Is ‘religion’ one of the hard historical archaeological problems?

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Michael E. Smith lays down an inter­est­ing chal­lenge at Publishing Archaeology: What are the hard prob­lems in Archaeology? What ques­tions haven’t archae­olo­gists answered and aren’t likely to answer any time soon? A couple of ideas come to mind. I’ll start with the easier prob­lem to express.

Is an ancient his­tory or archae­ology of reli­gion a sens­ible project?

I’ve got an interest in ancient sci­ence, but one of the things most people research­ing ancient sci­ence would agree that sci­ence in the ancient world didn’t really exist. There’s some­thing that’s a more sys­tem­atic inquiry about nature, but some­thing like nat­ural philo­sophy would be a bet­ter descrip­tion for the clas­sical world. I’m not sure that the same term would work for other soci­et­ies because philo­sophy car­ries a lot of bag­gage too. So when aca­dem­ics talk about ancient sci­ence, there’s this under­cur­rent that we’re not talk­ing about sci­ence. Ancient sci­ence is not the same as mod­ern science.

I’ve got an interest in ancient reli­gion too. I’m not so inter­ested in the con­tent as such, more reli­gion in a socio-political con­text. That’s some­thing you can say that makes sense to mod­ern people. If you said the same thing in the ancient world they’d think you were mad. It’d be a bit like say­ing you’re inter­ested in fish, but only the ones that live in water. In the ancient world it was accep­ted that reli­gion was entwined with civic life. There’s a second prob­lem that what we call reli­gion has developed from its ancient roots.
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Another Petition

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This time in sup­port of Simon Singh.

I thought quite a bit before put­ting this up. While I sup­port Simon Singh, I have doubts about Sense About Science. Sense About Science is loosely con­nec­ted with Spiked Online through Living Marxism, which seems to think Christopher Monckton is a cred­ible speaker on cli­mate change. The cli­mate change debate is one of the major sources of pseudos­cientific non­sense on the web, so it’s dis­ap­point­ing that Sense About Science has so little on the topic. In the end I signed because Jack of Kent is ask­ing for sig­na­tures. It was a big help that George Monbiot and Nick Cohen, who are aware of the his­tory of the group, signed. Even now I’m not com­fort­able with the title of the let­ter, which implies sci­ent­ists might some­how be exempt from laws that apply to every­one else.

This is another reason why I’m wary of sign­ing any­thing that gets passed along by a group. If you want to sign with hon­esty you need to look into exactly what you’re sign­ing. Often there simply isn’t time to do that.

Neanderthal Ethics

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Here’s an oddity I star­ted think­ing about fol­low­ing a tweet by Dr Kiki who poin­ted to this art­icle Return of the Neanderthals: If we can resur­rect them through fossil DNA, should we?. The strange thing was my reac­tion to this. The answer seems obvi­ous. I thought I’d missed the boat on this when The Philosophers’ Magazine blog covered it. Again the author, Jean Kazez, missed the obvi­ous objec­tion, so I left it in a com­ment, and it was eas­ily dis­missed — or rather ignored. Seeing as two people see no prob­lem with what I see as an insur­mount­able prob­lem I have to be open to the idea I’m being dog­matic.
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The Seven Wonders of Human Intellect

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Duane Smith put up a post about what he called Intellectual Monuments which he thinks every­one should visit. By this he meant that there were some ideas so import­ant that people should make the effort to engage with them the same way they would with his­toric monu­ments. No so much by buy­ing a ticket to see Thermodynamics, but being able to ‘answer senior col­lege level ques­tions about them’. I’ve put that in quotes because, hav­ing not gone through the USA’s edu­ca­tional sys­tem, I’m not entirely sure what it means.

He has a good list, but Aydin Örstan also has a good cri­ti­cism in the com­ments, which is that you only have so much time on the planet. You can’t study them all. That’s a fair com­ment. You also can’t visit every his­toric monu­ment on the planet, but some are acknow­ledged as more import­ant than oth­ers. Taking the ana­logy to break­ing point we can do the same by ask­ing what the Seven Wonders of Human Intellect are.

Why seven?

Well first off there’s seven won­ders of the world. More import­antly it’s a good num­ber to argue with. It’s small enough that some pretty major achieve­ments will be left off the list. For instance I think the Michaelson-Morley exper­i­ment which dis­proved the exist­ence of the aether is a bril­liant piece of think­ing. Even so it doesn’t make my list. At the same time it’s not such a small fig­ure that the selec­tion becomes purely arbit­rary. Choosing one thing won’t neces­sar­ily make some­thing sim­ilar irrelevant.

Here’s my list. I’m sure I’ll over­look some of your favour­ites too. You can cor­rect me in the com­ments, or on your own blog.

  1. Deep Time
    I’ll start with the dis­cov­ery of Deep Time, by which I mean pre-biblical time, because it’s the con­text which many of the other achieve­ments fit into. The Earth is the stage which every human has walked upon, yet in com­par­ison the time of our own spe­cies is so brief. When look­ing at time in the con­text of bil­lions of years humanity’s suc­cesses, which are built on a found­a­tion of just a few thou­sand years’ writ­ing, become all the more stunning.
  2. Natural Selection
    If the Earth is the stage, then nat­ural selec­tion provides the scenery. There is beauty in the idea that so much com­plex­ity could be derived from such a simple algorithim. The res­ults are astound­ing. I share around half my DNA with the cab­bages grow­ing in my garden. Not a reg­u­lar basis, that would be wor­ry­ing. What I mean is the DNA found in the nuceli of the plant cells shows that way back it and I shared a com­mon ancestor. It’s an extraordin­ary state­ment of the con­nec­tions between all life on the planet.
  3. Modern Atomic Theory
    The next mind-boggling sim­il­ar­ity is that the cab­bage and I, if you ground us down suf­fi­ciently into out atoms, would be made of very sim­ilar stuff. I don’t know exactly how many things there are on the planet, but if I were to haz­ard a guess I’d say more than 88. I picked the num­ber 88 because, when you ignore Technetium, Promethium, Astatine and Francium, there’s only 88 nat­ural ele­ments that hang around for long. Yet every animal, veget­able and min­eral is made from com­bin­a­tions of these 88 ele­ments. The cyc­li­city of the beha­viour of the ele­ments is even more odd. Why does Potassium act more like Sodium than Calcium. The peri­odic table explains how the build­ing blocks of real­ity fit together.
  4. Classical Mechanics
    Plenty of people know that Newton’s work on mech­an­ics is con­sidered to be pos­sibly the greatest sci­entific work of all time. Considerably less know that it was Galileo, rather than Einstein, who inven­ted relativ­ity. In the 16th and 17th cen­tur­ies, these two, along with other sci­ent­ists of the day put together the know­ledge of how things move, how they don’t and how they can fit together. When men landed on the moon they were, like Newton, stand­ing on the shoulders of giants. And the moon too — obviously.
  5. Geometry
    This is the first of two lan­guage choices. This one is a nod to poetry. Mathematics is a lan­guage but I’d fol­low Sundar Sarukkai in say­ing that it is a unique lan­guage. Sarukkai argues that math­em­at­ics is a lan­guage which refers to itself, yet this exer­cise in numer­ical naval-gazing has pro­duced things like π. Hard ‘n’ Phirm described π as an altar. If so this is prob­ably the only altar whose power is acknow­ledged around the world. Apart from a pos­sibly apo­cryphal American state.
  6. Music
    My other nod to lan­guage is Music. I wondered which sort of music, but that kind of misses the point. Music seems to be another uni­ver­sal which may even exist out­side humans. Steve Mithen has argued that singing was the pre­cursor to lan­guage. Looking at the calls of gib­bons, who sing duets or even whale and bird song, there may be some­thing in this. At the same time I would give a nod in par­tic­u­lar to the music of 19th and 20th cen­tury America. From the Blues, to Ragtime, to Jazz bey­ond even to Hip-Hop it’s an art-form which has spread across the world.

And now I’m stuck. I’d like to add the Moon land­ings, which were some­thing I think must have been a dream of a lot of Humanity from the time human­ity first exis­ted. Still, look­ing at Duane’s list I’m also aware of so much else I’ve over­looked. Writing is a very strong con­tender, the abil­ity to pass inform­a­tion through time to future gen­er­a­tions is incred­ible, but it needs some­thing more. Hence:

  • Settlement
    Sometime around the end of the last Ice Age some­thing unpre­ced­en­ted happened. Remains dat­ing from this period have been found which are noth­ing like any­thing that exis­ted before. The first set­tle­ments formed. Humans are unbe­liev­ably social creatures. It’s espe­cially hard to believe if you’ve ever been stuck in a cheap hotel in Benidorm with some of them. Nonetheless humans live together in their mil­lions. It’s the kind of com­plex­ity that you only see in other creatures like ants or ter­mites, yet at the same time a human set­tle­ment is unmis­tak­ably dif­fer­ent. It star­ted with the stage and scenery. The devel­op­ment of set­tle­ment provided the act­ors, the stage­hands, the tech­ni­cians and even pos­sibly the play (that last is a bold claim and I’ll try and jus­tify it in a future blog post). It allowed for the cre­ation of all the monu­ments above. One of the most stun­ning achieve­ments of human intel­lect is that they have found a way of liv­ing together.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong and add your own list below, bet­ter still write it up on your own blog and leave a link to it here.

Reburial Redux

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Following Yvonne’s com­ment, I’ve uploaded the two pod­casts I recor­ded on Pagan reburial in the UK to Box​.net. You should be able to access them at:
http://​www​.box​.net/​s​h​a​r​e​d​/​z​5​k​2​b​v​7​ao9
http://​www​.box​.net/​s​h​a​r​e​d​/​s​a​1​o​j​v​z​mnl

The reburial of remains issue is live again and it’s inter­est­ing for a couple of reas­ons. One is the eth­ics of study­ing and stor­ing human remains and the claims a reli­gious com­munity can make on the rest of soci­ety. This makes good head­lines. The other requires a bit more thought. Do the concept of the Pagan (or Christian or Muslim) com­munity make sense?

The cur­rent reburial flap is centred around a fringe Pagan group. From the pod­casts you’ll see it’s not a main­stream Pagan pos­i­tion. Yet really what the pub­lic and the news media want from Pagans is simple and daffy ste­reo­type. White robes, long beards, made-up names and lin­eages. We’ll skip point­ing fin­gers at the dresses prom­in­ent Christians wear. The point is what makes a good story are people who play up to the ste­reo­type. Enter CoBDO®.

CoBDO® is/are the the Council(s) of British Druid Orders. Back in the day when they were CoBDO® they were, if I under­stand cor­rectly a minor­ity group amongst Pagans. Since then CoBDO® have split from CoBDO West fol­low­ing a fight in a pub. I don’t know if CoBDO West is a registered trade­mark or not if they leg­ally a CoBDO or not. Hence the vague­ness over whether CoBDO is sin­gu­lar or plural. Anyway it’s all a big fight and the Judean People’s Front is hop­ing to stick it to the People’s Front of Judea by grabbing bones from a museum in Avebury for burial. Even if English Heritage do say the bones can be rebur­ied, there’ll be a big fight to be had over whether it should be a CoBDO® or CoBDO West cere­mony which is performed.

This is all a con­cern to the major­ity of Pagans who don’t feel the need to get involved in a big shout­ing match to make a point. By play­ing to the worst ste­reo­types of the media a small group of people is get­ting to define what it means to be Pagan. That’s why I found the two inter­views with Yvonne Aburrow and Emma Restall-Orr inter­est­ing. You have two people from two dif­fer­ent Pagan pos­i­tions both with cri­ti­cisms of this cam­paign. It’s a micro­cosm of a pos­i­tion taken by the media for all reli­gions. Journalists and politi­cians are quite happy to talk with lead­ers of the Muslim com­munity or the Jewish com­munity, but is there a com­munity and who gets to speak for all? Does acced­ing to reli­gious requests mean that the gov­ern­ment will be endors­ing one form of a reli­gion over another?

As for the con­tent of the argu­ment that the bones should be rebur­ied, that’s an argu­ment for tomorrow.

Is it only involuntary euthanasia which is acceptable?

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2008 was a lousy year. 2009 con­tin­ues in the same way. I haven’t put any­thing about what happened in 2008 online yet. I’d skip the cur­rent prob­lems too were it not for an art­icle in the Times Higher Education this week recently: “It is mon­strously wrong that patients can­not ask for euthanasia”. I’m tack­ling a prob­lem. It’s not the one below, but it’s close.


I am in prin­ciple in favour of vol­un­tary euthanasia. I know a lot of people aren’t and believe their beliefs should be imposed on other people. It seems par­tic­u­larly cruel form of bigotry to impose those beliefs on a dying per­son who may not have the strength to fight back. But there are good reas­ons to be wary of leg­al­ising euthanasia.

The most com­pel­ling reason I know is the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ciple. There is a con­cern that if euthanasia is leg­al­ised then people will be pres­sured to take it as a way it against their wishes. While I think I should have the right to end my life at my choos­ing, I cer­tainly don’t think I should have that right if it means that other people lose theirs. The claim is that if you ban vol­un­tary euthanasia then invol­un­tary euthanasia will not happen.

Events in recent weeks lead me to believe this is a flawed argument.

As a thought exper­i­ment con­sider patient X. X’s mind has det­ri­or­ated to the state that he no longer knows where or when he is. They don’t know why he is where he is. Additionally he doesn’t want to remain where he is. He wants to go home, which is 30 miles and 60 years away. Frustration at being kept from home has made him grow prone to viol­ence. This makes him a danger to other people as well as him­self, so when he takes gets agit­ated he is sed­ated. These days he usu­ally gets agit­ated wak­ing up in what remains a strange place full of people who, he believes, are inject­ing him with some­thing to keep him there.

The ques­tion is: If the hos­pital con­tin­ues to sed­ate X until his heart stops in the interests of keep­ing him com­fort­able, is this a form of invol­un­tary euthanasia?

I think this is partly a mat­ter of your own iden­tity. If you see your­self purely as a being of flesh and blood, then clearly it’s noth­ing like euthanasia. The hospital’s actions are more likely to be pro­long­ing the life of the patient. I don’t know any­one who takes that kind of view though. We store our iden­tit­ies in more than our meat.

If you take the view that you are your mind the situation’s more com­plex. If X were in a per­sist­ant veget­at­ive state then the ques­tion doesn’t mat­ter because mind has gone. But in the para­graph above the mind, in a form, is there. If mind is a func­tion of the body, then does pro­long­ing the life of the body really pro­long the life of the mind? Possibly in a calendrical sense, but in this case it seems the life of the body is being pro­longed by remov­ing the mind. It is the capa­city for inde­pend­ent action which is seen as the prob­lem. That’s the stick­ing point because if we are remov­ing inde­pend­ent action then what exactly are we preserving?

On the Times Higher Education art­icle Carlos Martinez-Thiem argues that Soran Reader should wait for a ‘nat­ural death’. I hope he hasn’t fully con­sidered what a ‘nat­ural death’ is likely to be for someone who has lost most of their cog­nit­ive abil­ity. At best it would be wan­der­ing out and dying of expos­ure. It could be walk­ing into traffic, and injur­ing oth­ers. It doesn’t seem a very human response. So instead we cor­ral patients against their will and if neces­sary sed­ate them. Possibly until what passes for their con­scious life is one con­tinu­ous round of sed­a­tion. I can under­stand why it’s neces­sary, you can’t leave someone to harm oth­ers, but it’s hardly a good solu­tion. I think what he means is that it would not be his wish to be removed from life sup­port. I can respect that, but I don’t his his own desires for him­self are suf­fi­cient jus­ti­fic­a­tion to impose his will on other.


I don’t want to say too much about what is hap­pen­ing at the moment. There are good days and bad days and it’s cer­tainly not as clear cut as the prob­lem above. As always with real life there are com­plic­a­tions. Sometimes a thought exper­i­ment can help to pin­point what mat­ters. Another tan­gen­tially related link is How do you meas­ure qual­ity of life? at Comment is Free.

Whitley on Post-Positivism

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I’ve finally got my hands on ‘Prehistory and Post-Positivist Science: A Prolegomenon to Cognitive Archaeology’ by David Whitely this week, and I wish I read it much sooner. It would have been fun on my MPhil course where much of the debate seemed to be about the great divide between Processual and Post-Processual archae­olo­gies. I found that unsat­is­fy­ing because the approaches I was inter­ested in were those which were cross­ing between sci­entific and his­tor­ical approaches. It seems I wasn’t the only one and David Whitley had been there earlier and writ­ten about it.

Whitley’s paper is inter­est­ing because he hits the gap between the empir­i­cists and relat­iv­ists in the centre. In doing so he argues that cog­nit­ive archae­ology need not be sub­ject­ive and relat­iv­ist, that you can study it sci­en­tific­ally. Equally he shows that the abstract struc­tures which pro­ces­su­al­ists study, such as eco­nomic sys­tems, are no more real that the ideas which cog­nit­ive archae­olo­gists seek to study.

The examples he uses are stud­ies of rock art. A lot of the mater­ial is African rock art which is a weak spot for me. He shows that ana­lo­gical reas­on­ing can be used to inter­pret Iron Age rock art, des­pite the fact that the people who cre­ated it were dead. This should be no great shakes to pro­ces­su­al­ists or post-processualists who are happy using eth­no­graph­ies for ana­lo­gies. From this he moves to Palaeolithic European Rock Art, which is another weak spot for me, but per­haps frac­tion­ally less so. Here he cites work by Lewis-Williams and Dowson who show that there are cross-cultural sim­il­ar­it­ies between peoples under the effect of hal­lu­cin­at­ory drugs, and then go on to argue that the bio­lo­gical sim­il­ar­ity of humans means that the same ana­logy can be applied back into the Palaeolithic. It means that a gap of 30,000 years of time doesn’t have to be pure guess­work. It’s bridged by eth­no­graphy and neuro­psy­cho­logy which lead to the same conclusion.

This jus­ti­fies a pro­voc­at­ive state­ment he makes, which is highly import­ant in his other case study. After cit­ing someone who is cau­tious of inter­pret­ing a rock art site because the site is a couple of cen­tur­ies older than the his­tor­ical record he notes:

My con­ten­tion here is with the logic by which it is assumed that, since 200 years have passed, change has neces­sar­ily occurred, as if time itself was the cause of change. This, in other words, is a gradu­al­ist doc­trine which mis­takenly con­fuses the fact that because change occurs over time, time is some­how caus­ally implic­ated in change.

He gives a couple of example cita­tions I’ll need to fol­low up, because while he is lit­er­ally right I’m not sure if it matters.

I would argue change is inev­it­able through errors in rep­lic­a­tion of cul­ture. This may be in edu­ca­tion of the next gen­er­a­tion, or it may be a case of mis-remembering and so acci­dent­ally innov­at­ing. Add in the fact that people are react­ing to a dynamic social envir­on­ment any­way, and in react­ing chan­ging that same envir­on­ment for other people, and change with time seems extremely dif­fi­cult to avoid. I’m not sure if that neg­ates his point or not. He argues that the pro­cess of change needs to be jus­ti­fied and in the light of evid­ence show­ing that things such as ritual are extremely res­ist­ant to change, change can­not be assumed and a mech­an­ism has to be shown, By show­ing a mech­an­ism I don’t prove him wrong as such, but from my point of view stasis is the anom­aly which needs to be explained.

His other example does this admir­ably. It’s his own work on the Coso Range in California and shows what a huge prob­lem lack of change is. Settlement in the Coso Range appears to have sta­bil­ised between 3,000 to 2,000 BC, and noth­ing much changed until the his­tor­ical period. Settlement pat­terns remained the same des­pite changes in envir­on­mental con­di­tions, and the changes observed in other peoples in the west­ern Great Basin. He uses the rock art of the region, which is anom­al­ous as the key to under­stand­ing the soci­ety. Because he rules out change as a neces­sity, he can use eth­no­graphic inter­pret­a­tions of the rock art to build his model of soci­ety. For Whitley hunt­ing in this region is closely related to sham­an­ism, and prowess in sham­an­ism was used to account for suc­cess in hunt­ing and then in soci­ety. The sham­an­istic power struc­ture was there­fore self-reinforcing. It’s an inter­est­ing idea because his eth­no­graph­ies are not merely applied to the rock art he’s been study­ing but also the soci­ety as a whole. The rock art is a trace of the world­view of the Coso peoples who observed their cos­mos through the fil­ter of their sham­an­istic beliefs. The mech­an­ics of the world were bur­ied beneath these beliefs and so it is only through cog­ni­tion that the sta­bil­ity of the soci­ety can be explained.

I don’t dis­agree with this inter­pret­a­tion, I’m not sure to what extent it is post-positivist, rely­ing as heav­ily as it does on eth­no­graphic inter­pret­a­tion. Instead I’d argue his two examples com­pli­ment each other to show that cog­nit­ive archae­ology can draw on sci­entific and his­tor­ical meth­ods and need not be hos­tile to either.

It is heavy going. His paper ‘Issues in Archaeoastronomy and Rock Art’ in the recent Oxford pro­ceed­ings is much more access­ible, but not as in depth. Putting the two together it’s clear his view of post-positivism isn’t just a con­jec­ture he’s pulled from the air, but groun­ded in obser­va­tion of archae­olo­gists and cur­rent (or at least 20 year old) philo­soph­ical debate. I’ve got his new book on the archae­ology of reli­gion on order, so I’ll be really inter­ested to see what that is like.

Photo Hand Prints (cc) Xipe Totec39.