ASU archaeologist models past and future landscapes

February 23, 2011

Archaeology is a vital tool in understanding the long-term consequences of human impact on the environment. Computational modeling can refine that understanding. But according to Arizona State University archaeologist C. Michael Barton, it takes a revolution in thought, along with the newest methods of modeling, to produce a comprehensive picture of the past that can help inform land-use decisions for our future.

Barton, a professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, expanded on his point during a presentation titled “Looking for the Future in the Past: Long-Term Change in Socioecological Systems” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 20. Download Full Image

“We have lots of information in the archaeological record, but it actually represents a tiny fraction of what people used, which represents a small portion of how people lived,” Barton explained. “We have artifacts from this point in time and that point in time, but we don’t know what people used or how they lived in the interim. So we are left with connecting the dots and making inferences.”

Enter computational modeling, which can help fill in the gaps with quantitative estimates by taking into account what we know about people based on sociology, economics, anthropology and other fields. But Barton isn’t convinced that a computer can do a better job at such guesswork than archaeologists.

“We must use these tools but also change the way we think about the archaeological record,” he said. “When formal and computational modeling is used to experimentally simulate human socioecological dynamics, the empirical archaeological record can be used to validate and improve dynamic models of long-term change.”

Considered a pioneer in the area of archaeological applications of computational modeling, Barton helms the Mediterranean Landscape Dynamics project, which is an example of using the past to develop and test decision-support models regarding interactions between land use and landscape evolution. At the AAAS meeting, he presented the project’s findings from an agrarian region of northern Jordan.

Barton’s team set up experiments that yielded expected and unexpected results. Among the expected findings were that shifting (or “swidden”) cultivation produced more erosion than farming and fertilizing the same field repeatedly, and larger settlements had a greater impact on the land than smaller ones. Unexpectedly, the team found that in smaller communities, shifting cultivation and grazing can increase productivity because soil lost due to erosion from grazing can accumulate in farmed areas; however, when those hamlets grow, the same practices can cause soil loss throughout the land used by a village, leading to a significant drop in productivity. In fact, the archaeological record of northern Jordan shows the earliest farming communities experienced the kinds of impacts predicted by the modeling experiments.

Barton is a co-founder of the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Open Agent Based Modeling Consortium; and the Network for Computational Modeling in Socio-Ecological Sciences, a National Science Foundation-funded network designed to provide modeling resources and training to the international community of social scientists. His publications include five books and monographs and numerous articles in journals such as Evolutionary Anthropology, Ecology and Society, American Antiquity, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and the Journal of Anthropological Research.

Written by Rebecca Howe, School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

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Photography, portraits to share gallery walls

February 23, 2011

“People, places and things” might well be the slogan for the upcoming art exhibit at ASU Gammage: Bill Mast will show photographs from his world travels, and members of the Portrait Artists of Arizona will exhibit paintings and drawings of people.

The artworks will be on display March 8-April 5 in the Gammage galleries. Download Full Image

Mast, a Mesa resident, jokes that he started taking photos because he couldn’t read the notes he was making as he traveled. He earned a degree in social work and anthropology, and returned to his career as a social worker after serving in the military during the Vietnam War.

“But I always had a wanderlust,” he said, “so I resigned my job and sold my Porsche and bought a Pan-Am ticket around the world.

After his epic journey, Mast lived and worked in several foreign countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, traveling for long periods of time between human-resources and office-management jobs. He has visited and photographed in 126 countries, and many U.S. national parks.

Mast will exhibit photos from his journeys, some as large as 40 by 60 inches. He will greet guests during a reception at ASU Gammage from 2 to 4 p.m., March 14.

Portrait Artists of Arizona, founded in 2008, has more than 50 members dedicated to the support and encouragement of fine-art portraiture through education programs and events, art critique, work sessions and portrait exhibitions.

The show at ASU Gammage, “The Fine Art Portrait,” will include 31 works in oil, pastel, charcoal, watercolor and silverpoint by 24 members of the organization.

Showing their artwork will be Jack Adams, Sherri Aldawood, Dodie Ballantine, SuSann Decker, Elena Eros, Linda Fox, Jim Garrison, Patti Georgas, Mona Gilstrap, Linda Halabe, Candace Hazar, Pamela Jonas, Stefko Kolomejac, Charles McCarver, Penny McElhaney, Deloss McWilliams, Sandy Merritt, Rusty Parenteau, Chris Saper, Jean Smith, Bruce Stam, Katie Stearns, Dorothy Stewart and Rosalie Vaccaro.

The show will be judged for cash awards and ribbons by Tony Pro, a nationally known portrait artist and instructor from California.

Exhibit hours at ASU Gammage are 1-4 p.m., Mondays, or by appointment. Due to rehearsals, event set-up, performances, special events and holidays, it is advisable to call (480) 965-6912 to ensure viewing hours, since they are subject to cancellation without notice.

Visitor parking is available at meters around the perimeter of Gammage, and entrance is through the East Lobby Doors at the Box Office. For more information about the exhibit, contact Brad Myers at (480) 965-6912, or brad.myers">">