The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Lonely End of an Archaeologist

We regret to inform you that Anthroslug was crushed under a rolling boulder during recent fieldwork. We here at Anthroslug Industries would like to assure you that this means that the standards and quality of this blog can only improve, now that his grubby hands are off of it. We will continue to update this blog on a regular basis, and would send out condolences to Anthroslug's family if the chintzy bastard actually had anyone who cared about him.

Please enjoy the following photos of his last moments of life.

If you are curious as to why Anthroslug was being chased by a giant blue ball, please visit Kaylia's Youtube channel, where an explanation will eventually be provided.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology, Part 3

This is a follow-up to the first two entries on Glenn Beck's forays into pseudo-archaeology (the first two can be found here and here). This entry focuses on the likely cause of his current interest in this nonsense- his religious beliefs.

Okay, so before we start - there are many people who are likely to walk away from this entry thinking that I have it out for the Mormon Church. I have no more against them than I have against any other socially conservative religious group, but as the Mormon church makes claims about the prehistory of the Americas, I can dissect their claims with much greater facility than I can dissect the claims of, say, Jains, Hindus, or Shi'ite Muslims.

So, for those who are unaware, Glenn Beck is a Mormon*. The Mormon church holds that a group of ancient Israelites arrived in the Americas some time around the 6th-7th century BC. They established a colony that grew, schismed, and the two factions went to war with each other. The Mormon church also claims that, after the resurrection, Jesus came to the Americas and repeated much of what he had said in the Middle East, while at the same time founding a peaceful society that lasted for some time, before again falling into sin and conflict.

In addition, the Mormon Church holds that, prior to the arrival of the Israelites, an older group had come to the Americas following the construction of the Tower of Babel, who then went on to establish a much larger and more advanced civilization than even the later Israelite colonists would.

The traditional Mormon view of the Native peoples of the Americas is that they are the descendants of either the Israelites or the Israelites and the earlier refugees from Babel. Although the specific views of the church leaders have changed with time (as noted by people at Brigham Young University itself**) they were, through the 19th and first part of the 20th century, highly racist and viewed the native peoples of the Americas as "degenerate savages" who had fallen from grace (though, to be fair, changes in racial thinking have been common in many churches, so the Mormons are not alone). However, they were viewed as degenerates who had an ancestry from Israel, and as such church members have historically jumped on anything that could be seen as evidence of this ancestry.

While the church has, in recent years, been a bit more wary of publicly advocating individual pieces of evidence about the American past (I can't speak to whether or not they have been wary of this in addresses and publications for members), and even more wary of proclaiming the view that Native Americans are degenerates, individual members have had a habit of claiming all manner of dubious or even disproven "evidence" as proof of a connection between the Native Americans and the ancient Middle East. Glenn Beck, being such a member with a nation-wide megaphone, has now put himself in the position of advocating pseudo-archaeology that is consistent with his religious beliefs, even if completely at-odds with reality.

So, basically, while Beck is claiming to be standing up for the rights and nobility of Native Americans, he is actually promoting a view that has historically been very hostile to them. Indeed, the very fact that he wants to brush aside their history (simply saying "who cares? It's in the past") and focus on the prehistory that he believes conveniently proves his religious beliefs is telling. If he really didn't care about what was in the past, why is he going to it at all? When looked at this way, it's pretty obvious why Beck is using the same tactics as young Earth creationists - he's doing the same sort of intellectual exercise.

What's more, by making false claims about the past of the Native Americans, Glenn Beck is essentially spitting in their faces. While he accuses institutional science of "covering up their past" he proceeds to attempt to do that very thing, based on no evidence and for a religious/ideological purpose that is not theirs. So, basically, Beck is a hypocrite.

But Beck isn't getting his misinformation from nowhere. Much of it is classic urban legends and hoaxes that have been floating around for over a century. Another chunk is the "arch site numerology" and accusations of cover-up towards legitimate researchers championed by pseudo-intellectuals such as Graham Hancock as well as young Earth creationists. But some of it seems to come from a branch of Brigham Young University's Maxwell Institute known as the Foundations for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies AKA FARMS*.

I was first made aware of FARMS by a friend of mine who is himself Mormon. He spent several years trying to get me to look into the FARMS literature, convinced that it would A) make me "see the light" and convert to his religion, and B) get FARMS-generated materials into the archaeological mainstream. He was rather disappointed when I finally began looking into the material produced by FARMS and quickly saw that it was A) not actually research into the past in that it ignored actual data in favor of supposition and special pleading, and B) it was really nothing more than an apologetics arm of the Mormon church, and did the same sort of spurious argument and provided the same quality of false evidence that apologetics arms of other churches do. Given the quality of his "evidence", I suspect that Beck is also familiar with FARMS.

Regardless, Beck's claims are completely out-of-whack with reality, and his focus on the ancient past while wanting to ignore the recent past is bizarre unless you consider his religious beliefs. While he has not flat-out said that he is pushing a Mormon agenda with his screeds on prehistory, it's pretty clear that this is precisely what he is doing.

*Some would say that he is also a moron, but as I can not confirm his IQ, I will only comment that he is confirmed as a Mormon, and his status as a moron is open to debate.

**So much for eternal truths.

***I keep meaning to write a post or series of posts on FARMS, but they are so large in terms of their logical fallacies and bizarrely contrived "evidence" that it is something of a daunting task.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

B Movie Love

Intermission from Glenn Beck's pseudo archaeological meanderings, I'll get back to it tomorrow...

I had a conversation with someone recently in which I tried to explain my love of B movies. They insisted that I simply liked laughing at other people's work, and that it was essentially a cruel endeavor. I disagree. Yes, there are some films that should simply be laughed at, but there are some that should be seen because they are simply so astoundingly odd that there is a great joy in seeing other people's very weird imaginations at work. You're definitely laughing with and not at the film's creators.

Basically, a movie that is simply bad is...well...bad, and not fun to watch. a movie that is bad but imaginative, well, that makes for great entertainment.

Consider the following screen captures from the movie Champions of Justice, and consider that the movie takes place in a world where things like what you see below are perfectly normal.

Taken from

I give no explanation, because the movie doesn't give one. The filmmakers want to take you on a trip to wackyland, where masked Mexican wrestlers are the only thing that stands between order and chaos. It's silly, it's fun, and while it's bad, it's a kind of bad that everyone can enjoy, and I seriously doubt that anyone involved in the production would begrudge me my enjoyment of this sort of thing.

So, next time that you think your local bad movie lover is simply sneering at other people, consider that maybe they are actually getting something good and fun out of the movie.

Okay, off this soapbox, and tomorrow I'll be back on my usual soapbox.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology - Part 2

So, following on from the previous entry, I wanted to talk about Beck's references to 19th century books that claim connections between the monuments and artifacts of the Old World (Africa, Europe, Asia) and those of the New World (the Americas)*, and his apparent confusion over why these claims began to vanish from later works. His exact quote:

Here's a book, this is from 1885. This talks about the mysterious similarities between mounds in America, mounds in America, Indians and the Chinese. This one says there are similarity to ancient artifacts from other part of the world and the American Indian. But they have no idea what it even means.

This one is ancient. This is from 1883, I think — 1891. This one is just about how the Indians are ancient. They're not savages. But most of this stuff was erased and hidden.

Although Beck may be picking up volumes of pseudo-archaeology (there are more than a few that date to the 19th century), it's also entirely possible that he isn't. There actually are legitimate archaeology books from the late 19th century that claim connections between the Old and New Worlds. However, rather than support his assertion that there was some sort of cover-up, his use of these books is yet another mark of ignorance of both archaeology and history (Edit to add: It also shows that he thinks his audience is ignorant of history - by the late 19th century, the U.S. had spread across North America, and the concept of Manifest Destiny had fallen into disuse several decades earlier, making these books irrelevant to his argument). In order to explain what's going on here, I have to explain some things about the development of archaeological theory.

Archaeology really began to take its form in the late 19th and early 20th century. There had been various different strands of what would become archaeology previous to this, but it's really during this period that archaeology begins to gel as a discipline. Like most academic disciplines nascent during this period, it was concerned with both describing and explaining the world. To this end, in addition to digging up and cataloguing artifacts from various sites, methods for developing explanations of the meanings of these artifacts and monuments began to develop - and modern archaeological theory was born.

A very strong strand of early archaeological theory was diffusionism - the notion that most innovations (agriculture, pottery, animal husbandry, architecture, etc.) probably were developed in one place and diffused out from there. Based on this, it was generally thought that there were direct-line connections between different parts of the world through which innovations were passed either through space or through time. So, for example, it might be argued that as both Egypt and Central and South American cultures have pyramids as part of their monumental architecture, there must be a clear link between these cultures. Likewise, all cultures that practice agriculture must have some sort of a link with the Fertile Crescent where agriculture was thought to have first developed.

It is based on this type of thought that many archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th century wrote papers and books arguing for connections between the peoples who built the pyramids of Central and South America as well as the earthwork monuments of North America and the "advanced" civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Asia, etc.

But as time went on and further data was gathered, it became increasingly clear that, while diffusion does occur, so does independent invention. As archaeological technique was refined and dating methods become more advanced, it became obvious that pyramids and earthen mound monuments appeared in different regions at different points in time with no connections between them. In other words, just because two cultures have superficial similarities doesn't mean that there is actually any connection between them.

And so, diffusion-based explanations for cultural development began to fall out of favor. While diffusion is still used as an explanation in some cases, this occurs now when clear connections between cultures can be demonstrated - in other words, it is used as an explanation only where it makes sense and there isn't discomfirming evidence.

Concurrent with all of this, a model of cultural development was dominant in which it was assumed that all societies passed through certain stages from "savagery" to "civilization" - with 19th century European/Euro-American culture being the end-point, of course. In this model, little room was given for cultures to "slide back" to "previous states" (some archaeologists allowed for it, but not many), and so it was assumed that the low-tech cultures who occupied North America could not have built the rather amazing earthen mound sites that were spread across the eastern half of North America. This model of cultural development was, itself, based not on actual observation or evidence, but on the rather racist and ethnocentric notions common in Europe from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

Again, though, as more data was gathered and archaeological technique refined, it became clear that there wasn't a strict linear progression from "savagery to civilization", but that cultures tended to develop based on a variety of ecological and social factors. Based on this new framework, a cultural history in which factors such as war, disease, and the intrusion of foreigners into an area might cause a socially complex society to fragment was acceptable. In short, more data and better technique led to archaeological theory better reflecting reality. To accuse archaeologist of "covering up the truth" for not holding to 19th century ideas about cultural diffusion and progression is akin to accusing physicists of "covering up the truth" for no longer believing that space is full of Luminiferous aether.

Add to this that there were plenty of forces outside of archaeology that tried to draw false connections between the Old World and the New World. For example - There was the old notion that the people of the Americas were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. While many people believe that this notion began with Joseph Smith's founding of the Mormon Church, it had actually been in popular circulation since the 16th century. Many people viewed this as evidence for the truth of the Bible, so long before Joseph Smith, clergymen and religious scholars were searching for any evidence to support this claim, and many hoaxers were more than ready to supply false evidence.

And so we have many examples of people over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries finding evidence that are claimed to show connections between the ancient Israelites and the Native peoples of the Americas. Some of these things are honest misunderstandings - superficial linguistic similarities and the like - while others are flat-out unquestionable hoaxes. None of them have stood up to scrutiny. And the flood of archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and DNA evidence pretty conclusively kills this hypothesis.

The same is true for claims that the people of the Americas are descended from Egyptians, Celts, etc. etc. There are two clear connections between the peoples of the Old World and New World - the first came between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, when people from Asia migrated to the Americas, the next came during the Medieval period when Vikings formed short-lived colonies on the Northeast coast of North America. There may have been other short-lived interactions, but if these occurred, they left little evidence, and don't appear to have had a significant impact on the peoples of the Americas.

So, we shouldn't be surprised to see 19th century books and papers that argue for connections between the Old World civilizations and the New World. Glenn Beck claims that these connections are valid, asking why we claim that there aren't connections when:

"The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?"

All that can be said is "umm, Glenn, we have been looking into those, for well over a century. And the ancient artifacts are what prove that the connections that you're trying to draw don't actually exist. Idiot."

It is worth taking a bit of time to look at Beck's presentation here, because it bears more than a small resemblance to another form of pseudo-science that most of us are familiar with. If you haven't, go back to yesterday's post and watch the video. I know, it makes you feel dirty to watch Glenn Beck, but trust me, it's worth seeing. Notice that it begins with him comparing the measurements of the side of one of the mound monuments with the measurements of the pyramids of Egypt. Now, there are hundreds of mound monuments, that one of them would have measurements comparable to a pyramid in Egypt is not too terribly surprising (and as A Hot Cup of Joe Demonstrates, Beck's measurements aren't even accurate to begin with). He then follows this on by comparing the angle of the side of this pyramid with the angle of a monument when compared to due north. Again, assuming that his numbers are right (which they aren't - follow the link above), I can only ask, so what?

This is a common pseduo-science approach, and one often seen among young Earth creationists - through a whole bunch of out-of-context data at someone, make it look impressive, and hope that they are confused enough to just bob their head and go along with you.

He follows this up by quoting from the Annual Report from the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology, and quotes one line out of an entire volume in order to try to make it look as if the claims that Beck supports were dismissed out of hand. Of course, the volume is quite large, and was one of many such volumes, and was part of a long, on-going discussion in anthropology and archaeology that is still continuing today. To quote one line in this manner is nothing but quote mining, another tactic often employed by young Earth creationists.

And then we have the artifacts that he briefly discusses (again, go to A Hot Cup of Joe for a closer look at these). All without discussing the controversies surrounding them, the complete context in which they were found, or even who examined them (aside from vaguely referencing "some rabbis" and the evil institutional scientists(TM)). These artifacts are not much different from the Paluxy footprints that used to be celebrated by young Earth creationists.

And finally, after bashing on "institutional science", he has his guest on, who he makes a point of addressing as "Doctor." Again, this is a classic play straight out of the young Earth creationist playbook: institutional science and research is to be bashed and vilified, except when you can get it to suit your agenda, in which case it is to be bragged about and put on a pedestal.

Of course, Beck couches all of his claims in a paranoid conspiracy theory, so he can dismiss those of us who actually have bothered to learn something as being in on the alleged conspiracy. A common theme of much pseudo-science, including young Earth creationism.

Next up, why these claims have more to do with Glenn Beck's religion than his politics. Stay tuned.

*The Old World/New World distinction is a relic of the period of American colonization. As meaningless as it seems now, the terminology was dominant enough until the early 20th century that is has remained in many disciplines that study the natural and social world as a way of dividing Europe, Africa, and Asia from the Americas and Australia (Australia sometimes being further segregated into Oceania - which include Australia and the surroundign islands).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology, Part 1

There is a fair chance by now that you have heard of Glenn Beck's new forays into the wild and woolly world of pseudo-archaeology. To this end he has begun bringing up 19th century tomes arguing for similarities between the mound structures of North America and similar types of monuments in other parts of the world, as well as a chunk of nonsensical numerology and bizarre site lay-out comparisons that would make Graham Hancock Blush. Beck's argument is made to support a revisionist history with the goal of showing that the "godly" Founding Father's intentions were de-railed in the 19th century by a conspiracy of business, government, and science in order to justify the expansion of the United States under the guise of "Manifest Destiny." Or, as he puts it himself:

Here's a book, this is from 1885. This talks about the mysterious similarities between mounds in America, mounds in America, Indians and the Chinese. This one says there are similarity to ancient artifacts from other part of the world and the American Indian. But they have no idea what it even means.

This one is ancient. This is from 1883, I think — 1891. This one is just about how the Indians are ancient. They're not savages. But most of this stuff was erased and hidden.


The history that has been erased in our nation and, in particular, with the Native Americans, happened because it didn’t fit the story they created – manifest destiny. It only works if the Indians were savages. And they had to have savages for commerce and government to expand. The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?

Or, if you prefer your pseudo-science in video form:

There is nugget of truth buried deep inside of Beck's delusions. The reality is that, up through the early 20th century, the expansion of the United States required that Americans view the native peoples of the midwest and west as a nuisance at best and sub-human at worst. Yes, there was some intentional propaganda (begun during the earliest colonization of the Americas, not during the period of Manifest Destiny - although the promoters of westward expansion certainly made use of what was, by that time, some very old prejudices), but there was also the reliable force of good, old-fashioned xenophobia at work. It was easy for the Europeans and their descendants in the Americas to view the hunter-gatherers and early farmers of the Americas as "primitives" or "savages" - they had been taught this since the end of the 15th century - and so there really was no need to convince most people that the native peoples of the Americas were savages - most of these people already believed it due to centuries of programming.

The irony, of course, is the Beck is claiming that the Smithsonian and other institutions of American archaeology and history intentionally covered up the truth of the American past in order to justify violent and often genocidal policies. In fact, the Smithsonian was the very institution that began to hammer the nails in the coffin of "science"-based "white superiority." the mound monuments, for example, had long been assumed to be the work of more advanced people, as "the savage Indians could not have built them!" The Smithsonian commissioned archaeologists and anthropologists to study the mounds and the people who had historically lived in their vicinity and demonstrated conclusively that yes, these were the very same people responsible for these very impressive monuments. Further, it was American archaeology and anthropology, largely through the persons of Franz Boas (a Jewish German emigrant) and Alfred Kroeber who really began the systematic study of the Native Americans that provided the perspective that we have today - that these people were not "savages", but rather were intelligent people who had adapted well to their environments.

What's more, even if the Smithsonian had been in on a cover-up (which, as anyone who has bothered to actually look at it's output could tell you, it wasn't) this wouldn't result in the "truth" being hidden. As I have pointed out before, academic research is a cut-throat occupation, and anyone who can overturn the accepted theories and models has just ensured that they will have a successful career, so there is no incentive to stick with the "official story" if the evidence strongly points elsewhere. And even if there had been a succesful attempt to silence the archaeologists and anthropologists of the United States, a good deal of work with the Native peoples of the Americas was performed by anthropologists and archaeologists from Europe, who had no impetus to follow an "official" U.S. government history, and who were very vocal about their findings.

So, in fact, it was institutional science (and especially the Smithsonian) that showed that these people weren't savages, and there was no cover-up. As to Beck's question "The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?" I can only say - buddy, I've got a room full of those artifacts in the back of my office building, and I have spent years studying them. If you have to ask "why aren't we looking into those?" then you are so astoundingly ignorant that I don't even know where to start explaining your problems.

Okay, so this is the first of a few installments, the next will focus on why a 19th century volume would be making comparisons between the Americas and Asia, Africa, and Europe. Later on, I'll get into how Beck's religious views have more to do with his thoughts on archaeology than any actual research that he's done.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Abandoned House

I had been working for over twelve hours when I encountered this place. I had gotten up early in the morning and driven out to the Mojave in order to perform a small archaeological/historic properties survey. While I found no archaeological sites, I did find the remains of a few cabins, out in the desert, ten miles from the nearest town, two miles north of the highway that passes through the area, and a mile east of the wind farm where the nearest people would be found.

The cabins were not occupied - it was clear from the exteriors that they had been abandoned decades before, and most of them were lacking both windows and doors and had decaying walls, making them little more than glorified lean-tos. But there was one that was a bit more intact. I encountered it about an hour before sunset, but didn't get a chance to go back and have a look until a after the sun had slid behind the Tehachapis.

This photo is from my first pass, before sunset.

Before I left, I had to try to find something that indicated when the house had been built, and when it had been abandoned. If a property is less than 50 years old, it usually won't be considered historic, and therefore I don't have to bother with it. If it's older than 50 years, on the other hand, I need to make sure that it makes it into my report. So, for each of the structures standing in the area, I had to examine the exterior, and if that failed to turn up anything, enter and examine the interior for age markers. This was fine for all of the shacks and small cabins, except for the one pictured above. I could enter everything else and look at it closely, but I didn't want to approach this building.

It wasn't that I was afraid of who might be in it - I was on federal land that had been obtained in the late 1970s, it was clear that nobody had been living in the house in quite a long time, and after spending several hours walking around within eyesight of the house, I hadn't seen anybody out here. There were no cars, no tracks of either vehicles or feet, and not recent trash. There was no chemical smells, and no stains on the ground. In other words, nobody had been living here, recreating here, or manufacturing drugs here. It was abandoned. Besides, I was far from defenseless. I am fast on my feet and can move through most environments quickly, so I could probably escape. If I was unlucky enough to not be able to escape, well, I am a large man - standing over six feet tall - and while I am never armed, a large portion of my field equipment can be used for defense in a pinch. So, I wasn't worried about people.

It was more of a sense of weird, supernatural dread. This is strange, as I don't believe in ghosts, and I think that demons are merely the scapegoats of weak-willed people prone to poor behavior and cash cows for televangelists who know that frothing paranoia is good for the coffers. I don't believe in fairies or trolls, nor vampires or ghouls. I think that shadow people are the products of people not understanding how their eyes work, and that apparitions are typically hallucinations.

In other words, if there was anyone who was not going to be frightened by what was out there (or, rather, what wasn't out there), it was me.

And yet, here I was, a deep sense of dread growing in the pit of my stomach as I pondered approaching the house. Truth be told, I was frustrated - I was working a long day and had to be away from home because of someone else's mistake - and I was tired, not having slept well for a couple of nights previous. Probably, in this mentally weakened state, the ghost stories that I collect had begun to mix about in my head. Certainly, I was thinking of a few specific ones as I stood, staring at the house.

The sun had set, time was short, and I had to get this done. I walked towards the house, walked a circuit at a distance, and then again up-close. This house still had windows, and as I approached them, I had to steel myself, and then force myself to look in. I saw a place where trash had been dumped, but in which there was nothing else. A bit calmer, I continued my circuit, finding nothing to indicate the age of the building. Finally, I reached the front door, and realized that I had to go inside.

The door's latch was broken, and a piece of wire had, some time ago, been fashioned into a make-shift fastener for the door. I had already seen inside through the window, this place had no surprises for me. And yet, I still hesitated, having difficulty making myself loosen the wire and open the door.

It was getting darker, and I knew that, if I didn't want to waste another drive out here, I had to finish. I loosened the wire, and slowly eased the door open.

I looked in, and there was nothing more than I had already seen through the window. I took a few steps in, and saw in the fading light that the interior walls had long since decayed, leaving this simply one large room. All of the furniture, appliances, and other household goods had long since been removed, and all that remained was a pile of trash from whoever the last people to use the building had been. I looked around, trying to find anything - an architectural feature, a wall hanging, an electrical device built into the building, or anything else - that would tell me how old the building was. It lacked an internal piping, which might tell me something, but in some rural areas, which this definitely was, indoor plumbing didn't become the norm until the 1970s.

I looked towards the door, and quickly walked to it. I turned around, feeling somehow that to leave my back to the room before the door was closed would be a bad idea. As I closed the door, I expected to feel the dread leave me, and feel a sense of relief. I didn't. Instead, as the door closed, I became fixated on the irrational notion that I was about to hear an old woman's laughter. I don't know where the thought came from, nor why it frightened me, but I couldn't shake it.

I finished closing the door, and hurried towards my truck. It was dark enough by this point that I had to turn my headlights on to navigate the dirt roads back to the main highway.

I still don't know what bothered me so much about that place. It was probably fatigue, stress, and an overactive imagination. I honestly never believed that anything would happen, but that doesn't change the fact that I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something wrong.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Information Centers and Confidential Information

Throughout the U.S., there are clearinghouses that store information on the known archaeological sites within each given state. The name and organization of these clearinghouses varies from state to state, but in California they are known collectively as the California Historic Resources Information System (CHRIS) and consist of regional offices that house the site records for the surrounding area.

Archaeological site location information is considered sensitive, as there is a long tradition of people looting sites. As a result, in order to get information from the clearinghouses, you typically have to show that you are either a legitimate and responsible archaeologist or the owner of the land on which a site is located, and you have to sign a confidentiality agreement. However, this creates a tension, as the rationale behind most of the laws protecting sites is that the sites are of importance to the people of the United States. So, we preserve them based on the premise that they are important to the people from whom we hide their locations.

This also makes it a bit of a pain to gather information on known sites within a given area. So, if you happen to be an archaeologist with a project in, say, northern San Luis Obispo County, you need to go through the process of having a record search done at the CHRIS information center in Santa Barbara, complete with confidentiality agreements, making appointments (or waiting for the info center personnel to have a chance to do the search for you), and a bit of a hassle.

To this end, many of the information centers around the country have been working to create digital archives of their holdings in order to free up space and make searches easier. This has resulted in a discussion within the archaeological community regarding whether or not to make this information available online.

The upside to online searches is that they would allow an archaeologist to get results within days or even hours, rather than the weeks or months that it currently takes. It would also reduce the overall costs of running the info centers (less workspace needed), as well as reduce the inconvenience to our clients when we are waiting for search results.

The downside is that site location information would be readily available to those who would like nothing better than to loot sites, destroying them in an effort to get collectable or sellable artifacts out of them. Certainly, websites can be password-protected, but these passwords only provide so much safety, and are routinely bypassed by those with sufficient knowledge - just ask anyone who runs a membership-driven website.

A few years back, I attended a session at the Society for American Archaeology annual conference on the issue of improving access and performance of systems such as CHRIS. One of the attendees, a representative of the the state historic preservation officer for one of the southern states (I don't recall which one) stated that we should simply put everything online, and that we are worrying too much about what "one guy with a shovel" can do.

But the problem is that "one guy with a shovel" can do alot of damage - most of the historic archaeological sites that I saw while working around Taft last year were heavily looted and disturbed, and I have been present on more than a few prehistoric sites where looters have nearly destroyed the entire site. It gets worse when you consider that, very often, we aren't even dealing with "one guy with a shovel", but rather with groups of people with shovels, backhoes, and (in at least one case that I know of) heavier equipment such as bulldozers. It bothers me that we keep site location information secret, but it bothers me even more that once a site's location becomes widely known said site becomes a magnet for looters who will use whatever equipment they can get their hands on to pull things out for either their personal collections or for sale.

It's a thorny issue - how do we maintain public communication while hiding some of the most basic information about a site - and one to which I don't have a solution. Until one is found, though, I don't see any alternative but to keep location information confidential.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dirty Hands Environmentalism

I have addressed this before in footnotes, but it is something that has long bothered me, so I want to write an actual post about it.

Seven years ago, I took a position as an intern in the environmental conservation office at an Air Force base in southern California. I was still in graduate school at the time, and this was an ideal place to gain some nuts-and-bolts experience in the actual application of historic/archaeological preservation regulations. It was, on the whole, a good experience (if at times a strange one), and I do not regret having done it.

However, as soon as I signed on to do the work, I began to catch flak from some of my friends. So much of the reaction was based on knee-jerk political liberalism. People who knew my philosophical and political views seemed genuinely confused that I would work for the military.

But this confusion had more to do with people wanting to place a label on me (in this case, the label is "liberal" - a label that I reject) than with what was really happening.

The simple fact of the matter is that the military is one of the largest land-holding organizations in the U.S. This means that it has great potential to either preserve or damage environmental and historic resources. We can sign all of the petitions and attend all of the rallies that we like, but the simple fact of the matter is that if we are not willing to get in and work with the organizations that have the ability to impact the environment, then none of that matters. Whether you like the military or detest it (personally, I have more issues with the way that our elected officials use the military than I have with the military itself), the simple fact of the matter is that if you are truly in favor of the conservation of the natural and historic environment, you have to be willing to work with it. To refuse to do so is to cut off your nose to spite your face. When the military brass were serious about environmental protection, we helped guide them through a maze of often opaque laws and regulations. When they weren't, we had the tools to protect resources that were in danger.

I have since worked with and for many other organizations and industries that my friends tend to view with suspicion, especially with the petroleum industry. And I keep running across the same sort of accusatory questioning - how can you call yourself an environmentalist and work with those people?. And my answer remains the same: if you don't trust these people/organizations, then you should view me as extremely valuable - I'm the guy who can keep them honest. If they are as bad as you think (and they usually aren't, although sometimes they can be worse), if you don't trust them to follow the regulations on their own, then why are you giving me grief for making sure that they do? It is the height of hypocrisy to scream about the need for environmental protection and then to attack those of us who actually do the necessary work to see to it that the regulations are obeyed.

People who are honestly interested in historic preservation and environmental protection need to understand that it is not sufficient to forward emails, place "Go Green" stickers on your personal property, attend rallies, and talk about the evils of whatever organization is your bogeyman for the day. Rather than asking why I work with various different government agencies and private corporations, ask yourself why you don't. Yes, I work with organizations with rather questionable track records. Yes, sometimes I have to hold my nose while doing the work. Yes, I get my hands dirty, but that's because I'm working in the garden, not dining in the ivory tower. The simple fact of the matter is that none of the laws or directives make the slightest bit of difference of everyone who is in favor of them backs away when the work of implementing them needs to be done. If you are serious about protecting the environment, put down your silverware and haul your ass down here to work with me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Australopithicene Meat Eaters

There are alot of very good arguments in favor of vegetarianism, and even veganism, in our modern world - where food is relatively plentiful compared to our species' past. However, despite the existence of very good arguments, I typically hear very poor arguments put forward. I have commented before on how the Caveman Fallacy is often used as a way to justify vegetarian diets (the claim being that humans didn't evolve to eat meat), and recent findings again add to the pile of evidence that this is an argument based on false claims.

We knew that our early hominid ancestors ate meat - the remains of both tools with morphology consistent with meat processing and animals remains exhibiting tell-tale signs of butchery are found in early archaeological sites. This is noteworthy in that our nearest relatives - the chimpanzees - can and do eat meat, but nonetheless typically subsist on vegetable foods. The consumption of meat (and the introduction of cooked food) allowed our early ancestors to absorb more calories and specific rare nutrients, which was vitally important as our lineages brain size increased (growing a brain requires alot of energy and nutrients, and living in a feast-or-famine situation makes every possible source of calories, proteins, and fats vitally important).

What is interesting is that the date at which butchering and meat consumption began appears to be earlier than previously thought. Until recently, the best evidence indicated that this behavior dated to something in the neighborhood of 2.5 million years ago. However, new evidence indicates that it began closer to 3.4 million years ago, and was engaged in by Australopithecus afarensis (you'd know her as Lucy).

I suspect that these early hominids were scavengers or opportunistic hunters at best, and if either modern primates or modern hunter-gatherers are any indication, the majority of the calories consumed by the Australopithicenes probably came from vegetable foods. But this paved the way for what our evolutionary lineage would become, and as such, was an important step in human evolution.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nut Jobs and Magic Stones

When I was a graduate student, I walked into my adviser's lab. My friend Dusty was sitting in the lab, grinning, and as he heard my footsteps, he looked up and said "Oh, missed the show!"

"Huh?" I was ever-such the quick wit back in those days.

"Check this out. So, this guy comes in and tells Mike", that is Michael Glassow, our advisor and one of the current elder statesmen of Californian archaeology, "that he has historic-era Chumash effigy stones."

"Yeah, so?" I asked. Effigy stones are simply small scultped stones, typically they are effigies of animals (but it has been argued that carvings that some more abstract ones may be images of spirits or gods and could be included). Ethnographic and archaeological information indicates that they were used for religious and/or magical purposes. While it's always cool to find one in a site, they aren't that rare, and the claim that someone has a stash of them isn't too outlandish.

"Well," Dusty was grinning ear-to-ear, greatly amused, "this guy was claiming that these were carved to resemble Portola."

Portola was one of the more adventurous Spanish explorers to travel California. The Portola expedition laid the groundwork for the California Mission and Presidio System, and provided more information about the lives and culture of the Native Californians than any previous expedition. However, there is absolutely no reason why any self-respecting Chumash would be carving a stone into an effigy of a grungy, road-weary Spaniard. I could only ask "Are you serious? Was HE serious?"

"Fuck yeah, he was serious. He brought them in a metal briefcase, and he opened it up on that table," dusty indicated the table farthest from Mike's office door, "and showed them to Mike."

"Yeah, and?" I was curious as to how Mike had acted. The image of Mike, who is the one living person who I can easily imagine as a dignified Roman senator, dealing with this wingnut was forcing involuntary giggles out of me.

"Well, you know Mike. He was very patient, listened to the guy, and then picked up each stone and looked at it. Then, when he was done looking at them, he said," Dusty took a breath and then gave his best impression of Mike's deep and calm voice, "'well, I don't see any indications of carving. These appear to just be smooth rocks.'"

"How did the guy react?"

Dusty began laughing and shaking his head. "He was calm at first, and aksed if Mike was sure that he didn't see anything. When Mike said that he didn't, he said 'yeah, well, to be fair, it's not really visible under normal light. The effigy was meant to be looked at only in the light of the full moon.'"

"Yeah, and what did Mike say?"

Dusty was having a very hard time not laughing now, "he said that he thought it was unlikely that there was anything there. So, this guy put the rocks back in his briefcase and stormed out." Dusty was shaking his head while laughing. "It was fuckin' great!"

Being known as an expert has many advantages - the esteem of your colleagues, the attention of the curious, and the ability to make your voice heard. It also has it's downsides, one of which is that you attract all sorts of whack-jobs and wingnuts.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Old time religion...or not

When I was in high school, one of my friends announced that, having discovered that she was something in the neighborhood of 1/16th or 1/32nd Iroquois, she was going to start following "the Native American religion." She was rather proud of her new-found and allegedly deeper, nature-derived, mystical spirituality, which of course made her a bit obnoxious. Even more bizarre, she had turned to another friend, who was equally non-Native American, for information on this religious path*.

I found this whole turn of events baffling for three reasons.

The first reason is that I have never understood the common belief that having Native American ancestry somehow makes one more mystical, or provides them with a mystical birth-right. As I have described before, a full quarter of my ancestry comes from the Cherokee and Choctaw, and this in no way changes the fact that I was essentially raised as a white kid in a small town (which rapidly became the suburbs as I was growing up). The "mystical Indian" notion is at its heart a racist concept, and one that has been used (both historically and in the here and now) to damage attempts by Native American groups and individuals to advance their own causes in our modern world (see Eve Darian-Smith's book New Capitalists for a good discussion of the matter). It's basically culture porn that is used by (usually white) people who feel dissatisfied with their lives to try to make themselves feel connected to some other (non-existent but stereotypical) culture.

The second reason that I was baffled by this young woman's claim was the fact that the notion of the (as in a singular) Native American religion is absurd on its face. At the time of European contact there were hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups within North America and thousands of tribes and tribelets. Even looking at one ethno-linguistic group, let's say the Gabrielino of southern California, there is a figure who is considered a historic leaders at one village, a spirit at another village, a messiah at another, a culture hero at another, and a god at another village. And this is within an area that consists solely of modern-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties and amongst people who spoke dialects of the same language family and were part of the same social network. This doesn't even get into the differences between the Gabrielino and the Iroquois, Choctaw, Inuit, Tlingit, Hopi, Chumash, and so on. The notion that there is a single "Native American Religion" is based on the notion that all of the native people of the Americas are more or less the same - which is another rather racist notion*.

The third reason that this was baffling to me is something that I have actually come to accept, though not quite understand, since then. We, as a society, tend to talk about religion as being a deeply-held set of convictions and beliefs about the way the world works. For many people this is true. However, for some people religion has significantly more to do with adopting an identity than with belief. This is why it is not uncommon for some people to adopt religions when they admit that they don't know the religion's tenets, and why it's not uncommon for adherents to many social movements to adopt the same religious label as other members of the movement even though they may not actually hold the same beliefs or even know what the religion's beliefs are**. While I don't know if this woman was among them, as a teenager and as a college student, I knew many people who adopted new religions as a form of rebellion (they later admitted this was the case, which is how I can comment on it without worrying about overly-insulting them).

At any rate, I find the declaration just as odd now as I did back then.

*I remember, several years back, seeing the video-tape box for the film Island of the Blue Dolphins. The story is about a Nicoleno woman, but the video box bragged about having "genuine Salinans" in the cast. On the one hand, this seems rather uncomfortably reminiscent of the 17th-19th century European habit of putting non-Europeans on display for public gawking. On the other hand, it is as non-sensical as filming a movie about 1930s France and bragging that your film is especially authentic because the cast features "real, live Germans!"

**In retrospect, discovering this, and realizing that many people don't actually know, much less believe, the teachings of the religion that they claim to follow (such as the people I met who refused to believe that Jesus was Jewish) is probably one of the many factors that made me really start questioning religion in general.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Astronomy, Rock Guitarists, and Editorial Mistakes

I doubt that I will ever stop being amused at the rather bad vocabulary of people who should know better. Case in point - I recently found out that Brian May, the lead guitarist from the band Queen, holds a PhD in astrophysics. I thought this was pretty cool, so I decided to see if he had written anything for non-professional audiences, and indeed he has. He co-wrote a book that describes the history of the universe and it's projected end. If his writing is anything like his speech on the subject, I can only expect that it is clear and well-written (I'll be buying a copy for my partner, a Queen fan and a budding science fan).

That's all pretty damn cool. But in the review section of the above link, there's this gem of a quote:

"Highly recommended for community library astrology collections and for anyone who wants a unbiased look at the universe itself." -- Midwest Book Review

This is being recommended for astrology collections? Don't get me wrong, I am fully in favor of people who are into astrology actually getting some background in science and learning that astrology is nonsense, but I kind of doubt that this is what the reviewer meant to imply.

It's a weirdly common mistake, though. I once had a housemate who was absolutely convinced that astronomy was the superstitious thing with the newspaper columns and 1-900 numbers, and that astrology was the science with the telescopes and math and whatnot. I had to show him several books on the subject (including Phil Plait's footnote about this in Death from the Skies) for him to believe me that is as astronomy that was the science.

Of course, within a week, he was back to confusing the words again.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


All of the reports that we produce are submitted to the lead agency (the state or federal agency responsible for licensing, permitting, or funding a given project) for comments. The purpose of this practice is to provide the agency a chance to give feedback on the environmental review process before we finalize the work. Ideally, the report is done well enough that the agency provides few, if any, comments. Realistically, if all else fails, the agency folks will provide comments (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) about the grammar. Really, some of these folks are that bored.

More substantive comments are also common. When, as is not uncommon, one or two people produce a 400-page report (complete with all of it's appendices) in the space of two weeks, it is inevitable that something will be unclear or missing from the report, and agency comments will point this out.

On other occasions, an agency will allow someone who has no knowledge of the relevant subjects to review a document. In those cases, the comments are often nonsensical. For example, one report that my company submitted to a state agency was returned with a comment stating that the report had failed to explain how the proposed project would impact a known Native Californian village site. We responded by contacting the agency and explaining that the village site in question was six miles from the project location and was separated from the project location by a mountain range, and therefore there were no impacts. The agency responded by demanding that we explain how the proposed project would impact the village. We responded again by explaining the distance and the mountain range, the agency demanded that we explain the impacts (apparently failing to grasp that six miles and a mountain range is sufficient buffer to keep a graded dirt road from impacting a site), and so on for several months.

One state agency, which shall remain un-named, has even elevated abusive comments into an art form. I once received a comment from this agency informing me that a report I had written "has a whining, petulant tone that the reviewers found offensive." If you have ever read one of these documents then you'll know that the notion that they can have a tone other than "dry and boring" is comical. This same agency, one seeing the field schedule for an excavation project, wrote that "a quadriplegic without his wheelchair could dig faster than this!"

As amusing as those comments are, at least that particular agency has a reputation for knowing their own regulations and applying them evenly, correctly, and fairly across the board. In order to provide a contrast, I have to explain that when a report is submitted to an agency, it is called a "Draft" report, and will become a "Final" report once comments have been received and incorporated into the document.

Now for the contrasting agency. We work, routinely with a federal agency (that shall also go un-named) that has offices throughout California, and most of the people in most of these offices are good at their jobs and pleasant to work with. But every now and again we hit up against someone who isn't. In this case, we submitted a draft report for agency comments. The agency archaeologist took exception to this, apparently viewing it as an insult that we would submit a draft report and not a final report. So, they shredded the document and demanded a final report.

Of course, going by this agency's own processes, we can't actually generate a final report until after the agency has commented on the draft report. The report was, therefore, re-submitted with an explanation that we were waiting on comments so that we could issue a final report. The agency shredded that one and demanded a final report.

And so, we find ourselves in a position where we are being held responsible for actually following the agency's own requirements.


Monday, August 2, 2010

The Social Dance of Grief

Comforting grieving people is a tricky business. In part it's tricky because dealing with anybody in any highly emotional state is a tricky business. But grief is made more difficult by the fact that those things that might be comforting to you may further aggravate the emotions of the person who you are trying to help.

Three years ago, my step-grandmother died. She had been deteriorating for several years due to Alzheimer's, and, as is often the case, was truly gone well before death. At her funeral and after her death, I was present for family members, and tried to be helpful. However, I know that I was not as comforting as many of the other people present for the simple reason that I never said nor agreed to anyone's assertion that we would see my grandmother again in Heaven. Most of my family members didn't notice that I wasn't joining in the after-life chorus, but a few did, and they were, not displeased as such, but clearly felt that I was not as helpful as I could have been.

Still, I felt, and still feel, that it was better that I not say anything that the person would likely find out that I didn't believe. That feels like a betrayal of the person's trust that could re-open wounds when the griever discovers that I lied, and is not something that I think is appropriate. It seems better to do what I can without lying, thought I know that int he short term this will not help as much as I wish.

On the flip-side, I often also find myself in odd and uncomfortable places when other people try to comfort me. Because I don't believe in an after-life, I often find myself frustrated when people try to assure me that I will see someone again in such a place. Of course, I realize that people saying such things shows a legitimate concern and effort to help on their part, and so I try not to be rude to them when they say such things. Nonetheless, it adds an additional frustration to the emotional burden of grief - and the more simplistic the notion of the after-life, the more infuriating it is*. These sorts of things may help soothe the pain of many people, but they simply leave me feeling as if I am being condescended to.

Just as I may not be helping to lift the burden from someone who does believe when I comfort them, when someone tries to tell me of the after-life they are adding an additional burden on my shoulders.

All of this creates this weird dance around grief. We wish to help, but those who are aware have to try to not condescend to or insult the grieving while also helping to share some of the burden of grief. Those who are unaware often make the plight of the grieving worse while trying to help.

*And the next person to spout that juvenile "Rainbow Bridge" claptrap to me is getting tazered!