Tuesday 11 March 2014

Not Again!!! Yep! The La Chapelle Not-A-Burial-Pit Not So Much Rectangular as Irregularly Ovaloid.

Despite the creeping understanding that you might begin to find this work of mine to be a tedious interruption of your intellectual life, I never tire of pointing the finger at my sub-sub-sub-field colleagues. "Colleague," and "palaeoanthropologist" are not, by the way, words that're often used in the same sentence as "Rob Gargett." Believe me. I'm not bothered by it. Nor am I particularly bothered that, in aggregate, Middle Palaeolithic archaeological research is not much more than "an Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce."* But, I'm not bitter; just very busy trying to school those comprising the heap, none of whom am I!

I say that I'm not bitter, because I've reached a level of enlightenment that few, I think, have imagined. Unfortunately, for me enlightenment is a dynamic process. Thus, each time I come across a mistaken inference in the literature, I am forced to transit each of the five stages of enlightenment all over again.

First, there's denial, which usually takes the form of an exclamation, for example,  "How could anybody be that stup . . . endously malinformed/mistaken/muddled!"

Thereafter comes anger. Alas, this is where my residual bitterness exerts itself. I often address myself at such times, with explosive effect. It almost always begins with, "How in the bejeezus . . ." I think you can fill in the blanks.

Next up, bargaining. Again, an exchange with myself, along the lines of, "Okay. I'll go out there and wade once more into the waste-deep swamp of fetid inferences. But it's absolutely the last time. Agreed?"

The very next level of enlightenment, in my experience, is not an entirely positive stage. It's what's known as depression, which I've learned is different from just "feeling sorry for oneself."
Depression follows whenever I feel as if I'm losing the high ground of the intellect. It's cathartic, in a way. But it's quite dangerous, because this is the tilting point, and I could quite easily take the downward emotional path and fervently hope that I'll never write another word. That's what's been going on, in large part, since about this time last year.

Enlightenment, for me, amounts to acceptance. Acceptance of my solitary fight, of an effectively Sisyphean struggle, futile in its particulars, but transforming in its utter futility. That's where I find myself on the question of Middle Palaeolithic burial. And it is in acceptance of my lot in life that I can say, "Once more into the breach, dear friends."

So. Where were we? Oh, yes. We're back at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, where, around 1908 a mostly complete skeleton of a Classic Neanderthal was found. In "Grave Shortcomings: the evidence for Neandertal burial" I thought I'd done a pretty good job of dismantling the early twentieth century fairy tale that "The Old Man" of La Chapelle-aux-Saints had been purposefully buried.
[It's not necessary to your understanding of what's coming. Nevertheless, for those few who exist unaware of my late 80's contribution to this question, I've set up a special page where you can train yourself.]

I've already thoroughly and [one would have hoped] persuasively shut down the recent claims by Rendu et al. that their exhumation of the so-called burial pit demonstrated that the skeleton was preserved because it had been purposefully buried. You can refresh your memory by having a look here, here, here, here, and here. I'd have hoped that these five blurts had exhausted the subject. But, I've found that no matter how many times you beat a dead horse, it stays dead!

The original excavations resulted in the site plan on the left, below [minus my multi-metre scale bars]. This is the only representation that exists. Any other representations that you might see are extrapolations based on the excavators' reports. The 1908 plan clearly illustrates a quasi-rectangular pit outline. [On of the main criticisms of my 1989 re-examination was that a rectangular depression was unlikely to have been created naturally. That's a false proposition, which I've covered recently, and which ought to put that fantasy to rest, once and for all.]

Below, at right you see my annotated version of the same plan based on the recent exhumations of Rendu et al. It reproduces the 1980 illustration along with the results of the latter-day excavations. As you can see, the newer outline is shifted slightly away from the preternaturally central position reported in 1908. The recent work, which we're assured exposed the original "pit," shows a slightly larger and ovoid in plan. It's a kind of ovoid trapezoid, not a rectangle.

As you'll see in a moment, even the recent results as drawn are a departure from the excavated reality, I believe so as to perpetuate the claim that the "grave" was rectangular.

Illustration at right drawn after Rendu et al. 2013.
Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, every visitor to the museum at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, or those who visit the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, have been treated to the diorama shown below (which is from the La Chapelle museum. It's decidedly rectangular, and way more rectilinear than even the 1908 plan would have you believe. So, what's going on? [As I've mentioned previously the distribution of skeletal elements in this diorama is at odds with the original plan, above left.]

What's happening is clearly illustrated in the photo below, which shows a portion of the "grave" during the recent excavation. The dashed white line describes the shape, in plan, of the "burial pit." You see where the margin closest to the photographer is not rectilinear. Far from it!

Rendu et al. 2013.

The kicker, as I see it, is the comparison of the site after the 1908 excavation, and a photo from exactly the same vantage of the site after the recent excavation. Neither appears particularly rectangular, rectilinear, or anything approaching a right-angle. The take-home message? Easy. The well-meaning archaeologists of the recent excavation have drunk the Kool-Aid, and even when faced with reality, they have chosen to undertake special pleading and auxiliary hypothesis after auxiliary hypothesis, in maintaining a) that the burial was purposeful—even though the pit might have been naturally excavated the skelly was nevertheless puposefully buried, and b) the pit's rectangular outline as recorded in 1908 was the truth, even though it's really hard to get one's eyes to turn an oval into a rectangle.
Rendu et al. 2013.

* Jonathan Swift. 1726. Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World.

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