The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, April 4, 2014

...and why are we in this handbasket?

Although I missed last month, I am participating in the final month of Doug's Archaeology's blog carnival. And, if you have not yet gone to Doug's archaeology, click this link here and go there immediately.

As per Doug's instruction: "The last question is where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go?"

I am really not sure about how to answer this question.

As I noted in an earlier post, I began my blog for multiple reasons, including the desire to tell stories about what archaeology is like, as well as to educate readers regarding various aspects of archaeology. In the years since then, the blog has served these purposes, and has also served as a platform for me to spout off about whatever topic is bothering me or things that I think are cool.

In the last year and a half, I have written very little, owing to work and family obligations. And in that time I have considered the question of whether or not I will continue blogging, and, if I do, what my goals will be.

I would like to continue, but I don't know how realistic that is. As my daughter gets older, she will require less constant one-on-one attention, which may free up some of my time. However, I am taking on more and more responsibilities at work, which take up more of my time. So, in the end, I don't know if I will have time to return to blogging on a regular basis. I hope to, but I don't know if I will.

If I do return, however, I would like to do three things:

1. Interact more with other archaeology bloggers. I feel as if I tended to be isolated, typing away in my own little corner of the internet with no real connection to other bloggers. But, of course, it doesn't have to be this way, and I can engage in various types of social blog activity (more blog carnivals, link-swaps, guest posts, etc.).

2. Focus. As my regular readers know, I tend to have a scattershot approach to blogging, writing about whatever odd thing happens to strike me as interesting at any given point in time. However, I would like to focus more on archaeology in general and CRM in particular. I would especially like to find ways to discuss CRM laws and regulations that move away from dry descriptions and gets into more entertaining narratives.

3. Enjoy my writing. I often enjoyed writing blog entries, but it was also sometimes stressful. For some time, I put a lot of pressure on myself to post three entries a week, and this meant that I frequently sweated as I tried to come up with things to write about. I would like to find that happy medium by which I can write routinely, but be comfortable on those occasions when I don't have anything about which to write.

I would also like to see the archaeology blogger community do two things:

1. Become a resource for the media. When the media want to speak with an archaeologist, they contact the local museum or university, and as such always get the perspective of tenured (or occasionally post-doc) academic archaeologists. The archaeological blogging community, however, contains undergraduate and graduate students, CRM archaeologists, faculty and museum staff, agency archaeologists, and field technicians. We're a much more representative sample of archaeology, and if we make ourselves well known, we can provide more and different perspectives to the media.

2. On a related note - provide an archaeological perspective on events. Earlier this week, the IPCC released it's report on global climate change, with a focus on adaptation. This has, understandably, generated a lot of media interest in how humans can adapt and maintain our current industrial civilization, and has also brought in those who are certain that our civilization will collapse. Archaeologists have a unique perspective regarding how humans have adapted to climatic and social changes, and we can help people understand what is going to happen (for example, my own grad school research into Native Californian adaptations to environmental change makes me think that we aren't staring down a Mad Max future if we don't deal successfully with the climate, but probably a reorganization of people at a more local level - but someone who specializes in Mayan archaeology might read this situation a different way).

There are many stories surrounding issues of ecology, politics, and society that could benefit from the perspective of archaeologists. Blogs are one of the many places where we can provide that perspective.

So, there you go, that's where I would like to see us headed.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pre-Paid Legal, Pyramid Schemes, and Religion

This post was originally written for the Skepchick website back when it was an on-line magazine rather than a blog. I twas later run on the blog. However, neither version of it still survives, and as such, I figured I would post it here. In the past I have at least attempted to contact them and let them know that I was re-posting stuff that I had originally written for them on my own blog. But as they have never actually replied to any such email, I'm not bothering this time around. If any of them read this and don't like that I re-posed it, they can contact me and let me know.

I entered the room and took my seat. I was there out of male stupidity. I had been invited by an attractive young woman, but, from what I had been told, I sincerely doubted that I would have any interest in buying the product that I had been told would be pitched. The dress of those around me – dark suits for most of the men and long skirts and pale blouses on most of the women – reinforced the notion that I was in business-land. Little did I know that I was about to be subjected to what amounted to the financial and psychological equivalent of a cult indoctrination.

The meeting was allegedly a sales pitch for the products hocked by a company called Pre-Paid Legal, a company that sells legal insurance. When I met Lucy (not her real name) at a party the previous week, she had invited me to the meeting, indicating that it would be simply an opportunity for me to hear about their products. What I discovered was that the entire “meeting” was structured as a religious gathering, geared at getting the audience to shut-off their critical faculties, and that the product that Pre-Paid Legal really wanted to sell was not legal insurance, but rather a pyramid scheme.

Pyramid schemes, Ponzi scams, and other such matters have gotten a fair amount of attention in skeptical circles. Typically, those who fall for them are labeled as greedy fools who didn’t bother to question what was really going on because they either were too stupid to get it, or else they allowed avarice to cloud their judgment. If my experience this evening was any indication, while greed plays an important role, the techniques used to hook and reel-in the unlucky participants may be just as important.

The Invitation
This had all started innocently enough. I was at a party at a friend’s house, and found myself in conversation with Lucy and her housemate. She had recently dropped out of college. When I asked why, she told me that she had found a job and no longer needed college. I then found myself in conversation with her about this, with me trying to convince her that she would find things easier in the future if she went back to college, and her insisting that she had found a company where she wanted to work the rest of her life in a manner reminiscent of a teenage bride who is convinced that nobody understands her (doomed) love.

As the evening began to come to an end, she invited me to attend a meeting at a local hotel in order to hear about her company’s products. While I wasn’t keen on buying legal insurance, I was interested in trying to meet up with Lucy again, and so I accepted the invitation and gave her my phone number. A few days later, she called to tell me the time and location of the event.

Religious Indoctrination
Upon reaching the hotel the night of the presentation, I noticed a general sense of desperate hope among the people assembled and waiting to be let into the room. I saw people who I recognized from the party as being part of the Pre-Paid Legal (PPL) team circulating and herding people into the meeting room once it was opened. At the door, a pair of other PPL folks tried to get the name and contact information for everyone entering the room (being the sort of person I am, I just walked in and ignored their pleas for me to give them my information).

I found a seat, the doors closed, and the sermon began. It quickly became apparent that we were not there to be sold legal insurance – we were there to be sold positions within PPL. Yep, this was a pyramid scheme, and as with all pyramid schemes, promises of riches were made to those who would plunk down some of their hard-earned (and in the cases of at least a few of the people in the room, desperately needed) cash in order to buy a “job.”

I did not choose the word sermon by chance or out of sarcasm, this sales pitch was, quite literally, a sermon. God was replaced by PPL, salvation by money, morality and earthly good by the material possessions that one could purchase with said money, and mother church by the pyramid scheme (AKA “Network Marketing,” AKA “Multi-level Marketing,” AKA “an absurd scam”, and so on…). Just as in many churches, the audience was encouraged to speak in unison at key moments (usually shouting words such as “opportunity,” “choice,” “money,” and so on). The origin of the company (a mythical story about the founder’s run-in with litigation) and many dramatic stories of people having the finances and often freedom saved by PPL were thrown out to an increasingly credulous audience. To add to the drama, a few different speakers approached the front, and would often begin weeping at key moments, showing the joy and overpowering emotion of having become one of the upwardly mobile (the financial equivalent of the “saved”), and having met their new friends through PPL (they would consistently indicate the troupe of grinning clones sitting on the sides). The message was cleared – join PPL and you will not only make money, but you will also be helping to save people, and you’ll gain the oh-so-bestest friends that you ever did have!

Just as in many churches, the sermon came to and end with testimonials where the faithful (those who had already made a commitment to PPL) were encouraged to tell their stories both to try to convert the heathen masses, and to reinforce the social pressure on those already involved. At the end of all of this, people were invited to come up and plunk down their money to purchase a position with PPL, just as the heathens are welcome to come up to the front of many churches after a service in order to be converted. No mention was made of the many controversies that PPL had been involved in (and talking with the “associates” later, I learned that they were woefully ignorant of these things as well), no discussion of risk/benefit analysis of putting one’s money into PPL was provided, and there was no mention made of the other players in the legal insurance industry (in fact, it was often implied, if not flat-out stated, that PPL was the only significant player, despite the fact that many larger, more stable and reliable insurance companies are in the field).

While there were many charts and figures projected on the screen at the front of the room to give the evenings activities the outward appearance of a business meeting, the structure was strictly that of an evangelical church service, and the language a mix of mythological and out-of-context business lingo, all aimed at both convincing the audience that this was a legitimate business meeting, and in getting the audience to feel well towards PPL without stopping to think critically about the financial and personal investment that they would be asked to make.

In short, this was less a business meeting than a religious indoctrination ritual that borrowed the tactics of Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic Christianity for a financial end.

Feel – Don’t Think
What bothered me most about the situation was seeing the enraptured look on the face of the people sitting around me. Listening in on conversations before we entered the room, it became clear that many of these folks were desperate. They were unhappy with their lives and their jobs (those who were lucky enough to be employed), and simply hoped for positive a change. Some had been told, as I had, that this would be a sales pitch for legal insurance, but most had been brought with the hope that they would find new employment, and they were desperate enough for a change that they wanted to believe. I do not know if PPL makes efforts to actively recruit these sorts of folks, but this was the result that I saw that evening.

Once these folks, who wanted to believe and were therefore vulnerable, were brought into the meeting room, the entire presentation, as described above, was geared at getting them to believe and not question. Watching the people in the seats around me, and listening to the chatter afterwards, it was clear that this sermon had accomplished its task, at least for the evening. Why wasn’t I also drawn in? Perhaps it’s because I have been to enough religious services at enough different types of churches to recognize the methods when I saw them. Perhaps my training as an anthropologist led to me to see the patterns behind the behaviors. Perhaps the fact that I am immediately suspicious of anyone who wants me to give them money is what tipped things. Perhaps it’s the fact that the evenings “special speaker” reminded me less of a sensible businessman and more of an especially slimy dope-peddler. Regardless, there appeared to be frighteningly few of us in the room (including many of the established PPL folks) who saw the night’s event for what it really was.

The entire structure of the evening, from the outburst of weeping on the part of the presenters, to the encouragement of people shouting back slogans and buzzwords was all geared towards a basic goal: make the audience feel that they are part of a select group, smarter than the rest, able to see an opportunity when it comes, and feel a sense of euphoria about it. Doing this in a group setting further allowed the organizers to make use of the tendency for people to become locked in a pack mentality, to not want to be the one nay-sayer in a room full of believers, to push people who might otherwise have been skeptical over the threshold into convert. That the euphoria was for a false cause and the opportunity illusory did not matter, because once they were hooked, PPL would get their money. These people were encouraged to link a good feeling about PPL to a good feeling about themselves, and critical analysis of the situation, the sort of thing that would show the situation for what it was, was discouraged.

Creation Myths and Other Confusions
In addition to the use of a religious sermon format, the PPL presentation borrowed from Protestant Christianity in another way – it used a creation myth to justify its existence and explain its mission.

The myth runs as so:
Harland Stonecipher was involved in an automobile accident in 1969. After the accident, he found himself being sued for by the other party in the accident, an unwarranted move as Stonecipher had not been at-fault. Faced with mounting legal fees and damages assessments, staring down a convoluted legal system that he did not understand, Harland felt lost and afraid. However, like any good mythological hero, he overcame and triumphed in the end.

The memory of this accident stayed with ol’ Harland, and he saw it as both a problem and a potential opportunity. Eventually he realized that he could help other people (and, it should be noted, stuff his own wallet) by offering legal insurance of the sort that he knew existed in Europe. This insurance would save the finances of those who, like him, were taken by surprise by a litigious individual. Moreover, this would help those who found themselves in trouble with the law and who might otherwise have to rely on overworked public defenders.

Now, Pre-Paid Legal is a booming business, publicly traded, well-respected by the legal community, and will probably cure cancer (okay, I made that last one up). All hail Harland Stonecipher, the great savior of mankind!

The truth of the matter was rather different. Stonecipher was indeed involved in an automobile accident. However, he was not immediately subject to an unprovoked lawsuit. Rather, he filed suit against the other party for a sum of $125,000. The other then filed suit against Stonecipher afterwards and settled for the much smaller sum of $3,000 (Cohen 2003). While Stonecipher’s suit may have been justified (I do not claim to know one way or another), the fact that he sued first and was then subject to a suit for a smaller amount of money does corrode away some of the hero-veneer with which he was laminated in the materials released by PPL.

Moreover, the product, legal insurance, is not the unique province of PPL. In fact many companies provide legal insurance, many with better coverage at better rates than what is offered by PPL. A number of employers offer legal insurance along with health insurance as part of a benefits package. When I asked an attorney who I know about PPL, they simply said “well, you can get better coverage elsewhere.” So, the wonderful and unique product of PPL is neither unique nor wonderful, it’s not even reputed to be particularly good. Our old pal Harland did not offer something new to humanity, contrary to the creation myth. He didn’t even offer something that was any better than what already existed. However, you would never know that from the legion of hard-sell masters whose methods, both as employed at PPL and elsewhere, have gotten the negative attention of many state regulators (Davis 2002).

On top of that, it has become open to debate whether or not PPL even provides the services it claims to provide. At least one court in Mississippi has decided that PPL has failed to provide the services advertised and as such was guilty of fraud (Davis 2005) (and Federal regulators have required that PPL begin reporting their profits in a more honest manner [Davis 2005]), and many folks I have encountered who have had dealings with PPL have told me horror stories concerning their inability to actually make use of legal insurance when they needed it. It is worth noting that roughly half of the folks who buy policies do not renew them at the end of the year (Davis 2002).

So, the origin is a myth. The value of the alleged product (as opposed to the one actually being sold, i.e. the “sales position”) is debatable and therefore largely mythical. Is it at least true that you can make a lot of money doing this? Well, sort of.

There are those who make a lot of money, but they are the ones who are extraordinarily successful at selling others on the idea of being a salesperson, those who actually spend their time selling the legal insurance are likely to lose money (Davis 2002; CBC News 2000). Moreover, the majority of those who recruit others into the company still don’t make much money on the deal (CBC News 2000). So, there are a few who do manage to make money at this, sometimes a fair amount of money, but they are few and far between, they do so not on the strength of their product but by pulling others into the cult of Stonecipher, and even these folks tend to have to jump from company to company (or scheme to scheme, as it were) as these schemes are not good long-term investments even if you are successful with it, the mathematics eventually causing the whole thing to fold in on itself (‘lectric Law Library N.D.).

As Cohan (2003) put it, the pitch is full of good stories, but these stories don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, the structure and setting of the pitch is such that many in the audience shut off their critical faculties and buy into it without applying that critical scrutiny.

Quoting Scripture
The coda to my PPL experience came two days later. Lucy called me up and asked why I had not committed to PPL that night. I simply stated that I was not impressed. Lucy pressed further, asking why I was unimpressed, so I told her that if she would give me twenty minutes I would explain.

I explained the basic instability of pyramid schemes, whether they call themselves Network marketing, multi-level marketing, or by any other name. I explained that I could see three possible futures for PPL – it burns out (like most pyramid schemes) and she is left empty-handed, it finally crosses the line (or is finally found to have crossed the line) of what is legal and is taken down by the authorities, or it becomes a standard insurance company and the current crop of salespeople find themselves increasingly disadvantaged, if not quickly unemployed, in a more standard corporate hierarchy.

She disregarded all of this and simply stated that she believed that I wasn’t “seeing the opportunity” (a phrase that was often repeated throughout the sermon a few nights earlier). I responded that I did see what was happening, I suspected I could see it more clearly than her, and that I was not interested, and I was again told that I was “obviously not seeing the opportunity.”

It was at this point that Lucy began quoting scripture. No, really. PPL has produced a good deal of material aimed at keeping the faithful recruiting. These materials are filled with inspirational stories (which, given the truth behind the Stonecipher story, I am not inclined to take on face value), and logically fallacious sayings aimed at shutting down the critics and converting the heathens. The next twenty minutes were spent with her quoting what amounted to “Chicken Soup for the Pyramid Scheme Soul” at me, me pointing out why I wasn’t buying it, her becoming frustrated, and then quoting another PPL tract, clearly wanting me to see the error of my ways. In the end, I was halfway shocked that she didn’t announce that she would pray to Ponzi and his messiah Stonecipher for my deliverance.

When it became clear that I wasn’t biting, she asked to put me in touch with someone higher up the food chain who, she felt certain, would be able to get me to see what I was missing. I declined. When at last the phone call ended, I could read the heavy sense of rejection and disappointment in her voice of the sort that I often hear from frustrated evangelicals upon discovering that they are unable to answer the questions of someone they’ve marked for conversion.

Religion, Symbols, and the Stifling of Free Thought
Whether what I experienced is common to PPL or simply the hard-sell method of a particular cell of folks within PPL, I cannot claim to know. What I do know is that it is no surprise that someone attempting to sell a shaky business model with a questionable product would resort to the methodology of born-again religion to do so. After all, both use emotion to push the convert to feel that they have made a good choice and are somehow superior the masses (whether because they are “saved,” allegedly “helping people,” or “on the road to riches”) and both fall apart when an intended convert begins asking tough questions. The difference is that born-again religion may have some beneficial effects for the average convert, while some basic research into the company suggests that PPL is simply likely to drains their bank account.

Ultimately, the reason why so many people in the room that night were entranced by the PPL pitch, despite its lack of logic or legitimate evidence, was that they were sold a set of symbols. The stories, images, and promises that were made were provided in a way orchestrated to imbue them with meaning, with values, and to question the legitimacy of the stories was to question the legitimacy of the values that they seemed to exemplify.

By leaving out a few relevant details, Stonecipher’s story of the accident and legal case takes a run-of-the-mill story of litigation and imbues it with the power of what many perceive to be out-of-control litigation and the helplessness that many feel when faced with the law. It provides hope to deal with these fears in the person of Harland Stonecipher, who single-handedly re-invented the way that legal representation works to save the masses. The story becomes mythic, it is imbued with meaning, it tells of the heroics of an individual, and how you can join him. To show intelligence and inquisitiveness and question the story is to question the legitimacy of what PPL is doing and the righteousness of the PPL converts, and in turn to question the opportunity for you to be a hero (and, or course, make wads of cash while doing it).

There were many other stories told the night of the pitch, and each of them had one thing in common with the story of Stonecipher’s auto accident: they took a rather mundane story and imbued it with meaning so that the act of selling either insurance or memberships through PPL became something more than a simple occupation. One thing priests have known for centuries – it’s harder for the faithful to question a story imbued with meaning than one that is not, and it’s easy for the infidel to be impressed by the conviction of those who are energized by myth, even if the story doesn’t match up with reality.


CBC News. 2000. Pre-Paid Legal Services: Worth the Money? Broadcast on April 11, 2000.

Cohan, Peter. 2003. Pre-Paid Legal is in Need of Better Reality, not Better Stories. OKC Business, July 28, 2003.

Davis, Melissa. 2002. Pre-Paid Legal’s Colorful Workforce. The Street.Com, available online on July 10, 2006 here. Davis, Melissa. 2005. Pre-Paid Weathers Guilty Verdict. The Street.Com.

Electric Law Library. N.D. How to Avoid Ponzi and Pyramid Schemes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Greatest Hits

So, Doug's Archaeology has a new question up for January: What are your best blog entries?

My two most popular, in terms of page views, are Ancient Aliens - The Test! and Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology, Part 1.

The Glenn Beck entry is one of three parts, and is basically a by-the-numbers explanation of a pseudoarchaeological claim. I enjoyed writing it, but it's not one that really sticks out in my memory. The Ancient Aliens entry is more of my typical sarcasm-mixed-with-Socratic-Method type of writing, and I quite enjoyed it. That being said, neither of these are my personal favorite entries.

I have edited this to mention that the most popular entries among my circle of friends include an ethnography of assless chaps, and one discussing the use of cats to generate electricity. While I very much enjoyed writing these, they are not my favorite entries.

No, my personal favorites, or which I personally consider the best, I would say that those would be my Wild and Wacky Forest Adventure entries, which are here  and here  (incidentally, these are photos from the project area). These aren't necessarily the best written, and as can be seen, I was still getting the hang of formatting my entries when I posted the first one.

Nonetheless, I love these entries for two reasons. The first is that the events detailed within them are a large part of the reason why I started this blog. As I was going through these rather odd series of events, I kept thinking to myself "if only people knew that this is what archaeology is really like." So, I created the blog, and began writing these entries. The discussion of archaeology is largely missing in these entries, and that is because the project was not all that interesting from an archaeological standpoint. It was a fairly standard survey with exactly the sorts of results that one would expect given the project area. But the various weird-ass events that accompanied fieldwork were memorable, and are the sorts of things that typically don't get discussed with the public or with aspiring archaeologists.

You may have noticed that these are not the first entries on my blog. The reason for this is that other things sometimes seemed more pressing, and I often would go with something that was easier to write rather than the thing that I actually wanted to write. However, I kept text files with the nascent versions of these entries on my computer for several years.

One of the ironies of these entries is that, despite the events described in them being the impetus for me starting this blog, I have yet to complete the story. There is so much more to tell about that project, from the various personnel that I had on the project (and their often unsanitary or eccentric habits), to the weird people that we encountered in the forest, to the freak weather conditions, to the bizarre public relations issues surrounding it. If I continue to keep a blog, and increase my output at some point, I will have more to say about it.

But there you have it - my personal favorite entries are the ones that have little to do with archaeology and everything to do with the strangeness of field work.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Once again, I am writing in response to Doug's Archaeology monthly blog carnival. The theme this time around is "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." So, without further ado, let's begin.
As usual, I will respond to Doug's questions:

The Good- what has been good about blogging. I know some people in their ‘why blogging’ posts mentioned creating networks and getting asked to talk on a subject. But take this to the next level, anything and everything positive about blogging, share your stories. You could even share what you hope blogging will do for you in the future.
The good is pretty simple: I tend to get positive feedback from people who are interested, and,w hen I was writing regularly, I had a number of regular readers who would post interesting comments and questions. Also, an added good, based on comments and emails that I have received int eh last couple of weeks, many of those readers are still around.

Also, it has been common for me to receive feedback providing information of which I had been unaware when I began writing on a topic. For example, when I wrote a post about the origins of acorn consumption, a reader who lived int eh southeastern portion of north America posted a comment letting me know about a species of oak in their neck of the woods that doesn't require the extensive processing for the acorn to become edible. This was a species of which I had been unaware (being based in California), but learning of it provided a bit more information regarding this food than I had previously possessed, which was very nice.
The Bad- lots of people mention it feels like talking to brick wall sometimes when you blog. No one comments on posts or very few people do. What are your disappointments with blogging? What are your frustrations? What do you hate about blogging? What would you like to see changed about blogging?
While I have had some regular readers who posted comments, and whose comments I enjoyed reading, there is significantly less feedback than I would have liked. This is, it seems, a function of the venue in which I write. there are thousands upon thousands of blogs, and I feel myself lucky to have gotten the number of readers that I have....but just as I rarely comment on the blogs that I read, my readers often don't comment here. On the one hand, this is fine, as I also like to read blogs but don't necessarily write back to the bloggers. On the other hand, it does make me wonder who is reading my posts, and what they make of them.

But, again, going back to the "good" - those comments I do get tend to be either of high quality, or complimentary, or both, and for that I am grateful

Getting away from the comments, there is another "bad" that I would like to mention, though it is one that is understandable, and unavoidable.  Because I work in cultural resources management (aka heritage management, aka contract archaeology aka environmental consulting archaeology aka etc. etc. etc.), all of the material I produce for a project, including field notes and photographs, are the property of my clients. While I doubt that many would care if I used photographs or information from the notes in blog entries, I am barred from doing so without permission - and very few of my clients are inclined to take the time to answer questions regarding whether or not I can use their materials in blog entries.  So, while I don't think it would be a problem, I never get an answer, and that makes it a bit more difficult to get material for entries.
The Ugly- I know Chris at RAS will mention the time he got fired for blogging about archaeology. It is your worst experiences with blogging- trolls, getting fired, etc.
I have, on the whole, been pretty lucky in this regard. I have had very few truly negative experiences, and almost no negative comments on my posts that are specifically about archaeology. However, I do occasionally get rather ugly feedback regarding some of my other posts.

For example, back in 2008, when I wrote about Proposition 8 here in California, the proposition that outlawed same-sex marriage in this state, a commentor began to respond in a way that was, rather clearly, just them trying to justify their own bigotries. The point they made that most stuck with me was that, if someone who is opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons is required to treat a homosexual couple as legally married, then this is, in their words "the tyranny of the masses" - though it never seemed to occur to them that the same couple having their rights withheld because of another persons completely arbitrary beliefs is an even bigger imposition on the people having their rights withheld, and therefore, could very definitely be considered "tyranny of the masses" in a much stronger and more meaningful sense. The same commentor would routinely write comments insisting that anyone who was not religious was a "moral free agent" incapable of actually having any sort of moral center.

The odd thing is that this person apparently knew me off-line, but because they commented under a pseudonym, I have no idea who they are.

Still, compared to what other bloggers have dealt with, this isn't all that bad, and I have been pretty fortunate.

The Ehhh...huh?

Although not part of Doug's question, there is one other element that I want to touch on briefly, and this is the stuff that's not really good or bad...just kind of there. I have consistently found these things amusing, but have never considered them to be either a boon or a curse. Unfortunately, after I read what I was sent, I didn't keep the links to these things, so I can't point you in their direction. I wish I had done so, as I did enjoy reading them, and writing this section made me want to go back and look again.

From time to time over the last five or so years is that I have discovered that individual blog entries have become...well, "popular" isn't the word, so much as "well known" in certain online communities, and often with bizarre and hilarious results.

The first time that this occurred, to the best of my knowledge, was when I wrote on the diets and overall health of prehistoric populations. I had tried to provide a decent overview of what we can determine regarding hunter-gatherer diets and health from the archaeological and ethnographic records, as well as discuss how variable diet and health can be across time and geography. A friend of mine sent me an email with a link to a website where some would-be new-age "teacher" was holding up my entry as an example of why lay-people shouldn't write about the human past. This person claimed to have "taught hunting and gathering" for ten years, and "know for a fact that hunters and gatherers are healthier, have longer life spans, and taller stature" than "modern people"...which would certainly be news to most hunter-gatherers. I wasn't sure which was more entertaining, that this lay person was trying to take me to task for being a lay-person, that they were so astoundingly factually wrong while insisting that they were wise and knowledgeable, or that they seemed to think that "teaching hunting-gathering" was a good career choice.

Another occasion saw someone at the Graham Hancock forums taking exception to me characterizing Graham Hancock as a know, which he is. Anyway, a few people on that forum took issue with me and discussed my dubious parentage, and apparently one of my readers pokes around on the forum enough that they spotted it and sent it to me, providing me with an hour or so of enjoyment. I have always figured that, if people who are fooled by Hancock and his ilk dislike me, I must be doing something right.

And the last one of these occasions was when another blogger decided that they disliked this entry.  They produced an entry on their own blog demonstrating that clearly I was ignorant of biblical history, and clearly an atheist (which is true, and also irrelevant), and obviously I was just out to destroy people's faith. It was quite the screed.

Anyway, so there's that entry. I hope to, again, take part int he blog carnival next month, but we will see.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Those two or three of you who still check in on this blog on a semi-regular basis are probably wondering why, after months, there is finally a new entry.  This Night of the Living Dead blog action is brought to you by Doug's Archaeology, who has organized a monthly blog carnival in the lead-up to the Society for American Archaeology annual meetings next year.  I will attempt to participate next month, as well.

This month, Doug has asked two questions, which I will attempt to answer, assuming that I can keep my natural blathering tendencies in check.  So, without further ado, the questions:

Why blogging? – Why did you, or if it was a group- the group, start a blog?

This blog did not originally start out as an archaeology blog, per se.  It was, and on those rare occasions when I update it, still remains a blog onto which I post pretty much whatever happens to be bugging me on any given day. Archaeology is a frequent subject simply because I am an archaeologist, and as a result it is often on my mind.

Blogging offered me an opportunity to do a few things:

1) Tell stories: Field work can be wonderful and exciting, but it is, at least as often, stressful and frustrating (at least if you are a supervisor). I realized that I had the opportunity to do a lot of things that other people could not, but I was often so stressed that I wasn't enjoying it. However, I found that even the worst field experience became considerably more tolerable when I realized that it would make a good story later. Blogging gave me an outlet for storytelling any time I needed it, which allowed me to better deal with stress, which, in turn, helped me focus on my job and be a better archaeologist.

2) Vent my spleen: As anyone who reads through my previous entries can see, I am something of a curmudgeon. I can be grumpy, and I am frequently irritated with the nonsense, pseudoscience, and pseudo-intellectual posturing that passes for public discourse on a variety of subjects. Having a place where I could develop my arguments and explain my opinions allowed me to better articulate my position, typically with less venom, when I was face-to-face with someone espousing dubious views. It also forced me to articulate my opinions, which often resulted in me thinking them through more carefully and sometimes changing my mind.

3) Entertain: I never had a huge following, but I did pick up some regular readers who seemed to enjoy what I was writing. Knowing that there were a few people out there who enjoyed my writing was, well, fun. It made the writing exciting. This is why many of my entries were completely humorous.

4) Inform: Archaeology is often misrepresented in the media, even by journalists who are genuinely trying to get it right. I enjoyed using this blog as a forum for trying to better explain issues. This was especially enjoyable with recent potentially pre-Clovis finds, where I found that I got a good deal of positive feedback from people who had been confused as to the nature of the issue and who didn't know who to believe.

I enjoyed blogging, and found that it made me a clearer thinker and better archaeologist.

Why are you still blogging?- or - Why have you stopped blogging? 

I have never formally stopped blogging...I just kind of haven't been doing it.

During the life of the blog, my reasons didn't change so much as shift. The numbered reasons above are in order of their original importance to me. If the original order was 1, 2, 3, 4, by late last year, when I stopped posting regularly, the order had probably changed to 4, 2, 1, 3.

As to why I haven't been posting regularly, well, the biggest reason for that is documented on this very blog. Becoming a father has taken up much of my free time, and what little free time I have left I have generally spent doing things other than writing.

In addition, I don't have quite as great a need to write. I still enjoy entertaining people, and I probably could stand to routinely research and write out my positions on various subjects (I realized recently that I have become a bit of an ideologue on a few issues - while I think that my position is correct and justifiable, I have a hard time understanding the opposing position, and therefore could probably stand to write things out).

However, the need to tell field stories as a way to deal with stress has become less important - I am a more seasoned and confident archaeologist, and no longer need to have quite the same outlet to deal with stress. While this reason for blogging became less important to me, it was nonetheless an impetus to continue writing. I have had a number of field experiences that make for great stories over the last year, but I no longer stress out over them the way that I used to, and as such don't have to re-frame them in my mind in order to maintain productivity.

I do enjoy writing, though, and keep promising myself that I will return to regular blog entries.  I just don't know when.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Puritans, Pilgrims, and the Taliban

Wow, it's been a while since I last wrote.  I am likely not going to be getting back to a regular schedule anytime soon, but I will be able to write occasionally.

I am a fan of Dan Carlin's podcasts, especially his show Hardcore History (a terrible name for a show, but an excellent podcast nonetheless).  The most recent episode, as of the time that I write this, is about the Anabaptist rebellion in/occupation of Munster, Germany in 1534-1535.

If you are interested in this historic episode, I strongly recommend that you listen to the episode (just click the link above).  But the thumbnail is this:  The Anabaptists were one of the early Protestant sects that arose after Martin Luther posted his list of theses.  They were far more radical than Luther himself was, and the Anabaptists gave rise to numerous sub-cultures, including several that were essentially communistic doomsday cults (yep, history is often weirder than fiction).  One such group became violent, and established a short-lived government in the German city of Munster, where they managed to hold off the local authorities for a time, while establishing a miniature totalitarian theocracy within the city itself.  They were eventually crushed by the city's Bishop (a secular as well as religious authority figure at this time in Munster), and the leaders of the rebellion put to death in a rather horrific manner (though one that won't surprise students of Medieval history).

This story has echoes throughout Europe.  In England, Protestant sects gained power under Oliver Cromwell, and established an authoritarian theocracy in England (though, to be fair, many would have considered the deposed-then-executed Charles I's monarchy to be authoritarian as well, and arguably also a theocracy as Charles I was also the head of the Church of England), and then near-genocidal campaigns against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland.  Under Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector, a role different than, though in ways comparable to, the king), England became hostile to things such as drama, dancing, etc.  In fact, the attitude of the government under Cromwell towards the arts and entertainments is rather reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban**.

Comparable stories played out across Europe, with Protestant sects rising, and committing acts of violence, including ones that we would now consider terrorism in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and on and on and on.

These stories fascinated me, but they do not surprise me.  They might, however, surprise many contemporary people in the United States.

There is a commonly held belief here in the U.S. that Middle Eastern violence and world-wide terrorism is a product of beliefs and ideals unique to Islam.  Islam, this belief holds, is unusual among the Abrahamic religions* in its advocation of violence.  Therefore, it is the only of these three religions that produces violence on the strength of the religion itself.  Sure, there have been evil/violent people who claimed to be Christian or Jewish, but they just used religion as an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway.  Islam actually causes the violence!

People who hold this opinion are thoroughly ignorant of history.

In part, the ignorance is willful.  People rarely want to acknowledge that the club to which they claim membership can produce bad seeds.  As a result, Christians tend to deny the role of religion in the European wars of the 16th through 18th centuries, but they are hardly alone.  Members of most ideologies that have produced violence tend to deny that the ideology produced said violence.  

In part, it's the fault of those of us who deal with the past professionally.  We have a hard time grappling with ideology, and as a result, tend to look for other causes for violence, when ideology may be the cause.  As is summed up by historian R. J. Knecht in his book The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598:

Many people nowadays attach little importance to religion.  Consequently, they find it difficult to believe that it played a major part in the civil wars that tore France apart in the late sixteenth century.  They look for other reasons: political, economic and social.  Religion, they argue, was merely a 'cloak' used by the great aristocratic families to give respectability to their ruthless pursuit of power.  But the sixteenth century was not the twentieth: religion did rule the lives of thinking people...  

...even today religion can move people to action, as is daily demonstrated in the Middle East and India...Material interests, including brutal power-hunger and greed, were certainly present in the French Wars of Religion, but religion was also crucially important.

Although Knecht focuses on religion, it is not unique.  Any sort of totalizing ideology - a belief system that claims to encompass either everything, or at least everything that matters for living in the world - is capable of producing the zealotry and hysteria necessary to create violence.  Religious violence is nothing new, likely having been with us from a very early in our time in our history as a species, but is has at times been joined by other ideologies as a source of violence - witness the anarchist bombings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example.

We know that Christianity is capable of the same types of violence as modern militant Islam not because Christianity shares many ideological underpinnings with Islam (though it does), but because Christianity has produced precisely the same sort of sectarian violence, political and social oppression, and acts of terrorism in the past.  Christianity still has the potential, and a theocratic undercurrent still breathes and seethes and seeks power (look up the Dominionist movements).  The story that we often hear is that Christianity gave rise to the Enlightenment (or, if the commentator dislikes the science and necessity of doubt that came with the Enlightenment, they will try to claim that Christianity is the source of the parts of the Enlightenment that the commentator likes).  The truth, though, is that Christianity was muzzled by commerce and politics, beginning in the Netherlands during the Renaissance, where city officials and business interests realized that persecution of religious minorities could be bad for profits.  The more peaceful Christianity that we know today is a product of historic de-fanging, a religion that has been molded by social currents and mores, as much as (if not more than) it has influenced the social currents and mores.

The rise of ideological authoritarian states has happened many times before...and it sure as hell will happen again.  While religion is typically the cause (being the most common potentially authoritarian ideology among humans), it can also occur with non-religious ideologies (noteworthy 20th Century examples include Nazi Germany, the rise of the U.S.S.R., and Cambodia under Pol Pot).  Similarly, the rise of ideological violence and terrorism is also nothing new.  Essentially, all that is required is for some group to conclude that they know they absolute truth, and believe that they, therefore, have the right to impose that truth on everyone else.

But we need to not be ignorant of history.  We need to acknowledge that while the technologies and means used by ideological zealots may change, their presence seems a constant.  We need to acknowledge that our own religions and political ideologies could, potentially, lead to chaos and violence - in part we need to acknowledge this to keep ourselves humble and not demonize our opponents, and in part we need to do so in order to prevent our own creeds from becoming the enemies that we loathe.

*Worth noting: many people who hold this belief would leave out the Abrahamic religion part, as many people who believe this are so thoroughly ignorant of Islam that they are unaware that it shares a good deal with Judaism and Christianity.

**Monty Python produced a funny and informative song about the English civil war:

...or, if you have a bit of a different set of tastes, I will happily recommend Mark Steele's version to you:

***Though I would note that their own actions were a result of the overall form of communism to which they adhered, where atheism was a part, but not in any way the whole.  In much the same way, while most people are loathe to admit it, Protestant Christianity (specifically Lutheranism) was a part of Nazism, but it was in no way the whole of Nazism.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ahistoric Blame Game

It happens every now and again, admittedly less often now that I live in Fresno, that I will be speaking with someone from Europe, and they will say something ot the effect of "I don't think that you Americans should assume that you have any right to talk about racial relations, after slavery and what you did to the Native Americans!"

They never seem prepared for my response, which is "yeah, you're right, our nation did continue to implement and further develop the policies put into place by England, France, Spain, Germany, etc."  I usually follow this up with "so, let's talk about your country's history in Africa/India/Asia/etc."

It has been my experience that Europeans often accuse Americans of being the slavers and genocidal maniacs who went after Native Americans, despite the fact that anti-Native American policies originated with early European colonists from throughout Europe, and the racially-based African slave trade as we would come to know it originated in Portugal and spread throughout Europe, from where it eventually spread to the Americas along with European colonists.  And, indeed, one of the reasons why slavery continued as late as it did in the U.S. is because cotton markets, including those in Europe, were comfortable with purchasing the products manufactured through slave labor.

Within the United States, we tend to blame the south for slavery, despite the fact that many northerners were not opposed to (and some even supported) slavery, and even where slavery was outlawed it would still appear under the guise of indentured servitude, prison-based hard labor passed out out of proportion to the crimes of the accused, and debt labor.

And on it goes.

The problem with this blame-game is twofold:  1) it is ahistorical, it requires us to be willingly (and often intentionally) ignorant of history; 2) it allows us to view the "others" who engaged in these policies as separate from us, different from us, and therefore allows us to ignore the role that our nation, or even we ourselves, may play in this.

Obviously, as someone who professionally deals with history, I have a special concern about #1.  I strongly feel that we should know our past, as accurately as possible, warts and all, and ignoring the culpability of our own culture in the sins of the past counts as a failure.

But #2 concerns me as a human who has to live in this world, in the here and now.  When we portray ourselves as being more enlightened and fundamentally different as creatures from those who committed past atrocities, we not only ignore the capacity of our own culture to produce equivalent atrocities, but we also ignore that we are sometimes culpable in the atrocities.  It's why the people of Ohio can feel superior to the American South's history of slavery and Jim Crow laws while fostering conditions in cities that have continued racial conflict.  It's why European government officials can persuade themselves that they are better and more enlightened than the U.S. in terms of race relations, despite the fact that Europe has increasingly worse problems with immigration and assimilation than the U.S.

Ahistoric blaming isn't just lazy scholarship, it's also a problem for those who are concerned about what is going on in the here-and-now.  It's a shell game that people (en masse in the forms of both regional and national electorates) use to tell themselves that their decisions are alright, or even good, while equivalent past decisions of other nations were horrible and should be looked down upon.  It allows us to put a false distance between "us" and "them" and therefore falsely assert that our decisions are better, smarter, and more just, when they are, in fact, almost identical.