The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Moving On, Again...

So, as stated several times lately, I have been slammed with work in Southern California. This has been keeping me from taking care of family duties, and has also put strain on my personal relationships. So, that means that I have to make a change.

I will be moving back to the Central Valley in order to be able to do fieldwork closer to home and to be near my sisters and their children. I will be moving over the course of the next month, so my updating schedule will continue to be sporadic. However, once I have moved, I should be able to update three or more times a week, so that will be groovy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Shield from Reality

You have, no doubt, encountered this at some point. You meet someone who is completely immune to all evidence, logic, and reason opposing a position that they hold because they have managed to convince themselves that there is some conspiracy, dark force, or flaw in everyone else's mind that prevents them from admitting "the truth!" Anything that you may say contrary to their conclusions must be wrong, because you and/or your information have some fatal flaw that prevents you either from ever actually seeing the truth, or from admitting it.

You may have even committed this fallacy, but you have definitely encountered it.

I first became aware of it some years back, when I encountered the wild and woolly world of pseudo-archaeology - the land of the Graham Hancocks and the Von Dannikens. The usual charge was "the 'mainstream academics' don't want you to know about this because it would ruin their professorships and book deals!" With that line of thought, any disconfirming evidence could be brushed off as propaganda by those who wished to hide the truth with a capital "T". Of course, the problem, obviously, is that this is an inversion of reality: it is Hancock and company who stand to lose money and prestige if reality isn't what they are saying it is, I have written previously about why professional researchers have no reason to hide new revelations about the past.

It's essentially a variation on the "poisoning the well" logical fallacy: rather than engage in a discussion of points made or information provided, the person committing the fallacy simply declares that the person, group, or institution providing disconfirming information is somehow corrupt, evil, or deluded and therefore can not be trusted. It tends to be applied selectively, though. When someone from the demonized camp says something that seems to be in agreement with the views of the person committing the fallacy, then the claims of evil-doing or delusion are suspended and the qualities (professional qualifications, group membership, etc.) that had been demonized are now glorified. So, for example, when a professional archaeologist says something that is in agreement with Graham Hancock, Hancock is more than happy to trumpet the fact that such a fine, qualified, individual with excellent academic ties agrees; but when the same academic disagrees with Hancock, he became yet another cog in the "academic conspiracy" to hide the past. It's a neat way to deflect criticism

As I say, I first became aware of this when as a student, when I was discovering the various silly claims in pseudo-archaeology. In the years since, I have come to notice just how common this fallacy is.

For example: when you look into the research concerning herbal remedies, you find a very mixed bag. Some of the herbs have medicinal value, others are nothing but placebos, some have value but not for what they are typically used for, some are nothing but harmful, and the ones that do have some value all have side-effects*. However, when I have spoken with people who use herbal remedies, they are usually excited when research shows benefits for one of the remedies that they favor, but they tend to dismiss research that shows other remedies to be ineffective or harmful as well as research that reveals the side-effects of the remedies that are effective as being "propaganda from 'Big Pharma', who have a profit motive for keeping you away from natural cures!**"

Glenn Beck has made ample use of this fallacy in his forays into pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history. Again, the claim is that "the liberal elite" are covering up the truth about the past for their own nefarious ideological ends, and it is only Glenn Beck and his friends who are brave enough to reveal the true history to us all. Any evidence presented contrary to their views is simply brushed aside as evidence that the person presenting it has either been duped by some shadowy conspiracy of "the elites" or else is an active agent of said conspiracy. Just as Hancock is the one who actually stands to lose book sales if people don't believe him, and herb producers have the same profit motive as the "big pharma" that they criticize, Beck is creating a false history that suits his own ideological ends while accusing those who disagree with him of the very thing that he is doing.

But it is not a real argument in favor of anything. It is a deflection, essentially an admission that one has no legs to stand on and therefore will simply accuse anyone who disagrees of wrong-doings. Worse, those making these sorts of claims are usually hypocrites, doing the very thing that of which they accuse their opponents. When one hears someone say "well, my opponents claim X because, and only because they are guarding their ideological interests!" you should always be wary. It's not a guarantee, but there is a fair chance that the person with whom you are speaking is guilty of precisely what they are accusing everyone else of doing.

*Simple fact of the matter - if something has an effect on your body, it's due to the fact that it's monkeying around with your body chemistry. Everything that effects us, for good or for ill, has side-effects, no matter whether the substance is grown in the garden or manufactured in a lab. If something truly has not side-effect, then it's a fair bet that it has no effect at all.

**Because, you know, the companies that manufacture and sell herbal remedies never make any profit and have absolutely no financial incentive in getting you to use their products.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Research vs. Management

I have had the strange experience these last few weeks of being confronted face-on with the difference between research-oriented archaeology and management/compliance-oriented archaeology.

I have been out in the Mojave again - called out at the last minute to help define the boundaries of archaeological sites in order to ensure that they will not be harmed by planned construction activities, in this case, the use of specific dirt roads to get to and from construction locations. This means that I have spent the last two weeks digging 50-centimeter wide holes, sifting the soil through metal mesh screens, and making a catalogue of what was found, and then filling the hole back in.

And those of you who were in the Army probably thought that you were the only people required to continuously dig holes and fill them back in again.

This process is not nearly as arduous as it may sound when you are finding archaeological materials or when the soil is easy to dig and to screen. But digging through it is a bit like digging through concrete. So, we have had long days of hard physical labor. One the one hand, it is commendable that my client is going through such trouble to make sure that it doesn't damage any archaeological sites. On the other hand, my hands, shoulders, and back have probably aged ten years in the last two weeks.

Simultaneous with this field work, I have been working on a paper for publication in an archaeology journal. It is based on my Masters thesis, and represents and effort to reconcile two strands of anthropological data that are frequently at odds with each other. While working on the paper, I have been reminded of both the difficulty of doing the work that resulted in my thesis, and also the intellectual pleasure that I took in analyzing the data and writing the document.

Or, put another way, I have been reminded of what originally attracted me to archaeology in the first place.

It's a bit demoralizing to be working on a project that is regulation/management-driven and so far way from any real archaeology while simultaneously working on a research project. I know that not all of my projects are like this, and that my line of work has allowed me to dig up airplane crashes, cling to cliffsides, climb mountains, get whisked around in helicopters, and all kinds of other groovy things. However, at the moment, I am feeling a bit low, and wondering why I didn't become a dental hygienist.

So it goes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Walking Dead, Sir Francis Drake's Ego, and Cultural Context

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake (a man with a commanding history considering that he was named after a type of waterfowl) made landfall on the Pacific Coast of North America and had a strange encounter with the native peoples. The exact location is unknown*, but is generally thought to have been along the northern California coast, probably somewhere in the vicinity of the San Francisco ay area, although arguments have been made that the fabled landing occurred in Oregon and not California, and at least one claimant puts forward the notion that a massive conspiracy has hidden Drakes' exploration of the Canadian coast**.

Regardless of where, exactly, it occurred, Drake landed on the Pacific Coast of North America, and met a group of natives. Duck, er...I mean Drake, accompanied by some of his men, met a group of natives who, amongst much pomp, presented Drake with a crown made of local vegetation, and a scepter, amongst many other gifts of food and other goods. Drake took this to mean that these people, so impressed by his regal bearing, had proclaimed him their king.

Healthy ego, that Drake.

To be fair, Drake came from a culture in which the ceremonial placement of fancy headgear and ornate staves was part of ceremonies intended to bestow power upon a political leader. It had never occurred to ol' Sir Francis that perhaps the fashionable hat and walking stick given him by the natives might not have the same meaning in the Americas as it did in Europe. And so Drake went on believing that, not only had he claimed that land for England, but that he had done so rightfully after being named the king.

Re-examination of Drake's account by modern anthropologists has produced a rather different story.

Ceremonies in which the dead ancestors, or the recently dead, return to interact with the living are common throughout the world, and were a normal part of the cermonial/religious life of the native peoples of western North America. In many of these ceremonies, it was necessary that the dead return in the flesh in order to accept gifts and witness rituals by those still living. This creates a bit of a logistics problem, as the dead aren't exactly known for getting up and taking part in elaborate rituals. The solution to this is to have people from another village appear and act essentially as proxies for the dead***.

And it appears that Drake and company showed up at just the right place at just the right time to serve the role of the returning dead.

The "crown" and "scepter" that Drake received are consistent with ritual objects used by the Miwok and other coastal Native American groups as part of such ceremonies. The description given by Drake of the other gifts and the activity surrounding them are also consistent with one of these ceremonies.

So, Drake thought that he was being made a king, and the natives thought that Drake and crew were the walking dead. Sure, a bunch of ship-bound limeys probably weren't what the locals were expecting, but they showed up at the right time and right place, and therefore they would do. I can only imagine that the natives were rather non-plussed when the people who were supposed to be playing the role of the dead finally showed up.

It's worth keeping this in mind. Every time that I hear someone discuss the wars in the Middle East, or travel to Asia, or any of the other myriad of situations where two different cultures come into contact, they assume that the people of the other culture view the world in the same way as them. But if the Zombie Drake Affair teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that even actions and items that seem absolutely clear-cut to one culture may have wildly different meanings to another. Leaving aside all of the Kum-By-Ya "Can't we all just get along" stuff, this is important to keep in mind if we actually want to emerge from interactions with other cultures while keeping our own skins intact.

Or, hey, you can always just treat this whole thing as a funny story. Which, it must be said, it is.

*For many years, a brass plate found in Marin County was held up by many, especially historian Herbert Eugene Bolton, as physical evidence of Drake having landed in the Marin County area. The problem is that the plate was manufactured in the 1930s by members of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) - a historical group which intentionally gave itself an absolutely meaningless Latin-sounding name - as a joke. Bolton didn't get the joke, and went on to proclaim the plate the real deal. Members of ECV tried to subtly tip Bolton off to the forgery, but were never successful, and were apparently too polite to call him on it and embarrass him publicly. In the 1970s, a battery of tests showed the plate to be a hoax, but the full story didn't come out until 2003, when Bolton was gone and the hoax could be revealed without causing him trouble.

You know, I wish I could invent something as funny as the true story of this brass plate.

**No, I'm not buying it, either.

***Whether they are viewed as proxies, or are viewed as the dead actually returning in the form of the neighbors, is a debate that I will leave to my ethnohistorian colleagues, as they are better at undertsanding, or at least accepting, the often convoluted reasoning that people use in many religious ceremonies.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I am currently in the field helping with some basic avoidance and mitigation work. The way that the process goes is as follows:

Once we have identified archaeological sites, we notify our client and the relevant government agencies (those that issue permits or money or both). The client then generally has one of three options*: determine whether or not the site is avoidable for a state or federal register of historic places, and therefore requires mitigation or avoidance; or just avoid the site to begin with.

I have written about determining site eligibility before. So I'm going to talk about avoidance here.

Avoidance seems pretty straightforward, and sometimes it is. Sometimes it's as simple as "Hey, if you move the road 10 feet to the west over here, then you avoid a site!"

Sometimes it's not. First off, you have to know precisely where the site is in order to avoid it. This is not always simple. For example - if a site is largely buried, then what you see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg, and determining where the site is, and therefore what must be avoided, requires digging many, many holes and simply seeing if there is anything under the surface. And how deep you have to dig (and how difficult it is to do so) depends on the erosional history of the landscape. For example, I once had to dig a hole that was 50 cm (about a foot and a half) around, and I had to go down 2.5 meters (about eight feet). In the end, most of the upper half of my body was in a hole, while I used two shovels like a pair of claws to pull rocks and soil out of the bottom of the hole. And, despite layers of sterile deposits, I found the buried site at the bottom of the hole.

In addition, you have the question of what the government agencies with which you are working consider to be a single or multiple sites. For example - I worked with one agency archaeologist who wanted a group of five different sites listed as one site, as none was more than 200 feet away from another. A few years later, same agency but with a different archaeologist, wanted all sites that were more than 150 feet apart separated into different sites. So, the boundaries of the site changed not because the site itself changed, but because of agencies direction. When they were gathered together, it might have been permissible to construct where there were no archaeological materials, but it might also not have been, depending on the views of the agency archaeologist concerning the relevant laws.

Then, once you know where the site is, you have to figure out how to avoid it. again, the most straightforward answer is to simply move what is being built, and this is usually what happens. But not always. If a site is to be covered with something such as a temporary access road, or a feature that doesn't require much ground disturbance, it might be acceptable to simply cap the site with gravel. The gravel takes the punishment, and can be dug through if it becomes necessary to access the site later.

A more controversial measure is to cap a site underneath a proposed building. For example, in the town in which I reside, there is at least one major building that has been knowingly constructed on top of a prehistoric archaeological site. The project engineers avoided damage to the site by building up several layers of earthen pads, and placing the building's foundations in these pads, thus avoiding damage to the site itself.

On the one hand, this does protect the site - it is not damaged, and the presence of the building is likely to prevent problems such as site looting.

On the other hand, the legal rationale usually given for protecting sites is that they may yield information important to the study of human history, and are therefore eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion D: data potential. And, well, if there is a building on top of the site, the odds of successfully studying the site are something close to zero.

One further problem comes in when you consider that a site might be considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of a particular feature or attribute. If this is the case, then there are two schools of thought: 1) the site is eligible, and therefore must be protected in it's entirety; 2) the site is eligible because of a specific aspect of the site, and as long as that aspect is not changed, damage to other parts of the site is acceptable.

I tend to fall into category 1, as do most archaeologists. However, I have come across agency archaeologists who go for category 2, and have been told that it is acceptable to sacrifice certain portions of eligible sites because this will not impact their eligibility in legal terms. There are usually good reasons for this - it allows the protection of some portion of the site, when it would otherwise have been even more heavily damaged - but it always seemed to me to be a bit like using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of it.

Anyway, I don't know if this is of any interest to anyone outside of my field, but it's a little bit o' the archaeological world that most people aren't familiar with.

*Please note - there are many exceptions

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On the Move Yet Again

I had hoped that I would be able to get back into keeping the blog regularly this week. However, I spent the last few days setting up my home office, precluding me from doing other things, and late yesterday afternoon I was informed that I have to pack up and head out to the Mojave today.

Working for a private company doing this sort of archaeological preservation and protection work has many perks. However, there are certain drawbacks as well. One of them is that when you are engaged in a large and complex project, such as the one that I am currently working on, there is always a possibility that you will be called away from home at the last minute, making plans and a personal life somewhat difficult to manage.

Still, sometimes when I am called away like this, I get to go to places and see things that other people never do. So, it's a trade off. As I get older, I crave more stability, but I know that I will eventually reach a stage in my career when these sorts of things don't happen. I look forward to that, though I think I will occasionally have a twinge of nostalgia for the crazier days of fieldwork.