Tuesday 8 May 2012

They Must Have Rocks In Their Collective Head!

Credit National Geographic Magazine

I think a just-published paper begs for comment, even if I have no clue what's going on, empirically speaking, besides presentation of a particularly elaborate way to waste hard-to-get research funds. In fact, the only thing I had to say when I came upon this was 'WTF?'
You should all recall the discovery some years ago of a truly wonderful Upper Palaeolithic painted cave--La Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in France. Well, apparently Hélène Valladas's radiometric dating of the Chauvet Cave paintings didn't convince some people of their antiquity. The publication, today, of the following proves that there's less than meets the eye where some research is concerned.

For reasons known only to the authors, an elaborate admixture of hard-rock geology, arcane radiometric determination, some often very awkward Anglicized French words, and some breathtakingly convoluted argumentation resulted in the conclusion that the cave has been closed to humans since about 21 ka. Ta Da!
     Who knows how much this all cost in time and treasure. All we know for sure is that this research was undertaken to shore what wasn't in need of shoring up. The paintings have been dated at least 80 different times to well before 21 ka. 
     I have two questions for the editors of PNAS. 'When are you going to get a real editor and real referees,' and 'When are you going to stop presenting superfluous research results?'

1 comment:

  1. The French Government has funded research in Chauvet to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Much of the work is absolutely first rate. For example, the analysis by Fritz and Tosello of the way in which images was constructed tells us a lot about how the painters conceived of their work. NO one has previously made this sort of observation. But the assertion by Bahn and Pettit is fiercely argued and if true undermines one of the several reasons why the investment was worth it. One of their claims is that because the radiocarbon dates were all produced by one laboratory they cannot necessarily be relied upon. My view is that this is a staggering claim (implying a level of dishonesty by a lab that should be levelled only with very substantial reasons) but it is, nevertheless, a fair point that the dates are from one lab and it would be good to see some dates from another lab. I would rest at saying no more than this, but I think that would be a little humiliating (conceding a slight failure of process), so it is important to make the point that the dates are good without conceding the point to the accusers.

    I have not yet read this paper, but it seems to me that there may be a case that an opportunity was being taken to pioneer the use of such a method to show how caves can be dated by dating their closure. I can imagine that this would be very useful if the cave to be dated contained only petroglyphs (such as Cussac) or pictographs where the pigment did not contain organic carbon. Since the research at Chauvet has been well funded, it was an opportunity to do some original research in the broader interests of cave archaeology.

    Of course, you are correct that it would be cheaper to respond to the accusations by Bahn and Pettit directly (without showing the anger that the researchers undoubtedly feel). Some of their points are not so easy to refute, but their central premise that stylistic dating trumps radiocarbon dates is absurd. Do not forget that Chauvet also represents one of the great examples of a scholar big enough to admit they were wrong. Clottes originally opted for a later date on stylistic grounds but later accepted the radiocarbon dating showed that he had been wrong. Of course, the fact that the most famous recent advocate of stylistic dating was Leroi-Gourhan does not make this easy. In certain French archaeological circles, it is almost a blasphemy to suggest that he was wrong even long after his death.


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