This week On the Reading Rest I have a very short text, a piece of composed indignation a response by a reformed Smithsonian curator and three descendants (archaeologists/anthropologists) working in Kodiak, Kodiak Island, Alaska. It’s a ten year old case, but I hope that time and the opening session of the 2013 SAA meeting in Honolulu, the Presidents Forum: The Future of Archaeology, will help shedding some light upon this indignation.

CroPulStefHaa Fig01

Crowell, Aron L., Pullar, Gordon L., Steffian, Amy F. and Haakanson Jr, Sven. 2004. Response to Lee and Graburn’s Review of “Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People”.  American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 431-32 URL: .
Alutiiq archaeology has become a textbook example of a successful native Alaskan archaeology (00). Because of the dedicated work not least of descendant archaeologists and anthropologists it has been possible to make archaeology contribute considerably to an Alutiiq identity as well as to remodelling this identity. To begin with in the 1930s there was a clash between on the one hand the ‘pure Smithsonian research’ – rounding up the past and taking it into custody – and on the other baffled local interests forcefully overrun by the ‘pure’ archaeologists. Today fundamentalist Smithsonian curators are rare — the reformed all the more common.

By the 1980s the importance of what was labelled ‘the right of indigenous nations or peoples to their history’ – rather than political autonomy – had already been growing for a while. In this eventually happy case, since there were only a few advocates of the traditional society left, collaboration about the past was easily establish, and the role of the education of descendants and their endeavour bridging a gap between the traditional or suppressed and the modern must not be underestimated (01). Some traditional knowledge was still living culture, but the educated descendants– an intelligence reserve made visible – understood that one could also learn a lot from archaeology laying bare the material details of a lost world.

But lo and behold, when found, it turned out that this world was not lost – instead it was looked upon as primordial and living Alutiiq identity resurrected. Saving language, traditions and material culture from extinction applying among other techniques archaeology, gave back the Alutiiq their history by confirming it rather than making it more complex. At the same time, none the less, archaeology was instrumental in making this identity an integrated part of decidedly modern society.

The Kodiak textbook example is naïve and clarifying. To begin with, the textbook authors, Kelly and Thomas (Ke&Tho), build their didactic Alutiiq case on Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943).

Between 1898 and 1903, during his scientific travels across America – later on he travelled east Asia too – Hrdlička sought to prove his hypothesis that the Americas were colonized (by Indians) from east Asia across the Bering Strait, probably some 3,000 years ago. Right and wrong, he obviously worked with questions related to a vast geographical area much larger than the Kodiak or the Aleutian Islands, despite their importance. With hindsight, especially since he didn’t believe in hominid evolution (sic!), we understand that he might as well have constructed his research as a series of case studies in a series of areas with more easily understood geographical borders, such as Kodiak Island. That would have been the correct thing to do – effortless combining regional and over-regional scales, but there were neither political nor scientific reasons forcing him to do so. On the contrary, travelling and collecting were mainstream research methods and very appropriate ones, if diffusion is what you are looking for. Collecting by travelling, moreover, was the only approach that got funding. Travelling for DNA backed up by a television team is still a wet dream to many.

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Ke&Tho excel in double standards when they insist on putting Hrdlička into the Alutiiq (or Sugpiaq) context. They start by humorously insinuating that there was perhaps some truth about the man in the fact that some anecdotal Alutiit (pl. of Alutiiq, thus: Sugpiat) spotted ‘hard liquor’, in their pronunciation of his surname name. Given the traumatic effects of alcoholism – amongst a series of culturally induced devastating lethal diseases – on Alutiiq society, this mock-humorous anecdote is inappropriate – indirectly suggesting that alcoholism was the foreigners’ problem.

Ke&Tho go on to indicate that Hrdlička’s excavations were no more than robbing people of their heritage and they end suggesting that his ‘strictly scientific’ Smithsonian views were of limited value. Heralding ‘scientific’ values is otherwise emblematic of their text, but tacitly in pursuit of a greater glory they are obviously prepared to make an exception when it comes to giving the ‘Alutiiqs’ (they do not use the correct plural Alutiit) an identity.

Somewhat surprised, moreover, Ke&Tho state that when archaeologists with a local background consulted the Alutiiq suggesting that excavations would contribute to the understanding of Alutiiq identity, an agreement to excavate (based on common grounds) was soon reached. To Ke&Tho this was a ‘curious situation’. While the Alutiiq were still fighting for the repatriation of the material that Hrdlička stored in the Smithsonian Institute, they were not against modern archaeological excavations, if namely they felt sure it would help their cause (in a way most similar to the way public heritage management and museums helped the small Scandinavian countries in the 19th century when this dyad was invented (02)).

The Alutiiq deal was struck by an Alutiiq ‘descendant’ – a graduate student from the University of Michigan. Since the descendents continued to build up the heritage management and the archaeological museum in Kodiak and became Archaeologists, the Kodiak example fits Ke&Tho perfectly. To these textbook authors it is a model example under their heading ‘Seeking [and indeed finding] Common Grounds’.

Ke&Tho pretend they do not know that despite being beneficial bringing archaeology to Kodiak Island enhanced the modern remodelling of the traditional Alutiiq society – barely surviving when the United States in its capacity as a colonial power bought Alaska in 1867 and continued to destroy whatever local culture it could. Their choice of words, the ‘curious situation’ shows that somewhere in the back of their patronizing mind they know this is the case. True to their double standards they refrain from doing the obvious, i.e. a political rather than archaeological analysis of the situation arguing that strengthening the identity of the local society, even at the cost of destroying a number of traditional graves instead of preserving them, is recommendable. Using archaeology to confirm the present by referring to the past is politically wise, but scientifically, i.e. morally, dubious.
When it comes to history or archaeology ‘resurrecting lost traditions’ is a contradiction in terms. When something is resurrected it cannot be integrated and vice versa. It is resurrected as the true past, and thus parallel to the modern. It is recovered as the remains of a past forever lost and thus integrated with the modern, in as much as we recognize its agency. In everyday politics, nevertheless, ‘resurrecting lost traditions’ works just fine thanks to grave social injustice and the readiness of archaeologists always to side with the political and its current correctness. After all, the discipline and its funding were invented in the 19th c. owing to political will. Nationalism and racism were always an archaeological option, and today siding with the political rights of disappearing minorities has become a worthy option now that the heydays of nation state nationalism and colonialism are (hopefully) over.

This is where descendants as a category enters the scene as go-betweens, since integrating stubborn small minorities as well as defending their political rights and their traditional, in our sense of the word ‘non-modern’, ways of life is no doubt a politically popular/honourable thing to do – supported by any central government. Today, meeting the US census category ‘some ancestry’ rather than ‘exclusive ancestry’, the descendants are c. 50% of the Native Americans and a typical people with a go-between mission:

Table 00


And so, the Kodiak example found its way into textbooks. Some might have thought that blunt political correctness would be commented upon in a less friendly way since textbooks are meant to educate future archaeologists in a historical discipline and not in political behaviour. If archaeology is politicised such expectations are obviously naïve.

Looking both ways
Before the Alutiiq experience entered the textbook, part of the success of this endeavour to revitalize Alutiiq identity was an exhibition called Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. As this exhibition travelled the country it was paralleled by an exhibition of decontextualized Alutiiq masks in Paris at Musée du Quai Branly: Les Masques de la Collection Alphonse Pinart du Chaiteau-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer. Both exhibitions were accompanied by catalogues. In a review article Molly Lee & Nelson Graburn (LeGra) wrote about both the exhibitions and their publications. The LeGra criticism was gentle, but they pointed out the political agenda and correctness of both exhibitions. They suggested that Looking Both Ways was marked by a political will to stress Alutiiq, essentially ‘Our Alutiiq’, rather than say Unangan or indeed Sigpiaq (coastal dweller) identity. Looking Both Ways simply could not fall short to governmental interests, not least while it is in the interest of a central government to exchange broad categorizations, i.e. large heterogenic groups, for small homogenous groups. Small groups are easier to handle and balance against each other not least while anthropologists and linguists have taken it upon them to do their best categorizing Native Alaskans minutely.

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Supporting an urban centre of Alutiiq culture, i.e. a Kodiak centre, is always right from a governmental point of view. At the same time the whole exhibition project found its platform in consultation with a broad committee of Alutiiq advisers. Having defined the vested interests of two parties the stronger succeeds in defining the common grounds, in this case the exhibition, on which the parties act.

KodiakmuseumSuch structures will have consequences: LeGra pointed out that the exhibition fitted its original setting, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, better than the Anchorage Museum of History and Art’s (AMHA) Gallery 7. They noticed this as a sign of the long-standing drawbacks of a travelling exhibition. But that is hardly the case. Instead it is in the structure of ‘looking both ways’ that the exhibition was designed for the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and when it travelled out of its original setting it naturally lost a little, because nowadays Alutiiq identity has an urban centre – a national museum.

A Yup'ik story knifeLeGra suggested that less politically correct common grounds would have resulted in a more important exhibition. They hinted that the myriad of problems besetting rural Alaska, should have played a more prominent part in the exhibition. They thought that the picture of the Alutiiq was too superficial, uncritically painting a primordial, i.e. a fundamentally Alutiiq past into the present. The direct and indirect messages of the exhibition were obvious: now that we have a centre for Alutiiq culture, Alutiiq identity and its centre have become idealized.

LeGra didn’t sum up their critique as a blunt message, but nevertheless their views caused indignation and a response arguing that:

Alcoholism and other social problems in Alutliiq communities – presumably what Lee and Graburn refer to in their review – were discussed at an Elders’ planning conference for the exhibition in 1997 [… … ]. However, Elders spoke of these social ills as symptoms of the loss of identity, not characteristics that define it. [ … … ]. One said, “To sit and listen and think about the social ills that we’re all faced with – and they’re common – that is for another time.”(Response pp. 431f.)

Nobody can turn a blind eye to the problems of the Alutiit, LeGra just wanted to point out that finding common grounds in a politicised landscape comes with a price to disciplines such as Archaeology and Anthropology. The response is ample proof of their point telling us about the role and power of the ‘Elders’ – an institution with a capital E no less. The Elders’ dubious analysis of the concept of identity, and their dictum: social ills – that is for another time, are significant.

There is no doubt that the rights of every Alaskan must be respected and that modern society has an obligation and a duty to compensate rural Alaskan population, but that doesn’t mean that LeGra got it wrong. On the contrary they were right in their analysis ten years ago. Nevertheless, it has turned out that being right is of little importance in the political archaeology surrounding Native Americans.

Hoholulu2013It so happened that the Alutiiq became a textbook paragon of descendant/indigenous archaeology, and at 2013 Honolulu meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) this political archaeology was introduced at the opening session, the presidents forum — isn’t that a contradiction in terms? On this forum seven descendant archaeologists making up a panel consisting of a moderator and six discussants introduced themselves as representatives and discussed the problems they experience e.g. with archaeologists who do not respect the rights and obligations of those living in an area to protect and control its heritage. To the panellists the problem was the violation of the rights of the indigenous and the descendants. It was obvious that they equated this with the rights of indigenous peoples to their history.

After the presentations the audience could write down questions on cards, which were then collected and (perhaps) handed down to the panel. In this way, at the very end of the session, the panel was asked about the future of archaeology and how that could be brought about given the sadly familiar problems we had just heard about. The answer was simple, almost ‘Elderly’: If we learn by experience and do the right thing then everything will be fine. There was a general humming of consent on the podium, but out on the forum the audience didn’t seem totally convinced, because it is not often we hear scientific ideals ignored and reformulated as demagogic buzzwords at the very beginning of a scientific conference. Only if political archaeology is the centrepiece ‘doing the right thing’ is what matters, but then again doing the right thing borders on fabrication.

Archaeology and history cannot be defined as belonging to any modern group of people. In fact the remains of the past preserved in an area to which people or the individual relate are the remains of actions that aimed to form a near or distant future. These actions are not primarily intended to define the history of a specific modern group of people – not primarily intended objectively, specifically or fairly to prove the identity of those who live today. They were meant to create the future by whatever means necessary. Today one cannot reclaim one’s history, only an understanding of the past as ways of influencing the future.



(00) The textbook is Kelly, Robert L. & Thomas, David Hurst s. 2012 Archaeology. Wadsworth Publishing; 6 edition .403-4

(01) There is a well referenced paper on the role of and lack of education by Gordon L Pullar at  Pullar’s own experience of being a descendant is described and analyse in an article from 1992 in Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 29, No. 2, Maritime Cultures of Southern Alaska: Papers in Honor of Richard H. Jordan (1992), pp. 182-191. See:

(02) Indigenous Danish archaeology, i.e. Political Archaeology, began in the summer of 1807 when Rasmus Nyerup (*1759 †1829), who had become a professor of history of literatur at the university of Copenhagen, visited Fyn the land of his childhood and ancestors. When he wandered around in this landscape he understood that its heritage—his heritage and that of the Danes – was threatened. He wrote an article in a Copenhagen newspaper and the King saw the political potential of national heritage management and 10 years later the potential of the national museum.  The birth of Danish archaeology is paralleled by the birth, c. 175 years later, of Alutiiq archaeology – in fact Alutiiq archaeology and heritage management is modelled, consciously or unconsciously, on its Danish and Scandinavian predecessors (cf. On the Reading Rest, 12 November, 2012, The New Danish-Norman England – the Stout Bulwark of the Peoples’ Freedom)

O mi Germane – ubi es?

15 April, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have no less than four books on West European history mostly concerned with the later part of the first millennium CE. I read the introductions because historiography is my focus. Historiography is important when researchers of European decent think about the 5-6th c. and onwards as the beginning of a passage more or less in its own right from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Two of the books are anthologies and two are monographs.

Gillett, Andrew. 2003 (ed.). On Barbarian Identity. Critical approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages. Brepols publishers, Turnhout.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2006 (ed.). From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms. Routledge. London

Smith, Julia M. H. (2005). Europe after Rome: a New Cultural History 500-1000. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Olson, Lynette. (2007). The Early Middle Ages: The Birth of Europe Palgrave Macmillan. New York.


O mi germane – ubi es? is a pun, and a very old one too (Quintilian c. 95 CE referring to Cicero (01)), because germanus means ‘(full) brother’ as well as ‘German’, thus the mock sentimental: Oh ‘my brother’ ’my German’ where art thou? Today, we may ironically ask this remembering the rambling ways of German brothers now that they are not as dangerous as they were. To begin with this pun wasn’t always funny and Strabo in earnest suggested the following:

Now the parts beyond the Rhenus, immediately after the country of the Celti, slope towards the east and are occupied by the Germans, who, though they vary slightly from the Celtic stock in that they are wilder, taller, and have yellower hair, are in all other respects similar, for in build, habits, and modes of life they are such as I have said the Celti are. And I also think that it was for this reason that the Romans assigned to them the name “Germani,” as though they wished to indicate thereby that they were “genuine” Galatae, for in the language of the Romans “germani” means “genuine.” Strabo Geography Book 7:1:2.

Later on his etymology lost its significance, but in Tacitus there remains a measure of Barbarian virtue in Germani. From the 2nd c. CE and onwards into the 5th Germani and Germania were more often depicted in traditional poses on coins as defeated. In the same period Gaul is depicted as restored.

Germania and Gallia

In part the two anthologies discuss the same problems. One concerns the barbarians as a political phenomenon: did migrating barbarians organized in nations put an end to Rome? The other question concerns the ethnic unity of Germanic tribes and kingdoms: was there a common core identity among people called Franks, Alemanni, Visigoths etc.? Gillett (ed.) doesn’t think so being especially critical of the construction of ethnicity. In his anthology Derek Fewster, who doesn’t write about the middle of the first millennium ce., come closest to understanding ethnicity as the outcome of bad historical analyses. Noble (ed.) qualifies these questions, since revision is the model for all the books in the series to which this particular volume belongs. Instead of relying on the fall of Rome and the origin of the Germanic Early Medieval kingdoms it has been common, since the 1990s, to talk of the ‘transformation’ of the Roman world. I textbooks suitable for first year students the first sentence would point out that although Rome in the West disappeared as a political system – Roman civilization had already profoundly changed societies in northern Europe among those the people the Romans called Germans. The ongoing transformation of what was formally Rome is the complement of, and thus complemented by, the ongoing transformation of what was formally not-Rome in North and West Europe.

Even to Romans there was something about Germanic ways that transformed the land where Germani lived, i.e. Germania. When the poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote a wedding poem to King Sigebert and his Visigoth Queen Brunhild, who came to Metz in what we would term Gaul from Toledo in Spain. Venantius expressed his astonishment that there was a marriage bed for her in Germania – not in Gallia. Rhetorically he asks:

Quis crederet autem / Hispanam tibimet dominam, Germania nasci? –
Who would have believed / that with you there was born I Spain a mistress for Germania?  (Venantius Fortunatus, Book 6, Poem 1, ll. 117-18).
Since he presented the poem to the couple at their wedding, and became a popular court poet, his analysis of the Merovingian court was commonly accepted, emblematic of Germania and consequently of the Germanic ways. Spain, on the other hand did not qualify as Germania, despite its Visigoth court in La Mancha. The Visigoths were lords in Spain while the Franks had moved Germania into Gaul, at least into its northern parts, when they settled there. The examples suffice to show that the questions discussed in the two anthologies have been ‘with us’ and difficult to handle for the last 2000 years at least.


Nevertheless: The fall of Rome? and Germanic ethnogenesis? are questions typical of a post-war discussion presently dismissed by most. For theoretical reasons such discussions should have been abandoned already in the 1980s, but obviously that was not the case and pointless dichotomies such as: did Rome fall or did it not fall? Was there a core ethnicity or not? – continued to dominate the discussion whether researchers agreed or disagreed with one another or agreed to disagree. Especially Ethnicity and Identity continued to preoccupy researchers and only in recent years has the relation between ethnicity – heralded by ancient or modern voices – and bad historical analysis (a very common phenomenon then and now) been emphasized.

It should not be forgotten that the Romans themselves introduced the idea of ‘the political fall’ such as the Republic and bad ‘ethno-historical analysis’ such as Tacitus’ ‘Germania’. Caesar writing about the Civil War and Tacitus writing about Germans both wrote of something else too, and so do Gillett (ed.) and Noble (ed.). They write in the flickering torches of the EU and the comfortable straight jacket of Eurocentric post-war history departments, i.e. – paragons of the 6th c. royal and petty-royal halls; the nodes of a political network and prestige economy; a gender-controlled environment engaged in introspect historical narrative.

Sigebert coin

Using the concept of Ethnicity as a discursive node tying it to whatever source material available, is a way of ordering the discourse of a discipline in times when its male dominance is questioned. This shows already in Laura Bohannan’s essay ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’ (1966) (02) in which the patronizing ethnicity-driven claim to the correct interpretation of Hamlet rests equally well with Bohannan’s male friend in Oxford, England and elders in Tivland, Nigeria, despite the fundamental discrepancies between their correct interpretations, Both her friend and the elders are convinced that Laura Bohannan being a foreigner, but in reality a woman and thus not quite up to male standards, is not able fully to grasp ‘correct interpretation’. As the obvious representatives of each their ethnic group, they are both capable of contextualizing Hamlet as their story using ‘Hamlet’ as a discursive node. The capacity to see ethnicity in relation to border lines between the individual and a group, thus defining the individual as either inside or outside its social territory, makes it easy not least for conventional males to look at discipline as (my) territory and defend the discipline by discussing ethnicity taking its status as a discursive node for granted and disagreeing with others about ‘ethnicity and correct interpretation’. Arguing about the correct interpretation of ethnicity strengthens the structure of the discipline inasmuch as it creates schools combating each other without questioning the discursive node even if relabeling or subdividing it – ethnicity/identity – may be part of the struggle.

Scholars who think that ethnicity is unimportant or indeed the outcome of inferior historical analysis, are thus automatically excluded from the disciplinary discourse. In this case they tend to be women. Scholars who comprise traditional discursive nodes are included in the disciplinary discourse. In this case they tend to be men. Some prominent historians therefore figure in Noble ed. as well as Gillett ed. And some have two chapters in Noble (ed.). Most of the authors in Gillett (ed.) are obviously the young and sometimes angry generation. Nevertheless they all belong to a group we may call the Anthology Group.

Reading an introduction as a text in its own right means reading it as an epilogue as well as an introduction and in the case of the anthologies we are probably right in suggesting that the introductions were not written until all the contributions were available to the editor, who then sat down to analyse and explain what the anthology was all about in some ways knowing it already. Therefore, reading the introduction to an anthology as an epilogue is a method rather than simply unfair.

Writing a monograph one could do more or less the same, i.e. write the introduction when the rest of the book was already finished. But even so, the introduction would often have brewed in the author as the result of an interaction between the book as imagined and what has so far been written. The introduction develops and colours the book in the process of writing it.

Significantly there are some concepts that are consciously avoided in both Smith and Olson such as ethnicity and its correlate identity. Moreover, the European core area Germany, southern England and northern France is not anymore a must in a book pointing out the diversity of the Early Middle Ages. Cognitive history holds a prominent place and the break with the revisionist view is central: Julia M Smith

The awareness that archaeology doesn’t simply confirm or question the written sources, but make up ‘brand new evidence for the Early Middle Ages’ is another important component of both Olson’s and Smith’s books.

In the end of her introduction in a most typical way, Olson refers to a picture of the front of the Franks Casket commenting upon it in the following distinctly non-ethnic way:

Lynette Olson

Franks casket


Representing a radical break with the tradition of the anthologies, one is not surprised to find that one of the younger anthology authors has written a review, fault-finding and territory-defining, demonstrating a formidable inability to grasp Lynette Olson’s general approach and a sniper’s attitude, if not craftsmanship, to scientific discourse.

The anthology group, including the reviewer, is a good illustration to Fredrik Barth’s views upon ethnicity. Quoting Barth on almost anything, why not on his third approach – on boundaries: If a group maintains its identity when members interact with others, this entails criteria for determining membership and ways of signalling membership and exclusion (03) – and remembering the way the reviewer takes ethnogenesis and thus also ethnicity to be a discursive node in the sense of Discourse Theory, it becomes obvious that the anthology group interacts and struggle within itself to dominate the this node. Both the Noble (ed.) and the Gillett (ed.) group acknowledge the ethnicity node and the reviewer, who doesn’t forget to mention ethnogenesis as self-evident (although in his opinion misunderstood by Olson beyond comments), takes every opportunity to exclude Lynette Olson, as he would probably have tried to exclude Julie Smith, from the group. That is a safe thing to do because they would not contemplate membership. Thus he shows his group membership, his individuality and his loyalty as s boundary defender. Nevertheless, ethnicity, whether performed by groups of the past or a male anthology tribe, is just a reflection of bad historical analysis of the past or the present.

There is an interesting socio-biological component of the male defense of what seems primarily to be a scholarly territory perhaps not understood as social boundaries. Fredrik Barth, none the less, would have advised that the Anthology Group understood itself in terms of social boundaries.


(01) According to Quintilian, Cicero used the pun thus: Cimber hic fuit, a quo fratrem necatum; hoc Ciceronis dicto notatum est: Germanum Cimber occidit—There was this Cimber who murdered his brother; a fact recorded by Cicero in the words: “Cimber killed his ‘full brother’/’German’.” Quintilian Institutio Oratoria Book 8, 3, 29.

(02) The essay can be found at:

(03) See page 15 at

This week On the Reading Rest I have the past in the form of a printout of an article from the latest volume, 78:1, of American Antiquity.

Because I have a grandchild in Japan I was happy to accept an invitation to give a paper at the April SAA congress in Honolulu. Nagoya is my base between Hawaii and home. Going to SAA meant that like many others of the more than 3,000 participants, I had to become a member of SAA. Being a member, whether I like it or not, whether I can pick it out from JSTOR or not, whether I read it in the library or not, whether I get a paper copy or not, I got a message, among frequent communications, telling me that I may download American Antiquity 78:1, 2013. Because I haven’t read an article in American Antiquity since perhaps 1973 when I wrote a master thesis on concept formation in archaeology – classical genus proximum et differentia specifica versus family resemblance concepts – and needed some examples of pointless New Archeology, I couldn’t resist a look.

The cover has changed, but between front and back nothing but authors’ names and reference years are new. I probably suspected just that, but who can resist a deja vue knowing that the whole antiquarian installation is staged in April – The Past, Live in Honolulu. Today, when the material remains and contexts of iterative long-lasting cultural performances are in vogue, who wouldn’t do a participant observation of the ritual gatherings of the New American Archeologists? NAAs are not endangered, not yet indigenzed and I am not doing an ethically questionable anthropology in my own society. I may be post-colonializing them, but that is still PC.

As a preparation I read:

Cover Am Ant 78 1Arakawa, Fumiyasu; Nicholson, Christopher and Rasic, Jeff. 2013. The consequences of social processes: Aggregate populations, projectile point accumulation, and subsistence patterns in the American Southwest. American Antiquity 78:1:147-165.

Arakawa, Nicholson and Rasic (AraNiRa) have observed that as of 2005 (referring to Diamond: Guns Germs and Steel) scholars have investigated the potential causes and consequences of – the Neolithic no less (p.147, first column). What a splendid idea. This Neolithic thing it seems could have had potential consequences! Thus astonished and worried – could global warming be among the consequences? – we may proceed to contemplate the following:

[Neolithic human] groups began manufacturing and using pottery vessels, used the bow and the arrow, shifted subsistence patterns from strictly hunting and gathering to horticulture and agriculture, began domesticating animals and established sedentary villages.

First year students usually don’t get away with suggesting to their teachers that pottery, the bow and the arrow and domestication, e.g. of the dog, were emblematic of anything as belated as the Neolithic. And by the way, initially among agriculturalists the sedentary villages and the distinction between manufacturing and using pottery were of little importance. In the current American antiquity, nevertheless, this new-age-dawning perspective is creed. Having introduced us to their unique cultural context the authors turn to their archaeological mission and

argue that artifact deposits from a range of settlement sizes can inform meaningful interpretations about the consequences of social processes, such as aggregation and increases in group population density.

Rather than dubious, this proposition – artifact deposits can inform a range of meaningful interpretations – is so obvious that it can be proved, i.e., probably be proved since we mustn’t jump to conclusions, must we? Where would Archeology be if we just thought it could be meaningful?

I am thrilled: reading the article, planning to go to Honolulu, believing that two of the authors will be there, I feel surfing on the forefront of that wave of research, which roles on under my surfboard without moving forward. I shall add American Antiquity to the list of consequences brought about by the Neolithic.

True to New Archeology hoping to create a meaningful pattern composed on a few hopefully controlled variables, AraNiRa start to track down (1) large and (2) small settlements, (3) high and (4) low population density in (5) a central and (6) a peripheral area, with (7) lithic projectile points and (8) earthen utility wares as well as faunal data in which we may distinguish between (9) large and (10) small game. This is not ideal because there is a dependency between lithic projectile points and large game as well as warfare, albeit perhaps a secondary one, but very little dependency between utility ware and small game or indeed warfare. New Archeology scholastics would not have taken lightly that kind of variable dependency. Variables 7 to 10 must thus be transformed to general markers, i.e. a point:sherd ration and an artiodactyle index, which are either high or low.(Google actually returns 29.900 hits for ‘artiodactyle’ e.g. beating ‘hemiepes’ with 9.000 hits).

The construction of index and ratio is always tricky. In this case it is a specimens-of-species index (based on the Number of Identified specimens in archaeological reports – NISP). That is less informative than a Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) index, but it cannot be helped since the archaeological records give us NISP and ours not to reason why. Actually, in order not to get completely trapped in source critical problems, already troublesome, simplification is a must. The authors therefore total all the artiodactyles (even-toed), i.e. bison, deer, sheep etc, who are large, and then they sum the lagomorphs, i.e. hares, rabbits and pikas, who are small. Indeed there are no perissodactyles — odd-toed (12.700 hits). Based on these sums they construct the Artiodactyle index (AI): AI= artiodactyle/(artiodactyle+lagomorphs).

The construction of the point:sherd ratio is more difficult because it aims at reconstruction a factual prehistoric balance. This reconstruction is complicated by the fact that ‘10 out of 72 sites’ have not yielded any projectile points, just pottery. Since there is a balance between the two artefact categories, the authors manage with a bit of Bayesian statistics to produce a Posterior Mean Value, PMV, reflecting the once existing balances between points and shards. Technically speaking there is nothing wrong with the construction of this value, but the construction doesn’t differentiate between small and large sites. There is just one mean for The Core Area sites and another for The Periphery. Primarily, Core and Periphery is a matter of population density.

This means that ‘small’ and ‘large’ sites are the only straightforward, i.e. non-aggregated, variables. ‘Small’ and ‘large’ are taken for granted. In the end of the article, when it comes to comparing the meaningful patterns related to a prehistoric reality, the comparison of the PMV is primarily between small and large sites and secondarily between the somewhat aggregated periphery and core concepts, i.e. areas defined in general geographical, topographical and demographic terms. Belonging to an area makes a site ‘peripheral’ or ‘central’. In the article, methodologically motivated simplification is driven by fuzzy dichotomization keeping the reader relatively unaware of the basic distributions of the variables on the intra-site level – projectile density distribution and utility ware density distribution being cases in point.

Although this is not promising, the authors proceed to produce diagrams mapping the PMV on one axis and the AI on the other with dots representing all sites as either small or large – differentiating between core and periphery by means of symbols. In theory the expected pattern should like this:

The hypotheses suggestWhen we start reading ‘Results’, it soon becomes obvious that there is a discrepancy between the diagrams Figures 4 to 7 and the Tables 1 & 2. There are more sites in the tables (75) than in the diagrams and the text discussing them (72). Moreover, the points plotted in the diagrams are not always the ones defined by the numbers in the tables. There are 39 tabled sites in the Core Area not the 36 plotted in the diagrams. The distribution in Fig. 7 cannot be checked because there are too few decimals in the PMV values in tables 1 & 2. There are astonishing errors too: in Fig.4 the median PMV for the small sites in The Periphery is given as 0.03, but judging from table 1 it is 0.01 and less in line with the authors’ hypotheses. This is of little importance for the obvious conclusions, but it makes patterns that are not in line with the hypotheses more significant. Only the diagram Fig. 6 (the small sites in Periphery and Core) can be reproduced and compared with the published. Based on tables 1 & 2 this revised diagram looks like this:

Small sites indexes

Superimposed upon Fig. 6 in the article we get a discrepancy:

Comparison table values figure contra AraNiRa fig 6

Most of the differences are ‘decimal differences’ (the authors use four places in the diagrams and only three in the tables), but the values for McElmo-Yellow Jacket are distorted. This means that when it comes to this densely populated area the authors cannot rely on their hypotheses to explain the deviance among their large or small sites.

Small sites observed vs theory

If we add the theoretical categories to Fig. 6, the greatest problem with the interpretation is the many small sites dominated by large-game bones, but none the less characterized by few projectile points with which to kill the game. It so happens that the upper left corner of the diagram refutes the theory on its own assumptions. This patter becomes even more obvious when we re-scale Fig. 7 and add the large sites to the small ones to get a total picture.

When we look at all sites, there is thus an even more obvious split between those with relatively speaking many and those with few large mammals, since between AI 0.4 and 0.6 there are very few sites.

Last figure

There are fewer large mammals in large sites, dots, but that doesn’t mean that the animals killed in small peripheral sites, open diamonds, or indeed any small site, any diamond, were not brought as meat or cut of meat to large sites in The Core, green,blue and red dots. ‘Numerous’ and’ few’ obviously mean different things on different sites in different environments. Parallel to the split dense group, the two left corners of the diagram, there is a spread-out peripheral western group wedged between the two main corners. In this group as in the dense groups, a growing PMV means either a minimum or maximum AI. Sites in the McElmo-Yellow Jacket (McElyja) core area, moreover, are distinctly different from Mesa Verde sites suggesting that The Core Area Concept implicated by AraNiRa is flawed. If we were able to check the topographical distribution of MaElyja sites, there is a fair chance we could find a division between core sites and peripheral sites within the region.

The hypotheses suggest a theoretical distribution and meaning that doesn’t match the observed patterns. The article obscures the methodological reasons for this discrepancy, but common sense suggests that the different ways projectile points and utility ware are produced, used, dispersed, rejected, recycled, reused, deposited etc, help to obscure the meaning of the ratio point:sherd and the diagrams Figs 4-7. Probably, measuring the density of game and domesticated species as well as pottery density – leaving out the strongly dependent projectile variable, which moreover is split between killing large game and humans — as weapons still tend to be in everyday American usage – would have been more meaningful.

All this ends up in a classical example of the shortcomings of the New-Archeology approach: (1) simplification based on fuzzy dichotomies and oppositions blurs the meaning of the variables and makes correlations and discrepancies between the hypothetic suggestions and the observed patterns difficult to comprehend – for authors as well as readers. For some reason beyond our reach, (2) the formal consistency of the New-Archeology presentation often breaks down adding to the reader’s confusion. But in the end (3) this takes away nothing from the conclusions because they are but tentative and commonplace:

The analyses provide support for the idea that increasing population density and aggregation of settlement patterns led to changes in sociopolitical organization and subsistence patterns (p. 161).

It takes a backup of c. 100 references pushing at this open door. Ten seemingly innocent persons and institutions share the doubtful honour of being thanked in the acknowledgement at the very end – And of course, we [AraNiRa] take responsibility for any and all mistakes or omissions. It didn’t go without saying.