Friday, 10 January 2014

At the bottom of the sea -- part 3

Father Englert's Cowrie
Cypraea Englerti, Summers and Burgess, 1965
27mm,  collected on reef at 40 feet at night
100 yards off Anakena, Easter Island
One of the last places you would expect to find a diver would be a desert in California. Yet this is the home of the diver and dealer who collected and sold me this shell.

Flying from California to Tahiti, He purchased or leased his supplies for the expedition and then took a boat to Easter Island -- one of the remotest places on earth. Diving on a reef one night, he found a population of Cypraea Englerti and took two specimens. The shell on the right is one of them. It cost me $40. Poking around a reef 40 feet below the surface at night is not the safest thing to do -- you might reach into a crevice and find not a mollusk but an annoyed moray eel. Your lights might attract other unwanted spectators too.

The beach at Anakena,  Easter Island
photo: TravelingOtter
Cypraea Englerti is a fairly rare species that was first recorded in 1965. It was named after Father Sebastian Englert, an important figure in the cultural history of Easter Island. You can see some other specimens here. If you want more information about the species, you can download The Marine Mollusks of Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) and Sala y Gomez by Harald A. Rehder (highly recommended).

Not all treasures take the form of pirate gold at the bottom of the sea, and while salvage companies that search for such treasure need their profits in order to survive it would be foolish to cite this as their raison d'être, as the story of my cowrie demonstrates. Even if the diver collected examples of each of the native species of mollusks, it would not have paid for the trip. Similarly, I do not know of any dealer in ancient coins or antiquities, either, whose motive is just profit. If you ask someone why they do something, they will usually give you the answer that they think you want. On the other hand, if you want a specific answer, you can engineer your question to get just that response -- one of the biggest problems for people who are looking for unbiased responses in survey questions, but a boon for the PR man and spin-doctor.

If you Google the definition of "culture", you get: "the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively." Other definitions of culture in this sense are quite similar. Yet those with nationalist leanings always use use "culture" with that spin -- Cultural property, for example. If you recognize that, then you will less likely get fooled. The more features that you use to define a perceived culture, the smaller that culture will get. The person who sold me my shell might even be a culture of one if we define his culture as California desert dwellers who dive for and sell seashells. You could take the legitimate culture of numismatists and break it down further into collectors of ancient, medieval or modern coins. These collectors might also be private collectors or curators of museum collections. A numismatist might not even collect at all -- coin dealers, for example. Some coin companies insist that their staff do not collect for conflict of interest reasons. Any culture, no matter how it is defined, shows evidence of both symbiosis and internecine strife. The latter is best manifested when the cultures share a greater number of similarities -- you might think the opposite would be the case, but ask yourself if you have witnessed more religious conflict between Christians and Buddhists (as an example of many) or between Christians of different sects. You could also take religious conflicts between Christians, Muslims, and Jews -- while different religions, they still share much. Jonathan Swift satirized this situation in Gulliver's Travels with his "big enders and little enders" who defined themselves by which end of their boiled egg they opened. However, even Swift could not imagine that they would each try to convince the entire world that their way is the only way.

As you define a culture ever more exactly, you end up with an individual. No two individuals have exactly the same interests in type or degree. It is the observation of this fact that gives me my interests in postmodernism, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.

Each division of a crudely defined culture can have its own customs, morals and ethics. There are three ways to take seashells from their environment: you can pick them up dead on the beach (pretty well useless for collectors and naturalists); bottom trawling; or diving. The culture of the latter mainly says that you should take only a  very limited number so as not to threaten the population, and if you turn over a rock to find one, you should then return the rock to its original position. Extremists might say that you should not dive for shells at all but even if the trawlers stop fishing for them, other trawlers do even worse damage to mollusk populations (and shipwrecks) by trawling for cod or pollock. We are likely losing species to trawling damage that we have yet to even record. The biggest human-induced danger to archaeological objects in the ground comes not from treasure hunters, but from construction and farming practices.

We all look for treasure -- whether it is gold, sea shells, wealth from business efforts, winnings from gambling, love, a happy eternity after we die, or scientific discovery and the recognition of our peers. How we manifest such urges depends on the complex nature of our cultural makeup. Big enders and little enders are best left in the eighteenth century. Swift saw that they were getting old even back then.

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