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.
- 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.
- 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?