[NPR] NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon, had a feature about touring New Orleans with boogie-woogie piano player Doctor John ‘the Night Tripper’. I’m listening to John Burnett interview Mac Rebenack (who is Dr. John) as I write this. They just played a selection from Gilded Splinters. Man, that is such great stuff. The annual meeting for The Society for American Archaeology will be in New Orleans in 2001. The first time I was in New Orleans was the last time the SAA had a meeting there, in 1996 I think. I can smell New Orleans as I’m listening to the Gris-Gris Man. I’ll be there next year, I’m looking forward to it.
[Archae:AmericaQuest!] From March 6 to March 31, 2000 a team of students, experts, and adventurers will explore the mysteries of the American Southwest. Day 1 is here. This looks like a pretty neat web implementation for teaching Archaeology, designed for use in the classroom and by engaged parents at home. I don’t personally know the people involved here or have any financial or professional involvement with AmericaQuest. But, I can say that I see what they’re doing and endorse it without hesitation.
[Archae: blivet commentary] The future of Archaeology (and Science, really) depends on our selling the ‘adventure’ in a realistic manner as Archaeologists, Scientists, Educators, parents, and concerned citizens. By realistic I don’t mean taking away the excitement and real sense of adventure, I mean getting away from cinematic images of bullwhips, fedoras, and treasure and towards the very real adventure the past offers. Its too easy to see the disappointment in peoples faces after the initial excitement of being involved with an excavation or other project when the packs are heavy, or conditions are uncomfortable. Its easy to forget that real effort is involved in the stirring adventures we see pictures in National Geographic or an Indiana Jones movie. Rivulets of sweat running through grime and scraped knuckles are great images until they’re your knuckles.
When you see the reaction when someone finds something, when they pluck a rose colored chert dart point base from the screen and asks “Now I know this is cool! What is it?” There is a distance that floats across their eyes when you reply, “Thats an Archaic point. Those date from 1,800 to 5,000 years ago.” The distance increases as they mentally do the calendar math. ‘Click, click, so that would be, mmm, 200 A.D. to … 3,000 B.C.!’ I always envision that mental leap like one of those helicopter assisted reverse zooms in a movie, from a close-up of the point base in their hand with the POV suddenly swooping away upwards to thousands of feet above. We look like ants in the landscape, the city is gone, the Mesquite groves are back, a small campfire burns nearby. The people are busy with the tasks of everyday living. Their hair may not be like ours, their faces may look different, but their eyes … their eyes are ours. Across the gulf of time we’ve made the connection and it came through a little piece of stone formed into a tool long ago. And from someone who knew what that small tool represents. I could be wrong, that may not be what is happening in other people’s minds, Its just the way it looks in mine. We all have a different mental landscape, or so I’m told, I’ve never been anyone else. But I think its pretty darn close. I believe we have far more in common than we realize, at a certain level we’re not separate at all.
Advocacy is so much more than dry lectures in some auditorium, though that is the habitat we frequent. As scientists we often want to be left alone by ‘the public’, we often want to be left alone by our co-workers and colleagues so we can be in the world of our research. But we occasionally have to reach out and share the sense of wonder we have with our research. Everyone doing science has had to struggle to do what we do. Years of schooling, the advice of well-meaning family and friends to do something that you can at least get a job in. I remember my mother saying “I don’t think I would have encouraged you so much when you were young if I knew you were actually going to try to do this”. We have to sell the fact that everyone can be a part of science. Most probably won’t want to do it as a career, doing science is often a solitary activity with lots of time spent doing analysis.
There is no sizzle to be sold in analysis. Writing little numbers on rocks? Come on. We do it because we’ve all thought we didn’t need to, then comes the chilling realization that the bag with the number is lost or illegible. All of the context linking that artifact to all the other artifacts sloughs away and suddenly it becomes only vaguely interesting. It has lost its connection to the larger world. So we write little numbers on rocks. I used to joke, “It is the way of my people”. But what we recover cannot lose its context because then it loses the analytical value. That is the tragedy we have such a hard time conveying to people. We’re not interested in the compelling artifact because of something intrinsic in the artifact itself. When people collect artifacts (arrowhead collectors) they’re trying to maintain the connection to that sense of awe and wonder they felt when they found it. But when they pick them up and take them home they become curios without context, without that connection to the larger world of a past filled with people who have a story to tell. America’s archaeological heritage is being stolen daily so some people can make mosaics of arrowheads on their walls. I think in my lifetime we will see the time when archaeology will be gone and it will never come back. You can reintroduce species of animals and plants, but you can’t get the small band to come back and camp right here again. They’ve been dead for 3,000 years.
I’ve commented on this and other archaeological issues before, but I’ll try to continue in the following weeks.