The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Theoretically Speaking

Garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself.

Archaeology is the study of garbage.

Yes, I know, everyone outside of archaeology knows archaeologists as the guys (and, for whatever reason, the general conception amongst the public is that archaeologists are male) who unearth temples, open tombs, find ancient religious relics, and discover lost cities. And there is some truth to this, as work at the pyramids of South America and the excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings will attest.

But most of the time we are digging through the trash piles, midden heaps, dumps, and privies. And this is as it should be – after all, all human activities leave behind waste. A big temple will tell you that something was going on at a location, but not what was going on. A look at the refuse can tell you whether this place was used for feasting, sacrifice, pilgrimage, or some other thing altogether. A tomb will tell you about how people died, but a garbage dump will tell you what they used, ate, and otherwise consumed while they lived. What’s more, garbage is left behind wherever humans act – flaked stone is left behind at even ephemeral hunting blinds, privy pits are sometimes all that remains of historic homesteads, and prehistoric village sites are littered with the remains of food, tools, and general living.

But, as I say, garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself. Once you have found the garbage, you have to figure out what it means. What do the stone flakes, animal bones, burials, and other assorted residues of human existence actually mean? This is where theory* comes into play.

So, for example, right now I am working on a project analyzing animal bone from two archaeological sites in Kern County. I have figured out that the majority of the bone comes from deer, a small amount from rodents, and an even smaller amount from birds, fish, and small animals other than rodents. So, what the hell does this mean?

Well, I can use models developed from theory that examines hunting behaviors from a standpoint of both risk assessment and calories gained per unit of energy spent and determine that deer must have been abundant in the local environment for the smaller, safer, and easier to get animals such as rabbit to have been ignored. So, I have learned something about how the people at this site interacted with their environment.

I can then use models developed from theory that is based on power relations within families and within communities to try to figure out what it means that hunting deer (a primarily male activity) is the primary source of meat, while acorn pounding (a primarily female activity, and one that usually determines settlement patterns) is still the primary source of daily food. From this, I may learn something about the social organization between genders.

And models from both of these different lines of inquiry can be used together to create a more complex model of human behavior – how do human interaction with the environment and social and gender organization influence each other? How does this influence food gathering? Settlement patterns? Short- and long-term sustainability of a particular mode of life?

Theory applicable to archaeology comes from a wide range of traditions and positions, and forms of theory tend to have names that either over-explain or obfuscate the nature of the models that they contain. For example, I have used optimal foraging theory, population theory, rational actor theory (which is tied to optimal foraging theory), identity theory, Marxist theory (which, no, is not about communism), feminist theory, etc. etc. etc. Each of these theories takes some aspect of human behavior (the need to get food, the need to procreate, the desire to earn or maintain prestige, the formation of cliques and classes within a culture) and seeks to explain what the material remains of past people are telling us about these aspects of humanity.

In all, this variety of theoretical stances and models provides us with a huge toolkit for interpreting the past and trying to figure out just what the hell our ancestors were up to. Strangely, though, it is common for many archaeologists to simply take a small sample of theory – sometimes limiting themselves to just one – and try to apply this to everything.

And as the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Case in point: I read an article once (I don’t have the book on me – I’m at a hotel in Fresno at the moment – otherwise I’d cite it) which was about the examination of pottery taken from an 18th century worker’s home in the eastern US. The article noted that at a given point in time, the pottery found in the locations of wealthy households changed, while the pottery found at the working-class home stayed the same. It was noted that the new pottery was more expensive than the old, and that the working-class households were quite poor, but the author went on to reject the idea that the higher cost of the newer pottery had anything to do with the worker’s refusal to change pottery.

You see, the author of this particular article was quite enamored with identity theory – a branch of social theory that examines how people, groups, and communities form and display their individual and shared identities (formation of neighborhood identities, social classes, nationalism, ethnicity, etc.). As a devotee of this particular branch of theory, the author rather foolishly forgot that there are other valid lines of theory, and rejected that economics likely did play a large role in the selection of pottery.

This is not to say that identity formation and display played no role – the wealthy people certainly were making purchases that made little sense financially but did make sense from a symbolic and social point of view (in other words, they appear to have been of the “if you got it, flaunt it” mindset, or were pushed into it by their culture), and this likely played a role in the formation of the identity of the working class people around their (they may have come to view the lower-cost pottery as one of the markers of their station in life), but economics definitely played a role – if the higher cost of the new pottery is what separated it from the old pottery, then it is rather absurd to discard that as an explanation for the lack of adoption of the new pottery in favor of a more ephemeral “identity” line of inquiry.

Now let’s be clear, most archaeologists don’t take such a narrow view of human behavior as to seek to explain it all through one aspect of human behavior. Most of us realize that the food quest is but one aspect of life, sex is another, seeking prestige is another, solidarity (or lack of solidarity) with other people is yet another, and so on and so forth, and that all of these aspects of life interact and influence each other. Humans are dense balls o’ motives and actions, and to focus on one element of our lives as the driving force behind everything creates a weird sort of myopia that will always eventually lead you down the wrong path.

But, nonetheless, there is a minority that not only does this sort of thing, but is even proud about it.

Okay, so you’re probably thinking “heh, foolish academics, what else do you expect from them?” So, I should say that while this is most obvious with academics, it’s something that I see everyone do.

For example, it’s very common for many of the people that I know to talk about the free market as the great panacea for all of our economic ills. A simplification of one aspect of the argument goes something like this: the individual is a consumer. The consumer will, all things being equal, make rational choices with their money (this can be generalized into other resources as well). Therefore, if the same item is sold for two different prices, then the consumer will choose the lower price. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the Producer A to produce at the lowest possible cost so that the buyer will choose the products of Producer A and not those of Producer B. This drives costs down, which also increases consumption as the consumer can afford more, thus maintaining demand, and keeping the producer producing, and allowing more consumption, so that money cycles through the system. Greed, a productive force that gets a bad rap, keeps the system in check – it ensures that the consumer will seek the lowest price, and also ensures that producers will try to provide the lowest price so as to appeal to the consumer. The desire to sell the most and make the most money will keep producers in check so that they do not cooperate and stiff the consumer.

That’s a definite over-simplification of Adam Smith’s ideas of capitalism. His ideas are actually much more intricate, and quite fascinating, and deal for example with issues of innovation rather than simply price as a way of getting money. But, that’s the nut-shell version.

It sounds good – it relies on greed, an emotion we all have, to keep a system running, and it assumes that we will go for the lower prices, and thus provides an impetus for the producer to sell for as low as they can. And there is a lot of truth to it – competition frequently leads to lower prices, people usually will pay the least they can for a given commodity, and so on. I like this model a lot. It explains a lot, and it frequently works.

But it doesn’t always work for a simple reason – it assumes that the driving motive behind human economic activity is the desire to spend as little for as much as possible. And, well, this isn’t quite accurate.

For example, if Producer A and Producer B both produce jeans, Producer A may start calling theirs “designer jeans” and put a little logo on it. They may even make them less practical as an item of clothing, but they may be able to sell them for more than Producer B (who makes sensible and well-made jeans) because people perceive the “designer jeans” as being more prestigious. Economic interests fall in the face of the desire for prestige. This also explains why odd vehicles, such as the consumer versions of the Hummer, have sold as well as they have, despite being wildly impractical from an economic standpoint. Also, it has been shown time and again that producers will cooperate to fix prices, contrary to the model.

And, to be fair, the same is true for the Marxist, who believes that class solidarity is the driving power behind human behavior, when it is really only one of many.

In fact, there are very few “movement” ideologies that do not make this mistake – which is not to say that the members of a given social or political movement make the mistake themselves, but this type of error is rife in most ideologies. Do you believe that people are motivated primarily by laziness? Greed? Loyalty? Sex? The desire to do good? The desire to show off? People are motivated by all of these things, often all at the same time. To assume that even something as narrow as economic behavior can be explained by one motive is to shut out all of the various different drives clamoring for the attention of each individual, and anyone seeking to understand (or make policy for) society needs to understand that.

Wow, this entry took a long and extended detour away from archaeology…so I suppose we should get back to the discipline that I actually know something about those of us who study garbage with the intention of knowing about the people who generated it. Any archaeologist worth their salt will understand that we have a large toolbox at our disposal for understanding our fellow simians. The good ones use try as many tools as they can before settling on the set for a given problem.

See, an education in archaeology isn’t just good for the archaeologist, it can make you grumpy towards everyone!

*Theory is one of the most abused and misused words in the English language. People think, due to misinformation fed to them in their elementary school classes, that a theory is merely a hypothesis that hasn’t been tested enough to be called a “law.” This isn’t the case at all. Theories are complex edifices of information, conclusions, and bridging arguments. Some theories are very hypothetical – such as many from theoretical physics – while others are well established as factual accounts of how the world works – such as gravity, evolution, and the germ theory of disease. So dismissing something as “only a theory” (a statement often used to dismiss evolution) is a bit like saying that a vehicle with four wheels and powered by an internal combustion engine isn’t a car because it’s “only a Chevy.” It makes no sense.


Neil said...

First time reader here...just popped over from Daylight Atheism. I'm glad you took advantage of the shameless self-promotion thread, because you have some very interesting articles!

Anthroslug said...

Neil - thanks for the kind words. I hope that I'm able to produce enough that's of interest to keep you looking in.