The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Archaeological Roshamon

Several years back, I read an article in a journal called The Masterkey about a pictograph element* painted onto the walls of one of California's Spanish missions. For the life of me, I can not remember which mission it was, but I think that it was Mission San Miguel Arcangel. The pictograph had been painted over, and was only found by archaeologists due to the deterioration of the paint on that wall. The author of the article stated that the pictograph had no doubt been created by a neophyte**, and that one of the mission's priests no doubt forced the neophyte to paint over it, in order to rid the mission of the image.

As far as it goes, this is a perfectly reasonable explanation and I have no problem with it. There is a fair chance that this is exactly what happened, but there is also a fair chance that something else happened. This explanation assumes that the only reason why the pictograph would have been painted over is because the Spanish priest made the neophyte do so. This assumes two things: A) the neophyte intended for the pictograph to be openly displayed, and B) the only reason why the neophyte would paint over it was because a priest forced him/her to do so. If either of these assumptions is incorrect, then another explanation would be required.

And this gets into a really, really interesting, and really, really frustrating aspect of the archaeological record. There are often many different possible interpretations of any one item or event, and which one seems the most probable depends on the base assumptions that a person makes.

The interpretation of the covered pictograph given in the article essentially views the neophyte as being overpowered by the Spanish clergy. There is an element of truth to this - the neophytes' lives were very much regulated by the clergy and the soldiers with whom they worked - but it assumes an essentially one-way power relation between the missionaries and the missionized, and ignores that human power relations are never one-way affairs. Even in horribly brutal police states, power relations are never strictly one-way, so why should we expect that this would be the case in the Spanish Missions? Let's consider a few other possible scenarios.

Let's say that the neophyte, recognizing how much control the Spanish have over his life, decides to do something that, while not necessarily changing his situation, makes him feel better about it. He decides to paint the pictograph on the church wall, as a way of making a mark that will annoy the priests. A priest sees him and makes him paint over it, and the result is what the archaeologists found two hundred years later. This version of the scenario is pretty similar to the first one presented, but with one important difference: the original version gave no reason why the neophyte would create the pictogram, the motivation of the neophyte was, in fact, missing altogether, irrelevant to the discussion - after all, the Spanish had the power, who cares about the motives of the neophytes? But these motives do matter in anthropology and archaeology - we are seeking to understand both what people do and why they do it, and motivation is supremely important. As such, we have to consider that the neophyte was not a nameless cog in the historical machine, but an individual acting within their situation, and this means that, while we can't know the neophyte's motivation for creating that specific pictograph, we can be sure that one existed.

Okay, so let's try another scenario. The neophyte, being in a bad situation on the mission, wants to assert himself in some way (yeah, I'm assuming it's a male, because I'm a male, and therefore I'm using my own pronoun because I am tired of typing he/she/ him/her, etc. - extra key strokes deduct time from the rest of my life - but I am aware that it could have been a woman). He paints the pictograph, but it is not important that the pictograph be visible, just that it be there. So, before a priest can see it, he paints over the image. Now, whenever he is in the church, he knows that a piece of his own culture is hidden among the holy relics, and perhaps he has his own private joke or perhaps he has a sense of power from having outfoxed the clergy in this small way. Now, we have the same physical result, but the sequence of events is different and one of the actors vanishes.

It begins to look like Roshamon, doesn't it?

It gets worse. Or more interesting, depending on your mood.

Consider a quick fact: rituals and objects (including rock art and the creation of rock art) with magical power are often hidden away so that only the initiated may see them. Now, try this scenario on for size...

The neophyte believes that the pictograph has mystical power. He paints it in order to exercise supernatural power, and then covers it over because it doesn't matter whether it's visible or not (perhaps it even needs to be hidden in order to manifest its power). This interpretation is in keeping not only with the pictograph found within the church, but also with the placement of pictographs in prehistoric Native Californian contexts, and even with the historic record that speaks of native religious symbols being placed in locations where it was assumed that the Spanish would not find them (incorrectly, as shown by the fact the the historic record speaks of it).

My point in writing this entry is simply this: it is frequently assumed that the archaeological record speaks for itself, that what archaeologists uncover is the absolute big "S" and big "T" Scientific Truth. But the reality is messier. Archaeologists are able to make a remarkable amount of sense of the material record of the past, but we do so by relying on theoretical models of human behavior. Although some parts of the archaeological record have very clear meanings (hmmmm, all of this deer bone pretty clearly indicated that these people were reliant on deer hunting!), other parts are far more ambiguous, and what the archaeologist makes of them will depend both on their own personal assumptions and on the theoretical models that they employ.

*pictographs are the technical name for paintings on rocks, and an element is an individual image from a rock art panel

**Neophytes were the native Californians who became converts at the missions

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