Archaeology Magazine Archive

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from the trenches
Armadillos Scramble the Past Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Samir S. Patel

If you're curious about the spermicidal properties of Coca-Cola, or methods for extracting vanilla from cow dung, or why nails on a chalkboard sound so horrible, then the Ig Nobel Awards are for you. Founded in 1991 by the publishers of Annals of Improbable Research, the awards honor science's lighter side—serious studies that make you laugh before they make you think. The 2008 awards were the first to include a category for archaeology; the winner was a study of how armadillos can change the course of history.

The study looked at how animals can jumble the layering of an archaeological site as they burrow, leading to problems with dating. The phenomenon, called bioturbation, is well known in the field. Archaeologist Astolfo Araujo often got inaccurate dates from the Paleoindian sites he studies in Brazil, sometimes with the telltale signs of armadillo invasion. So he studied how the animals change sites, and published a paper on it in 2003 in the journal Geoarchaeology. He was surprised to discover that armadillos don't just shift artifacts up (picture a little pile of dirt next to a burrow), but also manage to push things down. It's a nice piece of science, and right up the Ig Nobel alley—it sounds silly at first, but is illuminating on further examination. Recalling his first contact with the Ig Nobel folks, Araujo says, "I was a bit puzzled because I never thought of our work as something so innovative, or weird if you like."

Since the award, Araujo has heard from many in the field, and some outside of it, including authors of children's books and science bloggers. "I embraced the award wholeheartedly," he adds. "It is more about showing the general public that science can be fun and interesting."