The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tedium, Sweat, Research, Pseudo-Science, and Frustration

As I write this, it is 10:00 PM.  I have to go to sleep soon so that I can get up early tomorrow morning and return to t he survey that I have been performing here in Kern County.  I have been walking back-and-forth, at 15-to-20 meter intervals over fields of loose, silty sand, sustaining foot injuries and horribly sore legs, all of it looking for evidence of prehistoric human occupation of the area.  I do not think that we will find anything, but this can not be confirmed if we don't bother to check.  The work is physically tough, tedious, and often frustrating.  This is my job, I do get paid for it, but compared to the level of physical and mental labor involved, and the level of training and education required, people in my line of work do not get paid very much*.

When I return from the field, I will go to my hotel room, where I will set up my mobile lab once again and begin working at sorting through slivers of bone, most less than an inch long and less than 1/16 of an inch wide, classifying them as well as possible, and (where feasible) identifying the species from which the bone comes.  The work is mentally taxing, hard on the eyes, tedious, and often frustrating.  I am doing this as a volunteer to help out an under-funded researcher, so I do not get paid, nor can I claim that it is a labor of love, but it is simply a task that needs to be done.

As I work, the television plays in the background.  It's the History Channel, which would probably be better called "the Hysteria Channel" these days, given it's reliance of crackpot conspiracy beliefs and pseudo-scholarship concerning Mayan calendars and Nostradamus.  And, as always, they have an "archaeology" show on that's got nothing to do with real archaeology and everything to do with imbecilic fantasy.  Claims of space alien influence on human prehistory** are given preference over actual research, and real archaeologists are nowhere to be seen.  Instead we get a bunch of people who's "research" consists of deluded and confused numerology, bizarre (and often made-up) claims about the material record, and bridging arguments that sound good so long as you don't actually bother to check the facts.

And this is the perfect contrast.  Here I am, doing the very real, very tough work, as necessary to produce actual archaeological evidence.  It is time consuming, difficult, often boring, but necessary if one is to find relevant evidence of the human past.  It is not an easy job, and it is not a well-paying job.  Meanwhile, the television channel that is supposedly dedicated to educating people about the human past is helping to further line the pockets of authors who do little other than sit in arm chairs and ponder what sort of crap they can make up after taking their most recent expensive exotic vacation. 

This is, I think, what gets under my skin about pseudo-archaeology.  It's not the wacky claims, it's not even the racism inherent in much of it (see ** below), hell, it's not even the fact that so many of these people try to claim that they are "independent researchers***" rather than the more honest "people who pull claims out of their asses."  It's that there are real people doing real research, and that it is extremely difficult, time consuming, and often tedious work, and yet it's these dickweeds who make sexy-sounding-yet-stupid claims that are being promoted on what is allegedly an educational network. 

It's enough to make you want to take a tazer to the soles of a cable network executive's feet.  Unfortunately, I don't know any cable network executives, so instead I write grumbly and poorly written blog entries.

*Sometimes I think that my grandfather was right and I should have gotten an MBA.  Other times I remember just how mind-numbingly bored I was when I was in business and decide that I made the right choice.

**usually, it is worth noting, the history and prehistory of non-white people, the implication being that the "savages" weren't capable of feats that Europeans were.  That most of these people don't see the racism often inherent in their claims is truly amazing.

***This is pretty common.  Pseudo-scholars of all sorts will tell you that they are "independent researchers" who are somehow revealing the "truth that the establishment doesn't want you to know!"  I have dealt with the claims about "the establishment" before.  I want really briefly to deal with the term "independent researcher."  there are real independent researchers - both avocational archaeologists who may lack ties to universities or museums but who have a passion and willingness to learn about the field an behave responsibly, and people who have formal training but are not tied to research institutions and who perform original research as time and money allows.  Many of these folks do really excellent work.  They are not the same as the self-proclaimed "independent researchers" who use bizarre methods to "prove" their pet hypotheses, disconfirming evidence be damned.  So, when someone calls themself an "independent researcher", take the time to figure out if they are actually doing research, or if they are simply playing stupid games and making shit up.

No comments: