Test Pits and Pitfall Archaeology I

3 September, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have the beginning of a debate, perhaps . I started reading

Blehr, Otto. 2012. Medieval reindeer drivers at Sumtangen, Hardangervidda: Two interpretations. Fornvännen 107:2:115-22.
This article is a response to
Indrelid, Svein & Hufthammer, Anne Karin. 2010. Medieval mass trapping of reindeer at the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, South Norway. Quaternary International 238 (2011):44-54.
And if the discussion continues –
Hufthammer et al. 2010. Anne Karin Hufthammer, Olav Flatnes Bratbak & Svein Indrelid. A study of bone remains and butchery patterns from medieval mass-hunting of reindeer in South Norwegian mountain districts. Quaternary International 238 (2011):55-62.
– will perhaps be referred to as well as other papers in Quaternary International 238:1-2, since the whole issue is dedicated to reindeer and humankind.

Indrelid and Hufthammer (I&H) have criticized Blehr (OBl), who in the 1970s came to some general anthropologically inspired conclusions concerning the form of reindeer hunting that took place at three small lake systems on Hardangervidda.

OBl built and based himself on a long research tradition concerning wild reindeer hunting with roots in early 18th c. Greenland, as well as on available archaeological source material, surveys in the area and a few test pits in the bone middens at Sumtangen, the westernmost site in the area. He thought that people from the valleys to the East and/or the West had come up to these sites on a regular basis in the autumn because migrating reindeer would pass the lakes on their way south. By interrupting their migration, driving them into the lakes at convenient points, reindeer could be killed by men in boats in ‘considerable’ numbers. Remains of boats were found already in 1940. OBl also said that since none of his three contemporary Medieval 14C-dated reindeer bones were obviously post-Black Death, he suggested, for what three 14C dates are worth, that the drives came to an end because of the demographic crisis caused by the Black Death.

Thirty years later I&H returned to Sumtangen and the spots where OBl had emptied his five test pits. I&H painstakingly excavated three more – all together c. 3 sqm. They placed theirs pits next to OBl’s, except for a small one north of the two ruined Medieval stone huts. They could have chosen another research design, but knowingly or unknowingly they settled for checking OBl’s investigations. And where OBl’s results were general I&H’s became specific:

According to I&H, Sumtangen, the ruins and middens, is the result of a short period of ‘mass hunting’ in the narrow sound just north of Sumtangen. The hunt is described in mid 19th c. folklore. Now in the 21st c. the archaeology of I&H has added better dates and size to the hunt. If OBl thought that the kill was ‘considerable’ I&H estimates that 5500-7800 animals were killed between 1240 and 1290 CE. To I&H this is massively more than OBl’s ‘considerable’ numbers and it happened well before the Black Death. Because so many animals had died, the hunting was massive, and because there are signs of literacy in the artifact material, objects inscribed with runic Norse, I&H considers townspeople to have organized this mass trapping (tacitly assuming that peasants don’t read and write).

Now that OBl has argued against I&H, the scene has become an either-or setting not often seen today when dichotomies and chaterorizations are frequently seen unnecessarily to limit analysis and interpretation. That in itself is interesting and so is the methodological context: the test pit archaeology of the pre post-structural anthropological archaeology came up with some general results, and indicated a link between archaeology, historical anthropology and macro scale history. Its child, the test pit archaeology of the post post-modern scientific archaeology reached extremely specific results and astonishing links to macro and universal history (dynamic pre Black Death mass hunting townspeople as opposed to illiterate Medieval farmers). The basic methodological instinct is simple, too simple: biased test pits and pattern hunt: ‘let’s dig a hole in front of the huts and see if we can find a pattern – that of a local setting linking in with universal and specific history on a regional/national level’.

In the 1970s OBl was a senior researcher and Svein Indrelid (SIn), 15 years younger than OBl, a junior researcher. They both worked in the Hardangervidda project.

It meets the eye that the Sumtangen site as an archeological context is of little importance in the discussion. Today, the OBl of the 1970s, who was up to standards in his interpretations, can be excused, not least because he is fully aware of the fact that some of his interpretations were marked by their day and age (OBl:116:col 1). I&H of the 2000s cannot be excused, because by then they must have heard about concepts such as Context and Interpretation, and understood the risks that test pit archaeology runs of failing to grasp complexity when it excavates less that 0.5 percent of the central part of a complex context. The fact that since 1838 locals and archaeologists have been used to diging holes, pits and small trenches at Sumtangen is no reason to continue doing so – here are other research designs.

Let’s hope therefore that neither OBl nor I&H take any notice of this blog, and define some topics that the discussion ought to address. Then, if a discussion develops, we may see how far off ‘On The Reading Rest’ can be. But before we start we must acknowledge the unique 21st c. fact that Otto Blehr, although retired, has been able to start the discussion putting the 1970s and the 2000s into perspective.  Earlier Sumtangen archaeologists, Hjalmer Negaard (*1877-dig 1911-†1941) could not comment on Johannes Bøe (*1891-dig 1940-†1971) and Bøe not on Blehr’s 1970s publications). With a little luck we may read the upcoming discussion as the source material behind a future passage in a history of Scandinavian archaeology in the early 21st century.

The situation is model:

I&H are not opposed to the archaeology of the 1970s. On the contrary, they have read Lewis Binford’s Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology (1978) and like dropping a reference to support basic knowledge – allthough there’s more interesting modern research to inform the reader on Scandinavia. Since some readers may have Quaternary International 238 (2011) at hand, a look at
Pasda, Kerstin & Odgaard, Ulla. 2010. Nothing is wasted: The Ideal ‘nothing is wasted’ and divergence in past and present among caribou hunters in Greenland. Quaternary International 238 (2011):35-43.
will make difference in approach evident.

The site is model too:

To some extent The Site is a function of ‘stay’, ‘date’, ‘prey’, ‘hunt’ and ‘catch’, but in this discussion some general archaeological notions suffice to point out certain Sumtangen-weaknesses that should already have been taken into account. One can agree that the site is complex and its time depth great. Notwithstanding, both parties, but especially I&H, believe that a well-defined sub context in this complexity can be established by means of a few test pits, and positively enhanced by a pick of additional, befitting, facts from earlier excavations. This is most unlikely and methodologically unsound. Instead one must build up an understanding of the context in which the site becomes a reflexion of interactions related at least to ‘stay’, ‘date’, ‘prey’, ‘hunt’ and ‘catch’.

There is little doubt that OBl’s interpretations are reasonably cautious while I&H’s are most specific and bold – building up a setting with ruins and catch phrases befitting a TV genre that features breath-taking archaeology. Instead one should start with landscape models, area and site – and dig, test, dive and survey accordingly to prove and disprove. There’s a model example e.g. in Ilves 2012, Chp:2:Garn. http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf;jsessionid=31d8b9d3d5159fe0ed86a593b65c?searchId=1&pid=diva2:514663 .

There’s common agreement that The stay 1200 masl was mainly an autumnal waiting for the reindeer on their way south, but surely there are some macro-fossils to clarify that and enhance our understanding of this season. Was the stay long enough for drying the meat? More ought to be done, because other periods in the year cycle may easily disappear in the autumn period. Some results have already been obtained by the osteologists, i.e. Hufthammer et al 2011.

There’s common agreement too that The prey was reindeer only. There’s a genetic researcher linked to the project and preliminary results are promising. The discussion on the reindeer population cycle, nevertheless, is weak. I&H seem to favour long-term population perspectives when it comes to population rather than the expected 60- or perhaps 80-year reindeer population cycles with sharp declines, reaching the minimum population, around 10% of the maximum, in 10-20 years. From the minimum, the population grows relatively slowly to the next maximum. Pasda & Odgaard (2010) refer to similar cycles in Greenland. Should we prefer mathematical models there is a Russian one modeling undisturbed wild reindeer in the Kola Peninsula by V. N. Lopatin and B. D. Abaturov (2000) in Zoologicheskiy Zhurnal 79:461-70 (in Russian).

The date of the site is crucial. I&H argue that their central Medieval hunting period, and in effect the only one they or we need to care about and interpret, is rather short, 1240-1290 BCE. It is in relation to these 50 years they see the killing of 5500-7800 animals. All numbers are approximate, but so large that they must mean ‘mass hunting’, or a similar catch phrase referring to greed rather than hunting methods. OBl, being an anthropologist, obviously refers to communal drives – to methods rather than value loaded concepts. Analyzing I&H’s 14C dates, OBl shows that if the successful hunting takes place in a period, then the length of this period is between 90 and 140 years (1). He is right. Triumphantly, nevertheless, I&H states that since they think the hunting ended before the Black Death and not because of it, the main purpose of their article is fulfilled. Of course they have many more interesting results to present, but they manage in their series of three aims primarily to point to OBl’s suggestion about the Black Death: The objective of this paper is to test Blehr’s hypothesis, … . OBl’s suggestion about the Black Death bringing an end to the hunts is most tentative and any series of 14C test on bones from the parallel test pits will ‘test’ it. And furthermore: if the reindeer population starts to drop in the 1290s and early 1300s, becoming economically uninteresting, then the fact that nobody hunts during the next population maximum c. 1350, may well indicate that by then people were deadly tired of mass death.

Seemingly, neither OBl nor I&H are aware what a 14C date is. This is obviously not true and an unfair assumption. If asked, they would probably agree that such a date is an imprecise point in time, mirroring an event in which something or someone ceased to live. So, the death of the organism is the birth of the object – an important material fact, not least to Archaeology. If such dates form a period, it is because archaeologists think they do – and archaeologists do so, e.g. if the events are culturally consistent and regularly spaced in time.

Looking at the sum of the probabilities of the 18 14C tests from Sumtangen some of the dates seem to mirror the time span 1220 to 1300 in the same way as the calibration curve, i.e. as if the events happened regularly in those years thus forming a period. Nevertheless there are older dates, <1240 CE, and even younger ones, >1290 CE. On the whole therefore, the killing wasn’t regular, i.e. not a certain period, inasmuch as it fluctuated and may be difficult to delimit. It may have been related to a population cycle in which case overkill was avoided. Needless to say I&H cannot bring themselves to use OBl’s dates from the 1970s.

I&H have overlooked an interesting spatial phenomenon: The dates from their test pit north of the huts – their new contribution to the archaeological pit distribution at Sumtangen – are earlier on average than those from the south pits in front of the doors where there are several late dates (I&H:48:Tab 1). If we take this fact into consideration it is obvious that the dates from the southern pits go beyond 1350, which means that both I&H and OBl are probably somewhat wrong about the relation to the Black Death. The 14C dates, no doubt, support OBl’s opinion that people came to Sumtangen to hunt in the 13th and 14th c.

The difference in dates between south pits and north pit also means that the pits do not fairly represent the way the site was used, since north of the huts, i.e. behind the huts, differs from in front of them.

Concerning The hunt, I&H make a point of believing a legend from the 19th c. In this tale we are told that there was once a very large kill at Sumtangen. I&H think that they have excavated that kill, because they take the legend to mean that during a short period mass hunting took place. OBl doesn’t believe that and he is critical to the use I&H make of the legend. To OBl the hunt is communal reindeer drives and the kill is considerable, but nevertheless relative constant over this period – a toll Man takes on Nature. Since the hunt was relatively constant over long parts of the population cycle, we must infer that the killing rate was a culturally defined, relatively moderate, exploitation (cf. OBl:120:Conclusions). Obviously, a fair sample of 14C tests will show how the hunts were related to population cycles.

Since the use that I&H make of the legend about Sumtangen is a schoolbook example of misuse, I have translated and commented upon the original texts. Today it is uncommon and indeed fascinating that researchers actively develop their wishful thinking, inspired by legend, into the format of the selfsame legend, and my comments therefore expanded into a blog entry of their own. Texts and comments will be published Sep 17. Suffice it for the time being to point out that OBl is patient when he deconstructs I&H’s legend-based argumentation and lays bare the legend’s cornerstone position.

As far as I can see the description and analysis of The catch is a great step forward.

I&H’ archaeology is typical of a vogue in its decade, the 2010s In part this vogue is an echo of the decade around 1970. The Hardangervidda project was emblematic of this period of Norwegian New Archeology, but also grounds for New Archeology to be criticized, e.g. by Arne B Johansen. To capture this new 21st c. vogue it is not enough to point to New Archeology, one must also be aware of its roots in the traditional archaeology of the 1960, only with more Science than in those days. If we add Entertainment Archaeology to these elements we can describe the vogue in a model of intersection (2).

(1) Obl owes math and calculation behind his analysis to Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (OBl:117).

(2) Because models were so popular in the 1970s, the ones used here are included for nostalgic and educational purposes only. Then as now all models with a historical component have an extremely limited value – but so has their purpose in this blog entry.


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