It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again! The Oxford Handbook Of The Archaeology Of Death And Burial

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
—Albert Einstein

I must be crazy. Why else would I keep addressing what amounts to the same claims over and over again, only to find that my efforts do little more than amuse the Very Serious Archaeologists. The obvious reason is that I enjoy entertaining you, Dear Reader. Nevertheless, the callous on my forehead just keeps getting thicker and thicker as the knowledge claims get weirder and weirder. Take, for instance, the feathered Middle Palaeolithic (MP) couture from Gibraltar, shown at right being modelled by archaeologist Clive Finlayson. It’s an airy garment made of the wing feathers of one of the local carrion eaters.

You’ll have to forgive me. As ludicrous as the archaeologist looks to you and me, the inferential route that he took to get there is even more preposterous. Yet, it’s always me that gets the side-long glances and the whispered asides at meetings, merely for being sensible. But, hey. Clive published it, the media went with it, and there was a conference about it, and everything. So. I guess that’s really the way it was in Neanderthal Land.

OK. What new flights of fancy have raised me out of my job-house-life-hunting hiatus to climb back into the saddle just now? You won’t be surprised. It’s MP burial, again!* 

But, what the Hell! Here I go again.

Academia.edu recently introduced a new kind of notification. When one whom one is “following” uploads a new work of scholarship, the one doing the “following” is emailed with the news. And so it was this morning when I plopped myself down in front of the middle-aged iMac here at World Headquarters. The email read:

Hi Robert H.,

[That is Academia.edu‘s attempt at informality!]


Erella Hovers (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Archaeology) just uploaded a paper on Academia.edu:


[Erella and I go back a long way, but we have always existed at opposite poles on the matter of Middle Palaeolithic (MP) burial.]


Hovers, E. and Belfer-Cohen, A. Insights into early mortuary practices of Homo. In: S. Tarlow and L. Nilsson-Stutz (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial (Oxford University Press, Oxford)631–642, 2013.

[Anna and I also go back a long way.]

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about this volume, published just last month. Back in February I caught wind of it because of a paper that Julien Riel-Salvatore uploaded to Academia.edu, Upper Palaeolithic Mortuary Practices in Eurasia: A Critical Look at the Burial Record,” co-authored with Claudine Gravel-Miguel, pp. 303–346. At the time I was bemused by some of their explanations for the geographical distribution of interred human remains. [But that’s history now. It’s in the pasture. Onward to the now!] Today’s revelation has to do with earlier times—right up my alley.
The editors of this new Handbook wanted to cover a lot of ground. Yet, their explicit statement about what they wanted to achieve has a fairly narrow scope.

… the strategy of this volume [sic]** to identify themes, traditions of study, theoretical approaches, and areas of current concern, and to invite contributors to address them where relevant through case studies which are grounded in the material they know best.

My favourite bit in the above quotation is “areas of current concern…” The phrase is clearly shorthand for some aspect or other of archaeological death and burial. But it’s a bit nebulous to my pea brain. However, I must assume that “current concern” doesn’t imply “debate,” because something that calls itself a handbook is supposed to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject and not a place to hang out a discipline’s dirty laundry. So, we should expect to hear an accounting of MP burial that merely rehearses received wisdom.

Middle Pleistocene carcass “cacheing.”

But, Hovers and Belfer-Cohen don’t give us a litany of claimed burials the evidence for which falls well short of unequivocal. Instead, they hustle through the “Yeah, they buried their dead” part and get to work interpreting what the [still putative from my perspective] claims imply about MP cultural and individual values, based on the ethnographic record. In so doing, they appear to have imbibed Paul Pettitt‘s Kool-Aid—at one point they talk about caves being places where the dead are “cached,” one of Pettitt’s hypotheses for the very early bipedal apes, and a hypothesized precursor behaviour to that of Neanderthals and modern humans.  [“Cached” is a poor word for what they claim occurs in caves. In my lexicon to “cache” something means to store your stuff somewhere that you can readily put it to work when you need it. Something useful. Something handy. So, food is cached. Tools are cached. What utility, one wonders, do they think might inhere in a carcass? They simply don’t address the matter.]

All right. So. Unless this is your first trip to the Subversive Archaeologist (SA), you’ll no doubt have heard about my work on the taphonomy of MP bipedal ape remains—those of the Neanderthals and their [mostly] anatomically modern contemporaries from Skhul and Qafzeh. Erella herself took part in the most recent excavations at Amud Cave, in Israel, during which an infant’s skeleton was unearthed. Along with several other examples from the last half of the twentieth century, the Amud infant’s  discovery was one I dealt with in “Middle Palaeolithic burial is not a dead issue: the view from Qafzeh, Saint-Césaire, Kebara, Amud, and Dederiyeh” (MPBINADI). I’m happy to say that the authors cite this and the earlier long paper of mine on the subject, “Grave Shortcomings: The Evidence for Neanderthal Burial.

O’ course they don’t do much more than cite my work. As far as they’re concerned there’s no weight in my arguments. So, if there ever was a debate about the many inferences of MP burial, these authors nod their heads in its direction and steam right on through. I can forgive them for presuming that any more ‘debate’ would be moot. After all, they’re almost single-handedly [in fact, double-handedly, ’cause there’re two of ’em] published “In the Eye of the Beholder: Mousterian and Natufian Burials in the Levant,” Current Anthropology, 33:463-471, 1992, in which they tore apart “Grave Shortcomings” in the most rigourous of fashions. It didn’t take them long, either. In fact, all it took was two statements to thoroughly discredit my arguments. Voilà!

Gargett (1989) suggests that the pits in which remains of Middle Palaeolithic European Neanderthals have been found should be interpreted as resulting from natural phenom­ena. … this view has been widely rejected on several grounds… [p. 464]

and then their heartless coup de grâce,

The fact that Middle Palaeo­lithic “burials” appear in small numbers is insufficient to disqualify them as intentional burials (contra Gargett 1989). [p. 468]

That’s it. I was done-for. My reputation was in shambles, so widely were my views rejected, and on so many—well, several, at any rate—grounds.

Hang on a minit!

I never said anything to the effect that small numbers WERE sufficient to disqualify MP burials. I don’t know where they came up with that. And … come to think of it, where are the references to those rejections so wide and so several? They’re not here. Hmmmm.

Ya see, up to that point in 1992 the only published ‘rejections’ were those that accompanied “Grave Shortcomings” in Current Anthropology. I’ll admit they weren’t friendly rejoinders [‘cept for Clive Gamble’s and that of Clark and Lindly]. But I addressed each and every one’s complaints in my two published replies—the first was right there after the ‘rejections’ that followed “Grave Shortcomings;” the second an issue or two later, Current Anthropology 30:326-329, 1989.

I find it strange and instructive that no one ever, EVER, refers to the content of those two replies. Perhaps they never read them [possible], or maybe they don’t want to call attention to them because they answered all of the cheap shots, unsupported claims, and specious arguments laid out in the CA comments [more likely]. Either way, some of my pithiest arguments are to be found in them. Yet, they get nary a mention, and Anna and Erella thus feel emboldened to skirt every last issue I confronted in them, and thereby proclaim “Grave Shortcomings” *cough* D.O.A.

But, you ask, “Rob, beyond giving you a[nother!] opportunity to whine about their treatment of your work, what, if anything, does “In the Eye of the Beholder” have to do with their chapter in the just-now-published Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial? 

I’m getting to that. Patience, Grasshopper. Such matters cannot be covered by ‘sound bites’ or sweeping statements—even the argument against the comments on the original argument need to be as thorough as the original arguments. Otherwise, I set myself up for even worse criticism, or the worst possible fate—being ignored [still]. Neanderthal Land, you see, is a bonny place, where speculation is fact and inferences are written in stone, neither of which processes can be found in any textbook on epistemology, so far as I know. 

Kayso, we’re talking about the reason(s) that Erella Hovers and Anna Belfer-Cohen think they have the credibility to reject my arguments—Erella, especially. Well, first of all, since 1992 and before, she and Anna thought they had the God-given right to consider my theses to be rubbish. Secondly, and more importantly, Erella thinks that she, personally, recovered the ‘stone’ in which was written ‘the truth’ about MP burial. That’s because she was THERE, at Amud, for the excavation [not exhumation] of the infant, Amud 7. Moreover, she, Bill Kimbel, and Yoel Rak [two more with whom I go back] published a response to the treatment of Amud 7 in MPBINADI: Hovers, E., W.H. Kimbell, and Y. Rak. “The Amud 7 skeleton—still a burial. Response to Gargett.” Journal of Human Evolution 39:253–260, 2000. Since she doesn’t mention my reply to those criticisms, Erella clearly must have thought that she’d answered any questions my paper had raised. Thus, as far as Erella and Anna, and Erella, Bill and Yoel were concerned, my arguments had ceased to have any valence, whatsoever, by 2000. Again, their ‘position’ was advanced with NO reference to my [by now] three replies to criticism—two for “Grave Shortcomings” and one [quite sufficient to counter every jab] with reference to MPBINADI.

The proverbial shallow [non]grave. From “A Neandertal infant from Amud Cave, Israel,” Rak, Y., W.H. Kimbel, and E. Hovers, Journal of Human Evolution 26:313-324, 1994.

I’ve now given you what I think are the reasons that a) Erella and Anna were asked to deal with MP burial in the Handbook, and b) for their confident, but as of August 28, 2013, unsubstantiated assertion that I’m full of shit. …

Here it comes! What you’ve been waiting for.

Finally, I turn to the reason I’ve brought you here today—what Erella and Anna in fact said of my work in the [destined to be a modern classic] Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial. What they have to say won’t take long, I can assure you. See? You’re almost home, Grasshopper. Here is how Erella and Anna dispense with my work in the latest word on MP burial.

… Gargett (1989, and especially 1999) diligently elaborated on the taphonomy of hominin burials, focusing on natural processes that might have played a role in incidental preservation of MP skeletal remains at the sites of Dederiyeh, Kebara, Qafzeh, Amud, and St Césaire … . When the test implications of the hypothesized proc­esses were examined minutely with regard to the burial of the Amud 7 Neanderthal infant, it became clear that hominin burials did not come in standard taphonomic packages. Variables such as skeletal completeness, anatomical position of all bones, or clearly visible burial pits, were highly dependent on particular sedimentological and depositional circumstances, and could not be relied upon unconditionally as differential criteria. Arguments for intentional burial should be tested inductively, on a contextual basis, rather than through a deductive, theory-driven process. With these specifics taken into account in the case of Amud 7, hypoth­eses of natural agency were examined and refuted (Hovers et al. 2000; see also Pettitt 2002). We conclude that intentional burial can be recognized based on situationally nuanced archaeological criteria. 

Do you have a clue what they’re saying here? Me neither. Even so, was there ever as much shilly-shallying in any critical statement you have ever seen? I find it very difficult to parse their meaning in this passage, other than that it says I’m full of shit.
The following is my informed guess as to the gist of their position. Feel free to disagree if you can find any reason to. [No, really. I mean it! Maybe it’ll help me to ‘move past this’ as the New Agers would have said.]

“Gargett was right all along, but we prefer to make stuff up.” ~ Hovers and Belfer-Cohen 2013.

If that sounds a bit harsh, tough.***

As for the rest of Hovers and Belfer-Cohen 2013, go ahead and read what they have to say about the many and various MP cultural constructions of death and burial. I’m not gonna bother, as you probly already guessed.

For the record, if you’re very brave you can revisit the entire published conversation—every disputed fact and fancy—laid out below [no doubt in contravention of every convention of copyright, Geneva or other].

When you’re done, see if you can figger out how Erella and Anna and all the rest think I’m full of it. Perhaps then you’ll understand why it is that I’m so pissed off that these remarks of mine are never mentioned!

The original treatment of the Amud 7 discovery begins in the lower right of this first page.


* At least you can’t brand me a quitter! But, if Mr. Einstein’s statement is true, my persistence may not be such a good sign.
** The word ‘is’ is left out in the Google Book preview, which I presume is a typo that is reproduced in the print version. MORE evidence that publishers and writers everywhere need the Subversive Archaeologist‘s acclaimed editing ability to rid their publications of pesky typographical errors.
*** In my bank of draft SA blurts there’s one that discusses an archaeological issue using the word ‘shit’ in every one of its denotative and connotative senses. I think it’s funny, but hardly suitable for the web.



ANY TIME IS A GOOD TIME TO GET GOOD STUFF AT THE SUBVERSIVE ARCHAEOLOGIST’S OWN, EXCLUSIVE “A DRINK IS LIKE A HUG” ONLINE BOUTIQUE

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s