Vandalism of an African archaeological site


Vandalised Rock Shelter
Vandalism, Lajuad. Photo (cc) Western Sahara Project.

Via the Megalithic Portal comes news of van­dal­ism of rock art. The cul­prits are sol­diers, but in a twist they’re not American. From the graf­fitti scrawled over the walls of the shel­ter they’re Russian, Croatian, Kenyan and Egyptian. Along with name and rank the per­pet­rat­ors also left tags say­ing which base they were oper­at­ing from.

I’m slightly frus­trated I can’t tell you why these rock shel­ters are import­ant. That’s because I know so little about this region. After read­ing the field reports for 2006 I can tell you that some of the art depicts anim­als that prob­ably haven’t been in the area for 5000 years, so this is pre­his­toric mater­ial. The arte­facts and art­work of these people are all we have. In my defence Nick Brooks, who found this graf­fitti, says that this really is an under­ex­plored area of the world. The finds from here could tell us about how the cli­mate changed and how people adap­ted to life in their new environment.

Sadly Nick Brooks also reports this isn’t the first time the UN Peacekeepers have dam­aged archae­olo­gical sites in the area. Nor is it a prob­lem with the sol­diers. Some of the graf­fitti quite clearly states the rank of the officers includ­ing a Major and a Captain. The dis­cip­line seems to be rot­ten a long way up the chain of com­mand. Islamic states in Africa tend to see them­selves in rela­tion to the expan­sion of Islam and so can see pre-Islamic remains as remains of an other. Given the polit­ics of the Western Sahara that would sug­gest that the actions of the UN Peacekeepers are com­ing awfully close to endors­ing the Moroccan government’s claims over those of the Polisaro Front.

You can read more at Nick Brooks’s blog Sand and Dust. There’s also a web page for the Western Sahara Project, more pho­tos of the dam­age done and news stor­ies at the BBC and the Times.

It’s also a pro­ject you can take part in. If you want to help sur­vey sites which are unknown the West you can volun­teer.

Heritage Lottery Fund Grants 1995–6 to 2006–7


Heritage Lottery Fund Grants 1996-7 to 2006-7 adjusted for Inflation to 2007-8 values

The fig­ures are adjus­ted for infla­tion to 2007–8 val­ues. There have only been four years when there’s been less than £350m equi­val­ent dis­trib­uted by the HLF, and the 1995–6 fig­ure is bal­anced by the peak the fol­low­ing year.

Finding out where the money’s going may be dif­fi­cult. Possibly even a task of Olympic pro­por­tions. Data source.

Nine Stones Close



I vis­ited Nine Stones Close on Harthill Moor this past week­end to exper­i­ment with my cam­era. I was sur­prised how suc­cess­ful some of the pho­tos were. Initially I used the Aperture Priority set­ting on the cam­era, because I wanted plenty of depth of field. The cam­era was designed by many clever boffins, so I assumed it could do a bet­ter job with the shut­ter speed and expos­ure than I could. I know Aydin had said to use the Manual set­ting, but bal­an­cing aper­ture and shut­ter speed is a com­plete mys­tery to me.

I obvi­ously haven’t grasped the basics of the digital revolu­tion. I switched to Manual later on to give it a go and took some awful over and under exposed photos.

DSCF0586.jpg DSCF0574.jpg

What I hadn’t really grasped is that if you set the aper­ture for the depth of field you want then, with a digital cam­era, you can home in on the right expos­ure by trial and error if you have to. Additionally I had the auto-bracket fea­ture on. This was tak­ing a photo slightly above and below the set­tings I was at, which increased my chances of get­ting a good photo.
Continue read­ing

Wiltshire and its 21st century SMR

Stonehenge, Facing the Midwinter Sunset

This is how Tom Goskar cas­u­ally tosses a cat amongst the pigeons…

If you’re inter­ested in the archae­ology of the county of Wiltshire, you can now access the Wiltshire Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) online, com­plete with a map interface.

The SMR is the archae­olo­gical record of a county and, as Tom points out, Wiltshire is the county with Stonehenge in it.

Adding the map inter­face is one of these things which sounds simple, but which hardly any­body offers. I can find my house on a map, but I couldn’t tell you the OS grid ref­er­ence, nor parse grid ref­er­ences from loc­a­tions in the record to work out where they lie in rela­tion to me. It doesn’t add any new inform­a­tion to the SMR but chan­ging the inter­face makes it a lot more access­ible. If the SMR data­bases over all UK counties were opened up then this kind of approach would be a massive help for any­one who’s inter­ested in their local archae­ology rather than their local admin­is­trat­ive district.

If you don’t know the names of local vil­lages or par­ishes, or OS ref­er­ences, but are inter­ested in Stonehenge and its sur­round­ings, then Wiltshire Council’s action is a import­ant as any major book the subject.

Unfortunately the map isn’t appear­ing for me. I don’t know if that’s my browser or the work on the council’s serv­ers caus­ing the prob­lem. Hopefully you’ll have bet­ter luck. As you can see on Tom’s page, it cer­tainly worked for him.

UFOs versus the Rainbow Serpents



Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOne of the advant­ages of trip­ping to other lib­rar­ies is that you get to browse journ­als you’d oth­er­wise miss. One example is the Journal of the Royal Institute for Anthropology, which I wouldn’t see at Leicester. That is a pity because I’m miss­ing some stuff like Close encoun­ters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal com­munity by Eirik Saethre.

The com­munity Saethre looked at is well qual­i­fied for the term ‘remote’. He was con­duct­ing research with the Warlpiri, an abori­ginal people who live around 300 miles or 500 kilo­metres north-west of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert. The com­munity he was in was cre­ated spe­cific­ally to provide work for Aboriginals far from Alice Springs. However there is little work there to do, which leads to high unem­ploy­ment and plenty of time for watch­ing tele­vi­sion like the X-Files. At night in this com­munity it’s not uncom­mon to see UFOs. Saethre reports that he and other kardiya, non-aboriginals, were warned not to drive on their own at night or else they were risk­ing alien abduction.

Saethre says he never saw any­thing he would regard as a UFO, but most of the people in the set­tle­ment were quite adam­ant about their exist­ence. The age range of people see­ing UFOs was from 12 to 51 and they were seen by men and women. Not only that, but only around half the claimed sight­ings were by sole wit­nesses. The UFOs were a loc­al­ised phe­nomenon. Saethre vis­ited other Warlpiri com­munit­ies, but if peoples in these set­tle­ments men­tioned UFOs, it was only in rela­tion to Saethre’s home. The UFOs were also said to be spe­cific in their tar­gets. Kardiya could be abduc­ted, but not Warlpiri people. The inhab­it­ants in the UFOs recog­nised that the abori­ginal peoples were where they belonged.

As for the people in the UFOs, the Warlpiri had some details. They were extra-terrestrial, trav­el­ling great dis­tances. The X-Files had more or less got it right (Saethre 2007:909). It would be nice to neatly solve the mys­tery by tying the arrival of one with the other, but Saethre couldn’t get an accur­ate sense of time for when the UFOs first appeared. Odder was that they didn’t seem to have much effect on the lives of Aborginals. They were cer­tainly scary to some wit­nesses, and most people would rather not see one but they didn’t seem to do a lot else. They didn’t bestow prestige or stigma. They didn’t steal or bestow wealth. The only way they really made much dif­fer­ence is that they were thought to take water from waterholes.

If all I told you about were the UFO encoun­ters in isol­a­tion, then this would all seem to be mundane bat­ti­ness. Immensely intel­li­gent and power­ful ali­ens travel the unima­gin­able dis­tances of the uni­verse –and when they choose to refuel with water the place they stop is the middle of the Australian Desert? As it hap­pens the Tanami desert has reg­u­lar floods, but even so there are bet­ter places on the planet to go for water. What makes the idea of water-powered UFOs remotely beliiev­able? This is the clever bit of the paper because Saethre inter­twines the UFOs with the local Aboriginal cosmology.

It’s not just UFOs which take water. The warna­yarra, the rain­bow ser­pents which the Aboriginals believe in, are also cap­able of tak­ing water down into the earth with them. You could argue that this too is batty, but this would be more obvi­ously miss­ing the point. The reason for the warna­yarra is to explain a vari­ety of nat­ural causes and effects. Their exist­ence in Australia isn’t explained by bio­logy, it’s explained by cul­ture. Looking more closely at the warna­yarra reveals some inter­est­ing sim­il­ar­it­ies with UFOs. Warnayarra can abduct Aboriginals, espe­cially Aboriginal people who are out­side their own ter­rit­ory. The warna­yarra recog­nise local peoples as belong­ing to the land, but a man out­side his ter­rit­ory can be in danger if he hasn’t been form­ally intro­duced to the local warna­yarra by someone who belongs.

Saethre is able to draw up a series of com­par­is­ons between rain­bow ser­pents and UFOs. In some ways they are thought of as quite sim­ilar. Neither is cursed for tak­ing resources, they’re accep­ted as a fact of life. They both are tied to ideas of belong­ing to the land. In other ways they’re mir­ror images. Saethre notes that warna­yarra take water down, while UFOs take it up. They are dan­ger­ous to dif­fer­ent tar­gets. They also seem to occupy dif­fer­ent con­cep­tual spaces. Despite oper­at­ing in the same land­scape, they don’t inter­act. UFOs seem to occupy an ambigu­ous social space. They’re con­sidered as part of the land­scape as other tra­di­tional Aboriginal beings but not fully integ­rated with abori­ginal cos­mo­logy. Nor are they a cos­mo­logy bolted-on to the cul­ture for assim­il­at­ing Kardiya into abori­ginal cos­mo­logy. Saethre observed abori­ginal peoples talk­ing about nat­ural events and attrib­ut­ing their actions to ali­ens as other abori­ginal peoples would to ancestor spirits.

Saethre’s con­clu­sions are that declar­ing nat­ive and west­ern beliefs as ‘incom­men­sur­able’ doesn’t work. Instead he argues that the UFO tales show that the local people are tak­ing west­ern con­cepts and re-casting them into abori­ginal cos­mo­logy. Rather than simply being wacky, Saethre states that indi­gen­ous UFO beliefs offer a way of observing the inter­ac­tion and accul­tur­a­tion which occurs between indi­gen­ous and non-indigenous peoples.

It’s an import­ant point to bear in mind. Archaeologists routinely use eth­no­graph­ies as the basis for ana­lo­gies to explain archae­olo­gical depos­its. It’s import­ant to remem­ber that peoples liv­ing now are not straight­for­ward prox­ies for those liv­ing in the past. One eas­ily recog­nised way is that hunter-gatherers today have been pushed out to harsher envir­on­ments as mod­ern soci­ety expands. In the Mesolithic and earlier hunter-gatherers would have had access to the most boun­ti­ful land­scapes. At the same time we can­not think of hunter-gatherers of any period as liv­ing in an inter­change­able time­less­ness. Saethre’s UFO study is a par­tic­u­larly effect­ive demon­stra­tion that indi­gen­ous peoples today live in the 21st cen­tury just like every­one else.

Peer Reviewed Saethre, E. (2007). Close encoun­ters: UFO beliefs in a remote Australian Aboriginal com­munity. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(4), 901–915. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467–9655.2007.00463.x

Should I knock on the page views by a couple of hundred thousand?


Coturnix has scooped me on this. I was writ­ing tomorrow’s blog entry. A story I’ve wrote about earlier here has been picked up by a reporter from BBC Radio 4’s PM pro­gramme. A short ver­sion went out yes­ter­day, but you can listen to a couple of exten­ded inter­views about the Portable Antiquities Scheme at A Blog Around the Clock.

I’m pleased. I think the inter­views are inter­est­ing and it’s so much easier if someone else does the hard work.

Robin Hood’s Stride


Robin Hood's Stride

“A third of a mile SSW the grit­stone crag of Robin Hood’s Stride rises jag­gedly with two stubby piles of boulders jut­ting up at either end of its flat top like the head and pricked-up ears of a wrinkled hip­po­pot­amus.“

Aubrey Burl. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Yale University Press. page 53.