The good luck charm

You may have noticed so far that this archaeology blog has not had a whole lot about archaeology in it. That’s because before the fun research stuff happens, there are a lot of preparations that need to be completed. One of these preparations is getting the appropriate permits from Indonesian government and police agencies so that we can conduct our research.

Before arriving in Indonesia, we had a rough time schedule planned out which involved two weeks of paperwork, office visits, and permitting processes (one week in Jakarta for the national level permits, and a second week in Ambon, Maluku for the provincial permits). Following the first two weeks, we planned about two and a half weeks of fieldwork in Seram and the surrounding islands, finishing the project off with about another week or so of exit permitting and visits in Ambon and Jakarta on our way back to the US.

We started the permitting process in Jakarta on our first Monday. By Wednesday we were heading out to Ambon. Somehow, we had managed to get a week’s worth of the permitting dance compressed into just a few days! While improvements in infrastructure, ie high speed internet, and changes in bureaucratic structures certainly streamlined the process, I am convinced that this author was actually a good luck charm for the group – a fact I conveniently concocted when the rest of my team jokingly decided that as the youngest member of the group, I was the natural choice of sacrifice for the crocodile gods (crocodiles supposedly being common in Maluku where we would be working).

An important note for any sort of travel within Jakarta – taxis are always a bad idea. We once spent nearly four hours in a taxi while traveling across town during rush hour to do our visit with Pusat Arkeologi Nasional (National Center for Archaeology). Buses, even the angkot (an informal, privatized bus system), and trains are far superior in terms of combatting Jakarta traffic.

So our permitting process went incredibly smoothly – something nearly unheard of even in the US and even more unusual for Indonesia. After filing our permits in Jakarta, we were able to travel by plane to Ambon, in the Maluku region of eastern Indonesia, to finish up our provincial permits. Those also took only a few days. In the down time, we planned survey strategies, created supply lists, and visited with friends and colleagues. We also created field nicknames, a time honored tradition amongst archaeology kinfolk, and a requisite part of field bonding. Bonding is important during fieldwork, as you have to spend a great deal of time with your colleagues and bonding helps to make those hours pass more easily. Secondly, bonding makes it less likely that your colleagues will want to sacrifice you to the crocodile gods. Or, at least make them feel worse about doing it.

Next up, Ambon island!


“Selamat Datang”

Let me tell it to you straight, and you can decide how silly (or brave?) this blog author is – prior to this field season, I had never even been to Indonesia! It was, put simply, risky of me to bet my graduate career thus far and future dissertation on a location I had never even seen. I was incredibly excited to arrive in Indonesia and begin to understand everything that makes Indonesia, Indonesia. Several things stood out to me as a first timer, which are strikingly obvious to someone who has never visited the country before.

  1. Street food
  2. Street performers
  3. Hey, Mister!
  4. Malls (yes, malls)

Street food in Indonesia is the best thing ever. While there are a variety of great restaurants, the best and cheapest and tastiest meals that we ate the entire time we were in Indonesia (Jakarta especially) were eaten on the sidewalks of crowded streets and dimly lit back alleys. Bungkus (literally,
“to wrap”) is the Indonesian version of take-out. It almost always consists of a huge portion of rice, a dash of sambal (chopped and seasoned chilies), some veggies (usually kangkung, or “water spinach”), and fried chicken or fish all wrapped in a banana leaf and waxed paper. Bungkus are eaten by unfolding part of the outside wrapper strategically so as to fit in one hand without falling apart (no staples or tape here to help out), and using the other hand to squish pieces of rice, meat and veggies into small balls which you stuff into your mouth. Repeatedly. Because it is delicious.

(Two months out update: I’m still having dreams about a spicy, greasy, nasi bungkus). 

Nasi kuning (yellow rice) bungkus with fish. They are so good. 

While enjoying your meal on the street, you may notice people costumed as large effigies, known as ondel-ondel, or Betawi effigies. Betawi are a distinct cultural and linguistic creole group descended from slaves and workers brought in to work at the Dutch East Indies capital of Jakarta (then Batavia) during the 17th century. Performers costume themselves in elaborate puppets some eight and nine feet tall and amble along the streets dancing for passerbys, motorists, and street foodies. Traditionally, they danced at special occasions and to cast away evil spirits from villages. Onlookers are expected to pay the ondel-ondel for their entertainment, or else invite bad fortune. They are super interesting, I would highly suggest reading more about them (here, and here To fully get a sense of how massive and elaborate they are, watch them perform (,


Ondel-ondel street performance in Jakarta 2
Ondel-ondel in Jakarta. We were so entranced we forgot to snap our own photo, so, thanks, Wikipedia!

Street musicians and singers are also very common. As bule (foreigners), expect to receive quite the evening show if enjoying street food (don’t forget tip money for the performers!).

If the street performers did not make it obvious to you that you are in a different country, residents of Indonesia are more than happy to do so. “Hey, Mister!”, or the occasionally gender specific “Hey, Miss” are common phrases throughout Indonesia, particularly in response to seeing a group of five foreigners (two of whom are tall even for Americans!) walking around the streets of Jakarta and Ambon. Part-greeting, part-colloquialism, equal parts flattering and disconcerting, this phrase was often followed by handshakes, hugs, requests for photo opportunities, and the occasional flock of children following you around town. As Americans, what we might think of as an invasion of privacy is really just polite manners and (as I interpreted it) an expression of extreme excitement for Indonesians. Just as we were interested in learning about Indonesia and its culture, Indonesians were curious about us and not afraid to show it. While this was probably the most difficult part of the trip for many of us to get accustomed to, it was an interesting reminder to us that Indonesia was no passive recipient to our research. Being “hey, mister”-ed became a huge topic of conversation over the course of our trip – how did that phrase get started? How did EVERYONE in Indonesia seem to know it? Is it part of the English curricula?? and so forth. The answers to which, we never truly did expose.

Jenn and Lauryl taking selfies in Ambon, Maluku (photo by Jenn Huff)

Malls. Yes. Indonesia has them. So much so that malls as talked about as a culture note in Indonesian class. I first learned how to ask all the important consumer questions (“how much”, “where is X”, “what floor”) through my Indonesian text book, which devoted the chapter to malls and their place of prominence in Jakarta culture.

To understand the importance of malls, please consider that air-conditioning is not standard in many areas of Indonesia. Indonesia is, also, a tropical climate that experiences only two distinct seasons – rainy season and dry season, with an average annual temperature of 28℃/81℉ and average humidity over 80%. Malls have air-conditioning. Malls have great, powerful, cold, life-giving, air-conditioning. Malls also tend to have nicer, up-and-coming restaurants, and the sort of mid to high-end shops that the younger generation of Indonesian consumers and tourists enjoy. Similar, but even more so than in America, malls are the social center for young families and Indonesia’s millenials.

And on that note, you know enough to survive your first day! Selamat datang ke Indonesia (welcome to indonesia)!


Who, what, where, why…

Every blog must have an origin story, so I think it’s best to start the recount of our adventures with the basics: who are we? What are we doing? Where are we doing it? And why?

In short, we are a group of Indonesian and American archaeologists and climatologists who are interested in how people adapted to the constraints of island ecosystems during periods of climatic instability. This is interesting because one of the arguments for changes in culture (like increased interisland voyaging, changes in pottery styles, and changes to agricultural systems) seem to be occurring alongside changes in rainfall, ocean temperatures, and other climate events such as El Nino. Some of our basic research questions involve understanding how closely culture change and climate change are related, a relationship that has implications for us today as global warming drastically alters our environment.

We are interested in getting more climate records for the past 1000-5000 years (if possible!) so that we have a better idea of how people in the past responded to environmental change. What can we use as climate data? Our main proxy for this field season was mangrove cores. Mangroves are hardy, coastal trees that grow throughout the Pacific in brackish swamps that fringe the shore. There are several species of mangrove, and they all respond differently to changes in rainfall. Dry seasons with less rainfall and wet seasons with more rainfall will cause mangrove leaves to produce different chemical signatures (in this case, changes in the proportion of different oxygen isotopes that mangrove trees take up from the rain). Mangrove leaves regularly fall to the ground/swamp surface and decay. Eventually, these leaves will accumulate into various layers (like a layer cake). We can use a special augering tool to pull out a sediment core composed of all these layers of mangrove leaves. These layers can be radiocarbon dated to determine how long ago they were deposited by the mangrove trees, and then the chemical signature can be measured. From these chemical signatures, we can figure out how much relative rainfall that mangrove swamp received during a certain time period.

Where are we doing this kind of research? Our climatologist colleagues have done similar research across the Pacific, but never in Indonesia. Indonesia is really interesting because it has diverse geology – large and small islands and atolls, some without freshwater resources and very little area for agriculture. Indonesia has also played a critical role in terms of its location, nearly all Pacific islands were settled by people who moved through this region, so understanding how long-distance voyagers adapted to different islands is very important to human history in this part of the world. Indonesia is also an area that will be strongly affected by climate change, and any insight that we can gain from the past about how people managed to survive, increase productivity, and create sustainable agricultural practices will be important to the long-term development of the region. Indonesia is also a fascinating area to do research, because so few international teams have done climatological or archaeological research – our team being one of the first to do so in Eastern Indonesia.  

And I suppose that answers part of the why – learning about climate change in the past is as close as we can get to predicting and preparing for climate change in the future. The other reason for why we are doing this kind of research is that we find it interesting, and as scientists and humans we are curious. Sometimes curiosity leads to great adventures!