Wednesday, 4 June 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 10 ― who's listening?

Armillaria solidipes
(formerly Armillaria ostoyae)
photo: Walter J. Pilsak

Its fruiting bodies, known as honey mushrooms,
were once thought to represent individual organisms
growing as clusters of mushrooms. It is now
understood that each surface manifestation in any
area is connected by rhizomorphs under the bark
and between the trees which support it and a
population is really a single individual, its various
mushroom manifestations in communication and
working in unison through these rhizomorphs. The
largest individual so far recorded is in Oregon. It is
about 9.6 sq. km in size and about 2,400 years old.
It is the largest known organism on earth.
If we take the definition of archaeology to be the study of the past through its material remains (which is about the only definition which works with all manifestations of archaeology from collecting to sample testing) we can imagine a network something like the Armillaria: archaeometallurgy, numismatics, semiotics, databases, excavations techniques, paleobotany, and a myriad other things are the mushrooms connected by the "archaeology rhizomorph".

As its various parts are in communication, whether observed or not, things that might impact one of them can also have an effect on the whole.

Archaeology is communicated only between people, and these people share genetic and cultural elements in varying degrees and over various distances in time and space and manifest these in clusters of closely related genetic types and with overlapping cultural frameworks.

Treating an organism as a self-contained unit of survival and ignoring its ecology always has disastrous results. If you reintroduce a species to an area where it once existed you cannot expect it to seamlessly integrate itself with an ecological system that had evolved partly in response to its original disappearance.

Further complicating matters, we do not understand all of these connections which make up this ecological system and, in many cases, these connections are not made apparent until some disaster manifests itself and only at that point, do we understand. Jellyfish can inhabit parts of the sea rendered useless for other organisms. Instead of looking into ways to reverse this situation, some fisherman thought that the best approach would be to kill all of the jelly fish that appeared  in their nets, after all, if you have too much of something then you just reduce its numbers. What they did not realize was that when you cut up a jellyfish and dump its remains back in the sea each part propagates more jellyfish. Everyone has heard about the threat to bees from nicotinoid pesticides. First, bees were exposed to these chemicals and when, after a few days, the bees were still alive, it was said that the pesticides were safe. Unfortunately, the real effects started much later than those few days. It was not an error, though, the purpose of the experiment was to design an experiment that would give people the idea that the pesticides were safe so that their profits could be increased. Now  we are starting to see other ripples in that pond and the perceived lines of communication, the rhizomorphs of that ecological system, are growing. As the situation deteriorates, more repercussions will manifest themselves like mushrooms springing up overnight.

The biggest danger to the future of archaeology is that it is not perceived as having its own ecological system. The archaeology "gene" is linked through the rhizomorphs of communication that we call people. These people exist in overlapping cultural frames: museum visitors, newspaper readers, field archaeologists, metallurgists, statisticians, coin collectors, theorists, teachers, metal detectorists, moviegoers, nationalists, dictators, schoolchildren, businessmen, politicians and more. Each cultural frame adds another viewpoint to the whole, but if one part grows to the exclusion of the others then it becomes a cancer that eventually could infect the entire body, or it acts as an immunosuppressant that kills the entire organism over time . As we cannot predict all of these effects, and these predictions depend on widening our view of the ecological system, then the mutual health of the entire body should be the main concern.

The Gaia hypothesis, itself, might be expanded into psychological communications. Its critics have used "special incidences" as their fuel, but this is really a manifestation of the problem, itself. For example, the genome is used, but epigenetics is ignored thus. Biology can be used to illustrate the workings of the multitude of cultural frames that are archaeology. The linking of different realities, which defies classical logic but has been demonstrated in quantum physics, especially with the wave/particle duality has brought forth transdisciplinarity. While I look at these these methods myself, within archaeology, I do not seem to have much company and the cancers are springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

The dead speak to us in a multitude of languages that are often only understood by a single cultural frame, to better understand these voices, no single cultural frame should be favored above any of the others. The transdisciplinary world is amorphic and not subject to hierarchies. Survival, in all of its manifestations is dependent on this realization.

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