The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Weird Items Found During Field Work

In a previous post, I had described many various odd and out-of-place items that I have sen while doing field work. Well, here's a few more that I have come across in the last few weeks.

First off, and unfortunately I don't have a photo of this one, one of my field technicians found a milk-crate filled with porn sitting next to an oil pump. It looked ot have been there for a while, and as oil pumps aren't particularly private, we couldn't figure out why someone would take their crate of it to that location. But, hey, there ya' go.

Next up, just as before, we found a boat. A smaller one this time. But a boat nonetheless. In the middle of a very arid landscape. No water around.

Of course, we couldn't let this go without a posed photo:

And so we continued surveying, finding everything from historic artifacts to unreported gas leaks, and when cresting a hill one day, we looked below us, and saw, of all things, an office desk and chair. In the middle of nowhere. Not an office to be seen.

And so, again, we had to take a few posed photos:

And last, but not least, I believe that the mailbox was there to allow different workers to keep and share records of the oil pumps. But, really, it looks really odd:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Regarding Jason's Impending Nuptials

What happens when a couple of techie-sorts fall in love and decide to spend their lives together? Click here to find out, and just keep clicking the links.

This is, by far, the coolest proposition of marriage that I have ever heard of.

The second coolest is that of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (listen here for the low-down on that one.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Death and the Hereafter

One of my field techs had been raised as a Christian, but had left the church. While she no longer believed much of what the church had taught, she still retained a belief in some sort of divine being. She asked me about my beliefs, and I stated that I am an atheist.

"So, aren't you afraid of death. I mean, if you don't think there's an afterlife, isn't that scary?"

Although it is less common now, I get asked this question somewhat frequently.

The answer is kind of complicated. When I first accepted that I didn't believe in a god, I have to admit that I was frightened of death. The idea of nonexistence seemed absolutely horrifying to me. After a time, I realized that, really, if I didn't exist, then I wouldn't be around to know that I didn't exist, and so the idea lost alot of its sting. While the idea of death ceased to be upsetting, I still saw it as a loss, something that was to be viewed with dismay, if not actually feared.

That changed a few years ago. At the time I was dating a woman who would describe herself as a neo-pagan. We were sitting on my couch one night talking about religion when she told me about her beliefs regarding death.

"I believe in a sort of reincarnation," she explained, "not that I will personally be reborn some day, but that what we call a soul is actually made out of many parts, and that when I die, those parts will no longer be bound together, but will disassemble and become parts of other entities waiting to be born."*

This struck a chord with me. Not because of the supernatural content, I don't believe in souls any more than I believe in gods, but because it seemed to me to be a beautiful metaphor for something that absolutely, without question, does happen. What am I, after all? Well, I am a body, a consciousness, and an identity. As far as we can tell, the consciousness is a function of the body, so these two can be considered together.

When I die, my body will decompose. When this happens, the chemical compounds and energy that comprise me will feed other organisms. My remains will once again cycle into the environment, and though transformed will not be destroyed. Yes, my consciousness will be gone, but the things that created it will still be in circulation, just in different arrangements.

And this I find very comforting. In a very literal sense, my death will feed new life.

Unlike my consciousness, my identity doesn't have to vanish with my body. Consider the people who, though no longer alive, are still clear and significant presences in the world: Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), Helen Keller, Marie Curie, George Washington, Henry Tudor, Stephen Jay Gould, Alexander of Macedonia, and on and on and on. To some degree, everyone who has ever lived has had an influence, and many of them are remembered by at least some people, and some by most people. So, in this sense, if I do things that leave a mark (something that I am trying to do by publishing, as well as a few other projects that I have on hand), then my identity remains even after the rest of me is gone.

Again, I find this comforting.

So, no, I don't fear death. I'm not seeking it out, but I no longer see a reason that a lack of an afterlife makes death a fearful thing.

*I know that at least four of the people who regularly read this will at this point start scoffing at her beliefs. I would simply remind these people that they believe in an afterlife including a heaven and a hell that seems pretty silly to anyone who doesn't subscribe to it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Legend, White Legend, Grey Truth in California's Missions

Some months back, I was on a very long flight, and so several hours in I took the opportunity to stand up and walk about the cabin in order to restore the circulation in my legs. I walked to the back of the plane and stood next to an older woman with whom I started talking. She was a school teacher, and we discussed the history classes that she taught to her junior high school students. During the course of this, she began to talk about what she had learned, and passed on to her students, about the colonization of California, that the native people s of California had been living a peaceful, idyllic life with plentiful resources until the Spanish showed up, forced everyone on to missions (with the church playing a role in support of the military conquest), spread smallpox and syphilis, and generally left a wave of destruction in their path.

This particular narrative, a fairly popular one, is known as the "Black Legend", the story of Spanish conquest and destruction, with the Spanish playing the part of melodrama villains in their quest for gold and glory.

There is another legend, though, one that is equally popular, though not as often heard publicly these days, that historians refer to as the "White Legend." In this version of the story, we hear about the Spanish priests arriving to establish missions in an attempt to make life better for the naive peoples. The role of military is usually downplayed, and the intentions of the allegedly kindly, gentle priests played up. The proponents of the White Legend rarely deny that many natives died due to the arrival of Europeans, but attribute those deaths to the introduction of new diseases, a factor that the Europeans didn't understand and could not have predicted.

Both of these legends contain some truth, but both are ultimately constructs developed to support particular politically-motivated readings of history, and both are ultimately false.

The truth is that colonization is not a simple black/white thing - it is extremely complicated, and the colonization of California especially so. There were so many competing interests and motivations on the parts of both the Europeans and the Californians that it is not possible to simply beatify or demonize any broad group (though certain individuals are absolutely open to criticism). The truth is very, very complicated.


So, let's start with life before the Spanish arrived. The notion that the Californians were living an absolutely peaceful life with plenty of resources isn't actually true. There was a good deal of conflict, and archaeological an ethnohistoric evidence clearly indicate that internecine warfare was not an uncommon occurrence. In the Santa Barbara Channel area, for example, the ethnohistorian John Johnson has documented patterns of social interaction indicative of the formation of alliances that served both peaceful purposes such as solidifying trade relationships, and less-than-peaceful purposes such as forming bonds to be utilized during inter-village fighting.

Likewise, Linda King, in her research in southern Ventura County found evidence of routine warfare between the southern Ventureno Chumash and the Gabrieleno people who inhabited the region immediately to the south.

The warfare practices of the Colorado River tribelets is literally the stuff of legend.

However, all was not warfare and strife. The same alliances that were utilized for, and sometimes caused, conflict also allowed extensive trade networks to exist, and allowed for integration of people from very different regions. Prehistoric California was not a simple place, but rather was a complex social landscape.


The act of colonization was a very long process, arguably beginning with Spanish exploration of the California coast during the 16th century. It's important to be clear that these early explorations did a number of things: they introduced European material culture to California (exotic trade goods were a mark of prestige amongst the Californians, and so the introduction of Spanish goods is important), and they provided advanced intelligence to the Spanish regarding the peoples of the region (and informing the eventual colonial strategy).

However, colonization really began in the mid-to-late 18th century with the establishment of the missions and presidios (military bases) along the California coast. From the outset, the establishment of the Spanish colonial system in California had a very weird and complicating dynamic - it was a joint venture between the Spanish military and the Spanish church.

There is a tendency amongst believers of the Black Legend to lump the Spanish together as a monolithic whole. However, this leads to oversimplifications and misleading thinking. Although the military and the church worked together - the military providing security and support to the missions and the missions providing labor and supplies to the presidios - there was always a tension inherent in the relationship. The clergy resented the military and felt that they should be subservient to the priests, while the military officers felt that the church was there to support them and resented the need to share power. As a result, both institutions routinely made attempts to undermine the authority of the other.

There are numerous stories of the brutality of the soldiers as well as that of the priests. I do not want to be misunderstood, most of these stories are probably either true or contain some degree of truth. However, we often hear of them from Spanish accounts from one institution intending to undermine the other, and as such they must be considered in this context, and separating the reality from the rhetoric is very difficult.

By the same token, stories used to justify the White Legend are often taken from documents produced by one of these two institutions in order to justify their own authority, and as such must also be taken within the context of the conflicts between the clergy and the military.

Another matter that must be taken into account is the fact that just as the Spanish were not a monolithic entity, neither were the church or the military. Within both institutions were a wide variety of individuals whose goals, intentions, and motivations were legion. If one wishes to find would-be latter-day conquistadors, they're not difficult to come by, nor are sadists who used their priestly garments as a shield, religious zealots, or bloodthirsty sociopaths in uniform.

At the same time, one can easily find professional soldiers who were trying to do their jobs with as clean a conscience as possible, priests who genuinely had the well-being of the Californians at heart, and individuals who were simply trying to make a good life in a difficult place.

And there's also the people in grey areas. Soldiers who acted on orders that, while lawful, were nonetheless immoral, priests who destroyed lives while trying to save souls, and profiteers who decided to take advantage of the situation to line their own pockets without ever engaging in the dirty work themselves.

In other words, to simply label the Spanish as evil super-soldiers out to wipe out the natives or as saints trying to do good works is to completely ignore the very complex situation that was Spanish colonization.


Another thing that both the White Legend and the Black Legend do is to cast the Native Californians to passive people to whom history happened, rather than active participants. Again, the truth is very different.

Let's take forced conversions. Forced conversion and missionization was common late in the Mission Period, due primarily to a reduced pool of converts in the areas surrounding the missions. However, early conversions were primarily voluntary. That being said, once somebody had become a neophyte (a Mission Indian), they faced many restrictions on their freedoms and lived a difficult life, and this fact should not be forgotten. However, the fact remains that early converts came to the missions voluntarily. In order to understand why, you have to know a few things about life in prehistoric California.

The economy of the Native Californians was dependent on exchange and trade. In addition, to be able to have and exchange exotic goods provided an opportunity to gain prestige as well as wealth. When the Spanish arrived, they provided exotic goods of a quality never before seen, and as such, many people were eager to establish exchange ties with these new visitors.

In addition to that, one of the primary ways that the native populations of many regions of California were supported was through ties with people in within and between regions. When the people of one region had a shortfall of food or other resources, they could use their ties to the other regions to make up for this shortfall, at least to some degree. Likewise, when the resources in a small patch of a region were running short, ties to people in another patch in the same region could be used to get supplies. When the Spanish arrived, with their abundant and exotic goods, they looked like ideal partners.

Related to the last point, the same ties that were so important in ensuring that necessary resources could travel between and within regions were also important in protecting villages from violence. One of the primary ways that a village might prevent internecine warfare from engulfing it was to have allies who were of sufficient size or martial capabilities to make aggression against the village seem like a very bad idea. When the Spanish arrived, with firearms, horses, and armor, well, they became the biggest kids on the block, and the desired allies for the local people.

The point to all of this is that the Native Californians were not passive victims of history, but were active participants with their own agendas and interests.

At the same time, the Spanish, while not quite understanding the motives behind the Native Interest in the colonists, nonetheless were more than ready to take advantage in it. By virtue of their technological capabilities, the weakening of the local people due both to disease and the loss of gathering and hunting lands, and Spanish organization abilities, the Spanish did get the upper hand in the end, and did commit many of the acts that proponents of the Black Legend point to. When this began to happen, native peoples were still not passive, they often fought (though sometimes colluded), but were not simply faceless victims.

Importantly, once natives became baptized and entered the missions, their freedoms were severely restricted (though, again, not to the degree that is often claimed). However, the forced conversions were not a particularly common thing during the early part of the Mission Period.


No discussion of the missions would be complete without a discussion of the role that disease played.

One typically hears that introduced diseases destroyed the populations of Neophytes. This is not a baseless claim - smallpox, syphilis, and similar diseases were present and could be devastating - but the maladies that were probably responsible for the most deaths within the missions were due not to introduced germs, but to cramming too many people together in a small space. Dysentery, respiratory illness, and other more mundane diseases were responsible for most of the deaths.

Away from the missions, however, diseases such as smallpox were extremely devastating. There are stories about entire villages wiped out so quickly that the dead are left lying on the ground, nobody left to bury them.


The reality of colonization is much more complicated than it is so often made out to be. The colonists consist of both villains and good, if misled or mistaken, people trying to do what they think to be right. The natives of the colonized place are not passive victims, but play their own role, sometimes working with and sometimes working against the colonizers.

And what I have written here really applies only to California. Colonization in general, and Spanish colonization of the Americas in particular, played out differently across time and space. The colonization of Mexico was different, as was the colonization of Peru*, of Argentina, and so on. Not only do generalizations prevent one from knowing the truth of California's history, they prevent one from knowing the truth of the history of the Americas.

*Peru is an interesting case. Many of the truly vile things that happened during the Spanish colonization of the Americas actually were done in violation of Spanish law! When Peruvians became well enough integrated into the Spanish system to understand this, they began suing. There are, in fact, letters from Spanish judges to priests working in Peru requesting that the priests talk the Peruvians out of their lawsuits, as these lawsuits were clogging up the Spanish courts.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Heard, Said, and Seen in the Field

Things heard, said, or seen while I was on survey today (all of these are true):

in child's voice - Mommy, what's that?
in mother's voice - That's a crack dealer, honey. Give him a piece of candy and he'll do a trick!

A refrigerator, lying on its back in an open field, with upwards of twenty bullet holes in it.

...and a bit later, in a drainage, an electric stove top with multiple bullet holes in it.

"Listen buster, it takes more than words to hurt a hard-boiled dame!"

Said: ...well, actually, sang:

It's Springtime
For Survey
In Kern County
Play with
the meth-heads
on break


Field Tech 1 - "So, we gave her" (indicates another field tech) "a new nickname."

Field Tech 2 - "Yeah, we're calling her 'pebbels' now."

Me - "Why pebbles?"

Field Tech 1 - "Well, she was taking a nap during break, and wearing the hard, we decided to pick up gravel and try our aim..."


"We should totally see what kind of connections we have, and try to get an opera about archaeological surveys written and produced. The whole thing could be people counting out transect spacing, and occasionally shouting that they've found a Clovis point."

Said: ...or. once again, actually, sang...

Got to get the survey done
Survey done
Then collect the check with
My per diem
Wanna drink some wine and rum
'til I'm dumb
Buy it with a little of my per diem

In Conclusions: When working in Kern County, you have to make your own fun.

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Experts

One of the most frustrating things that I encounter on a regular basis is the tendency amongst many people to assume that experts in a field are somehow more inclined to be wrong than to be right. We see this routinely in the media and in daily life - people assume that biologists must be wrong about evolution, people are unwilling to accept the assurances of the most qualified doctors and epidemiologists in the world (and the fact that the only "scientific evidence" that the anti-vaxxers have comes from a paper that has been demonstrated to have been written by someone hoping to make money off of it), homosexuals "mus choose" to be homosexual despite the fact that all evidence from psychology, medicine, and anthropology contradicts that position, and so on.

Typical in these beliefs is the idea that "the experts have it wrong" - a trend of belief common throughout American history. And sometimes it's justified, experts do get things wrong, and occasionally the non-experts get it right. However, if one actually gets down to it, the experts, though sometimes getting it wrong, get it right more often than the non-experts do (we tend to hear about the rare exceptions because they are, well, exceptional).

Of course, if you point this out, you tend to get labeled as "elitist" or, less commonly, "someone who just wants to support the status-quo". There is, however, nothing elitist about this. If my car is not functioning, I will take the advice of an auto mechanic long before I'll take the advice of a heart surgeon, because, well, the auto mechanic is likely to know more about cars than the heart surgeon will. Likewise, I am more qualified to speak about archaeology than my friend Liberty is, because I am and archaeologist, while she is finishing a PhD in literature. However, if I start talking literature...well, you might be better off listening to Liberty. It's a matter of what our training and experience is, not how much of that training and experience one has. In the end, if someone actually goes through the effort to make themselves a legitimate expert on a subject, then their opinion is likely to be more trustworthy than that of someone who didn't go through the same degree of work. Also, when one goes through the process of becoming an expert, one has to deal with having their pre-conceived notions about a subject dashed, meaning that they are more likely to be speaking from a position of knowledge than simply trying to justify a prejudice.

And nobody is an expert on everything. As Jairus Durnett puts it at the Almost Entirely Forgotten Blog:

...I learned a little something about experts. Always consider the opinion of someone who is expert in their field and give it weight above the opinions of people who aren't experts in that field. The corollary is that you should not value the opinion of an expert outside of his field anymore than you value anyone else's. I go to the fencing coach to learn fencing. If we talk about Supreme Court nominees, I am interested in his opinion, but not as interested as I am in the opinion of a law professor. If the law professor wants to talk about agriculture, I'm happy to join in the discussion, but I am would rather hear what a farmer has to say. If Jenny McCarthy wants to talk about taking her clothes off for movies and magazines, I would be interested in her insights. If she wants to talk about vaccinating children, I'll listen to Mark Crislip.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Tensions Inherent in the Work

So, here's something to consider. When we record archaeological sites, we are required to keep the location information (as well as any information that might lead you to find the location) confidential. The reason for this is that archaeological sites are prone to being looted - that is, they are prone to people locating the site and destroying it in an attempt to find collectable or profitable artifacts. Many sites have been lost due to this - I know of several sites that have been destroyed by everything from shovels to jackhaqmmers to backhoes to a bulldozer, all with the intention of stealing artifacts.

So, the reasons for keeping the information confidential seem pretty clear-cut.

At the same time, the laws that provide for archaeological research to be performed do so under the assumption that there is public interest in such research.

This, it seems to me, creates a weird sort of tension. On the one hand, we are required to protect sites, and that requires that we keep the hidden. On the other hand, we are required to be open about what we find. Now, we do a relatively good job of seperating information from specific locations, and as such we can usually meet the basic requirements to both protect and explain.

However, I often wonder what the long-term result of this tension will be. There is already rumblings both amongst archaeology and the interested public to make site location information available. There are also counter-rumblings amongst the same communities to prevent this from happening. In the end, it's anyone's bet who will win out.

Not the most interesting matter to those outside of my field, I suppose, but it's one of those things that I spend time thinking about.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Staving off Hoodoo in the Workplace

So, on my current project, all personnel are required to meet at 6:00 every morning for a safety meeting. During this meeting, one victim is chosen to give a short talk about a safety topic near and dear to their heart. I was chosen to give tommorrow's (or today's, by the time this post drops). Below is the talk I have chosen to give.



In these morning safety meetings, we have spoken alot about the dangers of working in oil fields: the chemical exposure, working around heavy equipment, the traffic dangers, the unique dangers posed by high tempuratures, and so on. There is a hazard that is often faced by archaeologists, but being as you are currently working in an archaeologically sensitive area, it is likely that other personnel on this project will face this hazard as well. What I am talking about is simply this: bad juju.

Now, I know what you are thinking, bad juju is usually associated with burial grounds and other such creepy places. This is a common misconception, and one that I hope to correct before someone loses an eye...or grows an extra one on their shoulder.

Bad juju can occur anywhere, at any time. All that is needed for this hazard is for a mystically powerful individual - say a shaman, a witch , a sorcerer, or a financial actuary - to take it in their mind to curse a place, object, or person. Sometimes the curse isn't even necessary, and the mystically powerful individual having a bad day is enough to pour the negative energies into the surroundings. So, if, for example, a sorcerer had been walking along a pleasant tree-lined street but pondering the fact that his wife had just left him for a fish-seller, well, the sorcerer's mood might infect the area and thus create a safety hazard for all who enter it.

Even if bad juju is unpredictable, it is not unavoidable. The most effective way to prevent bad juju from affecting you is to carry a gris-gris. Both OSHA and CalOSHA recommend a classic Mojo hand, although other effective gris-gris can be made by placing pieces of your hair and fingernails together with some dust from a graveyard into a handkerchief, placing the handkerchief into a leather pouch, and allowing the pouch to sit overnight on the grave of Marie Laveau, or, if a trip to New Orleans is not possible, the grave of Mary Ellen Pleasant. In a pinch, a St. Christopher's medallion might work, but you should be aware that most safety experts hold that St. Christopher's medallions are most effective if given to the user by a maternal aunt (not necessarilly your own) on the day of the second full moon of the lunar year.

By following these simple guidelines, we can prevent accidents or injuries that may result from crossing angry spirits. As it is the goal of everyone here to have zero reportable injuries, we should consider our gris-gris just as much a part of our safety equipment as our hard hats and orange vests.

Let's go out there and be safe. And remember, we are a nation on a war footing, so be ever vigilant.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Choose This Guest?

Earlier today, I was listening to news on the radio, and one of the programs had two guests, both of whom were speaking about the nature of the public discussion regarding abortion in the wake of Dr. George Tiller's recent murder.

The pro-abortion rights guest was relatively eloquent, though given to alot of rhetoric. However, she made her points and made them well.

The anti-abortion rights guest was another matter, and I think that this reflects poorly on the news network. While the other guest had spoken of ethics in medicine as a balance between personal beliefs, best practice of medicine, and social responsibility, this guest immediately began rambling about supernatural origins of life and didn't seem capable of actually maintaining linear thought.

Now, here's the thing - in all honestly, I probably would have disagreed with the guy anyway. Like anyone who reads alot and listens to the news, I have heard a wide psectrum of views on abortion, and it's been a long time since I have heard anything actually new. However I have heard people who are opposed to legalized abortion speak intelligently and eloquently before. I have come away from hearing similar shows really having to think about where I stood on the subject (though, again, it's been a while since that last happened).

So, why did they get this guy? A part of me wants to say that they got him because they wanted an easy target, but this particular show tends to be very fair-minded, and they were very respectful to the guest even when he rambled aimlessly.

In truth, it was probably just luck of the draw, and this was a bad guest - it is bound to happen to any daily program. It was still frustrating to hear the guy ramble on, and it made the producers of the show look bad.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One of the Joys of Fieldwork... finding strange and unexpected items while performing survey. For example, anyone who has performed survey in the deserts of the American southwest knows how often one comes across toilet parts and the remains of hair-care products. Why these, specifically, should be so common out there is open to debate, but they are far from the oddest things one is likely to encounter.

Case in point - some years back, I was the field director for an archaeological project at the Santa Barbara Airport. The airport is in an area considered to be highly sensitive for archaeological sites, and so I had a team of archaeologists accompanying the construction crews and looking for any sign of cultural deposits to prevent damage to any previously unrecorded sites.

I was sitting in my office one morning, working on a report for another project, when the phone rang. I answered and heard the voice of Timothy, one of my archaeologists, announcing that he had just found something rather important, and that I had better come check it out. With visions of a Chumash village in my head, I rushed over to the airport, located Tim, and asked him to show me what he found. He quickly ran off, and returned with an object in his hand that...well, at first I wasn't sure what to make of it. And then I realized what he was holding - an over sized silicon dildo. Apparently it, along with a few other sex toys, had been buried in a small hole on the airport grounds, and the excavator had uncovered them. Needless to say, this resulted in several weeks worth of jokes at Tim's expense.

On another occasion, I was performing survey in Tulare County when Randy, my field tech, and I climbed up a steep bank out of a riverbed only to find ourselves in a small area that had been cleared of brush in the center of which a series of horse skulls had been arranged into a circle. Whether this was the doing of wannabe Satanist teenagers or of a couple of bored "good ol' boys" we never did discover. However, the religious attitude of the town in which we were staying was such that a paranoid obsession with "evil cults" was common, and Randy and I derived a good deal of levity out of the silly notion that we had uncovered the headquarters of a world-wide Satanic conspiracy.

Speaking of skulls, on my current project we discovered this:

For no apparent reason, somebody thought it would be a good idea to place a cow's skull atop the remains of a child's playset.

While performing this project, we have also encountered refrigerators, stoves, pieces of furniture, etc. all int he most unlikely of places. However, the winner for "weird objects discovered" would have to be this:

Now, let me set the scene for you: this is an arid environment, there are no rivers, no permanent drainages, no water other than that which we bring with us. This was located far away from the nearest road, and there was no indication of how it got there. And yet, there it is, a boat.

Need another look?

Using my advanced archaeological talents, I can tell that safety was on the minds of the people who placed the boat here. After all, they brought safety vests.

So, there you have it. Become an archaeologist, you'll find weird-ass stuff.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Milk, it....mythologizes a bad hair day?

What the hell? I mean, really, what the hell is up with advertisers?

I have to wonder whether or not the milk commercials wil be succesful, or whether they will simply become an embarrasement to the advertising company. But Youtube, sweet Youtube, will make sure that they are always available to us.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Culture Porn

My friend Holly has a sister who was, in her early 20s, "looking for meaning in life" and, as tends to happen, ended up with a weird cult living in Oregon on a parcel of land that they call, appropriately enough, The Land.

Now, what separates this from the commonplace, run-of-the-mill "gee golly, my sister ran off to join a cult" story* is the fact that this is a "shamanic" cult. I use quotes because, frankly, as far as I can tell, this is just a bunch of suburban whiteys who've seen Dances With Wolves one too many times and who know as much about shamanism as Lindsay Lohan knows about organic chemistry. However, they have fun dancing about wearing mock animal heads and pretending to be in touch with nature spirits, when all they're really in touch with is their own pretentiousness**.

I live in Santa Cruz, which means that I have encountered these sorts of people before and will, no doubt, encounter them again. They're a dime a dozen**, and generally not that interesting. However, their obsession with attempting to create (or as so many of these people claim resurrect or continue) a shamanic religion is kind of interesting to me, though not for the reasons that most of them would hope.

Typically, the desire to have a shamanic religion seems to come not from an understanding of shamanism, but rather from a desire to "get in touch with the Earth, y'know, like the Native Americans!" (but, again, see the ** footnote). I have written about the social fetishization of Native American peoples before, the tendency to ignore who these people really are and instead focus on (and/or try to emulate) a stereotyped or oversimplified caricature.

We see similar patterns play out with many different cultures. For example, there are those who claim to be deeply interested in India and Hinduism, but know little more than that for Hindus there is a belief in both ascendance and reincarnation. these people are generally more interested in posing as "spiritually deep" than in actually finding out why some Indian mystics choose to leave the world or why Hindus generally hold certain animals sacred.

Odds are that you know at least one person who claims great knowledge of Japanese culture, but who has gained their...ahem..."extensive" knowledge from reading comic books and watching cartoons. And so many of these people have never even seen a Godzilla movie...they should be ashamed.

And then there are the wanna-be shamanists, who use the trappings of shamanism found in any low-grade 50's jungle movie and mix it with a heaping dose of new-age philosophy and claim that it's how the Native Americans/People of Africa/Australian Aborigines/insert-group-here view the universe.

I refer to this as Culture Porn: it's the creation of a sleek, sexy, but ultimately empty simulacrum of another culture, produced and packaged for easy availability to any consumer. Just like pornography, the simulacrum is airbrushed, free of the blemishes that real people and cultures have, often modified to suit the desires (or perceived desires) of the consumer. The consumer of culture porn is no more looking to understand the other culture (as it really is, warts and all) than the consumer of pornography is looking for real, messy sex. And like pornography, the consumer may forget that they are looking at a construct, and begin to think that this is not only what truly exists, but what they deserve to have.

Unlike pornography, however, the consumer of culture porn typically doesn't see himself/herself as a consumer, but instead manages to convince themselves that they are "culturally sensitive" or "coming to understand the superior spirituality of these others" or some such thing.

Some strains of culture porn have their roots in the past. The tendency for many to obsess over the religious and/or medicinal practices of Asian cultures without regard to the context in which these practices developed and exist bears more than a passing resemblance to the racist 19th century view of Asians as "celestial people" of the "mystic Orient." Likewise, the naive shamanism described above seems to be descended from the fascination of 18th and 19th century Europeans with the "mystical" practices of the native people of colonised regions - often espousing attitudes towards these people, such as that they were "closer to nature" or "part of a mythic past but irrelevant to the present and future", that were often used in justifying their subsequent second-class position within colonial and post-colonial societies. That these qualities are now viewed as admirable rather than detrimental doesn't change their origin or their falseness, nor does it change the bigotry inherent in them.

Other strains of culture porn seem to be rather more modern. The suburban kid obsessed with Japanese pop culture but possessing little real knowledge of Japanese culture or history often begins their interest because of an aesthetic or thematic interest in the material - and there is nothing wrong with this as long as it does not develop into a hubristic belief that the pop culture fan has become an expert on the nation that produces that pop culture.

And none of this is to discourage people from genuinely trying to learn about and understand other cultures. Hell, I'm an anthropologist by training - how would that have happened if I did not think that trying to understand others was an absolutely worthwhile pursuit. Likewise, there are those who truly do come to understand cultures other than their own, but they do so not by putting the culture up on a pedestal or treating it as a thing to be admired or aspired to, but rather by getting truly into it, working to understand the context of the culture, and knowing that it has both its positives and negatives.

However, this degree of effort and engagement is, in my experience, typically lacking. More common, we see people ignore the reality, brush aside the real people, and purchase the porn. And so, at this moment in Oregon, there is probably someone wearing a paper mache bull's head doing the cultural equivalent of masturbating.

Special link: I love the Onion.

*Holly and I have learned quite a bit about this group, and despite their weird, and frankly laughable, ways, they are quite harmless. Otherwise I wouldn't be making light of the situation like this.

**And these sorts of groups should not be confused with groups that do genuinely carry on an older shamanic tradition, or with groups who have actually bothered to learn about the nature and history of shamanism before attempting to create their own, new practices. Whatever else one may say about these groups, they generally are something other than a bunch of pretentious people who want to feel special.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Will the National Science Foundation Buy LSD for Me?

On the first day of the last seminar class that he ever taught, Brian Fagan waited for the archaeology graduate students, of whom I was one, to settle down before asking his first question.

"Who here has used peyote?"

All of us sat quiet in our seats, unsure whether Dr. Fagan was joking or serious.

"Well? Who here has used peyote?"

He was serious. Nobody raised their hands, instead we all shifted about and looked at each other uncomfortably.

"Hmph. Well, this is a sad state of affairs. Here you are, a room ful of people who study hunter-gatherer societies, and yet none of you have ever used the hallucinagenic drugs that the were a vital part of the religious practices of so many of these societies!"*

While Brian was arguably being overdramatic, and probably choosing halucenogenic drugs largely for shock value - graduate students like to act jaded, and sometimes need to be shocked - there is a valid underlying question: is it necessary for an archaeologist to engage in the behaviors of the people that they study in order to effectively study these people? If so, to what degree is this necessary?

On the surface, it seems like the answer to the first question should be an unequivocal "yes." After all, buy engaging int he practices of the people being studied - whether ritual, gathering, hunting, home-building, or anything else - may provide insights into the material record that we are studying. For example, if we understand how a stone tool was made, then we may be able to better comprehend what the debitage (the waste flakes left after the manufacture of a stone tool) means when we find it in a site. Or, to bring it back to Brian's example, if we understand how drugs impact the mind froma first-hand experience, then many elements of the archaeological record may make more sense. This line of thought formed the basis of the experimental archaeology movement, which peaked in the 70s and 80s, but is nonetheless still alive and well.

It seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Do what ancient humans were doing, and you'll have a better grasp on what their remains have to tell us.

But, of course, it's not that simple. While it is absolutely true that engaging in the activities that our ancestors engaged in will yield valuable information about the remains of these activities, it is also true that we can get alot of misinformation that causes us to mis-interpret what the material record represents.

The most obvious source of misinformation comes when we try to replicate past behaviors, but do so incorrectly. If we produce stone tools using even slightly different methods than those of the ancient people, then we may produce a debitage pile that looks different than they would have produced. If this is the case, then we may be thinking that a debitage collection from a site represents one set of tools when, in fact, it represents a completely different set.

Likewise, if someone chooses to use halucinagens in order to understand shamanic visions, they run the risk of mistaking their own individual experience for a universal one, and reaching conclusions about ancient ritual practices that are just plain wrong (I wonder if this example could be explained that way.

Another place where misinformation can creep in is through changes in the environment. For example, my friend Dustin has done extensive experimental work using replicas of prehistoric fishing tools in order to better understand why the Chumash of the Santa Barbara Channel area changed their equipment over time. One of the frequent frustrations that he encountered was the fact that California's fisheries are so overfished and depleted that he could not get good statistical data on what each type of hook and snare was likely to catch or the quantities in which the fish would be caught.

A related problems comes from the fact that, try as we might, we will never be the ancient people who we study. We were not indoctrinated into their rituals and beliefs as children; we did not learn from an early age to gather, hunt, and make tools of stone, wood, bone, and fiber; we are not mobile foragers who know nothing of the world outside of our foraging range save what the few strangers that we encounter tell us. In short, there are large swaths of the lives of these people that we do not know of simply because we are not, have not been, and will never be, them. And all of our actions are informed by aspects of our lives that on the surface seem only tangentially related to whatever activity we happen to be engaged in at the moment. This is true whether we are hunter gatherers or modern suburbanites - our beliefs about ourselves, our society, and the world around us influence us in ways that we are often not aware of.

Which should not be taken as me saying that this form of experimental archaeology is not valid. It is absolutely valid, and has provided alot of very useful and important information. However, as with any technique used to evaluate the archaeological record, all of the results that we gain should be taken with a grain of salt, and we should always keep in mind that we may be in error.

*Once, when relating this story to some fellow anthropologists, I was asked whether or not I would be willing to take Peyote, or a similar substance. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that, were it as part of a ritual and I was partaking as an anthropologists AND the preparation was done by someone who actually knew what they were doing (and therefore wouldn't poison me), then I might. For various personal reasons I might not, and I would certainly not use it recreationally, but as part of a ritual, I wouldn't discount the idea altogether.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Legal Principle Vs. Ethical Principle

A post over at Hemant Mehta's blog addresses an issue that I often see getting lost in discussions of any hot-button legal case: the separation of the legal matter from the ethical principle of the case.

As I wrote about last week, the California Supreme Court decided that Proposition 8 was legal, and that the amendment to the state constitution was passed in a manner consistent with California's amendment process. I have already made my problems with California's amendment process known, and it probably goes without saying at this point that I view Proposition 8 as a rather unnerving example of people pushing their own arbitrary religious beliefs onto everyone else*. However, as the case was presented, the court could not rule on whether the proposition was ethical (and given the court's past rulings, it is likely that there were those on the bench who considered it unethical), but only on whether or not it passed legal muster.

I am not an attorney, and I do not know the intricacies of past cases or what, precisely went into this decision. I am not going to be one of these people who pretends to have this knowledge when I do not, and therefore I will not comment on whether or not the decision is a legally sound one. But, the basic principle that the court can only rule on cases brought before it AS those cases are presented is not only correct, it is necessary, and this point seems to get lost in the noise surrounding any hot button case.

Of course, this sort of thinking is in no way limited to those who support gay rights. When the court ruling allowing gay marriage in California was released, and again now that similar things are happening in New Hampshire, I often heard naively simplistic statements such as "the constitution doesn't specifically mention gay marriage so it doesn't apply" or "this is just another case of those damn liberal judges legislating from the bench", but I rarely saw anyone actually discuss the actual ruling issued by the court in question. The reasons are varied - some folks may not have thought to look it up, others may not have known how to access the decision, but other people (especially many of the big media figures who have discussed it) may be aware that the realities of the legal case in question defy their simplistic denunciations. But the same principal applies - the courts must work with the law, and that means that sometimes some people won't like the results. You can work to change the law, but you should not blame a judge or a panel of judges for making rulings consistent with that law, and you should at least make yourself familiar witht he ruling before attacking the judges for making it.

Anyway, I'm not saying anything new or groundbreaking here. I am disappointed with the result, and I am disgusted with the voters in my state. However, when we discuss the law, we need to make sure that we understand the distinction between legal rulings and our moral/ethical stances.

On the lighter side: You know how, everytime the issue of gay marriage come sup, some irrational dolt starts making implausible slippery-slope arguments? Well, Pat Robertson and Bill O'Reilly had what are probably the king of stupid comments, claiming that laws protecting gays or legalizing gay marriage would lead inevitably to people having sex with ducks. So, I was greatly amused to see this:

*Kay has told me that someone said to her "Proposition 8 passed because people are tired of having other people try to tell them how to live!" The Hell? Proposition 8 is ABOUT telling other people how to live, telling people that if they don't fit into some pre-described little box that the mob approves of that they must be relegated to second-class citizenship, not about people bucking that. The thing is, I keep hearing this sort of rationale, and it is so bass-ackward that it's impossible to even bring the people spouting this bullshit back to reality.