The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, July 29, 2011

Places that Should be Haunted, But Aren't

Okay, after the heaviness of the last two posts, here's something a bit lighter, though not at all archaeology related.

As some readers know, I am a ghost story enthusiast. No, I don't believe in ghosts, but I nonetheless love a good ghost story. I even keep a second blog where I keep track of ghost stories. When you find a story of a haunting, you also usually find some sort of explanation. These explanations range from an allegedly haunted site being the location of a tragic or horrific event to the place being the repository of human remains (often unburied or disinterred, though proper cemeteries are frequently reputed to be haunted as well), to the ever-popular "this place was built on an Indian burial ground!"

Most of the time, following through on the stories explaining the hauntings reveals them to be fabrications. The number of times that I have looked up a place that is "built on an Indian burial ground" only to find that there are no burials of any kind anywhere near it is quite large. Likewise with most other stories - tracking down the actual deaths of people said to have been killed in a house often reveals that they died elsewhere of different causes (occasionally they are even still alive) or that the person in question never even existed to begin with. Likewise, looking for evidence of the traumatic events said to have left some sort of psychic residue often reveals that these events never actually happened or that they weren't nearly as traumatic as often made out.

Still, these are the common stories given to explain hauntings, and if they were true, there are a number of places that I personally know of that one would expect to be haunted, but which, mysteriously (or not mysteriously), are not. For example:

Two of my former workplaces

During my first job as a supervisor, my office was in a building that was built right on top of a Chumash village site. Now, Chumash villages in the particular area where this one was typically contained burials. So, this office was literally built on a Native American burial ground. I knew about it, as did the other archaeologists working in the building, but for various reasons (mostly related to not wanting people to loot what was left of the site), we didn't advertise the fact. In addition to being built on an area that likely contained burials, we frequently had human remains in our office, mostly bone dug from archaeological sites. So, we had a burial ground and disinterred bodies. However, other than the soul-sucking boredom of Monday morning staff meetings, we never experienced anything supernatural, nor did anyone ever report such a thing.

A subsequent workplace was not built on an archaeological site of any sort. However, it also often served as a temporary repository of human remains - mostly the remains of Native Americans which were removed from sites that were about to be destroyed by bulldozers. However, we also, for a time, had the remains of two Navy Airmen who died in a Plane Crash during a WWII-era training mission. We had excavated their remains, and before the county coroner collected them, we processed and stored them at our facilities. So, Native American burials AND the remains of people who died in a traumatic way? Double check. Ghosts on the premise? Negative.

Pajaro River Floodplain

The above-mentioned plane crash, the remains of which we dug up, was located on the Pajaro River flood plain, in Monterey County. Not only did two men die a traumatic death in a plane crash, but the event became part of local folklore (including variations on the story in which two planes hit each other mid-air and crashed...not true, by the way). So, again, the sort of place that one would anticipate would have a ghost story...but it doesn't.

Abney Park Cemetery

Before the band Abney Park existed, there was a cemetery by that name. While the cemetery doesn't have any more int he way of tragic history than any other cemetery that I know of, it is nonetheless exactly the sort of place for which the term "creepy-ass" was invented. It looks like the set of a horror movie, with neglected and crumbling tombstones, a dilapidated chapel that looks like something out of a Dracula movie, and a generally weird atmosphere. Here's some photos that I took while visiting:

I have searched long and hard for ghost stories for this place, convinced that it must have some, but keep coming up goose-eggs. If a creepy-ass cemetery doesn't have a ghost story, then what is the world coming to, I ask?

The Duplex on Mason Road

One day, in the late 80s, as I was walking home from school, I noticed that Mason Road - which forms the eastern terminus of Driftwood Drive, the road in Salida on which I grew up - was cordoned off, and there was a butt-load of news vans parked around the entrance to the road. I didn't know what it was all about until I saw the news that evening.

Earlier that day eight people were murdered, bludgeoned to death, in one of the duplexes (dupli? duplo? duplae?) as a result of what appeared to be the result of drug deals gone bad. As the media hype began to increase, I found my neighborhood labelled "Drug Alley" by the Sacramento news stations, despite the fact that nobody ever actually called it that except reporters from Sacramento.

Eventually, the interior of the duplex was cleaned up and rented out again. Despite the grisly history, I never heard of anyone having any sort of strange experience there, and asking around never brought anything up. So, a sad history, but not one that has been made light of by people using it as fodder for campfire stories.

Crown, Merrill, Cowell, and Stevenson Colleges, UCSC

Every college of university seems to have a ghost stories, but UC Santa Cruz's are relegated to Porter College. UCSC is divided into multiple colleges, which serve as the residential and educational bases of each student (though every student will take classes at other colleges as well). Porter College is the art college, and many of the residents are, in my experience, given to self-induced drama, which probably explains why it has the monopoly on ghost stories. However, Merrill College, Crown College (which was my college), Cowell College and Stevenson College all butt up against Pogonip Park - an allegedly cursed forest - are within walking distance of a cemetery with decaying graves dating to the civil war, and the forest adjacent to these colleges is described by the forensic anthropology professor from whom I took classes as a "dumping ground for bodies." Despite this, the place doesn't have much int he way of ghost stories. Sure, the forest itself does (complete with the ghost of Sarah Cowell, of the family for whom the college was named), but this portion of the campus does not. Fnord!

So, that's what I've got. So, readers, what are places that you know of which should have ghostly reputations, but don't seem to have the ectoplasmic taint?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thinking About Politics and Cultural Identity

In reading more about what occurred in Norway last week, it becomes clear that, whatever else was going on in Anders Behring Breivik's mind, he seemed focused on a notion of cultural/ethnic purity, obsessed with being a cultural Christian (meaning that he didn't necessarily believe in the supernatural claims of the religion, but did feel a connection to the church and the ethical code claimed by the church) and was obsessed with Europe expelling the Muslims - referring in his writings to the previous expulsions in the 11th and 15th centuries*. It would probably be best to describe his views as politically right-wing with religious overtones, and not "religious fundamentalist" as is often described.

Common in many right-wing political ideologies - especially in Europe but present in a slightly muted form in the U.S. - is an idea of an allegedly threatened ethnic white/European/Christian (which of the three is used depends on the individual) identity. The reality is, of course, that ethnicity and religion are fluid and are changing. Rather than give support to the belief that this means that they are somehow "under attack" as so many of these people claim, it is simply a statement of the realities of human history.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, before we heard of a Muslim threat to some sort of pan-European identity, we heard about German threats to French identity, Russian threats to German identity, etc. etc. Ethnicity was conceived of more narrowly, and an Italian was generally believed to be fundamentally different than a Briton. Over time, and especially after WWII (when this nationality=ethnicity view was most strongly espoused by the Nazi regime), this mellowed so that there is no a recognition of nationality and cultural differences between, say, Italy and Sweden, but it is not necessarily viewed as an ethnic difference. So, in the sense that all are considered to be of a "white European" ethnicity, or even more narrowly as regional ethnicities, the definition of European ethnicity has still changed dramatically from what it was as late as the 1940s.

Even if you are going to go the route of trying to define ethnicities as the regionally-centered complex of genetic frequencies (that is a group of people from a given area who have a higher statistical likelihood of having particular genetic traits - such as skin tone, hair color, etc.), you are still stuck trying to attach a concrete label to something that is fluid and constantly changing. If one reads the Greek or Roman accounts of western Asia, you see descriptions of people who sound as if they would be more at home in other parts of the world - tribes of red-headed middle-Easterners, blond Asian Tribesmen, etc. The reality is that many of these people belonged to groups that migrated into Europe or North Africa, or (less often) were so thoroughly crushed by the Greeks or Romans or Persians that there were few left to carry on their lineage. We are left with this notion that the genetic groupings we now see in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East or not the same as the ones that were present 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. They have shifted, changed, re-arranged.

Basically, no matter how you try to define ethnicity, an honest person is forced to admit that it is fluid.

What, then, of cultural identity? Many of the right-wing folks, especially here in the United States, don't talk in terms of ethnicity, but rather of cultural identity - it's okay for people to come from the outside so long as they adopt our ways, language, mode of dress, etc. etc. Isn't cultural identity under attack by allowing people to become part of our society without becoming acculturated**? There is alot to be said for the necessity of integration - where a person new to a society learns how to negotiate and contribute to that society (this requires that the receiving society allow them to integrate and that the emigrant be willing to integrate, so it's a two-way street) - but acculturation is the abandonment of one's cultural heritage in order to adopt the cultural identity of the new place wholesale...which even people who are actively trying to do it never actually seem to manage. The reality is that people move - they migrate between nations and regions within nations - and they bring their own cultural traits and ideas with them when they do. This does change the cultural identity of a region, make no doubt. But, contrary to what many people claim, this is not an assault on the existing cultural identity, which itself is nothing other than an accumulation of other such changes and additions over time. This is one of the major processes by which cultures work and change, and it has been since our early ancestors began to develop what we would understand as culture.

I don't want to get all kum-ba-yah on you. This process is not always easy, and historically has often been violent, though it is also often peaceful. But the notion that we will preserve some ethnic or cultural identity in perpetuity is absurd in the extreme. Humans never have, and even the attempt to do so itself causes changes in ethnic and cultural identity. We will change, no matter how we try to fight it. The question is, can we decide to do so in ways that benefit us?

*It should be noted that while these are often referred to as the Muslim expulsions, other groups, including the Jews, were also pushed out of various European countries during these episodes.

**Many people will use the term "integration" when they should be saying acculturation. Integration implies that the individual becomes a part of the broader society without fully shedding their previous identity - so, they learn the local language, customs, laws, etc., but they don't need to dress differently or stop speaking their native language altogether. Much of what you hear from people such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc. is that they want people to "integrate" by completely abandoning their previous cultural identity rather than modifying for their present circumstances, which isn't actually integration.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Insanity or Belief?

In a departure from the usual archaeology nonsense, I just wanted to write briefly about last week's events in Norway. When news of the bombing and shootings initially broke out, many people believed that it was Muslim terrorists - unfortunately there is precedence for this assumption not only from 2001, but from both before and after that. However, it soon turned out that the bomber/shooter was neither Muslim nor Arab, but is a Norwegian who identifies himself as a Christian. And the attacks were prompted by his belief that Muslims were taking over his country - a commonly held belief amongst right-wing political circles in Europe, and increasingly in the U.S. as well.

Much of the talk went from discussing how the attacks were clearly the work of "Islamic extremists" to discussing how the actual terrorist "is simply a madman." But the fact of the matter is that nobody who I have heard dismiss him as a "madman" has actually bothered to see if there's been a psychiatric assessment done of the man. People who were perfectly comfortable blaming the attacks not on insanity but on Islam are now loathe to admit that the attacks could have been the work of anything other than a sick mind. As afar as I can tell, the reason for wanting to consider him a madman has less to do with any actual assessment of his mental health than with the fact that the political/religious views on which he acted are shared by many people in both Europe and the United States, and nobody who holds similar views or beliefs wants to admit that they might lead to violence (in this sense, they are no different than the Muslims I have met who want to insist that Al Queada is not an Islamic organization - just because it's not the religion as you practice it doesn't mean that it isn't the religion).

The man may, in fact, be insane. I don't know, and neither do any of the people who I have spoken with. He may also, however, simply be acting on political and religious views* that are held by many, but not held quite dearly enough for them to carry them through to their logical conclusion. Whether we like it or not, this is not necessarily insanity, it may simply be the well-known power of beliefs to shut off our ability to empathize with other people, and to see them as less than human. We saw it in the creation of Japanese internment camps during WWII, in less violent ways with the passage of Proposition 8 here in California, and with the bloodshed that accompanied the Soviet Revolution in Russia. While each of these was very different in a number of ways, in each case, political or religious beliefs served to make some group of people less human, less worthy of rights or respect, and deserving of mistreatment - whether simply the denial of legal rights and creation of slanderous claims all the way up to violent acts perpetrated against them.

Every belief system has the ability to do this. Whether or not this man was insane, his actions did not require insanity, just fervent belief.

*One interesting thing about his religious views, as shown in his own writing, is that they don't seem to be straight-forward Christian so much as a weird mix of Christianity, latter-day Nordic paganism, and supernatural justification for political views. So, there is another narrative also forming that this man is a right-wing Christian terrorist...the "right wing" part is probably correct, but the "Christian" part is much more complicated.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Prehistoric, Historic, and Arbitrary Distinctions

If you look at a California Department of Parks and Recreation Form 523 Primary (see it here), the one required for recording archaeological sites in California, you are giving three options for the site's age: Prehistoric, Historic, and Both. This seems straightforward - if the site pre-dates the introduction of written records (literally predates recorded history) then it is prehistoric, so everything prior to Europeans showing up; if the site post-dates the introduction of written records, then it is historic; if the site has elements from both before and after the introduction of written records, it is both.

Simple, right?

Of course not.

I'm not going to wade into the debate about whether or not oral traditions should be considered history. It's a valid line of debate to a point, but not what I'm interested in here. What I am interested in is what we use to make the distinction between prehistoric and historic sites, why the three check boxes aren't maybe the best way to reflect the archaeological record, and what's they ultimately mean.

For starters, when we record a site, the way that we identify which of the three boxes to check is be evaluating what materials are present within the site. If it is filled with flaked stone tools, ground stone tools, and no evidence of metal, glass, or European-style tools or structures, it gets labelled "prehistoric"; if it contains things such as milled wood, metal, glass, paper, etc, then we label it "historic" (and, obviously, if it contains elements from both categories, then we label it "both").

Here's the problem: The prehistoric/historic dividing line in California (and much of the world, in fact) is murky at best, and nonexistent at worse. The introduction of written records to California came with the Europeans. The problem, of course, is determining when you should place this. Should it be with the early voyages in the 1540s? Should it be with the founding of the missions in the 1760s through the 1820s? Should it be with the establishment of Euro-American settlements in even the more remote parts of the state in the 1890s and 1910s?

The practice that we have been in is to ignore all of these potential dates and look insteadm as described above, just at what's present in the site. The problem here is that this results in sites that were occupied by people well-documented in the historical record being labelled "prehistoric", which is just plain factually incorrect. There are other, more correct, labels available: ethnohistoric, protohistoric, etc. All of which are in active use in research archaeology, but not available as a check box on the documents that we are required to use.

What's more, there's a tendency to associate "prehistoric" sites with Native Americans, and "historic" sites with everyone else (Euro-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc.). But this really isn't correct, either, as Native Americans did adopt many of the materials from the newly-arrived groups, and so it is not uncommon to find a Native American site from the late 19th or early 20th century that is comprised of a wood-frame house and glass and metal detritus, similar to the non-Native homes of the day. There would be differences in the material patterning of the site, just as there are differences between the sites of Italian immigrants vs. German immigrants, but it would still end up being given the "Historic" label (maybe a "both" label if things such as ground stone were found on-site, but the ground stone would often be assumed to have pre-dated the rest of the material, even thought it didn't necessarily), and unless there was a clear record that the home belonged to a Native American, there would typically be little effort made to determine to whom it belonged.

Up to this point, this has probably all seemed like pointless ranting about something that is unimportant. So, I'll try to explain why this actually does matter.

Under current practice and regulations, Native Americans have a more significant role when a "prehistoric" site is found than when a "historic" site is found. The reasoning seems pretty clear - the prehistoric site belongs to their cultural lineage, whereas the historic site is seen as belonging to the post-European cultural lineage. But the problem is that, as describe dabove, many historic sites are Native American sites, and so it seems rather bizarrely inconsistent to only consult with them on prehistoric sites when they may have relevant information on historic sites as well.

Now, many of my colleagues will point out that sufficient background research will identify historic-era sites that are the homes of Native American individuals and families. This is generally true, but because of the nature of late 19th/early 20th century racial politics, it's not uncommon for ownership information or ethnicity identification to not be readily apparent in this historic record.

The reality is that the division of prehistoric and historic, while it annoys my inner fact-checker, does work the majority of the time. But that doesn't stop me from wondering how often we get it wrong, or when it is going to bite some (or maybe all) of us in the ass.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Workin' the Bone

I have been spending my free time working with bone.

I volunteered to help out a friend of mine with a research project. My friend is a professor at a university in England, and has, over the last several years, put together a team of other archaeologists who spend time working on aspects of his principle research project - the excavation and analysis of a series of sites in the south of California's San Joaquin Valley* - and I am his faunal guy. The upshot of which is that I have a box filled with bone, most of it in small slivers due to taphonomic** processes, and I am sorting and doing a basic analysis of it.

It's an odd experience. On the one hand, it is tedious work, sorting through several pounds of bone slivers, most of them less than an inch long, and figuring out what category they belong in (large mammal, small mammal, medium-sized mammal, sea mammal, fish, reptile, etc.), and with large enough pieces, trying to figure out exactly which type of animal it belonged to (deer, skunk, coyotes, and so on). On the other hand, it's also a skill - being able to look at a sliver of bone and see the features that clearly identify it as being from one creature and not another, or knowing how thick a large mammal's cortical bone is vs. a small mammal's, etc., and I have amazingly not lost my skill over the years in which I have primarily written reports and done surveys - in fact, I seem to be getting sharper.

It's also a bit odd for me because this is pure research - there's no resource management angle and no regulatory reason for the work. My friend is an academic, so all of this is done for the sake of generating data, hopefully learning a thing or two about Californian archaeology, and publishing it. So, on the one hand, this means that I do the work on my own time without being able to use company time or resources on it. On the other hand, this means that I am largely free to do what I think is appropriate with the materials, provided that my work meets the needs of the rest of the team working on the research project.

One of the things that this is reminding me of, though, is just how much pains-taking, often monotonous work one must engage in when doing research. It is possible that the analysis of the animal bone will reveal something important about the site...but it is equally possible, perhaps even more likely, that it won't. Still, we have to do it so that we can be certain that we haven't unnecessarily left an obvious route of investigation out***. One of the things that I often hear or read when I see pseudo-archaeologists respond to criticism that they haven't bothered to do basic due-diligence in working out their conclusions is something along the lines of "what, do you honestly expect us to sift through every rock, piece of bone, and scour each part of the ground?" To which I can only respond "why not, we have to."

*The irony of these people leaving a country where the normal summer temperatures are relatively conducive to fieldwork to travel to a hot, arid location where heat stroke is common does not escape me.

**Taphonomy is the study of post-depositional processes - that is, the study of what happens between the time that archaeological materials are discarded and the time that an archaeologist comes along and digs them up. Taphonomic processes include items being moved due to soil movement, broken due to animal and plant activity, eaten away due to soil acidity, etc.

***That being said, there will always be something that you couldn't research, look into, or evaluate, either because you didn't think of it, because doing so would have prevented you from investigating something that seemed more important, or because you simply didn't have the time and/or resources. It's unfortunate, but a fact of life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Register and Controversial Sites

Doing some research a little while back, I began looking up locations that met the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), but where I suspected that controversy surrounding the meaning/role of the places might block them from having actually been listed. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that most of those I thought of were either listed, or at least had been recommended as eligible for listing*.

Probably emblematic of this is the Stonewall Inn, a prominent 60s-era gay bar in New York which was routinely raided by the police. One night, in 1969, a raid did not go as planned, and riots began. The riots were, in many ways, the ignition of the modern gay-rights movement. Whether one is in favor of or against gay rights, it is hard to argue that the movement hasn't had a strong impact on U.S. politics and society since 1969, and therefore has affected "the broad patterns of history", which is the criteria for listing a place on the National Register for it's role in/contribution to historic events.

I have discovered that telling people that the Stonewall Inn is on the NRHP usually gets one of two reactions: 1) for people who are in favor of gay people having the same rights as everyone else**, it seems appropriate that the location so closely linked with the start if the gay rights movement should be listed; 2) for people who are opposed to gay people having the same rights as everyone else***, finding that the Stonewall Inn is listed leads to reactions ranging from irritation to outrage. There is this notion that NRHP listing somehow puts a mark of approval or acceptance on a location.

But this isn't the case.

Listing on the NRHP is rather like Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" - it isn't an endorsement or an accolade, but a recognition of the impact that a place or events associated with it has had on history****. This impact can be good, it can also be bad, or it can even be neutral but pervasive. This seems appropriate - what seems bad or controversial now may seem like the obviously right thing to do down the line (remember, ending slavery was controversial enough that it contributed to the breakout of the Civil War), and remember things that are either controversial or even negative but influential is necessary to maintaining an accurate view of our past and not creating false legends.

It's important to remember that we are shaped just as much by our desire to maintain the status quo, often (perhaps typically) unthinkingly, as we are by a desire to improve things. Aspects of our past which we would like to not think about, regardless of the reason, are nonetheless important. What's more, one group's abomination may be another group's shrine. I like the fact that the NRHP is not a monument to our greatness as a nation, but instead is a reminder of the various types of things that have shaped us. While I think that the Stonewall Inn stands for the start of something good, even if I didn't, it would still belong on the register because it is difficult to imagine current politics and religion without the outcome of the riots. Likewise, places associated with people who I do not hold in esteem, but who nonetheless altered the United States in significant ways, also belong on it.

*This is a bit of an arcane regulatory thing. Actually having a property listed on the NRHP can often be something of a drawn-out process. As it is federal agencies that usually do the work, and the process can take a fair amount of time and money, the regulations that protect cultural resources protect both those that are listed and those that have been found eligible for listing, even if they are not actually listed. This can save time and money on the part of federal agencies, and it also provides some (admittedly limited, as the historic preservation laws have no real teeth) protection to resources that haven't been listed but are known to be important.

**In other words, people who don't think that someone should be penalized for no reason other than old superstitious dogma.

***In other words, people who believe old superstitious dogma, regardless of how they try to rationalize it.

****True story - Time magazine has listed some truly vile individuals as the "Man of the Year" not because the magazine endorsed them - often the accompanying articles have been extremely critical - but because they made a huge impact. It is worth noting, though, that both Time and the NRHP can sometimes bend to political pressure and not list something important but unpopular.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Historic Junk not in the Trunk

I am currently working on a report for an archaeological survey that occurred in Madera County. During the course of the survey, several archaeological sites were found, as well as one location that is difficult.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act and the California Environmental Quality act, a number of criteria must be met in determining whether or not something is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historic Resources, and only if it is eligible will it be provided any legal protection*. Although not one of the formal four criteria, the age of a site does come into play. Remember that an archaeological site is just the past remains of human activity that is not solely a standing structure or object, regardless of age. The relevant regulations have placed the age of 50 years as the point in which we start seriously considering a site (some agencies use 45 years as there is often a several-year difference between the time the environmental studies get started and the time that work actually begins)**. So, as of the day that I write this, if a fallen building, a trash dump, or the remains of a camp site dates to 1961 or earlier, there is a (vanishingly small) chance that it might be eligible for the National Register. Of course, the older it gets, the more likely we are to consider it eligible, in large part because written records are less likely to provide information. So, a camp site from 1961 would have to be recorded, but a camp site from 1861 is much more likely to be subject to further study.

The difficulty is that so much of modern disposable consumer culture really got kicked up in the 1950s that it is often difficult to determine the age of sites that are post-WWII but still over 50 years old. Part of this is due to the narrow time frame (approximately 16 years), part of it is due to the fact that the labels on items tend to fade in the sun, often resulting in little more than blank bottles and cans (which, changes in manufacturing methods being what they are, we can often tell the age of by measuring them, but not always), and part of it is the fact that a sufficiently large number of people horde stuff in their garages, closets, etc, and then decide to dump it decades later, so a trash scatter or dump consisting primarily of materials from the 1940s might actually have been dumped some time in the 1970s, and you have to watch for clues that this might have been the case. Another part of the problem is that most trash deposits from the 1940s onward consist in large part of the remnants of consumer goods from brands that are still around today, leading the field worker to try to figure out whether a particular brand logo dates to 1946 or 1963 when trying to decide whether or not something needs to be recorded.

There are, of course, historic archaeologists who are experts in this. They are very good at the identification, and also can take basic information on brand distribution and show you fascinating things about how this reflects economic changes, the spread of different populations (sometimes the consumption of one brand of goods over another tells alot about who was doing the consuming), and the ways in which the creation of consumer goods in the modern sense led to an evolution of work and home life. If you have one of these people on hand, as I am sometimes lucky enough to, it can be a boon both to your efficiency (less time recording what you shouldn't, less time going back out to the field because you missed something) and your morale (when someone else is excited about a can scatter, it's harder to feel grumpy about having to record it).

But most of us in CRM are prehistoric archaeologists - we are into stone tools, bedrock milling features, and hunter-gatherer settlement patterns. We know enough about historic sites to be able to sufficiently record most pre-1940 sites that we encounter, and when we embark on a new project we do enough background research to identify unusual sites that we might otherwise miss. We also carry cheat sheets with corporate logos by year, maker's marks for items, and tables of can measurements so that we can judge how old things are. But we always find ourselves finding objects for which we don't have the knowledge or an information sheet ready at hand.

To get back to the case mentioned in the second sentence of this post, we recorded a site that appeared to be a dump of 1950s era household and industrial refuse. Once I returned to the office and began comparing photos and drawings from the field to information in our reference books and at some on-line resources that I use, it became clear that the materials were either from items that would have been in use any time between 1947 and 1976, or were produced in the 1970s but intentionally designed to look like they came from the 1940s and 1950s. A historics specialist wouldn't likely have made the error, but a crew of prehistoric archaeologists did.

It's one of the weird elements of CRM archaeology. Most of us attended undergraduate and graduate programs geared towards making us experts in a relatively narrow range of archaeological skills and knowledge, and then we end up in this profession where we have to work at broadening our knowledge to encompass a very wide range of site types. It also speaks to the value of double-checking your historic artifacts against your reference material before you go to the trouble of producing in-depth site records.

*I often hear people claim that the discovery of any archaeological site or historic structure will result in impacts to construction projects. This is not true. First off, the protections for archaeological sites are not particularly strong. In most cases you can, in fact, destroy them, you just may be required to pay to have them excavated first. Secondly, the only ones that even get this small measure of protection are those that are eligible for the relevant historic registers, and the vast majority do not meet eligibility criteria.

**This age criteria can be ignored if a site is considered to be sufficiently important to history, and this is clear before the 50 years is up. So, for example, the Cape Canaveral launch location, if evaluated before it was 50 years old (which it may have been, I haven't looked it up), was probably eligible for the register because of the huge, history-changing events that took place there.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The 4th and Mythology of the Past

Monday was Independence Day in the U.S., the day when we blow crap up to celebrate the fact that 235 years ago, a group of men sent what amounted to a "Dear John" letter to England and declared that the United States was a sovereign nation of its own.

What fascinates me is the way in which this event, and the period in time surrounding it, has become mythologized within the U.S. that a mythology has built up around it is not surprising, this happens in most, if not all, countries. What fascinates me is the way in which the mythologies often radically depart from reality, and the degree to which people cling to their views when even the most cursory research would prove them wrong. And I'm not even talking about the "Paul Revere rode to warn the British*" nonsense.

There are a few different types of mythologization. One of the most common is the heroification of the Founders. By this, I mean the assertion that they did more than they really did, such as can be found in the "Price They Paid" account. There is also a particular strain of heroification in American Christianity that holds that the Founders were supernaturally inspired and "the wisest men ever to have lived." In these cases, the Founders are blown up beyond who they really were, usually for social or political purposes that serve the person creating the myth.

And people buy into it because they want the myth to be true, they want these guys to be larger than life. Which is weird, because these are people who rejected the existing order, created a new system of government based on trying to fix some of the problems that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, fought a war over this, and then relinquished power when their terms in elected office were up, despite what one might expect. If that, the reality, isn't cool enough for you, then I really have to wonder what would be. They don't need to be supernaturally inspired or have models of virtue in order to be pretty damn outstanding. Yes, these were humans, and they had their faults - slave ownership, an ability to fall into petty partisanship, and the prejudices of their day. But the reality, good and bad, warts and all, is amazing enough. These were remarkable men living in remarkable times, and it doesn't need to be made into something it wasn't.

But the myth gets warped in all sorts of ways to suit various purposes, all of them requiring that facts about the events be ignored and, often, that new facts be invented. One of the arenas where I have taken a particular interest is that of how the religion of the Founders is viewed. It is increasingly common for people to assume that they were all Christians of some sort, with many Fundamentalist Christian sects claiming that they were all specifically Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christians of a sort that many a mega-church pastor would recognize as one of his own. This is, of course, not true. It's difficult to get a handle on how many Founders there were, because the term can be defined in many ways (just the signers of the Declaration of Independence? All of the representatives at the Constitutional Convention? The prominent writers who pushed the agenda of the rebel colonists?), but any reasonable count would include people of a wide range of religious positions, which includes numerous Christians, it must be said. However, the particular brand of Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christianity that is prominent in modern politics today is a relatively recent creation, growing out of 19th and 20th century religious movements, and none of the Christians who were present for any of the events that might qualify them as among the Founders would recognize it as the Christianity with which they were familiar. Moreover, even amongst the Christian Founders, the role of Christianity in their lives was highly variable - George Washington, for example, is known to have stopped bothering with church and didn't attend.

And, of course, many of the Founders were clearly not Christian. Thomas Jefferson re-wrote the New Testament to remove supernatural elements. Thomas Paine was openly atheist, and often wrote disparagingly of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Deism and even atheism were not uncommon amongst educated men of the time, and that category includes the Founders.

Which brings us to another myth. While many Christians falsely claim that the Founders were all Christians, or even more falsely claim that the Constitution sets the U.S. up as a "Christian Nation"**, it is common amongst my fellow atheists to hear that the Founders were all deists - sort of a "weak proto-atheism"*** that was popular in the 18th century. This is also not true. As described above, there were many religious views amongst the Founders, and the claim that they were all deists is just as false and absurd as the claim that they were all Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christians.

It fascinates me that we tend to project our present politics onto the past without regard to what was actually going on in the past. This is, to a degree, understandable, but it is mistaken. While there is much int he past that can provide information and guidance for the present, the past is, nonetheless, a different place with different social orders and different rules, and it leads to nothing more than dubious mythologies when we try to read the past by the issues of the present.

*No he didn't, you illiterate twit. Actually what surprises me about this is that the original statement seemed like a basic slip of the tongue - the sort of mistake that all of us can make even when we know better, she likely wanted to ay that he was coming to warn the colonists about the British and stumbled over her words a bit. No big deal, we've all done that sort of thing. What surprises me is the fact that Palin stuck to the erroneous claim after she made it, and really she has to know that she was wrong, simply so that she wouldn't have to admit that she made a mistake. What surprises me even more is that many of her supporters seemed to take this as a sign of her conviction rather than a sign of her unfitness for any responsibility beyond running the Slurpee machine at the 7-11. Really, being firm in your conviction of a completely false premise - and one that you probably know is completely false - is not a strength, it's a severe liability.

Then again, from what I have seen, most of her supporters are also young-Earth creationists and believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, so whatcha' gonna' do...

**Fun fact: Religion is mentioned only twice in the Constitution: 1) when religious tests to hold public office are prohibited (in other words, a member of any religion or no religion can legally hold public office, and it's nobody's business but their own what their religious beliefs are); 2) in the Bill of Rights when prohibitions against the government establishing or interfering in religion are stated. In other words, the Constitution is pretty clearly not a Christian document. Anyone who claims otherwise is either lying or wholly ignorant.

***The basic idea of deism is that, as there is no evidence for miracles or any sort of supernatural interference in people's day-to-day lives, this is consistent with the creator of the universe, usually conceptualized as a god of some sort, having put the universe into motion, and then stepped back and not interfering any further. Once cosmology and biology began to discover natural processes which explained the orign of complex systems better than a creator deity, deism began to decline. This is the reason why flat-out atheists were unusual in the 19th century, though some did exist, while deists are relatively rare in the 21st century.