Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas in England: Seventh and Last

No longer in England. But this is the actual Christmas bit, including the run-up.

On the 22nd I travelled south to Oxfordshire, hoping to get another taste of the best ale I ever had. That was in the summer of '77, which I spent at Exeter College, Oxford. I visited the brewery, pictured below. It's a Victorian 'tower' brewery, one of only a very few that have survived and which continue to produce, a century on. What a magic place it was! Literally out in the middle of you-no-where. Not far from Oxford, all things considered, but thoroughly country. Check out the photo below it. That's country England, 2014-style. Not a whole lot different from 1964, or 1924.

Hook Norton Brewery, Hook Norton, OXON.
Near Hook Norton, OXON.
Paul Preston and Katie Davenport-Mackey, who invited me to be at TAG 2014, also invited me to stay with them over Christmas, in Southwaite—a country hamlet about 20 km south of Carlisle, in northern England. Paul's parents, Richard and Sue, made very sure that I ate and drank well during the two days of my stay.

I arrived on Christmas Eve. Paul and Katie drove me at dusk to a Neolithic stone circle on a flat-topped knoll in the midst of a circle of impressively craggy and high mountain peaks in the Central Pennines. I was thrilled. Later that evening, at Richard and Sue's place, we had a smoked salmon terrine and mousakka, real ale from a cask, purchased from a nearby microbrewery, Spanish wine, Middle Eastern Araki [the analogue of ouzo, to go with the mousakka], and a lot of laughs.

Then on Christmas Day, we had a feast in Richard and Sue's sun room, which had been decorated by the grandchildren the day before. Have a look—Christmas crackers, a manor or two in the distance. I was very lucky. The turkey was succulent, and the trimmings were classic—Brussels sprouts, parsnips, roast potatoes, and on, and on. It was comfort food times 5!

That's about it. There had been moments, after my crash-and-burn at TAG, when I considered making my way home and missing Hook Norton, my old friend Alec, and Christmas in Cumbria. I'm very glad I didn't. Instead, I made lemonade!

Happy New Year, Dear Reader! See you soon.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas in England: Part the Sixth

So, Gargett, your horse threw ya! And ya don't wanna get back up. Could be that was the first—and no doubt the worst—such equestrian event in recorded history. Then again. Maybe not. 

Regardless. Okay, Dr. self-described Subversive—what're you back here for? If you don't want to get back on the g.d. horse, why'd you bother to stand up? 

Good question. Don't rush me!

First. My horse didn't throw me! The wheels came of my cart. Big difference, as far as I'm concerned. Both are embarrassing as Hell. But when I get on a horse, it's just me and the horse. That cart was carrying a load that's both precious and irreplaceable. When those wheels came off, not just my not-so-very-valuable physical self hit the dirt: out of it spilled every receptacle of self-confidence and self-motivation that had accrued to me in the past three-plus years of having your ear, and with them even the store of indignation at the stuffed shirts and bullies that roam the halls and stairways of the ivory tower within which we're constrained to work, but is very much NOT the edifice that you and I want archaeology and paleoanthropology to be. 

And whether or not you think ALL THAT should have been the result of my 'little' prat-fall at TAG, it's how I felt.

Kay. So. Yesterday I woke up sick as a dog. But with the prudent application of decongestants and analgesics, and after a cuppa the all-powerful elixir—tea, off I drove, to Liverpool, to cash in my voucher for an evening at the world's most famous night club, the Cavern, where the Beatles played 292 times in their early career. I had a good meal at Browns at Liverpool One—pan-roasted cod on fingerling potatoes with a tiny-shrimp and caper butter, and a glass of Chenin Blanc. Then I saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Then I walked up Piccadilly Lane toward the Beatles' unoffical shrine to see the house Beatles cover band. Today, I'm feeling somewhat better. Still snivelling and coughing up chunks. But feeling like the worst is over. The worst of the illness, that is.

The cart accident is still very much with me. As is the spectre of having to pay for this little escapade, which was to've been an apotheosis, of sorts. Talk about hype!

Tomorrow it's off to Oxford, with a brief stop at a little village called Hook Norton, to tour the brewery where they make the best ale I've ever tasted. That was back in 1977, in the early days of the Campaign for Real Ale, which turned the tables—one hopes forever—on the megabreweries and their monostyle bitters and lagers. Then to the dreaming spires, home of Inspectors Morse and Lewis, and mine, too, for six weeks in 1977.

Keep your ears and eyes open. I'll be back soon.

Thanks for joining me today and any day, for that matter. And if I get too busy, please accept my early and best wishes for a joy-filled holiday!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Christmas in England: Part Fire; Part Water.

Yesterday was the day-long "Bridges over troubled waters" symposium at TAG 2014 in Manchester. I was there not to present a paper, but to be the discussant, which is a role usually reserved for experts in the matters under consideration. Unfortunately the 'expert' discussion proved to be hesitant, tentative, and generally scatter-brained. The less said about it, the better. [O' course, if you're the kind o' person who checks out the police band on the radio for in-progress crimes in your neighbourhood, or who gets a kick out of watching old film of the Hindenburg Disaster in slow motion, you could, if you wanted, scroll down to the bottom for a kind of "You were there" experience. Be my guest. It isn't pretty. And, frankly, if you knew me the way I know me, I'm the only person whose opinion counts on this occasion.]

After nearly 20 hours of reflection [minus the, oh, 13 hours of avoidant sleep], a bus trip to and from the venue during which I decided that I couldn't face the sea of participants and attendees again and so returned to the hotel to hide, I can say this much about the experience: I ask too much of myself in my self-proclaimed subversive persona. And I know that I asked too much of myself yesterday when I hoped to mend fences in a decades long dispute between two kinds of archaeologists.

That dispute is, I believe, based on incommensurable world-views, each grounded in philosophically untenable presumptions about our 'project.' I'm talking about the Processual/Post-Processual, Science vs Anti-Science, Objectivist/Relativist [you name it] schism that has, I'm saddened to learn, persisted unabated since the late 1970s. "Bridges Over Troubled Waters," as I've previously written, was aimed at finding a way past this schism.

The other day I wrote, "It's cold out here" in reference to the feelings of anomy that accrue to me as I try, again and again—with limited success—to put my finger in the dike of bad archeological inference, especially when it comes to my area of interest—the so-called modern human origins debate. Mine is an almost utterly thankless metier [excepting, of course, for the thanks and encouragement that I get from a very few old and mostly new 'friends' that I hear from on Facebook or Twitter, whose support I sincerely appreciate,, and which is the reason that I was invited to be present at TAG 2014].

Back to asking too much of myself. The 'work' that I do, and about which I feel alternately buoyed and desperate, calls on my wide, but often shallow, expertise in a number of scientific disciplines, my brush with Realist philosophy of science and, broadly speaking, epistemology—how we know what we know. I'm not patting myself on the back, but I think that I'm perhaps uniquely qualified to do the 'work' that I do precisely because of the breadth of my experiences in archaeology and out—both as a student and in practice. That experience allows me to spot a bad geoscience-based inference as easily as a fallacious argument, a wildly unempirical assumption as easily as an inferential house of cards.

I'm certain that most of the people of whose work I'm critical would consider my efforts to be in vain, and they'd be right, but not for the right reasons. I've managed, I think, to point out numerous failures in reasoning in many, very high profile, paleoanthropological research publications. I believe that I've correctly identified crucial flaws in long-standing presumptions. And yet, zombie-like, those presumptions still infest the views that underpin archaeological inference. It doesn't matter if I'm right or if I'm wrong; but it would be a great encouragement if I didn't feel—constantly—as if I was fighting a futile rear-guard action, with no hope of reinforcement.

And so, there I was yesterday—after an entire day of research presentations that ranged from the almost totally 'data-based' to the almost entirely heuristic—thinking that I could possibly achieve, in that small forum, what Alison Wylie's work has, evidently, been unable to achieve in 30 years. I couldn't help but fail. And I did so—royally. Hell, even Alison would've been unable, in 15 or 20 minutes, to persuade the attendees to shed their empiricist world view and instead adopt a realist philosophy of science, which, if I have read Wylie's works correctly, has the potential—the ability, in fact—to heal the divide of which I've spoken, between, on the one hand radical, contextual, anti-science post-modern anthropology and archaeology, and the equally radical 'I don't do theory' cadre of [sometimes] smug, 'hard-science,' types who thumb their noses at efforts to get at the human beings [or bipedal apes] that left the traces they observe and record, distill and interpret.

I'm actually the lucky one, because I'm not bound by either extreme and, albeit in the way of an accolyte, see Wylie's work as, if not "the" way through, at least "a" way through the schism, and which, at one and the same time promises to leave the proponents of both extremes with their dignity, at move archaeology forward, with a unified purpose—the task of squeezing the most out of the meagre traces of past actions in the aid of learning as much as we possibly can about the individuals and societies that left the traces behind when they passed from the animate to the inanimate state of being As I see it, all that's needed is for the others to pay attention. But then, world views are such that they don't readily accept a different way of 'seeing.' So, perhaps it is a pipe dream.

Many thanks to Paul R. Preston, Katie Davenport-Mackey, Seosaimhin Bradley, and Tom Elliot for inviting me to be present at their symposium. Even if they're too polite to voice the truth, I at least can: I believe that my effort was an embarrassment that they neither expected or deserved  for the confidence they placed in me.

I had tried to come up with a prepared statement, since, having known myself all my life I knew that I'd lose the plot were I to have attempted an extempore presentation. Unfortunately the thoughts that I'd jotted down mysteriously evaporated at about 08:30 as I was adding a couple of new thoughts to the text in an iPad app hat I use, called Evernote. Poof! There it was . . . gone! As I was constrained to pay attention to the papers throughout the day, there was no opportunity to recoup my lost thoughts. So, when the time came, I attempted to 'wing it.' Disaster ensued. There might have been but twenty people in the overly large lecture theatre. It may as well have been twenty thousand. Each half-baked thought was accompanied by a half-dozen different feelings--most were kith and kin to terror. Not, for me, a great emotion, nor one conducive to remembering or articulating anything complex than a telephone number.

The organizers were polite, and one or two members of the audience said that my spell in front of them had given them cause to reconsider their presuppositions about the nexus of 'data' and 'theory,' which most of the presenters seemed to think were separate entities.

I should definitely stick to writing and 'publishing' unrefereed criticisms of other peoples' work, and leave the task of overcoming the philosophical schisms to the grown-ups.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas in England: Part Tree. Tagging Along at TAG Manchester 2014

TAG 2014 in Manchester.

Sitting in the conference reception area while the first (afternoon) sessions are in progress. I'm feeling way too much like an ethnographer right about now and not enough like an archaeologist. I know  almost no one here, although last night I did meet the balding pate sitting at the left of the red settee in the foreground. He's Ray Rivers, a physicist from University College London. He accompanied Paul Preston (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation), Katie Davenport-Mackey (Leicester), and Tom Elliott (Worcester) and me last night while we had real ale and Chinese food in the north quarter of old city Manchester.

My analogy up above refers to what Iain Davidson once told me is the fundamental difference between the role of ethnographer and archaeologist. Most field ethnography is undertaken by solitary individuals who set themselves apart from their subject; most field archaeology is undertaken by small hordes of well-socialized people in an intensely social context. My own personal circumstances are such that, while I like people, I have trouble inserting myself into their society, unless invited, and then only if I have no reason to think I'll be negatively judged. So, at times like this I spend a lot of time acting like an ethnographer wishing I could be doing field archaeology! Can you say, "Wallflower?"

This profoundly influences my experience of events such as this, as you might imagine!

"Why," you ask, "aren't you sitting in on the papers?"

Good question. My only answer is that, at the moment I'm overtaken by my worries about how I'll come across tomorrow afternoon during my 15 minutes of fame, discussing false dichotomies like science vs who knows what, and the notion of data vs data-free archaeological interpretation. And I got tired of sitting here trying to write what amounts to a 'paper' on epistemology and getting hopelessly bogged down, when all the while I'm supposed to be getting ready to comment on a bunch of live presentations about the substance of which I can only vaguely guess at the moment, based on some fairly abstruse abstracts.

Worse, I'm not much at extemporizing. So, if you're pretty good at math you can calculate that the next 24 hours are gonna be pretty unpleasant for me! Hence my present behaviour--using you as an excuse not to think about what's ailing me. I do hope you'll forgive me for exploiting you in this fashion!

Never fear! Relief will arrive in the near future--the Plenary lectures that begin at 17:30, and the Wine Reception at 19:30!

Ahh . . . the life of an itinerant archaeologist!

Envy me, if you will. I think I'd gladly change places with you right about now!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Christmas In England. Part deux, December 13, 2014

Much better, thank you!
I woke up this morning to dry floors, lit bathing facilites, and a ceiling light that stayed off!
I had a buffet breakfast that included rashers of bacon—including back bacon A.K.A. Canadian bacon—spotted Dick, Cumbrian sausage, stewed tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, cooked egg, and fried bread, and some really good [probably Turkish] brewed coffee.
Then I drove seven minutes to this place, in Didsbury [sounds a bit like Budleigh Babberton, don't it?], south of Manchester.
A thoroughly pleasant staff and clientele. I watched Middlesborough take apart Derby County in an English football match, then highlights of England and Sril Lanka's sixth ODI and of the first Test Day 5 and of Australia v India at Adelaide.

Now I'm having an alcoholic ginger beer in the Resident's Lounge at the Britannia Country Hotel.

Life is . . .  sweet!

Tomorrow I meet the organizers of the TAG Manchester session that I'll be discussing on Tuesday. Can. Hardly. Wait.


Friday, 12 December 2014

Christmas In England. Part One

If you've been on the dark side of the moon for a while, you may not know this: your Subversive Archaeologist has accepted an invitation to be the discussant for a session at TAG Manchester 2014. So, here I am, live blogging the trip, from the Brittania Country House, Paltine Road, Didsbury, near Manchester.

It's kind of a new, Olde Word-y sort of place, not far from the University of Manchester, where the conference is being held. And it's a world of improvement over the hole I stayed in last night, which was a so-called bed and breakfast called the Citi Place on Ashton Old Road. Below ground room with a shared toilet [which I don't remember seeing when I booked it], which would've been all right if it'd had paper towels in the paper towel dispenser! And I wouldn't have minded the below-ground room if it hadn't been for the water [fresh, I hoped] seeping up through the cracks between the artificial planks of the floor, the shower/sink closet with no light, and the single ceiling light that kept blinking on, randomly, after I'd turned it off! I felt lucky to wake up this morning undiseased and not electrocuted [although, clearly, if I had been, you wouldn't be reading this right now--so, forgive me for the poetic license]. Oh, and let's not forget the smell. And the wardrobe that couldn't be opened, 'cause there wasn't enough room between it and the bed. Or the bookshelf [an odd appurtenance for a B&B, come to think of it] with one of these on each of its three shelves

I think you catch my meaning!

So. Here we are. Comfortable, showered, in the "Residents Lounge," having a Hobgoblin real ale, and wallowing in the memories of my tour of Old Trafford, the stadium where Manchester United play. What a glorious history!

So, to business.

The TAG starts on Monday. As you may already know, my brief is to comment on a session titled Bridges Over Troubled Waters, which seeks to mend the perceived divide between theory and data. Thanks to my brush with philosophy of science in the 1980s I happen to think that it's a spurious divide. But it remains to be seen how that'll go down with the crew at TAG 2014. Regardless, I'm very much lokoking forward to it!

Be back soon!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Is It Science If It's "Just" Criticism?

I'm used to being upbraided for my often-disparaging treatment of archaeological and paleoanthropological inferences that I find unpersuasive [at best] or ludicrous [at worst].

So, this morning it was déjà vu all over again when noted scholar Pat Shipman took me and Scott Cleland to task in a comment thread on "Palaeoanthropologica," the Facebook page originated by Charles T. G. Clarke, which he co-moderates with Michael "Mick" Vernon. It lists 808 members—a great many of whom are academics well-known in our little discipline.

The catalyst for Pat's chastisement was Joordens et al.'s claims for pierced and decorated shell ornaments and tools—said to be about 500,000 years old—from Trinil, the type locality of Homo [Pithecanthropus] erectus, on the island of Java, in Indonesia. The authors have examined Eugene Dubois's collection of freshwater molluscs, gathered from the same depositional context as the original H. erectus discovery. One of the objects is shown below—an ancient specimen of the still-extant species of freshwater mussel, Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis (Dubois 1908).

Putatively decorated Pseudodon shell, from Joordens et al.'s "Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving," Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13962. Published online 03 December 2014. Scale bar in a and c is 1 cm; 1 mm in d.
I believe there are plenty of good reasons to doubt the conclusions that these authors have reached, including their dating of the sediments found within articulated bivalve specimens in the collection. But I'm not here to take on that task—at least not this minute.

Instead, I want to highlight Pat Shipman's assertions regarding the proper route that a scientist should take when what amounts to a failure of the peer-review system results in publication of claims based on patently equivocal evidence presented as faits accomplis.

Have a look at this comment thread at Palaeoanthropologica. Scott Cleland's contribution, in particular, is interesting, because he provides an illustration of naturally pierced bivalves from Korea, and questions the degree of effort of Joordens et al. in ruling out natural processes to explain their observations.

The bottom line, from my perspective—and this should be the bottom line for every serious archaeologist—is that when arguing about taphonomic processes all effort should be made to specify as wide a range of processes that are capable of producing the phenomenon observed, and even then to admit that it may never be possible to rule out natural processes. For that reason, these authors' conclusions, stated almost matter-of-factly, are at best provisional and at worst mythopoeic.

Pat Shipman spent a part of her career publishing on taphonomy. My so-called career was focussed on the taphonomy of Middle Paleolithic purposeful burial, and archaeological site formation processes in general. However, along with the rank and file of paleoanthropology, Pat doesn't see my scholarly contributions as inherently scientific—to say nothing of my efforts here at The Subversive Archaeologist, which I'm almost certain is the target of her reference to "a snide critical paper" in this snippet from one of her back-and-forths with Scott. According to Pat,
[Y]ou DO NOT publish a snide critical paper but instead politely approach [those you would criticize] with your data and invite them to co-author a paper with you discussing the implications of your finding. THAT [is] doing science. It is oh-so-easy to criticize someone elses' work and much more difficult to improve on it and contribute to science.
Perhaps Pat Shipman is right in saying this. I happen to disagree. For various reasons, all of which I've laid out explicitly in these pages over the past 38 months. But just for the record, here is a short list of reasons why "doing science" the Pat Shipman way is a non-starter.

1. Even if one is a tenured academic, there is scant likelihood of finding other scholars amenable to having their earth-shattering conclusions questioned, much less who'd be happy to work together with to undermine the conclusions that garnered them so much praise and attention.
2. Even if one is a tenured academic, there is no perceived value in criticizing the work of others, especially if the background research is unfundable—often the case, just ask Gary Haynes—or if access to the material in question is restricted, or if the conventional wisdom is so heavily against what you have to say that no one would publish it anyway.
3. It's an insidious and anti-intellectual mistake to assert that criticism—by itself—is unscientific, or that it must be accompanied by research that would either help to achieve a better understanding of—or, once and for all—eliminate any ambiguity in explaining the origin of a given phenomenon or nature of a past process. Pat Shipman isn't alone in believing this. This assertion has been my constant companion for going on thirty years, and I just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to withstand it.
4. For those of us who, for whatever reason, work outside the academy, all the bets are off. The currency of academia is fundable research—the greater the funding, the greater the prestige attached to the enterprise. Whether in or out of the academy, research is expensive in both time and treasure. If you're not reporting on the oldest or the best or the biggest in our discipline, you're nowhere. And if you're on the outside, forgeddaboudit.
5. Our discipline cries out for a critical tradition, not just because we're all, presumably, trying to get ever closer to an accurate understanding of the past, but because—from Piltdown to purposeful MP burial—the public deserves better than to pay for research that results in loosely argued, and evidently fantastic, claims for bipedal ape behaviour.

In these pages I've presented hundreds of reasons as to why widely accepted knowledge claims are based on, at best, equivocal evidence. That they haven't been published in reputable scientific outlets has one, simple, explanation—nobody in a position of power wants to hear them.

One of Pat Shipman's early co-authors was Erik Trinkaus. She, of all people, should know that her expectation of a warm and fuzzy collegiality is a pipe-dream. All I ever did to Trinkaus was to take apart his precious criticism of my argument, which I did in a perfectly civil manner, in a refereed publication. For that, I was refused a hand-shake and shown his back when an opportunity arose to meet him in person. Such acts are reprehensible, and in the life of a young academic are crystalline moments that presage only worse in years to come. And the messages that I've received from countless others in senior academic positions have been consistent, and consistently disheartening.

Some of my friends and colleagues think that it's weak of me to speak of such matters—that I should 'suck it up' and 'fight on,' regardless.

All I can say is that it's lonely out here. And a chilly climate that awaits those who would be critics in our discipline.

As many of you know, I am no longer an academic. In 1994 I earned a PhD at the University of California, and I had only a very brief career as a Lecturer in Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at the University of New England, in Armidale New South Wales, Australia, from mid 1996 through mid 1999. Since that time I had an artificially  truncated career in cultural resources management, and languished in low-level administrative positions.

Since I began The Subversive Archaeologist in 2011, at Iain Davidson's urging, I've experienced the highs of knowing that my message is reaching many more than would ever have been the case if I'd remained in the academy, and the equivalent lows of knowing that the vested interests are still unwilling or unable to abide criticism—whether couched in scholarly language, or shot from the lip.

I very much appreciate the support that I've received from the online community—my Google+ circle-mates, Facebook friends, Twitterites and followers. All up I reckon there have been about 500 who, at one time or another saw fit to tag along. Thanks to all of you! I hope it's been worth it.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Call For Nominations: The Dawson Awards 2015

Charles Dawson (1864–1916)
It is with extreme pleasure that I call for nominations for the inaugural
Charles Dawson Prize
in recognition of the nefarious amateur archaeologist said to have been responsible, in 1912, for mounting the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni) hoax, which set paleoanthropology back at least four decades. Heck! Even if Dawson wasn't the perpetrator, his name belongs on these awards because he should've known better than to fall for such a cheap trick!

Tip o' the old brown fedora to Leon Jacobson for suggesting that The Subversive Archaeologist host an archaeological equivalent of the much-revered Darwin Awards. It took less than a second to decide in whose honour this prize should be named.

One Grand Prize will be awarded, along with honourable mention for two runners-up. The awards will be announced on the first of April, 2015.

First and foremost, the Dawson Prize will be given for ignominious achievement in the archaeological sciences—broadly construed as those endeavours that contribute to knowledge of human or bipedal ape past behaviours and cognitive or cultural abilities and achievements—from observations made during excavation, or from excavated materials.

Nominees must possess advanced degrees, although it isn't necessary that they be in archaeology or anthropology. Any discipline that aids or makes possible archaeological or paleoanthropological interpretation is a potential candidate. However, possession of an advanced degree is crucial. How else to gauge how far the mighty are fallen?

The work in question must be reported in a peer-reviewed publication, to ensure that the Dawson Prize is shared equally by the researchers and their enablers—the estimable referees. The more high-profile the publication; the greater the failure, and more apt and just the deserts of this award. Publications such as Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and their ilk will garner the most attention from the judges—work published in PLoS ONE will be considered only in the absence of nominees who publish in scholarly vehicles of long standing.

Special weight will be given to research findings that are uncritically parrotted in the media as having huge scientific importance. Included are minor- and major-market newspapers, and web sites devoted to science writing—especially archaeology and paleoanthropology. If you wish to have your nomination considered for this criterion, please include links to several examples.


To expedite judging, the following minimum information will be required from you.

1. Name(s) of those responsible for the research.
2. Full bibliographic information for the publication(s).
3. A hint as to why you think the work is deserving of the Dawson Prize.
4. Your name and affiliation, if you're fortunate enough to have one—an affiliation, I mean.

Submit nominations using the Comments function at the bottom of this announcement.


Let infamy reign!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Compliments of the Season . . .

Artist unknown*

Season's Greetings!

That’s what an old friend of my parents, a perspicacious salesman, used to say when he arrived at our front door for his annual—pre-Christmas cocktails—visit. In retrospect, it was an eerily early act of cultural sensitivity. It was the 1960s, after all! I’m stealing the idea because, as an atheist anthropologist who grew up in an Abrahamic culture I know that almost anything I might want to say to an anonymous reader that refers to a specific year-end holy day could end up being an even longer and unwieldy sentence than the one you've just ploughed through.

So, Season's Greetings, it is!

It's time for shrimp on the barbie for my friends in the Southern Hemisphere, and for putting another log on the fire for residents of northern temperate climes. The only real cross-cultural and pan-geographic reference that one can make is that, for a moment—at precisely 23:03 UTC on Sunday, December 21, 2014—the sun will appear to stand still as it reaches the southernmost point in its annual parade between the Tropics. That instant should be long enough for each one of us to recall friends and loved ones, the quick and the dead, and to say "Thank You" to everyone who's given us a little joy on this journey through life. As for me, I'll be thinking especially of the clicks that brought you and others to The Subversive Archaeologist on more than half a million occasions since October 2011.

Regardless of how you celebrate at this time of year, I wish you joy in abundance, now and forever.
* Many thanks to whomever is responsible for creating this enchanting and evocative image. It's found, uncredited, on numerous sites on the intertubes—but I was unable to locate the original source. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Accolades For Tom Wynn: Too Bad About That Hand Axe Thing!

This just in!

University of Colorado
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology
Dr. Thomas Wynn
Tom Wynn, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, has just been given that institution's highest academic position—Distinguished Professor.

Well done, Tom!

He began working on bipedal ape cognition in the late 1970s, and in the past decades he and UCCS psychologist Fred Coolidge have compiled an immense amount of work around the evolution and character of, in particular, Neanderthal cognition.

Both are friends of the Subversive Archaeologist—although I'm well aware that they don't concur with much that I've written about the theoretical constructs that surround Paleolithic stone artifacts.

Tom's early work was highlighted by the 1979 "The Intelligence of Later Acheulean Hominids" (Man, New Series 14:371-391), in which he applied Piagettian genetic epistemology to "characterize the intelligence of later Acheulean" bipedal apes—makers of the ubiquitous, yet to me still inherently enigmatic, stone artifact that many call the hand-ax [or handax or hand axe or hand ax, the artifact formerly also known as the coup-de-poing.]

As you're no doubt keenly aware, I question the fundamental premise that lies beneath any such undertaking. Tom used the illustration below in 1979 when outlining his characterization of the intelligence behind the events that led to its having the shape you see here. According to Wynn, “The maker must have been able to conceive the desired shape . . .  .” That "shape" is the bilateral symmetry that has resulted from flake removals, some of which are labelled in this view because they are examples of what Tom calls "retouch," which he infers to have been the purposeful removal of small flakes to produce the desired end product. Granted, this is just one of tens of thousands of such bifaces that have been recovered archaeologically over the years—but the fundamental premise underlying its identification as a hand axe remains the same, and encompasses a shit-load of variation, including other bifacially flaked objects called 'cleavers,' and 'picks,' and 'discoids.'

Forgive me Tom, and you, Dear Reader, if I demur. While this artifact may have been purposefully shaped, that is by no means a necessary conclusion, and to me the evidence for that claim is shaky at best. Bear with me. Let's first look at the view on the right. You see a classic ventral flake surface, complete with striking platform, bulb of percussion, tiny fissures in the rock radiating from the platform, and the concentric ripples emanating from the same point, created  by the Hertzian cone of force that was required to separate this flake from its larger—source—block of raw material, in other words the original core. 

To begin with, there's really no way that I can see to know what this flake's original dimensions were. Although, I suspect that they weren't much different than you see here. I base my—freely acknowledged to be an informed lay person's—opinion on the ambiguity of the timing of all of the flake removals that I've numbered in red in this annotated view. They might all have been removed from the block of raw material PRIOR to this flake's detachment from that core. As such, absent the nibbling that you see labelled "A," the gross shape of this artifact could have been the natural outcome of the physics of rock fracture. Of course, I suppose one could propose that—as is the case with the Levallois so-called technique—those prior flake removals were intended to produce a flake of just this shape. [I think you can guess where I'd stand on that proposition!]

I'm happy for Tom. Kudos, Tom! For your tireless work, for your teaching, for your enthusiasm and for the excitement you've created in generations of archaeologists. But I still think that your construction of pre-modern bipedal ape cognition is profoundly flawed by your major presumption that artifacts such as this were 'created' purposefully in this shape.

One last comment. In the Gazette article Tom is quoted as saying that "One-point-seven million years ago our ancestors made them and continued making them for the next 1.5 million years. Then they quit." Sorry, Tom. Our 'ancestors' may quit making them—most likely when they stopped being our ancestors—but people like you and me have made objects like this up until recent times, as I've pointed out many time before.

Take, for example, these beautiful 'hand axes' from the Americas, with which I'll end this blurt. Archaeologists on this side of the Atlantic have never presumed that these were tools, in and of themselves. That's a much sounder basis—IMHO—on which to ground inferences of cognitive complexity than the one to which Tom Wynn and sooooo many others cleave.

El Pulguero Suroeste is here, in Baja California:

And the Topper Site is on the Savannah River in Allendale County, South Carolina, approximately where you see the bulls-eye in the logo below.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Nefud For Thought: Scerri et al.'s Arabian Levallois Artifacts Give Us Pause To Reconsider Middle Paleolithic Typology

Far be it for me to downplay discoveries that have the potential to overturn long-standing misunderstandings about what went on in the past. On the other hand, I can't help but be excited when I see images of artifacts such as these, for what they imply about the bipedal apes that made 'em.
From Scerri et al. "Middle to Late Pleistocene human habitation in the western Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia," Quaternary International, available online 8 October 2014.
I call your attention to object number 1. As you can see, it's described as a "Centripetally prepared preferential Levallois core," as is object 2. Object 3 is a "recurrent centripetal Levallois core," 4 is a "Single platform core," 5 a "bidirectional Levallois point core, 6 and 7 "discoidal cores," 8 another "single platform core," 9 a "multiple platform core," 10 and 11 are "bifaces." [BT dub, gotta give the authors credit for not referring to 10 and 11 as hand axes, since that's what they, evidently, are, and would normally be called that in run-of-the-mill Middle Paleolithic scholarship. O' course, they do identify similar objects as hand axes elsewhere in their paper—I guess maybe these two weren't sufficiently 'well made' or pointy enough to make it into that category. In that case, one wonders why they weren't treated as hand axe 'rough-outs' as others have done. Somebody stop me!]

What I'm seeing here could imply much more than what Scerri et al. are reporting—that these Arabian Peninsula Middle Pleistocene assemblages are evidence for multiple demes spanning tens of thousands of years in MIS 5, the last interglacial—including anatomically modern Homo sapiens from northeastern Africa and Homo neanderthalensis from southwestern Asia.

I think the authors are missing something about the size of these artifacts. Here's a close-up of number 1, with some everyday objects for comparison. Yep. Those are a One Pound coin, a Tooney, a Sacagawea dollar, and a 2 Euro coin.

Yet, despite its size, Scerri et al. describe this fragment of rock—barely larger than pocket change—as a "Centripetally prepared preferential Levallois core." It sounds impressive! It is impressive! If it's what the authors' claim, this little beauty could be evidence for a group of bipedal apes with hands smaller than a five-year-old's! Either that, or this so-called Levallois industry is just that, a three dressed up as a nine. After all, could any of these pieces actually be Levallois cores [which, forgive me, perhaps I've missed something all along, but, I thought a Levallois core was something that was being prepared for the final removal of a flake of predetermined shape]? Give me a break!

Object number 3 is an even more impressive piece when you consider that it's a "recurrent centripetal Levallois core." As so many of you already know, I'm not a lithic analyst. But I think that means—unlike number 1, this has more than one flake scar, implying more than one flake removal in preparation for that magical, mystical flake of predetermined shape, which, equally mysteriously, was never removed. So. When is a Levallois core not a Levallois core? And why were all of these not taken to the next stage, according to [the conventionally wise construct of the] plan?

For my part, I don't know why we just can't use the old Bordesian typology, illustrated below. In that case number 1 wouldn't even make it as a Levallois core, and, at best, number 3 would be a "Classic." A classic it be, for sure! Either way, given their size, any flake of predetermined shape that a bipedal ape hoped to remove at this point in the reduction sequence would either be doomed to failure, or so small as to have been useless for any function more adaptive than cleaning one's fingernails. The same goes for the rest of 'em. And for any inferences that they can milk out of these bit of rock, however they want to describe 'em, and regardless of how many others in our field accept their inferences. [But then, that's why I'm here, in my metaphorical pajamas in my metaphorical (dead) mother's basement, bashing out this piece of uninformed criticism.]

Nevertheless, if these little bits of stone can be described in this fashion, and yet be, to all intents and purposes, useless as Levallois cores—in the original sense of the type—what does it say about all of the grown-up 'cores' that we're told were being shaped for the purpose of removing a flake of predetermined shape?

Let's face it, it's easy to recognize a Levallois core after that flake's been removed. Number 5, above, is one such example—mostly because the central flake had a point. It takes a real expert to recognize one that never got that far! Unless, of course, those final flake removals weren't, after all, the predetermined end product of the presumed process.

Many times before I've trotted out the Levallois cores from Douara Cave as evidence for the fallaciousness of the presumed Levallois technology. But it won't hurt to do it again.

Levallois cores from Douara Cave (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974).
I've outlined in red the final flake removal on these Levallois cores. Can we not agree that if their final shape was 'predetermined' there's nothing here that would fit, without considerable massaging of reality, in Bordes's original—and highly idealized—classification of Levallois flakes, which you see above.

I'd be very happy to throw out the whole Levallois technique baby with this Arabian Peninsula bath water.

I'll say it again, I'm not a lithic analyst. If I were, and if these rocks from the Arabian Peninsula were what the authors said they were, and if I believed them, I'd consider jumping on their bandwagon of desert archaeology and riding it as far as I could on the road to academic fame and fortune. But I'm not. And I don't. And I won't be joining them on their—obviously very prestigious considering the number of papers they're publishing and in what august scholarly journals they're publishing them—bandwagon.

I'm outa here.


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Some Prefatory Thoughts on TAG 2014 Manchester [Updated]

If you've been frozen in a glacier somewhere and have just now thawed out, you might not know that yours truly has been invited to be the discussant for a session at the Theoretical Archaeology Group in Manchester, England, in mid December, 2014. [For more information there's a link in the sidebar.]

Most of you are acquainted with the mechanics of conferences like this. So, you'll already know that I've not seen an abstract, much less a draft of any papers. Nonetheless, I thought it might be valuable to offer some thoughts about the session, as it's described by the organizers. [Update: A few hours after this was posted, I received a reminder that I had been sent abstracts of the papers. Apologies to all involved for my omission. However, in my defense, those abstracts came while I was in the midst of working non-stop for the last three weeks of a very difficult reporting project about which some of you may already have heard.] 

Bridges Over Troubled Theoretical Waters: Crossing the Divide between Data-based Archaeology and Archaeological Theory in Prehistoric Studies

Organized by Paul R. Preston (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation), Katie Davenport-Mackey (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, and Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester), Seosaimhín Bradley (Archaeology, School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire), and Tom Elliot (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, and Institute of Science and Environment, University of Worcester). Vicki Cummings (Archaeology, School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire) will chair the session.* 
 During recent workshops of the MESO-Lithics project, a number of issues have arisen that have far-reaching implications for archaeology as a whole. Namely, interpretations derived from archaeological theory in prehistoric studies are becoming ever more ambitious, ranging from low-order functional or economic theory to higher-order socially or stylistically mediated narratives. However, such interpretations are presently limited by the legacy of ideological upheavals and profound revolutions in thought over the last sixty years. From Culture History to the post-Post-Processual fragmentation of theoretical perspectives. Added to this is the prevalence of following fashionable philosophers such as Bourdieu, Heidegger and Deleuze (to name just a few). However, a common feature that has remained a detriment to archaeological studies is the tendency of disciples of each theoretical movement to reject that which went before ―throwing out of [sic] the methodological and conceptual baby with the theoretical bathwater― irrespective of the value of certain approaches. One of the major casualties of these ‘revolutions’ is the use of data to support interpretations – especially by theorists. As a result, many have apparently forgotten the role of, or indeed how to marshal, data in their interpretations. Instead narratives have become ideologically led, as archaeologists increasingly prefer ‘top down’ theoretical approaches. This session aims to redress this by promoting a discussion on how this impasse may be redressed by showcasing recent attempts by archaeologists to bridge this important, conceptual divide between data and theory.
I'd like to focus on the passage I highlighted above. In part, because I believe that it's factual. But the 'fact' that it exposes is so unnecessary, for a variety of reasons, as I attempt to flesh out in what follows. 

As an archaeological infant I was weaned on what Binford called Normative anthropological theory—the idea that Culture is all about the norms of a society—something which he, especially, decried as useless for archaeologists interested in the Paleolithic. He likened it to 'paleopsychology,' and gave it short schrift.

Marvin Harris
I went on to be educated as a Cultural Materialist—in the Marvin Harris mould—and a Processual (or New) Archaeologist. As were so many others in the 1970s and '80s I was persuaded to embrace the nomothetic-deductive philosophy of science championed by Hempel and other late Logical Empricists. As a result I looked askance at Structuralism, and was dismissive of the Old archaeology. [Keep in mind that this was in the mid 1980s, when, unbeknownst to me, there was already considerable post-modern theoretical foment in archaeology.] 

When I was offered a Regent's Internship-Fellowship at the University of California at Berkelely [Cal to those of you familiar with such matters], one of my Simon Fraser University mentors warned me that there were Structuralists there. 'There' also boasted J. Desmond Clarke, F. Clark Howell, Kent Lightfoot, Vince Sarich, Ruth Tringham, and Tim White.

Meg Conkey
The Structuralist I was to be wary of was Margaret W. Conkey, who, as it turned out, had moved well beyond structuralism in her thinking and in her fieldwork. Meg's work had been brought to my attention through her 1980 paper, "The Identification of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Aggregation Sites: The Case of Altamira" (Current Anthropology 21:609-630). Structuralist or not, that paper was data driven, and its arguments cogent. But what was really exercising most of the archaeologists I knew was Meg's and others' successful efforts to expose gender bias in archaeology, and to introduce the study of gender in archaeological cultures. I heard many a male archaeologists' whispered diatribes aimed at the very idea that an archaeology of gender was worth pursuing. Most were just re-cast anti-feminism, anti-affirmative action, anti-female, and often homophobomania [my word for the utterly despicable worldview that causes ostensibly sane men to presume that to be a feminist a women must be, deep down, a lesbian, and that to be supportive of women's causes, a man must be short a testicle or two—more homophobomania, I presume].

Diane Gifford-Gonzalez
I'm very glad that despite the warnings, some said in jest, I chose to pursue a PhD at Cal, and that Meg Conkey chaired my committee, which also included Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (UC Santa Cruz) and Clark Howell. In my first year there, I was exposed to strident post-modern critiques of science and archaeology, many of which I discovered to be well-founded when aimed at the unreflexive anthropological theory then practiced by many archaeologists—especially the then-popular 'adaptationist' stance taken by most who drank the Marvin Harris Kool-Aid. Just to refresh your memory, I'm talking about the processualist view of culture as "Man's [sic] extra-somatic means of adaptation." Lots of good archaeological fieldwork was carried out under that banner; however, much more would have been achievable with a less-limited theoretical framework.

Karl Butzer
[Insider note: I was asked to guide Karl Butzer from a reception at one place on the UCB campus to the place he was to give an invited public presentation. He was on my list of archaeological deities because of Archaeology as Human Ecology. In that Cal presentation he nearly apologized for his former strictly adaptationist leanings, and came down in favour of a more nuanced examination of past human behaviour.]

Along with archaeologists Meg the Structuralist and Ruth the Marxist, there were many post-modern sociocultural anthropologists in the Department, who didn't have much time for archaeologists and physical anthropologists in general—presumably because they saw us as lacking the requisite theoretical credentials, and among our other faults we were still focussed on practicing archaeology as a scientific enquiry. Anti-science critiques abounded, although, as I was to learn, some of them used plain ol' empirical evidence to shore up their arguments [otherwise known as scientific reasoning], and they were still thinking about Science in its positivist philosophical mould, which I now see as a self-inflicted wound that went unnoticed within that circle. 

And it's to Meg whom I owe the bear's share of gratitude for expanding and deepening my theoretical toolkit. Hers was my first graduate seminar, "Issues in the Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers." Despite the presence of a strident post-modernist and several reconstructed Cultural Materialists in the group, I was delighted by the breadth of empirical observation that was levelled against what was then popularly called the New Archaeology, or ProcessualArchaeology. Regardless of people around me proclaiming that science was dead, I was learning more about the value of archaeology as an empirical undertaking at the same time as I was being shown that the theory I'd been fed was, to put it bluntly, limited.

Alison Wylie
Meg arranged for Alison Wylie to facilitate a seminar in my second term. I had not been swayed by the proclamations that science was dead, or hopelessly flawed, or inherently androcentric, and yet I had nothing but my 'faith' that there was value in a body of knowledge that was based on empirical observation and evidence-based reasoning. Alison's work and her frequent mini-lectures in that seminar have enabled me to think differently from most post-processual archaeologists—because of my exposure to a [relatively] new way of thinking about how scientific knowledge is constructed.

I'm guessing that everyone reading this is familiar with the notion of the Scientific Method. It goes back hundreds of years. Put simply, it holds that you can't make a scientific inference unless you can observe the phenomenon. Hempel and others—sometimes referred to as Logical Positivists—belong to a group of philosophers of science known generically as Logical Empiricists. "If A, then B" pretty much sums up the Logical Empiricist stance. If you can't show that when A occurs, B follows, you don't have a scientific construct. I can't explain in detail here—and many have done it far better than I ever could—although I do a reasonably good job of it in one of the papers I wrote prior to being made a PhD candidate, "What is Archaeology, Really?

As Wylie points out, empiricist philosophy of science effectively ruled out our discipline as a science, because we attempt to make knowledge of something that, literally, doesn't exist: the past. As it turns out, Positivism also rules out early universe physics. And, I know from experience—having worked with astronomers and astrophysicists for nearly a decade—those so-called hard scientists make knowledge of the past using the very same reasoning that we archaeologists do. [Nostalgic note: the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, was nearly canonized by New Archaeologists, because they loved the idea of overturning the 'Old' archaeology 'paradigm.' Yet, as Alison Wylie pointed out to our graduate seminar, Kuhn's was essentially a social critique. His 'data' were currents of thought, which should be a lesson to any hold-out empiricist who seeks to confine 'data' to observations of physical phenomena.]

Just because we make knowledge in ways that don't fit with Logical Positivism doesn't mean that we're not doing 'Science,' or that our science is weak, or soft, in contrast to the likes of physics or chemistry. Indeed, the philosophy of science that held sway for hundreds of years has been in need of a facelift. That 'lift' is an account of how scientific knowledge is made that's often referred to as Scientific Realism. There are many philosophers of science, in addition to Alison Wylie, who can tell you all about it. I'll just say this. Empiricist philosophy of science couldn't even adequately describe the true nature of well-established scientific knowledge, because so much of it depends on recognizing and building on abstract models for physical processes that were inherently unobservable—the atomic structure is one example of a scientific finding that's been arrived at without anyone ever having seen an electron or a proton, much less an atom in the wild. Scientific Realism is an epochal shift for philosophy of science, and someday, I hope, the rest of the world will catch up. In the meantime, there is much "throwing out of the baby with the bathwater," as the TAG 2014 session organizers suggest.

The Subversive
ready to do battle
with bad inferences
I hope you'll forgive me for a rather lengthy blurt about not much of anything.

Mostly, I wanted to foreshadow my 'discussion' of the theoretical issues that will no doubt be raised by the papers we'll be seeing at TAG 2014 in Manchester.

* I look forward to meeting all of you. Paul Preston a long-time friend of the Subversive Archaeologist. [And yet it hasn't hurt his career to the best of my knowledge. Note to self: warn Paul of imminent danger.]

Monday, 17 November 2014

Back To Basics: Stratigraphy 101

This is a pop quiz. Most of you will breeze through it. But if just one of you is surprised by the answer, and thereafter remembers the lesson learned, archaeology's status as a scientific discipline will be safe for another day.

You've just dug a test pit.
The purpose of the test pit was to see what's under the surface.
What you see looks like this.

Credit and thanks to: Jim Turenne, the photographer. Westport Vineyards, Massachusetts. 
The upper sediments are unbedded fines. They overlie sediments transported by a different depositional process. 

When you dig the next hole do you treat the dark brown sediments near the surface as a "natural" level and dig arbitrary levels/spits within it? What about the pale-coloured material beneath it? What about the rust-coloured dirt underneath that? 

Did you answer "Yes" to any of the preceding questions? Bzzzzzzt. No points. No! Changed my mind. You lose points!

It's completely astonishing to me that there are people out there who call themselves archaeologists who wouldn't know a soil profile if it . . .  well, if it walked up and slapped them in the face in a field situation. A! Ston! Ish! Ing! 

And, if you think there aren't archaeologists out there who'd have made such a colossal blunder, think again.

There are just two stratigraphic 'layers' in this view: the upper fines and the lower gravelly stuff. The horizontal colour changes are soil horizons, the result of pedogenesis—differential weathering, in situ, of the sediments themselves. They are not 'stratified' in any geological or archaeological sense of the word. To treat them as such is to waste your time and the time of anyone coming after you trying to interpret your field observations.

I'm done. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Stand With Me—Pledge To End Harassment And Assault In Archaeology

There is no gray area here.

Either you stand with me or you stand against me. If you do not stand with me, you are not welcome here.

If you do stand with me you are committing yourself—regardless of your culture or your sex—to treating with decency and respect every person you come in contact with, whether that be in the home, the workplace, the classroom, or the field.

That commitment shall extend to males and females—heterophilic, homophilic, and everything in between—all genders, skin colours, nationalities, religions, and social or economic status.

With respect to all people I stand for no sexual, physical, or emotional harassment or assault, with the sole arbiter of what 'harassment' and 'assault' mean being only that person who feels that someone else's behaviour is discomforting, threatening, or worse.

If you stand with me, there is no room for cultural relativity or for appeals to tradition or history. That goes for the Abrahamic religions—including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as much as it does for atheism, agnosticism, polytheism, the ancient cosmologies of Iran and India, and traditional, indigenous, and other folk or mainstream belief systems.

My intolerance of tradition in this regard goes double for the puritanical sects of Christianity that still wield enormous influence in many parts of English speaking North America and elsewhere. Those, which hide behind abstractions like "Family Values," are shown through impeccable scientific research, over and over, to be the reason behind high rates of rape, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, and yes, abortion, especially in the United States, but by no means limited to that nation.

And it's the long history of misogyny and homophobia in the Abrahamic religions—especially Christianity—that I believe has brought us to this place today. It's a place we've been before. It's a place that we should long since have erased from our social lives.

[Just an aside: I'm appalled that, after many, many months of irregular [at best] contributions to the Subversive Archaeologist, my return for this reason is hardly an auspicious one.]

Robert J. Muckle, a long-time friend of the Subversive Archaeologist, has just published "On Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Archaeology" in the November 2014 SAA Archaeological Record, The Magazine of the Society for American Archaeology, in which he gives his personal and professional response to this summer's “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault” (PLoS ONE, July 16, 2014), by anthropologists Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde.

These scholars have quantified what, for many of us, are seen in ones and twos, perhaps in a lifetime. But those experiences are multiplied by the number of potential workplaces here in North America and across the globe.

The authors asked people in academic fieldwork disciplines some questions regarding their own experience of sexual harassment and assault. As Bob Muckle points out, almost a quarter of the more than 600 respondents were archaeologists!

Theirs is not a random sample. The respondents self-selected. The authors sought participants in two brief periods in early 2013.
Links to the survey on field experiences were posted on Facebook group pages for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society Social Network, Biological Anthropology Developing Investigators Troop, Biological Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association, Membership of the American Society of Primatologists, and BioAnthropology News. These links were then shared and retweeted by colleagues and disseminated using chain referral sampling (in a snowball manner).
Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass if the 'sample' is skewed toward those having experienced a hostile, and frequently dangerous, work environment. That this is happening AT ALL is beyond comprehension, and its perpetrators are despicable, and should be blackballed [sorry to use such a gendered expression—I think I can be forgiven under the circumstances]. That I have left out the possibility of rehabilitation is, merely, personal—I have little hope for reconstructing the mind-set of people who're capable of such acts.

Here's the makeup of the survey participants.

Here are a few lowlights of the findings.

And finally

Clancy et al.'s work might just as well have been researched and written in 1964, or '84, or '04 with the same outcome. And yet, the behaviour that's portrayed in this article persists today, across the United States and across the globe. Never mind archaeology in countries where the dominant cultural customs overtly oppress women, or specific ethnic groups, or non-heterophilic sexual orientations—THESE observations arise, for the most part, from field experiences shared with people who could be living down the street from you, in the next row in your college class, or at the front of that class (evidently a very common perch for perpetrators).

Yep. Middle Americans. Mild-mannered Canadians. Stiff-upper lipped British.

I entered the academy relatively late in life, in my 30s, and thus I can only record what I know of the last 30 years or so. They're still there. Androcentric, androcratic, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, dick-heads [yes, ladies and gentlemen, these people might as well have penises for heads]. They were there when I began.

Bob Muckle's commentary is valuable for his own recollections—as a fieldworker, field school leader, university professor, and anthropologist; Clancy et al.'s paper is disquieting, to say the least.

To show just how far we haven't come, I'll leave you with a light-hearted finale. Mary Sellers was able to joke, wryly, about the female field experience in her 1973 gut-busting "THE SECRET NOTEBOOK FOR THE PRACTICING ARCHAEOLOGIST: WITH PRELIMINARY NOTES TOWARD AN ETHNO-SCIENCE OF ARCHAEOLOGY," (Plains Anthropologist 18:140-148). As she put it,
     The Role of Women in Archaeology, or Women's Lib for an archaeologist is digging up two female skeletons in one day. Let's be clear: there is no discrimination against women in archaeology. They are to be found in classrooms, in summer field schools, and as wives of archaeologists. (The phrase male archaeologist is redundant.) Successful female archaeologists (read married to an archaeologist) are employed in small colleges, preferably female ones; in historical, classical, and even in archaeological museums and laboratories. Frequently they do ethnohistorical research. Usually, they help their husbands in the field.
     Few females without predilections for marrying archaeologists are attracted to field work crews. Mixed crews will continue to pose problems for supervisors concerned with decorum until the status of the Female Archaeologist is redefined, although most geared-for-success female archaeology students need little supervision in the field. They display domestic traits such as washing, sorting, reconstructing, and cataloging artifacts. To call these girls "camp followers" as many informants do is unjust. They are fulfilling important ecological niches in the profession and, without them on summer digs and in classrooms, it is doubtful that many archaeologists would get married—or remarried. They would have to change their current wife-securing procedures. It is important here to recognize the functional-structural significance of the summer feel cruise.
Wouldn't it be nice if this were just a quaint recounting of a long-since extinguished social reality?

Take the poll at the top of the sidebar. Let's give the bastards a show of numbers.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Hiatus noun \hī-ˈā-təs\

A total cessation of effort for an indefinite period of time.

Although, in the present circumstances, that time is limited.

A good guess would be Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, 2014.

That'll need to be revised. Project Cluster *uck just won't go away!

I'm hoping it'll be over by week's end. That'd be the 8th or so.

It'll be good to get back into the Subversive Archaeologist's saddle.

Be back soon!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who Knew? International Archaeology Day, And I Wasn't Invited!

When one is 'out of the loop,' as they say, one should, nevertheless, avoid appearing to be 'out of it' altogether.

So, since I more or less qualify for both labels, but wish to 'appear' otherwise, it's appropriate that I should say

"Happy International Archaeology Day" to you and yours. And may the spirt and the rewards of our mutual passion be with you all the days of the year! 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Road Taken—Four Years of The Subversive Archaeologist: To Celebrate—Cormac McCarthy's Apocalyptic Vision and Paleolithic Archaeology

[Listening to Echosmith's "Cool Kids," and knowing what it's like.]

Well, well, well! Milestones will be passed. You and I have been together here now for just over 4 years. Hell! That's longer than my entire academic career!* And there are so many of you. Unimaginably big numbers of you, which is what I'd have said if you'd told me on October 5, 2011 that today, this address on the web would've been accessed more than 480,000 times. You've been wonderful. And, despite my spotty presence in the past who-knows-how-long? it's been incredibly rewarding.

Thank. You!

Enough shilly-shallying! Down to business.

Perhaps you read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I did. Or, maybe you saw the film with Viggo Mortensen. I saw it too. Both left me filling bilious. Like most, you may have seen the narrative as a treatment of the human condition through a father and son story, played out in circumstances where even Hope seemed a cruel joke, and in which they have little to live with, or for, but their own [broken] bodies and [overburdened or innocent] minds. The end was more a welcome relief than anything close to uplifting. But we beat on . . .

And why should this concern an archaeologist? Funny you should ask!

This archaeologist can't help being human. Can't forbear emotion. Can't escape the search for meaning in his own and in humanity's existence. [Even if the answer is, as I know it to be, "There is none!"]. And most of all, I have a burning need to understand phenomena that pique my interest. For me, it's rocks and bones that reached their sell-by date hundreds of thousands of years ago. I think that's why The Road fascinated me, even as it frustrated and bemused me.

Why? Because all of the metaphors that the story evoked were, for me, trite—even hackneyed. Kinda like all of the ways that Paleolithic archaeologists have found to see human [read: yours and mine] cognition in Lower—or if you prefer the less denigrating—Early and Middle Paleolithic stone artifacts [and the bitumen, putative birch tar, putative purposeful burial, putative mammoth-bone structures, putative cooked pumpkin, putative this, putative that—the list grows by the hour].

I really don't give a poop about what Cormac McCarthy intended. I'm really only interested in what he wrote, and how, evidently, it revealed more about his cosmology and those of his reviewers than any of them could have imagined. Sorta like the rock and bone specialists whose 'scholarship' I've had the privilege to pillory these past four years.

Something really bad happened in The Road. The world as we know it ended. And suddenly it was cold and lawless. Raw. Primal. [Hey! I could write those 15 second teasers for gook like this!] We aren't told what, exactly, happened. But, presumably it was nuclear Armageddon. Evidently there wasn't anything left alive. Leastwise, not worth eating. And, for some reason, two remnants of humanity—father and son [mum checked out, leaving her only begotten son, because she was too weak of spirit—try that on, if you have a feminist bone in your body]—are on a road trip [sorry, that's too deprecatory] a Quest for something better, or the meaning of life, or . . . you're the consumer/critic . . . you decide. Are we told what the two are questing for? Barely. Warmer climes. Seems pretty small potatoes to me. I can see the paraphrase quoted in frosted letters on Borders Books store windows in some future time: "'Tis better to die on a ghastly warm, tropical beach than to live in this ghastly, cold place!" Theirs is a road to nowhere—or to Hope, which is in my parlance, pretty much the same thing. But what does McCarthy think the road is. Why call your opus magnum The Road, if you didn't mean it to be a truly epochal place to spend time?

There's this road. [And this is where I get all archaeological on you.] There are bad people about. People who're too lazy to take to The Road to find happiness [or, more probably, oblivion] in warmer climes. People who'd just as soon eat you as look at you! Cannibals. Ruthless. People. [All the good people are dead or took the early train to tropical oblivion.]

So what does Dad figure is the best way to get where he's taking his son? Yep. The Road. Dad makes the two of them into walking road-kill. The Road! Can you say, exposed? Hell! They spend more time getting off the road, looking for leftovers in abandoned bomb shelters [that's what it was, folks, a 50s bomb shelter replete with Spam and Tang!, or high-tailing it trying to get away from the cannibals! But that road is a constant. I guess that's supposed to be a good thing. We'll see.

And here's where I and Cormac McCarthy's conscious, or un-, come face to face. For me, one of the crucial moments in the book is when Father and Son come upon some of their fellow travellers—well, dead people—“half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling”—frozen in time in what was, at some time in the recent past, molten asphalt. Skeletons. Um. Is it just me? This is the road that's supposed to be our salvation?

Is it just a coincidence, or perhaps it's his unconscious talking, that the author decides shortly thereafter to end the journey for Dad and begin it for Son? McCarthy has told us [I can see him standing there, with his arms akimbo, laughing at us schmucks who've endured his crushing narrative to this point] that this road is and always was a road to oblivion. Could he have given us this image without intending us to see this? I doubt it. On the other hand, schlock fiction hasn't always scintillated for its ability to maintain verisimilitude longer than a nanosecond. God. Damn. It! McCarthy wasn't showing us a Father with a primordial urge to make his life better for his Son: he gave us a vision of what it's like when those in control cleave mindlessly to a way of life that is a) pointless, and b) dangerous to life on earth. That way of life, of course, is symbolized by the road—a perilous petrochemical pathway to prosperity until the global grab for fossil fuels led us down a swirling toilet bowl of increasingly violent and destructive wars until finally the world's people propelled themselves into a world-ending cataclysm.

And the Road is supposed to have been a good idea? A symbol of the search for identity or humanity or salvation? Give me a break! Critics and pundits, heal thineselves!

So. Paleolithic archaeologists, hold on to your brown fedoras, because this soulless critic of bad literary criticism and even worse archaeological narrative is on your case. I'm gonna dissect your arguments and their silly premises until there's nothing left but a graveyard of broken hypotheses, preserved, not in amber, but asphalt . . . or birch tar . . . or limestone breccia.

I'd be hittin' the road, if I were you.
* A bit of an exaggeration, for effect. I guess it depends on how you define an academic career. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm calling it the time I was employed, full time, in an academic position for which the original intention was that it would be permanent. That was the three years I spent as a Lecturer at the University of New England, in Armidale, New South Wales [which is in Australia for the geographically challenged among my readers—'tain't no disgrace, I can't add 2 and 2 and get the same answer three times in a row!]