Wednesday 27 November 2013

Be Stoked! Or Not. Have They Found The Buddha's Birthplace?

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
Half a billion of the planets inhabitants are adherents of Buddhism. Places that tradition says were important in the Buddha's life are places of pilgrimage, in the same way that Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are the focus of pilgrimage for the Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

I'm not by any means a student of south Asian archaeology, nor am I well-informed as to the life and times of Siddhārtha Gautama, which was the Buddha's birth name. Nevertheless, I'm an archaeologist, and I'm capable of following an archaeological argument—even to the point of refutation, as most of you know. But I'm no spoilsport! I just don't like it when Muggles those not so critical as I tend to accept mere inductive, ampliative analogical inferences as truth.

Yesterday the SA news ticker tossed up this potentially monumental Antiquity article.
R.A.E. Coningham, K.P. Acharya, K.M. Strickland, C.E. Davis, M.J. Manuel, I.A. Simpson, K. Gilliland, J. Tremblay, T.C. Kinnaird, and D.C.W. Sanderson, "The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal)," ANTIQUITY 87:1104–1123, 2013.
The Buddha's birthplace? Lumbini is one of the places where tradition has it that his mother, with child, stopped to give birth. Tradition has it that it was between her father's kingdom and that of her husband. I don't mean to be irreverent, but we're talking royalty, here.

Lumbini's location. From Coningham et al. 2013
Anyway, as I read through this article I got two strong impressions. First, the authors aren't just hacking through mud-brick pavement after mud-brick pavement to get to the goodies. Second, they're excavating at Lumbini because a very powerful ruler, Asoka, chose to elevate, venerate, and celebrate the Buddha some indeterminate time after he gave the world his philosophy. There is some debate, but to date no one knows for certain when the Enlightened One lived. The monarch, Asoka, built temples wherever the Buddha was said to have lived, visited, lain, was born, and died.*

Back to the mortal archaeologists on the border between modern-day India and Nepal. In the Antiquity article we are briefed on the state of play in the archaeology of Buddhism. These excavations at Lumbini are the first to delve beneath one of the monumental edifices that Asoka constructed, right on top of earlier shrines that may [or may not] have been Buddhist sacred places. Over the years many have inferred that the Buddha lived nearer to the fourth century BCE, and the rule of Asoka. By contrast, the authors feel they've found evidence of an early Buddhist shrine in the seventh century BCE. Evidence that it was the older period is one thing: arguing that these archaeological traces are those of an early Buddhist shrine—to say nothing of its being the Buddha's birthplace—is another thing entirely.

In brief, the authors excavated a small, area, delimited by, first a timber structure, and later brick buildings enclosing the same space. The space that the timber structure defined was almost devoid of litter, which is found on archaeological surfaces elsewhere in the Lumbini complex. Moreover, in that 'pristine' precinct there was abundant evidence of there having once been a tree growing in that place.
The present-day Maya Devi temple showing the line of post holes in area C5. From Coningham et al. 2013
Line of postholes. From Coningham et al. 2013.
Now, according to the scriptural account, the Maya Devi clung to a tree while giving birth [if I understand correctly]. Indeed, the spot that the authors excavated bore *cough* a one-to-one correspondence with a kind of shrine that is known to pre-date the Buddha. In that part of the world, some say beginning in the Neolithic, certain trees were venerated as symbols of the relationship between the mundane and the divine. These trees were enclosed in some form of roofed structure with an open area above the tree. Supplicants kept it alive and healthy, and kept the sanctuary swept clean.

The authors explain
. . . tree shrines are generally held to have been a well-established and ancient form of ritual focus in South Asia, some scholars suggesting an antiquity stretching back to Neolithic times. Although now typically associated with Buddhism in the form of bodhigaras, tree shrines also formed a significant element of the wider South Asian cosmology, serving as both a social and cosmological central point or axis mundi within communities . . . .
If the postholes at Lumbini are indicative of a tree shrine, ritual activity could have commenced either during or shortly after the life of the Buddha. The dates of the postholes would hence provide the first archaeological evidence for the date of the Buddha. At his mahaparanirvana, the Buddha identified Lumbini as a focus for pilgrimage . . . , and thus it may be argued that formalised ritual activity began soon after this event. [emphasis added]
Indeed, the Maya Devi may well have rested at a tree shrine. Her behaviour would've been no different than you or I resting in the nave of a cathedral after pounding the pavement as a tourist in Prague or Chartres.

The point is this: the postholes yielded good 14C dates. The thorn in the side for the authors? Given the long tradition of building such structures to enclose a sacred tree, pre-Buddhist tree shrines would have been indistinguishable from those that were associated with the Buddha's life. Thus, one can infer that the wooden structure was associated with the life of the Buddha. However, that inference would be based on a weak, formal analogy between the outline of a tree shrine and that of later buildings that did, indeed, have a connection to Buddhism. Incorporating older traditions into an extant faith was common in the world's great religions. And there's a word for that process, which I never thought I'd have reason to use—syncretism. The Christmas tree is a prime example. Hmmm. More sacred trees. There's a dissertation in there, somewhere.

In the end, the authors have made a huge contribution to the archaeology of south Asia. Theirs is the first excavation of a timber structure that bears the outline of later shrines. The authors comment that others may now wish to delve beneath the more permanent structures from the fourth to seventh centuries BCE, to see what pops up.

To sum up. The timber structure beneath the present-day Maya Devi temple in Lumbini could well be as the authors have suggested, an early Buddhist shrine. However, given the equivocal nature of the evidence presented, you'll have to take that on faith

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

More John Gurche, Shaping Humanity, and Tim White

Can you please tell me why it is that, when I look at the static image at the beginning of the John Gurche video I put up the other day, I see a topological resemblance with Professor Tim White.

I mean no disrespect to either—John Gurche and Tim White, I mean—and I hope that both would see that there's no slander or defamation involved with my comparison.

So, won't you please help me out?
Professor Tim White and static face on John Gurche's video teaser for Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins. Tim White photocredit goes to Google images. If copyrighted, please ask me to take it down. I presume that intellecctual property rights for the Gurche video belong to Yale University Press, the book's publisher

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Watch This Video Advertising John Gurche's New Book: Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins

From chimp to you and me in around two minutes. Fascinating. I might disagree on a fine point here or there. But there's no denying Gurche's extraordinary craft. 

Published by Yale University Press

SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Tell Me One More Time, "Who Has Rocks In Their Head?"

Any guesses what this is? Image: Wikimedia Commons
I've known some very wise people in my time. Some of the wisest have confirmed what I've thought all my life.

Who cares if 'science' makes a mistake? Who cares if we can show, empirically, that there's a good deal of subjectivity [notice I didn't say objectivity] in the sciences—both the social and physical sciences? Who cares if complete objectivity is a noble, but ultimately futile goal? The best we can hope for, as Alison Wylie* has told us, is a "mitigated objectivity."

The mitigated 'truth' is that, despite its pratfalls and dead ends, its overturned paradigms and intellectually restrictive schools of thought, science edges humanity ever closer to an accurate account of the world around us and the origins and evolution of our universe.

Mitigated or not, scientific knowledge is this secular humanist's touchstone.

AND  SO IT IS that I proudly announce, without a hint of red-in-the-face embarrassment for ALL of the scientists and all of their failed and futile efforts over the decades,


Stonehenge-ologists have been barking up the wrong petrological tree. The i09 headline reads:
Stonehenge archaeologists have been digging in the wrong place!
A tip o' my long-wished-for Indiana Jones fedora to i09 for briefing us on this amazing news. [Full disclosure: assuming that this is ultimately found to be an accurate empirical claim.]

Carn Goedog. The 'bluestones' of Stonehenge were quarried from this outcrop.
Thanks to Wales News Service.
It seems that an enterprising Welsh archaeologist, Richard Bevins—having spent 30 long years in the hunt—has chemically characterized the rock from the outcrop shown above. It's a perfect match for the 'bluestones' of Stonehenge. That, in itself, would be a great accomplishment, as it would finally put to rest a century or more of speculation, bluster, and boring gab sessions at the Royal Society meetings. But what's really gonna rot your sock. Here's the kicker: Carn Goedog is 2 km from the location where the smart money's been for a very long time! Sooooooo. Can you say "hardly earth-shattering?"
Richard E. Bevins, Rob A. Ixer, Nick J.G. Pearce. "Carn Goedog is the likely major source of Stonehenge doleritic bluestones: evidence based on compatible element geochemistry and Principal Component Analysis," Journal of Archaeological Science In press, 2013.
Moment of silence, please, for the many scholars whose earnest efforts failed to be first to pinpoint the true [blue?] source of the bluestones.

A path proposed for the transport of bluestones from the hypothetical quarry in western Wales. 
[For the geopolitical context of the large-scale map shown above, please consult the political map of Europe at the foot of this page.]
[Autobiographical bit follows. Oh. And, by the way. You see where the bluestone blue route line—d'ya think that was intentional?—crossed the water? Look a little way down from there, on the English coast. See Weston-super-Mare? My great grandpappy, his wife and what children they'd had up to that point, emigrated from there to Canada in the late nineteenth century. A successful oils merchant (for painting pictures) and framer in Weston, he must have thought he'd miraculously transform himself in landed gentry once on Canadian soil. Nobody knows, of course. But somebody should have told him that Manitoba wasn't the best choice for gentry of any sort, landed or otherwise, much less one who only knew which alizarean crimson went with which Prussian blue. Metaphorically speaking, he froze to death, and when he was old enough my Papa moved to the relatively balmy west (wet) coast of BC. So. Somewhere in this roiling mass of cells and undigested red meat called me one in eight genes came from Weston-super-Mare. No wonder I occasionally feel seasick for no apparent reason.]

On the site plan illustrated below the bluestones are shown with cross-hatching. Even though relatively few, those blighters would've resisted every cubit, or Neolithic foot [or whatever], of the way from Wales to the Salisbury Plain.

Plan of the central Stone Structure at Stonehenge as it survives today. Stone numbers are those conventionally used in the recent literature and following Petrie, F. 1880. Note that the Term 'Sarsen' used on the key refers to the hard silicified tertiary rock local to the chalkland of the Stonehenge region, sarsen is an exceptionally obdurate form of sandstone: The reference to sandstone on the key is to other ‘non sarsen’ material. . . . A number of other igneous rocks are represented within the arrays. Those interested in the exact make up of the blustone assemblage are referred to . . . 
Cleal, R.M.J., Walker, K.E., & Montague, R., Stonehenge in its landscape (English Heritage, London, 1995).
Cunliffe, B.,  & Renfrew, C. Science and Stonehenge (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92, Oxford University Press 1997). 
Johnson, A. Solving Stonehenge (Thames & Hudson 2008). 
(Verbatim caption and illustration courtesy of A. Johnson and Wikimedia Commons.) Image: Wikimedia Commons
So, there you have it, my neophytic subversive archaeologist! Problem, as they say, solved! Stick a fork in it. What's that you say? This barely whelming finding warranted a flagship article in JAS?
Alas, Grasshopper. If there's so much of a sniff of high-powered diagnostic machinery involved, those JAS editors are gonna be All. Over. It.

I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Subversive Archaeologist today. Please help the proprietor by exiting through the donation-box forest on your way out. ;-) TIA and a hearty thanks for dropping by. See yous next time!

* Wylie, Alison. “Archaeological Cables and Tacking: The Implications of Practice for Bernstein's 'Options Beyond Objectivism and Relativism',” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 19 (1989): 1-18.

The yellow rectangle deliniates the area depicted in the large-scale map above. Thanks to


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Friday 22 November 2013

For What It's Worth: I've Got Rocks In My Head!

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It's time we stop
Hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look - what's going down?

Buffalo Springfield 1967
Lyrics by Stephen Stills
It's mighty quiet here at World Headquarters. I'm listening to the Retro FM-Rock Station on iRadio. Soundtrack o' my life.

But I didn't drag you here for a trip down Memory Lane. I got binness to attend to.

If you, Dear Reader, have been here only rarely, or never before, you should know that I suffer from an extremely rare intellectual pathology: I cannot 'see' what other palaeoanthropologists have been seeing for decades. Case in point follows.

The three photographs shown below are views of the same artifact. This lump of very pretty flint was unearthed at Ubeidiya, in Israel. It's Lower Palaeolithic. Traditionally, palaeolithic archaeologists ascribed function to lumps like this, thinking that the bipedal apes that fashioned them removed pieces with a particular final shape and use in mind. In this rock's case, the archaeologists have historically classified it as a "chopping tool." Why anyone would make such an enigmatic inference is beyond my ability to comprehend. But there you have it. And here I go, trying to make sense out of what I think is non sense. See you after the third pretty picture.

These three impressive photographs are the work of Clara Amit, under the auspices of the 
Israel Antiquities Authority. You can click on one of the images to visit the site.

As I understand it, when archaeologists began discovering such things as the 'chopping tool' shown above, like good archaeologists their inferential process relied on the uniformitarian method: they knew that modern humans have created squillions of [sometimes exquisite] bifacial artifacts with particular shapes for particular purposes. Think 'projectile point.' Think 'Solutrean' leaf-shaped biface (shown at left). Think 'Clovis' point. And that's not even the best stuff. If you've ever had a chance to see what are called Mayan 'eccentrics,' you'll pretty soon realized just how crafty flint-knappers can be. Chipped-stone sculpture would be the closest description I could think of. In fact, why don't I just trot one out for those of you who haven't a clue what I'm talking about [yeah, maybe there are one or two]. It's darned difficult to mistake this object for anything other than a desired end product, which demanded that a great many flake removals were in preparation for the final outcome. I know it's a bit unfair, because we're talking about bipedal apes and not people like us. But I can't help asking you to compare the *clears throat* 'chopping tool' above with this bit of Mayan virtuosity.
Maya eccentric flint sculpture. Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire. From Wikipedia.
But I'm not here to cast aspersions on million-year-old bipedal apes. So, on we go.

Let's give the old-timers a hat tip for figgering out that when they dug up a piece of chipped stone that resembled something known to have been made by ethnographic modern humans, it was a pretty safe bet that a) it was something made by modern humans, and b) that the archaeological specimen might well have had the same or a similar function to the one known from recent times. Unfortunately for me, those old timers took the bit and used the same logic with virtually any lump of rock that had been purposefully chipped. For the longest time they had no idea how old stuff was. All they really knew was that different, but distinct kinds of worked stone tended to show up in the same stratigraphic sequence, time and time again. In much the same way that palaeontologists recognized that certain kinds of fossils were always found in the same chronological sequence; ammonites, trilobites, and so forth. When you found an ammonite with nothing above or below it, you still knew roughly where it belonged in time.

That's the same sort of reasoning that led to the Three-Age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, which is still in use. Later, someone thought that it would be a good idea to sub-divide the Stone Age. That's how we got the Lower, Middle, and Upper palaeolithics. [Aside: after you've hung around with archaeologists for long enough, you begin to notice that there are quite a few tripartite chronological systems employed across the globe. California archaeology has the Early, Middle and Late periods. In British Columbia's intermontane plateau they have Shuswap, Plateau, and Kamloops phases. I could go on. And on. But I won't. It's just curious.]

Back to the past, now. There's actually nothing wrong with using what are called 'type' fossils to get an idea of what period you're in, if you're a palaeontologist. The problematic part for palaeolithic archaeologists in Europe: they couldn't see the forest for the trees. More accurately, they didn't see the leaves for the trees. As they were digging back through time they always kept an eye out for modified rocks that either a) looked like other similarly modified rocks, or b) looked like things that reminded them of things they use themselves or seen other modern people use. To Hell with the flakes! For more than a century, a great many archaeologists ignored the  flakes that, once removed, left lumps of fractured rock like the 'chopping tool' up above. That was called debitage—a French word meaning 'that which is not used.' Instead archaeologists focussed on the pieces of rock with multiple flake removals. That theoretical and interpretive pre-eminence of the lump of rock with flakes removed is why people like me have an uphill battle when trying to get others to look at the really old rocks in a different way. Instead, those old classifications became the lore of archaeology that every neophyte had to memorize—like a rosary [sort of].

With the presumption that such things as the 'chopping tool' up above were the intended final form, meant that the archaeologist were compelled to give it a function. Calling it a 'chopping tool' made more sense to people than if it had been labelled 'lump of flint with numerous flake removals.'

In past episodes of the Subversive Archaeologist, you'll have heard me blather on about the 'hand axe' and its rocky cousins, the 'cleaver,' the 'pick,' and the 'discoid.' They're each bifacially flaked. So, the thinking was that they had to have different purposes if they fell into neat groups of bifacially flaked rocks having one of the four shapes. Thus, if the bifacially flake rock ended up looking roughly tear-drop shaped, it was called a 'handaxe.' If it was kinda oblong it was a 'cleaver.' If it was sort of cleaver-like at one end and kinda pointy at the other, it was a 'pick.' And if it wasn't pointy, or tear-drop shaped, or pick like, it was, almost without fail, a 'discoid.'

Here are a few piccies to show you what I mean.
Above are two views of a 'cleaver' from Gesher Benot Ya`aqov, also in Israel. Below, a 'handaxe,' also from Gesher Benot Ya`aqov.
Hmm. Next. Down below I see two sides of a lump that started off with a linear portion at the bottom as I view it here. It's fully flaked on one side, but not the other. Yet, the archaeologist classified it as a 'hand axe.' Okay, to my eye, the only thing 'hand axe'-like characteristic of the specimen below is its . . . well . . . I just don't know. It's hard to say. Both sides have had at least some flakes removed. And it's kinda tear-droppy, if you squint your eyes. But it seems a bit of a reach, as they say, to suggest that it's the same thing as the specimen immediately above.


Okay. If you've been frozen in an iceberg in Siberia and only recently thawed out, let me explain. The 'handaxe' shown above, and jillions like it, were seen to be analogous to a type of stone axe that people like you and I used in the Neolithic [the most-recent period in the Stone Age—which began, give or take 10,000 years ago in Europe and Asia*].

A lot of Neolithic axe heads were chipped first, then ground and polished until they were smooth, sharp, and symmetrical. They were then hafted to a large stick. The composite tool and its parts are shown in the early lithograph shown below, at right.

Now, as you can see, the Neolithic axe head on the left closely resembles felling axes made of steel in recent times. That's because there are certain irreducible design features that such an implement must have to be functional. Kayso, with these images in mind, consider the 'handaxe' shown up above. It bears an uncannily similar outline to that of the ground and polished Neolithic axe head shown at right. Happy so far? Good.

Fast forward to the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic. [Archaeologists are always fast-forwarding in the wrong direction. Pay no attention. They can't help themselves]

This is either a Neolithic chipped stone axe head, meant to be hafted,
or it might be what's known as a 'blank,' or a 'pre-form,' ready to be
ground and polished, yielding a longer use life and a sharper,
more effective blade. (For the life of me I can't remember where I
found/ripped this photograph. I hope the copyright owner will either
forgive me or let me know to take it down.)
So, when tear-drop shaped, bifacially flaked stone artifacts were first recognized in the eighteenth century—at Hoxne, in England—the people finding them fastened on the similarity between the outline of these novel, flaked-stone objects and the steel axes that they knew. They were also aware, at the time, that some of their contemporaries were employed to produce small, rectangular, chipped-flint objects for use as the sparking device on flint-lock firearms. [A more recent example: if you're as old as me, you'll remember that for the longest time cigarette lighters used something called a 'flint' to produce the spark that lit the petroleum distillate to create the flame with which one lit a cigarette.] So, back in the day, it wasn't a big stretch to view these newly discovered teardrop-shaped artifacts as axe heads. HOWEVER [and it's a big however], it was clear to most observers that such objects were probably not hafted like the Neolithic ones. So, with no warrant but their heartfelt need to give this artifact a name and a function, they had already made the connection with an axehead in their minds. The only solution was to call the tear-drop shaped bifacially flaked rocks 'hand axes.' And the world has never been the same.

Never mind that some 'hand axes' had 360° sharp edges, and that if you didn't have chain-mail gauntlets and tried to use the damned thing as an axe you'd have ended up with chunks of flesh all over the ground instead of wood chips. Below on the right, here's a 'before' photo of someone holding a 'hand axe' as if to use it to punch a hole in something. But, you say, "In the Neolithic axes, the pointy end went into the haft. If so, why is this hand holding what would be a real axe's 'business end'—the wider end?" And well you may ask. Clearly, the handler has figgered out that the pointy end would do far more damage if held while trying to chop anything harder than butter. It's all very scientific. The answer lies in the relative hardness of rock compared to that of hand flesh. I checked. On the Mohs scale of hardness, rock comes in between about 5 and 10. Hand flesh, on the other *cough* hand, has a negative hardness. Well, to be honest, hand flesh isn't even on the Mohs scale. Probably because anybody [with the exception of palaeolithic archaeologists at any rate] knows that the flesh is weak!

So. Fer gawd sakes! Where did they come up with that hypothesis for the function of these tear-drop shaped multitudinously chipped stone artifacts??? Your guess is as good as mine. But it seems not to matter. We've inherited this notion, and it's firmly entrenched in paeleolithic archaeological orthodoxy.

Much later, archaeologists—well, one very famous mid-twentieth century French archaeologist—decided to replicate the 'technique' of making these tear-droppy bifacially flaked items. And, lo, he dideth manage it, with some effort. And he noted something that everybody took on board as the gospel according to Bordes: you had to be a pretty darned good flint chipper to start with an amorphous lump of stone and chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, and chip again, to come up with the tear-droppy shape at the end of the process.

And thus was born the Finished Artifact Fallacy. Bordes began by begging the question—beginning with the premise that these things were a form of axe AND that the thing called a 'hand axe' was the object that was the desired end product. [Actually, I don't think this last presupposition was original with Bordes. It was firmly lodged in the archaeological canon of inferences never to be questioned.]

Now, I'm the first to admit that if you look at the Hoxne biface shown at left—the one John Frère reported to the Royal Society, which now has pride of place at the British Museum, and which represents in people's minds the Ur morphology of tear-droppy shaped chipped rocks. I see near perfect symmetry. [It turns out that for me it's a truly a fearful symmetry.]

I'll admit it. There's no getting around it. It's a thing of beauty.

BUT, the idea that it's an unadulterated expression of a mental template in the 'mind' of the bipedal ape that produced it is to give too much credit to the ape. I've just made a bold assertion. I know. I know. What gives me the right? Stick around. I might persuade you, at least, to take another, long and critical look at these ancient artifacts, and try to reconsider some of the assumptions that lie behind the function they've been assigned.

To that end, the other day I came across a gold mine of hand-axery, quite by chance It's a virtual museum called National Treasures: Selected Artifacts from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for National Treasures, under the auspices [one would have to think] of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

There's a whole slew of Lower Palaeolithic bifacially flaked objects, in living colour, and fine detail, at As I was madly clicking away, like a rat in a Skinner Box, I was overcome by the urge to proselytize. I can't not put some of these images in front of you, to emphasize, once more, that these rocks are anything but what their discoverers think they are [or were, since nobody's using them presently], and that the palaeoanthropological world has been living a delusion for well over a hundred years.

Shown above are two views of a 'hand axe' from Ma’ayan Barukh, another Lower Palaeolithic locality in Israel. On the left is the dorsal side; on the right is the ventral view of the biface. The pointy end is distal; the round end is proximal. This object was originally a jeebuz-big flake. So, the ventral side would have started out devoid of cortex—the weathered, natural rock surface. This is what one would expect from 'a good' Late Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artifact traditionally known as a 'handaxe.' [English-speaking archaeologists have always referred to their ideal of an artifact type using the label 'good.'] But notice that the dorsal side has a ribbon of what looks like cortex running down the middle. Even someone who isn't a Lithic Analyst can see on the dorsal surface that there were only a few flakes removed from the left and right distal margins. Those steeped in Palaeolithic lore would say, "Look at how skillfully that Homo erectus created this lovely tear-droppy shaped hand axe!" By contrast, it's equally clear to me that, given the shape of the original flake, even if the H. erectus wasn't paying any attention, and was just tryin' t' knock off a useful flake or two, a few good whacks at the right and left distal margins would have left the same kinds of flake scars. In other words, there's no need to presume that the H. e. was trying to make the distal margins converge distally. I'll explain. Use the illustration below for reference as I attempt to walk you through what I'm  proposing.

Borrowed from UC Regents. Credit to Brian M. Fagan and George H. Michaels for this illustration.
Look up at the illustration of a generic core and flake—the core on the left and the flake on the right. First, if you chip a flake off a cobble that's weathered on the surface, the back side [dorsal] of the flake will be covered with cortex. The Ma’ayan Barukh 'hand axe' that I showed you a moment ago was produced in the same way this generic flake was. Before any flakes were struck off the flake, it had a dorsal surface that was all cortex and a ventral surface that was smooth, naked rock. Again, all things being equal, the rules of physics in suitably homogeneous rock are the same every time such a flake is removed. Each of those typical 'cortical' flakes will bear the same 'artifacts' of percussion shown in the illustration above. Where it says "striking platform" [proximal] is ALWAYs the thickest part of the flake, and much thicker than the distal margins.

Let's say that I'm going to hit the flake twice, once very near the margin opposite the "bulb of percussion" [proximal, thicker], and once between where it says "ripples" and "hatchure lines." Assume that for each hit, I used equal striking force, and in each case aimed at a point the same—short—distance from the margin. The thicker, proximal flake margin would put up more resistance to percussion than the thinner mass at the distal percussion site. Physics mandates that the proximal percussion would produce a flake that would finish well away from the middle—i.e. from the new flake's striking platform to the distal margin. In stark contrast, at the thinner—distal—part of the original flake the flake removed will reach further into the material. The outcome is exactly what you see on the dorsal surface of the 'hand axe' from Ma’ayan Barukh, above. The flake scars on the distal right margin reach to near the midline. On the other hand, the proximal flake scars reach less than half way to the midline. Remember that the blows were equally energetic, and the same laws of rock physics applied for the proximal and distal flake removals.

I think you see where I'm going. Even if the H. erectus individual was striking the original flake with automaton-like regularity, the distal end of this flake will naturally be narrower than the proximal end, and the margins will tend to converge distally. Let's suppose H. erectus began with two identical pieces of raw material. If I'm right, and H. erectus acted with autmaton-like precision, I'd bet the farm that the outcome in both cases would be identical 'hand axes.' But such a mind experiment is irrelevant. That's because the characteristics of raw material are never the same. So, even an automaton would produce 'hand axes' of a different shape EVERY time out.

Using just automaton-like repetitive actions, the bipedal ape that wants to chip off flakes of a size that can be used between the index finger and the thumb to cut into an animal carcass, or to slice a piece of meat off a larger piece of meat, the outline of the biface that results will be determined, in large part, by the quality of the raw material and its original morphology. I believe that these simple rules of mechanics explain why there's a strong correlation between the width, length, and thickness of 'hand axes.' It's pure physics, in the hands of an automaton-like bipedal ape.

OK. If you've been paying attention for long, you'll know I've pointed out before that there is near infinite variability in the range of shapes of artifacts commonly identified as 'hand axes.' I've produced the large montage below to illustrate [just some] of the variability, in size and shape, of these artifacts.

Please, spend a few mintues grokking this array. When there's a scale, notice the huge variation, not just in outline, but in size. Scholars for decades have referred to the 'hand axe' as the 'Swiss Army' knife of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. I think 'buckshot' is a more apt simile.

Did I say 'near' infinite? Let's face it. It's patently obvious that the thing called 'hand axe' is neither the desired end product, nor an axe; it's not an implement at all. Even in a form that's most aesthetically pleasing to the Western 'eye'—symmetrical around the longitudinal centre-line—it's just one of a million-plus possibilities. Remember the old saw about the monkeys? If you sat an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters, eventually one of them would produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Well. The Hoxne biface above is the Shakespearean sonnet. Very nearly all of the rest of the 'hand 'axes' that have been recovered over the last two-and-a-half centuries are examples of the vast range of variability possible.

All righty. The take-home message. Whether discoidal, cleaver-like, pick-like, or axe-like, Lower Palaeolithic bifaces can be viewed as variations on NO theme. They're just examples of the range of variability that have been grouped with others of the same shape—shapes that looks vaguely familiar to the modern eye. They are, arguably, reified categories. And that's my story.

I think I'm done here.

Okay. Beddy-byes. See you on the inter-tubes!

*Ever wonder why one continent—Asia—is treated as two continents? I have a theory. At some point white-bread inhabitants of western Asia wanted to distance themselves from people who'd never eaten white bread, whose skin was a darker colour, and whose facial features weren't those of idealized Ancient Greeks and Romans [or Celts, for that matter]


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Just Doubling as a Loudspeaker Today: Robert Davidson's Art, His Commitment, His Cultural Impact

Guud san glans "Eagle of the Dawn" Robert Davidson, Haida artist and force of nature.
The handsome young fellow pictured above is Robert Davidson, renowned artist. Notice I didn't say, "Massett artist," "Haida artist," "BC artist," "First Nations artist," or, for that matter, "Canadian artist"  He is all of those. But, he belongs to no one. He is the pre-eminent artist of his genre alive today. And his works belong in the canon of the Northern Northwest Coast art tradition, which had its roots millennia before the European invasion.

Thankfully,  from time to time the world gets a peek at how he expresses his experience of life. A tip of the cedar-bark hat to Mother Jones for bringing to our attention the news that this month will see the first major solo exhibition of his work in the United States. For those near to my neck of the woods, the exhibit opens November 16, 2013, at the Seattle Art Museum; it closes there on February 16, 2014. Next stop, I'm told, is in Manhattan. No dates yet.

Alan and Gillian McMillan in 1970. 
Alan does fieldwork in BC,
teaches and writes books
I hope neither minds that I've borrowed this 
lovely period piece from Gillian's facebook page.
I was made aware of Mr. Davidson in 1970. A year after he and his brother, Reg, had erected their Bear Mother pole in the town of Massett, British Columbia. It was the first carved cedar pole erected at Massett since the middle of the nineteenth century. After the pole was raised, so was my consciousness [consciousness raising was really big back then]. My mentor at the time was Alan McMillan, and it was my first semester of college.

Dr. McMillan was truly inspiring. And I tried to follow in his footsteps as an academic. It was my great good fortune to last all of three years in the academy. But that's another story, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Alan or what he taught me! I was really green in 1970. This'll tell you how green. My older sister had taken a university course on classical archaeology. I knew that much about the content. My future embarrassment arose because I heard my sis refer to the course as "Classical Studies" plus some number.

Like every good aspiring archaeologist before me I wanted to be a classical archaeologist and dig up mummies. So, in my first after-class interview with Al, he [of course] asked me what sort of coursework I'd be doing in the future. I responded, with utter confidence, that I wanted to do Classical Studies. Being the inspirational teacher that Al was, he started reeling of the sorts of classes I'd need to take when I finally fled my two-year college for the big leagues. After hearing Ancient Greek, and a nanosecond before Al could say "Latin," I realized that I'd just used a term I didn't know squat about, in error, in my first interaction with my first archaeology prof. I was already heading for the door. I couldn't stay there red faced. Somehow or other—either Al forgot or forgave—I managed to salvage my self-respect, and became the disaffected, bitter, ex-archaeologist that you have come to know and love, here at The Subversive Archaeologist.

[I've been secretly wanting to use this next expression for ages. I realize that now would be a perfect time!]

But, I digress!

We were talking about Robert Davidson and the pole-raising at Massett in 1969. It's called Bear Mother.

Carved cedar Bear Mother, by Robert and
Reg Davidson. Raised August 22, 1969,
in Massett, Haida Gwaii
(Photo from Mother Jones, and
courtesy of
Its iconography and style followed Haida tradition, a genre of meticulously rule-bound, stylized representational art that many say is the pinnacle of what Europeans have so erroneously called "primitive art." Carved cedar poles like theirs lined the beaches at the traditional village sites, some standing alone, others attached to the front of the great, post and beam, and plank, cedar houses. Each is unique. Each tells a story that relates to the family of its carver, rights to ceremonial names and dances, and the clan to which they belong. Thus, they're both social testament and incredibly beautiful works of art.  

I mentioned above that Robert Davidson is a force of nature. So was Bill Reid before him. And before Bill, there were the argillite "totem poles" made for the tourist trade and art market. The greatest historic Haida artist was Charles Edenshaw. These people have managed to keep a millenniae-old art tradition alive, despite smallpox, despite laws forbidding traditional ceremonies, despite the [again legal] sundering of families—where the kids were forcefully removed from their families, force to live in squalid residential "schools" run by corrupt church organizations who beat anybody who used their native language and sexually abused almost anybody, it would seem. Despite the deracination of generations, artists like Robert and Bill and Charles, and Reg have prevailed.

What's more, these great artists have breathed life back into a society that 40 years ago had little hope and little to live for without a way to numb the pain. The Europeans didn't just rip families apart, they ripped out the hearts of each and every "Indian" on Haida Gwaii and fed their hearts to them on a platter of feigned concern, neglect, and attempted genocide. That there were any hearts left in Massett or Skidegate still able to imagine bringing the past back to live with them, is perhaps the greatest victory for the spirit.

Perhaps that's why in the National Gallery of Canada there stands a 3-m tall aluminum sculpture, The Supernatural Eye. It puts a twist on the ancient style that's a metaphor for all his works [if anyone should ever ask me for my opinion].
The Supernatural Eye, by Robert Davidson.

I hope some of you'll be able to attend the Seattle exhibition. It is the moment's cap for a lifetime of Davidson's creativity. I know I'll be there. On opening day there'll be a performance of traditional and contemporary music and dance, courtesy of the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a group that Robert Davidson co-founded. You ought not to miss it!


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Making Up The Past Can Be Arduous. Overcoming The Past Is A Fruitless Endeavour. Ultimately, Each Of Us Is Responsible For Living With The Past. That's The Really Hard Part.

In his address upon winning the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner said
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Please forgive him the sin of using 'man' in place of 'humankind.' His was a black and white time in the English-speaking world, and such disparities as are evinced in sexism were soon to be brought to light, in much the same manner as Faulkner's illumination of the South's entrenched racism helped bring down that scourge of social inequality. Both are still awaiting redress to a greater or lesser degree. So, the artist Faulkner can, I think, be forgiven the man, Faulkner's foibles.

All this is my way of introducing what another great American wrote, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Gatsby's lesson rings too true to this archaeologist. We can't recreate the past. All we can do is offer alternative interpretations, whether those alternative pasts ameliorate our collective pain, or not. Not only can't we go back: we're doomed to narrate alternative pasts until, in increasingly accurate tellings, one of those pasts is accepted, generally, as a reasonable facsimile of the way the human past unfolded.  

The truth of these adages—Faulkner's and Fitzgerald's— has recently been brought home to me in a palpable way. One hopes that one has the strength to accept the past, as unthinkable as it may be, and as difficult as it is.Somehow, one must learn to live with one's memories, and in doing so, not merely endure, but prevail, despite a frantic desire to turn back time. We owe that much not only to ourselves, but also to every Faulkner or Fitzgerald who ever confronted the complexities of human existence, and lived to tell the story.

I'll admit this was rather thin on archaeology. As a discussion of archaeological method it has more valence. And it's more philosophical than empirical. Mostly, though, I was hoping to divert attention from my late inattention to The Subversive Archaeologist. For the moment, at least, I'm waving, not drowning.

Thanks for your loyalty and encouragement. Next time it'll be onward into the past. I promise. For reals.


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Which Do You Think Is Worse: An Offensive, Bigoted Epithet Or Cultural Appropriation? Same Shit: Different Pile As Far As I'm Concerned

I need to spend more time with the SA news ticker. Look what fell into my lap last night.
The Washington Red Clouds: A team name to honor a great warrior and leader
by Bob Drury and Thomas Clavin, authors of The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend.
When we last saw the hegemonic colonial ethos come face to face with history and good taste, my new hero Bob Costas was decrying the bigoted, anachronistic, but long-lived name of the Washington, D.C., American football team. I won't even repeat it here. But I can certainly make you squirm with some never-before-tried discursive equivalents. Imagine the Pittsburgh Pollacks, or the Cleveland Kikes, the Wisconsin Wetbacks, or the Arizona Amish. I think you get the picture.

I foolishly thought that once the lid was off, and the name "Redskins" finally crept back under the rock out from under which it first crawled into the light of day, a new, possibly culturally sensitive replacement would prevail. Talk about wrong!

Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud (1822--1909).
I can't condemn these guys for their earnestness. But to begin to redress, at a minimum, decades of humiliation of the original inhabitants of this continent, and lifetimes of cultural and ethnic cleansing up to and including strategic massacres and forced relocation, the NFL is gonna hafta do a lot better than propose this non-starter—at least from this anthropologist's point of view.

Since when did cultural appropriation balance bigotry and genocide? Without doubt, Red Cloud was a superlative leader and warrior. But on which side of the European usurpation of the Americas do the two benighted historians stand with their proposal calling for the team name to be switched from Redskins to Red Clouds? You might just as well ask on which planet they dwell.

Every word of this Washington Post article vibrates with the same lordly self-righteousness that presided over the original name. Drury and Clavin suggest that calling the team the Washington Red Clouds would heal old wounds and show the NFL establishment and the American people's respect. They believe that the suggested team mascot would please all of the living descendants of this continent's original inhabitants. Why? Because Red Cloud was the Sioux man who united a fifth of what's now the lower 48, and alongside his nation battled the U.S. government to a stalemate in the 19th century.

Did anyone ask his living descendants if they thought this was a good idea? [Obviously they couldn't ask Red Cloud.] So, by what right do Drury and Clavin, the Washington franchise owners, or the NFL brass steal the man's name?

If you're a fan of conundrums, riddle me this. First you call yourselves "redskins" because you want a team name that would evoke the ferocity and cunning of the American Indian. But, you can't think of another way to refer to Native Americans, as a group, except by using an epithet that was always meant to diminish and subjugate a people. Thus, the suggestion of the new name, even in the enlightened 21st century, amounts to barely disguised bigotry.

The Washington Red Clouds? How does that differ from the original choice? [Hint: it doesn't.] You're stealing a man's name to replace a bigoted epithet because the individual's name sounds vaguely like the status quo. Hmmm. But you have a precedent, you say. The Cleveland Browns were named for one of their own. That's a precedent for using a dead guy's name from within your ranks—it's not carte blanche permission to use any dead guy's name. The suggested name change is especially tone deaf when you remember that the dead guy's name and person represent a highlight of Native American resistance to oppression and cultural annihilation. Changing the team's name to Red Clouds makes. no. sense. at. all.

Reproduced with many thanks to The Elephant Journal. 
The suggested name change is not just misplaced conscience, it's what's known as cultural appropriation. If you're not familiar with the term or are inclined to pooh-pooh the idea, at left is a cartoon I found this afternoon on the intertubes that helps to make the point.

"No, really." It's fine! Dress like the people your ancestors persecuted and who your culture made certain would lose all touch with themselves as individuals and  as whole cultures, and who you choose, in the present, to marginalize.

Honest to gawd, they've never met a reality they couldn't spin to their own benefit. And this piece by Drury and Clavin* only perpetuates the status quo.

K. I'm outa here. Sleep the sleep of angels, for tomorrow the battle will be joined anew.

* wasn't he a character in American television's long-lived sitcom, Cheers?


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.