Brian Fagan’s Ear to the Ground

5 mins read

Greetings from the sky! CWA‘s editor has condemned me to writing on aeroplanes. With unerring timing, Nadia gives me deadlines that leave me no other option. This column is no exception. It is partly a product of an unusually heavy travel schedule at the moment – try Pennsylvania State University, Missoula, Montana, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Barcelona within the span of three weeks. So, inevitably, I am juggling airline trays, intruding elbows, and a laptop all at once. For a change, my neighbour is disinclined to be sociable, so I can write about archaeology without being asked about Tutankhamun or the Dead Sea Scrolls…

Hercules cooked here

My column starts in Philadelphia, where President George Washington (below) lived at 6th and Market Streets with his family and nine slaves. It was here, in a house torn down in 1832 that he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which made it a crime to aid escaping slaves and required that they be returned to their owners. He sanctioned an infamous legislative event to be sure, but not surprising, given that Washington was an established slave owner. We know that his cook was a slave named Hercules.

He served the family’s meals from a one-story kitchen with a basement, discovered in a recent excavation sponsored by the National Park Service. The basement may have served as a cold room for meat and vegetables during the hot months. Nearby lie the remains of a brick-lined privy. The back wall of the main house has also come to light. All of these finds come from archaeological excavations, not from perusing contemporary documents, which are silent about Washington’s domestic arrangements while in office. Historical archaeology is often, and erroneously, thought of as merely a handmaiden of history. However, as recent discoveries at Jamestown, and now at Washington’s Philadelphia residence, have shown, it is a lot more than that.

Cassava and Chocolateers

Food, like bicycles, is one of my minor passions, but ever since I tried some replicated Roman garum (fish sauce) and a couple of virtually inedible medieval recipes, I have contented myself with following historical food from a distance. We have seen a revolution in dietary reconstruction in recent years, thanks to flotation of seeds and other botanical remains, isotopic analysis, and other innovations; but it is very rare that we recover ancient crops in the ground.

Ceren is a small Maya village in El Salvador, where Payson Sheets has excavated entire houses and their gardens, smothered under volcanic ash by a violent eruption 1,400 years ago. His researchers were uncovering what they thought was a cornfield when they unexpectedly discovered well preserved manioc roots, a totally unexpected local crop. Manioc, or cassava, was an important pre-Columbian staple, energy rich with plentiful starch, well documented from elsewhere in the tropical Americas, but not known to be a major Maya food. This discovery may help explain how the Maya managed to feed rapidly growing city populations over many centuries.

Then there is chocolate, well known as a fermented beverage enjoyed by the Maya, Aztec, and others, made from cacao seeds. Now, a residue found in some pots of 1100 BC from Puerto Escondido, Honduras, turns out to be comprised of the chemical compound found exclusively in the cacao plant. This discovery pushes back the earliest documented use of cacao by 500 years, with chocolate perhaps originally made by fermenting the sweet pulp around the seeds. So the current boom in artisanal chocolates in Los Angeles is merely following in an ancient tradition of chocolateers that is even earlier than we once thought.

A new generation of archaeological ethics?

Like most archaeologists, I really have not given much thought to the ethics of the discipline, beyond the obvious controversies over the New York Metropolitan’s Euphronios Vase and other looted antiquities. A recent invitation to lecture on the subject prompted me to delve into a growing literature, which now reaches much further than the ongoing debates about Portable Antiquities Schemes, Repatriation, and looting.

The recent edited volume The Ethics of Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) by the brothers Scarre, archaeologist and philosopher, has made me realise that our ethics also encompass many little explored aspects of archaeology such as tourism and adventure travel. After all, what are the ethical implications of unleashing 2,000 cruise ship passengers on Delos, or trainloads of day visitors on Machu Picchu? There is a growing literature, but, like so much that is going on in archaeology, the debates seem peripheral to our main passion – discovery. Clearly a strong case can be made for expanding ethical training in archaeological graduate programmes.

Tribute to a historian

The Alaska historian Lydia Black (1925-2007) died last year. Few archaeologists, except those living in Alaska, have heard of this remarkable scholar. She devoted a lifetime to studying the Russian exploration of North America and the Aleuts, with remarkable results. Her Russians in America, 1732-1867 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004) is a fascinating essay on the complex interactions between natives and newcomers over the long chain of islands that extend south and west from the Alaska Peninsula. One learns, for example, that the Russians promptly adopted Aleutian skin boats to get around the islands. Not only were they more seaworthy than their own wooden dories, but they could be landed safely on rocky shores, no mean consideration in a maritime world where storms could blow in within hours, even minutes. She points out that rich ethnographic records collected by early explorers on such maritime people as the Aleuts and Alutiiqs of Kodiak Island await exploration in Russian archives – what a treasure trove for future scholars! And who is not humbled to learn that the early French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart travelled for hundreds of kilometres in skin kayaks, while collecting priceless linguistic data and oral histories of the Alutiiqs. Sometimes one wonders if we are lesser scholars, cushioned as we are from the harsh realities of the environments where our subjects once lived. Certainly, Lydia Black’s work gives us a heightened respect both for the Russians (whose history in the Aleutians was more complex than mere brutality, as popular belief has it) and the Aleuts – and for Aleut hats, upon which she was a world authority. So much of our research relies, albeit indirectly, on scholars like Lydia Black.

Fagan, a later member of the Boas school?

A friend, who regards archaeology as a harmless pursuit, happened to find an entry about me in the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. He e-mailed me to ask what the anonymous writer meant when he described me as being strongly criticised for being ‘a later member of the Boasian school, more interested in tracking objects on a grid than explaining similarities among objects found in various places.’ I was also astounded to learn that I am a critic of non-traditional archaeology.

I appear to have sinned grievously in the writer’s mind, and normally ignore these things, but I am curious. Can anyone tell me exactly what being a later member of the Boasian school means? Although I have had the pleasure of meeting at least two people who studied under this legendary anthropologist at Columbia, I have never read any of his work, indeed have had no call to do so. And I think I have been far more critical of traditional archaeology than the non-traditional, perhaps more so than many of my colleagues. Strange are the ways of those who seem to read theoretical approaches and biases into everything!

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 29. Click here to subscribe

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