Thursday 5 January 2012

Touchstone Thursday: Kent V. Flannery's The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s*

The Subversive Archaeologist is not the place for hero worship. And I'm sure some might think it 'uncool' for me to suggest that any one archaeologist's literary skills are better than any other's. But when it comes to literary archaeology, there's Kent Flannery, and then there's everybody else. 
     I first learned of Flannery when I was asked to read excerpts from The Early Mesoamerican Village for Brian Hayden's undergraduate theory class at SFU. I don't know if I've ever laughed louder or longer at a piece of humorous fiction, much less one written about archaeology by one of the most prolific archaeologists on the planet. By the time Flannery wrote TEMV I'm guessing he'd spent a good deal of time observing the people who do archaeology, multi-tasking while he 'did' his own top-drawer fieldwork in Oaxaca. He recognized patterns of behaviour common to certain subsets of the individuals he'd come in contact with in academia. And his vignettes of the Skeptical Graduate Student and the others are the stuff of legend. Every one of you should have the experience if you haven't already.

Flannery's literary talents are at least as well developed as his grasp of what anthropological archaeology is all about, and in 'The Golden Marshalltown' he pillories those whom he considers archaeology's charlatans. 'TGM' is at least as deep as it is rich, especially in the lore of Americanist archaeology, and in the way the author lays waste to whole swaths of late-middle-twentieth century archaeological theorizing. Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-theoretical. Obviously. And neither is Flannery. But he's not above exposing the Imperium for its invisible, new theoretical 'duds' (and I'm not above emulating him in that cause).
     Some of you will read it and see me in some of Flannery's negative characterizations--the Born-Again Philosopher or the Child of the Seventies, perhaps. And although my archaeological 'calling' involves questioning how we know what we know, I'm motivated by the felt need to make archaeological inference-making more robust, and not by any high-falutin' aspirations to get to the top without getting dirty. In that vein, the reader should know that, like many archaeologists, I still feel the annual tug to get into the field. And when I get the chance I'm happier than a pig in a wallow. A golden Marshalltown to anyone who can top that!

* For readers who haven't had the pleasure of working in the Americas, the 5-inch (125mm) Marshalltown pointing trowel is the excavator's tool of choice. It was already a iconic before Flannery wrote 'TGM'. The reasons are many. It's drop forged from a single piece of steel, so it resists the urge to snap at the base of the blade like stamped or welded copycats. It's blade can be honed to a fine edge, allowing it to slice through rootlets, which makes digging less of a manual strain. And the steel is strong but resilient. It has the ability to resonate such that the user can both hear and feel the difference when it comes in contact with unseen material of different densities, such as bone, stone or wood.

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