Achtung archaeologists!

Ever since some feminists went berserk when National Geographic took an author picture of me in a fedora as worn by Indiana Jones, I’ve realised that writing for the pubic can be a minefield.

But I never expected to be sucked into immigration reform.

Recently, I wrote an opinion-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times on ancient droughts in western North America, which pointed out that much of North America is living on borrowed time. I quoted computer projections for future droughts, which are, by the way, truly frightening, and pointed out that great cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Francisco, have abundant cause for concern. Within days, I was assailed by Californians for Population Stabilization, who accused me of ignoring population growth, of ‘an act of self-preservation’, and of being ‘intellectually dishonest’

If you have written, as I have done, about the first Americans, shamans and rock paintings, anthropogenic global warming, and ancient climate change, you expect correspondents to accuse you of taking sides—or they want you to espouse theirs.

What it often comes down to is people choosing to believe what they want to believe and to hell with other folks’ integrity and motives. The only kind of self-preservation I am going to indulge in this time is a good laugh. However, it is flattering that archaeology is taken seriously as part of someone else’s political agenda!

Dirty reading

The literature on the first Americans fills several metres of shelf in my office. It is a literature remarkable for its verbiage, sometimes for its polemic, and for a startling lack of new data. So when something truly new comes along, it’s an Event with a capital E. Thanks to Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon, who investigated the Paisley 5 Mile Point Caves in the Cascade Mountains, we have some very early faeces to work with—and faeces never lie.

Paisley Cave has a long chronicle of human occupation extending into much later times, but the earliest visitors of all seem to have relieved themselves and left, leaving nothing but a scatter of coprolites behind them. A bone fragment associated with the coprolites has been dated to about 12,300 years ago, one of the earliest records of human occupation in the Americas. Unfortunately, no artefacts or food remains lay with the coprolites, so we know nothing of the cultural associations of the visitors.

It has long been clear that there were human settlers in the Americas before the Clovis people, with their distinctive fluted-base projectile points, but they remain a shadowy presence. This is hardly surprising, since there were very few of them and they were constantly on the move in a newly inhabited continent where food resources were scattered widely over a vast landscape. But, like the contemporary, and beautifully excavated, settlement at Monte Verde in southern Chile, Paisley provides us with a fleeting reminder that there were people in the Americas long before Clovis literally bursts into the archaeological record. And, in a delicious vignette of archaeological esoterica, the excavator of Monte Verde, Tom Dillehay, has just announced the identification of nine species of seaweed that came from beaches about 55km west of the site. Some of the seaweed was apparently chewed by the inhabitants. Even today, some local people use seaweed for medicinal purposes.

Killing Sandia Man

We are in the throes of a new era of archaeological discovery, this time not in the field but in museum collections, sometimes combined with cautious excavation. Back in the late 1930s, the Southwestern archaeologist Frank Hibben excavated Sandia Cave, in the mountains of that name northeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He described a unique form of stone projectile head, which he named the ‘Sandia point,’ associated with animal bones that included extinct Ice Age species. He claimed that he had found a late Ice Age Paleo-Indian hunting station, the earliest such site in the Americas at the time. His Sandia levels with their extinct animals lay below an occupation with Folsom points, then the earliest known Paleo-Indian culture in North America. Hibben was a controversial fieldworker. His claims of an association between the points and extinct mammals were poorly documented and largely guesswork. When radiocarbon dates became available, Hibben claimed the occupation was about 17,000 years ago, far earlier than Folsom.

Fortunately, Hibben was unusually careful with his bone collections, somewhat of a rarity in his day when excavation methods were rough-and-ready by today’s standards. So Jessica Thompson, Nawa Sugiyama, and Gary Morgan applied modern zooarchaeological methods to the bones, many of which were still in their original matrix, much of it yellow ochre, highly prized by humans for colouring. They found distinctive carnivore and raptor tooth marks, such as those made by bears, on most of the bones. For thousands of years, Sandia Cave was home to denning carnivores, who accumulated the Ice Age animal bones there. Some humans did visit the cave, perhaps in search of yellow ochre, but Sandia was certainly not a hunting station, as Hibben once proposed. Nor are the Sandia points as early as Hibben claimed. A meticulous study of the cave’s stratigraphy by C. Vance Haynes and George Agogino has cast serious doubt on the association of points and extinct animals. So Sandia man, once a staple of the textbooks, has joined the rubbish heap of history, a victim of modern science and much more careful field observations.

The cruelty of conferences

Three large conferences in five weeks is cruelty to animals, but that is what I’ve endured in the name of workshops about writing archaeology for wider audiences and book promotion in recent weeks. And then, of course, there is the Society for American Archaeology meetings, this year in Vancouver, British Columbia, which are a vast, self-perpetuating juggernaut—about the only time when you will see most of your colleagues—and many folks from Europe and elsewhere—in one room, or at least in the same convention centre. Year after year, I attend, vowing as I fly out to give the next conference a miss, but I never do. The networking is simply too useful, but not much else, largely because the standards of conference presentations are simply appalling.

Many years ago, Glyn Daniel devoted an editorial in Antiquity to deploring the standard of lecturing at archaeological meetings. Nothing has improved since then. We constantly complain that the public, let alone even interested audiences, do not appreciate our work. I am not surprised after sitting through a dozen or so presentations. All but one were ghastly. They featured monotone deliveries, presenters reading from a prepared text, PowerPoint presentations where all the lecture notes were on screen, a notable lack of passion for the subject matter in many cases—almost always, I slept gently.

Ironically, the best paper I heard was given, not by a professional archaeologist or a graduate student, but by an undergraduate. She was organised, had first-rate pictures, used no notes, and brimmed over with enthusiasm for the subject. Above all, she knew her stuff and had the confidence to work the audience rather than burying her head in her notes. No wonder many undergraduates are bored by archaeology if we cannot do better in our own conferences.

I’ve no patience for people who say they cannot present without notes. Nonsense! It’s a matter of practice and enthusiasm for your own work—and of spending the time mastering your subject matter so thoroughly you can talk about it in your sleep. Alas, there are few legendary speakers in these days of computer-based talks. I would love to have heard Thomas Henry Huxley in his prime. He must have been really something!

Farewell for now: I have just been asked to write an article on Indiana Jones as an archaeologist for the Wall Street Journal. Now there’s an interesting challenge!


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 31. Click here to subscribe

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