The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Does Archaeology Matter?

After I read the paper discussed in the last blog post, I was on a bit of a high. It's not every day that you get to see something that cool come out of your field of study, and I was excited. As I explained the paper to Kaylia, she asked, as usual, some very good questions about the nature of the research issue, and what other data backed it up, and then she asked a very basic question: "so, why does this matter?"

I explained that it mattered because it improved our picture of how the Americas were first colonized, to which she replied "yes, I understand that, but why does that matter? Why is it an important question?"

I was stumped for a few minutes. Her question is a very, very good one, but one that most archaeologists, in fact most people who are involved in research, rarely, if ever, stop to ponder. Why is a particular research question important? Why is a particular field of study important?

So, Kaylia, this blog entry is for you.

The broad question, the question of why my field of study is important, is simultaeneously easy and difficult to answer. In the late 60s and early 70s, many archaeologists developed answers to this question based on archaeology's ability to answer questions regarding long-term human behavior, and therefore help us to develop practical answers to pressing questions of the day. During the later 70s and the 80s, these answers fell away as archaeology consistently failed to provide such answers. Today, as the global climate changes, there is good reason to think that archaeology can provide good information about how humans dealt (both succesfully and unseccesfully) with climate change in the past, and perhaps use that information to assist us from here on out. Of course, the problem here is that, in my own personal experience, the same people who are likely to press you for an explanation of why archaeology matters are generally the same people who don't believe in global warming, so while it's a valid and correct answer, it's not likely to get you anywhere.

As a graduate student, I discovered that only a few of my fellow grad students ever gave this any real thought. It was obviously important because they were interested in it, and they wouldn't be interested in something that wasn't important. I often heard that "archaeology is inherently interesting" or "archaeology is inherently important", which really just seemed to be begging the question. Most of those who gave that answer also tended to have a rather inflated notion of how the world outside of the university viewed archaeology, which I did not share as I was one of the few who, at that point, had spent extensive time as a professional away from the university*.

For myself, I will give this basic answer: archaeology does have some potential to address practical issues, not as much as some of the 60s/70s researchers claimed, but there is some potential nonetheless. However, the principle reason why archaeology matters is the same as the reason why the related field of history matters - we can more readily make sense of where we are if we have a firm grasp on where we came from, and it does our minds and our culture well to have the perspective that we are the latest in a long line of people, and our ancestors had lives every bit as intricate and interesting as our own. And, hey, maybe we can learn from their successes and from their failures. And, of course, there's my final reason for thinking that there is value in archaeology - it's a field that generates knowledge, and I happen to believe that knowledge, even if for the sake of knowledge, is a good thing.

And, really, either you're going to buy that, or you're not, and I don't think that I can justify the existence of archaeology any farther than that. If you don't, well, then nothing that I write below will matter to you.

So, assuming that you buy that there is value in studying archaeology, you then have the more direct question: why is this site important? Why is it important to confirm that there were pre-Clovis people wandering the Americas? Well, there's a few reasons:

On the most basic level, this helps to set the historical record straight regarding when and how the Americas were colonized. As far as we can tell, the broad variations in culture that were present at the time of European contact all derived, ultimately, from a relatively small number of migrants from Asia**, so having an idea of where and when the spread of humans into the Americas began will help us to better understand what happened from there and how these small, mobile bands became the variety of peoples present when Columbus arrived.

Also, one of the many goals of archaeology is to provide information for figuring out how humans behave on a very basic level. The advantage that archaeologists have in this is that we can look at human behavior over a fairly long span of time and, provided that we are able to make sense out of the material record. This being the case, we are able, at least in concept, to tease out some rather more fundamental information regarding how humans function. While the movement of people into an environment which is currently devoid of humans doesn't seem to be directly applicable to our lives in the modern world, it is somethign that occured during much of our species' history. Understanding how later, anatomically modern humans behaved in such a situation may shed some light into why we behave the way that we do in many other situations, some of which are present in the modern world.

So, there you go, my argument for why the recent discovery matters, and why archaeology matters.

*I always liked the company of both the older graduate students who were re-entering school after time away, and the graduate students who had needed to hold jobs outside of the university, as they seemed to have the best grasp on our place in the world.

**There are some, most notably Bruce Bradley from the University of Exeter, who claimt hat there was also ice-age migration from Europe into the Americas. Tod ate, their evidence has been weak-to-nonexistent, but a new book on the matter will be coming out later this year, so we'll be able to see if they've improved their case at all at that point.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Oldest Site in North America?

You may have read that the oldest archaeological site in North America has been found. Again. This story gets repeated every few years, as an archaeologist finds a site that shows some sign of having been older than the Clovis-era sites that are usually thought of as the first sites in the Americas.

This time, however, they may be correct.

The Clovis culture is the term given to what appear to have been small, highly-mobile bands of hunter-gatherers who produced distinctive "fluted" (the hafting end is thinned by a channel on either side, allowing for easier hafting) spear points. Sites from the Clovis culture have been found throughout North America, and seem to have appeared out of nowhere around 13,000 years ago. In this case, a paper that appeared in the journal Science documents a claimed pre-Clovis site in Texas.

There have been numerous articles produced which purport to show that a site pre-dates Clovis, and the sites that are the subject of these articles become briefly controversial, and then fade away when the evidence is more closely scrutinized...with a couple of notable exceptions (which, while not definitive, are interesting). As a student, I was energetic the first few times that I heard these findings announced, but as they continued to come to nothing, my enthusiasm flagged. I am still interested when I hear such announcements, after all, this could be the real deal this time around, but I am much more cautious in my acceptance of such claims. Now, there are hot emotions amongst archaeologists regarding this subject, so first and foremost, you need to understand something about where I am coming from - the results reported by the authors, if confirmed to be true, would not surprise me. I am one of the archaeologists who thinks that there were "Pre-Clovis" people in the Americas - after all, the Clovis tools seem to appear out of nowhere with no clear old-world antecedents, so it seems likely that their predecessors were kicking around for a little while before the ol' fluted points came into being. However, that doesn't mean that I'm going to accept poor data to back up the argument that I think is correct. In other words, I have no problem buying that there were pre-Clovis people, I do have a problem with dubious data supporting a position, even if it's a position that I agree with.

But this appears to be the real deal. There are multiple lines of evidence from the placement of the artifacts within the site, and their relationship to Clovis-era artifacts in a higher level of the site, which indicate that they are older. And the clays in which the tools were found were dated using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) (follow the link for a description) by which the date at which a crystalline material was last exposed to sunlight can be determined.

I'm persuaded, but I will admit that I am reluctant to completely throw my hat in with the research results just yet. I have to admit, though, that my reluctance comes in no small part from the fact that so many of these claims have turned out to be either false or of more dubious quality in the past, and I don't yet trust this one completely. In other words, there's more emotion than rationality in my reluctance.

There are two things that need to be noted about these results, though: 1) the clay around the artifacts was dated, not the artifacts themselves, and 2) the dating technique used is a relatively new one.

So, for point #1 - Dating techniques applied to materials that are not artifactual in nature, that is not man-made, are often tricky to apply to artifacts. The authors of this article appear to have taken great care in evaluating the nature of the sediments in which these tools were found, and they have used multiple lines of evidence to argue that the sediments have not been exposed to sufficient amounts of disturbance to allow the artifacts to have been moved in such a way as to cause confusion. However, while I know enough about stratigraphy to follow the discussion and say that it sounds solid, I am not a geomorphologist, and they might have some criticisms that I am not aware of.

#2 - The dating technique is a new one. It sounds plausible to me, not being a physicist or a chemist, and I am not accusing the authors of the article of using a poor method or applying it badly, in fact everything that I have read indicates that it is a very good method. However, OSL as a dating technique has really emerged in the last decade or so, and there may be some bugs to it that we are not yet aware of. So, again, this work sounds solid, and I have no problem accepting it provisionally, but keep your eyes open for the discussion of the validity of the dates, as there is a fair chance that we will hear more about this.

A third point should also be raised - everybody wants to be the hero. Every now and again, someone asks me what the "Holy Grail" of North American archaeology is, and I usually respond that there isn't one, but that's not entirely true. The search for the oldest site in the Americas is something of an obsession amongst many of my colleagues**. For this reason, it's not uncommon to see an archaeologist, with the best of intentions but more than a bit of the grail-knight's zeal, report data asserting that they have found the oldest site in the Americas without taking into consideration some element of the data that might place some doubt on the result.

You can see some of this zeal in the way that this site is being reported: a press conference was called before the paper could be widely-read by other archaeologists, and one of the report authors, Michael Waters, was talking about this site in bombastic terms:

This is almost like a baseball bat to the side of the head to the archeological community to wake up and say, hey, there are pre-Clovis people here . . . and we need to develop a new model for peopling of the Americas.

So, there's every reason, based on the behavior of the team, to think that there may be enough enthusiasm to lead to them jumping to conclusions.

At the same time, a number of sites in both North and South America have produced dates in the range of 14,000 to 16,000 years before present. Some work on the genetics of the first settlers of the Americas has produced similar dates. These dates have been somewhat problematic, and none have been widely accepted as of yet, but it does seem to be consistent with a growing amount of data pushing the colonization of the Americas back earlier than originally anticipated. So, the enthusiasm of these researchers is, perhaps, earned.

So, is this the oldest confirmed site in North America, and solid proof of Pre-Clovis people? Maybe. Hell, I'll go so far as to say that it probably is. But, I would also caution that there is likely to be some continued scrutiny of the techniques used and the deposits dated, and that the issue isn't settled just yet.

Still, it's an exciting time to be an archaeologist.

*Understand, though, that I mean that I suspect that humans had arrived in the Americas at some point before the Clovis tools began production. It may have been a century, it may have been a few thousand years. I am not supporting the rather loopy assertions that pre-Homo sapien homonids were in the Americas. Those arguments have been made, and continue to fail, and the burden of proof lies with the proponents of that one.

**myself, I am more interested in culture change over time, and so later sites with better preserved components and a decent ethnohistoric record tend to be of more interest to me. The early stuff is interesting, and I enjoy reading about it, but it's not a particular passion of mine.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Urban Legends About Science

There are a number of what are essentially urban legends that circulate in the general public about science. Most of them seem to have either originated, or at least gained currency, amongst one sub-culture, but then spread from there into the broader population. In each case, there are some obvious hooks in each story that make then appealing. However, in each case, these hooks also serve as the red flags that someone who is scientifically literate would pick up on and be able to detect nonsense pretty quickly.

For example, over the weekend, I ended up talking to a fellow about radiocarbon dating. He made the statement that "the problem with radiocarbon dating is that they took some snail shells from a snail they found in a garden, and carbon dated them, and the date came out to like 30,000 years old." I pointed out that this was not true. And when asked, the fellow who made the statement admitted that he didn't know who "they" were (and therefore whether or not they would have a reason to lie), why they were dating recent snail shells to begin with, or even when this was done. The "ancient radiocarbon date from a recent shell/bone" is an urban legend that originated among Young Earth Creationists for the purposes of trying to refute the overwhelming evidence that Young Earth Creationism is complete and utter bullshit. The story, though is completely false. Hell, it's worth noting that even the professional know-nothings at the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) refute this, which should tell you something.

I want to stress that the person who made this statement is by no means stupid. My previous interactions with him indicate that he is relatively bright. However, as so many of us do, he bought into a nonsense story because it had features that fit his basic worldview.

This particular story is common among Young Earth Creationists, for obvious reasons, and as far as I can tell it was created by someone in that camp. It's also a flat-out lie, but what are you gonna' do? The utility of the story amongst creationists is obvious - it's a justification for denying radiocarbon dates (and as I've described before, the dismissal of radiocarbon in no way actually solves the chronological problems faced by the Young Earth crowd). However, it also has another element to it. If the story of the shell (or in some versions bone, or in particularly ignorant versions, a rock) with a bad date is correct then that implies that either scientists are a bunch of incompetent half-wits too out of touch with reality to actually bother testing and evaluating their methods, or that they are part of a sinister cabal out to misinform the public. As a result, even people who are not creationists will sometimes buy this story because of a poor impression of scientists (or intellectuals in general). In fact, radiocarbon has been thoroughly tested, and is constantly being prodded at and modified by scientists, and we make our results readily available, so if we were trying to be part of some shadowy cabal, then we have been doing a damn poor job of it. However, there are rather strong anti-intellectual currents in many societies, including our own, and if intellectuals of any stripe can be found to be either incompetent or just plain evil, then that suits many people's pre-chosen beliefs, whether there's any truth to it or not.

Another story common amongst creationists concerns not radiocarbon dating, but NASA. As the story goes, NASA was attempting to calculate the orbits of some planets, but kept coming up with wrong numbers. In confusion as to what to do, they called in one of their consultants who, through his superior knowledge of the Bible, told them to calculate the orbits assuming that they were missing a day (from the story in Joshua 10:13, where the sun stood still for a day). Once they followed his advice, the calculations came out correctly, and therefore proved the truth of the Bible.

There are numerous problems with this story (Snopes has a good write up here). The first is that it first began circulating in the 1930s, therefore predating NASA, with earlier versions simply referring to a set of dubious calculations from a 1936 book, or else referring to a more generic set of scientists working out planetary orbits, rather than scientists at NASA. During the 1970s, a man named Harold Hill, who had been the president of the Curtis Engine Company, claimed to have been the consultant, even though his actual work with NASA was limited to technicians under his employ servicing generators, not predicting orbits (in other words, he lied). But the story has been reprinted in numerous church bulletins, the occasional newspaper, and forwarded to millions of email inboxes, reality be damned.

Right out of the gate, though, one is confronted with two basic questions: 1) If NASA scientists were so incompetent that they could miss something that would screw up their orbit calculations that badly, then how would they have known? If you can't account for a missing day's worth of movement, then you aren't going to have the necessary information to check to see if you are failing to account for a day's movement. Some versions of the story say that a computer caught the error, but then who programmed the computer? Right, the people making the error, who would have programmed that into the computer's software. 2) The data that NASA uses to calculate orbits comes from information gathered over the last few centuries by astronomers. So, even if there had been a day over two thousand years ago when the solar system stopped moving, it wouldn't actually have any effect on orbit calculations derived from data gathered over the last several centuries.

The appeal of the story for some believers (thankfully, many believers see it for the nonsense that it is) is obvious - evidence of the existence of god! For others, it again seems to boil down again to anti-intllectualism: there is appeal in seeing intellectuals get their come-uppance at the hands of a salt-of-the-Earth kinda' guy. The narrative of "basic common sense* vs. book learnin'" again comes into play. But even the briefest of reflection reveals the story to be complete and utter bullshit.

Another story that I have heard doesn't have a religious component, but tends to come up when people talk about government waste. As the story goes, a researcher received funds from the National Science Foundation to study the question of why polar bears don't eat penguins. At the end of a several-year-long research program, it was discovered that penguins live in the southern hemisphere, and polar bears in the northern hemisphere, and that's why the penguins are not devoured by the bears.

Depending on how the story is told, either the researcher was an opportunist looking to get money and therefore coming up with an easily answered question so that they can spend the money on other things**, or the researcher was so specialized/incompetent that they didn't bother to look up basic facts about the geographic distribution of the two animals.

Again, though, knowing a little bit can save you time. In order to get funding through the National Science Foundation, you must compete with many other funding applicants, and you must have the funding approved by a committee that includes experts in the relevant fields. In the application paperwork, you must also state not only the research question that you wish to address, but why that question is worthy of funding, and you have to do all of this in a way that demonstrates sufficient understanding of the subject matter to be able to show to a panel of people knowledgeable on the subject that you actually know what you are talking about.

It's quite a stretch to imagine that the question "why don't polar bears eat penguins?" got through this process. Even if a researcher were foolish enough to attempt it, their application would have been rejected by the funding committee (who would likely keep copies in their offices for use as dartboards, or as humorous toilet reading).

But, again, the notion that the government spends so wastefully that even something as absurd as this would be funded is a belief strongly held by many people***, and so a story that appeals to that belief is going to gain traction. And there is once more a strain of anti-intellectualism at work here. Either researchers are so cynical/wasteful that they are willing to apply for funding of an absurd project so that they can blow the money elsewhere, or they are so incompetent that they can't be bothered to look at some basic facts before applying for funding to study a rather vague and poorly defined question.

There are two common threads between all three of these urban legends. The first is the anti-intellectual attitude, which I think I've done to death here. Another, though, is a basic one of scientific illiteracy. Nobody would buy any of these stories if they knew what types of basic scientific questions to ask (such as, why would a change in planetary movement centuries before astronomers began making our modern astronomical record have an effect on NASA's calculations?) or basic questions about the process of science (why would the question "why don't polar bears eat penguins?" even get brought up when anyone who was eligible for funding would know where the two animals lived?).

In case you are laughing at anyone who would believe these stories, though, consider whether or not you might be buying into some of the same types of urban legends. I won't get into them in detail here (though they may be the subject of a later blog post), but while the particular legends described here betray a mistrust of intellectuals, there are others that are common among the college-educated and may not be anti-intellectual so much as specifically anti-science (although the people spouting them often think of them as "anti-corporate" or "anti-establishment" instead). But those are a story for another day.

*It is odd when the Bible is considered to be the "basic common sense" approach, considering that, if you actually bother to read it, the Bible is about as weird and out-there as possible.

**One assumes it's beer and polar bear porn.

***Because, let's face it, the government does often spend poorly, though often for reasons of politics.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crop Dusted

We are working on a controversial infrastructure project. What it was doesn't matter, and for reasons of professional propriety I shouldn't say, so let's call it the Arthur Dent Bypass Project (ADBP). The project is, as noted, controversial, many people don't want it to be built, while many others think that it's a damn fine idea. Myself, I like the concept (bypassing Mr. Dent being something that I think is important for us as a nation), but have reservations about the project itself.

The project involves many parcels of land, and some of the land owners are enthusiastic, hoping to cash in by selling their land, while others are angry, understandably worried that their land will be taken through eminent domain and they left with little for it (they will walk away with more than they seem to think, but having your land taken is still upsetting). For the latter, the environmental crews are often the first people associated with the project with whom they have contact, and so we often find ourselves subject to abuse by landowners who don't want a project to go through. This is especially ironic considering that, at least in my experience, these same landowners often believe the false notion that projects can be stopped because of the discovery of archaeological sites*, so you'd think they'd be happy to see us if they are opposed to a project going through. Instead, they usually see us as a menacing vangaurd of a force that is out to destroy their lives.

During the initial environmental studies for the project, several archaeological sites were found. In keeping with standard practice, our client asked us to perform test excavations at the sites in order to assess whether or not they are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or California Register of Historic Resources (CRHR). So, three of us found ourselves driving out into a fallow field in order to perform said excavations.

We arrived at the site, pulled our equipment out of the truck, and each of the three of us went to our excavation unit to begin work. We were digging Shovel Probes (small holes, usually 50-centimeters wide and usually dug in 20 centimeter levels), and I had gotten down to about 15 centimeters in mine, when I heard what sounded like an airplane's engine. I looked away from my screen and towards my crew members, and saw them looking to the south. Turning to the south myself, I saw a small yellow plan coming in low, flying to the west of us, and, when it was almost directly west of us and about 1/4 mile away, letting loose some sort of liquid or particles from its holding tank. It reached the end of the field, it rose up, turned around, and flew above us. It passed by, turned around, and flew above us again, and again, finally essentially flying circles above us. We got the message, packed up our equipment, and drove off, not wanting to be caught in crop dusting.

Driving out of the field, I called the project manager and let him know what had happened. Turned out that this particular farmer had made his displeasure with our presence known a few days earlier, but had nonetheless agreed to let us onto his land**. The project manager asked us to sit on the public road and observe the crop duster, and so we spent a bit of time sitting on the side of the road, watching as the plane sprayed the fields, flew away to the east, flew back, sprayed the field some more, and so on.

While we sat there, the crew, who had worked in this area before, told me that they had previously been chased out of a field by a crop duster. That time, however, they were in an area that got sprayed and the farmer was initially hesitant to tell anyone what the plane had been dropping, so the fire department had to come out to decontaminate everybody. It later turned out that the substance being dropped by the plane was not toxic to humans, and they were alright.

I do not know if it was the same farmer this time around. The crew felt that it was the same plane, though there are only so many types of crop dusting airplanes, so it's possible that it is simply the same model but not the same plane.

Regardless, it was another "only in this line of work moment" - getting chased away from a work site by a crop duster.

It didn't look like this. Though I do look like Cary Grant.

*I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The federal, and in California state, regulations that require archaeological work be done for many construction projects do not prohibit damage to or destruction of archaeological sites, they simply require that state and federal agencies take account of such damage when planning and/or permitting a project. Usually this means that damage to archaeological sites gets mitigated in some way - sometimes the project can be altered to avoid damage, more often the sites are excavated in what is called "data recovery." The cases where projects grind to a halt, in my experience, involve political wrangling and outright stubbornness on the part of one of the parties involved, as opposed to any outright prohibition against destroying sites. Archaeologists usually get caught in the middle of this, rather than being the cause of it.

**Another common misconception is that we can push our way onto other people's land. Not true. If you own the land, you can deny us access, and there ain't nothing we can do about it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patricks Day Ruminations

It's March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, or as The Onion describes it,
the annual reinforcin' o' the stereotypes. The celebration of this day within the United States is, of course, rooted in the history of Irish immigration into the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries. St. Patrick's Day, along with a handful of other nationality/ethnicity based holidays, also is an indicator of the weird ways in which the peculiarities of U.S. history have shaped how we view ourselves and our pasts.

Up until the early-to-mid-20th century, it was common for immigrants to settle in geographically proscribed locations. In rural areas, this would include Irish settlers in the eastern mountains, French settlers in particular parts of Canada and the American South, and Norwegian settlers in portions of the midwest. Within urban areas, this often resulted in the creation of ethnic neighborhoods: Little Italies, Irish Shanty Towns, Chinatowns, etc. Regardless, the end result was that there were semi-insulated pockets of immigrants and their children and grandchildren living in the larger tapestry of their cities or regions. Within these pockets, traditional religious practices, customs, and language continued to be used, to the point that some members of these communities may die long before they had to integrate into society outside of the smaller community*.

Often, ethnic/national prejudices played a role in keeping these neighborhoods corporate. It wasn't always "white vs. minorities", Europeans have historically been very good at coming up with arbitrary and absurd hierarchies amongst themselves and using it to oppress each other as well**. Someone from Chinatown might have learned that you can't trust anyone outside the neighborhood, and someone from Little Italy might have learned that you don't rely on anyone who isn't Italian. This had many results, including the rise of organized crime within these communities, but it served to reinforce the identity and allegiances of people from them as well.

This had a variety of rather fascinating impacts on both these communities and the broader society, but it the one I want to discuss here is the fact that it often reinforced and reified an ethnic identity that was increasingly divorced from its geographic roots. People who were raised in neighborhoods populated by the descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, China, Sweden, Korea, Germany, etc. might think of themselves as Irish, Italian, Korean, Swedish, and so on and so forth. These were typically people who had never been to these places, people who had only the most tenuous grasp on what the culture of those places was decades early (and no comprehension of what it was at that present time). It also appears to have resulted in the notion of a sub-nationality being strongly imprinted onto the American psyche. We are not simply Americans, or citizens of the United States. Many of us are what some folks refer to as hyphenated-Americans (Korean-American, Irish-American, etc.).

Interestingly, there are some nationalities that you don't often hear imprinted on-top of the American label (it's rare that one meets an English-American or a French-American, for example). While I am not certain, I suspect that this probably has alot to do with certain nations (primarily England, France, and Germany) being dominant during the colonial period. If you hold sway (or at least have enough in common with those who do that you can get by), you have little reason to signal your allegiance or have others label you. This would also explain why these labels are more important to those who are from groups that are or recently have been oppressed, as well as those who physically stand out.

At any rate, we have this phenomenon of a set of sub-cultures within the U.S. that are descended from other cultures in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, but which has since then evolved divergently from the parent culture. So, every March 17th we see a number of U.S. citizens, born and raised in north America (as were several generations before them) claiming to be Irish, but engaging in customs that likely would leave the modern Irish scratching their heads wondering just what the Hell these Yanks are doing.

Anthropologically, it's rather fascinating. But I suspect that, were I Irish, I would find it annoying.

*When I hear people today discuss immigrants from Latin America or Asia and their tendency to hold on to old cultural traits as if it were a new and dangerous trend, I always try to point out that this has always been the way of things, and that the ancestors of the people doing the complaining likely behaved in much the same way.

**To be fair, though, this is not unique to Europeans. The same phenomenon is well documented on pretty much every continent.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Passing Giants

As described in the previous post, I spent the weekend at the Society for California Archaeology conference. It was generally a great experience, but there was one melancholoy note to the whole thing.

I spent some time talking with Michael Glassow, my graduate advisor, who has now retired. I also spent the better part of an afternoon talking with Rob Edwards, who taught me how to do fieldwork and is also now retired. Rob and I spoke about Don and Roberta Lenkeit, my first anthropology instructors, also retired. As the weekend went on, I spoke with several of the other people who have either directly trained me or who loom like giants over Californian archaeology (often both), and others who knew these people, and the story was the same for every person I could think of who is iconic in the region or personally important to me - they are either retired, nearing retirement, or likely will start planning for retirement in the next ten or so years. I realized that I was witnessing the passing of giants.

To be certain, they leave in their wake a legacy of fine archaeologists who themselves have become or are becoming the new giants. Michael Glassow, for one example, has been the mentor to Lynn Gamble, Terry Joslin, John Johnson, Dustin MacKenzie, and Jeanne Arnold, just to name a few off of the very long and impressive list. There are times when it feels as if Rob Edwards field trained half the archaeologists working in the western United States. These descendant archaeologists, myself among them, are different from our elders, but they were different from their elders as well. The chain continues on, progress is made, but continuity is kept.

Still, it's somewhat sad to see these archaeologists, all of whom have left tremendous marks on the field, pass into retirement (though some of them continue to produce work even in retirement). They've worked hard, and deserve to spend this time however they please, but I miss looking forward to seeing what they do next. And it is hard not to feel very small in their wake.

However, in conversations I had with them over the weekend, they often brought up their own teachers, all of whom have long since passed. It was clear that they were aware of their own differences from those who came before them, and often felt as if they were quite small in comparison. Several times over the weekend, I heard my former teachers mention that they felt that their teachers had been Renaissance men, colorful characters, and exemplary scholars whose example they found it difficult to live up to. And yet, my teachers took archaeology as a field to new heights, learned things that their teachers would have thought impossible, and very much lived up to the standards left for them.

The generation that taught my teachers had been brought up in archaeology during a time when it was more tightly integrated into both ethnography and history, and were from a generation where a well-rounded individual knew their profession as well as how to do a variety of other things (build a house, write a poem, care for animals, etc. etc.), and these facts were frequently brought up when my teachers wanted to illustrate what had been lost. Of course, my teachers were themselves more than simply diggers. They may not have engaged in ethnography and linguistics like their teachers did, but they tied archaeology more closely to robust methods, put an emphasis on making bridging arguments between the materials taken out of the ground and the conclusions drawn from them, they began the steps to bring archaeologists and local communities closer together, and they emphasized to their students the importance of leaving one's ego at the door and following the data.

And my teachers were, and are, of course colorful characters who loom larger-than-life in the eyes of their students. Even the most accomplished of us feels disappointment when they disapprove of our work, and a sense of satisfaction when they praise our work.

And, of course, when we compare ourselves to our mentors, it seems that we will find ourselves wanting. We lack their decades of experience, though we will gain it one day. Importantly, we are also different. Their mentors were shaped by WWII, the Depression, the Labor Movement, and the desire to make life normal, and (as there were few women among that generation of archaeologists) to live up to a particular measure of masculinity (as Rob Edwards describes it, contrary to the "loony left" faculty that is so often described, the anthropology faculty of 1960s/70s UC Davis was politically and socially conservative, if not reactionary). So to were my mentors shaped by the social unrest of the 60s, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the strangeness of the 1980s. They are no less men (still, in that generation, relatively few women in archaeology) of their times than their mentors had been before them.

While at the SCAs, I ran into several people who I taught to do lab work, or trained in the field. Do I figure in their minds the way my teachers figure in mine? I don't know. Probably not, though, as I am not primarily a teacher. But I do know that Dustin MacKenzie's students view him in the same way I view Rob. Lynn Gamble's students view her in much the same way that I view Michael Glassow. And my archaeology is different than that of my teachers, just as their was different from their teachers. I have to be part archaeologist, part businessman, and part regulatory specialist. Dustin has to be a teacher and entertainer as much as he is an archaeologist. I have friends in government positions who have to be regulators and enforcement just as much as archaeologists. We are all wearing many hats, but we are all still part of the same continuum that contains our predecessors and theirs. And while Vietnam and WWII are history to me, my generation has been shaped by computers, the Internet, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic decline, and needlessly polarized political discourse. We are products of our time as surely as the previous generations were products of theirs. This will influence our archaeology just as the social contexts of the past influenced the archaeology of the past.

Still, as much as I try to pump myself up, it's hard not to see this as a period in which giants are passing from the Earth, and wonder if my generation will measure up. I suppose that's for the next generation of archaeologists to decide.

Monday, March 14, 2011

SCAs - Archaeology Ahoy!

I spent the weekend at the Society for California Archaeology's annual meeting. It's been a few years since I last attended one of these meetings, though I went every year for a while. For the last four years or so, though, I have been working all but one year during the meetings, and therefore haven't been able to attend.

I've been missing out.

I arrived late - the conference began on Thursday, but I had work to do on Friday, and combined with a 4-hour drive, this had me arriving in Rohnert Park around 8:30 on Friday night. The first night was a bit of a bust. I headed to the conference hotel to see if anyone I knew was present - they weren't - and after that I worked my way back to my hotel, ordered a pizza, and sat and ate in the hotel room, exhausted from a day of work and driving.

The next morning, being one of the few archaeologists at the conference not suffering a hangover due to my relatively boring evening, I made it to the conference hotel in time for the early sessions. I attended a session on the use of genetics testing to accompany archaeological data in examining the past. It was fascinating, and filled with truly great speakers (easily the best of them being a friend of mine from graduate school, Cara Monroe). I had been aware of the use of genetic testing to establish the ancestry of both individuals and groups, and that this had some utility in tracking population movements in the past, having read numerous papers on the subject. However, I had no idea just how far some of these researchers had come - one advantage of the conferences is that people can report on research that they have completed as recently as the previous week, and you don't have to wait for the necessary but lengthy review/publishing process to complete. The database is still relatively small, and there's still a long way to go, but after that session, I am beginning to wonder of DNA technology may be the next big technological step in archaeology, much as radiocarbon dating was many decades ago.

Upon leaving the conference room, I began to run into people I knew. The previously mentioned Cara, my graduate advisor Michael Glassow, John Johnson (who had put the session together and served on my MA committee), and, in the hall, Dustin MacKenzie, a friend from graduate school who replaced the man who had taught me to do field work at Cabrillo College. I headed out to lunch with Mary and Kelly, two of my former coworkers from Pacific Legacy, and on the way we continued to be stopped by people who I knew. We finally arrived at the restaurant (Hana's Japanese in Rohnert Park - good sushi, by the way) and then headed back to the hotel. On the way out of the resturaunt, we were stopped by some of my old coworkers from Vandenberg Air Force Base (in particular, Dina Ryan, who is a geoarchaeologist who took all of us interns under her wing, and to whom we all owe a debt). Arriving back at the hotel, I was stopped by another person I knew, a former Forest Service archaeologist named Joan Brandoff-Kerr. By this point, Mary and Kelly just wanted to get in, so I stood outside speaking with Joan for a while.

Entering the building, I ran into Dustin again, and Erin King (with whom I had been a Vandenberg intern), and we spoke for a while, all three of us being interrupted in our conversation by various folks we knew passing in the hall. After we broke up our conversation, Dusty and I went to hear our friend Elizabeth speak, and then I tried to make it to another conference room for another symposium, but was stopped by several other people that I knew, and finally simply sat and talked for a while with Rob Edwards, who is the man who ran the Cabrillo College archaeology program when I was learning to do field work.

That evening, Kelly and I headed out to dinner with Dina Ryan, several other archaeologists from my current company, an a geneticist who had been involved in the session on DNA earlier that day. We had a fantastic evening, and Kelly and I eventually returned to the conference hotel to try to find Mary, but having no luck, I bid Kelly a good night and headed back to my hotel.

The next morning I had managed to forget about the time change, and arrived at the hotel an hour later than I had intended. However, I did arrive in time to attend a session in which several Native Americans recounted their experiences working with both archaeologists and land developers, and in which archaeologists active in decades from the 1950s through the 1980s described the changes that they had witnessed over the course of the careers. There was a bit of point-counterpoint during the talks with the archaeologists and the Native Americans giving their own perspectives and trying to provide information to each other, and the session ended with all of the participants forming a panel at the front of the room discussing the topics brought up during each individual talk. It was fascinating, and I am quite glad I made it.

Afterwards, Kelly, Mary, a historic archaeologist from my previous company by the name of Ellie, and I all had lunch together and recounted what we had seen and what we had enjoyed. During lunch, I left the table for a bit to speak with John Johnson and a fellow with whom I am likely to be working very soon, but made it back in time to complete the meal with my former coworkers.

It was a great weekend. It was nice to be surrounded by people who were doing work different from my own, but that was relatable to mine, all of whom were curious about what everyone else was up to. I have always enjoyed these meetings in the past, but hadn't been able to attend recently due to work obligations. I hope that I will be able to again next year. I felt good about being an archaeologist in a way that I typically don't as of late. It was just what I needed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Money, Don't Talk to me About Money

One of the less fun parts of my job is explaining budgets to clients. Most of the time, the client simply wants to know how much something will cost and how long it will take, and will trust us to know our business well enough to not question line items in the budget. Sometimes, however, they do want to argue, and the problem is that this usually occurs with a client who really doesn't understand what we do.

One such example comes from the first excavation that I ran. A site had been found during monitoring (where and archaeologist watches construction work to make sure no sites are damaged - it's just as exciting as it sounds, which is to say that it isn't). My boss went out to confirm that it was a site, and as per the land developer's agreement with the county, the site was to be tested for eligibility to the California Register of Historic Resources. If it was eligible, then a second excavation would be done for data recovery (the controlled and careful removal and analysis of as much of the archaeological material as is practical)*, and construction would then proceed.

So, a budget was created by my boss and sent to the client (the land developer). I was then sent to meet with the client and answer his questions. The first question: "If you're only going to dig thirty holes, how come you have a week of work scheduled? If I hired someone on my construction crew to dig thirty holes and it took them a week, I'd fire them!"

I then explained that he was unlikely that his construction crew would have reason to excavate the holes in 10-centimeter levels, run the soil through 1/8" mesh screen, and look through what was left in the screen to find artifacts. His response: "that doesn't have anything to do with how long it takes to dig a hole!"

Um, yes, yes it does. You idiot.

The discussion continued like this - he would try to compare the tasks that we had proposed in the budget to tasks that his construction crew would do, and ask why my archaeologists were going to take longer than his crew. I would explain why they would take longer (the answer to every question: we do these tasks for a different reason and actually have to look at what we're doing in a way that is unnecessary for construction), and he would insist that it should take the exact same amount of time, and so on, in circles.

Now, I can understand his concerns. Archaeologists cost money, though in this case the amount that we cost was nothing compared to the overall project budget. We also might slow things down, though we were trying to be as quick and efficient as possible. However, while I understand his worries, his insistence that archaeology should move at the same speed as construction was, frankly, absurd. Then again, I later found out that he had attempted to bribe my boss to simply not report the site, and that the bribe had been turned down, so maybe he was just pissy.

Eventually, I just pointed out that what was proposed in the budget was what was required due to the agreement he had signed with the county, and that the budget represented a worst case scenario, and we would work to be done faster than estimated, but I could make no promises. This didn't satisfy him, but the reference to his county permits did cause him to stop pestering me (maybe because of his bribery attempt).

I have since had this play out several other times - a client will insist that they know better than I do how long a task that they don't understand will take, and they will try to force my budget accordingly. It makes me grumpy.

*Everyone seems to have a story about a construction project being stopped when an archaeological site is found. This is very, very rare, and in my experience usually indicates that the project proponent (the person or organization advocating the construction) has decided to stop the project rather than simply go through with the process of evaluation and mitigation. Sometimes there is a good reason for this, often it's just obstinacy. The truth of the matter is that there is no provision in either the National Historic Preservation Act nor the California Environmental Quality Act that requires that a project be stopped to protect and archaeological site, and stories that you hear to the contrary are invariably stories told by people who haven't bothered to do any homework and are accepting urban legends at face value.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When Terminology Irritates People

A few days ago I stood in a construction trailer while another archaeologist, my superior at the company for which I work, explained the process of testing an archaeological site for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. In order for a site to be eligible, it must be relatively intact (or, in regulatory terms, "maintain integrity") and also "have significance", that is, it must meet one of the criteria for listing on the register (see here for a description). Because the regulatory language states that the site must "have significance", archaeologists often refer to this process as significance testing, and often refer to register eligible sites as significant.

As my superior was explaining this process to the project engineer, I looked over at the Native American liaison for the project, herself a member of a local tribal council, who whispered to me "I hate the term 'significance'."
Later that day, as I dug holes in the site, the Native American liaison came by to see how we were doing. She and I got to talking, and the subject of regulatory terminology came up. While she acknowledged that the term significance was used because it has a specific regulatory meaning, she felt that it was a term loaded with other meanings, and therefore she found it upsetting. As she put it, just because a site doesn't have research potential for archaeologists doesn't mean that it is insignificant for Native Americans, and the use of the term implied this, whether or not that is intended.

I think that she's right. While the term has a specific regulatory meaning, it is often used in contexts and discussions where only a small portion of the participants are familiar with the regulations, and therefore it is likely to be understood more broadly than it's regulatory meaning. What's more, we have a perfectly acceptable (and arguably more appropriate) term that we can use: register eligible. In the end, when we describe a site as significant, what we are actually saying is that it is eligible for the register. This being the case, why not simply say "register eligible" and be both more precise and less likely to upset or offend the Native American community.

Don't get me wrong, I am usually annoyed by people who demand that perfectly legitimate terms be used in order to avoid offense. But, in this case, the nature of the offense is due to the term being understood by it's normal rather than specialized meaning, and there is a more precise and arguably better substitute. Personally, I think that I will change the way in which I speak.

Monday, March 7, 2011

More soon, in the meantime, photos

So, as happens, I was sent out to the field at the last minute. So, more entries later, in the meantime, photos from the Monterey Bay Area, the home I've been missing:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Radiocarbon Blues

Radiocarbon, or C14, dating take alot of flack from various anti-science folks. Although it is mostly the target of creationists, other pseudo-intellectuals such as Graham Hancock have also taken pot-shots at it when it showed their preferred conclusions to be bullshit. I find it telling that radiocarbon dating takes all of the heat, because this fact reveals the true depth of the ignorance of the creationists and pseudo-archaeologists. To explain why will require a little bit of background.

Radiocarbon is only one of many forms of radiometric dating, others include potassium-argon dating and uranium-lead dating. Radiometric dating is based on the principle of radioactive decay. Radioactive atoms decay by expelling particles from the nucleus, thereby becoming other types of atoms (carbon 14 decays into nitrogen 14, for example). By examining the proportions of elements within a sample and comparing that to the decay rates of the radioactive isotope, you can arrive at an age for the object in question that is accurate within the parameters of the test being used.

Radioactive materials decay at a predictable rate based on well-known principles from chemistry and physics. So, once the half-life (the length of time that it takes for half of a sample of radioactive to decay) of an isotope is worked out, a dating method based upon that isotope can be developed. It is important to emphasize that radioactive decay curves for isotopes are based on well-known principles, because there are numerous people who like to claim that the decay curves are either poorly understood or just made up, when they are in fact very well understood and rigorously examined.

The radioactive isotope has to enter the material being tested somehow, obviously. The way that this occurs varies by material type, but for radiocarbon it is due to organisms absorbing it from the atmosphere, whether through respiration or through eating organisms that have absorbed it. Once the organism dies, it no longer absorbs Carbon 14 and the decay can be measured to determine time since death. Radiocarbon only works on organic substances, as it is living things that absord the Carbon 14 in predictable ways, but other forms of dating that rely on other radioactive isotopes can be used on other substances - you wouldn't use radiocarbon on rocks but potassium-argon dating may be appropriate, for example.

Paying attention to a method's parameters is important, as young-Earth creationists will often point to the method being used on a sample that is either much to young or far too old for the carbon 14 procedure, and then claim that this "proves the failure" of C14 dating when the reasons for the alleged failure are due to basic principles of chemistry that the person claiming the failure ignored so that they could provide a false result (in other words, they're just a dishonest mutha'fucka'). It's no different than claiming that a 15-foot tape measure is inaccurate because it's not useful for measurements on the molecular level, nor for measurements on the galactic scale. Every tool has its limitations, and the limitations of radiometric dating are well understood by the people who use it.

Radiocarbon, specifically, is useful for dates up to 50,000 years ago (though some chemists argue that it can be useful for dates up to 60,000 years ago), while very recenet (such as within the last century or so) dates will show so little carbon decay that the margin of error is larger than the dates returned. So, if you're trying to figure out how old something is, and you have reason to believe that it is less than 100 years old or more than 50,000 years old, don't use carbon dating, just like you wouldn't use a tape measure to examine the output of the Large Hadron Collider or the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri - it's not the tool that's flawed, it's the idiot who insists on using the tool inappropriately that's the problem.

Another thing to keep in mind with radiocarbon dating, specifically, is that the amount of C14 in the atmosphere has changed over time. Thankfully, based on a variety of sources ranging from geology to botany, we have a pretty detailed description of how C14 levels in the atmosphere have changed over time, and that description is becoming more refined and detailed all of the time. So, once we know how much C14 is in a sample, and work out the uncalibrated date, we then calibrate it by comparing it to what is known about C14 fluctuations over time, and we can work out the age of the sample.

Okay, so why does criticizing only C14 indicate ignorance on the part of the person doing it? A few reasons. As noted above, many of the people who wish to discredit it use it in inappropriate ways in order to make it look worse than it is. The tape measure to a distant star scenario, basically. In addition, the fact that C14 has come in for abuse but not other forms of radiometric dating is interesting, as it is usually creationists who attack C14 dating while C14 does not have a sufficient age range to account for the homonid fossils that they find so offensive (though it does demonstrate the reality that the world is more than 6,000 years old, which they also find offensive). In other words, the fact that they go after C14 and not other forms of radiometric dating indicates that they haven't done their homework, which indicates that they don't know what they're talking about, which indicates a rather astounding mix of arrogance and ignorance.

There is one other important piece of information, though. Radiometric dating is not the only form of absolute dating*. For other examples, we can look to dendrochronology (using tree rings to assess the passage of time), obsidian hydration (measuring hydration rims on obsidian that form after obsidian breaks), and thermoluminescence (the heating of materials to relase trapped electrons and determine the point in time when the materials was lasted heated to a sufficient temperature). All of these methods have their values and their limitations, and some of them are less reliable than radiocarbon, but none of them come in for abuse the way that radiocarbon does. This again implies that people who are worked up over radiocarbon dating don't know about other forms of absolute dating, which, again, imples that they haven't done their homework and don't know what they are talking about.

The basic point t this entry is this: there are legitimate criticisms of C14 and of over-reliance on C14, and C14 dating has it's limits. However, none of these legitimate criticisms ever comes from the creationists. Instead they rely on mis-characterizing C14, claiming that it is used for things that it is not used for, ignoring it's known limits, and their tactics indicate an astounding ignorance of the dating methods used in archaeology, paleontology, and geology.

*Absolute dating refers to methods that produce definite ages or age ranges for objects (i.e. it's between 5,000 and 5,300 years old), as opposed to relative dating methods, which only tell us how old things are in relation to other objects (for example, superposition: Object A was in a strata above Object B's strata, therefore Object B is older).