The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cultural Lenses and Subjectivity

One of the things that fascinates me is the tendency that all of us have to project the present of our culture onto other cultures and other points in time. This is, perhaps, most obvious when we see a politician claiming that the people of another nation want the very same political structure as the politician's nation, or that some aspect of modern culture (be it gender roles, the modern mode and trappings of marriage, the nature of our current economic system, etc.) is an eternal and fixed part of humanity and not the fluid and transient thing that it actually is. Similarly, many of the counter-narratives that are developed do a similar thing, projecting the struggles and points of contention of the modern U.S. and Europe onto the rest of the world and the past (viewing all past human societies through the lens of Marx's writings, or through modern political feminism, or through the lens of 21st-century fundamentalist Christianity).

It is often less obvious when historians and anthropologists do so, not because we don't engage in many of the same behaviors, but because we are very good at talking as if we are not. We layer our readings of the past with views gained from our own experience in the present, and then fold these within theoretical models (themselves derived at least in part from our experience of the present) and present them as if they were objective readings of another time and place. A common post-modern critique of mid-20th century archaeological models of hunter gatherer behavior is that these models often required the behavior of hunter-gatherers to conform to post-Adam Smith models of capitalism-steeped economics. And the argument was, to a degree valid, though those making it almost immediately began trying to build new models based on other 19th through 20th century social and political ideas thus proving that they really weren't as different from "the positivists" (as they often labelled the more traditional scholars) as they would have liked to believe.

This tendency is understandable. Human behavior is complex, often downright bizarre, and if we are going to make sense of other cultures we have to find some way in which we can enter the mindset of the people of that culture. As a result, we are forced to try to find something that we either have in common with them or else find some way to boil down some aspect of their culture into an understandable model or formula. Beyond that, we are human just as they are/were, and therefore have the same physical and cognitive capabilities, and therefore there should be similarities that we can understand. The problem lies not in finding similarities that allow us to understand others, but in making sure that these similarities are real and not the product of our failure to understand important and fundamental differences between cultures.

There are many ways to separate illusory similarities or explanation from real ones. One of my personal favorites, due of course to my training, is that of hypothesis testing. You suggest a possible similarity or formulaic way to expressing or explaining people's behaviors or culture, and you then begin to determine what testable conditions will result if what you are looking at is actually true. For example, there is a popular body of scholarship in archaeology referred to as Optimal Foraging Theory, and typically applied to hunter-gatherer cultures. It's fairly complex, but boiled down to it's essence, it holds that people will balance the amount of work required to obtain food vs. the amount of nutrition available from those foods, trying to maximize the nutrition (measured in any number of ways: calories, grams of protein, difficult to get vitamins, etc.) while minimizing the amount of work necessary*. By looking at the food remains found in archaeological sites or documenting the foods brought in by groups studied ethnographically, we can evaluate the success of a particular optimal foraging model for predicting and rendering comprehensible an aspect of human behavior.

Optimal foraging models are successful, but only to a point. There are many foods that people pursue that are of little nutritious quality, or may be highly nutritious but are so labor intensive to get that the gain is nullified, and yet people seek to obtain them. So, using what is essentially an economic model to make another culture comprehensible only works to a certain degree. You then have to look into the specifics of that culture top see why the model doesn't work all the way. And when you start looking for this, you will quickly find that you are alternately stuck between trying to find analogies to your own time and/or culture to make sense of behaviors, or else simply confused by what you are seeing and thinking that the people who you are studying are flat-out nuts.

Ultimately, we have to realize two things: 1) we will never understand others as they understand themselves (and vice-versa) and there will therefore always be room to modify and challenge our conclusions about other peoples and other times; 2) all of our understandings of other people will be, to some degree, dependent on our own position as viewers/interpreters. As a result, we should be wary of holding our views of other times and cultures as being anything but tentative and subject to change. But that doesn't mean that these other people are completely alien or incomprehensible to us. Again, we share our biology with them, and much of human behavior and human nature derives from our biology, however much we might like ot cling to romantic notions otherwise. Moreover, when we realize that we have projected ourselves into others, we have been given a reality check and shown a place where we erred, which means that anything and everything doesn't go. If we are open to having our beliefs about others challenged by our observations of them, if we don't simply succumb to the confirmation bias and ignore disconfirming information, we can move closer to the truth of reality, even if we never quite reach it.

A vocal minority of post-modern scholars and their acolytes outside of the academy claim that the fact that we can never have full and true objectivity means that we must reject the notion of objectivity altogether, even as an idealized goal. Robert Solow (as quoted by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) has said that "that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer." It's a good point - just because you can't remove all of your stumbling blocks and biases doesn't mean that you shouldn't get rid of as many as you can, while committing yourself to the process of removing others as you find them.

*This, incidentally, is one of the models often criticized for being based on modern capitalism. Note the similarities between the basic concept underlying the model, and the notion of a market supporting prices based on supply of a commodity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The VA, Funerals, and Religion

So, a group of legislators and clergy are trying to force the families of all people who die in military service to observe Christian funeral rites, whether the dead or their families are Christians or not.

Read more here.

Of course, they are framing this as them "standing up an protecting the rights of Christian soldiers against the godless commie liberals!" But the fact of the matter is that Christian families/servicemen are free to have Christian funerals on federal land. They always have been. They have to request them, though, just as Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and members of every other religion have to request funerals that conform to their religions so that they don't have the views of another religion pushed onto them during the funeral. It is perfectly legal, and nobody is trying to stop it.

Contrary to what these people claim, religion isn't banned during military funerals. However, the families of the deceased are not forced to have the rites or rhetoric of another person's religion thrust upon the funeral of their family member.

If you look at what's going on, these legislators are actually pushing for rules that will make a religious ceremony the default for all military ceremonies, and allow VA staff and volunteers to push religion during funerals even if it is against the wishes of the deceased or their family.

This isn't an attempt to protect Christians, it's an attempt to force everyone else to accept a specific form of religion. It'll fail when it comes to court (if the legislation even passes), and the Veteran's Administration is doing the right thing in resisting it. But, as is so often the case, despite all of the rhetoric, this isn't about standing up for religion in general or Christianity in particular, it's about domination and beating down the people who are not members of the dominant religion. It's bullying, and nothing more, and if the legislators and clergy had any sort of a sense of shame or decency, they would provide and apology and back away. But, of course, that isn't going to happen.

This is dispicable, callous bullying.

Of course, it is also unlikely that any rule requiring religious funerals against the wishes of the deceased and their family will actually stand up in court, so this is also a case where those backing it who aren't purely delusional are clearly taking up time (and the tax-payers money) to grandstand and engage in divisive politics, which is, frankly, evil and destructive.

Edit: As I searched for more information on this, I kept coming across hysterical claims that the VA was banning mention of religion at military funerals. This is not true. Religious services are allowed for families who wish to have them. The VA does not allow VA staff or volunteers to push religion into funeral services where the family of the deceased does not want them. Again, the existing rules are about people having the funeral that is appropriate to their family, and NOT having a government agency push or prohibit religious rites on those who don't want them. The people wanting a change are not trying to allow religious funerals, they are already allowed, they are trying to force them on people who don't want them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Short Science Fiction Story

In the last moments of my life, I recalled my conversation with Dr. Johnson regarding the time machine. He had explained that the machine could travel through time, but not space. So I could go forward or backward in time, but would remain in the same location. Johnson had indicated the platform on which the machine stood, and said "this is the very height, down to the millimeter, of the land at this location prior to the construction of this facility."

He was proud of the machine, of the scientific work behind it, and, strangely, of having built the simple wooden platform. The USAF had sent me to be his test pilot, and I was getting ready to see this little corner of Nevada as it was in 1850, though I doubt it would be too terribly different from what it was now, other than the lack of pre-fab standardized government-issue buildings.

I thought of this after the laboratory had vanished, and was replaced with a starscape and a darkness more complete than anything I had ever seen on earth. I thought of this as the capsule exploded around me, it's internal air supply forcing it's relatively weak seems to break against the vacuum. And I completed my thoughts of this conversation as space sucked the air from my lungs and I could feel my eyes turning to ice.

Note: I have always been puzzled by science fiction stories that portray traveling forward or backward in time while remaining in the same spot on Earth as travel through space but not time. The planet, Solar System, and even galaxy are always moving. So, if you were to travel through space but not time, you wouldn't end up in the same point on earth but in a different year. Statistically speaking, you would most likely end up in the vacuum of space.

At Long Last, Publication!

So, finally, the paper that I had been writing and revising and re-writing for the last two years has seen the light of day.

Check it out!

My paper has the scintillating title of Exchange Links between the Coastal and Inland Chumash, and if you are interested in southern and central Californian archaeology, I hope you'll find it interesting...if you're not, it's guaranteed to be better than Sominex and have fewer side effects.

I was also informed by my boss that a paper she is writing for presentation at a conference will have me listed as a co-author as it will be based on a document that I originally wrote. So, on the whole, I'm doing okay on the "sharing information with my peers" front.

It's an important thing to me to do this. So much of the information that CRM archaeologists produce never gets any real circulation, languishing in government offices or regional information centers but unknown except to those who find it during a record search (and, in my experience, rarely read these documents) that one can reasonably wonder why we are bothering. Publishing papers synthesizing our results and speaking at public and professional conferences is probably the best way out of this particular pickle.

Anyway, I'm finally published, will soon have another paper at a conference, and am already working on another (hopefully to be published) paper.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Archaeological Cultures

A while back, a friend of mine was reading about the Clovis Culture and asked a pretty good question: why do we call it a "culture" when what we are really looking at is the tools, and the small sub-set of stone tools which preserve, and not other things that we would generally consider to be important to culture: religion, language, family organization, etc.

It's an excellent point, and one that begs the question of just what, precisely, culture is, at least archaeologically speaking.

Archaeologically, we use the term "culture" to describe related artifacts and groups of artifacts the consistently appear in a given place and date to within a given range of dates (so, the Clovis Culture appears in North America and dates to about 13,000 years ago and consists of sets of artifacts that include the distinctive Clovis Points. Based on the similarities of tools and other artifacts, it is generally assumed that the different sites at which these artifacts are found are related to the same or similar lifeways (the same tools=similar tasks, the thinking goes), and as such it makes sense to groups these sites and their assemblages together.

The archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who is often considered one of the popularizers of the use of the term "culture" in this way, wrote:

We find certain types of remains - pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites and house forms - constantly recurring together. Such a complex of associated traits we shall call a "cultural group" or just a "culture". We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what today we would call "a people".

One problem is that these perceived cultures may be partially a product of the archaeological record rather than simply direct evidence of actual cultural groupings or peoples. For example, the Clovis Point seems to represent the remains of a highly mobile nomadic culture that engaged in, and likely was reliant on, big game hunting. And likely this was the case for most of the early American peoples. But there are numerous artifacts used by people that simply don't preserve, or at least rarely preserve, in the archaeological record, and so we are not seeing many of the tools, art, social signifiers, and other objects that would have been vital to the day-to-day lives of the Clovis peoples, and that's not even getting into the intangibles such as language, religious beliefs, social organization, etc. Some of this information can be teased out of the remains to varying degrees, but not all of it, and never with 100% confidence. We're putting together a jigsaw puzzle with several of the pieces missing. For this reason, many archaeologists refuse to use the term "culture" to describe the artifact groupings, opting instead for more accurately descriptive terms such as "technology-complexes."

Of course, the degree to which archaeology can describe an actual culture varies greatly. With the Clovis complex, we know little other than that they all used similar spear points and appeared to make extensive use of large animals for food and tool material. We can actually derive quite a bit of information from that, and speculate on quite a bit more, but there is so much that we can't know that it is fair to say that we may just as well be looking at many different cultures spread throughout North America who all used similar projectile points as to say that they were all related to a "stock" culture and shared a good deal more than hunting practices and nomadic land use patterns. Some may have been more reliant on hunting than others, there were probably multiple dialects, maybe even many different languages, and if it turns out that Clovis tool-making methods spread to many different groups of people already in North America (much as we know that later tool-manufacturing methods spread in the Americas), then it is entirely possible that there were multiple languages, religions, and regionally highly-adapted lifeways. In other words, Clovis may represent a solution to a common problem rather than a common culture.

By contrast, the Maya had such distinctive tools, architecture, and writing that we can say with confidence that there was a shared culture, likely a shared ethnicity, amongst the people living in Mayan sites. Even there, there is likely variations (some of them possibly quite important) that we are simply unaware of, but it is more reasonable to talk about "Mayan Culture" than "Clovis Culture." And these are two extreme ends of a spectrum.

Another problem is that artifacts that are perceived as being separate are sometimes actually closely related, and those perceived as being closely related might, on further analysis, prove to be separate. For example, in reading archaeology journals published in the 1920s through the 1950s, it's common to see certain types of artifacts grouped together as being part of the same "culture", distinct from other groupings of artifacts. After the 1950s, as radiocarbon dating became common, it was not unheard of for some of these "cultures" to turn out to be from the same time, not just the same place, and likely represent the remains not of separate cultures, but of separate work places or task sites belonging to the same group of people. While this wasn't too common, it did occur, and is a lesson to be kept in mind.

In the end, talking about archaeological "cultures" can often be nothing more than what my professors referred to as "confusing people with pots" - assuming that the recovered artifacts are more strongly indicative of the people who used them than they really are. If you are reading about archaeology, or watching a documentary, be aware of how the term "culture" is used - is it used to describe a group of people who are known to have shared a common identity - such as the Maya - or is it used to describe a set of artifacts without regard to how closely the people using them were related. It gets used frequently in both ways, but the two uses are not interchangeable.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Comparing the Primitives?

Several years back, I was at a panel discussion on Native American involvement in cultural resources management at the Society for California Archaeology's annual meeting. During the meeting, a woman on the panel, who was herself a member of a Native Californian group, said that she was offended at the tendency that anthropologists had to compare hunter-gatherer and early farmer groups. As she put it "I see what you guys are saying - you're saying 'let's compare the primitive people!'"

Did she have a point?

Well, yes and no.

During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, there was a tendency for many anthropologists to view all human society as being on a linear path from the most "primitive" (mobile foragers) to the most "advanced" (usually considered to be the society of one of the European nations, sometimes conceived of European culture as a whole). In this sort of framework, comparison of two groups of people who made and used stone tools, who engaged in hunting and gathering as a resource base, and who spoke a non-written language would have been viewed as a comparison of two primitive cultures. And, it must be said, some of the writing produced during this era reflects the chauvinistic attitudes of the European and European-descended anthropologists.

However, even during this time, groups were not compared to each other because they were viewed as primitive, per se. They were compared based on similarities of resource base, tool production technology, and social organization. So, groups were not being compared because anthropologists wanted to "compare the primitives*, however arrogant the anthropologist might be. They were being compared because it was (and still is) thought that comparison of groups of people who live in similar ways might yield information about humanity in general.

If there are four different groups of people who all live in temperate zones, are mobile foragers, use similar tools, but some are matrilocal (men go to live with their wive's families/bands) while some are patrilocal (women go to live with their husband's families/bands), then this differences stands out in stark relief when compared to the similarities. Once you find this difference, you can begin looking for the source of the difference: is it essentially random chance? Is there some social or ecological factor at work favoring one pattern over another? Is there evidence for any of the groups as to the age of the practice?

Once one finds some answers (or, more likely, possible answers) as to why there are differences in patrilocality vs. matrilocality, it is then reasonable to look to other cultures which also share many of the similarities, and examine the reasons (or, again, possible reasons) for their practices regarding how couples and families organize. This may then provide information regarding basic human organization which can be applied more broadly.

So, in this sense, no, she was wrong, it wasn't just a case of "let's compare the primitives." Most of us who do this sort of comparative work don't even think of these people as "primitive", we usually think of groups of people as being adapted to different environments, and issues such as the alleged sophistication of a group of people don't even come into play. There are utilitarian reasons for comparing groups of people that have nothing to do with passing judgement on them.

At the same time, there is a reluctance to compare peoples who are quite different from each other, even though this might yield interesting results. Comparing the role of a chief within a community of eastern Native Californian farmers with the role of a senator in ancient Rome, for example, yields some interesting similarities: in both cases, there is someone who yields influence more often than outright power; both are reliant on the support of the people over whom they have power or influence in the way that a king, for example, is not; both need to exercise eloquence and patience in using their power in a way that a dictator does not; and both are likely to come from a lineage that produces people of their rank and often have been groomed for their position since childhood. Yet it is rare - not unheard of, but rare - to see someone who is researching complex chiefdoms in the American West look to Republican Rome for examples of the development and maintenance of power and authority. There are many reasons for this, but the fact remains that comparing two such vastly different cultures and finding the similarities can often reveal important information about common aspects of human behavior and culture that seem to be true across time and cultures, and might be hard-wired into us as a species.

In this sense, she sort-of has a point. The lack of comparisons across such vastly different cultures is due, in part, to the fact that anthropological archaeologists and ethnographers often have only the most limited understanding of the peoples who are usually treated by the field of history rather than anthropology. But another reason is that we are often so attached to our own narrow focus that we fail to see that there are lessons to be drawn from outside of our own sphere. In this sense, while we don't tend to think that we are "comparing the primitives" that is the effect of so much of what we do.

It should be noted, though, that this is not an absolute. Jean Arnold of UCLA has studied modern North American households with the intention of trying to apply information from them to prehistoric peoples the world over. Stuart Smith has drawn from the interaction of the Native Americans and the Russian outposts in North America in developing his ideas for how Egypt interacted with their neighbor Kush (I take issue with how Smith makes his comparisons, and with the material that he often cites from the Americas, but at least he's trying to do something interesting and worthwhile). As early as the 1960s, James Dietz argued for the study of historic Europeans and their descendants in the Americas as a way of generating theoretical models that could be applied to prehistoric archaeology.

Nonetheless, whatever the intention, I can understand why she would feel that there was an attitude that her ancestors were "primitive". I think that the situation is more complicated than that, but I can understand the feeling.

*Well, most anthropologists weren't doing it for this reason. There were, of course, some who were acting out of a desire to promote their own culture or nation by belittling others.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Another Hotel

So, I'm in the field again. This time we're working in the Sierra Nevadas, performing surveys and site record updates for a transmission line that stretches through a rather remote area of a national park. Thankfully, we're not camping - after a day spent working, a shower and hot meal for which you didn't have to build a fire are nice - but we are staying in a rather remarkably unremarkable hotel. It is, as far as I can tell, clean enough, and the location is convenient for our work. However, it is a the lone building for several miles in any direction, and is extremely isolated, meaning that we have little in the way of cell phone coverage (which doesn't seem like too big a deal until you consider that I have to be able to receive and send phone calls both with family members and with co-workers - being in the field on this doesn't mean that I am not still responsible for other projects), and the internet service, while obviously existing, is poor. It took me nearly an hour to upload this entry, which is a process that can normally be completed in under a minute.

So, the point of this is that while I had hoped that the relative isolation of our lodgings would allow me to actually write entries and post them, I will be able to write them but may not be able to post them. I will, however try to update as I can.

In the meantime, consider that I am a room barely large enough for the bed, in which it is impossible to use the shower without ramming one's knees into the toilet, and where there are a few odd stains in places where, frankly, I don't think there should be any. It's yet another hotel adventure for you to consider should you ever start thinking of archaeology as a glamorous career.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Beads, Morals, and History

One of the things that both fascinates and frustrates me about how people within the United States view the history of European interactions with Native Americans is how the stories invariably end up being streamlined, simplified, and mythologized either in order to assign blame or to teach a moral lesson or to tell a story of racial superiority (and this goes both ways). The reality of culture contact situations goes out the window to be replaced with a storybook description that replaces the messy realities with a black-and-white tale of right vs. wrong.

If you grew up in the U.S., you have most likely heard that Manhattan Island was bought from the local Native American inhabitants for $24 worth of beads (usually described dismissively as "trinkets") (though the Straight Dope makes a compelling argument that in modern terms, a price between $70 and $80 would be more accurate). The tale of this 1626 purchase is usually told as part of a story about how the Native Americans were taken advantage of by the European settlers. It is, in many ways, the emblematic story of the ways in which crafty European settlers callously took advantage of naive native peoples who weren't sophisticated enough to understand the "wily white man's ways". The story is basically bullshit. Oh, the narrative is true, as far as it goes, a European settler did provide beads and other materials worth a relatively small sum of money in European terms to a group of local people in return for possession of the island. However, the notion that the Native Americans were unsophisticated bumpkins who were easily hoodwinked when a white guy shoved some shiny stuff at them is nonsense - the basic facts of the story may be accurate, but the moral of the story is essentially ignorant and racist nonsense based on the notion that non-Europeans are a bunch of simpletons. While the tellers of this story may be sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans, they nonetheless are also astoundingly condescending.

First, it should be considered that much is made of the apparently small monetary value of what was traded, and the fact that it is usually described, dismissively, as "trinkets." The implication being that the people of Manhattan Island were so foolish that they would take a bunch of gaudy junk to be something of real value, and in so doing allow themselves to be taken advantage of. However, in cultures where money has not yet been developed, it is very common for exotic trade goods to mark the possessor as someone with authority and social cache, and the distribution of these trade goods can bring tremendous influence and wealth to the people who trade them away or hand them out. What might have been the equivalent of a cheap Kmart bracelet to the European economy may have been the equivalent of designer platinum jewelry when placed within the Manhattan economy. The economies of the European settlers (based on money and goods generated as per the structures of that society) was so radically different than the economy of the Native Americans that they encountered (where social prestige and ownership were often formulated in radically different ways) that to compare the two isn't a matter of comparing apples to oranges, but is more akin to comparing apples to monitor lizards.

Just as the European settlers were doing what made sense within their culture, it is likely that the native Manhattanites were doing what made sense within their culture. Whatever the motives, interests, or attitudes of the Europeans, the people of Manhattan were not simpletons, and the story of how Manhattan was sold for a handful of useless shinies leaves out 50% of the story. It's rather like claiming that the 1850s placer miners who moved into California were "travelling great distances just to get a few handfuls of sand*" - well, the sand contained gold which, within the miner's society, was of tremendous value and therefore their actions made sense.

There is another variant on the tale which holds that Peter Minuit, the man who made the transaction, was himself fooled by a group of Canarsie who were trading on the island but did not reside there and therefore did the 17th century equivalent of selling Minuit the Brooklyn Bridge. This variant re-casts the story not as "the mean old white man exploits the natives" but re-creates it as a trickster tale in which the "clever natives exploit the mean but foolish white man." Again, there may be some truth to this story - it was not unheard of for Native American groups to sell land multiple times to multiple Europeans - but even this one takes the basic facts (and potential facts, as it is unclear whether or not the people who sold Manhattan actually had a right to do so under their own system of property) and attempts to turn it into a story that is, quite simply, probably not an accurate reflection of what, precisely, was happening.

This version of the story is charming, but while it might be historically accurate (there is alot of uncertainty about the native people's side of things in most of these colonial histories, especially those from before the 19th century) it tends to be told in a way that recasts the story not as a historic narrative but, again, as a morality tale in which the villain is gotten the better of. The problem is that this reading requires that the complexities of culture contact situations again be jettisoned in favor of a simple and appealing narrative, so that even if the narrative is more-or-less accurate, the reader is likely to misunderstand important aspects of the situation, making evaluation of events surrounding the event difficult if not impossible. It precludes the ability to ask why Minuit dealt with this particular group and not another (basic racism - they all look alike? Disiniterest in local social practices? Misunderstanding of settlement patterns?) and it fails to account for the cultural context in which the native people were participating (were they trying to rip Minuit off? Were they engaging in an acceptable practice that had different meanings for them than for the settlers?).

A version of the story that may be more accurate, or at least seems to make a bit more sense to someone who knows about the economies of hunter-gatherers and non-state farmers, is described here. This variant holds that the Native people of the area didn't recognize land ownership, in that it was a foreign concept to how they structured their economies, and that they thought that what Minuit was doing was giving gifts with the intention of securing the right to share the resources and land on the island with the people who lived there. This is somewhat consistent with the way in which many societies view land - the resources on the land may be controlled or owned but the land itself is something there independent of the people who use or occupy it.

However, even this is an over-simplification. It assumes, first and foremost, that the people of Manhattan Island didn't comprehend that the Europeans did have a concept of land ownership - and they may very well not have understood this, but it's difficult to say based on the nature of the ethnohistoric record. Indeed, if Minuit "did business" with the wrong people as described in the previous version of the story, this implies that the local peoples did understand European land ownership to some extent and may have taken advantage of that. Additionally, while many groups do not have a concept of land ownership, they often do have a concept of territorial control - you may not own the land, but you'll damn well keep people who don't belong there from using the resources on it. This is different from owning the land in some rather significant ways, but for the purposes of making sense of this chapter in history it is similar enough to make the question of whether or not the land was sold rather murky. Again, while it is possible that the people of Manhattan may not have comprehended the European concept of land ownership, to simply assume that they did not because it was not a part of their own tradition is to assume, again, that they are simpletons incapable of understanding the ways of another culture. Tellings of this version of the story rarely, if ever, seem to discuss why the people of Manhattan might not have understood this aspect of European culture, they simply take it as given that these people were somehow incapable of comprehending it. Again, this is astoundingly condescending.

What is clear is that, over the next two centuries, the people who had once lived on Manhattan were driven out, and that a city scape that it is now impossible to even imagine as a wooded island gradually appeared. Injustices committed by European settlers - both against native peoples and against each other - are well documented, and I am not trying to create an European apologetic or a politically motivated history. What I am trying to do is point out that the stories that we learn about the interactions between European settlers and local native peoples are often modified or embellished by a desire to turn the dirty business of culture contact (and often cross-cultural aggression) into a morality tale that doesn't quite match reality, and that our readings of the past are typically informed more by our assumptions than by the facts of what happened.

*I know that some pseudo-intellectual, on reading that, will sniff and say "well, they were just looking for sand, because gold doesn't actually mean anything!" This person is just as guilty of ignoring the cultural context of the miners as someone who dismisses the "trinkets" given to the people of Manhattan island is of ignoring their cultural context. In other words, if you're the person who is saying "well, they were just after sand", stop being so fucking pretentious!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Waiting for Notice

It's been an odd few weeks. I spent most of last week writing reports, the week before that writing bids and proposals for potential jobs, and this most recent Friday we got approval to start work on several field projects.

Sort of.

See, you can get your contracts approved, but some clients want you to clear with them before you hit the field. They do so for various reasons, some of them good and sensible, some of them betraying control freak behavior. Regardless of whether they have a good reason or not, it means that you have to wait to hear from your client sometimes before you hit the field. When your client is able to respond quickly to requests, this is not a problem. When your client is him/herself buried under other work, this can result in you waiting. And so I was sitting about twiddling my thumbs waiting to find out if I could start doing field logistics until today, when I was finally given notice to proceed on the preliminary part of a project. Hopefully, come tomorrow, I will have a notice to proceed on the field portion and will be able to start next week.

On the up side, one of the higher-ups at my company pulled me aside today and informed me that I should let them know when I needed to be home to take care of personal matters, and then explained everything that they have set up to help me out should that be necessary. This was...unexpected. My current employer has a reputation for fair treatment of employees, but this was beyond that. One of the reasons that I left my last job was because the travel demands of work interfered with my family life, with medical treatment that I needed, and with me just keeping any sort of normal sane personal schedule. To be essentially ordered to maintain a good personal life was a delightful shock. It makes me feel that, troubles with Fresno aside, I made a good choice in coming to this employer.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Osteology Software Buying Blues

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class on human skeletal biology. The class was difficult*, and I was always on the lookout for anything that might help me out. To that end, one day, I headed to the local Software Etc. store**, thinking that, seeing as they were in a college town and did stock some educational software, they might have something that would be helpful.

I walked in, approached the counter, and explained to the guy standing there (the employee, not some random customer trying to buy his software) that I was an anthropology student, and was looking for educational software that covered human anatomy in general, and bone in particular.

the guy behind the counter - I am tempted to say "kid behind the counter" but he wouldn't have been much younger than me back then - snorted, and said "they weren't human."

A bit confused by his answer, I said something extraordinarily witty, like "huh?"

In about as condescending a tone as the little twit could muster he said "You said your an anthropology student. You don't study humans. You study those monkey things. Even if we have the software, it wouldn't help you."

I attempted to explain that anthropology was the study of humans - modern and otherwise - in general, and yes, I was looking for software on the anatomy of modern humans. His response? "No, you're looking at like Lucy and stuff.

I was flummoxed. On the one hand, I was trying to spend money in this guy's store, and his attitude was making it difficult for me to justify doing so, much less actually do it. On the other hand, I was an anthropology student, he had clearly never taken an anthropology class and didn't know anything about it, and I was clear in what I was looking for and that it would cover modern humans, and he was still insisting that somehow I was the one that didn't know what I was talking about.

I finally said "Look, I know what I am looking for, you obviously don't. I am studying the bones of modern humans, and I am looking for software that can help me study."

He snorted again, gave me a disdainful look, and said "Lucy wasn't a human."

I stared at him with irritation and said "depends on what you mean by human, but that's beside the point, because I am studying the bones of people walking around in the world today."

He rolled his eyes, gestured towards a rack of programs and said "there might be something over there."

I looked over, and then turned and walked out.

To this day, some sixteen years later, I still find myself wondering about why this guy had such an attitude. Was he simply one of those arrogantly ignorant fucks who is sure that he is the master of all sorts of specialized knowledge when he actually knows very little about, well, anything? Was he a creationist who was upset with the findings of paleoanthropologists and therefore wanted to show up one of them only showing his own ignorance in the process? Was he just a disagreeable ass who was unwilling to admit that his initial assumptions were wrong even as it became increasingly obvious that they were?

I don't know. What I do know is that that was the last time I ever walked into a Software Etc.

*Though in the end, I received either an A or B, I forget which.

**This was back when Software Etc., which has since merged with another store and become Gamestop, stocked a wide range of software, not just games. As odd as looking for something this specialized there might sound, they did sometimes have such specialized programs.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Low Ball

I am headed out into the field today (I should be in the field by the time this post drops) to record a site. The site is known, and a site record had been previously produced. However, the older record was of very low quality, providing little actual information aside from "there's a site in this general area...oh, and we think it's a prehistoric site."

This sort of thing is pretty common. There are many companies that produce solid work - good reports, good site records, and field and lab work that you can be pretty sure will be accepted by the agencies to which you have to submit the work in order to get your permits or money. My current and immediately previous employers were known for being these sorts of companies.

Then you get the low-ballers. The companies that will cut corners, produce a shoddy report and site records, and have dubious methodology. These ones get by by producing the "work" that they produce for a very, very low price. The work of these companies is usually a product of greed and laziness, but not outright corruption - though there are a few that veer into the latter category. If you happen to be submitting it to an agency that doesn't look to closely (or doesn't care) and if you are doing so in an environment where there is little reason to think that any public groups or private individuals will be scrutinizing it, then you can get away with this - and that's how these companies stay in business.

However, if you have a project that is likely to be scrutinized or where the agency reviewers aren't asleep at the wheel, there's a good chance that these low bid companies won't fly. Case in point - I am leaving today to go out int he field and re-do some work done by someone else. They issued a report that lacked the necessary background information, only vaguely described the study methods, and the site record that they produced along with the report gives no real information. The company that initially hired them paid about 2/3 what my company charges for the same services, which is why we didn't get the original contract. However, the report was rejected by the agency because it didn't provide any of the important information that the agency needs to comply with the relevant regulations. So, after some bickering with the first company, the client dropped them and hired us. Now, rather than pay our original cost, they have paid 1 and 2/3 of our original cost, and look bad to the agency from which they need to get permits.

So, the lesson is, if you are ever in a position where you have to hire an archaeologist, biologist, geologist, clean air/water person, etc. etc., don't just look at the price tag, look at their qualifications. It may save you some money in the end to not go with the cheapest one up front.