Brian Graves, 2020 Research Grant Recipient

Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Annual Meeting

The virtual conference this year played host to several hundred presenters and posters over the course of the three-day event. When Sara Watson, a Ph. D. candidate in our department and a presenter at the conference, first provided me with a list of presentations that was some 110 pages long, I was a bit awestruck. Our own Undergraduate Research Conference this year has a list of presenters spanning 21 pages and I had been under the impression that this was high.

So, where to start? On the massive lists of posters and presentations (organized into blocked sessions with multiple presenters), I selected the presentations that I felt were the most approachable given my burgeoning knowledge of the field. All the content is available until June, although many of the session videos were worryingly absent for two weeks.


What is at Stake? The Impacts of Inequity and Harassment on the Practice of Archaeology

For the conference this year, recognition of the role of female, minority, and LGBTQIA+ researchers to the discipline and their experiences of sexual harassment and assault was an area of particular focus. The presidential session on the opening day was one focused on this issue and that of equitable treatment by both publishers and employers. Joe Watkins, the outgoing SAA president, began the session by firmly establishing that these are issues that affect the discipline as whole and that women now make up the majority of archaeologists. Will a drop in income follow this revelation, he ponders? The speakers that followed would go on to speak on issues of access in the present and future, the steps to create a safe, equitable workspace, and expanding sensitivity training and how to effectively discipline and minimize the potential for harassment.

Current Research in Bronze Age Africa, Asia, and Europe

            Much of my archaeological knowledge covers the Middle and Late Stone Ages of Africa and Middle and Upper Paleolithic of Europe. Africa did not have well-defined copper or bronze ages to my recollection, so this roughly 2-hour session on the opening day would prove to be enlightening I hoped. The second presentation by Danielle Phelps PhD. regarding King Tutankhamun’s burial assemblage and his complicated lineage was enjoyable to watch. There are several atypical artifacts among his funerary goods, including 202 of his own childhood items and repurposed or reused items with the name of another user scraped away. Phelps explains some of these oddities as reflective of his abrupt death and burial by his successor, Ay, who desired to obscure the heretical Amarna religious revolution of Tut’s father, Akhenaten.

            Another presentation in the block submitted by Andrew Maciver, PhD candidate at UCLA, covered the dissolution of human sacrifice by the western Zhou of China after 1046 BCE. According to the presentation, human sacrifice was frequently used by the elite in Late Neolithic China. One site he covers that was ruled by the preceding Shang dynasty, Anyang, houses the remains of a staggering 2,000 human victims in sacrificial pits near opulent tombs. Oracle bones record the deaths of many thousands more. While the Zhou did not partake in sacrificial rituals themselves, the practice was not entirely abolished as surviving Shang continued to sacrifice humans, albeit at significantly lower numbers. Maciver takes care to address the role of human sacrifice in Shang power projection and how the Zhou continued to govern even in the absence of this practice.

From Veld to Coast: Diverse Landscape Use by Hunter-Gatherers in Southern Africa from the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene


Image: The sites and regions of interest in this session.

            Here we get to the session I really wanted to see; the recording of the session did not appear until 4/28 with five of the planned twelve presentations absent. The research concerns a variety of locations throughout South Africa, the location of my own undergraduate thesis work. Among the presenters was Dr. Teresa Steele, faculty advisor for my thesis and mentor in the department, and Sara Watson, my thesis advisor and PhD candidate in the department.

            Dr. Steele presented on work she had done in collaboration with Alex Mackay, Mareike Stahlschmidt, and numerous others. They have endeavored to further describe other techncomplexes of the Middle Stone Age (MSA), feeling that much of the existing research has focused on the Still Bay and Howieson’s Poort (HP) industries. Early parts of the presentation are devoted to the unique environment of the site and surrounding regions in an area termed the Knervslakte. A desert environment, the area sees less than 150mm of annual rainfall and is home to the unique vygieveld or dwarf succulent growth. Excavation of the site occurred between 2009 and 2016, uncovering Howieson’s Poort and Still Bay layers atop geological horizon (GH) 08, the focus of the presentation. Dating to between 90 and 80 thousand years ago (ka), the layer is rich with silcrete cores, flakes, and blades with abundant evidence of what is termed low investment heat treatment – heating and shattering fragments of unworked cores to prepare small flake tools and blades. Hearths themselves were not found by microscopic fragments of charcoal and heated bone were discovered. She notes how finds of ostrich eggshell pieces (possibly utilized in the manufacture of flasks), pigments, and mollusks serve to further differentiate the site from other MSA Still Bay/HP locations. To me, the use of heat treatment at the site not to make tools more amenable to shaping but to shatter cores was the most interesting aspect of the presentation. This revelation begs the questions: Was this heating technique present in the other layers? Are there any nearby sites that shared this production process? The presence of mollusks so far inland is interesting, but I feel that many of the findings are similar to those of other sites such as Duinefontein or Pinnacle Point.

            Sara’s presentation concerns newly discovered Robberg artifacts found at Knysnah Eastern Heads (KEH) Cave 1 that can be seen as representative of variation within the wider technocomplex. This Robberg assemblage contrasts with that of Boomplaas where core reduction was commonplace. Further, bipolar reduction, common in Robberg layers at both Boomplaas and Sehongong and considered a hallmark trait of the tool industry, is limited at KEH-1. She and her colleagues hold the view that KEH-1 was likely used as a logistical resource extraction camp due to the low artifact density, low reduction intensity, disposal of minimally flaked cores, and the lack of evidence of implement manufacture. This assemblage shows that care needs to be taken not to view a technocomplex as uniform in use and presence across a region. This arguments marks for me a return to the issue of lumping vs. splitting hominins into many different branches or just a few condensed lineages; if this assemblage differs greatly from other findings, is it still useful to call it a Robberg assemblage?


            For amateur presenters it is advised to begin with poster presentations. In the current virtual format, I ultimately gave a spoken presentation as posters seemed ineffective. I will likely create a poster for my next presentation, whenever that may be, and so it seemed prudent to end my virtual attendance by covering this aspect. Posters are organized into 40 different categories, ranging from Advances in Bioarchaeology and Skeletal Analyses to Zooarchaeological Analyses from Europe and North and South America. Given that I have studied the region some secondary to an African Prehistory course and my thesis work that centers on South Africa, proceeding to the Contributions to African Archaeology category seemed a safe start,

Professor Frederick L. Coolidge, PhD | A Neurobiological Explanation for Spheres as Embodied Cognition


Image: Wilson et al. 2016. A dynamical analysis of the suitability of prehistoric spheroids from the Cave of Hearths as thrown projectiles.

            I had never heard of spheroids previously. Per the poster and a review of some of the existing literature, these rounded stone implements are found at their oldest in the Cave of Hearths, South Africa at approximately 1.8 million years old. The poster briefly examines the conflicting views of spheroids as functional devices for throwing or marrow extraction, a waste-product resulting from core-extraction, or even as an item with supernatural or religious significance. Coolidge does not argue that these were religious items so much as explain that these items could have acted to impart lessons of causality as toys for juvenile hominins. While I am onboard with the idea of objects possessing multiple functions, I remain unconvinced that these lithic spheroids had neurodevelopmental functions.

Meredith Carlson, Christopher Beckham, Caleb Chen and Peiqi Zhang | Modeling Time Investment Tradeoffs for Stone and Wooden Mortars


Image: Rock (Chaw’se). (n.d.). Accessed April 25, 2021 at:

            My knowledge of grinding technologies is limited to the use of stone mortars and the groundstone mortars used by some California natives as seen in the picture above. In addition to being somewhat familiar with the tool thanks to my Prehistoric Technology course with Dr. Eerkens, I recognized the names of these presenters, graduate students here at UC Davis, two of them former TA’s of mine. In this poster presentation, Carlson and colleagues explored the costs and benefits of using a wooden mortar, an item found in archaeological contexts to be used by California Indians, versus a more classic stone implement. The team also investigated the switching point to examine when a bowl mortar might be preferred to a conic tool. Overall, I feel that their poster was informative, explaining their questions, methods, and conclusions effectively. Understanding that they would have been hard-pressed to find space for more information, I would have appreciated more information on the weight and dimensions of their experimentally produced tools. I wonder: was an oak mortar a portable option that would have enabled a forager to field process acorns and raise the return rate of the resource in the process?