Category Archives: Archaeology

Rant – Archaeology and the Bible

Historically, archaeology has been used both to defend and to attack the accuracy of the Bible. As an archaeologist, even though my specialty is technology in the American West, I see this a lot. In my view, both are misuses. The proper archaeological study of past cultures requires understanding the evidence on its own terms. It is not valid to use it as a means of “proof texting” either for or against any particular preexisting opinion. Using it that way almost necessarily involves cherry picking of evidence, and making decisions about how to weight archaeological findings based primarily on whether or not the support the desired outcome, which is not the way good science is done. It also commits one to a particular understanding of the archaeological evidence which may be undermined by future findings.

As a method of coming to understand past cultures, archaeology helps us determine how the biblical texts would have been understood by their original audience. It can also constrain modern interpretations, by ruling in or out certain readings, and can help us understand practices that are foreign or obscure to modern readers. But it is not the handmaid of apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic.

In the words of Old Testament scholar John H. Walton:

Archaeology is a discipline independent of biblical studies. Although archaeology in the Middle East has often served those in biblical studies, and at times in its history has been motivated and undertaken  by those whose interests were in biblical studies, it is not an arm of biblical studies. It is a scientific discipline that is driven by its own ends and means. This is why some today are uncomfortable with the label “biblical archaeology” – archaeology cannot be carried out with integrity if it is just targeting the Bible. As a science, it has a much larger task to fulfill as it focuses on recovering the material culture and successive lifestyles of the people of antiquity.

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An Oasis in the Persian Gulf

I’d heard about this article while ago, and I finally got around to tracking down and reading New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis by Jeffrey I. Rose, which appeared in issue 51 no. 6 (December 2010) of Current Anthropology. The article is about the possibility that humans in the past lived in what is now the floor of the Persian Gulf, which was exposed by the lower sea levels during the Late Pleistocene.

It has been known for quite a while that the entire gulf is shallow enough to have been dry land during the most recent glacial episode, between roughly 74,000 and 8,000 years ago. The Tigris, Euphrates, and several other rivers flowed through it; the tracks of their former beds can still be traced on the sea floor, along with the site of a large lake. In addition, there are locations today where local aquifers release fresh water into the gulf; when the sea level was lower, these would have been springs. The combination of rivers and fresh water springs would have made the gulf habitable even during extremely dry glacial periods, when much of the surrounding regions were unable to support a human population. The author proposes that this area could have been a refuge for human populations when the climate was too arid to make surrounding regions livable.

Unfortunately, while the author spend a significant amount of space discussing the possible implications of this refuge on Paleolithic populations moving out of Africa, he gives far less attention to the much more interesting (to me) question of how it might have impacted the development of sociopolitical complexity and sedentism during the Neolithic. This was, after all, the Cradle of Civilization, and the final filling of the gulf took place not too long before the first settlement of Eridu. It was an era of rapid (compared to what went before) technological change, which readers of this blog should know is a major interest of mine. Is there evidence of Neolithic sedentism beneath the waters of the gulf? What about cereal cultivation? Animal husbandry? Early experimentation with metallurgy? We could easily imagine that people living in a highly productive environment that is somewhat limited in size and surrounded by much less productive regions might experience population pressure and adopt agriculture as a form of intensification. Is that what actually happened, or was the trajectory quite different? Given the current political/military reality in the Middle East, we might have to wait a while before any answers can be sought. Still, the idea is intriguing, and well worth pursuing as soon as it can safely be done.

 

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Non-human Archaeology

Not, in this case, meaning the archaeology of extraterrestrial or other non-human societies, but archaeology by non-humans. Specifically, dolphins. According to the story here, a team of U.S. Navy dolphins being trained to locate mines found instead a Howell torpedo dating to 1889. The Howell was the first self-propelled torpedo used by the U.S. Navy – previously, the term “torpedo” had been applied to a wide variety of bombs and mines that were stationary, free-floating, or mounted on the end of long spars and used for ramming.

It’s an impressive find, but for now I’m still not too worried about being replaced by a dolphin. The sites I excavate are generally on land, plus the fact that I have hands does give me a bit of an advantage.

 

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In my old neighborhood

Well, close to my old neighborhood, anyway. The local paper reported on a fascinating excavation going on adjacent to the San Gabriel Mission. This is the kind of thing project that can almost make me wish I hadn’t left California; an early historic and ethnohistoric site that even has a connection with railroad history.

I also noticed in the video that the dirt is being screened under some kind of portable shade. There have been more than a few times when I would have loved to have had that! In fact, if somebody will invent a motorized shade that can follow me when I’m surveying, you’ll be my hero forever.

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Things that can not be explained

Surely everybody in the developed world has had some exposure to archaeology. From museums to elementary school science classes to Indiana Jones and Stargate, it seems impossible that anybody could grow up completely unaware of archaeology. So why does it seem that whenever I tell somebody that I’m an archaeologist there’s at least a 50/50 chance they’ll ask me about digging up dinosaurs?

 

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Legalizing looting in Alabama

I just saw this rather frightening proposal in Alabama to change the state law to allow treasure hunters to take artifacts from archaeological sites located underwater in rivers, streams, and lakes. This isn’t just a problem of taking the artifacts themselves, although they are a very finite resource, but of the loss of knowledge about the past. In many (I would even say most) cases, the vast majority of scientific and historical information that can be obtained from a site is derived not from individual artifacts, but from their context. Once removed from that context, any information not recorded at the time of collection is gone forever.

If any of my readers live in Alabama, please contact your State Senator and tell them not to allow treasure hunters to loot the past.

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CSS Hunley finally revealed

Conservators removed a steel truss from around the recovered Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley yestoday, granting the first unobstructed view anybody has had of the boat in almost 150 years. Story with photos here. The Hunley, you may recall, was the first submarine ever to make a successful attack on another vessel. It sank the USS Housatonic in 1864, but then itself sank almost immediately afterward. Underwater archaeologists managed to raise the wrecking of the Hunley in 2000 and it has been sitting in a tank of water in Charleston until today.

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Ancient warfare

Current Archaeology has a nice short article about the growing realization that there was a lot more warfare going on during the Neolithic than was once believed. A similar change in thinking has been going on in the Americas as well over the past decade or so, which I touched on in a previous post. Many older publications contain little or no mention of violence in the archaeological record, and I’m glad to see that a more balanced approach is gradually catching on.

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Mayas in Georgia?

Again with the Mayans! This time an architect* named Richard Thornton has provoked a bit of controversy lately with his claim that the Brasstown ruin in Georgia was built by Mayan refugees fleeing the collapse of their civilization. Part of what got the ball rolling on the internet seems to be the fact that Thornton referenced the work of archaeologist Mark Williams. Shortly thereafter, Williams himself posted a comment calling Thornton’s interpretation “complete and total bunk.”

Anybody who thinks this kind of denunciation would put the matter to rest obviously doesn’t have a lot of experience on the internet. Naturally, a great many people jumped in to support one side or the other. Not surprisingly, it appears that most of the archaeologists who have posted have agreed with Williams.

I will admit going in that I am not a specialist in either the Southeast or Mesoamerica. However, when I read Thornton’s article, and his further explanation of his methods, several things immediately stood out. First, the size of the Mayan group he posits is utterly beyond belief: he claims that the population of the Mayan kingdoms decreased by about 15 million people at the end of the Classic Period, and although he doesn’t quite say that they all went to Georgia, he clearly imagines that a large fraction of them did. It is simply not plausible that a population movement of that size could have occurred that recently without leaving a massive amount of evidence. And not just at one site in Georgia, but all along their route of travel.

Second, I noticed that a great deal of Thornton’s argument is based on linguistic parallels between Muskogean languages on the one hand and Mayan/Totonac on the other. The fact that the latter two are grouped together is itself telling, as they are not in any way related. Thornton relies heavily on the work of the People of One Fire Team, who compared vocabularies of various southeastern and mesoamerican languages and found a number of common words. Without having to go any further I can already say that this method, at least, is bunk. (Although it remains widely popular with cranks.) Matching up a few words here and there is simply not the way linguistic relationships are established. Not that such minutia should even be necessary: had millions of Mayans settled in the United States, their descendants at the time of European contact would certainly have been speaking a Mayan language, not a Muskogean one. Again, the evidence would have been blindingly obvious long before now.

I also have to say that it’s very convenient that only the illiterate farmers went on this migration, leaving behind all the people who could have left behind glyphs to describe their incredible exodus.

And finally, since part of Thornton’s argument is based on the claim that the name “Brasstown” was a mistranslation of a Cherokee name meaning “Place of the Itza,” I present an alternate explanation for the name.

 

* Some reports on this story have called Thornton a historian. However the Examiner, where he writes and where he published his theory about Mayans in Georgia, identifies him as an “architect and city planner with a very broad range of professional experiences.”

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XKCD takes on the Mayans

Here. Everybody wants to get into the act.

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