Episode 62: Dig This Episode, Literally! (Well, Not Literally)

In this episode, UConn Humanities Institute Fellow Siavash Samei ’19 PhD tells us about his work on archaeological digs in what used to be Mesopotamia, and what they tell us about industry in the Bronze Age; we learn about a UConn class so popular students deliberately flunked so they could take it again; and we almost forget to brag about a Major Award.



TOM BREEN: Hello. Hi everyone and welcome to episode 62 of UConn 360. That is the only podcast known to science that covers the University of Connecticut from every conceivable angle coming to you from the three corners of Connecticut, because we are working remotely in this age of the pandemic. My name is Tom Breen.

[00:00:29] I’m your facilitator of sorts and joining me as always are my colleagues, Julie Bartucca.

JULIE BARTUCCA: Hey, how’s it going?

TOM BREEN: And Ken Best.

KEN BEST: I think I’ve overcome my technical problems today.

TOM BREEN: Thank you. You know , it’s always a good day every day you learn something new. That’s a good rule for life. In general, I like turned up the sound knob when you’re supposed to.

KEN BEST: [00:00:48] Oh, well, after all these years, I know how to do that. You would think. You know, when Maxine Philavong left, we all just fell apart.

JULIE BARTUCCA: That’s so true.

TOM BREEN: That’s true. It’s an accurate assessment. So we have an excellent program for you this week, as we always do. I like to say, thanks everyone who’s been listening and been writing us and tweeting us online.

[00:01:10] It’s been very helpful. Things are starting, I wouldn’t say return to normal, but things are starting to gear up at the University of Connecticut. You may or may not know that we are planning to come back in the fall in a semi attenuated form; the details aren’t final yet, but there will be fewer people on our campuses, but there will be classes happening and there will be research happening and there will be performances or at least performance classes happening. So as we learn more, we’ll bring that to you. What else is going on in the world of UConn? Julie? You said you had some exciting things that you wanted to note.

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:01:46] I just wanted to point everybody to UConn today, not a shameless plug, but there’s a lot of really cool research going on. We. We have been continuing research. There was a stop for a little while, but there’s a pharmacy professor who, along with a professor of chemistry recently published a paper in Nature: Cell Biology that they found a commonly used chemotherapy drug could be repurposed as a treatment for resurgent or chemotherapy resistant leukemia. There’s a lot of really cool research going on with COVID there’s Paolo Verardi who’s on a team. That’s. Trying to find a vaccine that along with collaborators from across the globe. So I just think it’s awesome to look through some of that work that’s going on and check it out at UConn.

TOM BREEN: [00:02:23] Yeah. There’s also a cool story going up as we speak that talks about some faculty members at the UConn School of Dental Medicine found like a common mouthwash mixture. Kills the COVID germs. So it’s a way for dentists and dental hygienists to be more safe because they are very much at risk working in people’s mouths the whole time, even more so than a, you know, face shields and stuff to just have patients swish with this before you get going.

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:02:46] I’m sure the story we’ll get into a little more detail there.

TOM BREEN:  Just a little bit, but the story is more dumbed down, not quite as high level as what I just said for there for the lay audience. Ken.

KEN BEST: [00:03:11] I have a news item that was actually posted on UConn today? , Maria Olivera, who is the president of the Student Government Association at the Stamford campus of UConn,  was selected as just one of 20 students in the country to be a public service scholar by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which is the most prestigious academic honor society in the United States. Phi Beta Kappa recognizes students who are interested in working in the public sector and possess strong academic records in the arts, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences. She is a mathematics and history major, So she qualifies in that score, but she’s also been very involved in many other things including being a Babbidge Scholar and winning outstanding achievement awards in mathematics and in chemistry as well. She gets a stipend for her senior. She wants to go to school to become a lawyer after she finishes her undergraduate work and then work for the State Department.

TOM BREEN: [00:04:05] Congratulations. Very nice. Very cool story. Speaking of cool stories, Ken, what do you have for us this week?

KEN BEST: [00:04:25] I think I have a very interesting story this week. Siavesh Samei is a zooarcheologist who earned his Ph.D. at UConn just this past year. He’s completing his postdoctoral work as a fellow in the UConn Humanities Institute. He studies the remains of animals at archeological sites. He and his colleague. Karim Alizadeh at Grand Valley State in Michigan traveled to part of historic Mesopotamia, which is in Western Asia. That is considered part of the Fertile Crescent, also known as the Cradle of Civilization. That region corresponds today to what is now Kuwait, the Eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey and regions along the Turkish-Syria and Iraq Iran border, which is of course in the Middle East. Siavash’s focuses his research in an area near the Northwest corner of Iran known as the Köhne Shahar, which is part of historic Kura-Araxes cultural settlements, where animal bone and antlers were used to make tools. It’s one of the largest archeological sites from the bronze age, which is when cities and States were growing. Social orders were changing and the manufacturing of goods and economic trade began including textiles. Thousands of objects made from animal horns. This is about 6,000 years ago from roughly 3,500 to 2200 BCE. I spoke with Siavash about his research into what I think is a very important time of history.

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:05:42] We are fascinated by Mesopotamian cities and States, and our history has essentially become a history of urbanization. The problem is with that though, is that in the Middle East cities emerged into very specific in small places. It says in the Nile River, delta, such a in presence of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which is Southern Iraq around 4,000 BCE, so about 6,000 years ago. At that time, most of the Middle East was mountainous. It goes all the way from Eastern Iran through much of it run into the Southern caucuses, which is present day Armenia as are by John, into Anatolia, in Turkey, into Jordan, Syria, and Israel. These are mountainous areas and highland zones, and there were no cities and States at the time, but because we were so fascinated by these urban stories, we forget what life was like in these Highland areas in these mountain societies at the same time as when the urban revolution was unraveling. In Mesopotamia and in ancient Egypt, I’m interested in studying what life was like in these mountains of societies and one of the most important of the archeological cultures it’s called the Kura-Araxes cultural tradition. It’s an early Bronze Age culture, roughly from about 3,500 BCE to about 2200 BCE. That was the same time as when the first cities and states were really growing. It’s a unique archeological culture

KEN BEST: [00:06:54]. We talk about the Bronze Age. People know what that is, but they don’t really remember exactly what that means in the timeline of civilized organization and development. How do you explain that to people as to what?

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:07:15] Why is the Bronze Age so important to the way that we are today? We begin with a Paleolithic period when we have the first hunter-gatherers moving around the landscape, hunting animals and collecting wild plants. Then we get the Neolithic period. That’s when the beginning of agriculture, the first farming villages and evidence of the first domestication of animals, essentially, after that, we have these two periods called the Chalcolithic, which is a Copper Age and then the Bronze Age, which is very important because that’s the beginning of what we call social complexity. When we get these first cities, we get these first states, there’s the beginning of evidence of social stratification. So for the first time we have people who fall into very strict socioeconomic classes.

[00:07:59] We have the emergence of specialized division of labor, so certain people are specializing in certain tasks. Some are craft producers, some are farmers, some are herders, others are bureaucrats. At the same time we get more or less the first evidence of the organized well manage long distance exchange network. For example Mesopotamia, which is again in present day Iraq where these first cities emerge, it has nothing’ it has land for farming and it has some pastures for grazing, but it has nothing else. So these cities are very much dependent upon these mountainous societies. It’s these areas that I’m interested in because that’s where the wood is, that’s where the precious stones are, that’s where the metals are. So these very elaborate networks of long distance exchange and trade in the Bronze Age, it is in a way, the beginning of the age of globalization.

KEN BEST: [00:08:51] In a matter of speaking, as you described that it is the forerunner of today’s modern world, where everything affects everything else.

SIAVASH SAMEI: Absolutely. In a way, completely the problem is how we analyze that. We analyze this from a very urban centric perspective. What I mean by that is that we say: We have these cities in these very small, very limited places they have certain needs and so in order to satisfy those needs – let’s say they need access to wood — the elites,  the so-called 1% of the societies, need access to these precious stones and precious metals that are only found in the highest areas. So we see these cities create colonies in the mountains to extract and import these precious stones and wood, but we don’t look at the story from the perspective of the mountains themselves. What does, what are these communities like? What is life like in these vast expanses of the Highlands? Most importantly, being on the ground in that part of the world is necessary. And you’re, you’re finding remains of materials of the early tools that were. Created from bones and antlers, which is part of the evolution of handcrafted tools and the ability to advance manufacturing and trade and economics.

KEN BEST: [00:10:07] As, as you made reference to earlier, what did you observe or find that was new and leads to better understanding of that time of human development and its effect on where we are today?

SIAVASH SAMEI: That’s actually a great question. Part of the problem with this urban centric narrative that we have is that we tend to cluster these ancient societies that live in the mountains into these very simplistic category. So we call them a simple undifferentiated egalitarian. We compare them to the kind of simple societies that start to invade deep prehistory and that’s simply not true. These are very complex, very sophisticated societies. My job has been to use a kind of archeological deal we find from these mountains and study the societies on their own terms.

[00:10:55] So my interest in zooarcheology is a study of animal remains from archeological sites. I’ve been working at one of these sites called Köhne Shahar in Northwestern Iran. The name of the site literally means old town. And this site was occupied between 5,000 and 4,000 and years ago. It falls into the same early Bronze Age culture I told you about. It’s a big settlement. It’s about 15 hectares. It has three parts. It has a fortified settlement that’s very densely occupied and then we have another outer town. It’s more sparsely occupied just outside of the fortification wall of the main town. Then there’s a cemetery. We did excavations inside the fortified settlement and what we found are these very large, very elaborate craft production areas. This was essentially an industrial town. As we were excavating, one of the fascinating things we find was the one wide range of bone tools and antler tools that these locals were actually forming and shaping They were using these bone antler tools to make other things.

[00:11:52] They were manufacturing, beads. They were engaging in metallurgy. They were making pottery and. The type of data that we recovering suggests that they’re mostly making small, probably ornamental objects and then they’re probably exporting them to other places around in the region. The evidence of the animal bones. What it suggests is that this was not a simple society. This was not a, an egalitarian society. This was not an undifferentiated society. People are specializing in very specific tasks. The settlement itself is divided into neighborhoods. And in one of the neighborhoods actually using antler tools, make textiles and they’re probably making these very small elaborate objects that may be consistent of both pieces of fabric that are made of sheep wool. Then you add some beads to it to make it into something ornamental, some that we actually see among modern day nomadic pastoral is the kind of handicraft that they make today.

[00:12:42] They call manufacturing in another part of the settlement. People are making beads. We have both worked and unworked pieces of soapstone that are shaping these very small and beautiful beads. At another neighborhood in this settlement, they’re making objects out of the horn of cattle .Why do we know that? Because there’s actually large deposits of horn, core of cattle inside the horn or this bony course. When we find these bony cores in archeological sites and we have these big cut marks around the base, which suggests they are actually cutting these and removing that sheet that we see on horns and then making others.

KEN BEST: [00:13:20] So this provides some insight into the development of tools and how they were used back then leading to other things that came down further down the line, because as you said, you’re, you’re looking at an animal remains and trying to determine what they were. And as was always the case in the farming community, in isolated communities every piece of an animal was used in some way, whether for food or for construction or for in this case, bone shaped into a tool.

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:14:08] Exactly. And what’s neat here is that we do not have evidence of palaces like we see in cities. There is no evidence of social stratification and the socioeconomic classes, the 1% and the 99%, like we’ve seen cities. But what we do see is a very elaborate, very sophisticated and complex system of specialization in the production of certain objects. Different households, different individuals, specialize in making those objects and trade them with one another and the exchange them with one another. This kind of elaborate where it’s system requires thought requires careful management. And that’s just the production end of it because this is an industrial town. We believe that they’re in fact, taking whatever they are producing and trading them and exchanging them with other people and other sites and other settlements in the Middle East that trade also requires management also requires a maintenance. So very much unlike what we think, these societies are not simplistic. They’re actually are very well developed and they’re quite complex.

KEN BEST: [00:14:48] One of the other points you make in the study is about the social structure. It seems that there’s more participatory and more opportunity to do different things rather than a caste system where you are here and you never move, get the opportunity to advance in life or society.

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:15:13] It’s a great point. Cities — especially in Mesopotamian cities– are oftentimes marked by hierarchy and hierarchy is essentially a relationship that is hierarchical. You have your political elites, you have your bureaucrats, you have your priests in the temple, and they have everybody else. People who essentially are peasants and that might be even be a generous characterization. What we see here in this kind of society is not hierarchy. It’s something that’s called heterarchy and heterarchy is essentially social complexity that is not hierarchical, but it’s horizontal. In a hierarchical social structure one individual or set of individuals have all the power, and the power then trickles down essentially through, through generosity. For example, they didn’t trickle down some of the resources to everybody else underneath them in a hierarchical social structure. Sources of power are counter poised, horizontally. What I mean is that an example of this settlement in Northwestern Iran is a perfect example of that. In one neighborhood, you have individuals who are engaging in textile production in other places, let’s say bead production. In other places, they’re working with cattle horn. Neither of these three areas is superior to the other one. All three of them are equal. They have a horizontal relationship, but one of them is producing something that the other one needs. And so they have, they actually have to come to an agreement, a social contract, so they can engage in a meaningful and constructive way.

KEN BEST: This is kind of the beginning of the supply chain and manufacturing that you need something from somewhere else, and you have to bring it in and you have to maybe do an exchange or a barter in order to do the same thing for them.

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:16:53] Absolutely. If, you know, in present day society think about airplanes, for example. An airplane engine might be produced, let’s say in upstate New York. Other parts of the manufacturing may take place in Washington state; other parts are produced overseas. Neither one of these parts of the production have a hierarchal relationship to the other ones. Neither one is superior; all three are needed, have to work together. So that’s evidence of a heterarchy and that’s actually a perfect example. Absolutely.

KEN BEST: What have we learned from this study of the, of that area, and at that time that we can build upon for better understanding of that time of history and the development of society as it moved forward?

SIAVASH SAMEI: [00:17:39] I hope that the implications of this kind of study goes beyond the region that I’m interested in because actually my scholarship and that of my colleague who was the co-author is part of a broader movement in archeology. That is that  the history that we write, the story that we write about our past, is not just defined by the rise of cities or States or civilizations.  In these stories that we write, there are voices that are under-represented; there are stories that are underrepresented or ignored altogether. They’re ignored because they’re not part of the story of the origins of cities and states. I became interested in archeology because I read about these ancient cities and states. There is validity and these are important questions. My hope is that we begin to balance the narrative that we write. We balanced the stories that we write, for example, in the Middle East, most of which are mountain societies. We have these cultures, these ancient societies that yes, did not develop early states, did not develop these elaborate systems of food, distribution and food production and social stratification. What they did was part of the bigger story that the crafts and these people would produce — the beads, the jewelry, the textiles they produced, actually no through trade and through exchange, make possible other cultural developments in other regions and other time periods. And their contribution is just as important to the story of humanity as a contribution of the earliest cities and States.

KEN BEST: [00:19:13] This fall Siavash Samei will become a visiting assistant professor in sociology and anthropology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, so he’s going to be moving on to a very good career as an archeologist and zo archeologist.

TOM BREEN: [00:19:33] All right. Hey, I have a question for both of you.  We all had, you know, favorite classes back in college, right? But did you ever have a class you liked so much, you would flunk just to repeat it?

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:19:40] can’t say that I did.

KEN BEST: You don’t want to do that for your GPA, which some of us have to struggle with.

TOM BREEN: Well back in 1919, apparently at UConn there was one class that was so popular lots of people kept trying to flunk it just so they could keep doing it.

JULIE BARTUCCA: Okay. I bet you’re going to tell us about it.

TOM BREEN: [00:20:01] I’m going to tell you about it. This is from an article in the Connecticut Campus dated October the 24th, 1919, quite a year.  The headline is: Girls Flunk Course for Love of It. Resort to Strategy in Order to Obtain Lowest Marks. So this class was, it was a housekeeping class, practice, housekeeping, which was required of all women who were juniors.


TOM BREEN: [00:20:22]  Very different time of folks. Yeah. And the story goes on to relate last year. One of the girls, while serving a meal accidentally dropped a spoon, this called forth the remark from the instructor, Miss Helen B. Barker, that waitresses who dropped spoons, which surely flunked the course. In the ensuing weeks, there followed a rain of spoons, forks, and knives, each girl endeavoring to deserve a flunking more than the one before her, but already this year, one of the waitresses has found it means more effective than silver and helping her obtain a low mark. Her plan, which she carried out to perfection was while serving the whipped cream covered dessert, to let one of the servings slip from her grasp to clutch out frantically, catch it, drop it again. Then finally landed, splash, on the gown of one of the innocent diners, such, such as the devotion and the practice house, but think of the wasted whipped cream.

JULIE BARTUCCA:  [00:21:13] Did I send you that story? I’ve read this story.

TOM BREEN: You may have.

JULIE BARTUCCA:  I think I did a long time ago when I was looking through the archives. That’s amazing. But why did they want to take it again?

TOM BREEN:  They must’ve liked it. Must’ve been a fun class. When you’ve got an instructor with the passion of a Miss Helen B. Barker, you just want to keep going back to take it.

KEN BEST: My question would be: Didn’t she understand what was going on? Why did she keep accepting people into the class?

TOM BREEN: Maybe she was just really, she just assumed everyone was really bad and was like, God, of course, these students are terrible at carrying spoons.

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:21:49] They got to come back maybe because they, you know, they were forced to like build rock walls and do hard manual labor and the rest of their classes. They just wanted to do some, some light waitressing for the day.

TOM BREEN: This was still a time when literally chicken plucking was a class at UConn. So when you think about it, just kind of carrying spoons around and throwing with cream at people actually sounds kind of fun.

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:22:13] That’s pretty like mischievous stuff going on there, throwing the whipped cream on people. I don’t know. This is like in the 1900, early 1900 when  everybody was prim and proper. I bet not. I just think that’s how we think of them.

TOM BREEN: But that was also undoubtedly real whipped cream, good stuff. Wasted that good stuff.

JULIE BARTUCCA: I wonder what else? If this has ever happened again, but it just wasn’t written about. I love that it was written about like, how did they get wind of this story? That’s a good reporter.

TOM BREEN: That is a good reporter.

JULIE BARTUCCA: Well, try not to drop any spoons this week, kids.

TOM BREEN: [00:22:53]  If you are listening and you did purposely flunk a class to take it again, for any reason, you know, feel free to get to us on Twitter. We’re at UConn podcasts. We’re at Main underscore hold or even at TJ Breen, that’s me. That’s my personal Twitter. Mostly I just retweet articles from the mainstream press. But you never know if you do have fun stories of classes that you’ve flunked, maybe even not on purpose, maybe you flunked because you weren’t good at it. Just let us know. We’re  always happy to talk about people’s experiences at UConn. Julie, is there anything you want people to know?

JULIE BARTUCCA: [00:23:23] I met Julie Bartucca on Twitter.

TOM BREEN: Ken. How about you?

KEN BEST: Saturdays from three to six on 91.7 WHUS in Storrs UConn’s sound alternative, the day after the rebroadcast of the UConn 360 podcast at 11 o’clock in the morning on Fridays.

TOM BREEN: No wait. We won an award.


KEN BEST: Did we?

JULIE BARTUCCA: I already forgot.

TOM BREEN: [0:23:48] Yeah. Julie, tell people out in listener land.

JULIE BARTUCCA: We won a silver award in the CASE Circle of Excellence national awards, which is the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, I believe, is the major organization that all kind of higher ed marketing and advancement people are part of, and we are super excited because this is not an easy thing to accomplish. They had some very kind words about us and they liked our banter, the way we present multiple types of stories, every episode. So, what we’re doing is working, I guess.

TOM BREEN: All right, everyone, thank you for listening as always let’s all meet back here in two weeks.