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What we really know about the past
In the last week there has been a great deal of water cooler conversations about artifacts at my work. Okay, in truth, we don’t really have a water cooler. But we do have a tent. And we sit around during break and talk about whatever pops up. And this week there was a particular focus on the meaning of a specific artifact. I’m not going to go details, as I don’t want this to be a blog about stuff that I, or other archaeologists around me, have found. Instead I’m going to stay more generic in my examples. I’m not trying to tease you with shadowy reference to things uncovered, instead I’m trying to explain why this topic is sitting front-and-center in my brain today. Basically I’ve spent the last couple of days fixated on a specific artifact. Which is probably less about it’s importance as an archaeological find and more about how ‘cool’ it is. That’s what I want to talk about today- the draw of the singular ‘find’.
I find myself trapped into the same archaeological emotional pit that I have previously warned against. The fixation on a cool artifact. You just want to pull it out of the ground and hold it. But in the grand scheme of the narrative, that one thing is probably not that important. You see, when studying the past it’s not the one singular artifact that tells the story. It’s the large, complete data-set that illustrates the story of human existence. Interpretation about the past from a discrete data point is illustrative, but hardly a robust argument.
In some cases finding the oldest tools in Europe may help push the date back considerably (from around 500,000 to about 900,000 years) of complex tool making in Europe. Likewise the earliest examples of the controlled use of fire (around 400,000 years) is useful because of the technical advantage it represents. It’s also cool to think that controlling fire helped humanity evolve into humanity. Fire is pretty darn important. Which you would know if you had ever seen the stunning and entirely accurate 1981 docu-drama called Quest for Fire. This movie inspired a great deal of archaeological bar-room debates.
Not really, but it did give us this little ditty:
Okay, enough Iron Maiden- back on point.
We tend to present the earliest evidence for something as a kind of silver bullet for our theories. They are not. The fire example above is not based on a specific, singular, example of fire use, but a series of data points culminating in a generally agreed upon point for the use of fire. Or take the earliest tools in Europe example provided in that first link. The use of a new dating technique provided a much older date than anything previously seen in Europe (the problems with our dating techniques is the subject for a different post- one full of puns I imagine). But the acceptance of this early date was made easier because of the numerous data points that all ready existed about these tools from Africa and the Middle East. This one data point is backed up by numerous others.
We as archaeologists like to feel like we have moved past the days of Antiquarianism, where rich white guys would travel-or pay people to travel- around the world ‘acquiring’ interesting things. But not us. Now a days we are more interested in the grand picture. Change over time. The longue durée as it is sometimes called. Now a days we are more interested in the use of salmon runs through-out history than we are with finding the earliest example of humans in Missouri right?
Well, kind of. We still like finding cool stuff. National Geographic is full of cool looking discoveries. Finding something awesome still hits home in a very primal way. But we try to move past that. Let me give you an example using something that may or may not bore you. Okay, in all honesty it’s not very exciting to that many people: Herring fishing.
Yup. Believe it or not, the history of herring use on the west coast of North America is a very important subject, and has received a bunch of scholarly attention paid to it. But it’s not very emotionally stimulating. Which is not meant as an insult to my friends who research it. It just doesn’t seem that sexy.
I’m going to try and fix that. I’m putting the sexy back in herring. Which sounds wrong.
Part of the reason I’m writing this is to make these larger more esoteric questions more interesting- not by changing the research, but by changing popular opinion on what is interesting. With that in mind, here is my attempt to explain why the archaeology of herring is cool.
First; it’s relevant to today. Research into the longevity of herring fishing on the Northwest Coast can have a huge impact on sustainable fish harvesting in the future. The more we know about herring fishing, the more data we have available to suggest new and improved fishing regulations. The source for data on this is almost entirely archaeological. It’s pretty damn cool actually.
Second, traditional fishing practices are interesting, and demonstrate a keen understanding of both technology and animal behavior. I’ll give you an example.
Ever seen a herring rake?
They’re a pretty ingenious tool for collecting herring, one that takes advantage of herrings’ own defense strategy. These rakes are long tools with sharp teeth attached on one end. The business end looks like this:
The teeth in that picture are made from nails, but they would have been made from bone or stone points like the kind seen on the right. Now imagine you trapped a bunch of herring up in shallow shoals, and they formed a bait ball. If you’ve never seen one, check out this video. Now imagine a couple of canoes surrounding one, and using that giant spiked paddle up there to literally ‘rake’ up one of these:
Pretty cool right? It’s like shoveling out fish. Ingenuous! Smoke ’em and invent me a cracker and we`re good to go.
Boom. Herring fishing is sexy.
Just play along okay? I mean you are reading an archaeology blog- certain general expectations of coolness need to be lowered.
The thing is, in order to try and convince you that herring fishing is a cool research topic, I had to focus in on one specific artifact. One tool and one behavior. But the overall point of the research isn’t to find the oldest example of a herring rake. The point of the research is to figure out how far back herring fishing goes, and the impact of fishing on herring populations ,and like four thousand other research questions- fish are kind of a big deal.
But we humans have a hard time conceptualizing abstract things. Instead we tend to become more exited when we have a singular object to focus are attention.
It’s probably why I get asked the question “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found” and not the question “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found out”. The story of a singular object is much more emotionally accessible. The Discovery Channel’s Archaeology News is a good illustration of this. The articles almost always feature a single artifact or site, often using the words “could prove” or “may show” as a way of attaching the particular artifact to a bigger debate. But very rarely does a single artifact ever demonstrate any definitive conclusion.
So, here we have the basic problem with talking about the archaeological ‘big picture’. The inherent challenge with writing about archaeology in an accessible way- how to illustrate the cool research that people are doing, without over-simplifying the complexity that makes the research cool.
The multi-disciplinary research and knowledge being collected about herring on the West coast is pretty damn cool, but when writing about it, I felt drawn to the singular example of a herring rake as an illustration of how it ‘s cool. But by discussing the example, I run the risk over-simplifying the whole ball of fish.
It’s not a bad thing to feel wonder looking at an artifact, to ask questions about who made it, what it was used for, or how it got there. These questions form the very basis of archaeological research. However archaeology can also get at bigger questions. How have humans dealt with climate change in the past? How have communities successfully (or unsuccessfully) interacted with their environment. How many different ways can we organize our families, groups, economy, and spirituality? These are some large-scale, monumental, important questions. But the answers have to come from a collection artifacts and other small, discrete data points. So I guess the challenge for you, me, and everyone else is to try and take the emotional wonder and joy of the small singular artifact (or site) and incorporated it into our need to answer large, broader question about humanity. It’s all about scales people… it’s all about scales.
Fish puns aside,I will say this is conclusion. It is- sometimes- just pretty damn cool to hold something in your hand that someone made 4 or 5 thousand years ago.