sweeney.  The HH podcast is hosted and produced by American Humanist Association staffer Jessica Constantine."

The Skeptic Zone is a podcast from Australia for Science and Reason.  Show host Richard Saunders presents segments that include discussions of current topics in the news and interviews with prominent skeptics and scientists.

Skepticality, the official podcast of Skeptic Magazine is hosted by the great podcasters, Derek and Swoopy.  Their podcast aims to provide, "relevant, under reported current events, as well as in-depth discussions from a scientific, critical, skeptical, and humorous point of view."  Derek and Swoopy frequently interview the authors of books that you end up really wanting to read, as well as prominent skeptics and scientists.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is the first podcast that I ever listened to.  I was searching for "skeptic" in iTunes and this podcast came highly rated.  That was about four years ago and it led to other great podcasts on this list.  The format of the over one hour weekly show is the key to it's success.  The "panel of skeptics" is led by Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University.  He is joined by his brothers Jay and Bob, Even Bernstein, and Rebecca Watson.  Topics covered vary across all areas of science and skepticism.  They interview big name scientists and skeptics and answer listener email.  The Skeptics' Guide just hit 300 episodes and they show no signs of stopping.

The Skeptics' Guide 5x5 was a short podcast, 5-10 minutes, covering a single topic in science and skepticism.  They haven't put out an episode since the end of January this year, however, just a short glance at the description for an episode can give you great information on just about any topic.


Stuff You Missed In History Class is a 20-30 minute podcast put out a few times a week by the people at  Episodes are filled with informative banter about various topics in world history.


NPR 7am News Summary is just that.  It's put out at 7am EST so for those of us in the Pacific and Mountain time zones it's a great podcast to listen to on the way to the project area.  It only takes about 5 minutes and briefs you on the big stories from the previous day.

NPR Planet Money is for those of us that have trouble understanding all the complicated things associated with our Nation's economy.  If you don't know what a mortgage-backed security is then you should listen.  It's not dry and the hosts do a wonderful job at explaining complex concepts in user-friendly terms.

NPR Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me is the "NPR News Quiz".  It features a panel of three, phone-in callers, and a guest that answer questions from the week's news.  If I ever laugh out loud uncontrollably on a site, you'll know that I'm listening to Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.


This American Life is an hour long radio show featuring, "first-person stories and short fiction pieces that are touching, funny, and surprising."  Actually, I've never met a CRM archaeologist that didn't know about the show.


Fat 2 Fit Radio features two hosts that provide information and insights into safe weight loss and healthy living.  I only recently started listening to this show because it was referred to by other podcasts.  So far I'm enjoying the format.  The hosts answer listener email and sometimes mention healthy recipes. 

Stuff Mom Never Told You is produced by the people at  It's mostly centered around female related topics but can be pretty informative for men too.  After all, we all get along better when we understand each other!

Stuff You Should Know is a crazy funny and educational podcast that is also produced by the people.  This one is hosted by Josh and Chuck and their interactions will make you laugh and make you think.  Other podcasts could take a lesson from these guys.


That is a pretty extensive list.  I'll admit that I sometimes skip podcasts because I can't listen to all of them and I get hopelessly behind.  That doesn't happen much during the field season since I listen whenever I can and, I listen at 2x speed.  That really helps.  I hope at least one person gets something out of this list and decides to educate themselves while working rather than letting their brain atrophy at work while they think about the bar after work.  If you don't see something you like, please, look around.  The iTunes interface isn't the only place to get podcasts either.  There are other places, including the show websites, where you can get MP3 files of the episodes.  You don't need an iDevice to listen, either.  Podcasts can be listened to on any device that can play an MP3, including the ability to burn the files to a CD.