Collections & Research News for Week of August 5, 2011

Staff & Student News: 

Please join C&R in welcoming new Media Producer Federico Pardo, who is here at the Museum working on a multimedia showcase highlighting “a year in the life of C&R.”  You can see his debut project Fossil Carrion Feeders, which offers a view into the evolution of carrion-eating beetles highlighting the Museum's insect collections, staff and research. 

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Please join C&R in welcoming new Media Producer Federico Pardo, who is here at the Museum working on a multimedia showcase highlighting “a year in the life of C&R.”  You can see his debut project Fossil Carrion Feeders, which offers a view into the evolution of carrion-eating beetles highlighting the Museum's insect collections, staff and research. 


The Botany Department hosted a colleague from the Universidad Distrital Francisco Jose Caldas in Bogota, Colombia during June and July.  Professor Bibiana Moncada specializes in early land plants, lichens and fungi.  She is also working on a Ph.D. on the macrolichen genus Sticta in Colombia, one of the most important and conspicuous lichen genera in tropical cloud forest and paramo.  While at the Museum, Bibiana received training in molecular methods in the Pritzker Lab, assisted by postdoc Sittiporn Parnmen (“Kong”) and Research Assistant Carrie Andrew and initiated by A. Watson Armour III Pritzker Lab Manager Kevin Feldheim.  Her training was very successful, and during the last two weeks of her stay Bibiana managed to complete close to 100 additional sequences, with a final total of 140.  Associate Curator and Chair Thorsten Lumbsch and Collections Manager and Adjunct Curator Robert Lücking then assisted Bibiana in an initial analysis of her data which produced very promising results, showing that what had been considered species in Sticta are actually assemblages of many different species.  Bibiana is already a versatile taxonomist in the genus and used her spare time between lab work to revise type material of Sticta that had been borrowed for this purpose from major European herbaria.  Additionally, she spent one week at the US National Herbarium in Washington.  Bibiana has decided to return for a second visit in December, when she hopes the temperatures will be less “tropical”—in Bogota she is used to an average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Research & Publications: 

Research Scientist Torsten Dikow (BioSynC) travelled to São Paulo, Brazil from July 26–29 in order to work in the collection of the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo (MZUSP).  This museum harbors the most important collection of robber flies (Asilidae) and mydas flies (Mydidae) from South America and Torsten studied and photographed many primary type specimens (holotypes) of importance to his current research projects funded by an NSF REVSYS grant.  In particular, he studied an enigmatic species of robber flies, Carebaricus rionegrensis, from central Argentina, of which the only specimens ever collected are deposited at MZUSP and which is the closest relative of a diverse genus in Australia (Bathypogon).  Torsten also attended the 30th annual meeting of the Willi Hennig Society from July 29–August 2 in São José do Rio Preto, Brazil where he was an invited speaker and presented a talk entitled “Molecules and morphology: insights from phylogenetic analyses of insect taxa.”

Fieldwork & Collections: 

In July, Curator Gary Feinman and Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas (both Anthropology) returned to Chicago following their third season of excavations at the Mitla Fortress, Oaxaca, Mexico.  Gary and Linda led a team that excavated a Classic-to-Early Postclassic house at the site.  The modest prehispanic house was occupied from 500–1000 AD and was remodeled four times during its use.  The house was composed of several rooms around a patio, and the occupants engaged in activities such as stone and fiber working.

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In July, Curator Gary Feinman and Adjunct Curator Linda Nicholas (both Anthropology) returned to Chicago following their third season of excavations at the Mitla Fortress, Oaxaca, Mexico.  Gary and Linda led a team that excavated a Classic-to-Early Postclassic house at the site.  The modest prehispanic house was occupied from 500–1000 AD and was remodeled four times during its use.  The house was composed of several rooms around a patio, and the occupants engaged in activities such as stone and fiber working.

This house is situated lower down the slope of the hill (Mitla Fortress) than where the Museum team studied previously.  Not surprisingly, the occupants seem to have been slightly poorer than the inhabitants of the residences excavated at the same site in 2009–2010.  During this period, more than a millennium ago, the Zapotecs of Oaxaca believed that houses were imbued with a living spirit and left offerings in their homes when they were first built or remodeled.  In the house studied in 2011, almost all the offerings were ceramic, matching a pattern found for lower status houses at El Palmillo, a site in the same region where Gary and Linda excavated in years past.  Although the ceramic vessels were generally not elaborate, over 50 whole or almost complete ceramic containers were unearthed (mostly associated with offerings and burial contexts).  This large quantity of vessels is very important for helping to answer questions regarding ceramic change, and so the chronological change, for the period under study.  At the same time, they also may inform the investigators about relative value, since the offerings in higher-status houses include a range of goods besides pottery, including stone tools, animals, and secondary deposits of human bone.

The economic production of fiber and stone tools corresponds to the team’s findings at the Mitla Fortress, continuing a pattern in which households produced some goods for exchange while also acquiring certain items that they did not produce.  Some of the finished goods and raw materials came from long distances away.  In contrast to prior notions about prehispanic Mesoamerica, households were not self-sufficient.  At the same time, they were tied into trade networks that were difficult, if not impossible, to manage or control centrally since most households at the Fortress and El Palmillo appear to have produced for exchange.  These data add to decades of research by the museum curators that are changing current conceptions of the nature of prehispanic Mesoamerican economies.


Assistant Curator Bill Parkinson (Anthropology) conducted archaeological fieldwork in Greece in the month of July.  In early July, Bill and his colleagues co-directed a multi-disciplinary archaeological research project (The Diros Project) on the Mani Peninsula of the southern Greek mainland.  Later in the month he traveled to the Aegean island of Milos to collect obsidian (volcanic glass) samples from source deposits that have been intensively exploited over the last 10,000 years.

The Diros Project is an international, collaborative research project that brings together Greek and American scholars and scientists to study the social dynamics of the western Mani Peninsula on the southern Greek Mainland.  The project centers around Diros Bay, where the Neolithic site of Alepotrypa Cave is located.  During this pilot season, Bill and his colleagues conducted a systematic archaeological surface survey in the area immediately surrounding the cave, where they identified several sites dating to the Neolithic, Classical, Hellenistic, and post-Byzantine periods in the region.  The research team, including Resident Graduate Students Danielle Riebe and Rebecca Seifried (UIC), also brought together a team of geologists and geophysicists to assess the feasibility of additional landscape evolution studies.  This was the first season of a multi-year project that was funded by a grant from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory and other private donations.  Bill and his colleagues will apply for additional funding from federal and private sources this fall. 

On the Cycladic island of Milos, Bill collected samples from two of the largest and most intensively exploited obsidian deposits in the world—Demenegaki and Sta Nychia.  Over the course of several days, Bill collected several hundred samples from the different volcanic flows, which each cover several square kilometers.  The samples will be incorporated into the Anthropology Department’s Economic Geology collection, where they will be chemically analyzed using the Elemental Analysis Facility and made available as part of a worldwide type collection for scholars interested in studying ancient trade and exchange.  This research was partially funded by the Anthropology Collections Fund.      

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Public Education & Media Coverage: 

Curator Gary Feinman (Anthropology) was prominently featured in a press release surrounding the interception of a small Pre-Columbian figurine by federal agents at O’Hare.  Covered locally by CBS and WLS-AM, the figurine was found to be illegally exported from Mexico and will be returned to the Mexican government. 

In April U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers doing a routine outbound operation at O’Hare examined a small shipment manifested as an artifact and found the four-inch-tall clay figurine, shaped like a woman and painted in orange, according to a release from CBP.   It had sold for $550 at an auction and was en route from Indiana to the buyer in British Columbia, Canada, the release said.  Anthropologists at The Field Museum were called in and found the item to be an authentic Pre-Columbian artifact from West Mexico.  The figure of a Nayarit woman is thought to have been crafted by prehispanic Western Mexico people, possibly as part of a multi-piece burial scene in an elaborate underground mountainous tomb. It dates back to the early first millennium AD.

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Curator Gary Feinman (Anthropology) was prominently featured in a press release surrounding the interception of a small Pre-Columbian figurine by federal agents at O’Hare.  Covered locally by CBS and WLS-AM, the figurine was found to be illegally exported from Mexico and will be returned to the Mexican government. 

In April U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers doing a routine outbound operation at O’Hare examined a small shipment manifested as an artifact and found the four-inch-tall clay figurine, shaped like a woman and painted in orange, according to a release from CBP.   It had sold for $550 at an auction and was en route from Indiana to the buyer in British Columbia, Canada, the release said.  Anthropologists at The Field Museum were called in and found the item to be an authentic Pre-Columbian artifact from West Mexico.  The figure of a Nayarit woman is thought to have been crafted by prehispanic Western Mexico people, possibly as part of a multi-piece burial scene in an elaborate underground mountainous tomb. It dates back to the early first millennium AD.

The figurine was seized as illegally obtained cultural property under federal law.  The Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago confirmed the figurine as a cultural artifact that had been illegally exported from Mexico.  It will be returned to the Mexican government in an upcoming repatriation ceremony, even as the investigation continues, the release said.  “Archeology captures history before the written word and when a piece of history is lost, even a small piece like this figurine, it is gone forever,” Robyn Dessaure, Acting CBP Director of Field Operations in Chicago, said in the release.  Gary said he is pleased with what the customs service has done in seizing the artifact, which will be repatriated to Mexico.  But he says the object’s context—and history—is largely lost. 

Gary says the problem of people looting tombs and other archaeological sites—taking artifacts out of their context—does a great disservice to science and history.  “Unfortunately, we’ve had more of these shaft tombs in West Mexico that have been looted than have been scientifically excavated. That’s the depth of the problem,” he said.   Gary says it’s not clear how long ago it happened, but removing the figure from its original site destroyed a great deal.  He said looters robbing a tomb might have been responsible, and “When you destroy a site, it’s pretty much analogous to somebody burning historical books representing a time period deep in the past, and the destruction of that site is not anything that could ever be pieced back together, just like the ashes of a book can’t be pieced back together.” 


Assistant Curator Corrie Moreau (Zoology/Insects) and Associate Curator Richard Ree (Botany) were interviewed for the August issue of The Scientist.  The article highlights phylogenetic software available to reconstruct evolutionary relationships for those who are less familiar with these analyses.  Corrie and Rick were interviewed to explain the myriad of phylogenetic software programs available and help provide reliable freely available options for scientists who may need to reconstruct an evolutionary tree, but are novices to these kinds of analyses.

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