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Tackling unfinished business in Teotihuacan

ASU professor plans to complete a map of the ancient city Teotihuacan.
March 14, 2018

ASU researcher Michael E. Smith said he plans to resuscitate one of archaeology's premier projects

In the 1960s, an archaeologist named René Millon began mapping the ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Combining air photos and mapping with surface reconnaissance of more than 5,000 buildings, he made notes on visible features and collected nearly a million pottery fragments and other objects from the buildings.

The Teotihuacan Mapping Project has been called one of the premier archaeological projects of all time.

While the map was published in 1973, Millon stopped his research in the late 1970s. A notorious perfectionist, he simply burned out.

“The project was never brought to a close,” said Michael E. Smith, director of Arizona State University’s Teotihuacan Research Laboratory. “All the stuff from the project was put in his basement in Rochester.”

Related: Unlocking the magic of 'the dry Atlantis'

Now Smith, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, plans to bring the immense project back to life. He discussed some of the scientific and organizational challenges to such an undertaking at an event March 14 at Coor Hall on the Tempe campus.

Because of its combination of scale and detail, the Teotihuacan Mapping Project is the one of the best maps of any ancient city. It shows where artifacts were found, leading to an understanding of how the city functioned. Archaeologists call it “indispensable” for planning work at the city.

Michael E. Smith

Professor Michael E. Smith. Photo by Tim Trumble

“Very few ancient cities are mapped to the extent Teotihuacan is,” Smith said.

Artifacts were collected carefully from the surface of each and every building. Where each came from was carefully noted.

“What they allow us to do is to look at how activities and different patterns were spread throughout the surface of the ancient city,” Smith said. “We can identify areas of wealthy residences and poor residences, areas of craft production workshops — we can look at how human activities were spread throughout the city. There are very few ancient cities anywhere in the world where we have this kind of control to look at distributions of things throughout the city.”

ASU’s lab is the only foreign archaeological research lab on site. For the past 30 years it’s been used by scholars from all over the world. But step into the lab storerooms and the first thing you will think of is the government warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Inside the endless rows of boxes are not simply things like pots, masks and knives, which you might see in a museum. They hold millions of potsherds, flakes of obsidian and the like, things that mean little to laypeople, but which archaeologists can conjure entire worlds out of.

When Smith became lab director in 2015, he realized the project needed to be resuscitated. He came up with a plan:

• Organize and catalog the lab collections, which number 22,000 boxes of artifacts. He has brought in grad students from ASU’s museum studies program to work on the Herculean task. “We’re still working on that,” he said.

• Promote research on the lab collections. “There’s not a single category of artifacts that has been analyzed to any archaeological standard,” Smith said. "From obsidian to ceramics, that stuff has been sitting there for decades now. … It’s just waiting for someone to come in and look at it.”

• Fundraise to buy more lab space in Mexico.

• Publicity and outreach.

• Complete some of the sub-projects, like writing up test excavations, organizing existing databases, and conducting key artifact analyses.

• An analysis of how households fit into apartment complexes.

“None of this involves more field work,” Smith said.

Smith has been using the collection in his current research for the past few years. One of the “most important collections of artifacts anywhere for the ancient world,” he called it.

“It seems to me there’s a heck of a lot that can be learned by studying what’s already been excavated,” he said.

For a look into the city, the lab, and the research being carried out, take a look at ASU Now’s Teotihuacan series.

Top photo by Scott Seckel/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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You haven't lived till you've been to Phobos

March 14, 2018

ASU Professor Jim Bell has written a Frommer's guide to the future of interplanetary travel, a concept he says we're a lot closer to than most realize

It’s 2218, and you’ve got some vacation time coming up. A hundred years ago this meant choices like the Bahamas, wine tasting in Napa or a drive through Italy. Back then people only had one planet to choose from.

Now, you’re mulling over skiing northern Mars, rafting on Saturn’s largest moon, or booking a stay in a luxury hotel and spa floating above Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

Helping you choose where to go and what to do might be a book like "The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide: A Futuristic Journey Through the Cosmos." Jim Bell, an astronomer and planetary scientist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, has written the Frommer’s guide of the future.

Bell believes travel to space soon will become as routine as air travel is now. Given how far we have come with technology in the past 100 years, from planes leaving the ground to spacecraft leaving the solar system, space tourism on this scale conceivably could happen in 50-200 years.


Jim Bell's new book is a "futuristic journey through the cosmos." Photo courtesy Sterling

“Right now we can put a really good list together of where people are going to want to go,” Bell said. “We already know where the cool hot spots are going to be, where the adventure travel is going to be, where people are going to want to go to sky dive, to walk around or to fly, where the interplanetary parks are going to be.”

All the planetary science — facts, sizes, distances, compositions — in the book is based on what we’ve discovered about the solar system in the past 60 years. Everything, including the technologies, is extrapolated from current science. These potential travel destinations are more science fact than science fiction.

But there are no transporters or warp drives.

“Even with reasonably assumed advanced-propulsion technologies, we are still likely to measure travel times to solar system destinations in weeks at best — and more likely in months or years,” Bell wrote in the author’s note.

“I thought it was important to make it maybe just to inspire people that this could really happen,” Bell said. “Even when it does happen, space is big. The solar system is big. It’s still going to take weeks, months, years to get to places.”

Just wait until you get there, though.

Weekending on the moon, with a visit to the Apollo International Historic Park — the six places visited by the first astronauts (now protected by a transparent dome to prevent erosion and vandalism). Visit the polar ice mines. Meet “Loonies,” descendants of the first lunar colonists 150 years ago, distinguished by being extremely tall and thin and moving with a unique grace in the low lunar gravity.

“That is probably inevitable,” Bell said.

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA was altered by a year in space, NASA announced this week. Seven percent of his genes did not return to normal, possibly indicating long-term changes in genes connected to the immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, oxygen deprivation and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Full results of NASA’s Twins Study will be released later this year.

Natural selection will be at play, producing humans more suited to live in space than others. Some fraction of people living on Mars will have successful pregnancies. The future also may see humans being engineered for certain environments and different gravities; thicker bones, radiation tolerance, that type of thing. “I think genetic engineering of people will be more active than passive, though,” Bell said.

Dining and drinking will be different on the moon. It took planetary biologists decades to perfect the right recipe of biologic components and lunar soil. Fruits and vegetables — and the ice in the drinks — will taste slightly differently than what’s found on earth. Terroir will have a whole new meaning.

“A lot of that research is happening now,” Bell said. “They grow lettuce on the space station. … Every place will have its tastes. 'These are lunar farside Brussels sprouts, aren’t they?'”

Mercury is going to be an entire planet like Daytona Beach, Florida; Indianapolis; and Glamis, California. Everything is faster on Mercury because it is within the sun’s gravity well. Increased gravitational force from the sun speeds up the planet. It only takes 88 days to go around the star. You are traveling four times faster around the sun than on Earth. This attracts racing, and rocketry gearheads from around the solar system will come to chase speed records.

Powdership racing and touring in the dusty soil of Deimos, the smaller of Mars’ two moons, will be something like swamp boating in the Everglades.

Hollywood tells us everyone enjoys an explosion. Try a trip to Jupiter. At the Great Red Spot airhotel, a luxury resort and spa floating above the reddish cloud tops, weeklong impact hunting cruises will chase and witness small asteroids and comets slamming into the Jovian clouds.

space vista

"The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide" is filled with a combination of graphics, photos, stylized travel posters and artists' illustrations of potential space views like this one. Photo courtesy NASA

With Titan’s high surface pressure and extremely cold temperatures, many of the organic molecules in its atmosphere exist as liquids instead of gases. This means that on Saturn’s largest moon, you can raft class four and five whitewater. It’s not actually water, but liquid ethane and other hydrocarbons. Catch the mists from a 200 foot propane waterfall.

Not every excursion will be safe. Microgravity draws thrillseekers to the tiny Martian moon of Phobos. “The thrill of being able to (literally) leap over skyscrapers in a single bound can make people feel like Superman — until they realize in horror that there’s no turning back once they made the leap,” Bell wrote.

Floating out of control into space may induce space panic syndrome. It’s not a real medical condition — yet. “If you’re not a highly-trained jet fighter pilot and you’re put into a freakout situation, statistically a bunch of us are going to freak out,” Bell said.

Not to worry — spacesuits will have tracking devices built into them so authorities can (eventually) rescue you. Still want to go?

Bell's book is a result of serendipitous timing.

An editor at one of his publishers was searching for a way to publish some interplanetary tourism posters created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and space art. They came to him asking if he had any ideas.

“The idea of a travel guide has been on my mind for many, many years,” Bell said.

The book that emerged looks and reads like a Lonely Planet travel guide. Here’s how long it takes to get there; what there is to do, see, and explore; what accomodations and dining will be like.

Where would Bell go?

“Every place I wrote about I want to go to, but I want to come back,” he said. “I don’t want to be a settler; I want to be a tourist. I’m not even sure I’d go on one of these long outer solar system trips where it could be your last trip. Earth is my favorite planet. I’ve spent most of my life here. Most of my friends are from Earth. I love the place.”

You can pre-order the book, which will be on sale April 3, here.

Top photo: Data from the Odysseus flyby probe suggest that the sunset views from the fifth of TRAPPIST-1's seven Earthlike worlds could be similar to this. Photo courtesy NASA

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News