(From an archaeological perspective) is vandalism of ancient sites a bad thing?


The first of the post­ings to Revise and Dissent. Commenting is closed here, but you can com­ment on this post at HNN.

If you’re des­per­ate to hear the answer and can’t bear sus­pense I’ll drop a hint: I’m hardly going to get any dis­sent if I say yes am I?

Rollright Stones - Kings Men Stone Circle
The Kings Men Stone Circle – Rollright Stones – Oxfordshire

On the way back from Oxford today I stopped by the Rollright Stones to get some pho­tos. There are plenty of good pho­tos on the net. Flickr has a few, as does the Megalithic Portal. The prob­lem with these pho­tos is that they emphas­ise the stones, which nor­mally is one of the major attrac­tions of a stone circle. The Rollright Stones are a par­tic­u­larly good place for this because unlike some­where like Stonehenge you can get among the stones. Unlike Avebury the circle tends to be rel­at­ively empty too. The war­dens are friendly people and the lack of facilties means that it tends to be quiet. It’s a very nice place. Sometime in the early hours of April Fool’s Day 2004, or pos­sibly late the pre­vi­ous even­ing, someone daubed the stones ran­domly but fairly com­pre­hens­ively with yel­low paint. Over two years later the paint still defaces the stones as you can see from the pho­tos below. Is it a prob­lem?
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A small squeak of annoyance


Vecchi strumenti
Vecchi stru­menti. Photo by –Zelig–.

Recently I’ve been work­ing on a solu­tion to a prob­lem on cal­en­dars in South Italy and Sicily. A few cit­ies have cal­en­dars which start in the autumn. The assump­tion is that this is con­nec­ted to the autum­nal equi­nox, but I’m not so cer­tain. The autum­nal equi­nox makes great sense if you have geo­met­rical astornomy, but these cal­en­dars pre-date the accur­ate astro­nomy of later Greece. I think it could be tied to other obser­va­tions. There’s a prob­lem in prov­ing this though. I need to cor­rob­or­ate some of my assump­tions with inde­pend­ent evid­ence. Working with Greek cit­ies this should be easy, but the Greek cit­ies in Sicily don’t have that good a his­tor­ical record. However, there is also the pos­sib­il­ity of look­ing at pot­tery and I’ve found a couple of vases which fit nicely. Unfortunately they’re Apulian vases.

This should be good news. Apulia is the heel of Italy, so these vases come from exactly the right place. Yet there’s very little archae­olo­gical record of these vases. Up to ninety per cent of Apulian vases were first known when they were put up for auc­tion. It is pos­sible that they were all stored in grand­moth­ers’ attics dur­ing the Second World War. Indeed there are so many vases that it would sug­gest that the attic is the safest place to hide if you’re in a war zone. An altern­at­ive explan­a­tion is that a trade which is happy to buy arte­facts with no proven­ance and no ques­tions asked helps drive a demand for Apulian vases. What is more likely capa­cious attics or illi­cit smug­gling? Who knows?

If I can­not proven­ance the vases then their use is lim­ited. I’m try­ing to tie the obser­va­tions to spe­cific sites and ‘South Italy’ simply isn’t good enough.

It’s the cultural high point of the year


Above is Daz Sampson’s Teenage Life, the UK entry for Eurovision 2006. It could be a clas­sic this year. Finland have sent Lordi, Germany have sent their best entry since Stefan Raab (inventor of wok racing) with Texas Lightning. Iceland’s entry Congratulations by Silvia Night included a line which may, or may not be, “The vote is in, I’ll f*****g win”. Sadly it didn’t get past the semi-final being as it was beaten by Armenia and 22 other coun­tries. It didn’t work for Cliff Richard either — he came second when he sang Congratulations.

I’m wary of mak­ing pre­dic­tions because vot­ing in the Eurovision is so vari­able. I’ll stick my neck out and say that Cyprus might give Greece 12 points this year. There’s some­thing about the Greek entry with year that might go down well with the Cypriote public.

It’s usual when the British entry does badly to blame block vot­ing by small coun­tries. There’s also broader polit­ical influ­ence as well. Jemini lost out in 2003, scor­ing zero in the after­math of the Iraq inva­sion, which I thought was unfair. When you listen to the per­form­ance impar­tially then really you can only come to the con­clu­sion that it’s a shame you can’t give out neg­at­ive points. They said the per­form­ance was off-key due to tech­nical glitches. Yet on some notes they weren’t merely off-key but off-crowbar too whilst try­ing to break into the Mansion of Melody.

There’s an inter­view with Daz Sampson on YouTube. I saw him on News24 as well yes­ter­day. I agree with him, one reason for some poor UK res­ults is that we’ve sent some ter­rible stuff. Recently the UK and some other coun­tries have sent aural wall­pa­per. If the fun entries do well this year then hope­fully there’ll be more to watch at Eurovision than the voting.

Is reality the second best option?


Puma over Visoko
A British Puma flies over Visoko. Photo by Torbein.

I wasn’t too sur­prised by some of the responses to the Bosnian Pyramid posts, though the quant­ity was high. One reason for not writ­ing more on it was the sheer num­ber of vis­it­ors. I’ve had to pay for increased band­width which I can’t really afford to do again. There were a few people that noted I was an idiot, which told me noth­ing I didn’t know already, but no flaws in my reas­on­ing. I assume that means that every­one accepts that the press releases com­ing out from Visoko are so non­sensical even an idiot can spot the errors. Therefore if you want to archae­olo­gic­ally exam­ine the hill to find out what happened there in the past then the dig is prob­ably a bad idea. There are lots of import­ant things on the site and Osmanagić doesn’t seem to be aware of the prob­lems he has record­ing it. Or else doesn’t care. But is the dig really about find­ing his­tory or cre­at­ing myth?

And if it’s not a pyr­amid, then we make one,” said a man from Visoko after we asked him what he thinks of the pyr­amid shaped hill.

Nearby, the man­ager of a food fact­ory was flog­ging “Bosnian Sun Pyramid” pralines. Hawkers sold hast­ily prin­ted T-shirts and brandy in pyramid-shaped bottles while crafts­men turned out pyr­amid souven­irs. Retiree Rasim Kilalic turned his week­end home near the dig into a café. “Please God, let them find a pyr­amid,” he said, rush­ing to serve crowded tables.

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Calçoene — the Brazilian Stonehenge?


CalcoeneA loose trans­la­tion of the news story at O Globo greatly assisted by Google because my Portuguese is awful.

Archaeologists have dis­covered in a remote region of Amapá what seems to be the biggest astro­nom­ical obser­vat­ory in pre-Columbian Brazil. The obser­vat­ory is formed by 127 gran­ite mega­liths, some up to 3 metres tall, dis­trib­uted at reg­u­lar inter­vals in a clear­ing 16km from Calçoene and 390km from Macapá.

The archae­olo­gists say that only a soci­ety with a com­plex cul­ture could have built the monu­ment. For them the find­ing chal­lenges the notion that no such soci­et­ies ever developed in Amazônia.
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Creating Myth


This is a slightly re-written ver­sion of a short piece I wrote else­where. I’m put­ting it up here because it tackles a timely prob­lem. What do you do when you want to attract tour­ist dol­lars, but keep los­ing out to that big archae­olo­gical site down the road? The cit­izens of Chucuito saw at the bus­loads of vis­it­ors going to Tiahuanaco and decided to build their own temple. The prob­lem is that Tiahuanaco is pretty impress­ive so any com­pet­i­tion would either have to be equally large, or else some­thing pretty noteworthy.

Inca? Temple
Chucuito Fertility Temple. Photo by Moonbird.

Welcome to the Inca Ullo temple of fertility.

A researcher invest­ig­at­ing Inca sites dis­covered that twelve years ago the people of Chucuito decided to build their own authen­tic ruins dat­ing from the 1500s. They then con­coted a legend that women would visit the temple to ask for fer­til­ity. Twenty four stone phal­luses later, they had one killer photo oppor­tun­ity and thou­sands of vis­it­ors. You can see more pho­tos at Jerry Peek’s site, or Rhymer​.net. You might be won­der­ing, “Is this safe for work?” but how unsafe could a temple devoted to penis wor­ship be?

The story made a small splash on the web, with brief notices from Ananova and The Commonwealth Times. The Sun had a big­ger story, com­plete with pic­ture. We can only be thank­ful the reporter didn’t know that the early 1500s in some parts of Peru is known as the Wanka period. The International Herald Tribune only seems to have picked up the story this spring.

The decep­tion raises some inter­est­ing ques­tions about con­sump­tion of the past. Is it a fake site? The answer might seem to be pretty obvi­ously yes, but what does it mean for a site to be fake? A lot of the myth sur­round­ing King Arthur is made up. Yet people would accept Glastonbury as a genu­ine Arthurian site but reject Milton Keynes as hav­ing any role in the myth. Surely a lot of Milton Keynes would be explained by an Arthurian curse on the land. The bound­ary between real and fake isn’t hard and fast when look­ing at mythic sites, as Cornelius Holtorf noted in an earlier ver­sion of this post. Does a myth accrue authen­ti­city with the passing of cen­tur­ies, or can myths be cre­ated today?

I sus­pect the rev­el­a­tion will only increase vis­itor num­bers because now it’s a ‘con­tro­ver­sial’ site. Indeed if Disney made a heart­warm­ing film of plucky vil­la­gers build­ing a fake temple to save the local orphan­age from clos­ing then it would become even more of a draw. Is this site, and her­it­age sites in gen­eral, selling know­ledge or exper­i­ence? One for Michael Shanks or Cornelius Holtorf I think. For a less post-modern approach to exper­i­ence there’s the Trireme Veterans for Truth.



Imitation, a meme?
Imitation, a meme? Photo (cc) Sean Dreilinger

Memes are a dif­fi­cult concept to tackle, par­tic­u­larly if you’re talk­ing to a mixed audi­ence. Talking to an audi­ence of sci­ent­ists you can explain the prob­lems with them, but if you’re talk­ing to someone from the human­it­ies then you have to start by explain­ing what a meme is. It’s not a concept that has made much head­way in the social sci­ences and I’m not sure if it will.

The meme star­ted as an example of a rep­lic­ator in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene. The inten­tion was to demon­strate that the prin­ciple of nat­ural selec­tion is inde­pend­ent of bio­logy. The Selfish Gene focuses on what is the unit of rep­lic­a­tion and Dawkins con­cludes it’s the gene. This is some­what dated in bio­logy these days, but many pop­u­lar books start from a simplistic ver­sion of this 30 year old model. The res­ult is the idea that a meme is a simple unit of cul­ture like the Amish virus.

You have just received the Amish virus.

Since we have no elec­tri­city or com­puters, you are on the honor sys­tem.
Please delete all of your files on your hard drive. Then for­ward this mes­sage to every­one in your address book.

We thank thee.

The Amish virus is also found as the Indian virus, the Irish virus and the virus of more or less any other people you want to make funny. That’s fairly obvi­ously a meme because it includes instruc­tions to rep­lic­ate it, though it’s the humour rather than the instruc­tions that causes replication.

Nothing kills a joke like an aca­demic explan­a­tion. You should hear my explan­a­tion of Police Academy* via Structuration.

It’s harder to identify memes in the wild, and no-one has a con­vin­cing defin­i­tion for them. Is a pot a meme or is the pot-making pro­cess the meme? Susan Blackmore has writ­ten a lot on this in The Meme Machine.

Kristine Steenbergh’s post on memes and The Meme Machine gives another good example of a dif­fi­culty with memes. Memes don’t address ques­tions that many his­tor­i­ans or other social sci­ent­ists ask. Her post reminded of a paper by Adam Kuper If memes are the answer, what is the ques­tion? in Darwinizing Culture. If I were to write a book on evol­u­tion based on what I’ve learned in school – or even from fairly recent pop­u­lar books – there’s a good chance I’ll be paint­ing a pic­ture in primary col­ours and skip­ping over issues that are import­ant. Similarly research in social sci­ences has moved on a bit since Desmond Morris’s Manwatching. It’s not that the memetic view of cul­ture is badly wrong, but it can be simplistic. There’s not an inher­ent hos­til­ity to memes, Kristine ends her post “If you know of any more attempts to ‘bridge the gap,’ or even works that provide a Foucauldian read­ing of the meme epi­steme, do drop a com­ment!” but I haven’t found one yet and I won­der how many people com­ing from nat­ural sci­ences would have the will to tackle Foucault.

Darwinizing Culture, edited by Robert Aunger, is the best meme book I’ve read because none of the papers are irre­voc­ably hos­tile or uncrit­ical to memes. Another of the papers in there which is help­ful is Boyd and Richerson’s Memes: Universal acid of bet­ter mousetrap? You can read an earlier ver­sion of it online as a PDF from Rob Boyd’s site. This provides an evol­u­tion­ary altern­at­ive to memes in look­ing at vari­ations in pop­u­la­tions. If Boyd and Richerson are right then you can have a Darwinian model without replicators.

Another use­ful book is Ben Cullen’s Contagious Ideas. It’s a posthum­ous col­lec­tion of his papers on Cultural Virus Theory. It’s not easy read­ing but the reason why I stick with it is that it’s derived from an archae­olo­gical per­spect­ive. Cultural Viruses sound so much like memes you can more or less assume they are. The dif­fer­ence is that Cultural Virus the­ory isn’t stuck on this idea of what the unit of rep­lic­a­tion is. Instead it asks How do ideas spread? This is a ques­tion that archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans do ask. Cullen took the time to place his ideas in the wider con­text of archae­olo­gical the­ory, so he took time to explain how it related to other ideas like pro­ces­su­al­ism (which I’ll describe briefly and inac­cur­ately as ‘sci­entific archae­ology’) and post-processualism (which I’ll describe briefly and per­haps more inac­cur­ately as ‘non-scientific archaeology’).

Cullen’s view was that ques­tions about the pro­cesses of human activ­ity were at one level and the realm of his the­ory, whether evol­u­tion of soci­ety was Darwinian or Lamarckian oper­ated at a higher level. This is the Holy Grail of Theoretical Archaeology because it neatly side-steps any cri­ti­cisms based in cur­rent schools of Theory. Cynicism aside, I think Cullen was right, evol­u­tion­ary ques­tions are dif­fer­ent from ques­tions about pro­cess or agency. Boyd and Richerson’s work tackles memes and cul­tural virus the­ory because it is expli­citly about evol­u­tion. I don’t know if Kristene Steenbergh’s request for a Foucauldian read­ing of memes is can be found, but this dif­fer­ence in approach sug­gests to me that it’s not impossible. It won’t be me who does it though as I really struggle to under­stand Foucault.

* The ori­ginal ver­sion. Police Academy 2 is an allegory of the Vietnam War.