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?

Old Bones Paper Published

In September 2009, I gave a presentation at the UMAC conference when it was at Berkeley of a paper I wrote with three other authors. Sadly, the original paper was gutted and published in a much modified form. It was a good but painful lesson in academic politics, sharing, and open access. Most of the advances in digital outreach cited in the paper have been modified and a lot of the content had to be taken down.

If you are looking for peer-reviewed academic papers that cite blogs and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and Youtube for outreach in archaeology and disseminating museum collections, there you go. One of the most interesting parts of the paper, the ethics statement for the digital dissemination of human remains was cut, but it remains on the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project blog here. My query to the IVSA about ethics and visuality in regard to this project was quoted in the Visual Studies article about their new ethics statement, so it was a sort of end-around publication.

Anyway, I had big plans for the project, but ended up pretty much walking away from it. Not everyone thinks that museum collections that the public pay for should be shared with that public. Mind-boggling, but true. The rest of the team is still doing good work with the collection of Dilmun artifacts and human remains in the museum.

So, here’s the paper:

Old Bones, Digital Narratives: Re-investigating the Cornwall Collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

It should go without saying as this is a single-author archaeology blog, but:

These views are my own and are probably not shared by my co-authors and should not reflect on them in any way.

Human Subjects Review and Digital Archaeology

On Wednesday I’m spending part of the class time giving a lecture on media licensing (heavy on the Creative Commons) and Human Subjects Review/IRB/ethics issues within digital media and archaeology. While the former has been a regular feature of the class, the latter will be a new feature. The University of California, Berkeley is a tier one research institution and integrating methodological procedures into lectures is an important aspect of our teaching mission. While archaeology generally avoids many of the issues raised by Human Subjects Boards (one of the few times it’s actually helpful to have dead informants), our projects do effect living humans and digital documentation of archaeological research sometimes features descendant communities or stakeholders who are potentially at risk.

The history of Human Subjects Review stems from revelations during the Nuremburg Trials of the medical experimentation performed by Nazi doctors during World War II. This biomedical research code was expanded several times during the 1960s, finally leading to firmer legislation in the 1970s, this time fueled not by war crimes in foreign lands, but our own government’s 30-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which rural black men diagnosed with syphilis went untreated even after effective treatments became available.  The Belmont Report, created in 1979, outlined these three general principles for biomedical and behavioral research:

Beneficence: To maximize benefits for science, humanity, and research participants and to avoid or minimize risk or harm.

Respect: To protect the autonomy and privacy rights of participants

Justice: To ensure the fair distribution among persons and groups of the costs and benefits of research.

So what implications does this have for archaeological research?  Jeffrey Bendremer and Kenneth Richman discuss their research with Native American communities and note that while archaeology “does not satisfy the Common Rule definition of human subject” (Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains either data or identifiable private information), applying the codes employed by the Human Subjects Review or forming other independent research advisory counsels would be beneficial to ethical archaeological research. While I am not convinced that such counsels are necessary, archaeology has taken on an increasingly ethnographic bent, and for those of us who are interested in digital documentation, representation, and public outreach, an explicit ethics statement can be very useful in conducting our research.

For example, at Catalhoyuk in 2008 I shot a very short film about one of the kitchen staff (whom we rarely see outside of the context of the dig house) coming up to the tell to see one of the major finds of that season, a bench with intact bull buchrania in a burned building. Then she jumped in the trench that I was working in and started digging with us. I grabbed my video camera and captured some footage, which I later turned into a short film that we showed on community day. She was very happy with the film and I made her a DVD that she could show at home. This was a perfect example for my dissertation of digital documentation being performed in the trench, by excavators, and I asked her permission to put it online so that I could show it to larger audiences. She said no. Her reason? She didn’t want her husband to see her acting in a way that he might feel as inappropriate.

As Bendremer and Richman cite in their paper, the AAA professional code of conduct states: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities.” The World Archaeological Congress is more specific in their application of ethics to the visual medium, stating in the Tamaki Makau-rau Accord that the display of human remains and sacred objects is “recognized as a sensitive issue” and that “display means the presentation in any media or form of human remains and sacred objects, whether on a single occasion or on an ongoing basis, including conference presentations or publications.”

So how do we surmount these ethical concerns and get on with our research? Helpfully, the Tamaki Makau-rau expands:

1)    Permission should be obtained from the affected community or communities.

2)    Should permission be refused that decision is final and should be respected.

3)    Should permission be granted, any conditions to which that permission is subject should be complied with in full.

4)    All display should be culturally appropriate.

5)    Permission can be withdrawn or amended at any stage and such decisions should be respected.

6)    Regular consultation with the affected community should ensure that the display remains culturally appropriate.

The upswing to all of this is that the long arm of Human Subjects Review is getting longer, and if we are actually interested in incorporating live people into our research, we should take these points into consideration. I’ve made a boiler-plate media permissions release for use on site, and we are in the process of getting it translated into Arabic for the coming field season.

Here is the boilerplate_media_release, I would appreciate feedback, if you have some to offer!