Recent Archaeomags

I spent Wednesday evening wrapping presents and reading the latest popular archaeomags that have reached my mailbox. Pleasurable pursuits!

Current World Archaeology’s Dec/Jan issue (#38) has a story on new interpretations of the inter-war excavation results at Dura-Europos in Syria. This is an important Roman fortress town that was laid waste after a protracted siege by Sasanid Persians in the AD 250s. Thus it preserves the state of the place just as the siege ended, which is highly unusual, with loads of well-preserved military gear and temporary siege-related structures that would have been removed if habitation had continued. In a siege tunnel the excavators even found a 20-man squad of Roman legionaries that appeared to have perished there, gear in hand, and immediately been buried by the collapse of the tunnel. New work with the documentation suggests that they actually died of noxious fumes sent into the tunnel by the attacking Persians, and then the bodies were stacked in a pile to keep more legionaries from coming out while the siege engineers prepared to collapse the tunnel. (They didn’t dig it to get into the town through it, but to undermine the town walls.)

Sweden’s only pop-arch mag, Populär Arkeologi, offers a wide range of topics in issue 2009:4. In fact, as I have complained before about Current World Archaeology, they move way beyond my geographical attention span when it comes to archaeology. On a Swedish topic though, they make the same mistake as a lot of other media in reporting extremely overstated interpretations of the genetics of a small number of Neolithic individuals that were published in Current Biology 19 in November. Åsa at Ting & Tankar killed it at length. Basically, if you have two archaeological cultures, and you only check out 20 individuals from two or three sites, then your results can’t be generalised for the entire range of those cultures. We still do not to know to what extent the modern Swedish population descends from the Pitted Ware seal hunters and/or the Funnel Beaker agriculturalists. And anybody with a bit of political correctness in them will wince at the headline “We Descend From Immigrant Farmers”. Who’s “we”? I’m the only member of my family with exclusively Swedish ancestors back to AD 1900. The other three all have recent Oriental ancestors who descended from people who helped fucking invent agriculture.

Current Archaeology 238 (January ’10) has a big story on a magical place: Alderley Edge in Cheshire, that figures so prominently in Alan Garner’s lovely 1960 young-adult fantasy novel the Weirdstone of Brisingamen! I read everything I could find by Garner when I was a kid, and I need to get his essay collection The Voice that Thunders one of these days. The magazine story mainly concerns studies of Bronze Age mining at Alderley Edge.

Then there’s a tiresome piece about inter-war UK archaeology by a hyper-relativist historian of the discipline who thinks that we can never know anything about the past because we’re always stuck in our present mind-set that determines our interpretations. “Nothing about the past stays still for long, from the tiniest detail to the grandest narratives. It is constantly rewritten and reinterpreted.” To this I have two replies.

  1. The guy obviously doesn’t know how the scientific process works. Scientists don’t change their interpretations wildly to and fro. Changes become smaller and smaller through time, collective re-testing and fine-tuning until everybody’s satisfied that we’ve reached a good approximation of the truth.
  2. If he believes in his argument, then it must apply to his own historical studies as well, and then I can’t see how he can ask us to take them seriously and pay him to do them. It’s just historically contingent commentary on the source material, right bro?

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Comments

  1. #1 Theron
    December 25, 2009

    Yes, yes, yes. It is true that each generation needs its own historians, as 1) new evidence is found; 2) new interpretive techniques develop; 3) and what each generation needs to know about its past changes. (And a good thing too – otherwise, I’d have to get a real job!) But none of that changes the fact that there is no longer an emperor in Rome, or that the development of farming changed the world, or that Thomas Edison is dead.

  2. #2 RBH
    December 25, 2009

    One of the saddest parenthetical remarks I’ve ever read:

    The more I examined du Mesnil’s drawings and his description of the discovery (there are hardly any photos, and the bodies were neither studied nor kept), the more mysterious it all seemed.

    Ouch. And that was about excavations performed in 1928-1937!

  3. #3 Martin R
    December 26, 2009

    Yeah, that’s sad. If they re-excavate his trenches, chances are they’ll find the bones in a big secondary deposit down there. You could do a lot with them even if you no longer knew which bones belonged to what individual.