In the wonderous future of 2011

In 1911 the Ladies’ Home Journal published a number of predictions about how the world would be changed over the next 100 years. Apart from the obvious misses, there are a few surprising omissions. Airships are discussed, for example, but not heavier-than-air planes, even though the Wright Brothers had flown their Flyer eight years previously. Most of the electronics we take for granted obviously could not reasonably have been predicted, but the massive proliferation of recorded music probably could have been (the phonograph was patented in 1877).

There are, however, quite a few surprising hits. Central heating and air conditioning, long distance transmission of images in real time, and “forts on wheels” (i.e. tanks) making cavalry charges, to pick three notable examples.

Also interesting is the apparent complete lack of any concern given to preserving nature.

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Filed under Technology

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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Good news, kind of

The latest Russian Mars probe might have missed the red planet, but it did manage to hit the planet that is closest to Mars.


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WTF Denver?

According to a story in the Denver Post, the police there don’t seem to have a very good track record in making sure that a person arrested due to an outstanding warrant actually is the one they’re supposed to be looking for. It doesn’t appear that anybody even looks at the description on the warrant, or even whether the person is a man or a woman!

Once arrested, many of these people sit in jail, sometimes for weeks before the mistake is fixed. To make matters worse, the Sixth Amendment is clearly not in effect in Denver, since suspects are often held for over a week before even seeing a judge for the first time.

We do visit Colorado from time to time, since Catherine has family there. But I think it might be wise to avoid Denver on our next trip. (Fortunately Caboose Hobbies has a web store.)


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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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Filed under Archaeology

I’ll never be that rich

Even if I were to win the lottery every day for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure I’d never be willing to spend $42,000.00 for a pen. Seriously, in what way is this pen 280,000 times better than the pens I can get at Staples for 15 cents apiece? Especially considering how often my pens get beaten up or lost out in the field.

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Filed under Weirdness

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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Is the war on drugs racist?

John W. Whitehead argues in an opinion piece published today at the Rutherford Institute’s web site that it is. I don’t know if the numbers he cites are correct, but whether or not the accusation of racial inequality is valid, it’s hard to deny that the War on (some) Drugs has been an utter failure.

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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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Filed under Archaeology

XKCD takes on the Mayans

Here. Everybody wants to get into the act.

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