Wednesday 21 November 2012

Part One of [Probably] Many: What Does It Mean To Be A Subversive Archaeologist?

I'm betting most people are surprised to hear the word 'subversive' spoken in the same breath as 'archaeologist.' After all, subversives work against evil governments or brutal oppressors, not university subjects. So, what's up? 'Subversive archaeologist' seems almost oxymoronic. You're getting close. Oxymoron is from the Greek words for 'sharp' and 'foolish.' In archaeology, as in life, one is either 'sharp' or 'foolish,' and from my perspective, there's no in-between. 
     This blurt is about the distance between getting it right and makin' stuff up, between a good theory and a bad myth, a well-warranted inference and a mistaken one. Whoa! Wait a minit! Inference? Don't people infer stuff from partial information? Exactly. But, that doesn't sound like science to me. Well, that's science, and in this case, archaeology, all over.
     It's not up to me to comment on the way knowledge is made in the other sciences. But in archaeology, artifacts don't come out of the ground with labels on 'em. Believe me. I've spent years on my hands and knees, scraping back time, in search of a long-forgotten past. And you don't 'discover' the past, you make it up. Sort of.
     Archaeologists dig to find traces of the past. And those traces don't speak for themselves. In a very real way, archaeologists give those things meaning. We try to get it 'right.' We don't try to pull the wool over your eyes. But much of the time the bits we find are ambiguous, and sometimes we don't find that out until years later. That's how archaeological myths are born. The job of a subversive archaeologist is to reveal the ambiguity, and in that way to help in dismantling both the myth and the web of mistaken beliefs that it spawned down through the years.
     The work of a subversive isn't popular with the 'government' of archaeology--the hierarchy of Professors and Directors and such. And they let you know it, in various ways, overt and insidious. So, being a subversive archaeologist, like a lot of subversives, is almost like being in an armed conflict. There are skirmishes, strategies, tactics, logistics, even outright war in archaeology. And it's all because of the tension between 'getting it right' and getting it embarrassingly wrong. Come with me and I'll show you worlds you never imagined [there's a lot of that in archaeology], and ideas you hoped you'd never have to grapple with.
     No worries. I'll talk you down. We'll have fun. Honest.
     Maybe an example will help. You've probably heard of the Piltdown Man, once considered a fossil ancestor. You may even have heard that it was a hoax. It was. But thanks to the guile of the hoaxster and the gullibility of most archaeologists of the time, it's reality was unquestioned for decades. That's because the people who study our fossil relatives decided that it was a proper piece of the jigsaw puzzle of human evolution. That expectation and the acceptance of Piltdown Man held back real scientific progress, real knowledge, for nearly forty years.
     Piltdown is still a small country crossroads in southeastern England. Too far from London to be built up. It had or has a gravel pit. In nineteenth and early twentieth-century England that meant one thing--there be fossils here.
The Piltdown Pub, Piltdown, East Sussex, England. (From Wikipedia. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Nigel Freeman and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)
Group portrait by John Cooke, 1915.
Back row (from left): F O Barlow, G Elliot Smith,
Charles Dawson, Arthur Smith Woodward.
Front row: A S Underwood, Arthur Keith,
W P Pycraft, and Sir Ray Lankester.
To make a long story short, in 1912 Charles Dawson came across a skull and jawbone that looked to him as if it was the 'missing link' between the apes and humans. [For the time being we'll ignore the specious distinction between 'ape' and 'human,' since we're all apes. Humans just happen to be the only apes that habitually walk upright on their hind legs--A.K.A. obligate bipeds.] The Piltdown specimen was readily accepted because it had a modern sized skull and teeth and jaws like the other apes [the lower jaw was actually that of an orangutan, with its long canines literally filed down]. This all fit perfectly with conventional wisdom of the time--that the essential difference between apes and humans was our big brains, and that the 'missing link' would have a big brain and [most likely] a body like an ape. Therefore, the Piltdown specimen 'fit' with what scholars expected to find, and what the hoaxster knew they'd be ready to accept. Unfortunately the strength of scientific orthodoxy meant that for nearly forty years no one seriously questioned the find. Well, almost nobody.
The 'Taung Child' (Australopithecus africanus).
South African anatomist and anthropologist Raymond Dart knew differently. But for most of those forty years he faced a sceptical discipline that pooh-poohed his work. You see, in 1924 Dart had discovered a tiny skull of a very ancient, infant ape. It had a little ape brain, and big ape canine teeth, just as you'd expect in an ape. But it had one huge difference. The place where the spinal cord emerges from the skull wasn't near the back of the skull--the normal place for apes--it was instead almost directly underneath it. That's where yours is, and mine, too [though some have called me a little monkey now and then for my *clears throat* efforts, I'm still human when it comes to the big hole in my head. That's funny. Having a big hole in my head is actually something people have accused me of. But they must have been thinking of my anatomy, and not my intellect. Maybe not. Actually, that hole in our heads has a scientific name--foramen magnum--which is Latin for *almost under his breath* 'big hole.' Look. I can't help it if eighteenth-century European scientists thought it'd be cool to use Latin for scientific discourse, most likely to get past the problem of having about a million languages in the Europe of the time. Besides, doesn't foramen magnum sound more learnéd than 'big hole'?]
Raymond Dart
     So, Dart had this infant ape that would most likely have walked upright as an adult. [He knew its age because it still had its baby teeth. Yes, chimps and gorillas and people all have baby teeth. But as far as I know only humans have the tooth fairy...] ] That it walked like us was a perfectly plausible inference. Having the foramen magnum underneath the skull, Dart's new species must have evolved to have a bipedal gait like ours. This was a bold argument, since he had no fossil bones from the rest of the body to compare with ours. But it was a brilliant induction, just the same. [Yes, yes, I meant to say induction. Sherlock Holmes was actually mistaken in his use of the word 'deduction' to describe his characteristic brand of reasoning. Math problems involve deduction. 'This is a three. This is a two. What must you subtract from three to get two.' There's only one possible answer. That's what's known as a deduction. Rather like what happens to your pay when the tax is taken out! Doh! Focus, Rob. Most things that we know about the real world are inductions from insufficient observations. Think about it. We don't actually know that, after we step off the curb, a car isn't going to appear out of nowhere and wipe us off the face of the planet. In the love of truth--the original meaning of 'philosophy'--we really can't know such things. There'll always be a possibility, however remote, that something we don't expect is gonna happen, regardless of the evidence from long experience. But, even though we can't be certain that we're gonna be wiped out when we cross an empty roadway, we can be comforted by the fact that, so far, it's never happened. Moreover, we have no reason to think that it might--unless, of course, you believe that the movie Back to the Future was a documentary. But, don't take my word for it! Read anything on informal logic. You'll see. I'm right!]
     So, there was Dart. A [literally] small man, with a small, unique fossil skull, living in a small backwater of the British Empire, trying to subvert [in the eyes of the scientific establishment] the conventional wisdom of the English scientific aristocracy. Fat chance. So, Dart labored mostly in obscurity for decades, accumulating more fossils. Over time, he and Robert Broom found more evidence that the English scientists were mistaken, and that the Piltdown fossil MUST be a fake. I don't need to bore you with the details of how that fake was exposed. It's all there in books by people much more steeped in the minutiae of Piltdown hoaxery. Read them.]
     Wow! As examples go, that was a long one, eh? Unfortunately, that's one of the downsides of being a subversive. Almost always the effort it takes to unravel a bad inference is way more than it took to make it in the first place. The reasons for that will, I hope, become clear to you as you work your way through future blurts on this and other matters. [Whaddaya mean you don't wanna hafta work while you read? You always have to work when you read...unless, that is, you believe everything you read, or hear--like the people who watch Fox News. I suspect you don't, otherwise you wouldn't have clicked on a link to The Subversive Archaeologist. You're ready. I know you are. And I know you can 'do the work.']
     If you're up for more, I sure am. Let's go, shall we?

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