The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Boy Scouts Destroyed Our History

A common type of North American Historic-Era archaeological site is the can scatter. These are exactly what they sound like, and most of the time are not anything to get all that excited about. However, every now and again, we find some that are associated with groups such as "Oakie" migrants from the Dust Bowl, or Filipino immigrant workers - in other words, people for whom we have very little first-hand information from the historic record. In these cases, a material record of where they were, what they did when they got there, and how the may have thought of themselves and dealt with their conditions is of great value.

A member of the crew on my current project told me of something that happened some time back involving a historic can scatter. They had been performing archaeological surveys along the major roads of southern California and came across one of these types of sites. They marked the point on their GPS units and kept moving, their plan being to return to the site after they had finished survey in order to record it.

As planned, they returned to the location a week later, ready to record. They followed their GPS units to the location, and found nothing. They thought at first that their GPS unit was malfunctioning. So, they tried a different unit, same problem. They then figured that they would simply pick a point where they knew they would be out of the site area and walk their survey line back towards the site, and they still couldn't find it. In the end, they had to admit that the site had simply vanished.

Doing research a few days later the crew found out that a local Boy Scout troop had, as a community service project, been picking up litter in the area and hauling it to the local dump. They had simply taken all of the material from the archaeological site and hauled it out of there.

Damn Boy Scouts, always up to no good...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Super Happy Form Filling Out Time

I am, once again, in the desert, archaeologizing as I am wont to do. In this particular case, we are recording archaeological sites, which means filling out forms. Lots of forms. Lots of boring, repetitive forms.

I am also in the field with some new field technicians, meaning that these people have yet to grasp just how boring and repetitive the paperwork can be, and are therefore attempting to rebel against what is common practice. You see, every archaeological site recorded in California is recorded on a set of forms that are issued from the Department of Parks and Recreation and approved by the Office of Historic Preservation. These forms, known as the DPR forms, are not particularly well-designed. Rumor has it that they were designed by an architectural historian, which would explain why they aren't that great for recording archaeological sites. But they are what we have, and we're required to use them so whatcha' gonna' do?

At any rate, the new field techs have come to the conclusion that they are going to fill out the forms in such a manner that information regarding each site is only reported on one place in any given packet of forms. The problem is that the forms are designed in a way that indicates that information such as the vegetation surrounding a site or a site's condition vis-a-vis erosion should be (although technically doesn't need to be) in multiple places. And I have had to disabuse them of the notion that they are allowed to follow such a common sense approach. After spending several days lecturing them on the need for redundant information, I have finally found a more efficient way of getting them to do what I want them to.

First off, I explain that the hand-written forms are going to be sent to one of our other regional offices, where digital forms will be created by someone who may or may not have dealt with a site record before. This person will find the redundancy useful, as they will then be able to produce their new version of the form with a clear idea of which aspects of the site are important.

Second, and more important, the forms will be sent along with the report to the government agencies with which we are working for comment. Different agencies tend to hire different caliber of archaeologists. For example, the California Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Land Management, and the USDA Forest Service generally hire very good archaeologists who tend to know what they are about. On the other hand, one agency that shall remain un-named hired an archaeologist who once refused to provide me with agency guidelines for archaeological fieldwork until after fieldwork had been completed (apparently I was supposed to apply them after the fact, leading me to wonder if that agency secretly controls a time machine). An archaeologist from another agency that will remain un-named once demanded that my boss explain how a project would impact an archaeological site that wasn't even in the same county as the project, and therefore would not be impacted in any way shape or form.

Add to this that many clients will wish for reports and site records to be reviewed by people who don't know the first thing about archaeology. I have, on more than one occasion, had clients attempt to remove information from reports or site records because they didn't like it, even thought it was true. I have also had clients attempt to edit the records in ways that seemed wise and clever to them, but didn't make a damn bit of sense to the archaeologists. Again, simplification of language and redundant information on forms can often reduce the amount of stress one has to deal with from one's clients. My current client knows better than to get up to such nonsense, but many don't.

So, yeah. There are some truly excellent government archaeologists...and then there are some who seem to be trying their damndest to convince the world that the Libertarians are right about government being bad and inept.

But, what this means is that I can tell stories of the horrible agency archaeologists to the crew. I discovered this evening that simply explaining the types of things that some agency archaeologists can get up to is sufficient to convince the crew that, as frustrating as it is, redundancy and simplification of language may, in fact, be necessary. More importantly, the new folks came to understand that there is more to archaeology than simply being in the field and finding things. We have to work through large government and private corporate bureaucracies, and they often involve having our work being scrutinized by people who, at best, know nothing about archaeology, and at worst are arrogant about their ability to adjudicate on technical matters on which they have no knowledge. Filling out the forms correctly may be frustrating and boring, but it saves you trouble down the road.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sequence Photos - Kaylia and a Scarf

One of the things that I have realized about my SLR camera is that it doesn't have the delay time between photos that my point-and-click camera does. As a result, I can snap off photos on the order of a few every second, which means that I can capture objects in motion. I have begun playing with this, and below is a series that I took of Kaylia dancing with a scarf in Greenwich:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lawful Contact

When I tell the uninitiated what I do for a living, I typically am asked questions implying that the person with whom I am speaking believes that I travel to exotic locales for amazing adventured. The truth, as the regular readers of this blog are only too well aware, is quite different. But, of course, just because I don't travel to exotic (read third-world) countries for work doesn't mean that I don't run into the sorts of incompetence and corruption that are typically associated with places that you'd rather not be.

Take, for example, the following illustrative story from my time in Taft*.

One evening, a good hour after every business but one had closed, I found myself in need of a snack. The only place that was open at this point was the 7-11 a couple of blocks down the street from my hotel, so I high-tailed it on over there to buy a bag of chips and a diet Pepsi. On my walk back, a police car passed by, turned around up the street, passed by again, turned around behind me, and then stopped, lights flashing, on the road twenty feet ahead of me.

The officer got out of the car, a short, skinny, pale man with rather large eyeglasses. He walked up to where I stood on the sidewalk, hand on his tazer as if he feared I'd throw a deadly bag of Fritos at him. He glared at me in what I am sure he thought was an intimidating and commanding manner, but was actually just comical. I could see the bulge of his chewing tobacco under his lip, and every few seconds, he turned his head to spit.

Good lord, I was being stopped by Barney Fife.

"Good evening." He said this in a manner that I'm sure was intended to convey that he didn't care what kind of evening I was having, but, given his over-all appearance, it instead conveyed that little Junior had dressed up in daddy's uniform and was playing cops n' robbers.

"Hi," I easily conveyed indifference because I was, frankly, rather indifferent to Officer Buddy.

"Do you know why I stopped you?"

"Haven't a clue." I was probably beginning to convey mild annoyance rather than indifference.

"I haven't seen you 'round these parts before. I don't know who you are." Ahhhh, yes, he had apparently forgotten that he was a police officer in a 21st century Californian town, and had become convinced that he was a bit player in a 1950s B-grade gangster movie. It's so sad when these things happen. Really, no bad excuse? No you look like someone we're supposed to keep an eye out for? No Have you seen anything unusual? No there has been some problems int he neighborhood and we're trying to keep an eye out? Really, if I am going to be harassed by a law enforcement officer, the least they can do is have the courtesy to make up a thin excuse, it is these little niceties that make human interaction worthwhile, after all.

"Uh-huh." I just stood and looked at him. I considered, briefly, that, had I been the sort to do such things (which I certainly wasn't) and had I been ten years younger and living in Taft as a teenager, I'd likely have trash-canned this guy in high school. Then I went back to alternating between indifference and mild annoyance. Sure, he was a cop, and he was armed, and he apparently felt that he should behave like a Jim-Crow era southern policeman out to bust up an outsider (and probably a "college boy" at that!)...but I just couldn't take this guy seriously. I don't know if it was his appearance, his chewing tobacco, the fact that he kept rubbing his tazer in a manner that bordered on the obscene, or what...but this guy was his own punchline, a self-telling human joke, and I just couldn't find it in myself to feel the least bit threatened by him.

"So, do you live in Taft?"

"No. I'm here for work." Taft, being an oil town, is always host to gangs of out-of-towners here for work. This had been the case for over eight decades. Whatever trajectory this guy's career would take, it was clear that he'd never become a detective.

"I see. Where are you staying?"

"The Holland Inn."

He gestured to my hotel, "Over there?"

"Yes, that is the Holland Inn."

He looked at the hotel, then looked at me, and then looked at the hotel again, and then back at me. "You know, drug dealers sometimes stay in that hotel."

"Is that so?" I feigned interest. Of course, I already knew the answer. Taft, again, is an oil town, routinely filled with itinerant workers. It is also a town where you are either a part of the very small number of affluent people who have done well in the oil business, or you are living in poverty. It's also a very small town with literally nothing for the youth to do, I mean, the kids there go to Bakersfield of all places when they are looking for excitement. In other words, there is not a single hotel in the entire town of Taft in which drug dealers don't stay and do brisk business.

"Yep, drug dealers like to go there." He eyed me again. "I go in there every now and again and root them out."

"Well, then I feel safer staying there." My mind filled with an image of this guy attempting to root out violent drug cartel sorts, and the film that played in my brain invariably ended with him finding some way of shocking himself with his own tazer. With this, I became more amused than annoyed or indifferent. What was this guy's deal? You have a tall, decently dressed man, who has clearly just gone for a snack to the only place in town to get one, and you decide to stop the guy for no real reason and go just short of accusing him of drug dealing. Did this guy have something against tall people? Probably. Maybe he had some strong evidence that an army of Swedes would soon be pouring cocaine into the streets of his beloved town, and to stop this scourge he had decided to stop and pester every tall blond he saw in the hopes of letting the evil-doers know that he was on the job. He wanted to let the Norse pushers know that Taft would not fall, not on his watch.

Or maybe he was just an idiot with delusions of authority.

On reflection, the latter option seems the most likely.

"Are you here with the geophysical crew?"

I confirmed that, indeed, I was. He asked if I knew a few specific people, and I confirmed that I did. He walked back to his car, and spoke on the radio for a couple of minutes. I had to fight the urge to ask him if he was speaking with Andy, and whether he could have Aunt Bea send over a plate of fried chicken.

"Okay" he said, sticking his head up over the car to look at me (and probably standing on the tips of his toes to do so) "you can go."

As if there was ever a doubt. I'm cleaner than a nun. I don't even smoke or drink. Hell, I don't even use prescription drugs other than Nasonex. I really feel sorry for the cop who ever decides to bring me in on suspicion of drug use or dealing. That is a man who is doomed to a future of crossing guard duty.

And with that, he got in the car and drove off.

And understand, I don't have a problem with police as a general rule. Yes, there are people who are attracted to police work for all of the wrong reasons. But most of my own interactions with law enforcement have been good, I have almost always been treated well, and all but three of the cops who I have met over the years have been professional, disciplined, and intelligent people. But, apparently, the City of Taft had decided to recruit not from any of California's many fine police academies, but rather from the Ringling Brother's Clown College. And more's the pity.

*Yes, I know, there are alot of Taft stories, but I did live there for seven months and it is quite possibly one of the most absurd cities in North America, so what are ya' gonna' do?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Eating in the Crypt

From time to time, I enjoy playing a mental game with myself. I like to ponder my material surroundings and wonder what archaeologists of the future might make of it if all that they had was the material goods and not the written records (hey, I'm a prehistoric archaeologist by training, I like to ponder without the benefit of written records). Most of the time, it looks like the basic purpose of a given place or item would be pretty clear. However, sometimes I realize that the nature of a given item or location would probably mislead a future archaeologist in a weird direction.

But the weirdness got bumped up a level at St. Martin-of-the-Fields Church.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The current building was constructed in 1721-1726, but it is on the site of an older medieval church. Like many such churches, it has the areas for worship and other gatherings, and a crypt in which many parishioners were buried. The church itself still functions, and serves as a landmark, meeting place, and a venue for choral music. The crypt also still functions, you can see the tombstones of those buried there, and see artwork that accompanied these tombstones, and have a nice something to eat and drink at the cafe in the crypt.

Yep, there's a cafe in the crypt.

Here's a photo or me reading the tombstones, tastefully moved into prominent positions on the wall:

And here's a video made by someone else:

It's tempting to crack jokes about how the cafe in the crypt would be seen as a sign of cannibalism. Okay, it's funny to say that. But it's also not accurate. If our proposed future archaeologists are even half as sophisticated as modern archaeologists, working out what artifacts and materials belong to which points in time would be pretty damn simple. The crypt would clearly be seen as a multi-component site, with one component (including the burials) dating to the 18th though early 20th century, and another component (the restaurant equipment and eating utensils) dating to the late 20th/early 21st century. So, there would clearly be two separate uses of the site.

How would my future brethren explain this? I don't know, but based on the way that archaeologists explain some of our weirder sites today, I have a few guesses (bare in mind, these are what I would anticipate would be thought if the future archaeologists lacked the written records to know who owned, ran, and used the place):

1) Looking at land use density around the City of London/Westminster area, it may be assumed that the eatery was placed in the crypt because there was increasingly less room available for businesses and residences. This is, of course, somewhat true, but doesn't take into account that there is still open space within the broader London area. From this premise, the future archaeologist would likely try to reach conclusions as to how the operators and customers of the place viewed their relationship with dead ancestors...and would likely reach some very odd conclusions.

2) If iconography on the cafe equipment matches the iconography in the church, then it would be realized that the choice of the cafe location was intentional, whether because the church itself wanted it, or because people making use of the church site wanted to claim continuity as a show (whether right or wrong) of legitimacy. This being the case, the future archaeologist would be stuck trying to figure out why a purveyor of food would want a symbolic connection with the people buried on hallowed ground - it might be concluded that the food itself had symbolic or ritual meaning, or that the operators of the cafe had some sort of religious or political interests that were served by connection to the crypt (sort of true, as the church is the ultimate beneficiary).

3) If the future archaeologists were able to draw on information from other large cities in Europe, they might note the the late 20th and early 21st century saw a proliferation of establishments that offered novelty as well as food: the all-insect restaurant, raw-food restaurants, "fusion" cuisine, etc. all provide novelty and cater to fads. Taking this into context, the archaeologist might be able to make an argument that "eating among the dead" was just one of many novelties used to draw people in to restaurants in the late 20th and early 21st century.

4)If only the land use in the immediate vicinity was examined but was cross-referenced with individual religious iconography found within homes in the London area, then it might be concluded that, either A) church attendance was declining (true) and therefore making use of the crypt for a novel purpose was a fine way of bringing new people in, or B) the crypt was located near a major public place (also true, Trafalgar Square) and the church was hoping to use either the only free space that they had OR the novelty of their crypt to bring visitors in to the church.

Those are the four main potential explanations that come to my mind. However, depending on one's theoretical interests, a wide variety of other potential explanations could be devised involving everything from individually constructed social identities to the "vulgarization" of "sacred" traditions, to people simply forgetting the reasons for which their ancestors had built various structures. What is important to keep in mind is that most explanations would be reached based on one or more lines of evidence, and that other relevant evidence might not be available or understood. As a result, our proposed future archaeologist would probably get some things right, and some things wrong, and would probably argue with other archaeologists to bring other information in and hopefully move closer to the truth of what was happening in this crypt.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Political Thinking, NOT Critical Thinking

It happens approximately once a month. My email inbox, Facebook page, and whatever other form of electronic communication to which I have access gets slammed with denials of actual science. It usually comes from all sides - the right-wing people I know claim that "science proves" that homosexuality is evil and that global temperatures are either not changing or are simply natural and not anthropogenic, and the left-wing people I know claim that vaccines are evil and that all medical advances are actually part of some evil scheme on the part of Merck.

It's interesting to me that the groups who send these types of things don't really overlap, at least among the circle of people that I know, and that they take pot-shots at each other that could be charitably referred to as "the pot calling the kettle black." They point to the unscientific, pseudo-scientific, and anti-scientific claims of the others, while engaging int he same sort of behaviors themselves.

There are many issues that are publicly controversial, but well settled in the scientific community. Evolution does occur. The Earth is getting warmer, and it is probably anthropogenic. It is statistically far safer to be vaccinated against communicable childhood illnesses than not to be (and vaccines don't cause autism). Tobacco is a contributing factor to cancer. Many religious experience can be explained by brain functions. And so on and so forth. The problem is that every side can haul out a group of scientists, most politically motivated but some not, who will muddy the waters with "evidence" that doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny. Remember, the Tobacco companies still have scientists on staff that claim that cigarettes can not be linked to lung cancer - it is naive to think that your particular pet cause is any less prone to corruption.

Don't get me wrong, I think that people who are in denial of scientific truths are not doing so out of malice. Most of these people are simply doing what we humans do. We all have a narrative that links our beliefs together, and we wall tend to dismiss information that doesn't jive with our narratives. Increasingly our narratives are political, and unfortunately this means that many, in fact most, of us have conflated political thinking with critical thinking.

For example, every person that I personally know who believes that global warming is not occurring buys into a political ideology in which they are opposed to regulation. The need to limit carbon emissions will result in further regulation, which they have a visceral reaction to, and as a result they reject the scientific claims that would justify a political action that they dislike. It's the confirmation bias in action. Indeed, it is common to hear people claim that "global warming is just a tool for people in power to gain more control over our lives" without ever addressing the actual data. This position gains a veneer of credibility when scientists who have either financial or ideological motivations muddy the water and provide questionable or misleading evidence to support the contention of this side (listen here for a good discussion of this).

Likewise, I know many people who are worried over the influences that large corporations have on politics and society. These are well-founded concerns, but most of these folks tend to adopt an anti-corporate political narrative in which any claim that puts corporation in a bad light is accepted, and any evidence that counteracts such claims is denied. So, it's common for me to hear about how vaccines are a source of suffering and part of a "big pharma conspiracy" when the evidence pretty conclusively shows that they are a boon. The claim of the malfeasance of large pharmaceutical corporations (who, it should be said, DO engage in some crappy activities) fits the narrative, so claims consistent with this are accepted while evidence opposing it is ignored. Confirmation bias, again. And, again, there are scientists with either ideological or monetary interests who are perfectly willing to put shaky or false evidence into the public debate.

Adding even further to the problem is that people are increasingly getting their news and other information from sources that are more interested in pushing a political and/or ideological agenda than in actually informing their audience. Simply put, if you are using as evidence information gathered from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the Huffington Post, James Inhoffe, the RNC, the DNC, Michael Moore, etc. etc., then you are being misinformed. All of these sources, and many more besides, have a particular agenda that does not have your or my best interests at heart, though all of them (and their followers) will claim otherwise.

It boils down to this. The following are empirical questions: Is the Earth's climate changing, and is it anthropogenic; does evolution occur; are homosexuals deviants or simply part of normal human variation; are vaccines safe and effective; does tobacco cause lung cancer; does gun ownership reduce crimes; could the World Trade Center have been toppled by the airliner; and we can think of many other politically controversial claims that are nonetheless at their base empirical claims. And empirical claims can only be resolved by empirical evidence. If there is reason to question particular pieces of evidence, then it is fair to examine the interests of the producers of that particular evidence (unfortunately, with the proliferation of think tanks, and the increasing profits to be had from public intellectuals working the outrage of particular groups, questionable evidence is common in the publci arena). However, when political your side's political interests and narratives are your first line of argument on an empirical question, you are not thinking critically, you are thinking politically, and you are probably being taken for a ride.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thinking Scientifically

First, watch this, then I'll get to my main point below:

While what eh says about the whole 2012 deal is pretty spot on, he makes a broader point that I think is worth discussing: that scientific literacy doesn't mean simply knowing facts and being able to spout information, it means knowing how to ask the right kinds of questions.

A knowledge of physics and/or astronomy informs you that when someone tells you that some particular cosmic event will occur and cause carnage, ask how often said event occurs as this will allow you to gauge the accuracy of their claim.

A knowledge of biology or chemistry informs you that when someone tells you that a food or medication contains "a toxin", ask how much it contains and at what level the substance is actually toxic (some "known toxins" are also necessary nutrients in low doses, others are natural byproducts of the human body and therefore harmless in low doses [formaldehyde is a good example of this], and every toxic substance has a threshold that it must pass before it actually becomes dangerous).

And so on. It's important to remember that the great advantage of scientific literacy is not that it allows a person to rattle off a list of facts, but that it allows them to make informed decisions and ask the right questions when someone is either trying to scam them or trying to persuade them of a false conclusion.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Crunch Time Returns

So, I am back in the Mojave, and after a shaky start, things are running along well. However, the way in which they have been running has prevented me from being able to engage in any of my hobbies for the last few days.

So it goes, things will get better.

Anyway, I hope to have the chance to write more next week, assuming that matters do simmer down a bit, and I look forward to that. In the meantime, I leave you with one parting thought: just because you say that something is an artifact doesn't make it an artifact.

And now, I'll bore you with some more vacation photos:

I just really liked this pattern. It's from the Guild Hall courtyard.

I loved the road paved with stones. Yeah, I know, it's not that unusual in old cities, but I still thought it was bitchin'

I just liked this shot. From St. Paul's Cathedral

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Back in the Desert Again

So, I'm back in the Mojave. The land of Mountain Hermits and unexpected snow. When I mention to people that I am headed out here, they typically try to commiserate, which is odd, as I like being out here.

Don't misunderstand me, with the amount of travelling that I do, I'd much rather be home than in the field. I spent somewhere between 9 and 10 months of last year in the field, if taken cumulatively, and this year is shaping up to be another one of heavy fieldwork.

But, if I have to be in the field, I'm okay with being here. There's a few reasons for this. One is that our primary client out here, for all of their eccentricities and frustrations, is a good client. They pay well, are reasonable about considering the amount of time that it takes for field personnel to get to the field, and have us work with archaeologists rather than construction foremen or company executives who don't understand what we are doing. It's a better scene than many of our projects. Add to that the fact that we stay in the Lancaster/Palmdale area, which means that we have a large city at our disposal in our off-hours in case we want to catch a movie, hang out in a coffee shop, or just go for a walk in a city park.

But beyond all of that, the archaeology out here is damn cool.

Let me give you a bit of perspective. When I was working in the Taft area last year (look up the blogs between April and October of that year to see how I was feeling about that), we found very little other than historic metal scatters and brick piles. Yes, they are archaeological sites, but they are just about as exciting as something called a "metal scatter" or a "brick pile" sounds. And for seven months, this is all I saw.

By contrast, out here we see a huge range of archaeological sites. Yeah, we get the historic metal scatters, but we also get historic homesteads, the remains of old buildings, and loads of prehistoric archaeological sites*.

And let me give you a brief description of one of these prehistoric sites. The bottom level, visible in channels cut by mellenia of water pouring or trickling (depending on the time of year) out of a spring, contains the fossils of animals that went extinct with the end of the Pleistocene, some 10,000-12,000 years ago. Every layer on top of that contains elements of human occupation, from the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of the early Holocene to the homesteaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This site contains a record of human occupation spanning at least 10,000 years.

Beats the hell out of a pile of bricks in an oil field.

And the types of prehistoric sites found in the desert are varied and fascinating even outside of the big and impressive sites. The Californian deserts have changed radically during the course of the last 12,000 years, and places that are now dry and desolate once held massive lakes, while others contained plants now moved or extinct resulting in changing use of the land by humans reliant on those plants, and the range of fauna has also changed considerably forcing human hunters to change their behaviors. As a result, the types of sites visible on different parts of the landscape can speak to the changes in the environment in a dramatic and captivating way. To imagine the ways in which the people who lived here, who had to be aware of their environment simply to ensure that they had the resources to survive the season, moved within and interacted with the landscape is amazing.

And to be working on a site and come upon a spear point of a type that you know was manufactured by another person 10,000 years ago, to have that sort of strange contact with someone dead these thousands of years, is an amazing feeling. The sense of elation coupled with the chills down the's impossible to describe.

Yeah, I like it out here.

*As this often seems to confuse people, I'll give a quick explanation. A historic archaeological site is a site that was left behind by people known from the historic - that is written - record. In California, this means that Spanish/Mexican colonial sites from the late 18th century and most sites from the 19th and 20th century are historic sites. Prehistoric sites are those left behind by people who left no written record - in California, this means Native American sites (some people would argue that Native Americans had oral histories and as such calling their sites prehistoric is wrong, but - without getting into the argument about whether or not oral histories are comparable to written documents - as these oral histories usually don't provide the type of information about life that the written documents do, the technical distinction between historic and prehistoric sites remains).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Shows What You Know...

Several years back, when I had just graduated from being a field technician and became a crew chief, I was thrust into the role of field director on a large survey project in Ventura County. We were performing survey to help our client avoid destroying sites during the construction of a natural gas pipeline that would run from a connection with the oil derricks off the coast in the Santa Barbara Chanel out to processing facilities in western Los Angeles County.

This project ended up being a bit more...umm..."storied" than I would have liked, but all in all, it was a good project and a good one in which to get my feet wet as a higher-level supervisor.

Most of the area that we surveyed was either open grassland (which, amazingly, was not being used to graze cattle) or else farmland, primarily strawberry fields and lemon and avocado orchards. The majority of the land was devoid of archaeological sites. We found only three sites in the end. On the first day that we found a site, however, we also had an amusing run-in with a rather smug landowner.

It was the second half of the day. We had spent the morning climbing hills, and on a gentle slope that overlooked a seasonal stream we discovered a flake scatter (the remains of people making or maintaining blades and projectile points out of glassy stone) and some groundstone (artifacts used to grind seeds). We recorded the site, and then proceeded along the route, eventually coming out to a paved road.

As we exited the gate onto the road, a truck pulled up, and the driver leaned out the window and asked "are you the archaeologists?"

I walked up to the vehicle and affirmed that we were.

"Well," he gave me a huge, patronizing grin, "you're not going to find anything in that field." He then proceeded to expound on how he was so certain that we were wasting our time, clearly nearly bursting into laughter at regular intervals before he drove away.

While I had only been a supervisor for a short time, I had been in the field in one capacity or another long enough to recognize the different ways in which land owners would try to inform you that their fields were clean of archaeological sites. Some landowners simply doubt that their land was of interest to hunter gatherers; others assume that because they haven't seen anything that they recognize (arrowheads, pottery, etc.) there must be nothing there, and are unaware of the breadth of archaeological remains just as I am unaware of the ins-and-outs of running a modern farm; still others believe that, if there had ever been a site there, that the plowing and tilling of the fields will have destroyed it (not the case, but an understandable assumption); some landowners collect artifacts (perfectly legal when on their own land) and assume that the sites are gone once they have collected everything recognizable; and a very small number intentionally try destroy sites because they fear that a site on their property will result in their land being taken away (not true, but a wide-spread fear despite the fact that it's unrealistic).

I have had landowners inform me that I won't find sites in a way that indicates that they are honestly and helpfully trying to save me time, I have had landowners inform me that I won't find sites in a way that was clearly intended to be threatening, I have had landowners try to inform me that I won't find sites in a way that is close to pleading with me to not report anything that I find, and in each of these cases I either explain that I am required to look whether or not there's anything there or I try to explain the regulations in a way that re-assures the person that I am not going to do them any harm. I have occasionally turned hostile landowners into allies by this method, and at worst they stop threatening me even if they still don't like me.

I can handle all of these types of cases. I am sympathetic to worried landowners, and if I provide amusement to folks who are friendly or at least inoffensive in their disbelief that I am bothering to work in an area, that's fine. What really annoys me, though, is the smug bastards. I have no idea if this guy knew that he had a site and had tried to destroy it, or if he hadn't known but simply assumed that there was nothing there. But he clearly thought we were wasting our time, which doesn't bother me, and wanted to rub our faces in it, which would have irritated me if we hadn't just found a site thus proving him wrong.

I didn't tell him about the site - if he owns the land, he can look it up easily enough, and I wasn't going to help someone who's being a dick. But the thing that kept me from being bothered by this guy was the simple fact that, for all of the arrogance that he put into his lecture to me, he was wrong. It's petty of me, I know, but that brought a smile to my face.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Models vs. Reality

As a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to be primarily trained by one of the outstanding archaeologists of the previous generation, Dr. Michael Glassow*. Dr. Glassow had first risen to prominence in the 1970s, when a school of archaeology known as "processualism" (because it was focused on the "processes" of culture formation, the activities that form a supposed "universal background language" of how cultures change and function, with specific cultures being looked at for both data and as case studies).

One important aspect of Processualist archaeology, and one that has been criticized by the various schools of "post-processualist" archaeology, is a tendency to develop models of how people "should" behave in order to both create predictive models of culture, and also to provide a baseline against which variations could be examined - basically, if someone is not doing what is optimal, then we can look to see what causes this anomaly.

A typical model might calculate the nutritious value of a food and also the difficulty in obtaining said food, and then work a hierarchy of preferred foods for a given group of people within a given area, with the highest nutrition-to-work ratio being labelled the "favored" or "top ranked" food. Often, this works. Archaeologically, the "top ranked" food is the one with the most abundant archaeological signature (either by way of faunal remains, or evidence of the food being important to tool-making or the settlement pattern, etc.). These models provide a good framework for archaeological studies. They work pretty well most of the time, but, often enough to be worrying, these models provide approximations of the real world, but fail to exactly describe real-world situations - rather than being anomalies, people not behaving in an optimal manner is a rather mundane thing.

Case in point: historically, there have been trout runs in the Santa Ynez Valley in southern California**. Given the high nutrient value of fish meat, these should have been eaten in large numbers by the prehistoric peoples of the Santa Ynez Valley. However, when you actually look at the archaeological sites, the bones of these fish make up less than 1% of the identified fish bone in Santa Ynez Valley sites, and less than 1/10 of a percent of the total meat weight consumed at these sites. However, marine fish - fish imported from the coast and carried over a mountain range into the valley - make up more than 99% of the fish bone identified at these Santa Ynez Valley sites.

What the Hell? People weren't willing to eat the fish available locally, but would travel considerable distance, or trade over considerable distance, to get fish from the coast?

Apparently so.

If you point this out to strict adherents to the nutrient/work model, they will provide a wide range of explanations which range from the unlikely (the fish must not have been available prehistorically - despite the fact that there is no known ecological reason to conclude this) to the just plain weird (dogs would eat the bones of the trout, but no other fish in the sites!). None seem to want to accept that the evidence indicates that people were simply not using a high-ranked resource. Strange, but true. Less strict adherents, those like myself who think that the models are valuable but not the be-all and end-all of cultural explanation, will accept what the evidence indicates, and begin looking for possible explanations to tell us why the archaeological record doesn't match the model.

There are many cultural mechanisms that might explain why these fish didn't make it into the sites - religious taboos against eating the fish, agreement between valley peoples to leave this resource alone except in dire situations, etc. - all of which seem unlikely, to be certain, but all of which can account for the archaeological evidence in a way that simple models of nutrition and labor can not.

There is an even simpler explanation, one that most archaeologists actually tend towards, but one which nonetheless remains controversial anytime that it is explicitly brought up in publication or discussion (although it is usually uncontroversial when it is merely implied rather than being outright stated). That explanation is simply that nobody is omniscient regarding their environment. People lack important information, often have misinformation, might not be inclined to gain information, and may have cognitive or cultural biases preventing them from gathering accurate information.

This isn't such a strange idea. Look at people in the modern world - there are starving people who will not eat perfectly good foods that their religion holds are unclean, or with which they are not familiar (and therefore unaware of the benefits of or else consider "gross"). Likewise, ethnogrpahers have found that while modern hunter gatherers have an amazingly complex understanding of their environments, they don't know everything about it (any more than a modern urban person knows everything about their neighborhood - though hunter-gatherers do tend to know more about their surroundings than us urban folks do, it is often a matter of survival after all), and sometimes a lack of information that seems on the surface inconsequential can seriously impact the resources utilized.

Basically, the processual models require that the people generally be purely rational (not allowing superstitions to alter their actions - which is unrealistic for any group of people at any point in human history), be motivated purely (or at least principally) by the desire to gather resources (usually food, though other resources may) while reducing expended effort, and to have had not just a thorough knowledge of their surroundings but a complete knowledge of their surroundings. These models also require that the model-maker take into account all information about the physical environment and physical needs of the people being studied. These conditions, of course, are not realistic.

Which is not to say that these models are not useful. They give us an idea of what people should do under "ideal" circumstances, and by looking at how any given culture varied away from the model, we can get a sense of where to look for the ways in which circumstances will invariably not have been ideal, and from there start putting some flesh on the cultural model that has been developed.

*No disrespect should be construed towards the other people who trained me, foremost my MA committee: John Johnson, Michael Jochim, and Phil Walker, all amazing anthropologists as well, and also the general archaeology faculty: Kathy Schreiber, Brian Fagan, and Stuart Smith. All of these people were well-respected, and with good reason, but Professor Glassow is the one who I worked with the most.

**Yeah, yeah, the locals claim that it's the "central coast", but this is simply because they've never bothered to actually look at a map.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kaylia's London Adventure

Last year, I had to pursuade Kaylia to let me take her to Tokyo. This year, she was much more receptive, and so when I offered to take her to England, she was keen on the idea. So, on the last day of April, we boarded a plane bound for London, and had a hell of a great nine days. I have all manner of photos, but there are quite a few featuring Kaylia (who has been good enough to let me use her as the subject of many of my attempts ot learn photography), and here they are.

Let's start with some of the usual "taking nice pictures" photographs:

Then, of course, there are the sites to see. We visited Abney Park Cemetery (which I can garauntee I will write more about later):

The British Museum:

The Sphinxes at Cleopatra's Needle:

And we spent a day in Greenwich:

Kaylia stood on the meridian line, with one foot in the eastern hemisphere, and one foot in the westerm

We were there during the general election, which was rather fascinating, and Kaylia and I both took an interest in newspapers beyond what we normally would have during a vacation:

Kaylia's sister, who has been living in France for several months, came to England and met up with us:

We found a candy booth in Cambridge's open-air marketplace, and she took a liking to the giant, elongate marshmallows:

And, of course, every now and again, Kaylia will do the sensible thing and try to escape my presence. So, I have a growing collection of photographs of her walking away from me: