Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Grumpy Old Men Archaeologist

I'd be the first to admit I'm grumpy. My daughter tells me all the time. My co-workers know that I am. Even my shrink thinks so.
     I'm grumpy when I get up. I'm grumpy at work. I'm especially grumpy when I run out of wine. I'm even grumpy in my dreams!
     Why so grumpy, Rob? 
      It's like this. In 1986 I was looking around for an Honours B.A. essay topic. My reading of the Neanderthal archaeological record had left me with a conundrum. 'Why,' thought I, 'were the archaeological traces of the Middle Palaeolithic so darned different from what we know that modern humans have been capable of for, oh, about 40 kyr?' Neanderthals left no serious candidates for representational imagery--just the stuff that some really imaginative people have willed into meaningfulness. The stone tools were nothing to write home about, even if François Bordes said there were fifty-plus formal 'types' (not including the 14 Levallois core types). Bordes and many others thought that there were different Neanderthal 'cultures' roaming around, 'expressing' themselves willy-nilly across the landscape. As regards what I saw as the absence of anything quite like the modern human archaeological record, I didn't think much of the old 'absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence' way of thinking.
     Think about it for a second. Those Neanderthals and the contemporary morphospecies known variously as anatomically modern and skeletally modern did the same things, and left (plus or minus) the same archaeological traces everywhere they went for upwards of 250 kyr! Incredible when you compare that with the record of the past 40 kyr. In that comparatively short span humankind has shown an immense amount of cultural and material variability, from all-but-possessionless foragers to what we see around us today--robotic missions to Mars, iPads, iPhones, iMacs, and Windows 8 [by including the latter I’m just being polite to those of my friends who are saddled with having to use that infernal OS and its predecessors], nuclear fission.
     So I said to myself, 'Self,' I said, 'how is it that they could they have been burying their dead and practicing bizarre rituals with cave bear bits and so on, if they couldn't manage an impressionist painting or two, or a musical instrument?' The answer at that time lay in the (mainly) foreign language literature, mostly French. [Good thing I paid attention in French class, thought I.] However, there wasn't a lot of foreign language literature available at the Simon Fraser University library, nor, as it turned out, at UBC, either. So, it wasn't easy to acquire the original publications on the record of Neanderthal burial. But I persevered.
Artist's conception of the depositional
processes at Teshik-Tash, Uzbekistan
I thought I'd start with one of the more spectacular claims. I found the original writeup of the Teshik-Tash excavations by Okladnikov in an unreadable Soviet-era journal. Teshik-Tash (Uzbekistan) if you'll remember is that place where a Neanderthal youth was said to have been buried with a number of goat horns placed around the grave with their pointy parts stuck in the ground. Sort of like a little Bone-henge. Teshik-Tash has been cited innumerable times as evidence for not just purposeful burial, but also mortuary ritual in the form of those deliberately placed goat horns.
     Silly me! I was hoping to find a photograph or two of those goat horns as they were being exposed during the excavation. At a minimum I thought I'd find a very carefully drawn plan or two. However, all I found were two line drawings and a very muddy photo-reproduction [I'm trying to track it down]. The photo depicted the goat horns all right, except that they were all horizontal! And, if three items separated from one another make a triangle, four a square, five a pentagon, then six must surely describe a 'circle.' At least, that's what Okladnikov, the excavator, wanted us to believe. That was the first inkling that I was on the right track. In all I examined five other chestnuts of the archaeological corpus: La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, Le Moustier, and La Grotte de Regourdou [for the icing on the cake]. Same outcome; different circumstances. And all of them could be seen to be the result of the natural processes operating in caves and rockshelters that promote bone preservation.
     The rest is history. Sort of.
     But that doesn't answer the question of why I'm so grumpy. Does it?
     All the while I was working on the research I was energized. It was a hard slog, what with the French and the difficulty accessing the literature. But the outcome was well worth the effort. I was naive to imagine that my thesis would be embraced by other palaeoanthropologists. But that's what I believed. Until, that is, I gave it to my mentor Brian Hayden, to read. He was dismissive. I was dismayed. And so, even though my fellow undergraduates and my Honours supervisor, Mark Skinner, were pleading with me to submit it for publication, Hayden's reaction [and my lack of belief in myself] convinced me not to try to have it published. My final GPA was 3.87 out of 4. I graduated with a B.A. Honors (with First Class Honors), and was the Archaeology Department's nominee for the Dean's Medal. But I had to wait almost a year before I could apply for grad school. I took the GRE: 97; 93; 67. And the paper languished while I worked in CRM and travelled with Hayden to Central America for some hit-and-run ethnoarchaeological research.
     When the time came to apply, I chose Berkeley and Michigan as my American 'reach' goals, and only U of T in Canada as a place I knew would likely admit me. I was also applying for financial aid, 'cause I hadn't the resources to attend any of those places--least of all, I thought, the American universities, since as a Canadian I would have been burdened not just with the enormous fees, but also with the out-of-state fees. Alongside my application I sent a copy of 'Grave Shortcomings' to Clark Howell at Berkeley, both seeking his advice regarding its possible publication, and in a rare Machiavellian gambit, hoping it might tip the scales in my favour at his institution. I also sent it, at that time, to a Canadian ex-pat at NYU, Randy White. He had recently published 'Re-thinking the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transtion' in Current Anthropology, and it had immediately become must reading for anyone interested in that period.
     I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic when I received a telephone call a few days later from Randy. He was positive. Then he asked me if I had applied to NYU. I was sort of embarrassed to say 'No.' He assured me that I would be admitted and that there was a first-year scholarship for which I might be competitive. So, that's what I did.
     A few days after my conversation with Randy White I received a handwritten note from Clark Howell at Berkeley. He, too, was positive, and encouraged me to publish it. So I frantically prepared it for submission and mailed it off to Current Anthropology.
     A few weeks went by, and I received a phone call from Randy White. He said that I'd been accepted at NYU, and that I was being offered the scholarship. In the interest of disclosure may I say that at that time he also advised me that I would need to make my mind up quickly. I told him I'd think about it. I'd heard nothing from the other universities at that time. Next day I called him and said I'd accept the offer. The day following, Brian Hayden and I departed Vancouver for Chiapas. We were gone three weeks. I arrived back to see that my application had been accepted at U. Michigan, U of T, and UC Berkeley, as well. AND, although Michigan had no money for me, and U of T could promise no more than a one-year tuition waiver, Berkeley was offering me a Regents Internship-Fellowship, which provided free instruction for the duration of the Ph.D., two years on a stipend (!), and two additional years with guaranteed teaching assistantships. [I sheepishly called Randy White to let him know that I'd received a better offer.]
     The Berkeley acceptance was, I have to say, an apotheosis of sorts. That, and the fact that I received word from Current Anthropology that the referees were all positive and that my manuscript had been accepted with no revisions. I thought certain, then and there, that I had therefore 'nailed it,' and that the discipline would thenceforth have to continue with a new view of Neanderthals. I'm certain of two things: if I hadn't seen fit to send Clark Howell the manuscript I would a) never have tried to have it published, and b) never have been accepted at Berkeley with a 'free ride.'
     Still no idea why I'm so grumpy? It's not so terribly difficult to understand. I had presumed that with positive responses from Howell and White--one giant in the field and one out standing in his field--the paper's acceptance with no revisions, and a massive incentive from UC Berkeley to do a Ph.D. there, I had pinned the tail on the donkey. And so, I wasn't prepared for the barrage of negative and often vituperative comments that I received upon publication of 'Grave Shortcomings.' Nor was I prepared for the sheer number of backs that I was shown in the months and years that followed its publication. A few, I knew, were on my side. And there was faint encouragement from a few others, who suggested that I'd done a service to the community by bringing the issue to their attention. But it wasn't the general acceptance that I'd hoped for and even, yes, anticipated. 'You've got them thinking!' was, I'm afraid, not what I had in mind. I'd set myself up for a fall. And fall I did. *picks self up, dusts self off* 

     I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a bit grumpy at the treatment I've received when I frequently have to confront the evident ineptitude of so many of my fellow palaeoanthropologists, who somehow manage to gain instant acceptance for the silliest claims imaginable. *starts all over again*

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1 comment:

  1. hi love your blog! check my latest blog post on the mysterious crystal skulls- hope you like!



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