When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

Archaeology in a Time of Crisis

“When future archaeologists stumble upon the archaeological record from this period, the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, what will they find…?”

There’s probably dozens of archaeologists out there with something like that sitting in their drafts. Hell, I spent a solid 5 minutes considering it myself before promptly shutting it down. “Not everything has to be made into a case study” has become a familiar refrain on social media, but it bears repeating here too.

Not everything has to be made into a case study.

It’s wild to think about the future, about hypothetical situations like the one above, in a time like this. But as I attempt to return to my work – PhD research into faunal remains used in funerary and ritual blah blah blah – I can’t think about the past either.

I’ll admit an archaeological and academic sin: I’ve kinda stopped caring about my research right now. Most of my research related books have been tossed aside, despite the vast amount of free time in lockdown I now have to read and notate them all.

Instead, I’ve turned to books on radical theory and praxis. Today alone, I finished my reread of Joyful Militancy by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman. As of the writing of this blog post, I’m nearly finished rereading Emergent Strategy and will next reread Pleasure Activism, both written by adrienne maree brown. I count these three as among my favourite books of all time, and reread them constantly.

Why? Because they give me hope. Because they imagine futures where we all live. Because if I’m gonna read theory., I want to read about the theories of transformative justice and emergent strategies, rather than theories behind taphonomic analysis.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving up on my academic work – on the contrary, it’s a place to centre myself during these times. Like a slab of marble that I’ve been slowly whittling away at for years to create an artistic masterpiece, I’ve been working on this thesis for so long that it feels foundational. It’s a part of me at this point, like it or not.

But I’m much more than that, too. I’ve spent most of the past year and a half trying to find the balance between procrastination and overworking. For PhD’s, this can be a difficult thing to do – the overworking culture is not only actively promoted within academia, but also actively rewarded too. Even now, folks are trying to find ways to continue ridiculously high levels of productivity…everything is fine, nothing has changed!

Since the pandemic hit the U.K., I think I’ve been forced to find that balance. Because at this point, that’s all I have with regards to responsibilities – I’m currently unemployed due to school closures, I have no social commitments as gatherings are banned…all I have is my research.

But not really. I spent an hour writing about a certain assemblage of faunal bones, and then got bored and went to water my plants and read a little. I came back to work eventually, but only when I wanted to. It felt…nice? Radical? Okay, maybe not radical, that sounds depressing…

I have no idea why I am writing this all down into a blog post. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get this stuff out than have it rattling in my brain all week. Maybe I just want to be reassured by others that things will be okay. Maybe I just like attention – okay, that last one is definitely true.

It’s a difficult time for all of us, for others much more than the rest of us, and for a select few, not that difficult at all. But it’s also a particularly weird time for those of us who are trained to stick our heads and hands into the past, who end up overshooting and going straight to the future when we’re told to move beyond all that. It’s either “what do archaeologists know about pandemics in the past” or “what will archaeologists know about this pandemic in the future”…I think, for many of us, the present is the most difficult time to be in.

But we’re there now. Might as well embrace it.

Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”
We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

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A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

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A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html

Recognising that Recognition is Not Enough: Confronting the Worst of Archaeology

A few months ago, I read Angela Saini’s newest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. It is a really thorough examination of the ways in which race science continues to pervade our politics and research today, and I would recommend it to those (specifically, white scientists) who may not be familiar with its history and current discourse.

The cover of the book "Superior: The Return of Race Science" by Angela Saini

One of the things that I appreciated the most is that Saini really emphasises the hand that archaeology plays in the development of race science – sometimes inadvertently, and unfortunately, often intentionally. Take, for instance, Flinders Petrie, considered by many to be an innovator of archaeological methodology, actively worked on classifying and differentiating between races and helped develop early ideas of eugenics (Challis 2013). But it is the discipline’s goal of finding our collective origins that inadvertently lead archaeologists and anthropologists alike towards race science.

For example, Saini brings up the Solutrean Hypothesis – a theory that claims the first people to settle the Americas were the Solutrean people from the European continent approximately 20,000 years ago (Halmhofer 2018). By associating the origins of the Americas with Europe, it is easy for white supremacists to claim that the origins are “white” (Colavito 2014). Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, the archaeologists who reintroduced this theory in 1999, have attempted to (poorly) distance themselves from the racist implications of the Solutrean Hypothesis, which has also been overwhelmingly rejected by archaeologists, but the damage is done – white supremacists claim another citation for their disgusting beliefs, and we, as archaeologists, have another long battle to fight in.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’m far from apolitical. Contrary to what some folks may believe, science is political and, as scientists, we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow our research to be appropriated for violent means – not by politicians, not by non-specialists, and certainly not by peers and colleagues who wilfully utilise a notion of an apolitical science (that does not exist) in order to back-up their harmful agendas.

And there’s some improvement in fighting against racist science – academics, writers, and creators like Angela Saini are producing literature and media that are upfront about science as a political tool built upon racism and colonialism. Interdisciplinary work in fields such as “science history” and “ethics in science” are bringing the conversations to the forefront as well. Even museums and other institutions are recognising their complicity, with the Grant Museum of Zoology producing a new exhibition called “Displays of Power” to showcase how imperialism shaped natural history collections.

But…is that enough?

As Larissa Nez pointed out on Twitter recently, institutions like the British Museum will allow for “unofficial” tours that showcase the stolen objects in their possession, but still not do anything to change their ways. Science writers are giving space to address colonialist histories and problematic utilisations of research, but again…is that enough? Is recognition of the problem enough? When we consider accountability in the production of knowledge, is just laying out the facts – that much of what we know, perhaps nearly all of what we know, was derived from violent acts and violent beliefs – is that enough?

As Tuck and Yang point out in their monumental paper, “decolonization is not a metaphor”. And I think that speaks to everything discussed in this blog post as well – yes, recognition is a good first step. But we cannot stay at that first step forever, we cannot claim that recognition is “good enough” forever – we must move past words, past simple platitudes, and actually get tangible, physical work done. And it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap – it will be labour intensive, it will cost money, and it will require many of these institutions and privileged scholars and scientists to humble themselves a great deal.

But it’s what needs to be done. And that may be enough.

References

Challis, D. (2013) The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Colavito, J. (2014) White Nationalists and the Solutrean Hypothesis. Jason Colavito. Retrieved from http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/white-nationalists-and-the-solutrean-hypothesis

Halmhofer, S. (2018) Sprinkling Some Grains of Salt on Ice Bridge. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2018/01/15/sprinkling-some-grains-of-salt-on-ice-bridge/

Saini, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012) Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigenity, Education, and Society 1(1).

Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

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Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.

Anarchy in the UK…Archaeological Sector? A Brief Introduction into an Alternative Approach to Archaeology

One of my goals for 2019 is to try and make my work even more accessible – including conference and journal papers! I know that those can be hard to read due to jargon and the general sleep-inducing nature of the academic writing style, so I’ll be writing accompanying blog posts that are more accessible (and hopefully more fun!) to read with just about the same information. And if you’re a nerd, I’ll also add a link to the original paper too. Today’s blog post comes from a paper I presented at the 2018 Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference – you can find the full text here.

If you think about the word “anarchist”, you probably have a very specific image that comes to mind – some sort of “punk” masked up and dressed all in black, probably breaking windows or setting fires. And while that may be accurate praxis for some who wave the black flag (and also completely valid!), I’d argue that is doesn’t necessarily do the actual concept of “anarchism” justice…although, to be honest, I do love to wear black clothes

So then…what is anarchism? And how can it relate to archaeology?

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A slide from my original TAG 2018 presentation on Anarchism and Archaeology showing various images of what most people consider to be “anarchist”.

To use Alex Comfort’s definition (1996), anarchism is “the political philosophy which advocates the maximum individual responsibility and reduction of concentrated power” – anarchy rejects centralised power and hierarchies, and instead opts for returning agency to the people without needing an authority, such as a government body. Anarchy places the emphasis on communal efforts, such as group consensus (Barclay 1996).

So, how does this work with archaeology? Why would you mix anarchy and archaeology together? For starters – this isn’t a new concept! There have been many instances of “anarchist archaeology” discussions, from special journal issues (Bork and Sanger 2017) to dedicated conference sessions (see the Society for American Archaeology 2015 conference). There have also been a few instances of anarchist praxis put into archaeological practice: for example, there is the Ludlow Collective (2001) that worked as a non-hierarchical excavation team, as well as the formation of a specifically anarchist collective known as the Black Trowel Collective (2016).

To me, an Anarchist Archaeology is all about removing the power structures (and whatever helps to create and maintain these structures) from archaeology as a discipline, both in theory and practice. We often find that the voices and perspectives of white/western, cis-heteronormative male archaeologists are overrepresented. Adapting an anarchist praxis allows us to push back against the active marginalisation and disenfranchisement of others within our discipline. This opens up the discipline to others, whose perspectives were often considered “non-archaeology” and therefore non-acceptable for consideration by the “experts” (i.e. – archaeologists) In Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf’s edited volume on archaeology and folklore, this sentiment is echoed by a few authors, including Collis (1999, pp. 126-132) and Symonds (1999, pp. 103-125).

And hey, maybe logistically we’ll never truly reach this level of “equitable archaeology” – after all, this is a long, hard work that requires tearing down some of the so-called “fundamental structures” of the discipline that have always prioritised the privileged voice over the marginalised. But adapting an anarchist praxis isn’t about achieving a state of so-called “perfection”; rather, it’s a process of constantly critiquing our theories and assumptions, always looking for ways to make our field more inclusive and to make ourselves less reliant on the problematic frameworks that were once seen as fundamental.

It’s a destructive process for progress…but hey, isn’t that just the very nature of archaeology itself?

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Enjoy this poorly Photoshopped emblem of Anarchist Archaeology!

References

Barclay, H. (1996) People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: a Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from https://savageminds.org/2016/10/31/foundations-of-an-anarchist-archaeology-a-community-manifesto/.

Bork, L. and Sanger, M.C. (2017) Anarchy and Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record. 17(1).

Collis, J. (1999) Of ‘The Green Man’ and ‘Little Green Men’. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 126-132.

Comfort, A. (1996) Preface. In Barclay, H. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Kahn and Averill Publishers.

Ludlow Collective (2001) Archaeology of the Colorado Coal Field War, 1913-1914. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Routledge. pp. 94-107.

Symonds, J. (1999) Songs Remembered in Exile? Integrating Unsung Archives of Highland Life. In Gazin-Schawrtz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. (editors) Archaeology and Folklore. Routledge. pp. 103-125.

Fighting the Same Fight: Archaeology, Heathenry, and the Alt-Right

Heathenry is a particular movement within neo-paganism that draws upon Nordic mythology and folklore. It is arguably one of the largest alternative spiritualities practiced today. And, unfortunately, it also houses a large population of white supremacists.

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Rune stones, often used for divination purposes within Heathenry practises

To understand this phenomenon, we must first look at the roots of Heathenry as a neo-pagan practice. Arguably one of the earliest forms of this sort of romanticism was the 19th century volkisch movement, in which the Germanic past was viewed as a period in which nature and culture co-existed through emphasis of ethnicity, leading to the intertwining of romanticism and nationalism. To reach back even further in time, this could be seen as a reaction to earlier Enlightenment thought, which some saw as a mass disenchantment of the world due to the rise of rationality and reason (Granholm 2010).

Modern day Heathenry appears to have come into popularity in the 1970’s, alongside other alternative religions such as Wicca. Alternative names for the practice were developed as more Heathen groups were organised – this includes Asatru, Wotanism, and Odinism. Unfortunately, many of the most well known Heathen groups have fully embraced the racial politics of earlier Norse romanticism.

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Alt-Right and Heathen group ‘The Sons of Odin’ protest against migrants (Photo Credit: AntiFascistNews)

Today, the Neo-Nazis behind the Alt-Right movement continue to utilise Heathenry – and its associated emblems and icons – as part of their political action. This includes the creation of various Heathenry-based Neo-Nazi groups, such as the Soliders of Odin, the Vinlanders Social Club, and the Wolves of Vinland. Emphasising the belief that Heathenry is the “masculine”, patriarchal alternative to the “feminine”, weaker Christianity, these groups utilise hyper-masculinity and violence as their politics (Weber 2018). It’s not uncommon to find these folks at Alt-Right rallies, wearing Norse-themed paraphernalia to invoke this “masculine” ideal of “barbarous” Vikings protecting their (white) homeland.

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One of many calls for anti-fascist action within the Pagan community (Image Credit: Pagans Against Fascism Facebook Group)

However, it should be noted that not all practitioners of Heathenry associate with white supremacist beliefs. Recently, there has been a concentrated push by Heathen neo-pagans against the Alt-Right and all other forms of racism and oppression within their practice. Rejecting the so-called “racial purity” of these racist sects, these Heathen groups instead promote universalist values, embracing practitioners from marginalised groups, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ+. These groups include Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR), the anarchist collective Circle Ansuz, and the universalist Heathen organisation The Troth.

As an archaeologist, I’d argue that our discipline could learn from neo-pagan groups currently pushing against fascism within their spiritual practices – after all, archaeology is facing a similar misuse of our research by the Alt-Right movement and other right-wing nationalists (Elliott 2017). Perhaps we require more mobilisation and organising in order to combat the rising tide of fascist propaganda, or maybe even partnerships with Heathenry organisations? Either way, this is clearly a similar threat that both of our groups face – perhaps there is some common ground for fighting back?

References

Burley, S. (2016) Rainbow Heathenry: Is a Left-Wing, Multicultural Asatru Possible? Gods and Radicals. Retrieved from https://godsandradicals.org/2016/04/06/rainbow-heathenry-is-a-left-wing-multicultural-asatru-possible/

Elliott, A.B.R. (2017) A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages. The Public Medievalist.Retrieved from https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/

Granholm, K. (2010) The Rune Gild: Heathenism, Traditionalism, and the Left-Hand Path. International Journal for the Study of New Religions. pp. 95-115.

Weber, S. (2018) White Supremacy’s Old Gods: the Far Right and Neo-Paganism. The Public Eye.

The Perfect Pokemon: A Brief Look at Selective Animal Breeding

Is there a “Perfect Pokemon”? Well, I guess technically there is the genetically engineered Mewtwo…but what about “naturally occurring” Pokemon? Can Trainers “breed” them for battle?

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Pokeballs wait to be healed up.

A form of “Pokemon breeding” has been a vital part of the competitive scene for years. Players took advantage of hidden stats known as “Individual Values”, or “IV’s”, which would influence a Pokemon’s proficiency in battle. These stats could be changed based on training and utilising certain items in-game. In order to have the most control over a Pokemon’s IV’s, it is best if a Player breeds a Pokemon from the start by hatching them from an Egg, allowing for modification of stats  from the very start. This is in contrast to usiong caught Pokemon, which are often above Level 1, so some of their important stats have already been changed “naturally” (Tapsell 2017).

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By looking at the stats of your Pokemon, you can figure out how best to perfect it through training.

But what about real life animal breeding? More specifically, “selective breeding” – this refers to human-influenced or artificial breeding to maximise certain traits, such as better production of certain materials (for example, milk or wool) or better physicality for domestication (stronger builds for beasts of burden, etc.). This is in contrast to natural breeding or selection, in which the best traits towards survival and adaptation are passed through breeding, although these traits may not be best suited for human use of the animal. Selective breeding is most likely as old as domestication itself, but its only been recently (at least, in the past few centuries) that humans have more drastically modified animal genetics (Oldenbroek and van der Waaij 2015).

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Various dog breeds represented by their skulls – an example of how breeding can dramatically modify the anatomy of an animal (Image Credit: A. Drake, Skidmore Department of Biology)

But can we see selective breeding archaeologically? For the most part, this sort of investigation requires a large amount of data – zooarchaeologists can see dramatic modifications to bred animals by examining large assemblages of animal remains over time. Arguably one of the best examples of this can be seen in looking at dog domestication and how breeding techniques have drastically changed aspects of canine anatomy (Morley 1994).

Zooarchaeological data can be supplemental by other sources of evidence, such as text and material remains. Perhaps the most powerful innovation in archaeological science, however, is DNA analysis – using techniques such as ancient DNA (aDNA), we can see specific genetic markers to further investigate exact points of change (MacKinnon 2001, 2010).

The most recent additions to the Pokemon video game franchise, Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee have not only streamlined gameplay, but have also made the previously “invisible stats” more visible and trackable to the chagrin of some seasoned Pokemon players. However, for new players this is undoubtably a welcome change…now if only we could make it just as easy to see in real life zooarchaeology!

References

MacKinnon, M. (2001) High on the Hog: Linking Zooarchaeological, Literary, and Artistic Data for Pig Breeds in Roman Italy. American Journal of Archaeology. 105(4). pp. 649-673.

MacKinnon, M. (2010) Cattle ‘Breed’ Variation and Improvement in Roman Italy: Connecting the Zooarchaeological and Ancient Textual Evidence. World Archaeology. 42(1). pp. 55-73.

Morey, D.F. (1994) The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog. American Scientist. 82(4). pp. 336-347.

Oldenbroek, K. and van der Waaij, L. (2015) Textbook Animal Breeding and Genetics for BSc Students. Centre for Genetic Resources The Netherlands and Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre. Retrieved from https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/TAB/Textbook+Animal+Breeding+and+Genetics

Tapsell, C. (2017) Pokemon Sun and Moon Competitive Training Guide. Eurogamer. Retrieved from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-12-15-pokemon-sun-and-moon-competitive-training-guide-how-to-raise-the-best-strongest-pokemon-for-competitive-play-4925

Creating Cryptozoological Remains in Expedition: Everest

Bigfoot. Mothman. The Loch Ness Monster. Even if you’ve never heard of the word “cryptozoology” or “cryptid” before, you definitely know at least one or two. One of the famous forms of pseudoscience, cryptids are the monsters and creatures that often originate from local folklore and spark the imagination of people all over the world through their constant appearances in pop culture – like theme parks and attractions!

Expedition: Everest opened in 2006 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida. It was a fantastic achievement of engineering and expenses – costing over $100 million, the roller-coaster held the Guinness World Record for “Most Expensive Roller-Coaster” (Acuna 2018). The attraction runs through the “Forbidden Mountain” hidden in the Himalayan Mountains, where the Yeti lurks, attempting to catch the guests at every turn. After a series of dips, turns, and drops, the attraction reaches a climax with the giant Yeti, one of the largest animatronics in Walt Disney World, attempting to grab at the train before the ride comes to an end.

It’s not surprising that the Yeti was chosen to be the terrifying mascot of the attraction – despite the mythical creature’s origins as part of Nepalese folklore (sometimes also referred to as “Meh-teh” or “Dzu-teh” among other names), the Yeti has since become a part of mainstream pop culture. There have been numerous expeditions since the 1930’s into the Himalayan Mountains specifically to locate the Yeti. Even the locals capitalise on the legend, with various tourist shops selling “real” Yeti fur, replica Yeti footprint casts, and “actual” photographs proving the Yeti’s existence (Loxton and Prothero 2013).

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Expedition: Everest’s Yeti makes one last grab for guests at the end of the ride (Photo Credit: Notes from Neverland)

The Imagineers at Disney have always been known for creating engaging and lore-filled queues for their most popular rides and attractions. For Expedition: Everest, they chose to use a portion of the long queueing area to house a museum dedicated to the legendary creature at the heart of this roller-coaster. Various paraphernalia related to the Yeti as both a mythical creature from Nepalese tales to an actual cryptid roaming the mountains are on display – from the remains of the legendary beast’s rampage through camps to even a replica of the infamous photograph of a “Yeti footprint” by Eric Shipton from 1951 (Sim 2014). It is an extremely well done and elaborately detailed museum, using real skeletal casts of similar, real life creatures (primates, bears, etc.) and replica Tibetan artefacts to convey the history of the legend.

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Part of the Yeti Museum located in the queue – note the alleged Yeti footprint cast (Photo Credit: Craig Shukie, Orlando Insights)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only cryptozoological museum in the United States. From the famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise of “odditoriums” to more local museums like Expedition: Bigfoot! The Sasquatch Museum located in Cherry Log, Georgia, there are numerous examples of roadside attractions that continue the tradition of investigating

In fact, the tradition of creating “real” cryptids actually has a rather long history. Fascination with mythical creatures is perhaps old as time itself, but the idea of finding and collecting physical evidence of these creatures can be more associated with the creation of “curiosity cabinets” and various natural history exhibitions. These were, in turn, inspired by the exploration of what Europeans considered to be “undiscovered” and “uncharted” by well-funded academics and scientists (Leone 2016). Prior to blurry videos and photographs, most cryptozoological hoaxes were created through creative taxidermy – by combining the remains of different animals, you could easily falsify proof of cryptids in the same manner that natural history museums presented specimens (Jobling 2013).

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An example of a famous taxidermy cryptid, the Fur Bearing Trout (Image Credit: Cryptidz User Sanya266)

Even today, many roadside attractions still continue the tradition of including cryptids alongside their real taxidermy collections – some of the most popular cryptids include the “fur bearing trout” (so cold that the trout has to grow fur to stay warm!) and the infamous “Jackalope”, which usually is a combination of rabbit remains with antlers (Krejci 2015). Perhaps by far the most famous taxidermy cryptid is the “Fiji Mermaid” – originally introduced to the American public by P.T. Barnum in the 1840’s, this cryptid is usually created by combining the upper half of a monkey with the lower half of a fish through taxidermy (Krejci 2013). Even with most people recognising the illegitimacy of these creatures, cryptids are still incredibly popular, with many loyal fans out there visiting their favourites across the country and even starting their own private collections.

Hmm…maybe I should make a point to include in my Will that I’d like my skeleton to be combined with another animal’s (a whale, perhaps?!) so I can become my very own taxidermy cryptid…

References

Acuna, K. (2018) Expedition Everest is Disney World’s Most Underrated Roller Coaster – But Its the One You Absolutely Need to Ride. Insider. Retrieved from www.thisisinsider.com/expedition-everest-review-disney-worlds-best-roller-coaster-2018-7

Jobling, M.A. (2013) The Truth is Out There. Investigative Genetics 4(24).

Krejci, J. (2013) Straight Outta Fiji: The Merman. The Carpetbagger. Retrieved from http://www.thecarpetbagger.org/2013/01/straight-out-of-fiji-merman.html

Krejci, J. (2015) North Carolina Taxidermy Hall of Fame, Creation, and Antique Tool Museum. The Carpetbagger. Retrieved from http://www.thecarpetbagger.org/2015/02/north-carolina-taxidermy-hall-of-fame.html

Leone, M. (2016) Travel, Monsters, and Taxidermy: the Semiotic Patterns of Gullibility. Religacion. 1. pp. 9-26.

Loxton, D. and Prothero, D.R. (2013) Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press.

Sim, N. (2014) 17 Hidden Secrets on Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Theme Park Tourist. Retrieved from https://www.themeparktourist.com/features/20140319/16970/17-hidden-secrets-expedition-everest-disneys-animal-kingdom?page=1

Terror and Tradition Over Time: A Look at the Material Culture Of Halloween

Some of my current Halloween decorations – surprisingly low-key compared to previous years!

Oddly enough, I didn’t really expect to run into that many significant cultural differences when I first moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. So I was actually a bit surprised when Halloween first came around. I expected there to be streets covered in decorations, but was surprised to see only a few pumpkins and paper bats placed here and there. Turns out that Halloween isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it is in the US; back where I grew up, I was used to seeing houses on my block completely transform into haunted places complete with loud, scary noises and bloody, horrifying animatronic monsters! I never considered the differences in the material culture and presentation of the holiday across cultures.

With that in mind, I figured a brief look into the history of Halloween material culture  may be an interesting blog post to celebrate the holiday this year! Fair Warning: Some of these decorations may be pretty spooky.

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A traditional turnip jack-o-lantern from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland (Photo Credit: Rannpháirtí Anaithnid)

 

Most academics seem to agree that our modern celebration of Halloween stems from a pagan tradition, although there tends to be some debate over which one. Many point to Samhain, a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season, the preparation for the upcoming winter, and the warding off of spirits by using large bonfires. Others, however, point to Pomona, which was allegedly a festival celebrated in the name of the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds, also named Pomona (Rogers 2002). Unfortunately, we have little textual or archaeological evidence to support either of these theories besides the similarities in timing with modern day Halloween – in fact, we have no evidence of the Pomona Festival ever occurring and no evidence to suggest how widespread Samhain may have been (Moss 2013).

Regardless of the actual origin point of the holiday, we can see that the introduction of All Saints Day to the 1st of November (possibly as a means of “Christianizing” Samhain) in the 8th Century eventually led to the standardization of many traditions that are still associated with Halloween. This includes perhaps the earliest form of “trick-or-treating”, where the poor would go from house to house and given soul cakes (pastries or breads made to honour the Dead) in exchange for praying for the dead of the household. Dressing up in costumes, or masquerading, also appears to have become a custom associated with All Saints Day, although it was for honouring the Christian Saints rather than terrifying the local neighbours (Bannatyne 1998). And, of course, there is that terrifying tradition that appears to have been originated in Ireland of “jack-o-lanterns” – these were faces carved into root vegetables like turnips…thankfully, the tradition turned to pumpkins once it was brought over to North America, which is good because have you seen how horrifying those turnip lanterns are?

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A tin Halloween parade stick from the early 1900’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

Halloween and its traditions were introduced to the United States via the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the mid 1800’s. However, up until the early 1900’s Halloween was mostly an adult-oriented holiday, celebrated by dinner parties. This led to the popularity of home decorations, which were often promoted by booklets and catalogues such as Dennison’s Bogie Book (Mitchell 2017).

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A Halloween Die-Cut Sign from the 1930’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

By the 1920’s, Halloween was becoming more standardized in practice and in design into the holiday that we recognize today. Most decorations on offer for purchase were in the form of “die-cuts” – basically paper decorations – as these were easily disposable. You probably still see die-cuts used to this day – think of the sort of cute, paper Halloween decorations that were hung up around school. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating was practised more widely around the United States, prompting the popularity of decorations that were more cute than creepy. From then onward, Halloween was more of a children’s holiday (Eddy 2016).

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A small selection from the 2017 TransWorld Halloween and Attractions Show (Photo Credit: Chelsea T., Haunts.com)

Today, Halloween has become entwined with modern consumerist culture – in fact, Americans spent approximately 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween decorations and costunes (Mitchell 2017). And that’s not surprising given today’s emphasis on consumerism, which has tied itself to concepts of nostalgia and pop culture that now seem to propel many modern day traditions for Halloween – from dressing up as your favourite 90’s television character to hosting a marathon of “classic” horror films. Trends in consumption and aesthetics have also added to the holiday’s general popularity – by 2010, Halloween has become the most popular non-Christian holiday in the United States (Moss 2013).

With these changes in popularity and material trends, there has also been a significant shift in the main demographic for Halloween – although still enjoyed by children and young people, there has been a rise in popularity for adult Halloween costumes and adult-oriented celebrations, like Halloween parties organized at clubs, bars, and pubs (Belk 1990).

This trend can also be seen in the movement towards associating Halloween with the truly terrifying and gory. Due to advances in technology, computer animation, and prosthetics, modern day horror media has never been more elaborate and realistic in their grim and grisly details. This has also been carried over to amateur Halloween decorations, with homemade haunted houses and terrifying attractions taking the place of trick-or-treat spots (for some of the most spectacular looking Halloween decorations and costumes, check out the TransWorld Halloween Showcase).

So, what can we see from this brief history of Halloween trends and patterns in material culture? Well, its hard to say – especially as the origins of the holiday are still widely debated. However, we could argue that Halloween has consistently been a holiday of invoking what is otherwise taboo – whether that’s communicating with spirits and saints, demanding treats and sweets from strangers and neighbours alike, playing pranks, or even just dressing a bit differently than what’s considered “normal”! Like most other popular holidays, Halloween has become entwined with consumerism and rooted to pop culture by a variety of tropes and customs. And yet, we could also say that it remains a holiday truly rooted in tradition – from the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns to trick-or-treating, these traditions have been carried over from one continent to another and have lasted hundreds of years…I think its safe to say that they don’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

References

Bannatyne, L. (1998) Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company.

Belk, R.W. (1990) Halloween: An Evolving American Consumption Ritual. Advances in Consumer Research. pp. 508-517.

Eddy, C. (2016) The History of Modern Halloween, as Seen Through its Decorations. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-history-of-modern-halloween-as-seen-through-its-de-1788207372

Ledenbach, M.B. (2018) Halloween Collector. www.halloweencollector.com

Mitchell, N. (2017) Halloween Decorating Hasn’t Been Around as Long as You Think. Apartment Therapy. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-rather-modern-history-of-halloween-decorations-249863

Moss, C. (2013) Halloween: Witches, Old Rites, and Modern Fun. BBC: Religion & Ethics. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24623370

Rogers, N. (2002) Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.