December 2010

Just a quick note at the start of this holiday week. I have been remiss about posting about the SAA Archaeological Record, an open access publication for SAA members. Over the past year, they have published a couple of papers about digital data preservation and access in archaeology. These include:

  1. McManamon, Francis P., and Keith W. Kintigh (2010) Digital Antiquity: Transforming Archaeological Data into Knowledge. The SAA Archaeological Record 10(2):37–40.
  2. Meyers, Adrian. (2010) Fieldwork in the Age of Digital Reproduction: A Review of the Potentials and Limitations of Google Earth for Archaeologists.  The SAA Archaeological Record 10(4):7–11.
  3. Kansa, Eric C. (2010) Open Context in Context: Cyberinfrastructure and Distributed Approaches to Publish and Preserve Archaeological Data. The SAA Archaeological Record 10(5):12–16.

If I missed any, please let me know and I will update this post! Thanks!

I just stumbled across an article in the New York Times:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

As an archaeologist who’s never really seen himself as an anthropologist but, truth be told, more as related to historians (I was originally trained in Belgium), I must admit that I wasn’t too much aware of this issue. So I went over to the Savage Minds group blog, my usual source for what goes on in anthropology. Two posts seemed most relevant: “Why anthropology is ‘true’ even if it is not ‘science’” and “Ethnography as a solution to #AAAfail.”

… we don’t have to go that far afield to recognize forms of knowledge that are rehabilitated when anthropology jettisons its label as ‘science’: history, epigraphy, historical linguistics, and the humanities in general. The opposite of ‘science’ is not ‘nihilitic postmodernism’ it’s ‘an enormously huge range of forms of scholarship, many of which are completely and totally committed to accuracy and impartiality in the knowledge claims they make, thank you very much’.

At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’.

The Neuroanthropology blog has collected a lot of  the online discussions. Hmm… How would I normally characterize what I do to the general public? Luckily, archaeology is sufficiently popular that I can just use that term and leave it at that. Only occasionally does someone engage me on whether it’s a science or not. I guess I associate “science” with empiricism, in other words, can my explanation be tested, measured, replicated? Obviously, archaeology which destroys much of what it studies in the act of excavation is not fully empirical though we do use a lot of empirical methods to describe what we excavate. To me, it seems that the context for the question “Are you a scientist?” determines my answer. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not an empiricist. I’m not even going to venture into the issues surrounding the formulation of theories which then are tested in a targeted excavation. Food for thought for sure.

By the way, this latest AAA meeting saw an uptick in the use of social media. Finally, Savage Minds posted some thoughts on what I guess one could call “anthroblogging”  :-)  (see my SBL post).

WikiLeaks is all the rage nowadays—that is, if you can actually reach it online. One good thing, the term “wiki” is now surely well known if probably still not really understood by the general public. I hoped that the cache of documents dealing with the Iraq War might provide some insights regarding the plight of the archaeological heritage of Iraq and esp. the way US and Iraqi authorities and law enforcement might have dealt with it. The search function on the site though seems disabled, I guess the denial-of-service attacks are taking their toll. Fortunately, some people were able to get some relevant information before the DoS attack:

  • Larry Rothfield (U. of Chicago), ”Wikileaks Provides Evidence Linking Illicit Iraqi Antiquities to Weapons Sales,” in The Punching Bag blog:

More proof, on top of what Matthew Bogdanos has reported, that looted antiquities were part of the revenue stream for the same folks that were/are supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq: (FRIENDLY ACTION) RAID RPT : ___ INJ/DAM

The actual text of that document is:


  • Larry Rothfield (U. of Chicago), ”More from Wikileaks on Looted Antiquities Recovered in Operations Against Insurgents,” in The Punching Bag blog:
… there are 1020 documents in the WarLogs that mention smuggling (and many of these are duplicate reports, so the actual number of anti-smuggling operations is probably closer to 500); that is out of a total of almost 392,000 total reports posted to WarLogs. The total number of reports in which antiquities are reported found together with weapons, then, is very low, in the neighborhood of 1-2% (only 6 or so out of something like 500 smuggling incidents).
… the WarLogs do not contain all reports made during the war; missing are reports of smuggling of any kind before 1/1/2004.
2004-10-28 23:40:00  —  … The INFO-OPS, which started yesterday, carried out by Task force MSU joint with provincial archaeological local guard in , , %%% and %%% (located north west of ( %%%)) ended this morning. The op. Aim was to oppose and repress the illegal trade of archaeological stolen finds in %%% province. As result of the op. several vases, statues and tools dated %%% bc. All finds were given to archaeological authority of %%%.
  • Owen Jarus, “Statues, Vases and 120 mm Rounds – Wikileaks documents tell harrowing stories of Iraq’s antiquities,” in Heritage Key:
The documents indicate that the Iraqis took great risks to protect their past. On November 2, 2008 officers from Iraq’s “Antiquities Protection” service participated in a dangerous operation in Karbala. Working with the “Establishment Protection” service, they “found and cleared” a weapons cache containing an astounding amount of firepower.
One of the documents reveals that on February 19, 2004 an entire missile was found at an archaeological site. …

I was able to access one more document not yet mentioned, for what it is worth:


Others mused on the topic and related issues touching on archaeological research:

  • Colleen Morgan (UC Berkeley), ”Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology,” in the Middle Savagery blog:

Sadly, [my students'] eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined. I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

Finally, here’s one more article referencing one of the documents from the diplomatic cables cache on WikiLeaks that has archaeological importance:

  • Giles Tremlett, “WikiLeaks cables: Art looted by Nazis, Spanish gold and an embassy offer. Spain rejected attempt to tie together claim on coins found by US firm and row over painting in Madrid museum, cables show,” in The Guardian:

In a conversation with the Spanish culture minister, César Antonio Molina, the US ambassador in Madrid, Eduardo Aguirre, sought to tie the treasure found off the Iberian peninsula by Odyssey together with attempts by an American citizen, Claude Cassirer, to recover a painting by Camille Pisarro that hangs in a Madrid museum. ”The ambassador noted also that while the Odyssey and Cassirer claim were on separate legal tracks, it was in both governments’ interest to avail themselves of whatever margin for manouevre they had, consistent with their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favoured the bilateral relationship,” the embassy reported in a cable on 2 July 2008. The offer was made after the Spanish government claimed ownership of half a million gold and silver coins found on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean by Odyssey’s underwater robots. The company had provoked Spanish fury by landing the treasure at Gibraltar and flying it straight to the US. … Molina refused to tie the Odyssey case to the Pisarro painting, …

Spain claims that the Black Swan treasure find comes from a Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal’s Algarve coast in 1804. The vessel had just returned from Montevideo when it was attacked by four Royal Navy ships, and was carrying half a million coins that had been minted in Peru. Descendants of the 249 Spanish sailors who went down with the ship joined the Spanish government’s case against Odyssey in a court in Altanta, Georgia. The court ruled that the cargo belonged to Spain; Odyssey has appealed.

The leaked cables reveal that the US embassy had the previous year handed over to Spanish authorities the customs documents filed by Odyssey when it flew its hoard of coins into the US in mid-2007.

This is a topical blog about archaeology and digital data, so this post may appear off topic at first, but trust me it is not.

The Republican Party (or GOP), in its quest to appear like the party of “fiscal responsibility” [sic], has launched a new crowd-sourcing site to go after “questionable” grants made by the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF funds some archaeology, so this development is of interest to readers of Digging Digitally.

While one can take issue with the wisdom of cutting NSF’s budget versus other areas of the federal budget, what makes this development noteworthy is the explicit use of crowd-sourcing to politicize specific funding decisions. The GOP sponsored site asks users to:

In the “Search Award For” field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.

OK. So does that mean “museums”, “social norms” and “culture” are all implicitly a waste of money? I guess “success” is a waste too. Naturally, you can’t cut any other area of government spending (like defense or entitlements) from the GOP site. It’s a nice way to make “crowd-sourcing” less than democratic, since essentially this website predetermines your choices in what you will cut. But I’m going off track…

More to the point, how should the average lay person understand an NSF award enough to evaluate it, especially when all that is available is a title and a short abstract? I’m not qualified to evaluate many grants in archaeology because different areas of specialization require so much background knowledge. I consider myself pretty scientifically literate and I can barely understand NSF award information in some areas of computer science, economics, climate research, etc.

Nevertheless, I trust that the NSF awards in these areas outside of my field are probably worthwhile. That’s because I generally trust the scientific community and scientific processes (grant reviews, peer-review). Science is not perfect, but it does tend to value skepticism, evidence, and intellectual freedom.

The GOP’s crowd-sourcing effort shows an implicit, but fundamental distrust of the scientific community. The GOP wants you to second-guess expert opinion, because scientific expertise is by its nature suspect in contemporary Republican Party ideology. No doubt this will further politicize climate science, evolutionary science, and many other areas archaeologists care about.

Lastly, the whole “fiscal responsibility” thing is pretty laughable. Via Twitter, Tom Scheinfeldt wrote:

Total NSF budget=$7 billion. Cost of yesterday’s tax cuts=$700 billion. Targeting NSF is just a smokescreen to keep budget hawks preoccupied

Good point! I politely sent a note about Tom’s point via the GOP site that maybe they could look for budget savings more fruitfully in entitlements or defense spending.