A Mesolithic Road Show: The System Killers

17 October, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have an archaeological field report.

Björck, Niclas & Larsson Fredrik. 2011. Stenålder längs nya riksvägen 56. Sträckan Stringtorp Tärnsjö. UV rapport 2011:41. Arkeologiska förundersökningar. 178 pages. UV Mitt Hägersten.

This report can be downloaded as a PDF file on the from:http://www.raa.se/cms/showdocument/documents/extern_webbplats/

When the Ladykillers explain the economic effect of their coup to Mrs Wilberforce, their fragile landlady who has just exposed them and their deceitfulness, they define the loss to the public, i.e. the loss brought about by their robbery of a money transport belonging to an insurance company, as no more than a farthing on everyone’s insurance policies. That kind of trifle, in this case on every tax payer’s declaration, goes also for the report on the rest. Only when we figure out our cost in terms of our most basic needs, such as breathing, does cost become significant, since we may be required to hold our breath for an unpleasant while, dependant on our income, to cover the loss we, the tax payers, have had financing this report. We pay for the report instead of holding our breath, but we do hold it at little because, on the one hand this report is as daft as they come, and on the other, we paid for the project, didn’t we? Since we were taken advantage of we hold our breath to gain a little time and compose ourselves before we complain.
To begin with, because of language and redundancy. there is a waste of paper.

This is an example of the text:

And this is a test, rewriting and compressing it for the benefit of clarity:
Within the area of investigation was taken all together 74 phosphate tests (Fig. 14). The result gave a span from 0-91 phosphate degrees (P⁰) with an average value of 13.57 P⁰. The 74 phosphate tests spanned from 0 to 91 P⁰. Forty were below the average 13.57 P⁰.   34 of the 74 tests were on or above the average value, the other 40 consequently below the average value. The spatial distribution of these tests gave the opposite picture compared to the artefact distribution. The said distribution have been observed on several of those sites where phosphate mapping was being carried out , which makes it probable that it has its origin  in how traces of different activities have been organized on the sites. A circumstance that indicates that within Digerholmen there are subareas of different character. As expected on a site covering 5400 m2, the distribution of quarts quarries, hearths, artefacts and phosphates suggest a heterogenic site (Figs 13 & 14).

True to the definition of ‘redundancy’, the crossed out italic sections are indeed ‘repetition of linguistic information inherent in the structure of the language’. There is no need for that, and if we venture to expand the contents of the section a little we can shortened it substantially  from 708 to 240 characters (the fat black text substituting the crossed-out text). Potentially, rephrasing may thus have saved us 65% of the text. Had we been more fortunate we would have read c. 40 pages rather than c. 125.

Since shortening is a pain killer rather than a cure it avoids the real problem, i.e. is the unconscious attitudes and lack of understanding hiding behind the text. This problem surfaces already at page 15 in a diagram intended to show us what knowledge production looks like during the excavation of a site – knowledge grows exponentially.

The fat line is the learning or knowledge curve. The X-axis represents the site and size of the excavation

In the diagram, by chance or mistake, more that 100 percent of a site is actually excavated and the amount, load or burden of knowledge produced in these non-existent 100+ percent square metres surpasses the amount produced during the excavation of the first 90 percent of a site. The prospect is frightening because there seems to be no redemption from exponential knnowledge growth.

Luckily, to most archaeologists no simple graph can shows how knowledge grows during an excavation and few would believe growth to be constant, let alone exponential. In fact, sensible archaeologists believe that now and then they get it wrong during their excavation. Often they are able to correct themselves, happily losing their initial and deficient knowledge. And some of the assumptions formed in the field may become wrong when the documentation is analyzed and new opinions formed at the archaeologist’s desk. Although being wrong  is commonplace when we explore the past, Niklas Björk and Fredrik Larsson (NB&FL) seem unfamiliar with this experience. They are as convinced as can be that they have been excavating shore bound Mesolithic sites (all sites are ‘settlements’, although, if that was the case, they are also landing places.  ‘Landing place’ [1] as it happens is not in their vocabulary). NB&FL knew what they were looking for before they started to excavate and they have chosen to overlook, minimize, obscure and explain away any indication that they have misunderstood anything.

In fact, with a minimum of understanding of a coastal cultural landscape they have proceeded to excavate a number of promising shores. Every bit of knowledge produced is thus exactly what they expected and precisely what they were looking for, even when they actually came upon something else. Before their time team started, they knew what they knew and afterwards they knew more or less the same. Since in reality their knowledge production has been a matter of reproducing their pre-understanding, they have learnt little from their excavations. In this respect their curve of knowledge production is horizontal rather than exponential.

The (red) level of pre-understanding compared to the (fat) proposed learning curve and the (blue) 100+ knowledge benefit

On their road show, the leaders of the NBFL time team thought that by means of any number of 14C-tests they could verify their central dogma: Mesolithic settlements are located on the beaches and shores of their day and age.

The team invested in no less than nine tests to prove themselves! Eight of these were not even remotely Mesolithic.

The singular Mesolithic date belonged to a piece of charcoal found among brittle-burned stones quite deep in layers on a beach 12 m from the shore. However, this Mesolithic date is late suggesting that when the wood was burned and the charcoal deposited, the beach was situated 100 metres or more east of the find spot and lower than the site. This means that the only Mesolithic 14C test speaks against the general model that guided the NBFL time team. The date suggests that the water (and the landing place) was nowhere near the site when Mesolithic man insisted on staying there.

Discrepancies threatening the dogma of the team’s pre-understanding are not discussed in the report. Instead we are told, opaquely, that in one case a date was obtained of the Mesolithic phase reflected in the artefacts (p. 104:2nd col). Since the phrase refers to something as chronologically imprecise and besides the point as ‘the Mesolithic phase’ and phase-reflecting artefacts, we would expect that the phrasing was designed to obscure an important fact without actually lying. But given the present field-report lingo what reads like a half truth may actually be the whole truth – to the authors.

Given the importance of chronology and the costs for carbon-14 tests, the eight dates that are simply wrong must be commented upon. But instead of suggesting the obvious – contamination of Mesolithic sites by later intrusions – the authors (p. 104 f.) end up arguing that the likely is probably the unlikely. Of course they don’t deny that in the unlikely event of later visits to the sites these visits would have taken place in later times. In fact the authors circumstantially point out to us that ‘later’ in this case may mean a visit in periods such as ‘the latest part of the Bronze Age’, ‘the Migration Period’ or ‘the Early Middle Ages’. Blimey!

In the end NB&FL emphasise that the natural phenomenon: forest fire, is actually a most relevant explanation for five of the dates. This is a bold idea that makes a reader think and ask him- or herelf why forest fires were so very common in the first millennium CE compared to every other 500 year period: Was it the climate or was it the wind, was it grill parties gone wrong?

Obviously the authors’ discussion of the 14C-dates is a smokescreen of rubbish. In addition to some obvious later disturbancies, the dates demonstrate (1) that contrary to the author’s opinion there has been a considerable number of invisible contamination of the Mesolithic sites in later periods and they suggest (2) that contrary to the author’s opinion some Mesolithic settlements were not shore-bound.

Random sampling of 14C tests is always methodologically refreshing where convention reigns, and so is every sign of Mesolithic man going astray.

The negative learning curve

The report started out protesting an exponential learning curve. Soon, the reader understood that the curve was rather horizontal, eventually, close reading revealed it to be negative.

In the film, the lady killers killed off each other and mrs Wilberforce ended up with the lolly – just our tax payer’s luck to end up with nothing but an embarrassing report.

[1] Lately Kristin Ilves has written a number of articles on landing places and among other things presented a general model of the landing place as a social space. See:
Ilves, K. 2009. Discovering harbours? Reflection on the state and development of landing sites studies in the Baltic Sea region. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 2: 149-163 [DOI 10.1007/s11457-009-9050-5 Published online: 27 October 2009].
Ilves, K. & Darmark, K. 2010. Some Critical and Methodological Aspects of Shoreline Determination: Examples from the Baltic Sea Region. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 147-165 [DOI 10.1007/s10816-010-9084-x Published online: 15 June 2010].
Ilves, K. 2011. Is there an archaeological potential for a sociology of landing places? Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History  2011 No 2:1-25. ISSN 2001-1199


5 Responses to “A Mesolithic Road Show: The System Killers”

  1. Johanna said

    wonderfully witty – and snarky!

  2. Johanna said

    I agree, keep up the good work!

  3. More archaeology less economy said

    Since this publication was new to me, I took the opurtunity to read it also. And after doing that I realised that the text above has little to do with the archaeology or how the text in the publication looks like. It has more to do with positioning itself for a future bid on the excavations. Boring! I dont think this is what the readers of this blogg are interested in…

    • Dear Tired of Armchair Archaeologists,
      If in addition to being tired you now feel bored, then I would advise you to take care, stop thinking so much about others – and stop reading the blogg! Since archaeological reports may now and then be boring, and sometime even products of armchair archaeology, you must ask someone you trust to check new publications before you read them. You must also take care to control your tendency to read ulterior motives into texts that concerns archaeology. After all, what you need is more archaeology and not more concerns. In the autumn we may all feel a bit low and come winter a dose of real archaeological experience may be hard to get. But a visit to a museum, the pictures in a book by Zahi Hawass and perhaps, though in moderation, a little ‘Time Team’, will hopefully bring us safely into next year’s season.
      All best from The Reading Rest.

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