The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Once again, I am writing in response to Doug's Archaeology monthly blog carnival. The theme this time around is "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." So, without further ado, let's begin.
As usual, I will respond to Doug's questions:

The Good- what has been good about blogging. I know some people in their ‘why blogging’ posts mentioned creating networks and getting asked to talk on a subject. But take this to the next level, anything and everything positive about blogging, share your stories. You could even share what you hope blogging will do for you in the future.
The good is pretty simple: I tend to get positive feedback from people who are interested, and,w hen I was writing regularly, I had a number of regular readers who would post interesting comments and questions. Also, an added good, based on comments and emails that I have received int eh last couple of weeks, many of those readers are still around.

Also, it has been common for me to receive feedback providing information of which I had been unaware when I began writing on a topic. For example, when I wrote a post about the origins of acorn consumption, a reader who lived int eh southeastern portion of north America posted a comment letting me know about a species of oak in their neck of the woods that doesn't require the extensive processing for the acorn to become edible. This was a species of which I had been unaware (being based in California), but learning of it provided a bit more information regarding this food than I had previously possessed, which was very nice.
The Bad- lots of people mention it feels like talking to brick wall sometimes when you blog. No one comments on posts or very few people do. What are your disappointments with blogging? What are your frustrations? What do you hate about blogging? What would you like to see changed about blogging?
While I have had some regular readers who posted comments, and whose comments I enjoyed reading, there is significantly less feedback than I would have liked. This is, it seems, a function of the venue in which I write. there are thousands upon thousands of blogs, and I feel myself lucky to have gotten the number of readers that I have....but just as I rarely comment on the blogs that I read, my readers often don't comment here. On the one hand, this is fine, as I also like to read blogs but don't necessarily write back to the bloggers. On the other hand, it does make me wonder who is reading my posts, and what they make of them.

But, again, going back to the "good" - those comments I do get tend to be either of high quality, or complimentary, or both, and for that I am grateful

Getting away from the comments, there is another "bad" that I would like to mention, though it is one that is understandable, and unavoidable.  Because I work in cultural resources management (aka heritage management, aka contract archaeology aka environmental consulting archaeology aka etc. etc. etc.), all of the material I produce for a project, including field notes and photographs, are the property of my clients. While I doubt that many would care if I used photographs or information from the notes in blog entries, I am barred from doing so without permission - and very few of my clients are inclined to take the time to answer questions regarding whether or not I can use their materials in blog entries.  So, while I don't think it would be a problem, I never get an answer, and that makes it a bit more difficult to get material for entries.
The Ugly- I know Chris at RAS will mention the time he got fired for blogging about archaeology. It is your worst experiences with blogging- trolls, getting fired, etc.
I have, on the whole, been pretty lucky in this regard. I have had very few truly negative experiences, and almost no negative comments on my posts that are specifically about archaeology. However, I do occasionally get rather ugly feedback regarding some of my other posts.

For example, back in 2008, when I wrote about Proposition 8 here in California, the proposition that outlawed same-sex marriage in this state, a commentor began to respond in a way that was, rather clearly, just them trying to justify their own bigotries. The point they made that most stuck with me was that, if someone who is opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons is required to treat a homosexual couple as legally married, then this is, in their words "the tyranny of the masses" - though it never seemed to occur to them that the same couple having their rights withheld because of another persons completely arbitrary beliefs is an even bigger imposition on the people having their rights withheld, and therefore, could very definitely be considered "tyranny of the masses" in a much stronger and more meaningful sense. The same commentor would routinely write comments insisting that anyone who was not religious was a "moral free agent" incapable of actually having any sort of moral center.

The odd thing is that this person apparently knew me off-line, but because they commented under a pseudonym, I have no idea who they are.

Still, compared to what other bloggers have dealt with, this isn't all that bad, and I have been pretty fortunate.

The Ehhh...huh?

Although not part of Doug's question, there is one other element that I want to touch on briefly, and this is the stuff that's not really good or bad...just kind of there. I have consistently found these things amusing, but have never considered them to be either a boon or a curse. Unfortunately, after I read what I was sent, I didn't keep the links to these things, so I can't point you in their direction. I wish I had done so, as I did enjoy reading them, and writing this section made me want to go back and look again.

From time to time over the last five or so years is that I have discovered that individual blog entries have become...well, "popular" isn't the word, so much as "well known" in certain online communities, and often with bizarre and hilarious results.

The first time that this occurred, to the best of my knowledge, was when I wrote on the diets and overall health of prehistoric populations. I had tried to provide a decent overview of what we can determine regarding hunter-gatherer diets and health from the archaeological and ethnographic records, as well as discuss how variable diet and health can be across time and geography. A friend of mine sent me an email with a link to a website where some would-be new-age "teacher" was holding up my entry as an example of why lay-people shouldn't write about the human past. This person claimed to have "taught hunting and gathering" for ten years, and "know for a fact that hunters and gatherers are healthier, have longer life spans, and taller stature" than "modern people"...which would certainly be news to most hunter-gatherers. I wasn't sure which was more entertaining, that this lay person was trying to take me to task for being a lay-person, that they were so astoundingly factually wrong while insisting that they were wise and knowledgeable, or that they seemed to think that "teaching hunting-gathering" was a good career choice.

Another occasion saw someone at the Graham Hancock forums taking exception to me characterizing Graham Hancock as a know, which he is. Anyway, a few people on that forum took issue with me and discussed my dubious parentage, and apparently one of my readers pokes around on the forum enough that they spotted it and sent it to me, providing me with an hour or so of enjoyment. I have always figured that, if people who are fooled by Hancock and his ilk dislike me, I must be doing something right.

And the last one of these occasions was when another blogger decided that they disliked this entry.  They produced an entry on their own blog demonstrating that clearly I was ignorant of biblical history, and clearly an atheist (which is true, and also irrelevant), and obviously I was just out to destroy people's faith. It was quite the screed.

Anyway, so there's that entry. I hope to, again, take part int he blog carnival next month, but we will see.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Those two or three of you who still check in on this blog on a semi-regular basis are probably wondering why, after months, there is finally a new entry.  This Night of the Living Dead blog action is brought to you by Doug's Archaeology, who has organized a monthly blog carnival in the lead-up to the Society for American Archaeology annual meetings next year.  I will attempt to participate next month, as well.

This month, Doug has asked two questions, which I will attempt to answer, assuming that I can keep my natural blathering tendencies in check.  So, without further ado, the questions:

Why blogging? – Why did you, or if it was a group- the group, start a blog?

This blog did not originally start out as an archaeology blog, per se.  It was, and on those rare occasions when I update it, still remains a blog onto which I post pretty much whatever happens to be bugging me on any given day. Archaeology is a frequent subject simply because I am an archaeologist, and as a result it is often on my mind.

Blogging offered me an opportunity to do a few things:

1) Tell stories: Field work can be wonderful and exciting, but it is, at least as often, stressful and frustrating (at least if you are a supervisor). I realized that I had the opportunity to do a lot of things that other people could not, but I was often so stressed that I wasn't enjoying it. However, I found that even the worst field experience became considerably more tolerable when I realized that it would make a good story later. Blogging gave me an outlet for storytelling any time I needed it, which allowed me to better deal with stress, which, in turn, helped me focus on my job and be a better archaeologist.

2) Vent my spleen: As anyone who reads through my previous entries can see, I am something of a curmudgeon. I can be grumpy, and I am frequently irritated with the nonsense, pseudoscience, and pseudo-intellectual posturing that passes for public discourse on a variety of subjects. Having a place where I could develop my arguments and explain my opinions allowed me to better articulate my position, typically with less venom, when I was face-to-face with someone espousing dubious views. It also forced me to articulate my opinions, which often resulted in me thinking them through more carefully and sometimes changing my mind.

3) Entertain: I never had a huge following, but I did pick up some regular readers who seemed to enjoy what I was writing. Knowing that there were a few people out there who enjoyed my writing was, well, fun. It made the writing exciting. This is why many of my entries were completely humorous.

4) Inform: Archaeology is often misrepresented in the media, even by journalists who are genuinely trying to get it right. I enjoyed using this blog as a forum for trying to better explain issues. This was especially enjoyable with recent potentially pre-Clovis finds, where I found that I got a good deal of positive feedback from people who had been confused as to the nature of the issue and who didn't know who to believe.

I enjoyed blogging, and found that it made me a clearer thinker and better archaeologist.

Why are you still blogging?- or - Why have you stopped blogging? 

I have never formally stopped blogging...I just kind of haven't been doing it.

During the life of the blog, my reasons didn't change so much as shift. The numbered reasons above are in order of their original importance to me. If the original order was 1, 2, 3, 4, by late last year, when I stopped posting regularly, the order had probably changed to 4, 2, 1, 3.

As to why I haven't been posting regularly, well, the biggest reason for that is documented on this very blog. Becoming a father has taken up much of my free time, and what little free time I have left I have generally spent doing things other than writing.

In addition, I don't have quite as great a need to write. I still enjoy entertaining people, and I probably could stand to routinely research and write out my positions on various subjects (I realized recently that I have become a bit of an ideologue on a few issues - while I think that my position is correct and justifiable, I have a hard time understanding the opposing position, and therefore could probably stand to write things out).

However, the need to tell field stories as a way to deal with stress has become less important - I am a more seasoned and confident archaeologist, and no longer need to have quite the same outlet to deal with stress. While this reason for blogging became less important to me, it was nonetheless an impetus to continue writing. I have had a number of field experiences that make for great stories over the last year, but I no longer stress out over them the way that I used to, and as such don't have to re-frame them in my mind in order to maintain productivity.

I do enjoy writing, though, and keep promising myself that I will return to regular blog entries.  I just don't know when.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Puritans, Pilgrims, and the Taliban

Wow, it's been a while since I last wrote.  I am likely not going to be getting back to a regular schedule anytime soon, but I will be able to write occasionally.

I am a fan of Dan Carlin's podcasts, especially his show Hardcore History (a terrible name for a show, but an excellent podcast nonetheless).  The most recent episode, as of the time that I write this, is about the Anabaptist rebellion in/occupation of Munster, Germany in 1534-1535.

If you are interested in this historic episode, I strongly recommend that you listen to the episode (just click the link above).  But the thumbnail is this:  The Anabaptists were one of the early Protestant sects that arose after Martin Luther posted his list of theses.  They were far more radical than Luther himself was, and the Anabaptists gave rise to numerous sub-cultures, including several that were essentially communistic doomsday cults (yep, history is often weirder than fiction).  One such group became violent, and established a short-lived government in the German city of Munster, where they managed to hold off the local authorities for a time, while establishing a miniature totalitarian theocracy within the city itself.  They were eventually crushed by the city's Bishop (a secular as well as religious authority figure at this time in Munster), and the leaders of the rebellion put to death in a rather horrific manner (though one that won't surprise students of Medieval history).

This story has echoes throughout Europe.  In England, Protestant sects gained power under Oliver Cromwell, and established an authoritarian theocracy in England (though, to be fair, many would have considered the deposed-then-executed Charles I's monarchy to be authoritarian as well, and arguably also a theocracy as Charles I was also the head of the Church of England), and then near-genocidal campaigns against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland.  Under Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector, a role different than, though in ways comparable to, the king), England became hostile to things such as drama, dancing, etc.  In fact, the attitude of the government under Cromwell towards the arts and entertainments is rather reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban**.

Comparable stories played out across Europe, with Protestant sects rising, and committing acts of violence, including ones that we would now consider terrorism in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and on and on and on.

These stories fascinated me, but they do not surprise me.  They might, however, surprise many contemporary people in the United States.

There is a commonly held belief here in the U.S. that Middle Eastern violence and world-wide terrorism is a product of beliefs and ideals unique to Islam.  Islam, this belief holds, is unusual among the Abrahamic religions* in its advocation of violence.  Therefore, it is the only of these three religions that produces violence on the strength of the religion itself.  Sure, there have been evil/violent people who claimed to be Christian or Jewish, but they just used religion as an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway.  Islam actually causes the violence!

People who hold this opinion are thoroughly ignorant of history.

In part, the ignorance is willful.  People rarely want to acknowledge that the club to which they claim membership can produce bad seeds.  As a result, Christians tend to deny the role of religion in the European wars of the 16th through 18th centuries, but they are hardly alone.  Members of most ideologies that have produced violence tend to deny that the ideology produced said violence.  

In part, it's the fault of those of us who deal with the past professionally.  We have a hard time grappling with ideology, and as a result, tend to look for other causes for violence, when ideology may be the cause.  As is summed up by historian R. J. Knecht in his book The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598:

Many people nowadays attach little importance to religion.  Consequently, they find it difficult to believe that it played a major part in the civil wars that tore France apart in the late sixteenth century.  They look for other reasons: political, economic and social.  Religion, they argue, was merely a 'cloak' used by the great aristocratic families to give respectability to their ruthless pursuit of power.  But the sixteenth century was not the twentieth: religion did rule the lives of thinking people...  

...even today religion can move people to action, as is daily demonstrated in the Middle East and India...Material interests, including brutal power-hunger and greed, were certainly present in the French Wars of Religion, but religion was also crucially important.

Although Knecht focuses on religion, it is not unique.  Any sort of totalizing ideology - a belief system that claims to encompass either everything, or at least everything that matters for living in the world - is capable of producing the zealotry and hysteria necessary to create violence.  Religious violence is nothing new, likely having been with us from a very early in our time in our history as a species, but is has at times been joined by other ideologies as a source of violence - witness the anarchist bombings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example.

We know that Christianity is capable of the same types of violence as modern militant Islam not because Christianity shares many ideological underpinnings with Islam (though it does), but because Christianity has produced precisely the same sort of sectarian violence, political and social oppression, and acts of terrorism in the past.  Christianity still has the potential, and a theocratic undercurrent still breathes and seethes and seeks power (look up the Dominionist movements).  The story that we often hear is that Christianity gave rise to the Enlightenment (or, if the commentator dislikes the science and necessity of doubt that came with the Enlightenment, they will try to claim that Christianity is the source of the parts of the Enlightenment that the commentator likes).  The truth, though, is that Christianity was muzzled by commerce and politics, beginning in the Netherlands during the Renaissance, where city officials and business interests realized that persecution of religious minorities could be bad for profits.  The more peaceful Christianity that we know today is a product of historic de-fanging, a religion that has been molded by social currents and mores, as much as (if not more than) it has influenced the social currents and mores.

The rise of ideological authoritarian states has happened many times before...and it sure as hell will happen again.  While religion is typically the cause (being the most common potentially authoritarian ideology among humans), it can also occur with non-religious ideologies (noteworthy 20th Century examples include Nazi Germany, the rise of the U.S.S.R., and Cambodia under Pol Pot).  Similarly, the rise of ideological violence and terrorism is also nothing new.  Essentially, all that is required is for some group to conclude that they know they absolute truth, and believe that they, therefore, have the right to impose that truth on everyone else.

But we need to not be ignorant of history.  We need to acknowledge that while the technologies and means used by ideological zealots may change, their presence seems a constant.  We need to acknowledge that our own religions and political ideologies could, potentially, lead to chaos and violence - in part we need to acknowledge this to keep ourselves humble and not demonize our opponents, and in part we need to do so in order to prevent our own creeds from becoming the enemies that we loathe.

*Worth noting: many people who hold this belief would leave out the Abrahamic religion part, as many people who believe this are so thoroughly ignorant of Islam that they are unaware that it shares a good deal with Judaism and Christianity.

**Monty Python produced a funny and informative song about the English civil war:

...or, if you have a bit of a different set of tastes, I will happily recommend Mark Steele's version to you:

***Though I would note that their own actions were a result of the overall form of communism to which they adhered, where atheism was a part, but not in any way the whole.  In much the same way, while most people are loathe to admit it, Protestant Christianity (specifically Lutheranism) was a part of Nazism, but it was in no way the whole of Nazism.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ahistoric Blame Game

It happens every now and again, admittedly less often now that I live in Fresno, that I will be speaking with someone from Europe, and they will say something ot the effect of "I don't think that you Americans should assume that you have any right to talk about racial relations, after slavery and what you did to the Native Americans!"

They never seem prepared for my response, which is "yeah, you're right, our nation did continue to implement and further develop the policies put into place by England, France, Spain, Germany, etc."  I usually follow this up with "so, let's talk about your country's history in Africa/India/Asia/etc."

It has been my experience that Europeans often accuse Americans of being the slavers and genocidal maniacs who went after Native Americans, despite the fact that anti-Native American policies originated with early European colonists from throughout Europe, and the racially-based African slave trade as we would come to know it originated in Portugal and spread throughout Europe, from where it eventually spread to the Americas along with European colonists.  And, indeed, one of the reasons why slavery continued as late as it did in the U.S. is because cotton markets, including those in Europe, were comfortable with purchasing the products manufactured through slave labor.

Within the United States, we tend to blame the south for slavery, despite the fact that many northerners were not opposed to (and some even supported) slavery, and even where slavery was outlawed it would still appear under the guise of indentured servitude, prison-based hard labor passed out out of proportion to the crimes of the accused, and debt labor.

And on it goes.

The problem with this blame-game is twofold:  1) it is ahistorical, it requires us to be willingly (and often intentionally) ignorant of history; 2) it allows us to view the "others" who engaged in these policies as separate from us, different from us, and therefore allows us to ignore the role that our nation, or even we ourselves, may play in this.

Obviously, as someone who professionally deals with history, I have a special concern about #1.  I strongly feel that we should know our past, as accurately as possible, warts and all, and ignoring the culpability of our own culture in the sins of the past counts as a failure.

But #2 concerns me as a human who has to live in this world, in the here and now.  When we portray ourselves as being more enlightened and fundamentally different as creatures from those who committed past atrocities, we not only ignore the capacity of our own culture to produce equivalent atrocities, but we also ignore that we are sometimes culpable in the atrocities.  It's why the people of Ohio can feel superior to the American South's history of slavery and Jim Crow laws while fostering conditions in cities that have continued racial conflict.  It's why European government officials can persuade themselves that they are better and more enlightened than the U.S. in terms of race relations, despite the fact that Europe has increasingly worse problems with immigration and assimilation than the U.S.

Ahistoric blaming isn't just lazy scholarship, it's also a problem for those who are concerned about what is going on in the here-and-now.  It's a shell game that people (en masse in the forms of both regional and national electorates) use to tell themselves that their decisions are alright, or even good, while equivalent past decisions of other nations were horrible and should be looked down upon.  It allows us to put a false distance between "us" and "them" and therefore falsely assert that our decisions are better, smarter, and more just, when they are, in fact, almost identical.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Trying to Do Something New With It?

It seems that, whenever I encounter someone who is an advocate of some form of pseudo-archaeology, after I have exhaustively pointed out the flaws, inconsistencies, and made-up-shit that goes into their pet hypothesis, I am told something along the lines of "well, at least I (or the person who they are quoting) am trying to do something different with this information!  THAT has value!"

If you are genuinely trying to do something new and innovative with old information, and trying to do it in such a way that you are not engaging in fabricating information, using special pleading to make your case, or in some other way being a dishonest bastard, then yes, trying to do something new has value.

The people who use this as the last-line defense for their pet hypothesis, though?  Well, A) they are almost always just trying to maintain an older, stupid idea ("ancient astronauts," Biblical literalism, etc.) and aren't actually trying anything new, and B) they are pretty much always conflating "trying something new" with playing fast-and-loose with evidence and ignoring anything even vaguely approaching logic or honesty.

If you think I'm being overly harsh, then let's consider the fact that this explanation is pretty much only used in pseudo-science, and is not present in any other realm where people try to arrive at some sort of coherent explanation of events.

For example, in criminal investigations, you would rightfully dismiss someone as a nut if they insisted that a theft was committed by aliens, and then proceeded to "prove" this by making references to out-of-context information from unrelated crimes, pulling bits and pieces of conspiracy beliefs from pop culture, making up "facts", and ignoring relevant information from the actual crime scene.  They would certainly be "doing something new" with the information...but that something new would not only not get you anywhere closer to solving the crime, it would, in fact, move you farther and farther away from the real solution.  A person doing this would be immediately drummed out of the investigation and replaced with someone who was, you know, actually mentally competent.

And yet this same basic procedure - pulling out-of-context information from unrelated sites, pulling "facts" out of pop culture rather than data, making false claims about relevant sites, and often just making shit up - is the norm in pseudo-archaeology, and even people who are not directly involved in it often defend these practices by claiming that the pseudo-scholar is "trying to do something new" with the information.

Often, perhaps typically, implied under all of this is the notion that real archaeologists (or, as the pseudo-archaeologists often label us "establishment archaeologists - booo, hisssss, bad establishment!") aren't trying to find anything new.  Sometimes it is flat out stated - there are many claims from the pseudo scholars that actual scholars are just trying to maintain some sort of "status quo", which reveals the true depth of the ignorance of the pseudo scholars - but at least as often it's just sort of implied, clearly there as an accusation, but covered up enough that the accuser can deny it if called on it.

The truth, however, is that we are working far harder than any of these twits.  We are routinely trying to test and verify our methods and our results (see here for a summarized history of how archaeology has changed, or read this for a more thorough discussion).  I have opened myself up to criticism by my professional colleagues for presenting papers that were not in-line with established models of past cultures, I have also found and publicized artifacts that are out-of-keeping with established cultural chronologies, and I have long supported archaeologists who work on the frontiers of what we think we know (for example, those working on pre-Clovis archaeology in North America).  And I am not alone, some solitary warrior fighting against the "establishment" - every archaeologist that I know who presents papers or publishes their findings does similar things.  Trying to "do something new" is what archaeologists do.

Now, it could be said that we should be better at communicating this to the general public.  That is a valid criticism, and certainly one that I, and others try to address by keeping blogs, giving public lectures, appearing on podcasts, and so on.  Some of us are lucky enough to be able to participate in radio and television, which is where most people get their information.

However, while we might do a better job of communicating our work and our findings, that in no way absolves the pseudo-archaeologists who distort, lie, and obfuscate.  And, if you are someone who is going to  claim that real archaeologists aren't "doing something new" then I offer you a challenge:  When is the last time that you read an issue of National Geographic?  Smithsonian Magazine?  Or looked at professional journals such as American Antiquity?  If you haven't done so lately, then you don't know what archaeologists are up to, and you sound as ignorant as you truly are when you imply that we aren't doing anything, or are simply supporting the "status quo."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So, It's Been a While...

So, it has, indeed, been a while since last I posted an entry on this blog.  The reasons for this are simple - work and family obligations coupled with trying to complete an archaeological research project outside of work have kept me very, very busy.  And after a while, I didn't feel like posting routine posts that simply said that I would be getting back to writing soon when, as it turned out, I have not been able to.

That being said, I do enjoy writing this blog, and there are several topics that I'd like to cover, so I do intend to continuing just may be a while before I am able to get back to doing it on a regular basis.

In the meantime, I will mention that it looks like the PI on the research project with which I have been involved is getting ready to publish our results, so I will likely have another publication under my belt, soon.  I'll post here when that happens.

I would, in the meantime, like to point all y'all towards the CRM archaeology podcast Random Acts of Science.  Serr Head, of Archy Fantasies, is a panelist on the most recent episode, so it ought to be worth a listen.

Although we make up the vast majority of archaeologist, CRM archaeology is not well-represented in the media, so I support any effort to further our cause.