The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chumash Death Magic Cave Adventure

When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I volunteered with the archaeologists at the Presidio of Santa Barbara – an open-air museum that represented the reconstructed remains of the Spanish fort that had been constructed to provide protection to the Mission located nearby. These folks worked not only at the Presidio, but would do other archaeology-related jobs around the county. This included surveys at Mission La Purisima in Lompoc (on the north side of the county), small projects around the county, and work at a rock art site known as the Chumash Painted Cave.

The painted caves appear to have been a ritual site, possibly for a religious elite group known as the ‘Antap Cult that existed within Chumash society prior to the arrival of Europeans. The ‘Antap served a number of purposes, from ritual functions to holders of political power (it appears that you couldn’t become a chief or other elite unless you were a member of the ‘Antap). After the Spanish largely decimated local religion, the ‘Antap began to be viewed differently by most Chumash people - based on Chumash stories gathered during the late 19th and early 20th century, it looks like the ‘Antap had ceased to be seen as ritual and political officers and come to be seen as boogey-man like creatures (a view that may have been fostered by a tendency for the late prehistoric ‘Antap members to encourage a view of themselves as magically powerful and to be feared by the general populace). Therefore, it is no surprise that Painted Cave is sometimes referred to as a place of “death magic”.

Needless to say, I was excited when I was asked to take part in the field work for a project aimed at protecting the rock art in Painted Cave – after all, it’s not everyday that one gets to hang out in a place of powerful death magic.

The purpose of the project was to determine how long the rock art was likely to remain on the stone. The cave was located within a sandstone formation, and the stone within the cave was exfoliating, creating a floor-cover of sand inside of the cave. The exfoliation was degrading the rock art, but was also causing further degradation – when the wind whips up it lifts the sand off of the floor and blows it through the cave, acting as a low-grade sand paper and removing paint from the walls. So, it was important both to remove the existing sand from the floor of the cave, and to measure the rate at which new sand is appearing in the cave. To this end, we opened the gate*and entered the cave. We used shop vacuum that had been fitted with archaeological screens to remove sand and recover any artifacts that might be on the floor of the cave. We also placed small ceramic cylinders at various locations throughout the cave in order to measure the rate of sand accumulation.

While cleaning out the cave, we kept finding “offerings” of plant bundles – primarily sage. While some of these were probably from local Chumash people, based on what we were seeing, I suspect that many of them were left by local New-Age folks who were seeking to commune with nature spirits**. We also were able to get a close look at the 19th century graffiti that had been created inside of the cave (the cave was allegedly used by Pony Express riders, and is known to have been used as a camping location by locals since the mid-19th century). While the rock art was stunning, the 19th century graffiti – comprised primarily of people’s names and the year, references to local events, and the like – was really interesting as well. In both cases, there was this amazing sense that I was seeing something that had been done by people now long dead, and yet their handiwork remained.

I ended up placing a cylinder inside of a crevice in the back of the cave. Not realizing that my arms were longer than everyone else’s, I placed it in an area where I figured that I’d be able to reach in and adjust the cylinder. After I had stopped volunteering, I discovered that the other archaeologists had to buy a toy “robot arm” in order to reach the cylinder. Score one for the tall guy!

After I had placed the cylinder, I got up to leave the cave, slipped on the sand, and nearly bashed my head on a rock overhang. Now, I’ll leave it to others to determine which would have been worse – my bashing my head open and getting my fool self killed, or me hitting sensitive rock art with my head and possibly damaging it. Regardless, I managed to catch myself before I hit the rock, and was spared either problem.

Since then, I have worked on a number of projects in which rock art was present – and while I have seen some cool stuff, I have never seen anything that quite matches the Painted Cave in terms of just plain cool artwork. Here’s a photo:

*There has been a gate, taken from an old bank vault, in front of painted cave since the 1920’s. There are numerous caves with rock art in them in these mountains, and occasionally I will meet someone who swears up and down that they used to hang out inside the cave. As far as I can tell, these folks were in another cave, and are mistaking it for the one actually named Chumash Painted Cave. Of course, you try to tell someone that and they will insist that you don’t know the history of the area, despite the evidence that it is them who is confused.

**No, I’m not making that up or exaggerating. For a variety of reasons, a segment of the New Age movement has adopted a pet belief that the native peoples of the Americas have a super-human tie to nature spirits, and therefore tend to carry out stereotyped behaviors patterned on misunderstandings of some ethnographic-period rituals. In my experience, this tends to really irritate the modern members of the Native American community, who, rightfully, see this is being more about the New Age folks wanting a mystical past culture to look up to rather than them seeing the Native American community as the gathering of people that it really is – and this often makes attempts to get ahead in mundane but important matters very difficult for the Native American community.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sex and Taboos

For those who have not yet read Greta Christina's blogs, I highly recommend them. While I often disagree, she is both intelligent and articulate, and often quite entertaining. Earlier today, I read this entry about the nature of public discourse on sex (how's that phrase for pseudo-intellectual hyperbole). Her basic question (and she only hints at the answers that she herself is unsure of) is: why do we treat sex as an especially taboo subject, beyond other subjects? Why is it that we can talk about almost any other aspect of culture and life, and express it openly, but not sex?

She suggests that it may be because sex makes us feel out of control in a way that other biological drives do not (though I wonder if this is the case in a time and place where the subject of other drives, such as food, are not as readily accessible), and that this makes us nervous and prone to not only feel uncomfortable about our own sexuality, but also that of others.

Oh, and if you think that only a wacky leftist could think that sex is really comparable to other biological drives, you might want to read C.S. Lewis's best known apologetics work Mere Christianity, where he makes similar observations (though coming to very different conclusions than Greta Christina).

I would add that there may be one other reason, a biological reason, why sex makes us uncomfortable. Sex is the vector by which our genes are transmitted or stifled, by which our genetic base is broadened and secured or becomes inbred and flawed. It has to do with the survival of the species in a very literal way. This gives sex a power that drives such as hunger do not have. By recognizing this, though, it seems reasonable to suggest that we should not allow our unease to keep us quiet - after all, keeping quiet prevents us from dealing rationally with the issues that face us.

Anyway, read the entry, think about the subject, and be aware of your own knee-jerk reactions (I know that I kept thinking "but of course sex shouldn't be spoken of as publicly" while not being able to come up with much in the way of good reasons why). It's worth considering why this subject makes so many of us so uncomfortable, and whether or not we should work to change that.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sorry for the lack of activity

Howdy folks,

I have been home for almost two weeks now, but I have been dealing with professionl and personal matters and not had much time to write. I intend to start writing regularly again int he very near future - possibly as early as next week. Until then, I hope you're all doing well, and I look forward to more comments from the regular readers.

-The Slug

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mark Driscoll - Love Him or Hate Him?

Earlier today, I was directed to this article by the blog of Hemet Metah. The article describes a “hip” and rather militant Calvinist megachurch in Seattle. The article is really quite fascinating, and well worth a read.

Mark Driscoll, the pastor that the article focuses on, has been something of a lightning rod of praise and criticism both among the Evangelical community and among the non-evangelicals. On the one hand, the fact that he seems to focus on hyper-masculinity, a fear of femininity, and his own control of the church carries a clear authoritarian (and somewhat paranoid) message. On the other hand, the fact that he insists that Christians are both humans and citizens just like the rest of us, and should not separate themselves from the culture at large is, to my mind, a good thing, as I would hope it means that his flock is more likely to be realistic both in their views of other people and their approach to life and politics.

Also, by recognizing the inherent logical contradiction in trying to reconcile an omnipotent, pre-cognisant, and omniscient creator god with the idea of free will, the theology manages to be more internally consistent but also manages to make the question of morality even more irrelevant than the more mainstream notion of an all-forgiving savior that it criticizes. It’s an interesting thing, to try to solve one problem by ignoring another.

Anyway, give the article a read, and then do a little searching on Mark Driscoll. Whether you are enraged or inspired, I suspect that you’ll be interested.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I Have Returned

I just returned from the land of Godzilla, giant robots, and tentacle porn - Japan, or more specifically, Tokyo. I got to see some amazing things, visit a friend that I have not seen in years, get lost in the separate underground city that is Tokyo's subway system, seen white-gloved conductors push waaaaaay too many people into subway trains, and so on and so forth. I'll write more about it later.

At any rate, I'm back, I'm tired, and I'm happy to be home.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Japan Bound

This time tommorrow, I will be suffering insomnia while sitting on a Tokyo-bound airplane next to Kay, and I will not be back until the afternoon of January 12th. So, I'll not be updating the blod until then.

I'm happy to note that while we are arriving too early in the year to see Godzilla, we wil arrive in the prime of Mothra season, and there may even be a touch of Rodan in the skies.

As noted, I will return in just over a week. In the meantime, I hope y'all have a good New Years, and that life is groovy to ya'.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best Buy's Just Not Getting It

So, after my recent debacle attempting to buy a Camera from Best Buy, I received the following in my inbox today:

Don't let your Best Buy order get canceledWednesday, December 31, 2008 8:10 PM
From: "BestBuy Online Store" Add sender to Contacts To:
Having problems viewing this e-mail? Click here. To ensure delivery to your inbox, please add to your address book.

Order Pickup Reminder
December 31, 2008
Order Number: BBY01-280958031841

Dear Matthew:

The item you ordered is not available for pickup at the MOUNTAIN VIEW CA Best Buy store #1045.

If you still want this product, call us toll-free at 1-888-BEST BUY (1-888-237-8289) to check product availability at a different store or to have the item shipped via free standard shipping. Please contact us within 3 days to choose one of these options. For faster service, tell us the order number when you contact us.

If you no longer want this product, you do not need to take any action. We will cancel this order in 3 days and your credit card will not be charged.

If you used a Reward Certificate, points will be reissued to your Reward Zone program account within 3–5 days of order cancellation.

Item details are listed below.

Thank You.
Best Buy Customer Care

Order Date: 12/26/2008

Qty Product Description

1 Canon-EOS Digital Rebel XS 10.1-Megapixel Digital SLR Camera-Black-2762B003

For complete order details, check your order status.

Do not use the Reply button to respond to this message.

Contact us by email or call 1-888-BEST BUY

This is actually the third email of this sort that I have received since asking them to cancel the order. The irony of it is that not only ae they threatening to cancel the order AFTER I have asked them to do that very thing and had them tell me that they could not, but that after the frustration of attempting to NOT get the thing sent to Mountain View, they are telling me that it can't be sent there anyway.


By the way, as another post-script, I discovered that a URL that had been set up by people critical of Best Buy's poor business practices has since been bought up by Best Buy and is used to direct people to their website - look it up: (no hyperlink, as I am not really interested in helping Google direct traffic to Best Buy).