Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Archeology Rant.

Which should have been titled "If you can't get the hell out of your Ivory Tower, could you at least talk - and listen - to someone who doesn't live up where the air is so thin it causes brain damage?" In a nutshell, I'm sick to goddamn death of archeologists ignoring both specialists in other fields AND human nature (which, being human, they should have a working knowledge of), to blow off every find that isn't immediately obvious as 'has an unknown ritual use'. Ritual use, my ass.

The first example that comes to mind, which is easily understood by knitters (or craftspeople of ANY type), is ancient toolmaking. Making tools goes back to our hominid ancestors, before we were even truly human by our current definition. (Though they sure ACTED human.) All over the world, in sites from the lowest of the lower paleolithic, up to the neolithic and even into the infomation age (where we are now), there are piles of tools. Tools that have never been used. Tools that look like they were never intended for use - either because they're too large to pick up, too small to handle easily, or just flat-out weird. What do most archeologists say? Those huge tools were 'likely made for some ritual purpose'. Know what I say, as a knitter? THEY MADE THEM FOR THE FUN OF IT. Experimentation, practice, learning, sure, but also BECAUSE THEY COULD. The typical hunter-gatherer in a reasonably fertile environment has a twenty hour work week, meaning it takes twenty hours a week to ensure you have food to eat and a roof over your head. The tools were made with stuff that could be found laying around; stone, leather, wood. So you're a craftsman fascinated by your craft, with a twenty hour work week and unlimited raw materials. What do you do? MAKE STUFF. HELLO. This seems so obvious to me that anyone claiming 'ritual purpose' should be whopped upside the head with some of those stone 'ritual' tools. When I ran this theory past the husbeast, who is also a craftsman, he had another suggestion. Those large tools? Leave 'em sitting in the front of the village, and send the message 'Hey, we've got someone big enough to USE THESE. Don't fuck with us.' Which is also an excellent point. I wouldn't call it a ritual purpose, though. More like a bluff.

How about some examples. One that really pisses me off? The Baghdad Battery.

It's a two thousand year old, middle-eastern battery. As one engineer put it, "If that's not a battery, then what is it??" Ivory tower archeology types insist that there's no way to know what it is (sure as hell looks like a battery to ME), and that it probably had, yes, some unknown ritual purpose. Mythbusters built a couple of these and used them to elecroplate stuff. Electroplating is a frigging ritual purpose?? (I love the juxtaposition in that video - two thousand year old building materials on a work bench next to a computer.) Here's an idea. If it looks like a battery and acts like a battery, MAYBE IT IS A BATTERY.

Another example that drives be batshit crazy? The Antikythera Mechanism.

It is, essentially, an ancient computer that used gears instead of silicon chips. It calculated the locations of the moon and planets; it is a miniature orrery. Among other things, it uses differential gearing (a variable gearing method) that until this discovery was not thought to have been invented until the Middle Ages. It is speculated that this was built by Archimedes himself. While I find it hard to believe he was the only Smart Guy in the ancient world, the idea of something he built with his own two hands in a museum in modern times is really cool. Anyway, what do the archeologists say? That it was used to calculate times for RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS. My ass. IT WAS FOUND IN A BLOODY SHIP WRECK. You know, those ships that used ASTRONOMICAL NAVIGATION? (Archimedes was still working on GPS.) You get the day of a festival off, who cares. You get a planet in the wrong place at sea, you wind up drowned in the Mediterranean somewhere. What would YOU use it for?

It's like they want the human race to be stupid.

Okay, one last one. Just for my own personal ranting pleasure. Cave paintings.

Why do they have to have ritual purpose?? Isn't it possible someone painted them BECAUSE THEY LIKED TO PAINT? Because they took pleasure from the act of creation? Maybe they crawled off into those caves because they wanted their work to last, and they realized painting on exposed walls or wood or leather wouldn't last? Maybe they wanted it hidden so NO ONE WOULD FUCK WITH THEIR WORK? Sure, there's evidence of lots of traffic through some of those caves. Know what? There's a lot of traffic through the National Gallery, too. Instead of assuming ritual purpose, let's find SOME EVIDENCE of ritual purpose! How's that for a thought? (To my knowledge, the majority of stone age cave paintings in Europe have no real evidence of ritual use. However, in other places in the world - China and the New World, particularly - there IS evidence of sacrifice and other ritual behavior. Maybe people painted them for DIFFERENT REASONS!)

So here's the really unpopular information that archeologists really get cranky about discussing. Most of the major discoveries in archeology weren't made by archeologists. Rosetta Stone? Found by engineers and translated by linguists. (I had an anthro prof who used to say the Rosetta Stone was the only useful thing to come from the Napoleonic Wars. I would say canned foods and emergency medicine were handy too, and he would glare at me.) Construction methods of the Great Pyramid Complex in Egypt have mostly been figured out by architects and engineers. Rediscovery of murex was done by a chemist, a zoologist, and a rabbi (sounds like the start of a great joke - a chemist, a zoologist, and a rabbi walk into a bar...) The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a kid hearding goats or sheep (or both) and translated by linguists. Most of the Mayan math/number charts were figured out by mathematicians and/or number geeks, up to and including Dr. Richard Feynman, a winner of the Nobel Prize for physics and a guy who liked to 'figure things out' - his work on the Mayan math codices was his idea of fun (last set figured out were some charts to calculate property tax; the more things change, the more they stay the same). Bob Ballard, the guy who found the Titanic, the Yorktown, the Bismarck, and a whole crapload of other under water stuff of historic significance, is an oceanographer.

I could go on, but you get the idea. As I reflect on this, I get the urge to go bug the hell out of the Charleston Museum to let me go over their textiles collection with a magnifying glass, and get to work on that history of knitting book that the world needs so badly. Oh, and textiles 'experts' who can't knit, weave, or sew? They really piss me off. But that's a rant for another day.


Louiz said...

Exactly! Hey, in 2000 years or less, people will be coming to the remains of where we live and trying to figure out what we did. How much of that is "ritual" and how much will the archeologists of the day claim is "ritual"?

Oh, and have you read the Ash series/book by Mary Gentle? Ancient robots/golem and Carthage? Strong language, but I figure you don't mind that!

Barbara said...

Having studied anthropology and dabbled in archaeology in my younger days, I have always been interested in the interpretation of tanning salons with their metal clamshell beds with light tubes top and bottom. Some sort of ritual mind control, wouldn't you say?

Nice rant. Hmm, you think early men were like us? Nah. They were much more interesting and deep.

Anonymous said...

Bob Ballard ROCKS!!

Sorry, he was my son's hero at 3 yrs. We used to play Bob Ballard in the tub and search for sunken ships.

Getting my kids ready for school is a 'ritual.' Sometime's it's religious when I start praying for the kids to get with the program, and the hubby to stop complaining...


Donna Lee said...

I always figured "rituals of unknown origin" was like saying "we haven't a clue". So, let's just say, "no clue here" and let our imaginations run wild. And how can one call one's self a fiber expert if one does not work with fiber?

Caffeine Faerie said...

*standing ovation from this side of a pacific*

Brewgal said...

I think it comes from the bias that everything has to have a purpose. If that were true there would be no need for decoration/toys/interior design.

BTW, I think Feynman was an awesome guy. I pity the poor waitresses who had to figure out how to get their tips from under the glass of water.

Alwen said...

Have you ever read David MacAulay's Motel of the Mysteries?

Speaking of Archimedes, have you read The Archimedes Project yet? Fascinatin'. Brain-stretching. It did have a few interesting bits about the Antikythera Mechanism.

Gotta pass along another website,

Imagine being Archimedes with your head all full of this fascinating geekery, and hardly anyone in the world who could understand you!

walterknitty said...

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most fascinating things from the ancient world I've ever read about. One of the last things I read about it is that the people researching it think it may have been able to calculate the angular velocity of the moon. How many freaking years of observation did it take to figure that out. People who lived in ancient Greece and Rome were every bit as smart as we are even if they didnt have all the tools we have today.

historicstitcher said...

Hey. I'm still reading, and I just can't let a history post go by without tossing in a few pennies, even if I don't really have the time or the thoughts together!!

I had an arch/anth prof in college who had me demonstrate spindling to the class because she didn't ahve a clue. I identified several whorls among her "unknown pottery objects" from her recent field season and discovered I'm good at piecing together broken pottery.

Worked on a Chippewa dig in northern Michigan ages ago, and got into a heated argument with the head arch. about a pile of stones found behind the lodge. He claimed it was "trash". I claimed it was a kid stacking stones behind the lodge, since the midden was elsewhere and there was no evidence of carbon in the stack. What else is a kid in the woods going to play with??

I'll quit there, as I don't have time today, but you're totally right about the proliferation of poorly-interpreted artifacts. I think if more archs tried living like the people they're trying to "research", they would find better interpretations for things! More "aha!"s, fewer "rituals". Just my thoughts of the moment. Call me when you start writing that book!

Amy Lane said...

That was awesome--and I have to say that the 'cave painting' thing has been one of my pet theories forEVER. We paint because we can. We tell stories because they're fun. I mean, I make JOKES bout watching the big glowing god in the corner, but the television is no more a 'ritual object' than the toilet when I'm sick! Why couldn't the cave paintings have been there because they wanted to create?

One of my pet theories is that academia breeds academics. Real life breeds people who can actually accomplish something. I'd buy that book if you wrote it!

Shoveling Ferret said...

Hi SK, I know you posted this ages ago, but as an archaeologist I say "hurray!" to your post. We do say "ritual object" or "cultic object" or whatever to explain things we can't otherwise figure out. There's a habit of regarding past humans as being somehow more invested in ritual and "superstition" than modern people when that really isn't necessarily the case. There is also a tendency to regard "ritual" as somehow less important or less vital than other activities often with little attempt to realize that what seems "pointless" to us may well have been vital to someone else.
And a huge number of diggers have never lived outside a city or really *made* things by hand winding up doing the interpreting - and thus missing things.