A Moment for Elizabeth Brumfiel

I stepped into the auditorium. The space seemed cavernous–high ceilings, hundreds of white chairs, and a single podium up front, a podium that was not nearly big enough to hide behind. I took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The room was empty, but felt safe. It was my first professional meeting–the Society for American Archaeology in 2004 in Montreal and I was overwhelmed. There were thousands of archaeologists and they all seemed to know each other. I had just been working long days on a big site in Kerrville, Texas, and felt grubby and callused–very removed from the high-falutin’ academic talk that surrounded me.

I walked up to the podium in the empty room and did what my mother told me to do: “get into the room early and practice giving your talk at least twice.” The paper was printed in big font, double spaced, a few corrections here and there. In my own scrawled handwriting across the top–SMILE. I lowered the microphone to my height, wincing at the screeching sounds that it made, and started to speak.

I was about half-way through when the door way at the back of the auditorium cracked open, then closed shut, and then, more slowly, opened again. I couldn’t really see who it was, but that didn’t matter; I didn’t know anyone anyway. As soon as she–I could see that it was an older woman at this point, made it about half-way down the aisle, I apologized and said that I was just practicing. She said it was fine and made her way to the front row. I was nervous, but if I couldn’t give my talk to one woman, how could I give it to a whole audience?

While I droned on, she settled into her seat and pulled out her own sheaf of papers. She was writing rapidly, but not frantically, crossing out some words and re-writing others. I tried to ignore her as I hurried on with my talk.

At some point I noticed her pen stop, then drop, and she looked up from her paper. I was speaking about feminist lineages in archaeology; how as an undergraduate I benefitted from strong female leaders in archaeology and their students becoming teachers of a new generation (and supermajority) of women in the field. And she, this woman in the first row, was listening.

I finished and she stood up and clapped loudly, congratulating me for speaking so clearly and well. We chatted for a little while, about my paper topic, and she gave me further advice about conference presentations and academia. I honestly don’t remember most of the rest of the session–I was still very nervous–but to this day I remember her kindness, her encouragement, and her generosity. She didn’t have to mentor me, she could have kept working on her paper, but she took a moment for a nervous, nobody undergraduate. I glanced at her name tag, but it meant nothing to me at the time…until I googled her later.

Thank you, Elizabeth Brumfiel (1945-2012).


Please read Rosemary Joyce’s post, which gives you a better perspective on just how amazing Elizabeth Brumfiel was:

Liz Brumfiel will always be remembered

Anthropologies: The Workmen of Mes Aynak

Ryan Anderson’s wonderful Anthropologies project is on its tenth edition:

Beyond Words (the visual issue)

I wrote my contribution in India, in longhand, then typed it out in an internet cafe. First fully analog to digital blog entry for me, check out one of the 4(!)pages:

One of my favorite academics (and people) Dr. Sara Perry also has a contribution to this edition, titled: Fluid Fields: The (Unspoken) Intersections of Visual Anthropology and Archaeology.

Here’s an excerpt of my entry, for the full length click through to Anthropologies.

The Workmen of Mes Aynak

Workmen are a rarely discussed but often present element in large excavations performed outside the United States and the United Kingdom. Their presence evokes the Victorian era of archaeology; large expanses of oddly-dressed men working with picks and shovels, directed by a man in a pith helmet and perfectly clean khakis. While this is becoming rare (indeed this method is heavily critiqued) it is still employed in large excavations. Some governments require foreign excavations to employ local people, and in sites in Greece, workmen are professionals unto themselves, often more familiar with the archaeological remains than their student “supervisors.” In still other excavations, workmen are not allowed to excavate the “real” archaeology, but are employed to move our already-excavated spoil or to lift sandbags. While there is a wide range of experience and interaction between foreign excavations and local people available, archaeologists receive no training in interpersonal management or customs. Yet we form relationships with these workmen and learn from each other. They become our friends and workmates but they still occupy the margins in archaeology–excluded in publications, never cited, and rarely thanked.

(click here for the rest)

Course Description: Materiality and Ethnographic Film

When it comes to UC Berkeley, these days I feel more like a politically-minded voyeur than grad student. I’ve been following the Occupy movements in both Oakland and Berkeley online, but I’m half a world away, working and writing my dissertation out in the desert.

Still, I’m going to be teaching a Reading and Composition course next summer, and I used part of my weekend to come up with a course description:

Materiality and Ethnographic Film

Ethnographic film has a long and ambivalent tradition within anthropology. The theory, technology, and methodology behind making ethnographic films has changed radically during the last century, but often this historic context has been ignored. In this course we will critically examine a wide range of ethnographic films through the lens of materiality. Materiality, or the study of the relationship between people and things, allows us to think about technology and social interactions in new and compelling ways. What were people wearing and using in the film? How was the film made and how does this effect the scenes that were filmed? What can these films tell us as artifacts in themselves? In our “archaeological” examination of ethnographic film, we will read the current interdisciplinary literature regarding materiality and excavate the context of these anthropological artifacts. This course satisfies the second half of the University’s Reading and Composition requirement.

The Reading and Composition requirement is a two-part writing skills class that all undergraduates have to take to graduate. The first class is the basics of writing and the second class, which is what this course description is for, is for intensive reading and writing on a particular topic. The only prerequisite is that the student has taken the first class–no Anthro or Media Studies is required to take the class.

Anyway, it is my first course description and I have no idea if it sounds of any interest at all to undergraduates. Any thoughts? Too boring, complex, or obscure?

Pseudoscience, Archaeology, and the Public

There’s a minor tussle going on over at Aardvarchaeology and Archaeological Haecceities over a public lecture at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The lecture is by Semir Osmanagich, a fringe “archaeologist” who claims to have found pyramids in Bosnia. I actually posted about this back in 2008 with photos of some of the nice geological sections that have been gouged into the hill:


When I saw the invite to the lecture “The Bosnian Valley of the Pyramids in Context,” I have to admit that I cringed–surely a university wouldn’t lend any credibility to this obvious hoax. In the comments over at Aardvarchaeology, Cornelius Holtorf explains, courtesy of Google Translate:

We invite him, not because we are his interpretations of scientific seriousness, but because we think we have to discuss his work and its effects. The Bosnian pyramids have affected not only tourism and the perception of cultural heritagein Bosnia, but is also how we look at the cultural heritage of the wider community. Can fictional heritage have the same (or greater) power than genuine cultural heritage? What is it that the tourists are really looking for when they visit cultural heritage sites and how they present archeology and heritage to the world media so that it has an impact? What is Osmanagich himself at his critics within the scientific archeology and the archaeologists who work in Bosnia?”

This should be an interesting talk–I’d very much like to see the lecture and the discussion afterwards. Osmanagich’s work is fascinating in this respect; how did he get so far with such an obvious hoax? Why is the idea of pyramids in Bosnia so compelling to so many people? I admire Dr. Holtorf’s work and would like to be as high-minded, inclusive and controversial as he is–I mean, why not discuss the implications of imaginary heritage when compared to actual cultural heritage? Sadly I think I would have a problem getting past Osmanagich’s wanton destruction of actual archaeological sites while bulldozering for imaginary architecture, and I hope someone at Linnaeus University takes him to task for that. A full rundown of the situation is available on wikipedia:


Oddly enough, an interesting parallel popped up on the Catalhoyuk facebook page–a handful of posts by Artūras Jazavita, projecting a “proportional grid” on many of the photographs of artifacts and architecture:

His proposition is that the Catalhoyuk “proportional grid” is the same as Gobekli Tepe, a claim that oddly echos some of the recent academic literature about Gobekli. By posting his photos on my blog, am I giving him undue credence? Or am I putting it into context, much like the invited lecture above? Should the Catalhoyuk Facebook page owner delete the posts? I actually find the inscribed photographs strangely beautiful, though completely imaginary in their claims:

By offering high-quality digital images to the public, there is a risk of our photographs being co-opted by pseudoscientists who use them to advance these specious claims. We could restrict access to the photographs, or not invite controversial speakers to our universities, but perhaps this would rob us of the chance to counter the claims, or even for us to draw inspiration from their imaginations. As I understand the situation, Dr. Holtorf wants to know why Osmanagich’s work is so compelling, and perhaps then try to refocus this public interest back to actual cultural heritage. Artūras’ images made me want to take out my drawing tablet and sketch on some archaeological photographs. Can we co-opt the co-opters? Can we steal back the imaginations of the public from the psuedoscientists?

Archaeology and Anonymous

While I was writing about authorship and reflexivity in digital archaeology in my dissertation the other day, I felt I should also write about the converse, anonymity and archaeology.

Though I have provided a strong argument in favor of transparent and reflexive authorship of digital objects, it would be remiss to ignore the anonymizing potential of the internet for political action in archaeology. With the increased visibility of individuals who participate in the role of the public intellectual on the internet, there are several instances where it could be desirable to remain anonymous. While it can certainly be argued that there is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet through the various methods of tracking individual ISPs and through the small and self-selecting pool of archaeologists who participate on the internet and their research interests, some archaeologists use tactical anonymity for information sharing in risky contexts. For example many prospective graduate students and recent Ph.D.s use anonymous wikis to update their fellow position-seekers regarding the process of selection and hiring. Using wikis in this way can combat the opacity of academic process for the traditionally disempowered and disenfranchised candidate pool. In another example, a high-profile academic archaeologist maintained a veneer of anonymity to translate and share information regarding a government coup that not only brought misery to the citizens in the country but also destroyed years of research and directly affected the cultural heritage in the country. Anonymous participation by informed citizenry can certainly contribute to the emancipatory power of the internet, albeit at a cost of devalued information that is not backed by known scholarship.

Ugh, dissertation speak–I’ve tried to avoid it, but it creeps in. Anyway, as important as I believe it is to promote transparency and public intellectual citizenship, sometimes a veneer of anonymity can be compelling and powerful. Case in point, I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about peer review and unnecessary cruelty on the part of reviewers who hide behind the anonymous process.

The ultimate manifestation of anonymity on the internet (such as it is) would be Anonymous, an amorphous internet phenomenon that centers around message boards, pornography, and captioned photographs. In recent years, Anonymous has become self-aware to a certain extent and has started to marshal its forces to various causes. While this was at first manifest in taking revenge on individuals that the message board community targeted, such as school bullies, a girl who threw live puppies into a river, and white supremacist radio hosts. They’ve gone on to attack corporations, religious institutions, and pretty much anything that they can muster enough resentment against. While they are ultimately a chaotic force, Anonymous is an unexpected, fascinating undercurrent on the internet.

While there are no direct links between archaeology and this internet phenomenon, it provides an interesting thought experiment–of what meaning and value is Anonymous to academic practice, but to archaeology more specifically? What could we learn from the monumental churn of ideas, images, and memes that such a phenomenon produces? Could we use anonymous commentary to improve archaeological scholarship and methodology, or would it turn into the very worst of Anonymous–meaningless, banal, backbiting? How would archaeology change if we weren’t afraid to offer frank critiques of each others’ work?

Just a few thoughts on a rainy Bristol Sunday…I should get back to the diss.

Is it all Macabre? Recent Murals from Çatalhöyük

Ian Hodder and Lynn Meskell published a piece titled “A ‘Curious and Sometimes a Trifle Macabre Artistry’: Some Aspects of Symbolism in Neolithic Turkey” in the April 2011 issue of Current Anthropology. It’s paywalled, sadly, but you can read the abstract for free, which I’ll copy here:

Comparison of two Turkish Neolithic sites with rich symbolism, Çatalhöyük and Göbekli, suggests widespread and long-lasting themes in the early settled communities of the region. Three major symbolic themes are identified. The first concerns an overall concern with the penis, human and animal, that allows us to spread of a phallocentrism in contrast to the widely held assumption that the early agriculturalists in the Middle East emphasized the female form, fertility, and fecundity. The second theme concerns wild and dangerous animals, even in sites with domesticated plants and animals, and particularly the hard and pointed parts of wild animals, such as talons, claws, horns, and tusks. We interpret this evidence in relation to providing food for large-scale consumption and the passing down of objects that memorialize such events within specific houses. The third theme is that piercing and manipulating the flesh were associated with obtaining and passing down human and animal skulls. The removal of human heads was also associated with symbolism involving raptors. Overall, we see a set of themes, including maleness, wild and dangerous animals, headlessness, and birds, all linked by history making and the manipulation of the body.

This summer about half of the excavators read the article and it became a hot topic of discussion, discussions that obviously quickly degenerated into “finding cock” on site. I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with the article, but I think it is an interesting example of just how different interpretations can be on site. I don’t have a lot to say about Göbekli, though I’d love to work there, but I find myself mystified at some of the central arguments regarding the Çatalhöyük imagery.

There is little doubt that there are a lot of little penis figurines. They’re really cute, and though they’re not prominently featured, you can check them out here:





There are also a whole lot of cute little fat people. Are they ladies? Are they guys? Does the sex or gender matter? You’d have to ask a figurine expert. I have to say that I generally prefer the little animals:


So cute! There is little doubt that there is a variety of imagery coming from the figurines. To be fair, the Macabre article cited above is also ambiguous about the figurines, though they state that a lot of the zoomorphic figurines are represented by horns which they link to maleness. But female aurochs and sheep/goats had horns too…perhaps that is beside the point. In contrast to the hard things that are emphasized in the article, the horns, claws, beaks, etc, I can’t help but remember the soft curves of the benches, pillar caps, ovens, and the voids of the crawl-holes and niches that are often nearby in the same house.

I should probably just skip to the heart of what is bothering me–the murals. In the 1960s Mellaart’s team excavated a stunning array of murals, a few of which I had the pleasure of seeing up close and personal a couple of days ago in the Museuem of Anatolian Civilizations. A couple of these murals depict hunting scenes and wild animals, but the majority of the murals on site are geometrical patterns, solid blocks of red, or hands, many of them child-sized. These former hunting scenes are what dominate the article, with no mention of the geometric patterns found in a majority of the paintings uncovered.

This year an extraordinary large panel was uncovered (by a fantastically dedicated team of undergraduates and conservators!) in the South shelter area. This painting was similar to a painting that I excavated in building 49 in 2008, with twisting, cellular shapes that look like an M.C. Escher-esque interpretation of a mudbrick village.

Photo by Jason Quinlan, click through to see the detail.

A few days ago ten red hands were discovered in the 4040 area, again by a trusty group of undergraduates who had to pick away at the plaster layer by layer to reveal the paintings. Hands are everywhere on the site–tiny, large, red, orange, white–yet they are only mentioned in reference to their redness, which Hodder and Meskell link to the representation of blood.

So, while I’m not a big fancy famous archaeologist by any means, I am dissatisfied with the picture that Hodder and Meskell paint of the imagery at the site. I have little doubt that blood, sex/penises, and wild animals were very much a part of life in the Neolithic, and I know that Hodder and Meskell were not trying to provide a holistic view of imagery at Çatalhöyük. But I feel like they miss other, perhaps more interesting aspects of the abstract imagery in their focus on the figural/phallic.

What are people doing when they are creating geometric shapes and connecting them in patterns? Even as they were excavating the latest panel, the students were speculating that the patterns were bricks, roads, or…”just doodles.” While the last suggestion is tempting, there was too much preparation involved in priming the surface and mixing the paint. Do they represent weaving, as was speculated by Mellaart, or counting, or even architecture–the cellular forms look like bricks, after all. Just what is the brain doing when it is creating abstract designs? What kinds of synaptic paths are formed? Many of these paintings are overlaid, time and time again, often directly on top of one another. Why? And if there are disruptions in the continuity, can they be linked to other stratigraphic “events”?

I’d also like more a more systematic study of the hand paintings. Where do they occur? How many are created with an actual hand? What sizes/shapes are they? Why are there so many of them? Can they be tied to other archaeological “moments” in the stratigraphy? Do these moments correlate across buildings?

There are seven responses to the Macabre article, and then a response to the criticism from Hodder and Meskell. All of the responding professors are better equipped than I am to provide a larger perspective to the article–I can only mention what I’ve read over the years, what I have uncovered with my hands, and what my fellow excavators have shown me. These moments, by the way, are the best–when the person in the next trench over catches my eye and waves me over. The discussion in low tones over a discovery, sometimes only just beginning to be revealed, before the conservators, the directors, and certainly the news media get to see it. That simple shared wonder over the stuff of the past. To get back to the article, while this sense of discovery does not necessarily privilege my interpretation over that of more experienced archaeologists, I cannot help but feel like this part of the past is erased when omitted from larger narratives constructed about the site.

(edited March 4, 2013, after Stanford decided to break all of my image links.)

Flaming the Dead – Alice Beck Kehoe vs. Lew Binford

Lewis Binford and His Moral Majority is an excoriating article that attacks the late Lewis Binford on a primarily professional but also a profoundly personal level. All of the inset quotes are Kehoe’s.

As a close contemporary (of Lewis Binford) I watched from the sidelines as he drew disciples into a cohesive little army, assaulted our elders, and claimed the mantle of genius theoretician. From the sidelines, I saw that this emperor was as naked as they come, and puny.

If you didn’t take Introduction to Archaeology in the USA, you might not know the legacy of Lewis Binford. He professed to bring a new era of science and method to Archaeology, and people generally believe him. He died  back in April and there have been many eulogies dedicated to him, extolling his influence on Americanist archaeology.

Lewis Binford turned to lithics. Lithics were called ‘projectile points,’ never mind that nearly every one excavated came from domestic contexts, plus were not sufficiently symmetrical to allow a projectile to fly straight. Being a housewife, I could see that practically all these points are kitchen knife blades, they are the size of my indispensable little kitch knife and like it, have one side of the tip thinned and sharp, the opposing side lightly ground so one can put one’s finger on it to press in cutting. Guys didn’t know kitchen knives.

Reductionist gendering aside, I think Alice Kehoe does know her knives, and has been sharpening them for a long time. She repeatedly cites many others who have done much more rigorous work than Binford, earlier, and better. She completely undermines his legacy and throws in a few extra punches for effect. Finally, she celebrates his death:

The field is free for an empirical archaeology that begins with the syntagm in the ground and moves along a careful chain of signification to a paradigm drawn from rich compendia of ethnographic and historical data, nuanced by firsthand experience with First Nations collaborators and postcolonial appreciation of their histories.

As a non-processual, non-Americanist, non-Great Basin, non-syntagm-seeking archaeologist, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I read Sally Binford’s account of her time with Lewis with great interest back in 2008, and remain enormously interested in individual archaeological practice. I have had my own experiences with idealizing archaeologists, and have subsequently encountered both great disappointment and incredible affirmation. Ultimately, they are flawed individuals and you can like or dislike someone on a personal level, but admire or abhor their work. To be completely cynical, it seems that people are published or cited because their peers like them or are afraid of them, or their peers are similarly trained and don’t know any better. Is it considered brave to call people out, as Kehoe has done, even before Binford died? Or is it just written off as academic in-fighting, or worse, ignored?

What has struck me as I’ve “leveled-up” in archaeology is how few controls there really are over veracity of data and field methodology. It used to terrify me–okay, it still does–but now it motivates me to be both as widely experienced and as meticulous as possible, in this most humanistic of sciences.

No gods, no masters…right?