The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, December 31, 2010

Uluru, Lawsuits, and Culture Change

So, this entry is somewhat inspired by the last one, but covers somewhat different ground.

While a graduate student, I met Eve Darian-Smith, an Australian anthropologist who had, in her previous career, been an attorney in Australia. In a conversation with her, she told me about Ayer's Rock, known amongst the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia as Uluru. The landmark, and impressive stone monolith rising above a plain*, has been a draw for tourism for decades. It is also a sacred site to the Pitjantjatjara people, and this led to a confrontation between Aborigine groups, Aboriginal rights activists, and the Australian government, which was settled in 1985 when the title of the land on which the sandstone formation stands was deeded back to the local aborgine group, and the national park that had formed around it was leased to the Australian government for 99 years to be joint-managed by the national government and the aboriginal people.

Image from

Now, this seems like a good outcome, on the whole. One thing, though, that Dr. Darian-Smith told me left me thinking about potential problems. At some point during the legal negotiations, it was argued that the Pitjantjatjara should only have control of Uluru if they were going to use it only for activities "practiced in the traditional manner." I don't know if this became part of the final legal settlement - my web-fu is weak and I have been unable to find any confirming or disconfirming information, and I don't know enough about the Australian legal system to make much of the information that I have found. But regardless of how Uluru ended up, the fact that such a thing even entered the discussion is both fascinating and disturbing.

The problem comes from people outside of a culture arguing for what is the "traditional" patterns of that culture. I wrote in the previous entry about how Dr. Darian-Smith found in her research that people living in California often object to Native Californian-owned businesses (she focused on casinos, but it is likely that this applies to other businesses) on the grounds that running a business is not in keeping with the traditional values and practices of Native Californians. Of course, prior to the arrival Europeans, the archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates that many Native Californian groups engaged in the production and trading of goods in a manner that showed all of the intelligence and calculation that one would expect from any European businessman of the same period. Moreover, the Native Peoples of California (and the rest of the Americas, and Australia, and Africa, and Asia, and Europe, and everywhere else that humans have wandered to) were very adaptable, and both developed new ways of coping using a mix of existing practices and technologies as well as developing new ones, and adopted new ideas, tools, and practices when they became available. While I suspect that there is a good deal of argument within Native American communities regarding casinos specifically, I doubt that there is much argument regarding the ability of people to make good in the modern world, or even that to become knowledgeable about business, law, science, etc. is somehow anathema to being a Native American, nor is the use of new tools necessarily frowned upon. While I am less knowledgeable about the anthropology of Australia, I suspect that the same is true there.

Historically, I know that the Native Californians (and the Natives Floridans) were happy to accept glass beads from the Spanish and integrate them into the bead economies that already existed. Likewise, I have spoken with members of different Native Californians who tell me about collecting acorns for the preparation of traditional foods, but smashing the acorns using a blender rather than a bedrock mortar. And I have now met several Native Californians who are getting involved in archaeology and ethnography in order to build up a history and understanding of their heritage based on these disciplines, in addition to that which they receive from oral traditions. Reading journal articles published on the anthropology of Asia, Australia, Africa, and south America, I see the same things occurring in these regions. Culture changes, but that doesn't make it somehow non-traditional: it is the nature of culture to change.

Really, this is the way that it has always been. In the archaeological record, the use of tools, residence patterns, and pretty much everything that makes up material culture are constantly in flux, changing due to the environment, the needs of the people who formed a society, and the introduction of new tools and ideas from outside. Humans have always adopted new concepts and items and incorporated them into the existing culture, changing the culture - sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly - but never losing it. The culture of London today is no less "traditional" than it was in AD 1710 or AD 1410 or AD 1110, but we assume it is because we think of the "modern" as being opposed to the "traditional". But they are not opposed, the modern is merely a continuation of the old, and even the movement of cultural traits across the world - sometimes referred to as an aspect of globalization - is nothing but a continuation of the ways that humans have always behaved. That doesn't mean it's necessarily either good or bad (I have a hard time seeing the proliferation of coal-fired power plants as good...but the use of new technology to provide clean drinking water in Africa is definitely a positive thing), but it does mean that the knee-jerk rejection of it as an attack on tradition needs to be more carefully considered. It is an attack on traditional culture when someone is currently being forced to give something up by force or threat of force (it was - past tense - an attack when it occurred in the past, what happens after the attack stops is the aftermath - which may or may not be bad - but it is not the attack itself), but when people adopt things because they want them...well, trying to stop that in the name of preservation is an unnatural act.

Which comes back to the possibility of laws or regulations being put into place which require the use of lands only in keeping with traditional use. The story of human culture is a story of change. To hold that something is only legally allowable if it conforms with traditional culture is to create an artificial (and, it should be noted, essentially modern) definition of traditional culture. And in these cases, traditional culture almost invariably is either defined by an outsider or by those within the culture group who have a particular agenda, and can not ever really reflect the truth of a culture. culture is living and dynamic, and to enshrine some version of it in regulation turns it into a stagnant parody of itself**. Regulations and laws can be, and have been, written that take the inevitability of change into account, and those are the models that need to be followed.

*Interesting bit of information - this formation is what is called a inselberg, or "island mountain", the sole remnant of a larger mountain range that has long since eroded away. So, it is the last mountain of a once standing range of them...if that example of the deep time and monumental scale of geology doesn't send a shiver down your spine, get your pulse checked.

**This also applies to non-native/aboriginal cultures. When you hear someone talk about the importance of enshrining some practice in law because it matches "traditional values", you can be certain that the person is less concerned with tradition than with pushing their own, often absurd, agenda.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Wannabe Tribe and False Impressions

I have probably mentioned this on the blog before, but a Chumash Elder with whom I was acquainted* back in Santa Barbara used to like asking "What's the biggest tribe in North America?" When you asked him the answer, he'd respond with "the Wannabe tribe!"

I was reminded of this yesterday, as I drove with the Native American monitor on my current project. As we moved from one site to another, we discussed all manner of things, one of which was the weird notions that many non-Native people have about how Native Americans live and how they are as people. She told me about how, as a teenager, a church located in her town arranged for people from her community to go live with people in San Francisco, as a sort of cultural exchange. Based on what she told me, it sounds as if she has generally good memories of the experience, but she told me about a weird set of conversations that she had with the host family, in which they were convinced that she lived in a ti-pi, hunted for food, etc., and had a hard time grasping that she lived in a normal house, had electricity, went to the grocery store, etc. The impression that these folks had, and keep in mind that this was the late 60s, a time when the vast majority of Native Americans lived in houses, had electricity, lived in towns, etc., was that the native peoples of the Americas were "wild" and "free", a romantic (and mistaken, and in some ways dehumanizing) belief, but a pervasive one.

Her story made me think of how some people react when they hear about my own ancestry. My grandmother on my mother's side was Cherokee/Choctaw, which means that my mother was half-native, and I am one-quarter, if we go by genetics. But, and here's the important thing, my mother and I were both raised in urban areas of Stanislaus County, California. We are both blond, we both have fair skin, and her eyes are blue while mine are green. We were never treated as being anything other than white, and neither Cherokee nor Choctaw culture were part of our upbringing - I only know about them because of my training in anthropology, which is essentially an outsider's perspective. While we might be considered Native American or partially so due to our ancestry, the fact of the matter is that we are for all practical purposes Caucasian. Whatever my ancestry, I am no more Cherokee or Choctaw than I am German, Irish, Scottish, or Swedish.

It has always struck me as curious, and more than a bit annoying, when people who are, like me, essentially just American white mutts discover that they have some Native American ancestry (or, as I suspect is often the case, invent Native American ancestry for themselves) and from there begin to claim some sort of bizarre "birthright" based on what are essentially racist notions of the wild, free, mystically-tied-to-nature "Native American." Now, don't misunderstand me, I see no problem with people becoming interested in the actual cultures of other people, regardless of whether this is out of simple curiosity or out of a discovery of their own genetic ancestry (certainly, I wouldn't be in my own line of work if I didn't support such things), but that is not typically what happens. More often, people find out that they have Native American ancestry, and from there decide that this means that they have some sort of magical tie to a non-existent people (the Native Americans of myth rather than reality) and that they are somehow more tied in to some sort of quasi-divine notion of nature. Most of these folks have little to no knowledge of the actual culture that they claim membership in, and often lump all Native Americans in to one monolithic whole - a tendency which demonstrates the depth of the ignorance of such individuals- and it is a monolithic whole that owes more to a combination of Westerns and New Age nonsense than to actual history. It's culture porn in it's purest form.

When I discuss this with people, they often say something along the lines of "hey, at least they're looking to the Native Americans with respect, which has got to be an improvement over the racism of the past!" Perhaps, but it is still not a good thing. Eve Darian-smith, in her book The New Capitalists, describes how the notion of the spiritual/natural mystic Indian held by many of the Wannabe tribe, and held by many people who aren't Wannabe members but are sympathetic to them, has been used by those who oppose entry of actual tribal organization into businesses - the basic idea being that people are comfortable with "natural" Indians, but don't think that they should be involved with such trappings of the modern world as business, science, etc.** This thinking can even impact individuals outside of tribal organizations, who often report that they have a hard time being taken seriously by colleagues who see them as an emblem of some sort of magical culture rather than as the individuals and professionals that they actually are.

Darian-Smith is Australian, and from what she has told me, similar problems face the Aborigines of Australia, and I suspect that this is not uncommon in other parts of the world.

So, yeah, it's probably an improvement that most non-natives now see these people as something other than a problem to be solved (as was the case for most of the 19th and even a chunk of the 20th centuries), but the conversion into divine nature-heroes probably isn't particularly helpful. And when it becomes difficult to determine who really is, and who isn't, a member of the groups because so many people claim a culture that they don't actually have any experience with, well, it becomes more of a problem.

*It's a funny thing, I come into contact with these people because of my job, and so when I say that I know a Chumash Elder, that's not bragging or an attempt to show off my multi-cultural ties to mysticism or any other such bullshit, it's pretty much the same as a construction worker saying that he knows a safety inspector. However, as described in this entry, we have so dehumanized the native peoples of tha Americas, first by demonizing them and now by making them into inhuman avatars for a nature-based mysticism, that to say that I know an elder sounds like I am claiming some sort of claims to being close to divine power.

**All of this despite the fact that there are many successful professionals from the myriad of Native American groups.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Pottery Puzzle

Native Californians were pretty damn adaptable. From the time that people first entered the area around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago up until the Europeans showed up, the people here managed to find a way to live in nearly every environment that the large and varied state offers - from deserts to glaciers, from swamps to forests, from plains to mountains. These people were smart, made good use of the resources available, and arranged themselves socially and politically in ways that allowed them to take advantage of their neighbor's resources (sometimes by violence, but more typically by trade).

Given this, there is one big glaring hole in California's archaeological record: pottery.

Generally, by the time a society has developed a sedentary or semi-sedentary lifeway (living in villages, collecting and storing food, etc.) one can expect to see pottery as part of the toolkit. Not so in much of California.

Pottery is a remarkably useful thing. It allows the creation of vessels of the exact size and shape that you need, which are relatively lightweight, and relatively durable - plus, if it breaks, you can create another identical one. Pottery can be made and sealed to be resistant to rodents, protect foods from the elements, and even mark who owns the contents of the pottery. Really, considering all that it can do, who wouldn't want pottery?

Well, apparently, the Native Californians.

I don't want to over-generalize. There were some groups in California - especially in the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, who did make and use pottery, and pottery began to appear in the archaeological record of San Diego County late in prehistory. Also, some pottery from the peoples of the Great Basin (which covers most of Nevada and Utah) showed up in California, presumably brought by extensive trade networks. But for most of California there was little pottery until the Spanish showed up. Which is just kinda' weird.

So, given that pottery is useful and that it shows up all over the world, and that it likely would have been nice for the Californians to have it, you have to wonder why they didn't set about making it. Most of the usual explanations for why a technology didn't develop in a region don't wash:

They lacked the raw materials. Suitable clay and temper material are present throughout the state.

They didn't know how to do it. Baked clay balls* are found in San Joaquin Delta sites, indicating that the principle of "heat clay up, get rock-like material" was known, and there are other, rare, examples of locally-made ceramics in other parts of California, so the basic technique was known. Also, ceramic manufacture was independently invented at different places and time the world over, so even if there wasn't supporting evidence for the people comprehending the basic concept, why would California be any different from anywhere else?**

They didn't need it. Well, this one is kind of true. The Native Californians made extensive use of basketry to serve many of the functions that pottery normally serves. The thing of it is, though, that while the baskets are fine (or even ideal) for many of these functions, pottery is better for some of them (such as making storage containers that keep rodents out). Also, while they may not have manufactured ceramics, many people did make use of carved stone bowls and pots to serve the functions that ceramics would normally have served, and these stone vessels were considerably harder to manufacture.

We could keep going, but the simple fact of the matter is that we haven't quite developed a good reason for the Native Californians to have not made more extensive use of pottery. There must have been a good reason, we just don't know what it is. The answer may be complex, dealing with social mores and a need to keep all members of society gainfully employed (which may mean not bringing in a new technology that could replace an old one), or it could be as simple as a general lack of interest due to the development of compensating types of basketry and stone vessels.

Regardless, the lack of pottery is both curious and interesting.

*These are cool artifacts. One of the most common ways for native Californians to cook the seed gruels that were important parts of their diets was to put the gruel into a water-tight basket and toss heated rocks into the basket in order to cook it from within. Well, the San Joaquin Delta is prone to flooding, and so fine sediments covered most of the locally available rocks. In response, the people living here made their own heating rocks by making little balls of pottery.

**An offshoot of this one is: They lacked the aptitude to develop the techniques for making pottery. I have never heard this one from an anthropologist, but I have heard it from members of the public. And really, it's about as stupid, ignorant, and bigoted a statement as you could cook up. It's essentially saying "they weren't smart enough to figure it out." Look at the previous paragraph, the one that starts with "*", they not only could, but did figure it out. These were smart people, good at observing their surroundings, otherwise they would not have been as succesful ins preading across the land as they were. But, hey, if you think you're so much smarter, we'll dump your ass down in the middle of the Sierra Nevada, naked and with nothing but a pound of obsidian, and then we'll take bets on how long you'll last.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays

I took Kaylia to get some Kettle Corn (a favorite treat of hers) at the Christmas tree lot down the street from our home. As we were leaving, she wished the woman behind the counter "Happy Holidays", and the woman paused, looked at her, and said "Merry Christmas" with the same tone and inflection with which someone might say "go fuck yourself with a railroad spike."

Ahhh, Fresno, where there are more Bill O'Reilly devotees than there are total residents of the island of Bermuda.

As we walked back to the car, Kaylia and I joked about what we should have said in response. The following scenario played itself out in my head:

Kaylia: Happy Holidays!

Christmas Tree Lot Attendant (CTLA): [a sense of defensiveness mixed with anger in her voice] No. Merry Christmas!

Me: What do you have against New Years?

CTLA: [confused] Huh?

Me: New Years. You know, the second holiday that comes a week after Christmas, making the word "holiday" become plural and therefore require an "s" at the end.

CTLA: Ummm, well, eh....

Kaylia: [to me] I think she wants our New Years to be miserable!

Me: [to Kaylia] Yeah. What's her problem? [to CTLA] What's your problem? Why do you want us to have a crappy New Years?

CTLA: [now confused and uncertain] ...but, I didn't say that I wanted you to have a bad New Years...

Me: Well you sure as Hell didn't want us to have a good one! Otherwise you wouldn't have singled out Christmas and left out New Years!

CTLA: [getting defensive again] This is about you people trying to take the Christ out of Christmas! Jesus is the reason for the season!

Kaylia: Actually, axial tilt is the reason that seasons exist. Don't you remember your high school science classes?

CTLA: Wha?

Me: Junior high school?

Kaylia: Hey...and while we're at it, are you saying that you hope that our Thanksgiving was terrible?

CTLA: Who brought up Thanksgiving?

Me: Sure as hell not you, you anti-Thanksgiving extremist! It's this sort of behavior that proves that the War on Thanksgiving is real!


Kaylia and I amused ourselves with such thinking during the drive home.

Look, here's the question laid bare - what the fuck is up with people getting upset when someone wishes them "Happy Holidays?" Are people really so stupid that they are willing to let a bunch of cranks and media opportunists convince that that A) there is a War on Christmas, and B) wishing someone "happy holidays" is somehow akin to attacking their religious beliefs?

Apparently, many people are precisely that stupid.

Look, I don't see anything offensive about someone wishing another person "merry Christmas", but neither is there anything offensive about "happy holidays." Just looking at holidays that the average Christian is likely to celebrate, we have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years all in a five-week period. That means that there is more than one holiday, making the use of the plural "holidays" perfectly appropriate. And this extends to other things that fall around this time of the year - vacations, parades, etc. And that's if you only consider Christians. If we consider the fact that there are more than just Christians within our society, then you have a variety of other holidays celebrated at this time of year, making the use of the plural form of the word "holiday" even more appropriate. And when someone says "happy holidays" they are wishing you a pleasant whatever-you-happen-to-celebrate, which is a friendly gesture that no decent person would meet with being offended.

A large enough number of people within the United States celebrate Christmas that there are relatively few who will take issue with them wishing you a merry one. But the insistence that everyone acknowledge Christmas specifically and no other holidays is not about respect, and it's not about defending tradition, and it's not about protecting Christianity, despite what some people claim, but is about domination and bullying other people. It's about insisting that everyone recognize your specific holiday regardless of whether or not they celebrate it, and regardless of whether or not they also celebrate other holidays, and using every form of social pressure that you can to force them to do something that, in truth, it does you no harm if they don't do. It's about trying to shout down anyone who isn't like you.

There is no "War on Christmas," there's just a bunch of people trying to live together and navigate their lives around each other. Sometimes people step on each other's toes, and media figures (looking to line their pockets) and paranoid imbeciles will point to these instances as "battles" when they're really just the normal flotsam and jetsam of living in a community. We have conflicts sometimes, that's normal. But to insist that everyone observe your holiday and nothing else...well, that doesn't make you stalwart or a defender of the faith, it just makes you an astounding dick.

So, happy holidays, whatever you do or don't celebrate. Here's hoping that you've had a good year, and that 2011 will be great regardless of what 2010 was like.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Piltdown Men, Cardiff Giants, and Creationism

Every now and again, I meet a Biblical literalist who decides that they are going to try to show me what a house of cards evolution is. Typically this involves making statements that indicate a rather stunning ignorance of the fossil record, DNA, mutation, and the basic scientific method, and more often than not a strange misunderstunding of the second law of thermodynamics. Not typically, but often enough that I have taken notice, I will be presented with the example of the Piltdown Hoax, an episode in anthropology's history that is apparently supposed to make me feel like scientists don't know what they're doing and therefore all of their results are invalid.

For those who don't know, the Piltdown hoax occured at the village of Piltdown in England. In 1912, Charles Dawson claimed to have been given fragments of a skull by workmen at the Piltdown Gravel pit, who he said told them that they had dug it out of the pit. The cranial vault (the part that forms the part of the head where are brains are) and face were those of modern humans, but the jaw was that of an ape. Many of the early paleoanthropologists* were won over and thought that this was an example of an early human in Europe - someone who was not quite a modern human but was well on his way to being such. Four decades later, advances in microscopes and other lab tools, as well as a much fuller understanding of the homonid fossil record, led to the skull being shown to be a fake - a human skull and an orangutan jawbone that had been carved, ground, and stained to make them look as if they belonged together. The identity of the hoaxer was never entirely determined (though many people have their own pet theories as to who it was), but the supporters of the skull as a part of the fossil record were forced to concede.

The implication that the creationists often give is, essentially, if anthropologists/paleontologists could be fooled by a hoax then all of their results must be false. Putting aside the logical problems here (proving one result false doesn't necessarilly prove another result false, and even if evolution were proven false, that doesn't prove Biblical creationism true), the fact of the matter is that this still doesn't work to show the folly of evolutionary scientists because it was the evolutionary scientists who demonstrated that this was a hoax and who revised their views based on the demonstration of thsi fact.

However, the thing that is most interesting to me about the times when the Piltdown Hoax has been brought up is that it is treated as a "gotcha' moment" by the people bringing it up, I have been told, each time, some variation on "Well, you don't know the true history of the study of evolution, because the Piltdown Hoax has been hidden from you!" These people are always shocked, and a bit confused, when I inform them that not only has the Piltdown Hoax not been hidden from me or anyone else who has studied human evolution, but every single introudctory paleoanthropology, archaeology, and physical anthropology book I used as an undergraduate discussed the Piltdown Hoax at length. It's a great instructive tale - it tells us about how enthusiasm can lead someone to the wrong conclusions (and therefore why we should be cautious in examining data) and it tells us about how a decades-old conslusion can be reversed by new information. It's good both as a cautionary tale and as a description of how science corrects itself over time. So, um, no, this wasn't hidden from us. In general, science doesn't try to hide it's dirty laundry, but instead scientists try to learn from it (otherwise, no scientist working now would ever have heard of the ether, hyper-diffusionism, phrenology, or any of a number of other things that we have all heard of).

In order to understand Piltdown a bit better, it is necessary to understand not only the nature of the hoax, but also the context in which it occured. By the early 20th century, most biologists and paleontologists had accepted evolution (remember, the theory of evolution by descent with modification was, at the time that the Piltdown Hoax occured, only around 50 years old). Human ancestors were being found throughout Europe, and Germany had one in the Neanderthal and France had one in the Cro Magnon. While these species represented by these finds would eventually be found throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, they were for some time thought to be endemic to those regions in which the fossils were found. Even after it was discovered that they were spread more widely, there was astill a certain amount of national pride tied up in the "first find" of each.

To this end, the British very much wanted an "early man" of their own. When the Piltdown skull was found, it was just what they wanted: early man, but with the cranial vault (and hence the brain) more modern (or as they would think it, "more developed") than those found in France or Germany. This was in keeping with the British ideal of themselves as intellectual leaders. So, at least a portion of the early belief in Piltdown resulted from wishful thinking on the part of the British scientists examining it. Some of it also probably was due to, frankly, novelty. These pre-modern homonids were a new discovery, and were just beginning to really be appreciated. So, just as nationalistic wishful thinking likely led some to accept the hoax as real, so too did the excitement of finding another example of "early man."

So, the story does work well as a cautionary tale against assuming that all scientific conclusions are correct - and in that the creationists who have pointed me to it have a small point, though their overgeneralization that this dismisses all science (or at least all science that disagrees with their assumptions) is foolish. It also works well as a description of how science can be self-correcting, which is ultimately one of the great strengths of science, and one that is lacking from any system of belief where the subscribers assume that they know the answer before they start gathering evidence.

When the Piltdown Hoax gets brought up, I usually try to contrast it with the Cardiff Giant.

In 1869, a farmer named Stub Newell, in Cardiff, New York sent a group of laborers to dig a well behind his barn. They had only dug a few feet when they hit stone. Digging a bit around the stone, it rapidly became clear that they had hit a large, stone man. Although the laborers report that Newell was annoyed and suggested re-burying the figure, it was only a short time later that a tent was erected and people were charged admission to come and see the Cardiff Giant. And people came by the thousands, making Newell rather wealthy in a very short time. The businessmen of Syracuse, the nearest large city, even bought a 3/4 interest in the giant for $30,000 (which amounts to several million when converted to modern currency) in order to ensure that it stayed in the local area and kept the money rolling in to Syracuse.

The hoax was, of course, eventually uncovered. Harvard's professor of paleontology, Othniel Marsh (and you think you have problems, look at that guy's name!) was asked to examine it, and proclaimed it a fake based on it being a soft stone that wouldn't preserve well for long in the local soils, and the little fact that there were tool marks obvious on the "giant." People in town began to talk, and it came out that a large heavy container had been moved by wagon to Newell's farm the previous year, and that Newell had been heard bragging about the hoax to family members.

Finally, late in 1869, George Hull, a friend and distant relative of Newell's, confessed that he and Newell had created the hoax. And with that, the Cardiff Giant became one of the better known hoaxes of American history.

Okay, so why do I bring this up when others bring up Piltdown? Simple: it's the same basic thing, but from the creationist side. The Bible states flatly that there were giants on Earth in the early days, the most famous of which was, of course, Goliath. Now, it needs to be remembered that Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published ten years earlier in 1859, and while it hadn't quite reached complete scientific acceptance, it was at least seriously considered by most scientists and accepted by many. Contrary to popular belief, the concept of evolution existed well before Charles Darwin, but it was a concept that was hard to grasp and even harder to test scientifically, until Darwin had the insights that solved the puzzle. For the first time, creationism had a strong cultural competitor, and one that explained more while requiring less assumptions, and was supported by all physical evidence**.

So, people flocked to see the Cardiff Giant in part because of the simple novelty and spectacle of it, and in large part because it seemed to provide physical evidence for the truth of the Bible. Where the evidence proving the hoax was visible, wishful thinking wiped it from the public's minds. Sermons were written, visitors were moved, and it was all a hoax. However, while scientists teach the younger generation about Piltdown, I've not yet heard of a creationist church telling it's memberships about the giant, and in fact I often hear members of such churches claiming other known hoaxes as evidence for the truth of the Book of Genesis.

So, no, the Piltdown Man hoax doesn't disprove evolution, and the Cardiff Giant demonstrates that those on the other side can be just as ready to accept a hoax as truth.

*Though, contrary to many claims, far from all. This was a period in which such hoaxes were not uncommon, and so there were many who suspected the skull from the start.

**this may seem to some like an over-statement, but it must be taken into account that both paleontology and general biology had been recognize similarities between animals both living and extinct for a couple of centuries, and so the notion of evolution was very strongly supported by the state of the observable world, but there was no plausible causal mechanism known, so many people dismissed it out of hand. That is what Darwin changed - he didn't introduce the idea of evolution, he just introduced a mechanism that explained all of the evidence for evolution in a way that was testable and could predict further evidence, which has been consistently found.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pounding Acorns - where food meets sex (well, gender, anyway)

For several years I worked for an archaeologist named Tom Jackson. Tom was, and remains, a very intelligent man and a very good archaeologist. And, like many archaeologists, he had a particular type of artifact that he was particularly interested in - bedrock mortars.

A bedrock mortar is just what it sounds like, a mortar for grinding stuff (usually assumed to be acorns, although they likely were used for other things as well) that is carved into a rock outcrop.

Tom introduced me to two ideas that have really stuck concerning bedrock mortars:

1) Who Owns the Mortars? Who Owns the Lifeway?

In a paper that he published in 1991, Tom described a research project in which he combined archaeological observations on bedrock mortars with ethnographic information regarding the processing of acorns, both from the southern Sierra Nevadas. He came to some interesting conclusions. The first is that models of prehistoric settlement in the southern Sierra Nevadas based on both archaeology and ethnography indicate that the settlement patterns were centered around areas of acorn production. This is not the least bit surprising, as acorns were a reliable and nutritious staple food, and there is an economy of scale at work so that once a people come to rely on acorns, the time and effort necessary to gather, store, and process them in any meaningful amount means that it is easier to become more dependent rather than less.

Ethnographically, southern Sierran people thought of acorns as belonging to women - everyone ate them and everyone helped gather them, but the acorns were processed by women and therefore were thought of as the property of women. More importantly, there is some evidence that the oak trees - the very features on the landscape that produce the acorns - were thought of as women's property. This means that, in a very real sense, women owned the settlement pattern.

However, the native peoples of the Sierras were generally patriarchal, like most hunter-gatherer societies. The ethnography suggests that there was a sort of cognitive dissonance, with men as the decision makers (the chiefs and other officials) having to base their decisions on the staple resource controlled by women. Tom suggested his own ideas for how this was sometimes resolved (and I'd refer you to the paper - see the link above to find out what books it's in - to read his thoughts), and since the publication of the paper there have been many other potential resolutions proposed. My personal favorite, though it is one that is damnably difficult to test in any meaningful way and is likely to always remain supposition, is that the men in positions of authority claimed ownership of the settlement pattern (though not the resource that created the settlement pattern) either through ritual or mythology, and used rock art to physically mark the landscape.

Regardless of how, or even if, the contradiction of male authority and female ownership of important resources was resolved, Tom's observations made for an interesting issue to ponder. The basic point of the article was that our usual models of male/female power relations amongst hunter gatherers are far too simple, which shouldn't surprise us really, and that we are looking not so much at power relations as ongoing and fluid power negotiations. Anthropologists (including archaeologists) talk a big game about studying how people actually live, in all of its complexity, rather than just using streamlined models that simplify and look pretty, but in too many of our reports and papers we fall back on overly simplistic models (patriarchy, clear social rank, etc.) when the reality is invariably much messier and much more interesting.

2) Hidden Meaning.

One interesting fact about bedrock mortars to which Tom introduced me: on a rock with multiple mortars, the distance by which the mortars are separated from each other tends to fall into a few patterns. For example, he and I spent a few days measuring BRMs in Tulare County, and he pointed out that when we measured the distance between mortars within the canyon, we routinely found them to be between 20 and 25 centimeters apart. He said that there are other places where they are routinely around 15 centimeters apart. What does this mean? I don't know. It may mean that these distances were ideal for certain types of acorn processing - ethnographic data indicates that acorns would be moved from one mortar to another, differently shaped mortar during processing. Perhaps acorns from different species of oak were more easily moved about depending on the distance between mortars. Perhaps the distances could tell us something about "personal space" norms within a culture - socializing during acorn pounding may have been facilitated by having the mortar operators at a distance that was appropriate for the society.

We just don't know. The distance between mortars may tell us something profound once we figure out what it is the result of, or it may not. But the fact that there does seem to be a pattern but, to date, no clear way to make sense of it makes it one of those odd little mysteries of archaeology that rarely makes onto the Discovery Channel, but does grab the imagination of those of us who work with these objects.

Friday, December 17, 2010


A friend of mine by the name of Scott once had a job performing archaeological survey and recording sites in the portion of the Sierra Nevadas in eastern Fresno county. He told me of coming across a rather large site, covered in bedrock mortars and a containing a large midden, and finding a man already there, apparently waiting for them. The man confronted Scott's team, and informed them that the site on which they were standing was his site, and that the survey team could go find their own.

The man, of course, was a looter, someone who illegally goes to archaeological sites and destroys them looking for collectible or sellable artifacts.

The site was located on public lands administered by the Forest Service, so his claim that he owned the site was laughable at best. Nonetheless, this sort of mentality is not uncommon. Many looters feel that they have staked a claim to a site and that anyone else digging into or even recording the site, even people authorized by the agency that manages the land, is a violation of some sort of code of honor - this despite the fact the looters are doing something that is clearly illegal and therefore in violation of whatever code actually does govern resources on public lands.

Scott, being new to field archaeology, didn't know what to do. He tried to explain that the crew was there on the Forest Service's business and that they were simply doing their job. The looter was having none of it - as far as he was concerned, this was his site and nobody else was touching it. As I recall, Scott and company left the site and came back later, when the looter was gone, to record it. They also reported the looter to the Forest Ranger.

I find myself thinking about Scott's experience now because I am reviewing site records and reports for the region in which he had been working at the time. Looting is much more common in these sites than in any other area that I have worked. Several of the reports discuss attempts to stop looting, and they run the gamut from capping the site with gravel (relatively effective, but expensive) to occasional monitoring by archaeologists and Forest Rangers (not quite as expensive, but extremely ineffective) to posting signs telling people not to loot (cheap, but about as effective as you'd think it is).

Looters occupy this weird place in the archaeology world. They are universally reviled by archaeologists, Native Americans, and most Forest Service personnel, but within their own ranks there is considerable variability. Some see themselves as archaeologists, not comprehending that they are employing unnecessarily destructive methods and that their lack of methodology and publication both ensures that data will be destroyed and that data which does survive will never be passed on. Others see themselves as a sort of frontiersman, making a living off the land by selling that which comes out of it. Others are essentially hobbyists, treating potsherds and arrowheads like other collectors treat baseball cards and comic books. I have met looters who feel that, as the land is public land, they have a right as members of the public to take from it whatever the please...and I have met even more who give this as a rationalization, but then become upset when someone else is looting "their" site. And some see looting as a way of "sticking it to the man", although they tend to be vague about the identity of the man to whom they are sticking it, which I guess goes to show that for some people it is best to rebel even if you haven't a clue as to against who or what you are rebelling.

So, really, the approaches to preventing looting will be more or less effective depending on who it is that is doing the looting. Simply putting up signs saying telling people not to loot, or listing the potential legal penalties for looting, may stop the hobbyists, while that may encourage the self-styled "bad boy" looters. Capping a site with gravel will stop many looters, but those who are making a living off of it may simply increase their activities to make sure that they get enough from their activities to justify the effort.

But the role of looters is a bit more complex still. Often, they don't know that their activities are illegal, and many of them don't understand that there is a difference between looting and controlled archaeological excavation. I have met a number of professional archaeologists who once were looters, but who came over to the "light side" when they became more curious and decided to learn about the sites that they had been digging up. When I work with these people, their attitude towards looters is somewhat schizophrenic - they tend to become upset over the damage done by looting, but they can identify with the looters and that either tempers their anger or stokes it, depending on the individual.

Ultimately, the problem with looters from the perspective of an archaeologist and a member of the public is that they are essentially stealing from public lands and doing it in a way that destroys the cultural resources on those lands. Even if the individual artifacts that they take weren't at issue, the fact that they destroy sites to get them would still be a problem.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Afrocentrism and Historical Racism in the Social Sciences

A comment to the "Forbiden Archaeology" entry reminded me of something...

While I was in graduate school, I sometimes shared an office with a couple of other anthropology grad students. On the office wall as a poster that bore the title (if memory serves) "Important Points in Black History." The aim of the poster was, rather clearly, to provide a sense of pride in the ancestry of people of African descent*. A fair assesment of history and archaeology provides a huge amount of material for such a poster. Volumes have been written about the accomplishments of people within Africa and by African people and their descendants throughout the globe, and volumes remain to be written yet. From Great Zimbabwe to the accomplishments of African-American scientists and writers to the contributions that contemporary Africans have made to world agriculture, the humanities, and politics, there is a wealthy heritage of which anyone could be proud.

It's unfortunate that the producers of the poster ignored all of that and went straight for the pseudo-scholarship.

The poster had individual frames claiming that the people of Africa were responsible for everything from the rise of Hellenistic Greece to the establishment of pre-Columbian empires in the Americas**. Prominent people from several ethnic groups were labelled as "black" by the producers of the poster, often based on nothing more than urban legend***.

In the case of claiming the rise of Greek culture, it's easy to brush these claims off. In the case of the claims of the founding of empires in the Americas before the 15th century, though, there is a weird issue at play. The purpose of such claims, and I have heard them many other times from members of the public and people on television and radio, is to reclaim the past from Europeans - the argument being that European (read: white) scholars have been writing the histories for centuries, and have downplayed or simply denied the role of non-whites in human history. This is, to a degree, a fair point. Certainly, many people think of "world history" as being essentially the history of Europe and post-1492 North America. It is common for Africa, India, China, and pretty much anywhere that isn't in Europe to be given token mention, if that, in elementary and high school "world history" classes****. Early archaeologists often developed overly-complex hypotheses concerning "vanished white races" in Africa and the Americas in order to explain the architectural wonders (and implied high degree of social organization) found in these places.

However, this has been changing over the last 120 years. Anthropologists have now long since turned away from the assumption that there is a "hierarchy of man" with Europeans at the top, professional historians have long made efforts to acknowledge the importance of areas outside of Europe, and while the faculties of many universities continue to be disproportionately white and middle class, even that is in the (admittedly slow) process of changing.

Nonetheless, it is true that Africa continues to get short shrift. It is, therefore, understandable that people would want to do research that reflects well on Africa itself and the people of the African diaspora. That's fine and good, and I see no problem with it. However, the poster in the office was produced not by responsible scholars with an interest in Africa or the African Disapora, but by a fringe group. This fringe group (and it is a fringe, no matter how vocal it sometimes is) of academics and laypeople has taken this a step farther and attempt to claim that all good things come from Africa, and not really anywhere else. This group, typically referred to as "Afrocentrists" has made quite a stir in certain circles, and tends to see itself as being the cure for racism, but is in fact rooted in some deeply racist thought.

When the Afrocentrists attempt to claim, for example, that all of the philosophy of Socrates was stolen from the library at Alexandria, which is in Africa, and therefore, they will usually tell you, an achievement of black peoples, they are making a number of basic factual errors (the fact that ethnicities in classical Alexandria were constructed and perceived differently than our modern black/white dichotomy and therefore this construction isn't relevant, lack of evidence for Socrates ever traveling to Alexandria, and the little fact that the library was opened nearly a century after the death of Socrates), but the harm done is negligible except to the believer's understanding of history.

By contrast, when Afrocentrists try to claim that the societies of the Pre-Colombian Americas were organized by African colonists, matters are a bit different. First off, there's the simple fact that inherent in such a claim is the racist notion that the native peoples of the Americas were somehow incapable of achieving the architectural feats that they achieved, or developing the cultures that they developed. It is, quite simply, racist to claim that the monuments and societies of the Americas were not the work of the "savages" living here, no matter the skin color of the "noble race that brought civilization." It's racist when Eurocentrists do it, and it's just as racist when Afrocentrists do it.

Secondly, the people of the developing and industrial nations in Latin America have been having a hard enough time controlling heritage goods (a problem that my own profession is, unfortunately, often aggravates), and having yet another group try to lay false claim to these items not only removes a part of the cultural heritage, but also further fuels the colonial attitudes ("these people are savages who don't appreciate their past!") that fuels both political and social mistreatment of these peoples and nations.

It's a weird and curious trend, and it should be noted that few people other than members of this movement take the movement at all seriously. But I have always found it bizarre that there was a "counter racism" movement that engaged in the same sorts of racism, down the exact same arguments, as the people who they are arguing against.

*I guess I should say "recent African descent" as I know that some smart-ass paleoanthropologist is going to point out that all of use are ultimately descended from African populations.

**Next to the part of the poster claiming this, one of the archaeologists in the department placed a "post-it" not saying "This is not true."

***It was reminiscent of a classical music album a friend once showed me. It was titled something like "Gay Classics" and was music written by composers who the album's producers believed were gay. I have no idea about most of the composers listed on the album, but one was Frederic Chopin, who was apparently included because he was the lover of the author George Sands. The problem, though, is that George Sands was the pen-name of a woman, so the claim that Chopin was gay is rather dubious. If you do a little homework...

****A weird side effect of this is that many people, being unfamiliar with the historic contributions of these places, have simply assumed that they didn't have any, a view which anyone who is better versed in history knows to not be true.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dead of Winter, Mark 2

If you, kind reader, will permit me to talk hobbies for an entry, I want to plug a friend's event.

This last weekend, I attended the second annual Dead of Winter Horror Invitational, a role-playing game convention held in the Brookdale Lodge, an allegedly haunted hotel in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Last year's event was a blast, so I was eager for this years, and I have to say that the event didn't disappoint. The players were brought by invitation and chosen by Matt Steele who picked those who he felt would play a good game and entertain each other as well as themselves. If the people at the game tables that I attended are any indication, he chose well.

Matt shows off the tumor that he removed from a Venezuelan farmer's stomach using nothing by an Exact-o knife and a roll of "Fruit by the Foot".

Okay, for those unfamiliar with the term, a role playing game is best described as a type of interactive fiction or storytelling. It's a game in which one player (usually called the Game Master, although there are other titles as well) develops a rough story outline and populates it with minor characters. The other players play the parts of the story's central protagonasts (or, sometimes, antagonists) which are represented by both the player's performance and by a set of attributes (usually, though not always, numbers representing skills and abilities) on a characetr sheet. All site around a table and the Game Master narrates general events and the actions of the minor characters, and the players narrate the actions of their characters. When there is a conflict (the players want their characters to do something difficult, the players want their characters to do something in oppoisition to the Game Master-controlled characters, or the one player's character wants to do something against another player's character) then the rules of the game are invoked in order to settle the conflict, which usually involves comparison of attributes and/or dice rolling in order to determine the outcome. These games reflect genres of fiction, and as a result come in nearly every genre (though fantasy and science fiction are probably dominant, while genres such as romance and drama are present but uncommon). The genre reflected at this convention was horror, usually supernatural horror although other types were also represented.

The venue for such a convention could not have been better. As noted, the Brookdale Lodge is allegedly haunted, and is a damn creepy place even without the ghost stories. It is in the redwoods, along a mountain highway. Although the location is very accessible from both Santa Cruz and San Jose, the topography and the forest make it appear isolated. The hotel is in considerably better condition than it was last year, and therefore didn't seem to be actively trying to kill us but is still rather run-down and therefore a bit unnerving.

The victims gather in the hotel bar.

The first night, there were no games, but everyone met in the hotel bar and socialized. The first year, I found this a bit awkward, but this year, I knew more people (we all remembered each other from last year, and everyone was friendly and welcoming) and the first evening was alot of fun. We sat about, talking and joking, and feeling a sense of comeraderie that only a geeky hobby such as ours can bring.

Jack looks dapper, the rest of us schlubs didn't bother to change after work.

We played in the Log Cabin, which is, well, a log cabin connected to the rest of the hotel by means of a wodden hallway/tunnel next to the brook room. It is poorly insulated, but has a huge fireplace. Last year, the fireplace was malfunctioning, and so we were frequently unable to heat the room, and there was a major storm, meaning that we all had to be bundled up to play. This year, however, the weather was better AND the fireplace worked meaning that we were never cold, were usually quite comfortable, and on a couple of occasions were even uncomfortably warm.

The log cabin was rather cozy. Too bad it's floor and walls were coated in maple syrup residue

In all, the better hotel conditions and the nice weather were not the boon that they would be for most events. Given that this was a horror game convention, the spooky atmosphere was heightened by the storms and dilapidated hotel last year, and these set the stage perfectly for the ghost stories and monster tales that our games were based around. Weirdly, this was an event where the atmosphere benefited from what would be bad conditions for every other kind of event. However the organizer did everything that he could to create an appropriate atmosphere (set it during the darkest time of the year in an hotel with a reputation for creepiness, and invite Game Masters and players who have a proven record of being able to evoke good atmosphere from their games) and the weather was going to cooperate or not regardless of what he did. In other words, the organizer did good but the weather gods are bastards.

Okay, smart-ass comments aside, the fireplace was one of the best things for building atmosphere, and I was glad to have it.

The games were an interesting mix, and while some worked better than others, and based on what I saw and heard I don't think that there was a dud in the mix - the worst that can be said about any game was that it was well constructed and run, which at most events would be high praise. I played in three this year. The first was a game run by my friend Mike, who took what was essentially a super hero story and overlaid it with a tale of ghostly revenge for a good, creepy story. Our characters were able to effect the outcome, but against the threat that we faced, we were less powerful than characters of our sorts would generally be expected to be. The end result was a solid, well-paced, suspenseful game in which we were forced to think our way around problems that our characters would normally just pound their way through. Mike is a talented Game Master, and this fact was evident in his entry.

In keeping with the horror theme of the con, Mike explains that disruptive players will be dismembered and buried beneath the floorboards.

The next game in which I played was a science fiction/humor game called HOL (for Human Occupied Landfill). The game's setting establishes that the players are prisoners (for anything from being framed for minor infractions to actually being horrible depraved criminals) who have been sentenced to live on a planet that is also used as the galaxy's garbage dump. Robotic cameras wander the landscape broadcasting the character's misery to the rest of the galaxy for their amusement. The game master created "terrain" for the game miniatures (many games use small models to illustrated where characters are and what they are doing) by dumping a trash can out on the table. The players included myself, the organizer Matt Steele, two long-time Bay Area gaming convention players/game masters, and the designers of the game Cthullutech and a social-networking/gaming website (EDIT - it's up and running and looking for folks, so go here). The game was hysterically fun, each of us playing some sort of weird reject with next-to-useless equipment having to negotiate a truly weird setting. In the end, one character used his abilities to play rock music to lure monsters away from us, another used the giant hamster-ball in which his character was trapped to get close enough to investigate a mysterious substance and help deal with it, my character mocked the laws of physics into submission, another made heavy artillery out of a radio, and another surrendered to the evil force we faced in order to distract it while the rest of us blew it to where it came from. The game had what was clearly intended to be horror elements, but the out-right gonzo lunacy of the game diluted them to where the game was more slapstick comedy than anything else. Alot of fun, and good work by the Game Master, but possibly not what the event was intended to be about.

It started with just a bit of garbage.

But we added to it over the course of the evening.

And then it threatened to encroach on the rest of the event.

The third (and final) game in which I played was interesting, but disturbing. It was set during the Eastern Front of WWII (see here for information on why this was so disturbing). The Game Master used a game system that is designed to imitate George Romero-style zombie stories. He also dropped hints that the Russians had been doing experiments to resuscitate dead soldiers, and one of the player characters was given a background narrative that had him having seen these resuscitated soldiers. Our characters were soldiers fighting in the eastern war. In the end, the zombie sightings were revealed to be the product of a soldier suffering from mental breakdown, and the game master put us into situations where simply trying to reduce the harm to innocent civilians led our characters to become paranoid tools of a man with a vendetta. Afterwards, the Game Master explained that he wanted the players to be confronted with the fact that neither the Soviets nor the Germans were monsters, but were humans in a situations and living under political leadership that fed on and rewarded the worst human traits - in other words, were we unlucky enough to be born in Germany or russia in the 1920s, then by the 1940s we would have been the ones committing the acts that as 21st century people we can look on in disgust. The leadership of both Hitler and Stalin and their inner circles was, indeed, evil, but most soldiers were just trying to survive and were swept up in the chaos that ensued when Hitler and Stalin made eastern Europe their personal dueling grounds. All of the players left the session deeply disturbed and truly horrified. The Game Master put it this way: there is no horror worse than what humans can do to each other, because we all have the potential to be monsters if we are not careful.

This was a valid lesson regarding morality, and if you view these not as games but as forms of storytelling (which they arguably are), then to use it as an essentially educational tool in this way is valid. However, we had all come to use them as games, and while potentially valuable, this was heavier than anyone had anticipated. So, I don't know what to make of the experience. I do think, however, that should I ever teach history (which could happen), I may take a lesson from this in trying to teach about war and war crimes.

So, to wrap it up, the last gaming experience aside, it was a fun event. I am very glad that I went, and I plan on attending next year. Hopefully the weather will be a bit more hostile next time. Regardless, as I know a couple of the other attendees read this, it was good to see everyone, and I look forward to next time.

If the readers will grant me just a bit more patience, while everyone that I met was fantastic, my memory for names is poor, so I want to say that everyone was a pleasure to meet and game with. I would like to acknowledge a few specific people who returned from last years and who really made the con especially enjoyable for me: Mike Ripley, whose gaming group I was in and whose company I miss, it was good to see him; the always gracious Matt DeHayes, and his girlfriend Nicole, I hope to get to spend a bit more time talking with them next time around; Shannon MacNamara, who is quite possibly one of the friendliest people I have ever met; Jack Young, who injected a sense of class into whatever part of the proceedings he was near; Mr. Grau and Mr. Muldoon, who were pitch-perfect for the HOL game and a hell of a lot of fun; Kris Miller (new this year, but memorable) the physicist/professional telescope operator/game convention impresario, and really interesting, cool guy; and of course, the host, Matt Steele, who made the event a success two years running - here's looking at year 3.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I Stay in Archaeology

I have had mixed feelings about my line of work. I have written previously about the annoying schism between resource management archaeologists such as myself and academic archaeologists. I have written about frustrations with a few (thankfully, very few) clients and projects, as well as frustrations with some agencies.

And yet I stay in this profession. I would even go so far as to say that, despite my occasional angst, I enjoy this profession. Why?

Well, a part of it is that it feels good to protect something for the sake of other people. It is a rare thing that I recommend protection of a site and then am able to do research-related work on it myself. Rarer still are the sites that I recommend protection for that I am able to visit for non-research or management purposes later. When I do recommend protection, I usually recommend the least impactful thing possible, which means that I recommend against archaeological investigation if at all possible, so I don't make any additional money off of the site, either. What this means is that the site is preserved for interested parties (Native Americans in the case of prehistoric and some historic sites, descendants or members of the interested public for other historic-era sites) and for research archaeologists, who will be armed with the tools and methodology to do a better job than the constraints of my job sometimes allow. The point is, I don't usually benefit from this, but I feel good knowing that someone else will.

Another significant reason that I stay is, for lack of a better way of putting it, I have been developing a sense of adventure. Now, archaeology is not an Indiana Jones-esque enterprise in which we risk life and limb on a regular basis (in fact, if our safety protocols have been well developed and executed, we should be in considerably less risk of harm than the average construction worker). However, we go places that most people don't, and we see things that most people can't on a regular basis. On any given work day, I am as likely to be in the field as in the office, and while much field work is enjoyable but unexciting, there are many days when I will be walking along a ridgeline looking down into the agricultural valleys of southern California, or I'll be hugging a cliff side in the Sierra Nevadas, or I'll be opening up a 1,000-year-old grave in the Napa Valley. Also, I am the only person I know who is not in the military who, in the course of a single week, has used as transportation all of the following: a helicopter, a 4-wheel drive truck, a boat (mutha'fucka'), and my ol' trusty hiking boots. I have been caught in freak snowstorms (twice), walked through Kern County's oil fields in 110+ degree temperatures (while carrying 30 pounds of equipment strapped to me), hiked for three hours carrying all of my camping and excavation equipment on my back, and stayed in 4-star casino hotels for meetings in which I would be accused of all manner of evil-doing by county planners. I have learned to speak diplomatically to armed ranchers who are worried about trespassers, to chase off packs of dogs using nothing but my voice, and how to deal calmly with the nut-jobs that one sometimes finds in isolated places. My job is often frustrating, sometimes unpleasant, but it is rarely boring. Considering that just a few years ago I considered spending a few days away from home an annoying disruption of my routine, I would say that the fact that I have come to appreciate, and even crave, these sorts of events indicates definite personal growth.

Related to the last point, another reason that I stay in archaeology is that I have the best work-related stories. Seriously. Most of my friends have work stories about what a tool their boss is or what wacky things their co-worker did with the photocopier, or more seriously, what they are doing to work their way through their employer's advancement process. These stories are entertaining, often hysterically so, or interesting, but they are of a different flavor altogether from my experiences. My stories involve hiking down a mountain hoping to escape a snowstorm, or being trailed by large animals in the wilderness, or a county coroner forcing me to use my Ford Escort as a transport for human remains*, or having to walk around with gas detection badges to let me know if death or injury via hydrogen sulfide is imminent. They are not inherently any more interesting than the stories that my friends have, but they are more unusual and therefore telling them once always results in my friends insisting that I tell them again when I am introduced to someone new.

The joy of discovery should also not be ignored. Most of my projects are relatively cut-and-dry. I go out to a place where some sort of construction project is proposed, I look for archaeological sites. If I find them, they are usually of standard types that I see routinely, and I record them. Sometimes I have to engage in small scale excavations to determine if a site is eligible for federal or state historic registers (they usually aren't). I then write a report and send it to the client, and my work is done. But sometimes things are a bit different. I have found weird and unexplained earthworks in the hills of eastern California; I have recorded sites covered in so much spectacular rock art that I spent weeks on end staring in amazement; I have excavated sites that were in the wrong location for the type of sites that they were, and contained the wrong kinds of materials for their region, meaning that something interesting was happening there that defies all of our models of prehistoric human behavior; and I have input data into a spreadsheet, run some statistical tests, and discovered that a set of data requires revision of my assumptions about the way that humans interact with their world. These are great moments, and they are not only intellectually rewarding, but I find myself in a state of physical euphoria when they occur.

There is, of course, a sense of mystery inherent in some of this work (though, it should be said, that this is a rather small portion of the work). Most of the time it is just a job, but every now and again, I get this feeling, like a chill running down the back of my neck. I'll be excavating a pit, and will pick up a spear point, and realize that I am the first human in two thousand years to see or touch it. On other occasions, I'll look at a landscape, and will see it not as it is now, but as it was centuries ago, and realize that even in a large crowd, I am the only person present who is seeing what I see. At times like this, I feel as if I am seeing something that is hidden, that has been locked away from humanity, but of which I now have the privilege of getting just a fleeting glimpse. It is maddening, but also thrilling, and while it doesn't happen very often, I always want more.

And finally I have to admit that a part (though an increasingly small part) of the reason that I stay in is the fact that I have invested so much time and energy into this career path - between time spent on the job and time, energy, and money spent getting the training and the Bachelor's and Master's degrees - that I am loathe to leave it. Several years back, when I had not yet grown accustomed to the crazy lifestyle that archaeology imposes on you, I was unhappy but stayed with the job because I didn't want all of that energy to have been spent for nought. Now, however, I find myself increasingly enjoying the job, and I am glad that I stayed with it.

*Seriously, this happened.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Peer Review

If you follow the various science-vs-pseudo-science arguments, you will likely have heard someone bring up "peer review", the process by which research papers or other documents are reviewed by experts in the field in order to see if they pass muster and essentially make sense. Peer review is often held up as one of the most important institutions in the sciences and in research fields in general (including history, literary criticism, etc.), and so, as I am currently going through the peer review process for a paper that I have submitted for publication, I thought it might be worth describing and de-mystifiying the process a bit.

To start with, I submitted my paper to the editors of the issue of the journal in which it will be published. They looked it over, determined that my basic arguments and ideas stood up to scrutiny and therefore were publishable, and returned it to me with comments that suggest that I read other books and papers relevant to the topic but not included in my references cited, and that I consider expanding the discussion of certain topics within the paper. For example, the paper discusses interaction between villages in prehistoric California, but only discusses the landscape in terms of geographic obstacles and pathways (valleys, mountains, etc.) and resources available (seeds in grassland, acorns in oak woodland, fish and shellfish at the coast, and so on). Implicit in the discussion was the matter of landscape as a social phenomenon (village territories, family land holdings, do coastal and inland people identify themselves differently?) but it was not explicitly addressed in my original paper, so it was requested that I address that more directly. Also, because of the work schedule that I have had over the last 18 months, there have been two books and a few articles that had escaped my attention but which addressed similar issues, so I was directed towards those and asked to include discussion of and references to them in the paper. They then suggested that I needed to explain why my conclusions were necessarily better or more likely than other possible conclusions derived from the same data, as well as qualify a few weaknesses in the data that weren't as clearly flagged in the original version of the paper, making my argument seem less robust but my paper far more honest (one of the most important services and editor can provide). The editors also commented on the clarity (or occasional lack thereof) of some of my writing, helping me to identify places where I know what I'm trying to get across, but it might be confusing to a reader.

So, with these recommendations in hand, I set about revising the paper. I incorporated their comments (or, in a couple of cases, added material to the paper in such a way as to explain why the type of criticism behind the comments didn't apply to the discussion at hand), gave it another go-over myself and altered some things that I thought needed to be changed but on which the editors did not comment, and handed it back over.

I then received another round of comments. These ones were less about the substance of the paper (as would be expected as this had already been discussed) and more about the clarity of the writing, ensuring that I was saying what I wanted to say and that the paper would be clear to readers unfamiliar with my topic. I incorporated these comments, and re-submitted the paper again. It was bundled up with the other papers for the issue and sent to the journal's main editor.

Okay, so I should explain the multiple layers of editors here. In this particular case, the two editors to whom I initially sent the paper have been trying to get a book published for a couple of years, and a group of archaeologists, myself among them, have been working on material to contribute to the book. When two different book deals failed to materialize, they spoke with the editors of a prominent archaeology journal who agreed to publish the material written for the book. So, now the book editors have become essentially guest editors for this issue of the journal. However, the journal's primary editor still has to do his duties. Also, it should be mentioned that these editors are not literary/journalistic editors - though many journals have such people on staff - they are respected archaeologists with strong research records who have the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to provide useful criticism.

So, the journal's editor has received the papers. He is in the process of sending them out for external review. What this entails is that he will identify a few archaeologists who are knowledgeable about the geographic area, cultural group, or research topic of each paper, and send the papers to them to see what criticisms they have of them. I will then be sent these comments and will use them to create final revisions to the paper. After all of that is done, the paper will finally be published.

As you can see, the primary activity done by reviewers and editors in this process is criticism. Criticism, as both a concept and a word, gets abused alot in our society - people who are critical are considered undesirable company, critical comments are frowned upon, and we assume that professional critics (of film, literature, etc.) hate the medium that they criticize. But the truth is that criticism is important and valuable, and much of what people call criticism is not criticism at all but rather abuse. Criticism is not the automatic nay-saying or attacking of a subject, but it is rather the thoughtful consideration of a subject, an evaluation that takes into account both strengths and weaknesses, flaws and merits. Some objects, arguments, and ideas are so deeply flawed that there is little to no room for positive criticism, and a much smaller number are so virtuous that it is difficult to make negative criticisms, but most fall somewhere between these two extremes.

To a researcher, negative criticism, while sometimes hard to take, is vital. If I have made a flawed argument or am misunderstanding data, it is important that I know about that, and it is to my benefit that a fellow researcher point it out. It is also vital to a research discipline, as without critical assessment of data and arguments, an "anything goes" attitude develops in which the agenda or ideology of the author can easily take precedence over the reality of the subject being studied. In an environment that prohibits criticism, there is little possibility for advancing study as there is no clear criteria by which the validity of an idea or argument can be measured, and consistency and coherency of arguments, adherence to data, and clarity of thought decay. Criticism is a good thing, a vital thing, and a major force in advancing an area of research.

It is also important that criticism come from multiple experts. Any one expert will have their own view on a given subject, ideally motivated by their valid interpretation of evidence but potentially also motivated by external pressures (their employer, their ideological leanings, their religious beliefs, etc.). When one introduces multiple experts with different views and from different backgrounds, however, non-data driven views will be diluted and can be more easily parsed and dealt with by the author of the work being reviewed as well as the editor(s) of the publication. This doesn't always work, of course, but it works pretty well most of the time.

So, basically, being a responsible and legitimate researcher means leaving yourself open to criticism, and taking criticism into account. That is what the peer-review process is really all about. Research is not a feel-good sand box game in which we promote self-esteem, but a serious investigation of a subject. It can be, and usually is, alot of fun. But is can also be tough, and if you are not able to sustain a bruised ego or give up a cherished idea that doesn't stand up to scrutiny, then you are not cut out for research.

This is not to say that peer-review is a fool-proof enterprise that only ever benefits a field of study. It's a human activity, and as such is not perfect. Sometimes, bad* papers get through, and bad* arguments are not rooted out. But these are the exceptions, and most of the time peer review makes sure that published research is rigorous and well-supported**. Ultimately, this strong effort to adhere to reality as it can be observed rather than as we would like it to be is the difference between scholarship and pseudo-scholarship. And it is telling that the frequent complaint of pseudo-scholars is that they big bad "establishment" researchers criticized them.

*And note, I mean "bad" not as in "I don't like it" or "it makes me uncomfortable" but rather in that "it doesn't make any sense and takes liberties with observable reality."

**Which is different than saying that it is definitely right. All good research is based on information available at the time that it is produced, and new information may disprove existing ideas, no matter how well established, and many well-accepted ideas (stable-state universe, recent [within 2000 years] population of the Americas, and non-moving continents) have been overturned by new information...again, in contrast to pseudo-scholarship where no amount of data can change the minds of proponents (homeopathy, anyone?).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Forbidden" Archaeology

"What do you think about Forbidden Archaeology?"

Ugh. It's one of those questions that I get every now and again and that I always feel uneasy about. In this case, it was Thanksgiving evening, and I had stopped in Santa Cruz on my way back to Fresno to pick up a friend. The woman who owned the house and I were talking about her line of work - installing cubicles in federal office buildings - and she asked what I did for a living. I told her that I was an archaeologist, and the above question came out. She made a few comments about how believable she found the work of people such as Von Danniken and Graham Hancock.

It's common for specialists to dismiss people who buy into pseudo-scholarship as kooks or idiots, but this woman was clearly quite bright and I saw nothing to indicate that she was a kook. So why did she seem to think that the pseudo-archaeology that goes by the name "forbidden archaeology" or "alternative archaeology" was reasonable enough work that it was likely that a professional archaeologist would respect it? Well, I think that the answer to that question sits with the method of presentation of the pseudo-archaeologists and the narratives employed by them.

First off, the presentation. As I have described before, many of the pseudo-archaeologists are very good about mixing actual archaeological data, out-of-context archaeological data, and just plain ol' made-up-shit in such a way that a real archaeologist can get bogged down trying to piece through it. The problem is that the pseudo-archaeologist (or their acolytes) can spew nonsense at a very high rate because they have no regard for the actual data, and the archaeologist is at a rhetorical disadvantage because they are constrained by reality. When actual legitimate information is embedded in the matrix of bullshit, it becomes especially tricky because the pseudo-archaeologists can play the "do you deny fact X" game, where the archaeologist won't deny legitimate "fact X" and the pseudo-archaeologist therefore holds that the agreement on "fact X" means that "falsehoods A, B, and C" must also be true. The very clever pseudo-archaeologist will engage in quote mining - the use of out-of context quotes to make it appear as if archaeologists hold positions that they don't actually hold. This can make refuting specious claims even more complex for the archaeologist. It's the intellectual equivalent of a magician doing something showy with one hand so that you don't notice what he is doing with the other.

Also, while they tend to heap scorn upon academic research (as will be discussed below) the pseudo-archaeologists will nonetheless do everything that they can to ape the style (while ignoring the methods) of the academic researcher. Their books tend to be filled with footnotes, have dense references cited sections, and maps, charts, tables, and illustrations designed to be either eye-catching or to mimic those found in professional archaeological publications. The problem, of course, is that while these things mimic the work of professional archaeologists, they lack both the methodology (there is little qualification of information or attempts at disconfirmation) and often the content (information that is presented is often made to look more complicated than it really is - or sometimes less complicated if that suits the agenda of the author - and sometimes is just plain made-up). The references are often to people who didn't actually say what is being attributed to them, or to outdated sources*, and often just to other pseudo-archaeologists who simply made shit up. Although I have never followed a path of references through to find it, I suspect that there are at least a few that are completely circular (nut A references nut B who reference nut C who reference nut A).

One place where they pseudo-archaeologists excel well past the actual archaeologists, though, is in visual presentation. Watch the various allegedly educational cable channels, which show pseudo-archaeological "documentaries" routinely. They are well paced, well-scripted, entertaining, and quite thrilling to watch. Part of this is that, unburdened by the complexities of reality, they don't have to engage in the cautious qualification and investigation of real archaeology. However, another part of it is that many pseudo-archaeologists and pseudo-archaeology enthusiasts are extremely showy and media savvy people, the sorts who could give P. T. Barnum a run for his money. While the content of their shows may be absurd and without merit, the production qualities and the way in which they are structured are quite impressive.

And this brings us to the narratives employed by pseudo-archaeologists. There are many narratives used, but I'll deal with the three most common here. The first is specifically about the past being studied, while the other two are about archaeologists themselves. These are not mutually exclusive, and it's common for a pseudo-archaeologist to use all three.

The first common narrative is that of alleged human mystical (sometimes expressed as "super-technological") potential. While many people, including most archaeologists, see the true past of the human race as both fascinating and inspiring - the story of how humanity both learned to adapt wonderfully to the full range of environments on Earth, in a way that no other animal ever has (and was sometimes smacked down by nature when reaching too far) - pseudo-archaeologists have been able to claim, based on superficial similarities, that the story told in the archaeological record is one of humans as down-and-out grunts stuck within their environments. The pseudo-archaeologists, on the other hand, provide stories of golden ages of high human technology and/or magic. These stories are fun when they are presented as fantasy (I, personally, have always enjoyed the story in which Doctor Who visits Atlantis, even if other fans tend to trash it), but they lack any shred of actual scientific credibility. But this lack of credibility doesn't matter - in making a false contrast between a "man the brute" narrative (which it is claimed, falsely, that real archaeologists cling to, based on the fact that the real archaeological narrative doesn't rely on magic) and "man the magical wonder", guess which one is going to seem more appealing.

Another common narrative is the "they don't want to have to re-write history" narrative. This is both a complete inversion of reality, and a rather amazingly compelling (though false) narrative. The basic idea is that, if archaeologists accepted these "radical new concepts" then it would be bad for them because it would mean that they lose their positions as "arbiters of truth", and this is usually expressed in economic or social terms (loss of income, loss of positions, loss of esteem). The truth is, of course, quite different: those archaeologists who have provided compelling evidence that some fundamental aspect of the archaeological record is wrong have consistently been rewarded with book deals, job offers, the admiration of colleagues, public speaking deals (including television appearances), and so on. Every archaeologist wants to be the one who requires the re-writing of the history books because that is where success is found. The fact that the pseudo-archaeologist's work is derided and ignored is not due to their "radical views" but due to their complete and utter lack of evidence and credibility. However, since most folks don't realize just how much archaeologists want to shake things up (in large part because archaeologists are bad a communicating this to the public - a serious error on our part) this narrative gets alot of traction.

The third common narrative casts archaeologists as a sinister cabal out to hide, rather than simply conveniently ignore, "the truth." Unlike the previous narrative, this one usually casts the archaeologists as the tools of some higher power that wishes the past to be hidden or distorted for some strange purpose. The intent behind this runs tha gamut from archaeologists "hiding the past" to support business and government elites' policies (such as Glenn Beck's inane rambles about archaeology and anthropology supporting Manifest Destiny) to archaeologists "lying about history" to support the current social order (a common thread in the "ancient worldwide matriarchal goddess culture" line of thought) to archaeologists "hiding evidence" to push an atheistic/naturalistic worldview (a claim common in both creationist and New Age belief systems). This narrative slightly contradicts the previous one in that archaeologists are actively hiding "the truth" rather than just ignoring evidence out of laziness or convenience, but it is common to see pseudo-archaeologists switch between them depending on either their audience or the point that they want to make. The irony, however, is that the person using this last narrative is usually the one with an agenda to advance. The agenda may be good (women's rights, for example, is one that has used this narrative in the past - see books such as the Chalice and the Blade for an example of absurd pseudo-archaeology used to advance an essentially laudable social purpose), or the agenda may be bad, or it may be just plain silly, but it is an agenda nonetheless and the narrative is used to direct people's attention away from the fact that the person pushing it is the one distorting the past.

One of the more interesting things about noticing the use of both presentation and narratives to push pseudo-archaeology is that you also begin to notice their use in other forms of pseudo-scholarship. Quack medicine and pseudo-physics are two places where the is common, but you see it all over the place. These should always serve as red flags that someone might not be on the level when they are trying to convince you of a point.

*This is important. There is often good reason to cite old sources - I have books that are 80 years old that are still the best sources of information on particular narrow topics - but archaeology, like all research disciplines, moves forward every year. A well-researched article or book will reference old sources, but it should also reference many new sources. A reliance on out-dated information is a sure sign of pseudo-scholarship. Interestingly, the reliance on out-of-date (and often initially quack-tastic) data is one of the significant elements of the pseudo-medicine radio show "Dead Doctors Don't Lie" which originated in my previous home of Santa Cruz, of the other significant elements is the use of a pyramid scheme...oh, sorry, I mean "Multi-Level Marketing Campaign" to hawk useless crap.