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Winning hearts with history

ASU associate professor aims to bridge the gap between researchers, community.
September 13, 2019

ASU archaeologist reaches out with goodwill gesture to residents of Mexican town with roots that predate Aztec Empire

Were archaeology to be defined solely by the movies, you’d assume it involves traveling to exotic lands and stealing ancient relics.

Of course it’s not, but the “Tomb Raider” trope is alive and well across the globe.

This summer, one Arizona State University archaeologist took a successful swipe at the stereotype and landed a hit.

Christopher Morehart has done quite a bit of work in the town of Xaltocan, outside Mexico City. Xaltocan predates the Aztec Empire. In 2008 the town celebrated its 800th anniversary.

“People in Xaltocan have a very strong sense of their patrimony and their identity,” said Morehart, an associate professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “They almost have a sense Xaltocan could have been Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. But Tenochtitlan also became Mexico City, so saying that there’s this sense of 'We could have been the center of the Mexican nation.'”

There’s a replica Aztec calendar stone in the town. Instead of displaying the Sun God in the center, the toponym for Xaltocan occupies the spot (sand and a spider; seen at the top of this article).

Most of Morehart’s time in Xaltocan has been spent studying chinampas — Aztec raised-bed agriculture — as well as ancient terraces and canals. He studied under the first archaeologist to work successfully in the town, a woman named Elizabeth Brumfiel from Albion College.

“Prior to her, any archaeologist who tried to do work in Xaltocan got chased out,” he said. “She went there and developed a relationship with people in the town and asked them, ’Well, what do you want me to study?’ It’s very common for archaeologists to show up and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ She created a more collaborative approach to interacting with people.”

As well as being up against the impression they’re there to swipe antiquities, archaeologists have to contend with old tales.

“For example, one of the sites we excavate now, there’s always these local myths that there’s gold someplace and the archaeologists are there to find the gold,” Morehart said. “It’s a story I heard in every town. They’re fascinating stories. They’re often stories about Spanish gold that was at a hacienda, and somebody during the revolution hid it in a cave. It’s connected to these moral statements where somebody found the gold but when they took the lid off to enrich themselves ... all these noxious gases came off and killed the person.”

Inspired by Brumfiel, Morehart cast about for a way to close the gap between town and gown.

“Frankly one of the most important ways we can combat misinformation about what we’re doing is to work very closely with the local community and to be as open as possible,” he said.

By doing public speaking events and so on, “over time, little by little, you get more of a presence,” he said. “‘Oh, you’re the archaeologist.’ People get knowledge of what you’re doing.”

After Morehart earned his PhD, he received a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a respected nonprofit benefactor of archaeology, to do some work in Xaltocan in 2013. Part of that grant was intended for outreach.

He came up the idea to do a book on the history of the town, written by all the people who had done research there, along with some of the residents. He envisioned something accessible for laymen, not an academic book.

Archaeologists had handed out copies of their work before, but they were always technical reports.

“It’s very difficult for (researchers) to have the time and energy to invest in something like this that’s not going to count a lot in terms of the annual evaluation of their CV or something like that, but will count a whole lot for a local community,” Morehart said.

Along with two colleagues from other universities who were Xaltocan veterans, Morehart began to corral anyone who had worked in the town to write about the work they’d done there “with the goal of donating it to the town.”

“It took some time because you have to get a lot of people on board, but everybody was very positive about it and we got it done,” he said.

This past summer they presented the 85-page book — “Xaltocan: Archaeology, History, and Community” — at Xaltocan’s cultural center. “It was very well received,” Morehart said. “Everybody was really excited.”

He spent an hour and a half signing copies.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know what people would think. I thought people would be supportive, but I didn’t anticipate such an overwhelmingly positive reception of the book.”

Top photo: Aztec calendar stone in Xaltocan, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Christopher Morehart 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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Space, the final frontier … for crime?

September 13, 2019

ASU space law expert addresses the legal protocol for an alleged incident on the International Space Station

When astronaut Lt. Col. Anne McClain allegedly hacked into her estranged wife’s bank account and reportedly stalked her from a NASA computer aboard the International Space Station — claims that were recently made public in the New York Times — she may have committed a cybercrime.

And some are saying it’s one for the history books.

McClain, who is in the middle of a divorce and custody battle, tweeted recently that there was “unequivocally no truth to these claims,” saying she was simply managing the couple’s finances. But many media and news outlets are calling McClain’s alleged actions the first crime committed in outer space.

While NASA is probing the claim, some are wondering how a legal dispute over an act that took place in space will play out in a U.S. courtroom.

ASU Now consulted Joshua Abbott, executive director of Arizona State University's Center for Law, Science and Innovation at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and an expert on space law, on this otherworldly legal event.

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Joshua Abbott

Question: Putting aside the element that the alleged offense was not committed on Earth, what actual crime was committed and how serious is this offense?

Answer: First of all, without all the facts, there’s no way I or anyone else can say for sure that any crime actually has been committed in this case. In general, if a person accesses someone else’s bank account without authorization, that could violate various state and federal criminal statutes against hacking, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Depending on the circumstances, it could also violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or any number of other laws that regulate banking, commerce, the internet or NASA. Some of these laws carry civil or criminal penalties that vary from misdemeanors to felonies with up to $250,000 in fines or up to 20 years in prison. No one’s suggesting that the astronaut in this case might get locked up for a couple of decades, but these are potentially serious allegations.

Q: Where would one go to a court of law for this offense, and how difficult will it be to determine what court it should go to? 

A: Wherever a crime occurs — earth, sea, sky, space or cyberspace — you have to start with finding a court that has jurisdiction. If someone robs a local convenience store, that’s easy — it’s the court in the state where the crime took place. But state and national boundaries mean little on the internet. When the scene of the crime is in cyberspace, figuring out the right court can get complicated. There are whole areas of law devoted just to deciding which laws govern or which court has jurisdiction in a given situation. The fact that this astronaut was in orbit on board the International Space Station (ISS) at the time could make the analysis even more complicated — just the type of scenario law professors love to put on exams to torture law students.

But as it turns out, the nations that built and operate the ISS agreed from the start on clear rules for choosing the jurisdiction to deal with any crimes committed on board. Which makes sense — you don’t drop $150 billion into a project without deciding ahead of time what to do in nearly every imaginable scenario. The rules say that misconduct on board the ISS is governed by the laws of the nation of origin of the person concerned. So because this astronaut is American, this case would be dealt with under U.S. law. (To any law students reading this who have a Conflict of Laws exam coming up — you’re welcome.)

Q: Do you consider this crime to be similar to one that was, say, committed in international waters?

A: Space, which is governed by international treaties, is often compared to international waters. In the movie “The Martian,” the marooned astronaut, based on that reasoning, proclaims himself the first space pirate for commandeering a lander, even calling himself Captain Blondebeard. But it’s not a perfect comparison. Maritime law, which governs matters at sea, is a separate body of law with its own long history and specialized rules. By comparison, so-called “space law” is still in its infancy, sometimes borrowing ideas from other areas but developing on its own course in response to needs and disputes that relate to space. Because of that, if issues in this case get decided by a court at some point, that court’s decision could become an important precedent in any future conflicts that arise in space. So it’s worth keeping any eye on this one.

Q: Given that there are no precedents for a case like this, how difficult is it to establish a case and precedent for sentencing?

A: Not too difficult, actually. If charges get filed, any decisions would flow from existing precedents in ordinary cases. It’s a common and tempting mistake to think that because of some new aspect to a case — such as some new technology that’s involved — that we’re on entirely new ground and have to start from scratch. But that’s almost never the case.

Our legal system is designed to deal with novel situations through reasoning by analogy to past cases. It’s how we train law students to think from their first day in law school. The more new technologies change how we live, work and interact, the more novel situations like this will inevitably come up — and the more we’ll need good lawyers to help us navigate that new territory. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with ASU that the Center for Law, Science and Innovation at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is a world leader in addressing many of the challenging legal issues that arise from new and emerging technologies.  

Top photo: Expedition 59 Flight Engineer Anne McClain of NASA uses the robotics workstation inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory module to practice Canadarm2 robotics maneuvers and Cygnus spacecraft capture techniques. Photo by Rodney Grubbs/NASA

Reporter , ASU News