The Subversive Archaeologist’s Dictum

Many of you are archaeologists of the Terminal Pleistocene and Holocene indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, Asia, Australia and elsewhere. No doubt you’ve noticed that the preponderance of commentary on The Subversive Archaeologist has been from earlier times, most often from the Middle and Late Pleistocene (e.g. the Neanderthal face is of great interest to me). But I never meant SA to be primarily a blog about human evolution, nor about any period or place in particular. If I haven’t found fodder for criticism emanating from your favorite research area or time, stick around. I’ll surely get there eventually.

I’ll get there eventually because I’ve always intended The Subversive Archaeologist to be about shining a critical light on archaeological myths, whether the long-standing variety or those being made in the present. It just so happens that the Middle Palaeolithic and fossil hominid studies sprout the lion’s share of the biggest myths! I’ll come back to this point a little later. As far as the more-recent times are concerned, there’s no shortage of myth-making. But it’s harder to recognize, unpack and expose the archaeological story-telling of more recent times, mostly because they’re invisible against the backdrop of a dominant ideology, itself a complex mythology that masks or otherwise obscures the reality. 

The Manis mastodon rib and embedded bone splinter, which is only about 20 mm long (from Waters et al. 2011)

If I had to sum up the métier of The Subversive Archaeologist, I’d say that my criticisms of archaeological inference almost always turn on the depositional circumstances of whatever claim’s being touted. In other words, I concentrate on how a given trace of past behaviour came to rest where it did. My aim is to first rule out natural processes. If they can’t be ruled out, the claim cannot logically stand on its own, equivocal, two feet. Whether it’s the bone toothpick that supposedly brought down a mastodon at the Manis site, or the presumptive–presumably Neanderthal–mammoth hunters who used that animal’s stinky skeletal remains to build an enclosure, and no matter if it’s the Palaeo-Indian period of North America or the Middle Palaeolithic on the Ukranian steppe, it’s usually the dirt that belies the erroneous interpretation. 

Moldova I (Ukraine). The site plan illustrates mammoth remains that in all likelihood accumulated when the animals became mired in the predominantly clay site sediments, and were then butchered by the Middle Palaeolithic inhabitants of the region. From Demay, Péan and Patou-Mathis (2011).

The SA dictum should come as no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with my contribution to the archaeology of modern human origins: for each and every one of the putative Middle Palaeolithic burials I’ve publicly criticized, I was unable to rule out natural processes. All were recovered in depositional circumstances that guaranteed their preservation, naturallyand thus critically weakened claims for human or hominid behaviour to explain the phenomenon.

Sadly, critiques like mine are vanishingly rare [which I’ll try to explain in a future post], even though they’re fully in line with accepted archaeological practice [whether or not that practice is widely appreciated, which, as you know, it isn’t]. After all, I stand on the shoulders of some very tall people! It was Binford who first suggested that the claims of fire use at Zhoukoudian cave were bogus. Remember, too, Brain’s careful dismantling of the ‘osteodontokeratic culture’ of South Africa’s Australopithecinae that Dart had proposed. Brain posited alternative, natural explanations based on the depositional circumstances he observed in the archaeological sites that Dart had used for evidence. In spite of such august precursors I’ve had to resort to blogging as the platform for my criticisms, which more than anything serves to underscore the inherent resistance to this kind of scholarship in the discipline of archaeology. The phrase ‘nobody likes a critic’ is alive and well.

     Despite sometimes dogged resistance to criticism of the kind SA doles out, the message does, eventually, get through. I’m living proof–although it’s taken more than a generation since I first published on the matter of Middle Palaeolithic burial for the effect to be felt. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer the single, outspoken, soul on the planet who thinks that the evidence for MP burial is, at best, equivocal. It’s true! Sandgathe et al. recently concluded, on the basis of new excavations, that the Roc de Marsal Neanderthal child was a natural occurrence. So, I can include myself in the very small group of workers who’ve sought to overturn a cherished myth or two and, to some degree, succeeded. 

[This means that you no longer have to hide your copy of The Subversive Archaeologist inside the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science so no one will know what that you’re reading my work, sort of like you used to do with Plaything or PentUp!]

As for the bear’s share of archaeological myths emerging from the Middle Palaeolithic and earlier times? I’d have to say that from about 40 to 50 kya to way back in the Pliocene, the whole of the archaeological record is so bereft of modern analogues that it’s truly open season on reality, and no claim seems too bizarre to erect. [77 kyr-old, insecticidal mattresses, anyone?] And that goes for all of the behavioral traces, including stone artifacts, about which, as you know, I’ve said a thing or two on SA. And even though I’m not a flint-knapper [!], I can recognize a tenuous comparison or a far-fetched explanation from [my own human, cultural experience] ‘a mile away.’

These are depictions of Levallois cores from Douara Cave (Syria). I’ve outlined in red what Levallois mythology tells us is, in each case, the result of a lengthy series of removals in preparation for the final removal of a flake of a predetermined, desired shape. Click here for the answer to the question “Choices?” (Credit Akazawa in Suzuki and Takai 1974). 
What about the person behind the SA? Believe it or don’t, but it strikes me as a totally unprepared-for oddity that my education and life experience have converged, creating in me a passionate interest in exposing the Imperium (of Archaeological Inference) and the transparent new clothes without which they’d have little to be proud of. I hasten to add that, while I sometimes resort to snark, I don’t want to impugn anyone’s reputation–just their reasoning. I might occasionally aver carelessness on the part of archaeologists. Sometimes I express disbelief at the tunnel vision I perceive amongst archaeological practitioners. I try not to use words like dumb, proud, vain, arrogant, disingenuous, charlattan, and snake-oil merchant. Regardless, I have to admit, there are times when my best intentions lose out to incredulity!

I can promise you that, for as long as The Subversive Archaeologist takes breath, it will be home to reasonable criticism of any and all questionable, problematic, or laughable knowledge claims, irrespective of time or place
     So, sit back and muse on the SA Dictum. Then check back again and again, like a small, furry creature in a Skinner box! And for my part, I’ll continue trying to keep the [entire] discipline honest! 


5 thoughts on “The Subversive Archaeologist’s Dictum

  1. Rob, are you aware that in South Africa the government subsidizes universities by paying them to publish in approved (refereed) journals, R85,000 per article (~$10,000.00). At some universities the sum is shared with the author but at others it goes to a central fund from which professors can claim grants or conference cost reimbursement. One professor from South Africa wrote on Linked in “You can imagine the pressure to publish from these universities, applied mainly through the promotion process, and the focus on quantity more than quality!” Here is the link to the policy at Rhodes University http://www.ru.ac.za/research/research/publicationguidelines/

    You've probably seen this information since you've commented on the thread in question. I was of course astonished by this revelation (I'm so naive). Just curious but are you aware of anything like this in the US or Europe?

    Like

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