Are popular and widely accepted beliefs about the human past sometimes based on faulty archaeological reasoning? Rob Gargett thinks so, and in his blog The Subversive Archaeologist he freely criticizes what he perceives to be questionable inferences in some of the major archaeology stories of the day. His primary targets for criticism are inferences of Middle Palaeolithic hominin behaviour, especially Neandertals, but occasionally he comments on North American archaeology. The following is an interview with Rob, The Subversive Archaeologist (SA).
RM: You have a Ph.D from Berkeley, a decent publication record, taught in Australia, undertaken considerable fieldwork in North America, have recently returned from a field season in the Czech Republic, and are based in California. Yet for the several years prior to beginning the blog, you kept a relatively low profile in the world of archaeology. Can you provide a bit more information on your background and why you started the blog?
SA: My first serious research examined claims for purposeful burial in the Middle Palaeolithic, leading me to conclude the so-called evidence could easily have resulted from natural processes. It was published in 1989 and the backlash was swift, vicious, and persistent. In ’96—after the Ph.D. and two years in CRM—I took an academic position in Australia. I left for personal reasons in ‘99. After that I couldn’t find another academic job, so I couldn’t continue my research. The doldrums lasted ten years. Then, in 2011, other archaeologists concluded that the young Neandertal at Roc-de-Marsalhad been naturally buried, something I’d foreseen in 1989. I saw this as a vindication, but I was also angry that I wasn’t being lifted on the shoulders of my team-mates and trotted around the stadium on a victory lap. A friend suggested I start blogging to let off steam. That was last October. People are listening. The readership is somewhere between 100 and 200 on an average day. That’s about 1000% more than I ever could have reached if I’d remained in academe.
RM: In your blog you occasionally mention “The SA Dictum” and “Rule Number 1”. Can you explain what those mean, perhaps using an example from North American archaeology?
SA: First, correctly infer how the archaeological traces came to rest where they did. Second, rule out natural processes for your observations before imputing human behavior. The Manis Mastodon site provides a great example. A toothpick-sized piece of bone penetrated a mastodon’s rib. Instead of considering the voluminous literature on the ways bone can be broken naturally, especially in places where elephants are dying, the archaeologists went for the spectacular: inferring human predation using a bone-tipped spear that shattered when it pierced the rib. If a splinter of bone is theoretically capable of penetrating a mastodon’s rib when it’s being thrust by one of us, imagine how easily it could be accomplished by the foot of an 8-tonne behemoth who wanders by shortly after the first one dies, and that bone ‘toothpick’ happens to get underfoot!
RM: Do you have any comment on other recent research on the early period in North American archaeology, such as migration routes or the findings at Paisley Caves?
SA: I’m amused by Stanford and Bradley’s idea that the Palaeolithic inhabitants of Europe crossed the Atlantic on sea ice. I think the dates from Haida Gwaii are the best evidence yet for the hypothesized coastal routeto the unglaciated areas of western North America. At the moment, I’m not in a position to be critical of the sedimentological work at Paisley Caves, but my myth radar doesn’t have a problem with the early dates there – 12.75 to 14.29 kya – or the extinct fauna that they’re finding.
RM: Are there any other examples of questionable inferences in North American archaeology that come to mind?
SA: The media has recently been abuzz about some well-meaning amateur who’s claiming to have found an Acheulean site! Misguided amateurs aside, it can be difficult to take seriously the latest claims for so-called Early Man sites in North America. I can’t remember a time when someone wasn’t claiming great antiquity somewhere. The Old Crow site comes to mind, as do the early reports from Bluefish Caves at 28,000 years ago. And there may never be consensus on the age of the oldest levels at Meadowcroft Rockshelter! I’ve also questioned some interpretations that clay sediments within some housepits in prehistoric large villages I’ve worked at may have been transported by humans, perhaps for ritual purposes. It makes more sense to me that the clay was transported from uphill deposits via natural processes.
RM: What do you think about the state of North American archaeology in 2012, both academic and CRM?
SA: I’ve worked in CRM, using the best techniques, and with the best archaeologists. Unfortunately, the grind of CRM – finding the forthcoming projects, working up a competitive bid, working under duress and within a budget that barely covers the rudiments – meant that the outcomes were almost always formulaic. Although the work was done using a “problem-solving” approach, the “problems” were uniform across the studies, and the “deliverables” were almost always hackneyed and uneven. I don’t suppose much has changed. Archaeology, whether public or for research, will always be constrained, by the budget, and by the wherewithal of the practitioners. The antipathy between the academy and the CRM community is entirely due to the socioeconomics of our discipline – too many talented people chasing after too few jobs, with the less competitive (or less successful competitors) left holding the intellectually unsatisfying CRM bag.
RM: Who have been your biggest influences?
SA: In chronological order—Alan McMillan, Knut Fladmark, Brian Hayden, Mike Rousseau, Meg Conkey, Alison Wylie, and Diane Gifford-Gonzalez. I credit the last three with arranging it so that I now have what I consider to be a mature, pragmatic archaeological philosophy.
RM: What is the url of your blog again?
Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be contacted at email@example.com