Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Searching for the money tree — part six

We can learn a lot from Reynard
In the proselytizing that always follows the looting of any archaeological site or news about another repatriation, there is usually a statement telling people not to buy any coin or artifact that has no sales record prior to the event or to the 1970 UNESCO convention. Any collector knows that such information is very rare: for centuries, noting previous ownership was reserved for rather important pieces, or where a previous owner was so notable that such a pedigree added value to the item. I had often wondered if such advice came from ignorance of the facts or was just a con job perpetrated by those opposed to collecting. Either way, it did not speak well of its author.  No proper study collection can be built by using only specimens obeying this criterion. But that is their real point, the one they do not want to tell you.

Especially curious is the fact that most of this advice comes from processual archaeologists the term refers to those who bought into the New Archaeology of the seventies. Such people had an undying dedication to science, and science was going to tell us everything we needed to know about the past. This was the philosophy of modernism. For some, it was a very short honeymoon because in the eighties postmodern thought informed us that "all is text" and its "grand narratives" had as much to do with the viewpoint of the observer as it did with any objective fact. There was a certain amount of wriggling on the hook and explanations were offered that archaeology was really a "soft science" and nothing like chemistry, physics, and so on which stressed experiments or mathematical proofs.  My wife was always skeptical of archaeological interpretation, saying that it was like trying to solve a crime where all of the witnesses were long dead and the evidence had mostly vanished. You would think that the mere word "interpretation" applied to archaeological remains should have clued everyone in, after all, when something is interpreted, it is changed from its original form to something else. Where does this process take place? Inside a mind, or inside a device that simulates a mind.

Things became even stranger in quantum physics and we were told that if we set up our equipment to detect light energy as a wave, the experiment would confirm that, but if we set up our equipment to detect it as particles it would confirm that, too. We were not in Kansas anymore, and a basic law of logic was violated: something can be both A and not A. Thanks to the thought and work of the Romanian particle physicist, Basarab Nicolescu, who reasoned that our ideas about reality thus needed an overhaul, transdisciplinarity came to our attention, well some of us, anyway. It has yet to reach the oaken halls of archaeology in any form other than as a "trendy" alternative term for multidisciplinarity. It is not, however a synonym. The only two words in the English language that are true synonyms (according to a scholar whose name I have long forgotten) are "gorse" and "furze".

You would think that even an attempt at objectivity would be made by those who have worshipped at the altar of science, but all you see is "cult-speak". I have much experience in the investigation of modern religious cults and helping those who have escaped such. I have been interviewed by the press on the subject and had even participated in a televised face to face confrontation with a certain very wealthy cult. The local police had to cordon off the block where the studio was situated at the time of the broadcast in case of "repercussions". One of my friends was murdered on the orders of a cult we were investigating and for some time I slept with a loaded pistol by my bed. Some of my associates were FBI witnesses in one case against a cult.

Always follow the money. Ask yourself if the person who spreads such bad advice has something to gain by supporting nationalistic views of so-called cultural property restriction proponents and read Archaeology Under Dictatorship for a good view of that end of the spectrum. Most collectors and dealers feel that if an archaeologist supports a nation's efforts to retrieve property that was made by previous cultures that existed within its modern borders, then excavation permits will be easier to obtain in the future.

Tomorrow (as this is becoming rather long): why culture should be the property of all in the world personally and experientially and not by proxy in the hands of its self-appointed "custodians". The theoretical archaeologist Alison Wylie called the latter practice "foxes guarding the hen house. These particular foxes wear cowls.


  1. Talk about "hitting a nerve"! You might think about keeping that pistol handy :-) You have eloquently characterized "New Archaeology" and will surely be hated forever more. Welcome to the club. The truth hurts and some people suffer the pain and learn from it. Others simply bury it with more blather and self aggrandizement. Those are the ones you might call cultists. I can't wait for tomorrow's post.

  2. Thanks, Wayne. The language of the modern cultist does not change because it is comprised of many "in-house" memes that do not "escape" into the general population. The cultist becomes isolated, even often from his or her own family and friends. Archaeological writing is also predominantly "in house" and not only is full of such memes, but is very prone to academic fashions. Most of it gets little interest and even less understanding from the public it purports to serve.

    "The archaeologist as writer":


    is a fascinating paper by Jonathan T Thomas, who has a Ph.D in creative non-fiction and archaeology.He describes, very well, the typically bad archaeological writing and the fear that is shared by many of its authors to try and make the subject actually interesting for anyone outside of archaeology. Cults, usually discourage "non-cult friendships".

    My coyote hybrid, Tristan, will soon take care of any unwelcome visitors. He even stands at bay when I take out the garbage or the recycling.

    The new post is up, now. I hope you like it.