Big MANnequin

I’m in a giddy, slap-happy mood. So I thought I’d post a strange photo from my archives. While I was in Northern Wisconsin a few years ago I stopped by a local museum to view their exhibits. When I asked where the bathroom was, I was directed to the basement. There I found not only the bathroom, but the remnants of past exhibits. I had to snap some photos. Here’s one. The clothing is reminiscent of traditional Ojibwe styles, but the mannequin sure is funny sized.

Oversize mannequin with regular size head

If you want to see Superman, Marilyn Monroe, some and a silver spray-painted topless woman on a bicycle, let me know. I have those as well.

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I just got back from a conference in Wendake, the Huron-Wendat Reserve in Quebec City.  There’s so much that I want to write about from this trip, but I need to figure out how to organize my thoughts.  So let’s see what I see as major themes, and then I can follow up on them with a few distinct blog posts:

1) Couchsurfing as cultural immersion. Couchsurfing is one of the modern trends in travel that tends to be made up of a unique sub-group of people around the world. People who a) have internet access and b) are willing to open up their homes to strangers.  But there is more to couchsurfing than that – like other sub-cultures it has implicit rules that you learn as a member of the community, and there are some expectations on both hosts and surfers. I love it and think it is a great way to get to learn about an area, but the idea is intimidating to a lot of first-timers (including me when I started!). But I get so much out of my couchsurfing experiences, so I’d like to write about them.

2) Community-based conferences: The conference I attended was primarily organized by a joint team from the Wendake Reseve and Laval University.  I love community-based conferences.  Just like couchsurfing – they are intimidating, but in the best way. As an academic, you are putting yourself in a vulnerable situation, expressing your research to the community that it is about, and preparing to hear their thoughts on your work.  However that willingness to hear what the community has to teach you, and what they have to say about your work, is, to me, the crux of doing good scholarly work in Indigenous Studies today.  One of the reasons I came to Michigan State University for graduate school was because I was seeking out this type of connection – I didn’t feel comfortable studying and publishing reports on someone else’s history without actually talking to them about it. I also felt that I could learn a lot from the modern descendants of the communities I study – there’s a big difference between reading about feasting practices and actually sitting down to dinner with community members, and if you really want to develop a sense of someone’s culture, those interactions can do nothing but enhance it.  So I’d like to write about the interactions I had with community members and what I got out of this conference.  I’m really glad they decided to get us all organized and in the same room.

3) Interdisciplinarity – This is the crux of Indigenous Studies today, and I get so much out of it.  Most academic conferences (thought not all) tend to focus on one discipline or another.  I’ve always been a settler of the borderlands, so I prefer interdisciplinary situations because I feel like I fit in better there (since I don’t fit into any classical categories particularly well!).  I’d like to talk about this notion of interdisciplinarity, what it really means, how we achieve it, and what we get out of it.

4) Cohorts and comeraderie – There are a set of scholars I work with who are all at about the same place in their academic careers, and we all share a common interest in studying the history of the Wendat/Wyandot post-1649.  I have been fortunate to fall into this group of scholars.  We all support one another, and see how our research enhances each others projects.  I’ve had the opportunity to present my research in sessions with some of these people on multiple occasions, and I think we all feel that our teamwork improves ALL of our research projects.  Each time we get together we get to meet new young scholars and I feel like we’ve developed a real cohort that is moving the research forward. This is exciting and rewarding – by developing a collaborative interdisciplinary group of young scholars we are all moving forward with our work. This benefits us in our careers, but it also keeps the research thriving and, hopefully, improves the quality of all of our research, which will benefit the community as well.

5) Material culture studies.  I met (and re-met) some specialists on material-culture from non-archaeological contexts at this conference. I LOVE material culture specialists, and I think they have a lot to offer to my research.  The work they do is very difficult, so it is rare to find someone with such expertise.  I’d like to talk a bit about the importance of this kind of work.

Phew! I think that’s where I want to go.  Not sure which of these I’ll write about first, so if something sounds particularly interesting, let me know and I can focus on that.

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Archaeology in Ontario

I’ll be heading to Quebec next week for a conference in Wendake, organized by the Wendat community that lives there. I’m quite excited and nervous about the conference, but I’ll blog about that later. Tonight, I just wanted to post some pictures from Ontario and talk about some of the time I’ve spent there.

The tribe(s) that I focus my research on lived in Ontario in the first half of the Seventeenth Century.   In the 1640s various Hodenosaunee (Iroquois) war parties attacked several of these villages, eventually leading these groups to flee and disperse in several directions.  So part of my research involves studying the historical documents and archaeological collections associated with these communities that were once in Ontario.

Many people have heard of the Huron; there were other communities in Southern Ontario as well, including the Petun (Tionontate), Neutral (including the Wenro) and the Erie.  Some scholars consider all of these groups Wendat/Wyandot.  They lived in different areas and were a little more distinct from one another prior to the epidemics, famines and war parties of the 1630s-40s.  To survive these tragedies though, various villages moved in together, and moved around the midwest and northeast of North America. More on that some other time.

The Huron lives on the southeast shore of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron.  The Petun lived on the southwest side of the same bay — a trip that was shorter in the winter since you could walk right across the ice. There were also several Odawa (Ottawa) communities that spent part of the year in the area, and more that lived on the Bruce Peninnsula.  Often, because we travel by car, people thing of Georgian Bay as fairly distant from Michigan, but if you follow the Bruce Peninsula up, you reach Manitoulin Island and several smaller islands, and eventually the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. These are outcrops of the Niagara Escarpment. By canoe it is actually a fairly direct route.  So while people are often surprised to hear that in 1649 some of the Wendat ended up in St. Ignace Michigan they think of this as a big trip. Really though, it is not too bad.

Great Lakes Map

If you look at this map you can see how easy it is to canoe Northwest from the Petun homeland, following the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island, and eventually arriving on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Crummy Paint job based on

Georgian Bay is a GORGEOUS area and I can’t wait to visit again. The Bruce Peninsula has excellent hiking. And the water is a gorgeous blue like the Caribbean. Only instead of white sand beaches, you have fossiliferous shale you can go exploring. And pine trees.

Picture of Georgian Bay looking northwest

Photo taken from the Southeast side of Georgian Bay, where the Petun villages were located, looking across the water towards modern day Midland, where the Huron lived in the early Seventeenth Century. Photo by Megan McCullen

My friend Charlie Garrad is the primary scholar on the Petun.  He doesn’t have a degree in anthropology, he got his training on-the-ground and through programs offered by the Ontario Archaeological Society. This means some folks refer to him as an avocational archaeologist. I’m not sure what to call him – his methods are fairly formalized and he probably knows more about the archaeology and history of the region than anyone else.  At the same time, he and I do not always agree about the primacy of certain types of data and the level of evidence necessary to say that something happened in a certain way.  He knows the material so well that sometimes he has what I’d call a gut instinct about something – but since I’m newer at it, sometimes I say I can’t agree simply because I don’t think we have enough evidence to support the argument.  But the man knows more about the archaeology of the region than most others, has decades of time spent in the field there, and he is one of the most generous scholars I’ve met.

Sadly Charlie will be out of the country when I drive through -so I won’t get one of the great Charlie tours of Petunia (yep, they call it Petunia). Here are some photos from my last trip in 2008:

Charlie Garrad and Ray Heimbecker

Charlie explaining the significance of an archaeology site to his friend Ray.

Since he has been in Collingwood for so long, Charlie knows everyone. This is extremely helpful for a new scholar, but it also means we couldn’t even go to the grocery store without stopping to talk to someone.  One of the great opportunities I had, thanks to Charlie, was to meet Ray Heimbecker.  Dr. Heimbecker was a cardiologist, and was on the first heart transplant team in Canada.  He did amazing research on cows (and woodchucks) to understand how the heart and blood flow works, so they could determine how to remove a heart and keep a patient alive while replacing it.  Ray is an officer in the Order of Canada. He also used to do volunteer surgery in the Bahamas, on islands where they did not have access to doctors (and where he vacationed and painted). He is a wonderful and amazing person. What an unexpected opportunity!

Ray used to own a farm with some archaeological sites on it (this is where the cows came to recover and retire after surgery in Toronto!).  He eventually sold it and it was turned into a country club, but Charlies worked with them to protect the archaeological sites, including a burial ground.  We visited the country club so Charlie could show me the sites.

Megan and Charlie in a golf cart

This is a self portrait I took to distract myself from the terror I felt from how fast Charlie was driving that golf cart.

Megan and Charlie in front of Stone Monument at Ossuary

Rock Bottom Ossuary with Charlie.

Charlie has done a lot of work to protect and document Petun sites in and around Craigleith and Collingwood Ontario.  This is a stone monument that’s been erected at the site of the Rock Bottom Ossuary.  Ossuary’s are burial sites. The Petun, like the Huron, would hold a burial ceremony about once a decade, in which they would take the bones of everyone who had died in the past decade and bury them together in one large pit.  One explanation I have heard for this is that it reinforces a sense of equality – all people are equal, and a vast number of ceremonies are held as part of the mourning feast.  These ceremonies bring the community together, redistribute goods throughout the community, and help the dead move on to the village of the dead.

I’m sad I will not get to see Charlie while I’m in Canada, but boy am I looking forward to heading back to this beautiful piece of country.

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My Fantastic Four

Since I’ve been posting so much about Marvel Comics lately, it seems only right to pull this photo out of my archives.

If you’ve never worked in the field, you may not realize just how slap-happy people can get. But when you spend all day, every day together, slowly digging a square hole, you get goofy. In the summer of 2005 we were excavating a dormitory at MSU which had burned down in 1876, That summer, The Fantastic Four film came out, and I think the Fantastic Four jokes probably grew out of the fact that one student, Lesley, kept saying ‘Flame On!’ whenever she could make it fit into the conversation. Eventually everyone on Lesley’s crew, one of the crews I was supervising, had been tagged as one of the Four.

Since the dormitory rooms had been heated with wood-burning stoves, we had some heavy lifting to do during excavation.  This crew carefully pulled a cast iron stove out of the site.  We took a photo for posterity.  And though I don’t have the original version any more, I still have the one I photoshopped. Flame On.


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Role Models and First Dates

A friend of mine went on a date recently and mentioned that while the person was nice, there wasn’t going to be a second date. Not abnormal, that’s how a lot of first dates go. Then he also mentioned that the movie they saw on this first date was terrible.

And this triggered one of my favorite memories of a high school teacher who was a role model to me, so I wanted to share.

When I was in high school we had a math teacher (MT) that defied description. He was really wacky, did his own thing and owned it, and was a super big geek. But totally cool at the same time. MT was confident and well spoken. This was the late 90s and the internet was just forming, so it wasn’t like there were a lot of geeky role models on my horizon. So this man was really important in my life. I was also attending a Catholic girl’s school (CGS), so people in general, were pretty mainstream.

MT was the faculty advisor for the Environmental Club, the Chess Club, and the Electric Guitar Club (that’s right, we didn’t have a rock band at CGS . An ‘Electric Guitar Club’ sounds less like something that puts you at risk for a life of reckless abandon). In that club he pulled out a Beatles Song Book that had a song in it called Tandoori Chicken (a quick google shows that Ronnie Spector recorded it at Apple Studios, and later George Harrison did as well). I still know the lyrics. I can not tell you HOW COOL I thought it was that we sat there and tried to play this ridiculous song the Beatles wrote. “Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken and a Great Big Bottle Of Wine.”

MT owned ferrets. He rode his bike up the very steep road to our school, and in physics we had to solve problems about whether a school bus that started off behind him would ever run him over. This man wore a crushed green velvet tuxedo when he chaperoned the prom. BECAUSE HE THOUGHT IT WAS AWESOME. I have a photo of MT wearing the head of a green chicken costume I owned, because he indirectly encouraged us to be ourselves and made me feel comfortable enough to bring a green chicken costume to school*. He was doing the kinds of things I did not see most adults doing.

And it wasn’t just being weird. He was smart. And he really cared about education. MT ended up leaving our school to go back and get his PhD, and now he’s a professor (DrMT). A professor that still works with math-ed students and has continued to work on programs that encourage young women to engage with math and science.

My favorite memory of MT is the story he told us of what I will call


When MT was in high school, there was a girl that was beautiful. MT thought she was amazing, but he was this awkward, weird kid who did his own thing. After pining after this girl for a long time, he finally got up the guts to ask her out on a date. And she said yes! So he decided to take her out to a movie. There was a new movie coming out that he heard would be good.

That movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now imagine you are a geeky high school kid in 1992 and hearing this story from your teacher. He got to take the pretty girl to see the BEST movie…when it first came out on the big screen! He saw Holy Grail on the big screen! (At this point we’ve all forgotten about the date and are just in geek-awe).

So the movie started. And if you remember, there are captions during the opening credits. Funny captions in fake Swedish. MTstarts laughing. His date does not. He continues laughing as the credits go on, and she looks at him and says ‘Why are you laughing? This isn’t funny’. So my teacher who got to see Holy Grail ON THE BIG SCREEN, in an attempt to be nice to his date, basically does everything he can to hold in his laughter through the entire movie. Can you even IMAGINE? The first time you see Holy Grail! You can’t laugh at anything because every time you do your date looks more annoyed. And you’re the one who picked the movie, so it’s kind of your fault.

After the movie, he tried to recover the date. British humor, after all, is not for everyone. He asked her ‘What kind of things DO you find funny?’ And she said ‘Gilligan’s Island.’

And he never asked her out again.

And looking back, I see that as the moment where I realized ‘There are people out in the world who value someone with my sense of humor and my interest in learning cool new things. And some of the people who I think are the MOST INTERESTING adults I have ever known like these things too. So embracing that part of me is totally okay.’ I also saw that, not only was it okay to be a weirdo geek, but there were guys who, if given a choice, would rather, date a weirdo geek than date the most gorgeous girl in their class. And while I hate to admit that those types of things had an influnce, of course it did. I was a 15 year old girl without a boyfriend at a Catholic school that had us planning out our weddings in one of our religion class assignments. It would be a lie to say I didn’t wonder about things like that. In that moment, I basically learned that I was fine as I was. And I believed him.

So now I’m the teacher. And I am a LOT like MT. My students know I read weird science stories online. They know I love bad movies and indy music – because I play them clips vaguely related to Anthropology (like Bjork’s ‘Human Behavior’) at the beginning of class. Most of the students already have the role models they are looking for. But some of those students have awesome smart wackos inside that they aren’t letting out. And to be a good scientist you have to be willing to think outside the box, push the boundaries and be willing to take some risks. So I’m letting them know it’s okay if they want to do that.

Last year I took some female students (mostly Elementary Education majors) to Kansas City for an Alternative Spring Break Trip. While we were there, I offered to take them to the Kansas City Juggling Club. My friend Greg (who is also, interestingly, a high school math teacher) is active with them. Four of the six students took me up on it – it sounded utterly strange and slightly intriguing to them. When we got there, we found a room with a few kids, but mostly people in their 20s + juggling balls and pins, hula hooping, yo-yo-ing, etc… I’m pretty sure they felt like they were behind the scenes at a carnival. Everyone was super nice, and several of them spent the evening teaching us the basics of different types of juggling. Every single one of us bought a set of homemade juggling balls to take back to Michigan.

juggling club

Students learning to juggle

And when the evening was up, the jugglers were going out to a pizza place and they invited us along. My students were really excited to go, so I bought them their first Italian sodas and we sat around with about 8 of these folks for another hour or so. They taught my students how to count binary on their fingers. They taught them more complex versions of ‘pat your head and rub your belly’ type activities which were really hard to do (but the jugglers could do really well). They told them riddles. And Greg and another fellow talked education with the students too. I still remember more than one of my students looking at me after a new riddle or trick like ‘who ARE these amazing people who are adults that do really smart things FOR FUN?! Why have I never met people like this before!?’ Because these jugglers did not fit the stereotype of a nerd that the students expected. They were funny, they could hold a conversation. One was super buff. One was covered in tattoos. And there were a lot of them, they were a community. And that was my moment. I felt like maybe I’d given a few more students the okay to be ‘normal’ adults that do weird, smart things for fun. It was a great gift that was given to me, so I’m glad to pass it on.

You never know who is learning things from watching you or interacting with you.  I don’t think this means people have to be on their best behavior or anything, but be genuine.  There may be someone who picks up on it and gets a little more comfortable in his/her own shell because they saw that you were okay too.

Jugglers holding juggling balls

Alma College Students with Greg and myself, showing off the jugging balls that came back to Michigan with us.

* The town I grew up in is called Green Brook.  Our high school mascot was the Bengal, but the elementary school didn’t have a mascot. For some reason unknown to me (probably cheap fabric), when my brother was in 6th grade or so, my mother designed a ‘Green Brook Chicken’ halloween costume. It was amazing. It was basically a chicken, but the fabric was green.  We both outgrew the body, but the head was big enough, so we kept it. Sadly it has since disappeared.

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Bits and Pieces


This is a picture of me taken several years ago in London, England alongside the Thames River.  While much of the Thames is just between two walls, there are areas in town were there is a semblance of beach. If you’re ever there, find the stairs and go look around. As you can see behind me on the ground, the beach is littered with the debris of thousands of years of human habitation.

The collection in my hands includes everything from Roman to Twentieth Century pot sherds.  There isn’t really any context to the sherds along the Thames – they’re probably bits and pieces that sunk with ships or were thrown in the river as trash. It is illegal to remove artifacts from the country though, so don’t take them with you.  But have a look around, there’s ancient craftsmanship everywhere.

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More thoughts on X-men action figures and biological anthropology

After I made my post last week about using the X-Men to teach students about how we define humans AS humans, I was talking with some geology friends and came up with another teaching tool from this story that I think could be really helpful. I think action figures can be used to help students understand the difference between a biological species and a fossil species.

In anthropology we have to talk about ‘species’ as both a living biological classification and as a fossil classification. And because we study human evolution, we, in fact, transition between the two. This can be really hard for students to grapple with.  A biological species makes sense to them, because we can (usually) see members of the species mate and produce viable offspring. We can study their genetic makeup to see how much DNA they share in common, and which other species they share a lot of their DNA with as well.  And a biological species is something most students have thought about before, and discussed in their high school classrooms.

Paleontological species are a whole other issue though.  They are based primarily on morphology of skeletal features. Often these skeletons are incomplete. Sometimes there are not very many fossils of a particular species, so we have a hard time determining just how diverse that species is.

For example, if I see a male gorilla and a female gorilla, I can see quite clearly that we have two members of the same species, but they have great sexual dimorphism; males and females LOOK very different. Their skulls make these differences even more obvious. Human males and females are different as well, but not nearly so much so as gorillas.  And if you think about the diversity WITHIN one sex of our species (Yao Ming vs. David Spade, for example), you can imagine a lot of variability in those skeletons. Yao Ming is tall and he works out a lot. He will have larger bones with larger muscle attachments. Davis Spade is portable.

So imagine you find a fossil hominid. You only have 25% of the skeleton.  Then you find another skeleton at a nearby locale.  You have 25% of that fossil also, but it’s not necessarily the same bone fragments. How do you tell if they are members of the same species? Or members of closely related species? Maybe they look very different, but in fact represent one species with a lot of variability; a Yao and a David?  Now lets say you find another fossil hominid. It is from one million years earlier.  It might look different, but again, this could be variability within one species. Just think about how different Americans look today from our ancestors less than 200 years ago. We are certainly taller. Franz Boas argued that children of immigrants were physically very different from their parents. While Lee Jantz later critiqued this study, he just came out with his OWN study arguing that EuroAmerican skulls have been changing shape over the last 200 years. (I’ve got some questions about HIS study but I need to read it, and not the Internet News articles, before I get into that). If you are interested in all the back and forth, read Jason Antrosio’s post about human skulls.

Now imagine that part of your job is to decide if these fossils you’ve found represent one or several species, and if they belong to new species or ones that have been previously defined.  This is NOT easy. And no matter how you define it, you will probably find someone who disagrees with your choice.

Some paleontologists are lumpers – they see a lot of this as variability within species and tend to prefer a smaller family tree. Some paleontologists are spliters – they see a benefit in having many different species, in part, this can help us recognize some of the variability that is present, variability that they think is significant.

These are important questions. And as we improve our ability to collect DNA out of some recent fossils, we’re getting a better understanding of what the genetic variability of some recent hominids was like. We now know that European and Asian people have some Neanderthal DNA in their genome. And people in Papua New Guinea share some DNA with the Denisovans.  So there was some ‘cross-breeding’ that happened. But does this mean that we should not call Neanderthals a separate species? Well it depends in part on what you think the purpose of defining a species is. And it depends on whether you think Neanderthals and Modern Humans mated together regularly and by choice.  Just because you CAN produce viable offspring doesn’t mean you want to. And sometimes this opt-out program is a characteristic that biologists use to define different species (monkeys that live in the same forests and are geneticallly capable of producing offspring, but live in different levels of the forest and don’t mate, for example).

I’m digressing.

The point is – it is HARD for a student to understand that when a paleontologist says ‘species’ it might not be exactly the same thing as a biological species. Because the student thinks s/he already knows what a species is. And when I try to explain that the characteristics we use to differentiate fossil species from one another are salient to us as we look at their skulls, but may have had no relevance to those living creatures, they have a tough time wrapping their brains around that. They want facts. They want boundaries. They want to be able to memorize it and move on.

And this is where I think those X-men could come in really handy.

In case you forgot (or didn’t read the other post), some attorneys for Marvel successfully won cases against the US Government, arguing that all Marvel Action Figures represent toys, not dolls. This means they are not ‘representing ONLY human beings’ (and therefore have 1/2 the tax to import).  Now we all know the X-Men ARE in fact human beings. So is the hulk, he has just been irradiated. So are pretty much all of the Marvel Superheros and Villans (at least until recently). 

But if you look at the Hulk’s skull morphology, it looks VERY different from other Anatomically Modern Humans. 

Hulk Skull Anatomy by Glendon Mellow

Hulk © Marvel Comics. This fan art has moral © Glendon Mellow. Share under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..

I. LOVE. That. Skull. But moving on…

When the attorneys for Marvel made their arguments, they didn’t talk about comics, or movies or TV shows. They talked about morphology and the action figures themselves.  They argued that beast is not human because he has blue skin, and humans do not have blue skin.  True.  But this says nothing of beast’s parentage, his intellectual abilities, his behaviors or his genetic makeup.  By using only the action figure, the attorneys have a limited data set that is missing a lot of important information about the character.  Yes Wolverine has claws. But you can’t tell they are implants from the action figure.

And this is why I think the action figures could be a great teaching tool for explaining the difference between a fossil species and a biological species.  If we watch an X-Men video, we can discover much more about the way these creatures engaged and interacted, and what their behavior is like. But if I hand you Beast and Wolverine action figures and ask you if they are the same species, you may very well say no. Because based on the data in front of you, you have to make an educated guess.  Over time I could hand you more X-Men. I could tell you several of them were found together in Professor Charles Xavier’s school. That would give you a nice range of morphology to compare, like the ‘First Family’ Don Johanson discovered just a year after he found Lucy  That is new data which might change how you interpret your figurines.

But my students will know, having seen X-Men videos, that these are all humans with some sort of mutation. In the same way that a woman with red hair has some different alleles than a woman with brown hair.  So perhaps, by forcing a student to limit his or her interpretations to action figures, the student will see how difficult this is, and why I don’t give them straightforward answers about the hominid family tree.

I should say, for many fossil species we DO have a lot of representative fossils. But we are exploring new sites and discovering new species all the time as well, and each time you start, you have limited data. For some species we start with just a tooth! It turns out primate teeth are extremely diagnostic, but that is some fine detective work you have to do there.


What do you think? Will this example work? Anyone have Marvel action figures they want to loan me this fall so I can try this out (or can you think of a granting agency that will cover their purchase!?)


I could continue this on and make the Hulk’s wife Caiera a Neanderthal, and the Hulk a Modern Human, and their son Skarr could be the Child of Lagar Velho fossil. But I think that might be jumping the Megalodon. Yeah, I just typed that.


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