The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, April 30, 2010


I am placing this one in the feed to let those who read this blog (all three of you out there) that, provided that Iceland has stopped spewing ash, I am headed to London - I have a few posts in the feed, ready to drop automatically (I hope - the feed screws up every now and again and doesn't post), but if you comment on any entries, I am unlikely to be able to respond until such time as I return.

I will be taking my special lady-friend with me, and we will see a few tourist sites, visit (hopefully) more than a few museums, and, if I get my way, spend quite a bit of time just wandering about. I hope to meet a few of my archaeological colleagues while over there (I will be sticking my head in at a conference in Cambridge), I plan on collecting a few ghost stories (one of my hobbies), and taking photos (another of my hobbies).

I'll return on the 10th, and will probably be boring you with descriptions of my trip upon my return.

Until then, here's my favorite photo from my last vacation, when I went to Tokyo:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No True Scotsman!

One morning, Angus Cullen sat down to breakfast and began reading the newspaper. The paper featured a story of a horrible murder that had been committed the night before, and described the police's efforts to find the killer. Angus turned to his wife, Sarah, and declare d"I can tell you one thing - this murderer is not a Scotsman. No Scotsman would commit such an act!"

The next day, the papers describe yet another murder, and Angus once again assures Sarah that this fiend is clearly not a Scotsman. But the day after that, the murderer has been caught int he act, and it is none other than Ian MacDonald, born and raised in Edinburgh. Angus looks to Sarah and declares "Edinburgh or no, this murderer is not a true Scotsman!"


The "No true Scotsman" fallacy is a weird sort of logical fallacy in that it seeks not specifically to falsely establish a particular claim, but rather to remove a particular set of actions or views from a group to which those actions and views belong. Probably the most common variation that we see in the U.S. is people claiming that someone is not really a member of a given religion. For example, when you hear someone talking about gay rights, it is very common to hear someone who takes a stand different than the speakers (whether pro or con) dismissed as "not a real Christian", likewise there are many people who will insist that suicide bombers in the Middle East are "not true Muslims."

Newsflash for all y'all - REAL Christians do disagree on social issues. Real Christians work to take care of the poor, while other real Christians do things that make the poor's lot in life even worse. Real Muslims work towards peace, while other real Muslims blow people and property up as part of political terrorism. Real Jews support the Israeli state in all that it does, while other real Jews think that the Israeli government is run by know-nothing thugs. And so on and so forth.

While this is most common, at least in the U.S., among religions, you can also see it in other venues. I remember, during the 2008 presidential primaries, hearing a number of people announce that John McCain was not a real Republican because he often voted against Bush's policies - the irony here being that, in those cases, McCain was usually voting along with what the party's stated platform and traditions actually are.

The "not true Scotsman" fallacy seems to function to allow people to discredit others without ever actually engaging in what they are saying. When someone says "I oppose Proposition X, because I am a member of Group Y", having it pointed out that many members of Group Y support Proposition X runs the risk of making the person making proclamations actually have to give a bit more thought to their position (and perhaps admit that it is their own position and not something that has the full weight and support of Group Y behind it) and this can be scary - so it's much easier to simply deny that the people who disagree are also members of Group Y no matter how absurd such a position may be.

Monday, April 26, 2010

the Riverside Debacle

Native American consultation is a regular aspect of my work, and is a fact of life for anyone on my career path. I have had a wide range of experiences, everything from being told that I am a grave robber (ironically at a time when I was trying to persuade my client not to force a site to be dug into) to having the privilege of sitting in on elder's council meetings to hear what they have to say. On the whole, my experiences have been positive - CRM archaeologists such as myself prefer preservation over excavation, which means that we are usually, if not on the same frequency, at least in the same part of the radio spectrum as the Native Americans with whom we work. I know many people who can tell horror stories, and I even have a few myself, but most of my interactions have been professional and clearly oriented towards trying to make sure that everyone gets what they need.

And then, in 2006, there was Riverside County.

Riverside County, in southeastern California, had hired a new county planner. This planner either decided to do outreach to the Native American community, or was receptive when they came to him - I have never been able to get a definitive answer either way. Regardless, it was decided that archaeologists working in Riverside County or planning to work in the county would be required to attend a training/sensitivity workshop at a reservation within the county.

Many of my colleagues were displeased with this. To give a bit of background, there have been a number of federal and state laws passed that have required interaction between archaeologists and Native Americans. the best known is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, better known as NAGPRA, which requires both that Native Americans be consulted when graves, burial goods, or certain religious items associated with federal properties or projects might disturbed, and that federal facilities inventory their collections and work at repatriating human remains and funerary and religious items*. Federal and (at least in California) state agencies are also required to communicate with Native American groups regarding activities that might disturb archaeological sites or the vaguely-name (and even more vaguely-defined) Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP).

In the wake of these laws, it has become more common for municipal and county governments to make an effort to interact with the Native American community. In fact, California's Senate Bill 18 requires that such be done when General Plans and Specific Plans are being created and/or revised.

So, in the wake of all of this, the government of Riverside County decided that they wanted to increase their cooperation with Native Americans within the County. To this end, they made a requirement that archaeologists working within Riverside County would be required to attend a training session with the Native Americans. Okay, so far, so good. This seemed like a pretty good idea to me, and like something that was, frankly, long overdue.

The problem is that the execution was rather poor.

For starters, in the days leading up to the meeting, the county sent out multiple contradictory statements saying that A) only project managers would be required to attend, B)Oh, sorry, scratch that, all field supervisors are required to attend, C)yeah, 'bout that, actually, everyone who might possibly ever be in the field in any position is required to attend, D) You know, actually, just the field supervisors after all, and finally E) only one archaeologist per company is required to attend**.

The meeting was held in a conference room at a reservation casino hotel. The hotel was a gorgeous place, and I had no complaints about the accommodations - both larger and more comfortable than my apartment, which was actually quite large and comfortable. And the evening before the session was quite pleasant, one of my co-workers enjoying the casino (and doing quite well at the blackjack tables) and me in my room reading.

The trouble started the next morning.

At the entrance to the conference room we obtained our name tags and spiral-bound books (common items at any sort of workshop or seminar). Upon entering the room, we found that all of the archaeologists were to sit on folding chairs behind long tables, while the county and Native American representatives all occupied a raised platform at one end of the room.

Now the raised platform may not sound like too big of a deal, but I have been to many seminars and workshops, and I can tell you that it is unusual in my line of work. In rooms such as the one into which we had been herded, there is nothing preventing someone even int he back of the room from seeing the speakers at the front if they are on the floor like the rest of us. The use of the raised platform sends a message, whether intentional or not, that we were not there to talk or interact, but to be scolded. We were all put on-guard from the get-go.

The first part of the day, leading up to lunch, was, despite the poor choice in room set-up, actually quite useful and productive. It essentially consisted of archaeologist (and cultural resource policy wonk) Tom King lecturing, and then interacting with the audience, on the areas of cultural resources law that pertain to Native American consultation. It was interesting and extremely valuable to those of us who were participating.

Then we broke for lunch. And then the second half occurred.

The second half consisted of a representative from Riverside County laying out the new guidelines and regulations for work in Riverside County, the Native American representatives scolding the archaeologists, and the archaeologists responding to the scolding. All of it was bad. Let's break it down:

New Regulations and Guidelines: According to the county planner explaining these guidelines, all artifacts found during work would be turned over to the tribes, regardless of whether they were on public or private lands, and all entities performing work on county lands, including federal agencies, would be bound by this requirement. Moreover, no research would be allowed without express consent of the tribes, and representatives from some of the tribes, though it must be stressed not all of the tribes, stated that they would not give consent for research under any circumstances.

Now, a lot of people will argue that it is ethical to side with the tribes and to turn all of the artifacts over to the tribes. I don't entirely agree, but I will concede that it is a fair position to take. The problem, however, is that it doesn't work within the law.

If materials are found on private land, they are considered the property of the landowner (there are some exceptions, but as a general rule, this holds). It can be argued that from a moral standpoint prehistoric materials should be considered the property of the tribes, and there is a valid argument to be made for that position. But from a legal standpoint, this doesn't work. For the government to claim otherwise may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So, the county was begging for a lawsuit on this one.

Moreover, while private citizens may be cowed by the County's rules, it is unlikely that the federal government is going to care. I would love to be in the room when this county planner decides to dictate to a federal representative what the Department of Defense is going to do.

Then there's the issue of research. Good arguments can be made on either side for the importance of research vs. the rights of the tribes to prohibit research. However, the problem here comes from the fact that sites are only protected if they are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historic Resources. In order to be eligible, they have to meet one of the four eligibility criteria, and the only criterion that applies to the vast majority of archaeological sites is federal Criterion D and state Criterion 4 - that the site has yielded or is likely to yield information important to the study of history or prehistory. In other words, it is eligible if it has potential to be important to research.

When research isn't allowed, this puts everything into a grey area. The site still has the characteristics that would make it valuable for research, but research will not be allowed, which practically negates research potential. In other words, it can be effectively answered that the site has lost research potential and therefore is no longer eligible for the registers, and is therefore no longer protected. I don't know how such an argument would go over in court or with an agency, but in attempting to protect sites from archaeologists, they may very well have created the conditions under which the sites can be destroyed by development.

so, there is a significant chance of a lawsuit, and a good chance that any archaeologist working in the area would get caught up in one. So, this was a problem.

The Scolding: Nobody likes being scolded. In fact, it is one of the fastest ways to make your audience tune you out. It doesn't matter how legitimate your claim or how just your cause, this is simply a bad way to try to persuade someone. So, as you can imagine, having a group of people on a raised platform lecture us about our alleged sins didn't exactly lead to us feeling either contrite or inclined to be helpful.

In addition to the basic communication problems that this created, there was a further content problem. Most of the scolding was over things that had been done by research archaeologists. Not just that, but research archaeologists of the past, for the most part.

A little background information may be in order here. People in my line of work act as consultants to help our clients keep in line with the historic preservation laws. We identify sites, and the agencies with which we work have policies that advocate for avoiding sites, so there is regulatory support for preservation of sites rather than excavation. When we do have to excavate, we know that we will be at a time and funding disadvantage, so we prefer not to excavate when it can be avoided. We are, by both our professional ethics and our training (and many of us by our natures) conservationists, and we would rather not have to excavate a site, and by excavating it damage or destroy it.

Research archaeologists, by contrast, are driven by research questions rather than policy goals. They will, therefore, excavate a site if necessary to answer a research question, and are not necessarily going to be conservationists. However, over the last several decades, an increasingly larger number of research archaeologists have come to the realization that excavation is eliminating sites, and therefore we may be better off using existing excavated collections for research and excavating only as often and only as much as is strictly necessary for a research project.

So, when we were scolded for our "grave robbing" and our "unfettered excavation for no reason than our own personal curiosity", we were being scolded for things that most of the people in that are in fact innocent of. Again, we were conservationists, so we are the natural allies of people who want to preserve sites***. Hell, I know that at least one person in that room had even thrown himself in front of a bulldozer to prevent a site from being destroyed. So, we were being scolded for something that we don't even do, and being accused of destroying sites when it was the new rules from the county that were likely to actually result in the loss of sites.

I should state that most of this scolding came from a few members of the tribal groups represented. The representatives of the other groups showed a better handle on how to talk with and work with archaeologists, as well as the nature of the law (whether or not they agreed with it). However, they were not as vocal nor as forceful as the ones who were throwing accusations, and as such the more negative members set the tone.

One representative even said "you archaeologists have been working for years, and if you've actually learned anything, I haven't heard of it!" It took a good deal of effort to bite my tongue and not yell "yeah, we sneaky bastards cleverly hide our results in published books!" There was a legitimate point here - archaeologists aren't as good as we should be about communicating what we do, especially not to the descendants of the people who we study. We are at fault for a lot of that. At the same time, to say that we haven't learned anything is an astoundingly ignorant statement. She seemed to think that she was putting us in our place when, in fact, she was convincing us that she was someone who wasn't worth listening to.

The Archaeologists Strike Back: So, as you can imagine, the archaeologists were pretty riled up. Some of us tried to point out legitimate issues - that we are preservationists, that we don't dig up sites for our own curiosity but only as a last-ditch effort to protect something from destruction, and that the proposed new rules were likely to endanger sites rather than protect them - but others decided to scold back, achieving nothing but exacerbating an already bad situation.

There was one fellow who began shouting that the Native American representatives in the room weren't even from the groups they claimed to be from. I can not confirm or refute his claim, but I can say that, from a legal standpoint, it's irrelevant, these groups have been legally recognized and we have to work with them. All that his comments did was piss off people with whom we needed to find some sort of common ground.

Other people made statements that sounded good, but seemed to irritate the Native Americans present. For example, one fellow stood up and announced that the archaeological sites were part of our common human heritage, and were shared by everyone. this is a strictly philosophical point of view, and one that I agree with, but after a couple of hours of an "Us vs. You" routine, this did nothing but piss off the other side.

So, while we archaeologists were led into a bad situation, we didn't necessarily acquit ourselves well once we were in the mess.

When the day was done, my coworker and I left Riverside County with the conviction that working there would be a recipe for disaster. The Society for California Archaeology decided to issue a response, but it is no longer easily found. I have not heard of any lawsuits out of the county, so I would assume that matters simmered down.

In the end, though, this was a perfect example of what not to do. The county planner was clearly ignorant of the law, being motivated, as far as could be told, by ideology without regards to reality. The Native Americans were by no means a monolithic group - many of the tribal Representatives made good observations and showed a solid understanding of the situation - but there was no clear leadership amongst them, and as such those who were the most passionate (which were often the ones who knew the least about what archaeologists actually do, based on their statements) were allowed to set the tone, preventing cooperation and creating needless conflict. the archaeologists, rather than being calm and trying to sort out the valid criticisms, and there were valid criticisms voiced, became defensive and went on the counter-attack.

Nobody came out smelling of roses, and it was a truly bas situation all the way around.

*Failure to accomplish this task on the part of many facilities doesn't change the fact that there is a legal obligation to do so.

**Meaning that a company like my employer at the time - a large multi-national engineering and environmental compliance firm - could get away with sending one of many archaeologists, while a smaller company would have to send one of very few archaeologists. Yay for disparity!

***Though, admittedly, the fact that the regulations do protect sites for research potential does introduce a tension into any potential relationship. Nonetheless, we can, and try to, help in preservation.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Good Man With a Bad Job

Over at his blog, Hemant Mehta put up a post about this podcast, which tells the story of an atheist family who bring in a Baptist minister to perform a funeral for their atheist grandmother. Perhaps not unpredictably, the service featured a fire-and-brimstone "you're all going to Hell if you don't accept Jesus" sermon. the hosts of the show called up the minister to talk with him about it, and I recommend listening to the entire show.

In the comments for the post, most readers wrote that they thought it was absurd of the family to bring in a Baptist minister to perform a funeral for an atheist. I agree. However, a few of the commentors stated that the minister was a horrible person for A) holding his beliefs, and B) for giving a sermon intended to convert the family rather than comfort them.

Bullshit. The minister is not a horrible person. He may have weird inconsistent beliefs (God loves you deeply, but will punish you for eternity for not believing in his son...heh?), but he's hardly alone in that. He may have chosen a bad time to try to convert the family, setting them even farther against his beliefs rather than bringing them towards those beliefs. But he is not a horrible person. Quite the contrary, he seems to be a very good person who is doing the best he can based on the beliefs he holds and some rather limited ability to persuade people.

Yes, there are horrible people who are Christians, I have known many of them. You can find them at any church - they're the people who are describing with glee the torments that they believe await everyone but them. They're the ones who get excited when talking about the torments of the Tribulation that wait for those who are "left behind" after the Rapture. Hell, go to Youtube and look up videos of the Phelps family at one of their "protests" - these people clearly get off on the notion that everyone but them is going to burn for eternity. These types of sadistic bastards are horrible people.

The minister, on the other hand, is frightened and worried for the well-being of others. He flubbed his attempt to bring these people over, using the funeral as a soapbox for these beliefs only resulted in pushing them even farther away, but that doesn't change the fact that, as far as can be told, he was acting out of concern and not out of sadism.

You can call his beliefs horrible, you can call his approach incompetent, but I don't think you can fairly say that the minister is anything but a good person.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bowling for Children('s Mentors)


So, as the regular readers may be aware, I am taking part in Big Brothers/Big Sisters fundraiser Bowl for Kid's Sake, and the end of fundraising is tommorrow. So, if anyone's interested in donating 5, 10, 15 or whatever amoutn dollars, you can do so here.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters works to mentor children and provide academic after-school programs in low-income areas, so it's a great charity.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sex, Cheating, and Radio Morning Shows

Several years ago while I was a graduate student, I was an archaeological intern with the environmental conservation office at Vandenberg Air Force Base. I lived in Goleta, which is immediately north of Santa Barbara, meaning that, on the days when I had to be on base (3-4 days a week, depending on what was happening) I would listen to the radio on my drive in (this was in the days before I owned an iPod or had discovered podcasts).

The only radio station that I could reliably listen to for the entire drive was the Santa Barbara pop station, and they had a predictable morning show - the allegedly wacky DJs would play music and jabber on about whatever wacky thing that they could think of, while inviting callers to call in and voice their own opinions.

On one particular morning, the DJs had brought up the subject of a recently published paper that was getting a lot of press. The radionistas were stating that the paper reported a study in which researchers found that sexual infidelity was caused by genes. They asked their callers to talk about whether or not they thought that infidelity was caused by genetics, and the calls that came in were every flavor of over-generalization. There were the people who were absolutely convinced that infidelity was genetic because they knew one person who was a cheater who had a parent who was also a cheater (yeah, must be genetic, couldn't possibly be a learned behavior, nope, not at all), or who were absolutely convinced that that it wasn't genetic because they knew one person who was not a cheater, but who had a parent that was. And then there were the usual parade of clowns who assured everyone who would listen that it wasn't genes but rather people "moving away" from amorphous and ill-defined "old fashioned family values" of the past*. All the while, the DJs kept announcing that "science has proving that infidelity is caused by genes."

What the DJs were attempting to discuss was this study which looked at the sex lives of both identical and non-identical twins in an effort to identify whether or not there was a genetic component to sexual infidelity. There have since been other studies on the same subject and they have found what appears to be a genetic component to infidelity, though in each study, including the 2004 one, the findings have been rather more complicated than was being reported in the mass media.

What the early study actually found was that there was a correlation between people's genetic similarities and their sexual behavior. Identical twins (twins with identical DNA) had the most similarity as regards cheating, while non-identical twins (twins who have no more DNA in common than any other set of siblings) had less in common. Subsequent studies have found similar results, and researchers are working on identifying whether or not particular sets of genes provide a causal mechanism that increases the likelihood of infidelity**. So, the study indicated a genetic element to infidelity, but did not prove one, which is typical of science, where complex issues take a long time to work out.

The study also did not rule out social causes and learned behavior as the triggers to infidelity. This is a point that many people don't get - there is an assumption that genes are just on/off switches, and that if someone has a particular set of genes then they will have a particular set of physical and psychological traits. This is simply not true. Genes code for traits, yes, but the way in which traits are expressed is often influenced by the environment. This is true of physical traits, but seems to be especially true of psychological traits due to the sheer complexity of the human brain***. So, even if one has genes that code for infidelity, that doesn't mean that infidelity is inevitable, or even likely. It means that there is a higher percentage chance of cheating, but so many factors influence such behavior that there is no reason to assume that someone with these genes is a cheater - individuals will express the genes in individual ways, but these may not include infidelity but may indicate some other form of behavior that isn't damaging to a relationship.

Before I even saw the study or any of the reporting on the study I immediately started thinking that the study probably reported something similar to what is, in fact, what the study actually did conclude, and which is radcially different from what was being said by the DJs. Simply understanding how science works immediately caused me to question what was being said on the radio, and following-through with looking up the study indicated that my skepticism of the "genes cause infidelity" claim were well-founded.

Now, many people will say "hey, it was a dumb morning show, don't worry about it." The problem is that, yes it was a dumb morning show, but the listeners now have been informed that infidelity is caused by genetics, and have had the notion that genes are destiny (rather than one of several causal factors in behavior) reinforced. And the research shows pretty strongly that new information, provided that it doesn't conflict with existing beliefs, tends to simply become part of the background noise in a person's memory that will be called on whenever the subject comes up, but never evaluated to closely for its validity. And here was the most-listened to radio show in Santa Barbara County announcing that scientists had "proven" that infidelity is genetic. For most people listening this was probably the first that they had heard about a link between genetics and sexual behavior, and as such it is the (mis)information on which they were likely to base their future opinions on this matter.

Worse, people who heard this show might start to be prejudiced in their opinions of people based on the activities of those people's relatives. In short, this sort of claim is likely to provoke what might be termed a "genetic bigotry" where the sins of the parent, or sibling, or cousin, etc. might be held against someone innocent of any wrong-doing.

When I arrived home that evening, I sent an email to the radio station expressing my disappointment in the show. I explained that the study in question didn't actually reach the conclusions that they were claiming that it did, and that by handling this the way that they did, they not only failed to inform their audience about the real science, they actually mis-informed their audience and increased their audience's ignorance of the issue.

There was some email back-and-forth between myself and the DJs, with them saying "hey, we were trying to educate" and me trying to explain that they did the exact opposite. In the end I asked them to consider that, if they felt that they were unable to accurately discuss the science, then perhaps it was best to not bring it up at all. After all, there's no end of oddball news stories for a morning show to cover.

I don't know if my response to them would have had an effect. Shortly after this incident, the radio station changed formats and the DJs found themselves out of a job.

However, this has long been a frustration of mine when listening to any media reports, whether from a news or an entertainment show, about research. The conclusions are pretty much always mis-reported, the methods rarely described, and the underlying issues (in this case, do genes cause behavior or merely make it statistically more likely) rarely are discussed.

*This "old fashioned family values" line has always bothered me for a very basic reason. Many of the things that people who trumpet this claim are new, such as infidelity, are not new at all. The simple fact of the matter is that we talk about these things more, giving the impression that they are now more common, but there is in fact very little reason to believe that they are any more prevalent now than they were 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago. In fact, because they are spoken of more nowadays, they may be easier to spot, and might actually become less prevalent as a result - but that's just speculation on my part.

**This is important as there are a few different reasons why identical twins might share behavioral traits that are not related to their genetics, as identical twins are often socialized somewhat differently than those of us who do not have an identical twin. The fact that non-identical twins do not share this trait as often as identicals does suggest a genetic cause, but social causes can not be ruled-out until a definite causal mechanism can be determined.

***And, really, as psychological traits spring from the brain, which is a physical entity, these are also physical traits, just very subtle, complex ones.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Archaeological Art

One of the things that I love about the Santa Cruz area is all of the little oddball things that are to be found tucked in to the various little corners of the county. Case in point, down the road from my apartment is this overpass:

Pretty unremarkable, eh? But, as soon as you enter it and pass under the freeway, you see this:

Yeah, it's an art installation that is designed to look like an archaeological/paleontological site. It's called Finding Our Past by Susana Arias and was created in 1996 under the auspices of the County Board of Supervisors. When I first saw it, back in 1996 when I arrived in Santa Cruz, I thought it was amazing, and then was a bit annoyed, as it contained both archaeological materials (such as representations of obsidian projectile points, and bowl mortars, and historic artifacts such as metals tools)...

...and paleontological materials (whale bones buried in stone and sediment, and big-ass shark teeth). It bugged me that the art installation conflated archaeology and paleontology...

...but I'm over being annoyed by that now.

I don't know whether the artist was, like many people, unaware that archaeology and paleontology are two completely different scientific disciplines, or if she simply felt that both were appropriate for the artwork as both are disciplines that study the Earth's past, though in different ways with different focuses. But I don't care.

What I care about now is that a public piece of art is reveling in the wonder and fascination that can come from research. Very often, in both pop culture and in conversation with people involved in both the arts and the sciences, there is a tendency to put up a false wall between them or even claim that they are somehow opposed.

This is, of course, bullshit.

There are many artists who draw their inspiration, or even their materials, from science. Artists, including painters, sculptors, photographers, and even musicians, have long made use of materials and concepts from the sciences. It's nice to see an example in a public place, and I am happy to be able to live in such close proximity to it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Thinking about Gender Roles

I remember, as a kid of probably 13, having a conversation with my father in which he was talking about the social differences between men and women (mostly by talking about the things that women do, and not actually addressing anything that men do), and he kept claiming that every difference (each of which was a stereotype rather than a true difference) was due to "fundamental differences" between men and women. It probably could have been guessed at that point that I was destined to study anthropology because I immediately pointed out that A) he was basing his claims on stereotypes and we both knew of many women who didn't behave in the way he was describing, and B) most of the attributes that he was describing as being fundamentally feminine were at least as likely to be cultural as biological, and therefore were fundamentally feminine only insofar as the culture of late-20th century North America said that they were feminine*.

My father just fixed me with a stare, and said "you have a thing or two to learn about women, and your life is going to be rough until you do."

Here we are, 21 years later, and, well, I still say that he was basing his claims on stereotypes and confusing culture with biology. To be fair, though, what he was doing wasn't all that different from what most people do. And, in fact, he was pointing to what he believed were real differences, but wasn't putting value judgements on them - women weren't worse or lesser, just different in his opinion.

But value judgements or no, this type of reasoning is still faulty. In order to get at why, though, we have to take this apart a bit.

First, let's talk about three types of differences, what I would call categorical differences, statistical differences, and cultural differences (no doubt people who categorize things for a living would have a different way of labelling these):

Categorical Differences: Categorical differences are things that draw sharp distinctions between groups. If you do not have trait X, you do not belong in group Y. For example, women as a rule do not have testicles. And if you have a uterus, that's a pretty good indication that you are not a man**.

Statistical Differences: Statistical differences can be summed up as "people in category A are more likely to have a given trait than people in category B." It is fair to say that, on the average, men are taller than women. On the average. There are women who are quite tall - my older sister is 6' even - and men who are quite short - Kaylia has a friend who is only 5' tall). A statistical difference is a difference in the average distribution of an attribute (such as height), not a hard-and-fast difference that separates groups.

Cultural Differences: These are differences that are based entirely on learned behavior that are culturally determined. So, for example, in North America a skirt is considered feminine clothing, but in other parts of the world, it may be considered unisex or even masculine (think of the kilt).

Where this gets messy is that there is constant feedback between these types of differences. For example, the fact that women can become pregnant and nurse a child has resulted in cultural constructs that revolve around this fact - constructs that may be altered when technology (another cultural adaptation) allows the basic rules to change (consider, for example, that there are tools that allow milk to be stored for future use, meaning that nursing women don't have to be with infants to feed them). Likewise, the fact that men are, on average, larger and physically stronger than women has resulted in a set of power dynamics in our culturally-defined gender roles that can be altered by a woman who is larger/stronger than most men, who is armed, or who is trained to fight.

The basic point is this - there are a number of different sources of gender differences, some of them are categorical differences based in the nature of our bodies, others are statistical differences based on the nature of our bodies, and others are cultural differences that may (or in some cases may not) be influenced by physical differences, but even when they are influenced by physical differences are as much arbitrary products of the idiosyncratic histories of our cultures as they are an adaptation to physical realities.

Many people have tried to claim cultural differences as categorical differences, or assumed culturally-based assumptions to be not only true but due to categorical differences (such as the notions that women are less interested in sex than men, or that women inherently attach more emotional meaning to sex than men do, because sex supposedly serves completely different purposes for both - a claim that fails in light of research on the subject). This is faulty thinking, no matter how many books such as The Rules or Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus take advantage of this sort of fallacious thought to generate sales.

Likewise, there is a tendency to treat statistical differences as categorical differences. I don't know how many times I have heard people use the results of studies showing slight cognitive differences between men and women as justification for sexism in the workplace or in training programs. Even if it were absolutely the case that men are generally better at spatial reasoning, to use one frequently-cited example, it's still a statistical difference, and there are many women who excel at this and many men who perform poorly. Very often, when you look into the actual data for the alleged gaps between the genders, you'll find that there is general overlap, and the differences between genders are statistically noticeable but negligible for all practical purposes.

And all of this feeds into culture, with both real differences and perceived differences being exaggerated, shaped, and mutilated into cultural practices that run the gamut from quaint to disturbing. In some cases, the very real biological origin of the practice may be clear, even if modern practices or technology make it irrelevant or even counter-productive. In other cases, burrowing through the reasoning finds no basis beyond sourceless stereotype for the cultural practice.

And this is where my basic frustration with gender differences comes from. Most of them are exactly that - gender (that is, culturally-defined sex roles) differences, and not sex (biologically-defined) differences. Even when sex differences are at work, they are filtered through our culture in ways that make it difficult at best to determine what is actually due to categorical differences between men and women, what is due to statistical differences between men and women, and what is simply the result of cultural/historical oddities. Yes, men and women are different in very definite fundamental ways, our biology shows that, but how these differences play out in our basic cognitive and emotional faculties, rather than due to training and acculturation, is very much open to question. We are making strides in better understanding this, but it is still an open debate.

Which brings me back to the conversation with my father. In the end, he informed me that men and women were different, that his observations of the difference were accurate, that it wasn't culture that defined our gender roles, but biology. When I said that I thought he was over-simplifying things, he said that, when I was older, I'd understand and that I'd see he was right.

I'm now older, and one hopes wiser. I still disagree.

*That was the gist of it, though I don't remember the exact words. Hey, it was 21 years ago, whatcha' gonna' do?

**Let's not get into gender re-assignment surgery, as it's another can of worms altogether.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sites, Non-Sites, and Mega-Sites

So, as I said in the previous post, we are finishing the site records and writing the report for the project that had me out in Taft for most of last year. As I am working on this report and these site records, I keep thinking of an issue that came up every day during our time in the field: how do we define what is and what is not an archaeological site?

When I talk to non-archaeologists, this tends to get treated as a straightforward problem - if it has archaeological materials, then it's a site. right?

Well, sort of. The answer to the question is more complicated, and what that answer is depends in no small part on the reason why you are asking the question.

If you are a researcher, then you are faced with a basic problem - the locations where you find archaeological materials were not the only parts of the landscape that were occupied by or important to the people who you are studying. A sacred hilltop is a culturally relevant location, even though it may not contain archaeological materials. A location where leaders met to discuss matters is important to understanding prehistory, but might not contain artifacts. Places that were avoided are certainly important, as the reason why they were avoided will tell us something about how the people who lived in an area occupied the land. An area where young couples go to consummate their unions, so to speak, might also contain no artifacts, yet still be an important cultural location. And what about the locations between sites? Is the spacing between sites important? Is the empty space between villages or between a village and a satellite site relevant?

The point is that there are places on the landscape with limited or no archaeological materials present that are nonetheless important to an understanding of the people being studied. Should these be considered archaeological sites despite the lack of materials? If not, is there another designation that we should give them? Should we simply treat everywhere as a cultural landscape and not rely so heavily on sites? Should we pay attention to sites, but always try to account for why there is not a site in an empty location? It's a complicated question, and much ink has been spilled and many a tree killed in publishing arguments and pontifications regarding issues such as landscape archaeology, "site-less" archaeology, intra-site analysis, etc. Although every now and again someone will claim that a consensus has been reached on how to re-shape archaeology to account for these more difficult types of locations, it nonetheless remains the fact that archaeologists are still reliant on sites that clearly contain archaeological materials, pretty much as we have always been. Hardly surprising, as it is difficult to assess the cultural importance of a site that has no signs of cultural importance, despite some people's dubious attempts to do so*.

Okay, so that's research. What about where I currently occupy my niche - archaeological resource management?

Well, here the issue is somewhat different. We are informed by the academic discussions and debates, and they have helped us to better understand the landscape with which we deal. However, ultimately, we have to develop concrete definitions of the term "archaeological site" so that we can extend what protection the regulations allow to these sites. This means that when we ask the question "what is an archaeological site?" we have to take into account not only the cultural importance or use of a location, but also how that site articulates with standing regulations, case law, regional values and activities, the local landscape, and common practice. In other words, it's something of a Frankenstein's monster of a term.

So, we have to start with a question of age. Even though it can be fairly argued that, from a purely technical standpoint, any physical remains of human activity that is not a standing/functioning constructed feature is an archaeological site (including the remains of a legendary party), the regulations don't generally apply to anything that is less than 50 years old** (45 years old by some agencies' policies).

And then there is the question of artifact quantity. If only one artifact is found, then the location is not considered a site, but an isolate. Although there are exceptions, isolates rarely qualify for protection by themselves (although they are sometimes re-examined to see if there is a buried site). If you have two artifacts, then that may qualify as a site or an isolate, depending on the agency with which you are dealing. Three artifacts, and you typically have yourself a site (although this can get muddied, as some agencies have different thresholds for a site vs. an isolate for historic and prehistoric sites).

Artifact density also comes into play here - if three artifacts are found within a 10-square meter area, then you pretty likely have a legitimate site. If three artifacts are spread across a quarter-square mile, then you probably have three isolates. However, this is also where local landscape comes into play. In one region of California, for example, you can't walk more than 20 feet without finding a historic artifact. Now, if we wanted to get really technical here, we would have to say that a 400-square mile area covering multiple counties is one big archaeological site. Such a definition might be valuable for a researcher (or it might not, depending on what they are doing), but it's pretty damn useless for resource management, not least because most of that area, while covered in materials, isn't going to qualify for listing on state or federal historic registers, and therefore is not going to be protected in any way.

The approach of the government agencies and archaeologists in the area is to treat the entire area as a "cultural landscape" in which it is known that people have been making use of pretty much every square inch of land for a couple of centuries. That being the case, rather than treat the entire area as a giant archaeological site, we locate areas of high artifact concentration and label them as sites, and the rest of the area is treated as "background noise" - valuable for understanding the context of our sites, but not particularly instructive overall.

The end result is that the definition of what is or isn't a site varies greatly across the land - even within the state of California, the term "site" is open to re-definition depending on what's going on in a given locality.

And people wonder why archaeologists are given to alcoholism***.

*You may notice that I am inconsistent with my use of the term "archaeological site" between the linked entry and this entry. This is, unfortunately, typical of much of the archaeological literature. As there is little clear consensus as to what is a site and what is not a site, you'll find that even an individual archaeologist will use the term a bit loosely.

**There are, of course, exceptions. If a resource is of exceptional historic importance, say Cape Canaveral for example, then it may qualify for protections even before 50 years have elapsed.

***Truth - archaeologists are actually notorious for alcoholism. I am something of a weird anomaly in that I rarely drink, and never to the point of inebriation, which leads many of my colleagues to falsely conclude that I am a Mormon (no joke).

Monday, April 12, 2010


I am working on a report. Most of the sites that we found during a large survey last year were historic sites - that is, these are sites created by people since the introduction of writing into North America. Although I am a prehistoric archaeologist by training, I have always found oen thing particularly fascinating about historic sites, and that is how they contain a mix of the familiar (many of the artifacts are similar or even identical to items found in most households today) and the alien (as technology has changed, many of the items that were once common have been phased out). Items that are still common were often once made of different materials, or shaped differently, or of a different size, adding to the weird temporal disorientation that comes with dealing with these sites.

Even the creation of the sites often demonstrates changes in how we have lived over time. It is typical for historic trash deposits to be found near historic homes, sometimes in the pits that were once the outhouses. Prior to the modern sanitation system, the use of outhouses and the necessity to dispose of trash within a short walk of where it was generated often resulted in both types of dumps merging. As a result, archaeologists love finding old outhouse pits (don't worry, the gross stuff has long since decomposed away), as they are the repositories of more than simply old meals.

Other methods of disposing of garbage included burning it - and as a result it is common to find historic trash that has been scorched or melted - dumping it into a nearby ravine, or even just finding an out-of-view spot and tossing it there. Historic sites are full of old dumps, like this one:

Photo Deleted

Common historic artifacts include fragments of bottles, cans, pieces of ceramic, bits of toys, artwork, etc. The following photos give a pretty good idea of what we often find at these sites:

Photos Deleted

See what I mean about a mix of the familiar and the alien?

Often the sites containing these materials are covered with looter's pits. People love to collect old items, and this is a common way for them to grab them. Of course, the problems with this are two-fold. First off, when artifacts are taken from a site, they are removed from their context, and archaeologists find it difficult, if not impossible, to figure out what their relevance was to the people of the past. Secondly, if you take things from land that doesn't belong to you, you ahve comitted theft. And both private landowners and landholding government agencies have been known to press charges. There are people who have dealt with penalties ranging from hefty fines to jail time for advancing their antique collections.

There is beauty in the objects of the past, but it's best to take photos, and to let them rest. At least until some goober such as myself gets a chance to document them.

Photo Deleted

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bowling for Dollars

Okay, so I'm taking a break from our regularly scheduled nonsense to pitch a charity.

Kaylia works for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a non-profit organization that provides after-school educational programs and mentor-matching for low-income and at-risk children. Through Kaylia I am participating in a program called "Bowl for Kid's Sake" in which we go bowling as a fund-raiser for the organization.

So, if you feel so inclined, follow this link to make a donation. Any amount would be welcome.

(sobbing Sally Struthers voice)Think of the children!(/sobbing Sally Struthers voice)


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Crunch Time

As I often complained about in previous posts, I spent most of last year (and, in fact, the hottest months of the year) in the area around Taft, CA performing survey in oil fields. A few months ago, the client finally approved the necessary budget to produce the report, but I was placed on other projects, which reduced my ability to actually work on the report.

As of this week, my employer has freed up the resources necessary to get this report done. The catch is that a report that should have taken 3-4 months to produce because of the huge number of site records produced is now going to be done in six weeks (during a week of which I will be out of the country).

So, I am writing this post for two reasons. One is to explain why the next several weeks postings may be a bit spotty. But another reason is that part of the rationale for me keeping this blog is to describe what working in archaeology is really like, and these sorts of chaotic deadlines are a part of the job.

Environmental consulting in general, and contract archaeology in particular, runs on a feast-or-famine schedule. Two months ago, I was having to scrape and scrounge for work to do, and now I am working close to 16-hour days. The especially long days this week are due to prep work necessary to get the report information distributed to the appropriate people in order to have the report produced. Over the next few weeks, I will likely work long days, but not nearly as bad as this week (hopefully).

This report has over 600 site records, and each of these will need to be created using standardized forms from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (the DPR 523 forms). The information from our GPS units is currently being compiled, and will be useful both for creating the site records, and for providing the agency in charge with a GIS (geographic information system) layer to help them track the sites in the future.

In other words, we're doing what needs be done to get this report out the door in six weeks. Then we can go back to wondering what we're going to do with ourselves until the next crunch comes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wild Sex in the (Victorian) Working Class

If yous peak with a social scientist about the history of sex research, it is likely that you will be informed that we know very little about people's sex lives prior to the mid-20th century because

However, one Stanford professor performed sex research with women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but kept it under wraps. An article in the Stanford Alumni Magazine describes the work of Clelia Duel Mosher, who worked at Stanford studying women's health. The article describes how a man looking for family information in the 1970s found one of Dr. Mosher's packets of papers and looked inside to find... was a sex survey. A Victorian sex survey. It is the earliest known study of its type, long preceding, for example, the 1947 and 1953 Kinsey Reports, whose oldest female respondents were born in the 1890s. The Mosher Survey recorded not only women's sexual habits and appetites, but also their thinking about spousal relationships, children and contraception. Perhaps, it hinted, Victorian women weren't so Victorian after all.

Indeed, many of the surveyed women were decidedly unshrinking. One, born in 1844, called sex "a normal desire" and observed that "a rational use of it tends to keep people healthier." Offered another, born in 1862, "The highest devotion is based upon it, a very beautiful thing, and I am glad nature gave it to us."

The survey's genesis—like its rediscovery—was a fortuitous accident. Mosher started it in 1892 as a 28-year-old biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin; she had been asked to address a local Mother's Club on "the marital relation" and as a single, childless woman seems to have used data collection to fill gaps in her knowledge. Afterward, Mosher continued conducting surveys until 1920, using variations on the same form and amassing 45 profiles in all. Yet Mosher never published or drew more than cursory observations from her data. She died in 1940, and the survey was entirely forgotten when Degler unearthed it.

It's an interesting article and well worth reading. One thing that is clear from even as brief an introduction as this article is that most of our nations about how our ancestors thought about and practices sex are probably wrong. It's common to hear from certain corners that Kinsey "created" the "sexual deviance" of the modern age, but the truth of the matter is that he only got people to talk about what they were already doing, and people who look to a "golden past of sexual purity" are seriously deluded and relying on stereotypes and public affirmations rather than actual hard data. This work of Dr. Mosher's seems to indicate that this is just as true for the 19th century.

P.S. It is worth noting that Mosher's primary work was based in the obvious, yet surprisingly modern, line of examining actual (rather than culturally imposed) differences between men and women. Although many of her conclusions seem rather obvious to us in the here and now, she was fighting up-stream to try to get the people of her day to face some rather obvious facts in the face of prejudice. That takes guts.

(link to the Mosher article via Skepchick

Friday, April 2, 2010

Know Your Regs

I recently finished the field portion of a project in western Kern County, in California's San Joaquin Valley. The project area was agricultural, and we were performing pedestrian surveys - walking the ground looking for archaeological sites - in preparation for a renewable energy plant that has been proposed for the area. We found a few small, unimpressive sites, and four large but even less impressive sites. Regardless of our personal opinions of the sites, it is the place of the agency to determine whether or not they are eligible for the register, and therefore worthy of some protection. Our purpose at this point in time was simply to record the sites and turn in the report.

Part of site recording is creating a map of the site. In order to create a map of the site, it's useful to have a datum point - an object or location within the site from which the bearing and distance to all other points can be measured, and which can serve as a landmark for people attempting to re-locate the site. Usually the datum point is something like an upright pipe, or the corner of a building, or a noteworthy boulder, etc. etc.

In this case, the sites were all in agricultural fields. The area was flat. There were no noteworthy features...or, really, any features at all. Here, have a look:

Photo Deleted

So, we were a bit stuck when it came to datum points, and had to resort to using items that were on the margins of the fields and outside of the sites. This led to one of the field techs suggesting that we pound stakes or rebar into the ground to serve as a site datum - a practice that is common in certain types of terrain. I replied that we were not going to do that - again, these were farmer's fields, and these fields, while fallow at the moment, were circulated into cultivation on a regular basis. Pounding a wooden stake or piece of rebar into the ground would be futile at best, and dangerous to equipment and workers at worst.

"But," the field tech protested, "there's a site here. They can't farm at this location!"

Yes they can. And they will.

"But the site's protected under the law."

Not quite. The people proposing the energy facility have to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), meaning that they have to take into account their actions on archaeological sites. The farmers, on the other hand, are not applying for permits or money, and therefore they are under no such requirement.

"We can't allow them to farm over an archaeological site!"

We can't stop them. Besides, these sites have survived nearly 150 years of agriculture and I sincerely doubt that next season's plowing is going to sound their death knell. But even if it would, the fact remains that the farmers have a legal right to continue farming, and there is no legal mechanism to prevent it.

"The farmers agreed to protect any sites found!"

No, no they didn't. They are not signatories on any agreement that allows land ot be taken out of cultivation for the protection of archaeological sites.

"They have to have agreed to it! Why else would we be out here?"

We were out there because the energy company that wished to find land on which to develop an electricity-generating facility is applying for permits from an agency that requires them to follow CEQA. That developer and not the farmers is required to comply with CEQA. The law is about process and about stakeholders, not about land or outcomes. Land will not be taken away from farmers, but it would be avoided by developers. It's a compromise, yes, but it's one that allows necessary activities, such as food production, to continue, while also preventing un-necessary destruction of historic resources. Could it be better? Yes. But it usually works pretty well.

This scenario plays itself out at least once during every project in which there are more than three people in the field. One person on the crew thinks that they understand the regulations when they don't, and insists on the rightness of a very wrong position. I often wonder how many of the mis-conceptions spread about environmental law are due to people who don't work directly with the regulations mis-informing the public. Certainly much of the confusion is due to the fact that the laws are, really, just plain confusing, and much of it is due to people intentionally misinforming others in an attempt to discredit the laws, but having people who are in the rank-and-file of compliance archaeology misinforming people doesn't help.