Thursday, 17 November 2011

Plenary Introduction: Climates of Change.

As part of this year's Chacmool Conference "Climates of Change" I was responsible for running the Plenary Session, in which a list of four invited speakers delivered a 45 minute talk on the topic of the conference, from the perspective of their own research. Here is a copy of my opening remarks for you to read and comment on. What do you think of the notion of "progress traps" as I outline here, and as I discussed in class on Wednesday. Is it a useful way of looking at "collapse" in the archaeological record?

This year’s Chacmool Conference Topic: Climates of Change, like many of our past conference themes, is an extremely timely one. In the year since we selected this topic, we have witnessed the Arab Spring, the Economic Crisis in the Euro-Zone, and the election of a majority Conservative Government in our own country.

Over the past year, our University has also produced some cutting edge research into the effects of climate change. One such article, published in Nature Geoscience this past January, proposed the following “what if” scenario.

“What if” we completely stopped using fossil fuels and put no more C02 into the atmosphere? How long would it take to reverse current climate change trends? …..and will things get worse before the get better? Dr. Shawn Marshall and his colleagues ran simulations of these zero emission scenarios and determined that current-warming trends will likely continue, rather than reverse, over the next 1000 years.

We might also ask another “what if” scenario. What if Calgary, Toronto, or New York had to go several months without electricity? One hundred and years ago, this would have been achievable without much suffering, primarily due to the fact that fallbacks were still available – things like hurricane lamps, wood stoves, hand operated well pumps, and so on. However, as we became more and more confident in electricity as a source of power, such fallbacks fell by the wayside. We can no longer revert to these earlier patterns of living because we no longer possess the means of doing so. This is called a “progress trap” and it was first used by a former allumi of the Department of Archaeology, Ronald Wright, in his book “A Short History of Progress”.

A “Progress Trap” is when human ingenuity, which begins as a boon to human kind, creates unforeseen problems of a larger scale– especially when carried to excess, or when conditions change. Unlike catastrophic disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes, this is a kind of slow, creeping disaster than human societies often find difficult to detect. Because of this, the political will to address issues that play themselves out over long periods of time (climate change), is often non-existent. I believe this is due to two things: 1) the pathologically short attention span of present day civilizations, and 2) fear that decisive action might lead to decreases in status and lifestyle.

I bring up Wright’s concept of “progress traps” because I think they neatly tie together the different “climates of change” that define this year’s conference topic – each continually acting back on the other.

As our plenary speakers today will demonstrate, archaeologists are uniquely situated to examine progress traps because they can detect the slower moving forms of negative change that often result from unchecked human progress. In this way, archaeology will no doubt make valuable contributions in solving issues that stem from various climates of change.

Being a product of our department, Wright speaks directly to this very point in his book, explaining:

Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations, which fell victim to their own success. In the fates of such societies — once mighty, complex, and brilliant — lie the most instructive lessons...they are fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Do MacGuffin's Drive Archaeology?

The term "MacGuffin" was first used by the famous film Director Alfred Hitchcock to refer to a particular type of plot devise often found in thrillers.  The MacGuffin is usually something everyone wants, desires, or searches for in a film. In order to obtain the MacGuffin, characters are usually willing to make sacrifices, place themselves in harms way, or do almost anything to get it. While the MacGuffin might be an actual "thing" such as the necklace in a crook film, or a briefcase filled with top secret papers in a spy film, it can also be undefined or left open to interpretation. Examples of these types of MacGuffins include money, victory, glory, survival, or a source of power. Some famous examples of MacGuffins in films include: the ark of the covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark; the plans for the Death Star (Star Wars); the one ring (Lord of the Rings) and Rosbud (Citizen Kane).

If, as people say, Life Imitates Art, then can the concept of a MacGuffin be applied to a discipline like archaeology? In other worlds, to what degree to you think the search for particular objects or things has influenced the development of archaeology as a discipline?

Take Heinrich Schliemann's search for the ancient city of Troy for example... To Schliemann, the search for historic sites mentioned in Homer's epic narrative works was a complete obsession. At the tender age of 8 he announced to his family that he would discover the location of Troy. To this end, he searched the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey for clues as to where the site might be located. Using simple hypotheses developed from his readings, he was able to systematically dismiss locations that had been suggested by others, and eventually deduced that the ancient city of Troy was actually Hisarlik - a location in Turkey that matched Homer's description perfectly. One might argue that the search for this particular MacGuffin influenced the use of deductive reasoning in archaeology - something that would become a hallmark of the processual period.

Can you think of any examples of other MacGuffins in archaeology?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Traditional Land Use in the Modern World

video
After a week's "vacation" from blogging, due to the demands of Thanksgiving, I wanted to write a piece about Traditional Knowledge and its place in archaeology - and indeed, in science in general. My purpose here is to help prepare myself for a Telus Science Cafe, which I have been asked to participate in. The Cafe is held the Ironwood Stage and Grill tomorrow, on October 25th. Four Inuit Elders are visiting Calgary for this event, at the invitation of the Telus World of Science. They are: Jamesie Mike, Simon Nattaq, Annie Nattaq and Meeka Mike. All belong to Tusaqtuut, an organization they established that is dedicated to preserving traditional Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or knowledge.

Archaeologists have been using traditional knowledge for as long as the discipline has existed. David Boyle, Canada's First professional archaeologist, visited Huron villages over 100 years ago, asking questions about the artifacts he was finding at Archaic and Woodland sites in southwestern Ontario. Sadly, in the intervening decades, many First Nations and Inuit communities were subjected to residential schools and government modernization programs which forever changed many aspects of their traditional lives. But, what impact does this have on the validity of traditional knowledge? Does decades of the pressures of assimilation mean that traditional knowledge has been lost? How much of this knowledge has been passed onto younger generations of indigenous people?

As archaeologists, traditional knowledge offers many potential insights into the past. When I began my own traditional knowledge project in the Arctic, I was amazed at the amount of information many Elders were providing. They recalled thousands of place names, stories, and events - all of which they could spatially reference on NTS Topo Maps. They also remember specific ways of doing things - such as hunting seals, preparing hide clothing, making kayaks, and so on. These do not appear to be half remembered random facts - rather they are hung on an elegant conceptual framework involving three basic principles - Life, Technology, and Environment. You can listen to Joe Karetak explain these principles in the accompanying video clip, which I will be posting later today.

Today, Inuit ride snow machines, hunt using GPS and high powered rifles, watch satellite television, and life in Euro-Canadian style houses. Yet my research has led me to conclude that this veneer of technological similarity with mainstream Euro-Canadian culture obscures the continuation of important cultural values and ways of doing things.

Many of the Elders I work with were born into a traditional life on the cusp of change. Their concern is that the knowledge they possess will not be passed on to their grandchildren. May Elders see this knowledge as providing moral guidance to young people who are confronted with many challenges in today's world. Therefore, rather than simply use Traditional Knowledge for the purposes of interpretation, archaeologists can make a positive impact in aboriginal communities by documenting this information for the next generation to access. In my case, this has led me to conceptualize Traditional Knowledge research as a form of social capital and community outreach, and not just as a source of analogies for interpreting archaeological data. I believe this is one of the ways that archaeology can positively impact on the socioeconomic and cultural lives of indigenous peoples.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Are You Being Trained Adequately in Archaeology?

Departments of Anthropology and Archaeology throughout the world are struggling to provide students with the right kind of training. This is often predicated on the kinds of careers available to newly minted archaeologists. Decades earlier, the standard career paths were museum curators, and university and college professors. More recently, careers in Cultural Resource Management have emerged, along with opportunities to work with First Nations and Inuit communities on archaeology and traditional land use projects. As heritage legislation kicks in due to development in provinces like Alberta, Government archaeologists are also needed to manage and protect cultural resources through permitting, etc. Parks Canada has also increased its focus on visitor experience, employing archaeologists to raise awareness of the cultural heritage resources present in the National Park System. But have university programs kept up with these changes, or do they continue to reflect the more traditional career paths from decades ago?

The subject of this week's blog, then is to ask you some basic questions about your training. Do you feel you are being trained in:

1. Stewardship?
2. Preservation of the archaeological record?
3. Advocacy for the archaeological record?
4. Promoting the understanding and support for preservation of heritage sites/resources?
5. Use of cultural resources for public benefit?

Do you think training in these areas would be useful to you, or would you rather see course focus more on technical skills such as lithic analysis, remote sensing, zooarchaeology, ancient DNA, etc? What kind of career path do you see yourself pursuing in archaeology? If you decide to embark upon another career, what benefit do you see your archaeology degree as having (if any)?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Glenbow Museum Sells First Nations Artifacts.

On Friday, September 30, 2011, Glenbow Museum curator Gerry Conaty appeared on the CBC Radio 1 program "As It Happens" to defend and explain concerns over a recent auction of First Nations artifacts. As with many museums around the world, the Glenbow is strapped for both space and cash. In order to curate its 'core' collection, selected artifacts are being auctions off. The proceeds for this will go back into the museum to help curate existing collections. As curation is extremely expensive, this is one of the ways that Glenbow can circumvent the effects of decades of funding cuts at the provincial and federal level.

However, several First Nations leaders have complained that they were not consulted by Glenbow officials. They also accuse the museum of selling sacred objects such as tobacco pipe bags and eagle feathers (the latter cannot be sold or even collected under provincial law). In response, Conaty has explained that the consultation guidelines put in place by the province of Alberta require only that that the museum contact other cultural institutions to notify them of the auction. He went on to explain that many of the objects are unprovenienced - meaning that they were acquired in the 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's from collectors who did not provide such vital information like cultural affiliation, name of craftsperson, etc.

Aboriginal leaders have countered by saying that stylistic attributes such as beadwork patterning and makers marks could be used to identify families associated with the objects. These stylistic attributes would be analagous to the tartans that identify Scottish clans. The Glenbow has response to these criticisms by stating that it will investigate the matter further, and consult more widely before the rest of the objects are put on the auction block.

Please listen to the interview here:

http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/episode/2011/09/30/friday-september-30-2011/

Go to Part Three of the audio feed. The interview with Dr. Conaty starts at 17.55 min.

I would be interested to hear your comments on this story. Did the Glenbow museum do all it could in contacting First Nations communities to notify them of the auction? Did it go far enough in its' attempts to find families associated with these objects? Should museums auction off their collections to make up for budget cuts to cultural institutions at the Federal and Provincial Levels?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Evolution's Captain - the Tragic Story of Captain James Fitzroy

Many of us are familiar with the story of Charles Darwin and his historic voyage on the HMS Beagle. Far fewer know the tale of Captain James Fitzroy - the Beagle's doomed captain. In many ways, Fitzroy was a man of the Enlightenment and the embodiment of the basic tenets we outlined last class. Here is an overview of his life, and role in Darwin's legacy. The following is my summary of the excellent book "Evolution's Captain" by Peter Nichols. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on Fitzroy and how much of science is often based on chance. In this case, Darwin would have never made his historic discoveries had it not been for Fitzroy - a man that would later condemn him for writing the Origin of Species.


The Story of Captain James Fitzroy, Captain of HMS Beagle, is a tragic one. It is intrinsically linked with that of Charles Darwin, the young naturalist who accompanied him as his companion on this five year voyage of discovery (27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836). The first captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes, had committed suicide several years earlier -after  succumbing to the loneliness of many years at sea. A young James Fitzroy later assumed command of the Beagle. While Fitzroy was a man of much stronger character, he sought a gentleman companion to make the time move more swiftly on the ship's next voyage - one that would be substantially longer than her first.

Charles Darwin almost didn’t get the position. After a mutual friend recommended Dawwin to Fitzroy, the latter remarked that the position had already been taken by a Mr. Chester. Darwin was upset, but the two met for dinner. At the time both were young. Fitzroy was 26 and Darwin only 22. They hit it off and Darwin was invited along for the voyage.

In addition to completing major cartographic survey work, the voyage had a second purpose. Years earlier, Fitzroy had embarked upon an experiment based upon his ideas of about the nature of primitive versus civilized man. He was very much a scientist, although more in the Victorian sense. His interest in natural history was aided by his use of systematic methods of observation - such tools of the Enlightenment as the theololite, chronometer, and alike. However, he also subscribed to the idea that all human societies were equally perfectible.

While on an earlier voyage in 1830, Fitzroy had “invited” three native Fuegians (members of the Yanama tribe) from their home in Tierra del Fuego to England. The three were given English names: Jemmy Button (a young man in his late teens); a 10 year old girl called Fuegia Basket, and a young adult in his mid 20’s called York Minister. Another young person was also brought to England. However, Boat Memory as she was called, died of smallox soon after arriving. Fitzroy attempted to transform his Fuegian guests into 'civilized' persons using the basic tenets of the enlightenment. They were dressed in English clothes, and mimicked English mannerisms - even fopish phrases! After York Minister began showing sexual interest in the young Fuegia Basket, Fitzroy decided that they should be returned home. One of the aims of this repatriation was spread the seeds of civilized behavior and English customs to their more “savage brethren”.

As the voyage progressed tensions emerged between Fitzroy and Darwin. Fitzroy was a student of phrenology, and firmly beleived that one’s character was apparent in the morphology of the face and skull. Initially, Darwin’s high forehead had make him distrustful of the man. However, most of their disagreements were minor ones - except for a particularly bad argument in which Darwin condemned Fitzroy’s support for slavery in Brazil.

It became immediately apparent to Darwin and Fitzroy that the three Fuegian’s had been transformed by their time in England to the point where they might not integrate into native Fuegian culture. Upon arriving in Tierra del Fuego, the three seemed embarrassed by their compatriots, in the same way that one might be embarrassed by one’s family. Darwin seemed especially concerned about the logic of leaving them behind, given the length of time they had been away from their native surroundings. Several years later, their fears would be realized. When they returned to the place where they had left their Fuegian refugees, they found  Jemmy Button  thin and destitute. Most of his possessions had been stolen by York Minister and Fuegia Basket, whom he had now taken for his wife. They had abandoned Jemmy and his family, departing in a large canoe. Fitzroy asked if he would like to return to England, but he refused. Jemmy Button was later implicated in the massacre of the captain and crew of a whaling ship.

The rest of the voyage resulted in Darwin’s gathering of all of the data he needed to eventually develop his theory of natural selection. Upon their return to England, the two men rarely say each other. They became immersed in writing their respective accounts of the voyage. It was at this point that the two men began moving in almost opposite directions. Darwin, stimulated by the ideas of Thomas Malthus and Charles Lyell, was beginning to question the validity of literal accounts of creation as written in the Old Testament. Fitzroy, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly more religious.

Fitzroy published his account of the voyage, which consisted of dry descriptions of weather patterns, sea conditions, and hydrographic readings. Darwin’s section, which was sold separately, was a description of the landscape, plants, and animals of the many exotic locations visited by the Beagle. It sold much, much better. The seeds of resentment were thus sewn.

With the eventual publishing of his book “The Origin of Species” the Victorian public was abuzz over the controversial nature of his theories of life on earth. Darwin sent Fitzroy a copy, thanking him and stating that without him, the book might never have been written. This horrified Fitzroy, who tersely wrote back that he felt it offensive that Darwin’s theory suggested that humans had not been made in the image of the creator - rather they had evolved from Apes!

Fizroy became increasingly melancholy and withdrawn in the years that followed. Indications are that there was a history of depression in his family. In one particularly sad account, Fizroy was travelling to Oxford to deliver a paper on weather patterns. He heard that there was to be a debate on The Origin of Species at Oxford while he was there. After giving his paper, he sat in on the presentations. In attendance were Thomas Huxley (Darwin's Bulldog), James Beaufort, and John Richardson (the eminent Arctic researcher and explorer). As per usual, the debate was lively and digressed into a shouting match. Fitzroy felt compelled to speak........

If you had been there that day, you would have witnessed a 55 year old man (who looked much older than his years) lifting a bible above his head, and shouting that he regretting the publication of the Origin of Species, and that he had cut ties with his old friend because his theories contradicted the book of Genesis. No one listened or even saw him. He left the lecture and returned home by train - a broken man full of regrets.

In his dressing room, on a Suday morning in April of 1865, the depression finally got the better of him. He slit his own throat with a straight razor.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Google's Lunar X Prize and Protecting Apollo Landing Sites

I was reading about Google's lunar X prize the other day. Abbreviated as GLXP or Moon 2.0, it is a special competition organized by the X prize foundation and sponsored by Google. A prize of US20 million dollars is awarded to a team that successfully launches and lands a small robotic rover on the surface of the moon. Once there, the prize requires that the rover travel a distance of 500 meters and then transmit high definition photos and other data back to earth. A second prize, called the Heritage Bonus Prize, will award successful teams an additional US4$million if they manage to image one of the landing sites associated with the Apollo program.

A small group of archaeologists has expressed concern over the bonus prize, claiming that any attempts to pilot a rover around an Apollo site might damage or destroy them. This position assumes that Apollo landing sites would be considered as highly significant cultural landmarks, even though they exist off-world. To their credit, Google has stated that they hope that any rover piloted around an Apollo site would take due care, but go on to explain that maintaining such standards is beyond their mandate. Furthermore, they cite Apollo 12, in which Commander Pete Conrad and Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean visited Surveyor 3 (an unmanned probe that had landed 3 years earlier) as setting a president for visiting lunar heritage sites. In fact, Conrad removed several pieces of Surveyor 3 (artifacts?!) which were taken back to earth to study.

There are many fascinating aspects to this story - that constitutes cultural heritage? what makes a heritage site significant? Should we protect off-world landmarks like the Apollo landing sites in the same way that we would protect Stone Henge, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, or the Maya site of Chichen Itza? Furthermore, if we protect Apollo landing sites, should we also protect sites on other planets where human built probes have landed?

For example, 13 probes have "landed" on the surface of Venus - all Soviet.
Venera 3 probe "crash" landed on Venus on March 1, 1966.
Venera 4 landed on October 18, 1967 but had no battery power left. Probably crashed.
Venera 5 & 6 both crashed due to the high atmospheric pressure of Venus's atmosphere.
Venera 7 "landed" but not as intended but still operated.
Venera 8,9,10 and 11 all landed and returned data back to Earth.
Venera 12,13,14 and 15 all landed and returned data back to Earth.

At least 9 probes have landed on Mars - Mars 2, Mars3, Mars6, Viking1, Viking2, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix.

Should the sites where these probes lie eventually be considered as heritage sites? If so, how would they be protected, and from what?

I would be interested in hearing your responses to these interesting questions......