The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 27, 2008

Headin' Back Out...

So, I'll be out in the forest for another week, maybe two. Hopefully, this will be the last time I go.

At any rate, have a good time, everyone, and I'll write when I return.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'm a Sick, Sick man...

I have spent the last two days at a "data sharing" meeting and supervisor's meeting for my company. We have been listening to talks by our colleagues regarding the projects that they have been engaged in over the last year, and we have also been subject to lectures on matters ranging from workers comp to health insurance to harrassment training.

Yesterday, the lecture on workers compensation insurance included a discussion of the modifiers used to determine insurance rates. Most everyone bitched about this for the rest of the day and well into today. I found it interesting.

Yep, I found an obscure mathematical formula used by the insurance industry to determine insurance rates interesting.

I think I may need psychiatric help.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Another Field Work Lesson Learned

As regular readers know, I was out of touch for two weeks at the beginning of the month, digging holes in the forest. I will be going back out next week to finish some work. I will be dealing with two different sites, one of which is a six mile hike along a rough trail from the nearest road, and I will be performing archaeological survey in a location that, for a variety of reasons, could not have been dealt with before. The reason that I am digging holes in these two sites is to examine what is present below the surface and make a determination as to whether or not these sites qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. If the qualify, then the federal agencies involved in the project that is justifying this work will have to manage these sites as historic resources. If they do not qualify for listing, the agencies might be able to ignore the sites from here on out (depending on the agreements that they reach with other stakeholders in the project).

One of the sites that I will be dealing with was originally recorded as a historic archaeological site. It represents the remains of a shepherd’s cabin (the building is no longer standing) and the debris associated with life at the cabin (food cans, beer cans, the remains of a bed that have inexplicably been cut in two and placed at two separate locations, and some weird early-20th century electronic equipment – this really is the setting for a bad sci-fi novel). While we were digging, we found evidence of a prehistoric component to the site – so, it’s not just the historic cabin remains and it’s trash, we were also finding arrowheads, spearpoints, bifaces (a type of stone tool that has been worked on two faces to create an ovoid blade shape), and a few by-product flakes from making the tools.

Well, when we were out there the first time, we dug a few shovel probes (relatively small holes dug at 20-centimeter intervals to get a rough idea of what is under the ground) in the central portion of the site, and a few on the western edge, as that is where any construction from the project would be hitting the site. We found nothing on the western edge, and only a small amount in the central portion, and we dug very little on the southeastern edge, where the prehistoric materials seemed to be concentrated because that area would not be impacted by the construction project. We figured that we were good – if the site was eligible for listing, and it didn’t look like it was, then we had confirmed that this particular project would not impact the site. We figured that our work was done.

I get back to the office, and tell my boss about our results. He asks if we had enough information to give a confident assessment of the boundaries of the prehistoric component. I responded that we did not, as we had concentrated on the portions of the site likely to 1) hold the materials that would allow us to assess the eligibility to the National Register, and 2) the site boundaries in the area likely to be impacted. I had thought that my boss would be impressed at my foresight and targeted use of resources.

He was not.

My boss, who has a hell of a lot of experience in dealing with these types of issues, pointed out a few things to me. The first is that, while it is true that I had made a determination as to the likelihood of the project to impact the site, AND I may have the information necessary to determine National Register eligibility, the two federal agencies with which we were dealing may nonetheless elect to manage the site as a historic resource due to either public pressure or pressure from stakeholders (such as historical societies, Native American groups, etc.). This being the case, the boundary of the site would become important.

The second was that, even if the agencies chose not to manage the site, our client (itself a county agency) might decide to do so for the same types of reasons that the agencies might rely on. So, we were once again in a position where more information would be helpful, even if the site was not eligible for listing.

The third was that, even in the absence of register eligibility, the federal agencies would see the acquisition of site boundary information as valuable and as evidence that our client had made a good-faith effort to meet the federal agency’s needs. This was likely to make matters easier for our client even if the site itself was ultimately regarded as unimportant.

And so I learn a lesson on how both the regulations and politics of a project can have impacts on fieldwork that are not obvious from the get-go. A valuable lesson, if one that can be a bit embarrassing to learn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Request

A few particular posts seem to generate alot of comments, and many of these comments are critical, which is all to the good, really. I welcome criticism, as it invaluable to learning. And, lets face it, like everyone else, I have opinions on many subjects on which I am no expert. Where I am mistaken or incorrect, I'd very much like to know. Moreover, the thoughts that I am carrying about in my skull don't always make it completely onto the screen, and as I can "fill in the blanks" based on what I am thinking, I may not be aware that the links between the different points I am attempting to make are not always clear to the reader. Again, it's useful to have this pointed out.

For example, say I make comments about the oil business. What do I know about the oil business? Not much. I can make arguments based on information that I do have, but I know very well that I may be missing important information, and if someone who knows more can provide information that I am missing (and may not be aware that I am missing), then, hey, good deal.

Likewise, as you have probably noticed, I am more than willing to make comments on contemporary politics and various social issues. Again, I am no expert, I can draw conclusions based on what I know, but there is likely to be relevant information that I am unfamiliar with and not aware that I am unfamiliar with - if you notice this and can fill me in, I'd greatly appreciate it.

And if my thinking seems muddled, well, it could mean one of two things: 1) my thinking is in fact muddled - if you can indicate how it is muddled, then that is great, and I would certainly benefit from it, or 2) my writing (rather than my thinking) is muddled because I have failed to include or fully explain my bridging arguments, thus making my conclusions seem disconnected from my line of thought - again, if you see this, let me know.

So, if you have a point to make - make it, and make it clearly. If you think I am out of line, mistaken, or am making a bad argument, let me know. If the reasoning behind a conclusion seems odd, out of place, or just plain bizarre, point it out and see if the point can be explained more clearly. But do it in a way that might actually be useful and gets at what is wrong, and doesn't come off as an attack (and, really, part of the problem with text communication is that we loose so much context that even gentle ribbing or friendly sarcasm can come off as hostile when it is not intended as such).

One last point - I am well aware that I can and do write things that are inflammatory from time-to-time. Often, though not always, it is because I am frustrated or pissed off. Some folks will take the tone offensively, and that's fair enough, and they may make comments reflecting how they took the tone. In these cases, if I think a case can be made that I have been unnecessarilly insulting, I'll figure that I had it coming. I am probably overly-fond of the term "bigot" for example, and my frustration with many of our cultural oddities can lead to me being insulting when I really shouldn't be, and I need to be more cautious.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Measure of our Madness

Ahhh, election season is upon us. We have the usual empty promises, politicians pandering to special interest groups (and, unlike most people, I am not so delusional as to think that I myself am not a representative of one or more special interest groups – we all are), and, here in California, the usual raft of ballot initiatives which run the usual gamut from sensible (useful discussion about whether or not we should accrue more public debt with the goal of improving infrastructure, education, public transportation, etc.) to the mind-numbingly stupid to the disturbing.

Chief of the disturbing is Measure 8. It is deeply disturbing due to the fact that so many of its adherents are blinded by emotion, cultural training, and bigotry as to the true nature of the measure.

Measure 8, for the uninitiated, is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Support for this measure follows from one of the most disgusting forms of conclusion-based reasoning – people have decided that homosexuals are bad, and are therefore A) opposed to recognizing them as fully human (and a lot of people will say that this is false – but if you are denying them a right that you willfully give everyone else, then you are failing to recognize them as fully human, no matter how much you try to delude yourself into believing otherwise), and B) will find all manner of rationalizations for this course of action, denying all the way that they are rationalizing.

There are two particular lines of rationalization that I see time and again:

1) Homosexuals choose to be sinful homosexual, and
2) Homosexuality is a mental illness.

Let’s start with the second point first. The claim that homosexuality is a mental illness comes from work done in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Up to that point, and really through relatively recently, homosexuality was, for no apparent reason other than religious prohibitions (themselves owing more to ancient Hebrew prohibitions against sexual rituals for the simple reason that such a prohibition set the Hebrews apart from the surrounding tribes, not because there was a problem with the rituals per-se), treated as little more than a criminal offense (talk about your bizarre victimless crimes).

The notion that it was a mental illness developed when psychiatrists began to interview and study homosexual men who came to them worried about their sexual orientation and bothered by other aspects of their lives. Psychiatrists soon believed that they had found a few patterns in the upbringings of these people including parental neglect and early childhood abuse* (considering what was found later, I am skeptical that these patterns were not illusory).

Things started to change in the 1950’s. The most obvious change came in the form of the work of Alfred Kinsey, who began studying human sexuality in the late 1940’s and whose work exploded onto the scene in the 1950’s**. Among his findings were the fact that sex was more widespread than had been thought (or in other words, it wasn’t limited to heterosexual couples and moral reprobates with prostitutes), and that human sexuality wasn’t strictly “heterosexual” or “homosexual” except in a few rare cases, but rather was best represented by a spectrum with hetero- and homo-sexuality at the ends and most people falling somewhere in between (though typically near one of the ends). While Kinsey’s work has been critiqued and re-worked, the basic models have remained more or less intact. So, the traditional models of sexuality were left in ruin.

The other thing that happened is that a small group of psychiatrists recognized a basic methodological flaw in the reasoning behind the “homosexuality as mental illness” model – it was based entirely on work with homosexuals who were suffering from more general psychological problems. When these psychiatrists began to study homosexuals who lacked any such problems, who were perfectly happy and normal people by and large, they found no pattern of abuse or neglect. And as these new results were brought into the broader studies, the rates of abuse and neglect amongst the homosexual population began to normalize and look pretty much like the rest of the population.

In other words, evidence that homosexuality was mental illness began to erode, and by the 1970’s had been chucked on the trash heap of history.

Since then, research into human sexuality has found that human sexuality is a remarkably complex and multi-faceted thing, and our usual labels are probably insufficient to truly describe it. However, one thing that has come out is that homosexuality is simply a normal part of the human sexual spectrum, and not an illness. All of the data has borne this out, and those who believe otherwise routinely show their total ignorance of all research into the subject.

Which brings us to the first objection that people often give to treating homosexuality as normal – they claim that homosexuals choose to be that way.

The usual formulation that I hear on this is one of two things: “Well, I could have chosen to be gay, so they must have chosen to!” or “it’s too complicated to be genetic, therefore it’s not biological!”

To the first one, research in human sexuality has found that it is common for the vast majority of people to have occasional interest in other members of their sex. In our culture, and in fact in many cultures, the usual practice is to suppress these urges, and as for most people they are not long-lived, they tend to go away (except under a few specific types of situations – consider the history of Sparta, for example). For this reason, it is common for people to look at these occasional flashes of interest and conclude that they could have “chosen to be gay.” But that’s not what this actually means – give in to them or not, these interests go away. For someone who trends towards homosexuality, on the other hand, they do not. So, no you cannot “choose to be gay” or to be straight – it has to do with desires that you have no real control over. You can control your actions – whether or not you act on your desires – but not your desires.

To the second one, people constantly conflate the terms “genetic” and “biological”. All things that are genetic are, by definition, biological, but not everything that is biological is genetic. Everything from differences in nutrition to exposure to diseases to some types of variances in immune systems are biological without being genetic.

What’s more, study of human sexuality has found a wide range of things that appear to feed into formation of sexual orientation. Genes do seem to play a role, but only one role of many. Other factors ranging from pre-natal to neo-natal environment, variations in hormones, etc. etc. all appear to play a role. In truth, sexual orientation probably owes to a lot of different factors. The one factor that seems to play little role is individual choice. The nature of one of the elements that is core for most of us is out of our control.

So, then, if homosexuality is not a choice and not a mental illness, then why are people so convinced that it is? Simple. The only real argument against it comes from religion, where it is treated as a sin. If it is a sin, then it must be a choice, otherwise you would simply be as God made you and the Bible would be wrong (of course, the notion of sin with an omnipotent and omniscient and benevolent being having set everything into motion doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny anyway, but that’s another matter). Some people are able to dodge the mater by treating it as an illness, so that a person can be “set right” and it becomes permissible to oppose them “for their own good.”

Both positions are simply examples of conclusion-based reasoning, wherein the conclusion is reached first and the “evidence” found later, ignoring all evidence that goes against the chosen conclusion (it is no coincidence that many, though not all, of these folks are also creationists, and engage in the same tactics of “evidence” gathering).

Some folks will go a bit farther and claim that homosexuality is bad for society. There is a wide range of arguments that people make for this, but I have yet to see one that stands up to scrutiny. Some will claim that homosexuals are more likely to be child molesters (not true, the belief gets carried because it reinforces existing bigotries, but it doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny), the homosexuals are more likely to be promiscuous (in some communities there is some truth to this, but consider that this is likely in large part due to the fact that the people making these anti-gay arguments also try to use the force of law to destroy monogamous relationships, and, well, it looks like this promiscuity is at least in part due to the success of anti-homosexual activists – also consider that there are plenty of promiscuous heterosexuals, who do you think keeps the Nevada brothels in business?), that homosexuals are more likely to suffer diseases such as AIDS (while AIDS hit the gay community hard early on, it currently is ravaging heterosexual minority communities at an alarming rate), and so on. Even in those cases where there is some truth to the claim, promoting marriage between people would reduce the problems by recognizing the relationships, promoting monogamy (and therefore reducing the spread of disease), and establishing stronger bonds of responsibility between individuals.

In other words, same-sex marriage would solve many of the problems that its opponents point to.

So, then, Measure 8 would be preventing the marriages of people who are of sound mind, and who are following a desire with another legal adult*** that they have no more control over than a heterosexual person does, and would also be reinforcing the legitimate problems that exist within some portions of the homosexual community. So, from that standpoint, opposition to same-sex marriage makes no fucking sense.

And then we get to the part that will make my Libertarian sisters very happy with me.

Ask yourself a question – do you really want the government having much say over your personal life? So long as you are doing nobody any harm, how is it any of the government’s business what you do in your marriage?

I find it both fascinating and frustrating that the same people who support the gay marriage ban also tend to shout slogans such as “the government that governs least governs best!”

Apparently this only applies to large corporations and people in positions of power. When it comes to you or me, these same nominal “conservatives” are in favor of all manner of government interference in the most intimate elements of our personal lives.

There is no good public policy reason to ban same-sex marriages. To claim otherwise is to simply feed one’s own bigotries. And a truly politically conservative position would embrace the removal of yet another needless law and pointless government interference. So, by supporting this, those who would call themselves “conservatives” show their true colors – they are authoritarians, wanting our personal lives rules by laws from on high rather than our own consciences except where we harm others. This is not a conservative position, it is an authoritarian theocratic position. We have outgrown these as a species, and we need to realize that.

So, to put a long story short, with Measure 8, we have the option of taking yet another step on our road to growth and improvement as a species, or we can chuck logic, reason, evidence, and reality, and continue to marginalize people for no reason other than to reinforce old bigotries. What is it going to be, do we give in to the better nature of humans, or do we continue to wallow in our ancient an bestial nature?

*Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it has become extremely common in recent years to see many Christians claim that atheism is caused not be someone actually thinking the matter through and realizing the rather obvious fact that there is no evidence to support god-belief, but rather due to abuse and neglect. I guess some people will always try to throw bigotry against those unlike them, rather than simply face that those people might be something other than victims or monsters.

**Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s work got a lot of reaction from people who weren’t interested in how he reached his conclusions, only in the fact that they disliked his conclusions. Amongst these were the authors of a book called “None of These Diseases” which claimed to systematically and scientifically prove Kinsey’s work wrong. How did they do this? Well, by systematically chucking science out the window and quoting the Bible. Go figure.

***Usually, someone will try to claim that if we allow homosexual marriage, then we also will soon have to allow pedophilia. Well, since homosexuality doesn’t actually cause anyone trouble, and pedophilia does, everyone other than the scum at NAMBLA would be opposed to pedophilia. If worries about pedophilia are your first reaction, then, I hate to break it to you, you are a bigot, and you need to find a way to deal with your bigotries,

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Have Survived

So, despite being snowed on, nearly frozen, nearly dumped into a freezing lake, having a limping bear careen out of the woods and nearly run into my truck, having been abandoned by a boatman and having therefore had to lead my crew on a six mile hike on a rough trail in the dark in an area occupied by animals that have been known to do in hikers, being menaced by corporate types for having dared to try to use a phone, and just generally having been kicked around by both nature and man for the last two weeks, I am back.

There is still some unfinished business in the forest - and my boss wants to me return this fall or winter to take care of it, though I am hoping that we can put it off until the Spring or Summer.

Regardless, it's good to be home, and I think I'll have some good tales to tell you folks over the next few weeks. In the mean time, I'm just happy to be home.

Monday, October 6, 2008

See ya' in 10

I am still working at 8 pm on a day that was supposed to be my day off, I am dealing with an upleasant client, I am having to deal with confusion on my boss's part, and and I just wrote a post and tried to post it only to have Blogger screw up and delete it.

Crappy day.

I'll be gone for ten days, out camping in the forest for work. I'll write when I get back, sometime around the 16th.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Recently, I went back out to Hell Hole Reservoir, this time with a group of representatives from the Native American organizations* on whose ancestral land the project that our client proposes is taking place. I was anxious before we headed out – there were several representatives of several different native organizations present, and my experience in the past is that where there are several organizations represented, each tends to view the others as interlopers and at best tension is created, at worst, the situation can become explosive and even violent (in Southern California, these situations sometimes turned into fist fights).

I needn’t have worried. While all of the individuals had their own interests and priorities, all worked well together, and seemed to respect each other. That was good…very good. Indeed, one fellow began asking questions that seemed to be aimed at provoking the others, but it quickly became apparent to everyone that he wasn’t trying to upset them, but rather to help them understand the sorts of questions that they would have to be prepared for, as these would come from the regulatory agencies. So, the one who seemed like a troublesome individual at first ended up being extremely valuable.

The other thing that had me anxious, again based on past experience, is that often when native groups do get along, it is because they have what they view as a common enemy, and often that is the archaeologist. Indeed, it was not beyond question that the whole trip could have turned into a game of “whack-a-anthropologist.” Again, though, I needn’t have worried. While it was a given that we weren’t always going to see eye-to-eye, it was understood that we all had our priorities where they were for valid reasons, and everyone worked well together as a result. All in all, it was a good trip.

I had to duck out of the second day of the trip, however, as I needed to complete some archaeological surveys at remote locations. These locations were so remote that they could not be reached by car or by hiking – we were to be flown out to the locations by helicopter.

I am the son of an aircraft mechanic. Specifically, I am the son of a helicopter mechanic. This being the case, it is rather remarkable that I had not flown in any form of aircraft until I was 25. And I did not fly in a helicopter – the aircraft that my father has spent so much of his life working on – until I was 32.

On that morning, I stood near the landing pad, itself on the edge of a cliff, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Due to the odd acoustics of the mountains, the sound of the helicopter would appear and then vanish, and sometimes sound like something other than what it was. After about five minutes of listening to this weird chimerical sound, the helicopter finally arrived.

The pilot, a fellow named Scott, gave us a quick safety briefing – essentially amounting to three basic rules:

1. Don’t fall out of the helicopter while it is flying.
2. Don’t get hit by the helicopter’s blades when it’s on the ground.
3. The results of failure to follow rules #1 and/or #2 will be worse for you than for the pilot.

With this nut o’ wisdom gained, we were off.

We entered the helicopter and strapped in, the odd 4-part seat belt with spring-loaded buckle (for quick removal) seeming unfamiliar but not uncomfortable. The pilot increased the engine throttle, and the blades above us began to turn faster. After a moment, we were leaving the ground.

This felt wrong. In an airplane, the lift comes from the wings at the side, and so it feels as if you are being pushed off of the ground. In a helicopter, the lift comes from the rotors at the top, so it feels like you are being lifted up by a skyhook – a rather disconcerting feeling, really. As we rose up, I felt my heart beat a bit faster, but I was okay. I looked through the windows at my feet (a rather odd feature of helicopters, but one that makes sense, is the windows at the feet of the people in the front), and saw the ground drop away. After a moment, I began to get used to this, and then the helicopter began to move forward.

Do you remember a few paragraphs ago, where I mentioned that the landing pad had been built on the edge of a cliff? Ummm…yeah…well…

As the helicopter moved forward, we suddenly went from being 20 feet above the ground to being close to 500 feet above the ground. My stomach dropped into my pelvis while my heart simultaneously lodged in my throat in a failed attempt to invade my skull. I looked down into the canyon below us for a moment, before I realized that I’d probably be better off looking forward. As there were no arm rests, I took to clamping my very white knuckles over my knees.

Despite my best efforts, I kept sneaking peaks down into the canyon below, and thinking such cheerful thoughts as “you know, if the helicopter suddenly stopped working, we’d just plummet to our deaths, and from this height, that’d take a bit of time, and we’d be conscious of our impending doom the entire way down…OHMYFUCKINGODPUTTHISTHINGBACKONTHEGROUND!”

The pilot looked over to me as I quietly whimpered into the comm. System (oh yeah, that’s another thing, the helicopter is so loud that everyone inside wears a microphone and ear phones so that we can communicate) and asked “You doing okay?”

I held back the urge to scream “You madman! Do you not see that this mode of flight is an abomination, offensive to the very gods themselves? Did you learn nothing from the tales of Daedalus or Phaeton? Put this foul whirlybird back on the ground before you incur the wrath of lord Apollo himself!” and instead simply stated a quiet and unconvincing “yes.”

“Okay” he replied in a cheerful tone of voice, meanwhile increasing our speed and moving us out over the reservoir.

After a few minutes of the twenty minute ride, I calmed down, and actually began to enjoy myself. The view of the project area was amazing, and there was a joy to be had in watching the mountain ridges and peaks pass below us as we glided along. Finally, we came to our destination…sort of.

Looking down at the landing spot, it bore a resemblance to the air photos, but didn’t look quite like it. Also, it was marshy – Scott had to keep the helicopter from sinking into the mud when we finally touched down. At his suggestion, I jumped out of the cockpit and went to the luggage hatch to grab my maps out, sinking to my ankles in mud and stagnant water everytime I took a step. I reached the luggage hatch, and pulled my maps out, and then slogged back to the cockpit, splatter mud on the lower windows as I landed back in my seat.

I handed the maps to the pilot, and watched with a mix of amusement and irritation as his face took on a horrified expression. He then began pushing buttons on his GPS unit, and went from horror to confusion, and then resignation.

“They gave me the wrong coordinates! This site is ten miles to the southeast!”

And with that, we ascended again for another 20-minute helicopter ride. This next ride was much easier on me, and I didn’t experience any of the anxiety. Finally, we descended into a meadow, this time it was clearly the right location, the field technician and I got out and retrieved our equipment, and the helicopter left.

We spent the next three hours performing our surveys, finally finishing just as we heard the blades of the helicopter violently splitting the air somewhere to the west of us. After a few minutes, the helicopter descended, we stowed our equipment in the cargo hatch, climbed inside the cockpit, and we were off again. Once again, the liftoff and flight was actually enjoyable, and the fifteen minute flight to the next location as over too soon – though the landing was a bit nerve wracking as we had to do a near-vertical descent due to the density of the trees surrounding the landing site. Once again, we pulled our equipment out and set to work as the helicopter flew away.

A few hours later, we had completed our surveys and were preparing for a bit of a rest when we heard the helicopter once again coming our way. As soon as it landed, we put our equipment back in the storage compartment, climbed in, and were unnerved by the fact that the helicopter didn’t seem to want to lift off. The helicopter has a maximum height of 6,000 feet, and the mountain was approximately 5,500 feet up, resulting in a hard climb for the aircraft. After a few moments that were tense for me, though the pilot didn’t seem to mind too terribly much, we were off and moving – though we barely cleared the trees at the end of the meadow.

I don’t know if it was the change in temperature, in wind currents, or what, but the ride back to the landing pad was much more turbulent than any other ride that day. We kept feeling the helicopter dip as we rode towards the landing pad – and each time, I found my tension rising, until, for the first time since that morning, I was simultaneously figuring out how long it would take use to fall, and what type of death we’d be likely to face if the helicopter suddenly stopped functioning.

Thankfully, this trip was also the shortest one of the day, and we were soon back on the ground. The field tech and I exited the helicopter, retrieved our equipment for the last time, and headed towards the truck, our knees shaking the entire time. We put our gear in the back of the truck, and then climbed in. As we sat down, we both looked at each other, and the tech said what we both were thinking:

“Well, I can now say I’ve flown in a helicopter. And I am in no hurry to do it again.”

So say we all.

*The usual term used for these organizations is “tribes”, but I avoid using it except in regulatory and legal contexts where the term is used in regulations and guidelines. With the Possible exception of the Yokuts, the social organization of Native Californians before Europeans arrived was at the level of the band, lineage, or village (or possibly chiefdom), not at the much larger level of the tribe. In fact, most Californian anthropologists refer to organization here as “tribelets” – as it was generally more sophisticated than a band, but didn’t incorporate as many people or as large a geographic area as a tribe.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Knight Templar Who Ate Cincinatti

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the guest of the show’s host was talking about alleged evidence that the Knights Templar had been in North America prior to Columbus (no, I’m not making this up). His evidence came in the form of some petroglyphs (rock art carved into the rock rather than being painted on the rock) that he believes show armored men and that he claims dated to before the 15th century (based on the usual “well, there’s these guys who know what they’re doing, and I’m not going to tell you who they are, but they know what they’re doing, and they say it’s real old!”). I tried looking up the petroglyphs in question and could not find them (though I admit that my web-fu is weak), but based on what he was saying, I suspect that he either found clearly historic petroglyphs (sometimes, bored farmers and ranchers would carve their own rock art), or was misinterpreting prehistoric petroglyphs.

When asked by the host of the show why archaeologists weren’t all over this if he claim was true, the guest replied, predictably, that archaeologists have “too much invested in the story that Europeans weren’t in the Americas before Columbus” and that we archaeologists would be risking our jobs, book deals, and general financial well being if we admitted that maybe there were Europeans in the Americas before Columbus.

Really, only someone who is completely ignorant of the nature of archaeology as a field of employment could make such an amazingly stupid statement.

First off, most archaeologists work in Cultural Resource Management (CRM), like me, and nobody cares what we think about the possibility of a pre-Columbian European presence in the Americas, they just care about our ability to do the field work and write reports that will please the government agencies with which we deal. So advocating an earlier European presence in the Americas wouldn’t hurt us one whit.

Secondly, those archaeologists who are not working in CRM are usually found in colleges, universities, and museums, where they eventually receive tenure. Once they receive tenure, they can go about claiming that the peopling of the Americas happened when Tasmanians floated across the Pacific on giant floating broccolis, and nobody can do anything about it. So, again, they would suffer no harm from claiming an earlier European presence in the Americas.

As for those who don’t have tenure – contrary to what the people behind the movie “Expelled” claim, one is not denied tenure for having unpopular views, one is denied tenure for incompetence. If you can clearly demonstrate that an unpopular view is true, or at least highly likely, that can be a fast-track to tenure – you’ve become a groundbreaking researcher, and everyone is going to want you for your ability to attract both research money and students.

In fact, if one con produce strong evidence for Old-Worlders entering North America after 8,000 BC and before AD 1492, one can expect to generate a bit of controversy, but also generate huge amounts of interest, resulting in a fantastic boost to one’s career. In other words, if there really was evidence of the Knights Templar having entered North America before Columbus, then you could expect that professional archaeologists would be the first to jump all over that – it would be in our best financial and social interests to do so!*

Oh, and if you need evidence of this, consider that archaeologists had long considered seriously the possibility of Vikings entering the Americas before Columbus, based on a range of circumstantial evidence, and had absolutely no problem admitting the case was proven as soon as physical evidence came to light. In other words, we’re fine with old models of prehistory being discarded, provided that there is real evidence that they are wrong.

So, where does that leave our friend and the Knights Templar? Well, the reason why nobody in the professional circles takes his claim (or similar claims about the Welsh, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, ancient Israelites, etc. etc.) seriously is because there is absolutely no evidence to back the claim up. This is a classic case of conclusion-based reasoning – he reached his conclusion first (Templars in North America), and then began looking for “evidence” that backed the claim up, never considering disconfirming evidence, and as such, he feels that he has established a fact about North American prehistory when all he has done is misled himself about what he has available to him.

And this is common in pseudo science. Whether it’s fake archaeology, like this fellow, or claims in favor of homeopathy, creationism, astrology, ghosts, bigfoot, etc. etc., you’ll find that the believer reaches their conclusions first, and then begins to look for evidence that sounds like it backs the conclusion, not usually caring about whether the evidence actually supports the claim (what at first appears to be a confirmation can on further scrutiny be something else), whether the evidence is even real (I often see long-discredited claims cited as evidence), or whether there is overwhelming contradictory evidence (homeopathy, young-earth creationism, and astrology all fall victim to this).

The curious thing is that these people become so married to their conclusions that they seem to be allergic to actual evidence. If you can demonstrate the flaws in their reasoning (and frequently they will simply not listen to any dissenting views – all the while claiming that EVERYONE ELSE is closed-minded), they will generally just shrug them off, disregard them, or accuse you of being a shill for “the establishment” and not an “independent thinker” like them. Suddenly, when the evidence is against their conclusion, it simply doesn’t matter anymore, the hypocrisy is astounding.

And, you know, these sorts of irrational hypocrites can be frustrating to deal with.

*incidentally, this also applies to biologists who could produce any actual evidence that there was a “higher power” guiding our development. The fact that this is not widely accepted by biologists is due to the fact that the claims don’t stand up to scrutiny, not because anyone is actively trying to “suppress the truth.”