Friday, 30 January 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part twelve: where's Waldo?

A lone figure at the Masada ruins
photo: Rachel Lyra Hospodar

"Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think, huh?" "Rick" (Humphrey Bogart), Casablanca.

With the material nature of archaeological remains, what is mostly absent is the person. Even if a grave is being excavated, the human remains are going to be mostly described as a body and not as an individual. The position of the body is usually going to be the position of any body of that time and culture. The chances are that there will be no inscription telling us the name of the buried person. If you are excavating such a site, ask yourself if there is anything about the remains that might be particular to the person buried there that is not typical of closely related sites; something that that speaks of something other than common burial customs. Always look for an individual.

If you do not follow this advice, the techniques of archaeology will lead you into a pattern of thought whereby objects will contextually relate to other objects. As you write up a report on a habitation site, you might notice that the type of pottery or any other objects found at the site in one level of the strata is different from that from another level. It might be tempting to say something like "the style (or fabric) of the pottery changes at this level." The problem with this sort of thinking is that you become used to the idea of things changing. Unless there is change because of the natural passage of time and environmental factors, things just do not change themselves. The style of pot does not change: someone decides to use a different sort of pot and this reminds us (hopefully) to ask why. If things just change, there can be no why apart from the natural passage of time on a material object.

By dealing only in objects, human volition is often not discussed and theories emerge about an archaeological site whereby things change. But passivity will be expressed in the style of writing up of these remains, and this should tell you that consciousness is missing from the remains. When consciousness is ignored, it is too easy to assign self-determination to objects without even thinking that objects cannot decide anything. If there is evidence of volition, it must come from something alive. I have read a number of archaeological reports where an artistic device is said to have been transmitted "through trade". Ask yourself if you ever started depicting anything differently just because of the way something appeared on an object that you purchased.

To the degree that you remove the individual from the interpretation, you remove consciousness, and when you ignore consciousness as a factor, what is unconscious will attempt to take over. This might manifest itself as an expression of a theory read in a book or heard at a lecture, but the actual source might not be realized consciously and will be replaced by a meme. A legend or myth containing some of the elements seen in the material remains could also bubble to the surface without being identified as such and will serve as an identification.

By consciously thinking of human volition in any observed changes, the question "why?" will enter the picture. You might ask yourself "What would I have done?". This might be useful, but if everything that you see is everything that you would have done in the same circumstances then you should ask yourself if you are just projecting yourself into the evidence. Always ask yourself if your cultural biases might be very different from the cultural biases you see evidenced. Then ask yourself, "If I held such views, how would I act that would be different from the way I normally act?"

Thoughts that are not conscious must be unconscious, but the unconscious can be reactionary or compensatory. In either case, no real analysis is taking place. Question everything. Find Waldo.


  1. A thought provoking and interesting read John. Thank you....

  2. Hi John:

    Ditto Dick Stout.

    Isn't archaeology a victim of it's own practitioners? Take one excavation, along with ten archaeologists, and likely as not there'll be ten different interpretations. There is evidence to suggest that some archaeologists work under the impression that by extinguishing another's candle, will make theirs brighter.


    John Howland

    1. Hi John,

      Actually, in the scenario you give, a number of the archaeologists would agree with each other by having the evidence support the latest fashionable theory (and then those would gang up on the archaeologists that did not agree with them).