It's that time of year again, but this year it's not astronomy which has been the story around Stonehenge. It's been the bluestones.
The bluestones are the peculiar stones in Stonehenge. They're the smaller stones and currently at least 99% of archaeologists think they were shipped in from the Preseli Hills in Wales. Yet there is still some resistance to the idea and in February in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology another paper came out: Preseli Dolerite Bluestones: Axe-Heads, Stonehenge Monoliths, And Outcrop Sources. The good news is that this paper is part of an issue that's currently open-access, so you can download the paper yourself. This is a particularly good idea as I don't understand a lot of it. I have however checked the blogging rulebook and I see that blogging from ignorance is positively encouraged.
In principle provenancing the stones is easy. You sample the stone and then find a match from a known source and you have your stone source. Since the early twentieth century everyone's been fairly happy that the stones of Stonehenge came from somewhere around Southwest Wales. The problem is that this information just gives us the source it doesn't tell us how the stones got there.
People could carve them out of the rock in Wales and ship them to Salisbury Plain. A lot of work has gone into thinking about routes. You could follow the coast, but the favoured route is up the Bristol Channel and then overland and via rivers to Salisbury Plain, as this is the safer route. I'm not sure I follow the logic. It would be even safer not to bother shipping the stones and use something local instead. Safety may not have been the issue. Indeed if this is work for the gods then peril might give added value to the stones. Anyhow this is all possible, but it's not very likely.
From what is currently though about Neolithic henges, if you dodn't have the provenance of the stones, you'd assume they were local. No other stone circle uses stones from so far away, but then no other stone circle is quite like Stonehenge. Additionally the links between Salibury and West Wales seem quite tenuous apart from these stones. It's not impossible people did it but, at least to me, it seems highly improbable. So what's the alternative?
The other proposal is that the stones were moved by glaciers. In the Ice Age the stones were carved from the rock in Preseli and travelled with the ice to the Salibury Plain where they were dumped. This gives many archaeologists problems.
The usual first objection is a comment that it's convenient that the glacier dumped exactly the right number of stones to make Stonehenge. It's only really a good argument if you don't think about it. To demonstrate get your self a roll of sweets, I prefer Fruit Pastilles, but any will do. Unwrap the sweets and arrange them into a circle. Now isn't it amazing that there are exactly the right number of sweets to make a circle?
The glacial theorists counter-punch is that the Bluestones all have quite different properties. They can be more or less spotty or more or less friable*. The sort of mix you'd expect in fact if the stones were moved at random rather than specially selected. No-no-no reply the anti-glacialists, there were selected to be different to... umm... reflect the diversity of the Neolithic community. It should be apparent how the discussion can rapidly become quite snarky.
A better objection is to ask exactly which glacier dropped these bluestones. It's currently thought that in the last Ice Age the glaciers didn't get far enough south to cover Salibury Plain. Another line of argument is that even the glaciers which did get further south in the earlier Ice Ages weren't moving in the right direction to carry the stones. To some extent the argument seems to have stalled, but the human agency theory is much more in favour than the glacial theory.
The interesting aspect of this OJA paper by Olwen Williams-Thorpe et al is that it tries to move the discussion on by looking beyond the bluestones of Stonehenge in trying to find a bluestone source. Instead Williams-Thorpe's team analyses stone axes made from bluestone instead. They have found that the bluestone axes in England are of a different composition to the axes of Wales. Yet the English axes do have close affinity to the Stonehenge bluestones. If the axes are made from locally sourced rock then it would imply that the Stonehenge megaliths were also locally sourced rock. How likely that is is uncertain.
Stone axes were axes, but often they were also prestige objects. They do travel, presumably by local exchange, becoming more valuable as they reach distant lands. There is also current work in proress which indicates that people were also willing to travel long distances to find the right outcrops for themselves, so I'm not sure if the assumption that the English axes are local holds. It could be that bluestone was also transported for high status axes. It's improbable, but not impossible.
Emotionally I'm on the side of the glacial theorists. Stonehenge would make a lot more sense if it was built from glacially moved stone. Realistically though Stonehenge will remain odd and, whatever the provenances of the axes, this paper does not yet provide evidence of the glacier which moved the stones. Without a suitable glacier the glacial theory remains impossible and as Conan-Doyle said,"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
The paper this entry discusses was, at the time of writing, available freely from the OJA.
*I was 3 days into a trip round Rome, listening to the guide saying how lots of buildings were made from friable stone blocks, before I found out friable meant crumbly rather than used in cookery.
I've been out and about this week, or else working because so I can get out and about. Yesterday it was down to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for a study day by the Egypt Exploration Society: The Heavens on Earth: Astronomy and Ancient Egypt.
The lecture hall was surprisingly packed. Prof. Malcolm Coe had the tough task of opening day with everything you needed to know about astronomy in forty minutes. It's difficult explaining the Sun and Moon's motions concisely, but adding in the stars and as well, and the timescale of topic, which stretched across four thousand years and it's difficult to clearly explain things without being overwhelmed the by sheer quantity of information. There were things left out, but with good reason I feel. The success of the talk can probably be gauged by the relative lack of mechanical questions after the succeeding talks.
Dr. Kate Spence was the first Egyptologist up with the umm... contentious topic of"Astronomy and the Pyramids?" A lot of her talk was on the mechanics of how one aligns a pyramid with the accuracy of the Egyptians. She discussed several methods, including her own which you can read as a PDF and a follow-up here (also PDF). The graph below is highly suggestive of a systematic system because of the ongoing trend in the errors.
It was a good talk, but what made it better in my opinion was that she also highlighted that there is a large degree of uncertainty, particularly with the astronomical and archaeoastronomical data. In terms of the astronomy Spence says she's not so certain of her method now as she has been after listening to astronomers. She tackled the theories about shafts in the pyramid fairly, and made it clear that this was more questionable than other claims about the Great pyramid. I wasn't convinced of the stellar alignments. A member of the audience suggested that the southern shafts could have been solar, which Spence rejects as the shafts have horizontal exits which would block sunlight. By similar logic, I'm not sure that stellar alignments would work either. The lack of similar southern shafts in other pyramids also makes any explanation open to accusations of special pleading. But by acknowleding these problems I think she gave a good sample of the debate in the field.
Karnak Tempel im Morgenlicht. Photo by JoSchmaltz.
After lunch Dr Luc Gabolde gave an interesting talk: The Orientation of some Egyptian Temples: an attempt to create a direct link with the Dive World. Initially he talked about Karnak and was reminiscent of Ed Krupp's Light in the Temples though he when much further in allocating stellaer alignments to some sites too. I thought this was problematic for some reasons like atmospheric extinction. At low angles the atmosphere dims starlight so much that it cannot been seen. This means very few stars can actually be seen on the horizon, they emerge from atmospheric murk a degree or two above it. This makes it difficult to align a building on the rising point of a star. There were some other problems, but they rested as much upon my ignorance of Ancient Egypt as anything else.
Dr Sarah Symons, who got me the free ticket, was last up and had the easiest slot. The three previous speakers had already been hammering in the basic astronomy, so Symons had relatively little new astronomical ground to cover. Her talk, The Life and Death of Egyptian Stars, was the one I could identify with the most. It wasn't simply about if astronomy was present, but also why it was present. There were no alignments, instead she talked about star ceilings and the curious diagonal calendars inside coffin lids.
Star ceiling at Queen Hatshepsut's Temple. Photo by Cupienda.
I thought this was a good talk to end on because it drew together a lot of what had already been talked about and placed it in a social context. For some people it seems enough to prove ancient astronomy existed without asking why. The mere existence of ancient astronomies doesn't interest me. Proving ancient people could look at the stars isn't much of a step on from proving they had eyes. By putting the practice of astronomy into society Symons started to tackle the question of why astronomy was used and what it can tell us about Egyptian society.
All in all it was a fun day. I found lots of new things that I didn't know about and so expanded my ignorance. I now need to brush up my hieroglyphs, spherical trigonometry, geology, optics...
I wasn't going to pyramid blog here, but I've new information and it might be handy to collate all the debunking into one post. If you've been following this at my site then skip on to the Geological and Archaeological results. Otherwise this is both really odd and something I would dearly love to be wrong about.
Late last year news broke of a pyramid that had been found in Bosnia. I didn’t give it any thought until Coturnix wrote about it in December at Science and Politics. Archaeoblog mentioned it in October and their comment “we predict it will probably blow over within a few months” pretty much summed up my opinion of pyramid story.
In mid-April the story exploded which is when I started posting on it because some of the claims were a bit odd. My posts have stirred up some ire, particularly in people who have only read one. What I'll do here is collate the reasons I'm sceptical about the pyramids and add some new information.
Introducing the Pyramid
Visočica hill, a Bosnian pyramid? Photo by Siniša Subotić
The pyramid is Visočica hill which overlooks the town of Visoko in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If you want a closer look at where that is then you can download kmz files for Google Earth for the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Bosnian Dragon and , along with a map overlay which has all been kindly provided by the site BosnianPyramid.com.
Photographed from the right angle it does look like a pyramid. The initial claims that came with the photographs were odd though. Semir Osmanagić, the discoverer of the pyramid claimed that the pyramid was built at the end of the Ice Age, possibly by the same peoples who built the Egyptian and Mexican pyramids. This could have profound implications for our understanding of prehistory because previously Osmanagić has shown that the Mexican pyramids had been built with the aid of aliens from Arcturus in the Pleiades system. Not surprisingly archaeologists have been reluctant to embrace these claims. Professor Anthony Harding, President of the European Association of Archaeologists, wrote to the Times where he stated:
In most countries of Europe those with wacky theories about “hidden mysteries” on presumed archaeological sites are free to propound them but not to undertake excavation, which by its very nature destroys much of what it uncovers; let alone excavation by those unqualified in terms of training and experience.
There's been quite a few people inside and outside Bosnia condeming the excavation. Enver Imamovic of the University of Sarajevo, a former director of the National Museum of Sarajevo, said that the excavations would"irreversibly destroy a national treasure". But while claims might seem highly eccentric could there be some truth in them? Could Bosnia have a pyramid?
The idea of a Bosnian pyramid is not completely ridiculous. Above is a picture of Silbury Hill. This is a Neolithic construction close to Avebury in Wiltshire. It's about four and a half thousand years old and was buitl without the aid of metal tools in the Stone Age. It's an astonishingly weird place. Where would you build an impressive mound? Me, I wouldn't choose the bottom of a valley where it can be hidden from view. I'd have built it on top of a tall hill where everyone for miles around would be impressed. Nonetheless the bottom of the valley is where Stone Age peoples placed it. People in the past could be strange from a modern perspective. So why couldn't there be a pyramid in Bosnia? The hill was the home of the medieval capital Visoki, it had also been occupied by the Romans and Illyrians. There's even Neolithic flint scatters on the hill. If the hill was broadly pyramid shaped then any of them could have re-shaped the hill to make it a pyramid. The concept is not automatically daft.
To add to this the initial press coverage was amazingly uncritical. It's not surprising that so many people think this is a genuine pyramid. Various news agencies have described him as a scientist or archaeologist and haven't bothered asking any of the archaeologists in Bosnia what they think. If something looks like a pyramid, and every news source says it's a pyramid then you'd have to have a fairly good reason to think there might be something else going on.
Problems in the press releases
This is not the first Pyramid to be discovered in Europe
The first puzzle which drew me in isn't very big in the scale of things and might even be due to a mistranslation, but it is odd. It was claimed the Bosnian Pyramid was the first to be found in Europe. This surprised me because I found one in 1997 in Rome. It didn't make the news because Italians have been finding it on a daily basis for the past two thousand years. The Pyramid of Cestius is a 100% genuine ancient pyramid near the train Terminal in Rome. It looks like an Egyptian pyramid and that's because Cestius thought they looked rather natty and wanted one for himself. From the news you'd think pyramids were unknown in Europe, but this isn't the case. The Bosnian Pyramid could be the earliest pyramid in Europe, but not the first to be found. If the Bosnian experts didn't know of this pyramid, then how expert were they? That got me looking more closely at the claims.
The figures don't add up
Looking more closely at the numbers given there are a few peculiarities which don't make sense. Take for instance this claim:
Bosnian Geodetic Institute (Geodetski Zavod BiH) is confirmed previous findings of the Foundation Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. ‘If we connect a top of the pyramids (Sun, Moon, Dragon) by drawing a line. We can see that distance is equal. This lines are forming triangle. Sides of the triangle have equal lengths.’
Angles of this triangle are 60 degrees exactly (not any minute difference).
If you slept through basic geometry at school a minute is one-sixieth of a degree. It would be a difficult claim to check, the photos look quite convincing. Except if you download the placemarks linked above (and possibly have Google Earth Plus) you can check this next claim too. I measured the distance between the Pyramids of the Moon and the Dragon and got a distance of 2,250 metres.
That's open to questions about accuracy, the sites haven't been excavated yet (which doesn't bother the Bosnian Geodetic Institute but nevermind) but they do give a ballpark figure. If the tops of the pyramids do describe an equilateral triangle then the distance between the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun should be around the same.
The distance is 2,060 metres. That's a 10% difference which makes you wonder quite how you can declare the angles are equal to within an accuracy of a minute. One reasonable objection I've had to this measurement is that the Pyramid of the Sun is higher I may have measured the flat difference between the summits. How much higher would the Pyramid of the Sun have to be than the other pyramids? 904 metres. The summit of the hill is only 767 metres above sea level, so the peaks of the pyramids would have to be around 150 metres below sea-level for the geometrical claim to work. I look at those results and assume I've made a big mistake somewhere, but I cannot see where. The measurements would have to be staggeringly inaccurate. Unfortunately...
The figures really don't add up
Ok, that's a bit esoteric. What about basic data. How old is the pyramid? It depends on who you listen to.
Semir Osmanagić told BosnianPyramid.com that"all three pyramids were constructed during the same period, with the Bosnian pyramid the last to be built".
However, Semir Osmanagić speaking to FENA news disagreed saying the Bosnian Pyramid was probably the first. Alas the orginal link has expired but you can see it at Bosnia News.
Semir Osmanagić has a different view. Speaking in the April/May issue of Nexus Magazine he was cautious on the dating, saying it was more likely to be Illyrian in date.
This has been flatly contradicted by the official site where Semir Osmanagić has said"The following year, 2007, will be marked by the astonishment of the world public how such colossal monuments could have been made before the end of the last Ice age." and"Regarding the age, there is more and more evidence that the main pyramid complex were built right before the end of the last Ice age, indicating that there was world wide plan for building these monuments." Though that Q&A session has been deleted, so it will only live on for a while in Google Cache.
The figures really, really don't add up
Well perhaps the dating is provisional what about the most basic data? How tall is the pyramid? It's 100 metres high. It's 70 metres high with a base 220 by 220 metres. It's 220 metres high (a claim which was on an official site now only available via Google Cache). Each side is 365 metres long, (which using geometry yields a height of 365/2 metres) so it's
187.5 182.5 metres high. (see note below on my own mathematical error)
When you put all those figures together the claims look laughable, so is anyone who still thinks this is a pyramid a fool? Absolutely not. No news agency has been putting these figures together, so the contradictions aren't obvious. The average person reading MSNBC, CNN or the BBC doesn't cross-check the information to check it. There's an assumption that journalism is a bit more than copying press releases. Besides, if you did you'd find that it is accepted by new agencies that Osmanagić is an archaeologist. All the blogs talking excitedly about the pyramid have good reason to be excited because the reporting of this story has been terrible.
...but you've never been there
One of the more beguiling ripostes to criticism is that the critics aren't at the site. If people came and saw what was being done they'd change their mind. You have to be at the site to understand it.
If this is true then archaeology is going to tip on its axis. For example, there are thousands of ancient Greek sites. Do I have to visit them all to be able to write on Greek archaeology? Not only that do I have to be there as they are dug? Archaeological excavation is an inherently destructive process. What remains after a dig isn't the same as what was in the ground before the dig. There are three reasons why I think that think the idea this site is a pyramid will be rejected.
- You don't have to visit the Titanic to know it's a shipwreck. Basic geometry is the same the world over. If Osmanagić cannot measure the height of the pyramid then there's no reason to assume he'll be able to make any accurate record of the excavation. I don't have to visit the site to check his maths.
- The excavation report has to be of a usable standard. So far the photos coming out don't look like an archaeological dig. It could be that he's keeping the photos which will make him look competent back for the excavation report, so I may be disproved on this one, but I doubt it because there are opinions of people who are at the site - or claimed to be. This final point is the killer:
- Osmanagić's own experts say he is wrong
The expert on-site opinion is that this is not a pyramid
An example of the shoddy reporting of the site is in the geological reporting. You may have heard of the visit of Ali Abd Barakat of the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority. I cannot track down that he is who he is claimed to be, I've had no reply from EMRA to my enquries - that might be important for reasons below. However he wasn't the first geologist on site. The Hall of Ma'at has also been following this story and they found a press release from professional Bosnian geologists working on the site at the request of Osmanagić:
8 May 2006, 15:30 (GMT+2:00) : Tuzla (FENA). Professors from the Faculty of Mining and Geology at the University of Tuzla, acting members of the Geological explorations team that did geological studies of the Visocica hill near Visoko (the locality of an alleged Bosnian pyramid), presented today at a press conference in Tuzla the final results of their research completed at the request by the Foundation"Arheološki park Bosanska piramida sunca" Visoko. The team leader Professor Dr. Sejfudin Vrabac said that they have concluded that Visocica hill is a natural geological formation, made of classic sediments of layered composition and varying thickness, and that its shape is a consequence of endodynamical and egsodynamical process in post-Miocene era. According to Professor Vrabac who specializes in paleogeology, there are dozens of like morphological formations in the Sarajevo-Zenica mining basin alone. The Geological team report on Visocica, based on the data collected in six drill holes at 3 to 17 m depths, is supported by the Research and Teaching Council of the Faculty of Mining and Geology, as well as the Association of Geologists of Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Geologists trained and working in Bosnia find nothing out of the ordinary. If you only heard the later story then you might think there was a strong case for a man-made pyramid. Who is more likely to right? The Bosnian geological team with the Research and Teaching Council of the Faculty of Mining and Geology, as well as the Association of Geologists of Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Or the Egyptian Geologist, if he is who Osmanagić claims. And this is the big problem. The archaeologists seem to be evaporating in the Bosnian Sun.
If you claim that an expert is on site when they're on the other side of the world is that fraud?
Again thanks to Google Cache it is still possible to see a press release from 18 Jan 2006. The relevant part is
Thanks to the interest of archeologists from the entire world, activities are already in progress on forming strong expert teams of the Project. Participation has been confirmed by the following archeologists: Grace Fegan, a leading Irish archeologist, Royce Richards from Austria, together with other archaeologists from the University in Innsbruck, Glasgow and Ljubljana.So what can we make of the comment at from Grace Fegan?
I also received phone calls from two British journalists enquiring as to the nature of my involvement in the project. These gentlemen were kind enough to inform me that I was listed on the project website as being one of the 'foreign experts' taking part. When I logged on to the website I found that I was listed as Senior Archaeologist, Kilkenny (I am the senior archaeologist for the firm in which I work, but not for the entire county of Kilkenny!). Most worrying of all was a link through which people could supposedly contact me. When I clicked on it an email address came up of which I had no previous knowledge and to which I had no access.The whole thing is at Piramidalna prevara.
Needless to say, I found this pretty unsettling. Mr Osmanagich used my name in connection with his project when he had no right to do so. He also seems to have made every attempt to make me into something that I am not. In addition he potentially misled those who visited the website that they could contact me, and that whatever responses they would receive would be from me.
Could this be faked by someone with a grudge? I don't think so, because I've been in contact with Royce Richards.
It turns out Royce Richards is in fact from Australia. He's also listed as being on the archaeological committee of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation. He's also been heard from:
Its all a big load of b******s. The “Bosnian Pyramid” is just a shonky attempt by a shonky person to make a name for themselves, its not something I want to be involved with. Its quite annoying as I now get random emails from all kinds of kooks expecting me to be an authority on Bosnian pyramids!! The damage this will do to my professional reputation is yet to be seen..........!
I never gave Mr Osmanagich permission to give my name to any media organisation and I never gave any media organisation permission to put my name in print. For the record I am an archaeologist. For the record I am not involved in the Bosnian pyramid project. For the record I’m pretty annoyed with finding my name given to the media in relation to Bosnian pyramids.
You can read the whole comment at The Esoteric Blog (you'll need to scroll down a bit). I've emailed to check that this is indeed the Royce Richards listed by the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation and I had a reply within a couple of hours. This is definitely a case where Osmanagić isn't simply mistaken or forgetful or changing his mind with new evidence. He is demonstrably trading on someone else's reputation.
Does the evidence remain convincing?
I wish it did. I would love for them to find a pyramid, though now my first question would be to ask how much of the reports are falsified. The past will always be throwing up new things to challenge our preconceptions. But in this instance there's no geological evidence there's a pyramid, there's no archaeological evidence there's a pyramid and the claims are either clearly nonsensical or fraudulent.
This is potentially a serious problem. There are plenty of remains on the hill. The context of these will be destroyed when they are excavated so excavation needs to be done adequately. Can this be done by Osmanagić who, if he isn't a con-man, has only a passing acquaintance with reality? It's certainly not being done by the people he claims are there. It looks like thousands of years of archaeological deposits are going to be ripped up for one summer of economic success. Is Bosnian Heritage that cheap?
You can follow the ongoing tale of the Bosnian Pyramid in the Hall of Ma'atTechnorati: history | archaeology | pseudoscience | atlantis | bosnian pyramids
Update Jun 15 2006: 365/2 is actually 182.5. 187.5 is the answer you'd get if you mistyped 375/2 into a calculator.
The first thing I noted is the use of Wikipedia in the committee's report. Footnote 17 cites Wikipedia as a source for understanding the divisions within the American Indian Movement. If this elite committee on scholary misconduct is allowed to use Wikipedia as a source, why shouldn't students be allowed to use it?
The second point needs a little background.
Our assignment in my first-year methods class was to take a scholarly article, or chapter from a book, locate the sources, and check them against their use in the article or chapter.
We were all surprised at the level of fabrication, plagiarism and misrepresentation we found. The article I selected was published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, associated with Harvard. The historian whose work I followed up on is a tenured professor in the SUNY system. In this one article I located examples of fabrication of evidence, profound mischaracterization of evidence, and, while not word for word plagiarism, passages that were essentially plagiarized with only the most cosmetic of changes. These are the same charges being leveled against Professor Churchill.
While this sort of behavior is obviously indefensible I wonder how many other historians are guilty of the same shoddy work, but who don't get the same level of attention because their political views are more mainstream.
(Here is some more material about the Churchill case at the UC Boulder website).
I'm still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around this one. Does this mean that only chronologies can be taught? Confused, I decided to look up the law and get a sense of its context. It turns out that Zimmerman's characterization of the new Florida law (.pdf) is somewhat misleading. The actual law, as signed by Jeb Bush says this –"American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." The"revisionist or postmodernist" line was dropped before the bill reached Bush's desk.
While the Florida legislators have embarrassed themselves by demonstrating their fundamental misunderstanding of the historian's craft (as Zimmerman points out, history can't help but be constructed), historians have also been embarrassed by Zimmerman's lackadaisical interest in facts. To mention a law and then to quote material that isn't actually in the law is the sort of lazy investigation that prompts reasonable people to think historians might not be completely trustworthy.
Zimmerman, however, is correct in spirit if not in facts. Here's another confusing passage from the new education bill. Under the list of concepts that youths must be taught is this jewel of an incoherent sentence:"The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society." Exactly what"political conflicts that led to the development of slavery" do they mean? Does our historical record even go back that far? As far as I'm aware slavery existed before our earliest known written history and continues to exist today. What political conflicts led to the development of slavery?
It's not all bad, though. It is also mandated that Florida youth be taught"kindness to animals." Don't be surprised if Peter Singer's Animal Liberation becomes required reading for high school students across the state!
(Here's the legislative history of the bill in question).
Occam's Hatchet has more over at the Daily Kos.
Catherine Dolinski has more at the Tampa Tribune.
A Chronicle articlereported yesterday that, at a conference Friday, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales warned college students not to use the free online encyclopedia as a primary resource for research. Wales discussed the emails he receives from distraught college students about their low marks due to inaccurate information on Wikipedia. Among other things, Mr. Wales and his cohort have thought about composing a “fact sheet” to give professors about the uses and misuses of Wikipedia. But shouldn’t we have this kind of “sheet” already? Shouldn’t professors already be teaching students how to critically evaluate sources, on the web and in print?
I’m teaching a section of History 120 (introduction to US history) at George Mason University this fall, and one of my first lessons will discuss the strengths and weakness of digital resources such as Wikipedia. Historians cannot and should not simply ignore Wikipedia, as Roy Rosenzweig’s recent article “Can History Be Open Source?” in the Journal of American History reveals. With regard to our students, we need to do more than simply say “You cannot cite Wikipedia in your research papers,” or worse, say that students can only use one or two internet sources. Instead, we need to explain how to properly use Wikipedia, and other digital resources, to enhance learning and help develop critical thinking skills.
This latest article in the Chronicle, Dr. Rosenzweig’s JAH article, and the observations of a fewotherbloggers have made me think about how best to present Wikipedia to my students this fall. So, this post is the first in a series about some thoughts I’ve had about using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. The next few articles will discuss, respectively:
- Anatomy of a Wikipedia article
- Discussions on Wikipedia Articles
- Histories of Articles
- Comparing Wikipedia to Printed Sources
Slightly older is the History Carnival 32 and 32 (II). The History Carnival strikes me as a difficult carnival to host. History covers a huge variety of topics and it can be difficult to draw out themes from the submitted posts. I think the combination of carnival posts along with a raw list was an interesting way to try and make something coherent without losing submissions.
Most out-of-date is the Britblog roundup 67. We got a big mention in that at the end of May. Thanks go to Tim Worstall for linking to us and drawing in people who might not usually browse history blogs.
I'll also mention while I remember the 1st anniversary competition for Buy a Friend a Book Week. There's some attractive prizes, including lifetime subscriptions to LibraryThing.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining East Carolina University Professor Gerry Prokopowicz for an interview on his show Civil War Talk Radio. We talked for about 40 minutes on topics that included teaching, my research on the battle of the Crater, and the role of memory in history. All in all I had a good time, though I was a bit nervous. Click here for the interview.
A couple of days ago I noted on my on site a story about a Supernova petroglyph found in White Tank Mountain Park. This was covered by Space.com and dozensofothersitesafterthat. The claim by John Barentine and Gilbert Esquerdo is that the petroglyph below is the first known recording of SN1006, a supernova so bright that you probably could have read by it at midnight, assuming you were literate. It's known from historical records across the globe, but it's never been found in North America. This particular petroglyph is associated with the Hohokam culture, which is known only through its archaeological remains. This makes the find, if genuine, exciting. The identification rests on the juxtaposition of three elements, a scorpion symbol on the left, an eight-pointed star on the right and a crack in the rock. If you click on the link, you'll have a labelled version with notes.
Credit: John Barentine, Apache Point Observatory
Is it plausible? I've been cautious because the news reports have been skipping the really big claims that the Barantine and Esquerdo are making. The supernova was a highly visible event so the fact that it was drawn somewhere in North America is not surprise. There are thousands upon thousands of petroglyphs in North America. The really interesting part of the claim is that they can identify constellations in petroglyphs. The Hohokam peoples left no written records and archaeologically they are different from the peoples who succeeded them. If this claim holds then Barantine and Esquerdo may have unlocked the meaning of a great many petroglyphs. This might leave some archaeologists feeling sore because Barantine is an astronomer with a keen interest in supernovae rather than petroglyphs and Esquerdo is a research assistant at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona.
There is a small problem with the interpretation though. I think the key understanding the idea is to look at the crack.
People see what they're familiar with. Stonehenge is a fantastic example of this. Computer programmers (and quite a few others) see a computer. An atmospheric physicist has connected landscape with sacred records of tornado tracks. And a gynaecologist has come up with an explanation which gives me nothing but sympathy for his patients. Normally you'd tell someone like that to take a holiday, but this was a tourist on holiday. When someone moves out of their field of expertise and finds something which amazingly slots in perfectly to their own work it's not surprising people get suspicious.
Sometimes though there's a solid foundation to the work. In Baratine's case, if there is a supernova in this rock art then he's likely to spot it because he's familiar with the dates of prominent supernovae. It's not the sort of information that historians or archaeologists keep in their head usually. If they found something odd from AD 1006, then a supernova probably wouldn't occur to them. Ok, so there is a supernova as it happens the date of the art might be consistent with it, but not everything can be a supernova, so why should this be? This is where the crack is important.
The crack looks rather like the local horizon at the site, and there is this star-shaped symbol above it. Now if you're aware that there was a supernova you might have a look to see if there's a match between the two.
Credit: Gilbert A. Esquerdo (Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory).
Interesting, but not conclusive, so the next step is to test the idea. To the left there's another symbol above the crack. The question is"Could this be another celestial object?" Unfortunately it's the wrong question.
As it happens, if you looked south around midnight in early May, the constellation Scorpius would be to the left of the supernova. The figure could be a representation of Scorpius, which makes the figure a scorpion. However the meaning of this petroglyph isn't an astronomical question, it's an archaeological question. If you want to prove there's an astronomical meaning to the petroglyphs, you cannot start from the assumption that the glyphs have an astronomical meaning. So what should we be asking about the scorpion glyph?
One question is"How did the Hohokam see this glyph?" Commenting on an earlier version of this post at my blog 64 Baker St suggests that it is possible, though it appears to be far from certain. There are no ethnographic records, so the attribution rests on what modern archaeologists find plausible. Another possible interpretation would be that it is a Sun petroglyph. I'm not a rock art expert, so I'd be reluctant to say one way or the other. Let's assume it is a scorpion. There is still no reason to assume that it is a depiction of a constellation. Indeed if all petroglyphs were astronomical then how would the Hohokam have drawn a scorpion when they wanted to draw the arachnid? There's no evidence to conclude this is a constellation.
The other half of the problem is"How did the Hohokam see the sky?" This is where we enter the realms of pure speculation. There isn't the data on Hohokam constellations. Even if they did have a celestial scorpion there's no reason to assume it lay where the Graeco-Roman constellation Scorpius lay. Unlike some other constellations Scorpius really isn't that distinctive. Below is the constellation, can you see it? If you can't try moving your mouse over the image.
Did the Hohokam have a Scorpion? Talking to Sky and Telescope archaeoastronmer Ed Krupp said:
"We have no reason to think prehistoric Indians of the American Southwest saw a scorpion in the stars of Scorpius. In fact, in North America, the stars of Scorpius are imagined as various figures but not as a scorpion."
However Barentine has defended his position. He told Live Science:
Historical research (e.g. that of Richard Hinckley Allen in “Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning”, Dover Publications, 1963) suggests that in virtually every world culture where scorpions are indigenous creatures, the stars of the modern constellation Scorpius were identified with scorpions and their mythology. In fact, I believe Allen refers to this constellation and Taurus as among the “oldest” constellations in terms of their appearance in history.
This is problematic.
Lots of peoples did have a constellation of the Scorpion. The Romans and Arabs for example. One reason they had a scorpion is that they took their constellations from the Greeks, who also had a scorpion. But the Greeks got their constellation from Babylionians as part of the zodiac. The Akkadians also appear to have a Scorpion, but given they're a Mesopotamian culture this probably isn't an independent invention. I thought the Egyptian scorpion could have been independent, it appears on the Denderah zodiac, but this dates from the late Ptolemaic period, which means it came in after the Macedonian conquest and was a Greek import. Apart from the Denderah zodiac, Allen reports the Egyptians saw a basilisk. However I'm not sure how reliable the book is. Allen's work was brilliant for its time, but its time was 1899 (the 1963 date is for a re-titled reprint). Things have moved on since then. Crucially we do have some ethnographic evidence of constellations from the Americas, which Allen largely didn't know about. I think he's extrapolating the data a bit too far, but you can check for yourself as I've scanned the Scorpio chapter and put it online.
Yet sometimes people do recognise a distinctive asterism, but disagree to the name. The American Big Dipper is the British Plough, the ancient Greek Wagon and the ancient Egyptian Thigh, but they're all the same seven stars. Is Scorpius another promient asterism? Scorpius simply isn't that distinctive. Some other Amerindian peoples have split the stars we call Scorpius into two constellations. Even the ancient Greeks didn't always agree on what Scorpius was. Originally the constellation Libra was known as The Claws of the scorpion.
The only reason to assume the petroglyph on the left is Scorpius is if the petroglyph on the right is the 1006 supernova, and that's the very thing we're asking.
From my point of view the interesting thing this is what it says about interdisciplinarity. It's a hot buzzword in the UK at the moment. I work as the archaeoastronomer in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Leicester at the moment, so I suppose I should be very positive about the concept. But it only works if you adhere to the limitations of all the disciplines concerned and sometimes you need to think about what disciplines you are working across. It's a concern in history because hardly anyone does pure history. If you're looking at farming then not matter how historically sound an idea is, it cannot work if it's agriculturally impossible. So a historian of a specific field like farming needs to be fluent in that field as well as historical method. The problem with this rock art explanation isn't that it's astronomically wrong. It's completely astronomically sound. It's that it doesn't recognise that this is an interdisciplinary problem and that no degree of astronomical precision will compensate for the neglect of the historical context.
I gave a paper on the same problem to this year's National Astronomy Meeting in the UK. There's an online version - if you have Flash installed - at https://breeze.le.ac.uk/nammiscomm.
What Nagaraj said in 1994 seems to be still accurate:
It is sufficiently clear that no new insights or solutions are possible on the question of reservations at this point in time. This is not because the issues have been thoroughly analyzed and understood but because no new material, which can put the debate in a totally different perspective, is available. For instance, there is no reliable national data or comprehensive study on the extent of implementation of the reservation policy at the state and central levels. Against this background, both the anger of the opponents and expectations of the supporters on the issue of reservations are, to say the least, based on prejudices and partial truths.
Thus far, Social scientists haven't addressed what Nagaraj identified as a lack ten years ago. At best, common sense, anecdotal evidence is mobilized to bolster all arguments. However, that hasn't stopped leading Indian intellectuals from rehearsing old, tired Social justice versus merit arguments and adopting disingenuous positions, which is troubling, to say the least. I will be the first to confess that it is extremely difficult to write about the Reservations conundrum. I have been struggling for over a week now to produce a coherent response but after much thinking I realized I may have to settle for a series of short entries, initially on the recent student demonstrations and then offer critical commentary on OPED pieces as well as historical analysis to back up my claims.
What is the most recent controversy?
In April 2006, the Government of India recently decided to implement an old policy decision and reserve 27% of seats in India's prestigious technical and management institutions to members of Other Backward Castes (OBCs). This is a category of Sudra castes in the Indian hierarchical varna system. The new quota is in addition to the 22.5% seats reserved for untouchable communities. While there is almost total consensus on positive discrimination schemes for untouchables, similar benefits for OBCs have been controversial. The implementation of these measures at the state level has also been uneven. In the south Indian states, where OBCs have benefited from Reservation schemes for nearly a century now, there is greater acceptance in comparison with other parts of India.
At the moment, the critics are concerned with the expansion of a quota regime in centers of excellence - technology, management and medical schools - that the Central government has established and managed since the early 1950s. They argue that the implementation of reservations for OBCs at this precise moment is a political exercise, to gain electoral benefits. They also believed that such a measure would cause dilution of standards in these centers of excellence. For them, this is unacceptable as India makes its presence felt in a competitive global knowledge economy and continues its democratic efforts to create an egalitarian society.
We will get to the flawed assumptions of this criticism in future posts but today I want to draw your attention to the acuteness of this crisis by alluding to two different issues. First, competition for admission at these technology and management schools is intense. For instance, routinely, three hundred thousand aspirants compete for four thousand seats in the elite technology institutions. Ratios will be similar for prestigious management and medical institutes too. Even if more world class centers are established or intake is increased at the existing institutions, the intensity of competition will not decrease in this country of a billion souls.
Second, standardized tests are the tools to determine merit and thereby admission to these elite institutions. Imagine a situation where GRE (both general and subject tests) scores will be the sole criterion for admissions to graduate school! There is no broadbased admissions process, whereby applicants are required to demonstrate their allround preparation to gain admission to a technology school or medical college. Nor is there any discussion on the flawed methods we use to determine merit itself.
Is the anger of striking students (and of upper caste/class Hindus) then misplaced, as Nagaraj would suggest? Are expectations of both parties unrealistic, given the limited resources and avenues available for social mobility and for achieving social justice? How does a historian respond to narratives of humiliation and a politics of hope that untouchable and OBC leaders as well as intellectuals offer? How does a historian respond to narratives of glory and politics of despair that upper caste/class Hindu students and intellectuals offer?
I need to clarify these questions themselves before we move on. But that's for the next post.
The great thing about electronic publishing is that you can put things up really quickly. The drawback is that if you've been a bit overworked and haven't had the time to do something then the rapid turnover of posts means things date really quickly. An example is this belated comment on a post by Martin Rundkvist on his project"Drömmar om det förflutna" Dreams of the Past (in English) at his blog Salto Sobrius. The book is to be an anthology of essays on various pseudo-historical subjects and he's asking the collective wisdom of the internet if there's anything he's missed that he should tackle.
One of the things about what has been called Bad History by one blog carnival that interests me is Why pseudohistory? Given that the really good (?) pseudohistorians can wave away any contrary evidence and invent their own, what is the attraction? Money might explain the motive of the writers, but it doesn't explain the attraction for the readers. Perhaps one answer can be found if you ask What is history for? A common use of history good or bad is to justify action the present.
George Bush defended his anti-gay marriage bill on an idiosyncratic reading of millennia of history. The American military are probably relieved their commander-in-chief hasn't read about the training which resulted in military success for hundreds of years in Sparta. If something worked in the past many people assume we should continue to do it. Is this plausible? Human sacrifice worked well for the Aztecs. Indeed, when they were stopped from ripping the still beating hearts from the chests of their victims their civilisation fell. I'm not convinced that just because things have been done that they continue to be done.
Because of this belief History is often political even if unintentially so. Pseudohistory by when it invents objective facts is at least as political but also more covertly so. The political implications of holocaust denial are easy enough to see, but a study of pseudohistorical beliefs over time might be a surprisingly clear illustration of contemporary concerns. It would be interesting to know if there are many pseudohistories which say"this happened in the past, but we know better than to do that now".
Incidentally I notice that Martin Rundkvist is appealing for links from other blogs in a bid to overtake me on the Technorati rankings. So I'll be sure not to aid him by adding gratuitous links to his site.
I've yet to slip into depression, but I also haven't been diligently working on my scholarly pursuits. My excuses are two-fold, and since an integral part of blogging is describing the excrutiating minutia of one's life, I'll tell you what those excuses are. First, I've been preparing the house for the sale. I spent today in the attic re-wrapping a duct. In the last couple of weeks I've dug up, seeded and watered the front lawn. (I saw the first little grassling yesterday morning, and today they're everywhere. In another week or so it might actually start looking like a lawn.) In addition to the cleaning and packing we've been doing, I've also replaced some of the asbestos tiles on the side of the house and caulked a flashing that was letting in the rain, as well as increased the size of a hole around the furnace vent, and replaced a hose sprayer on the kitchen sink.
The second half of my excuse is that I've been reading non-research material. I finally got around to reading Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces after having it sit on my shelf for years. I read one book on contemporary politics, and the first volume of David W. Levy's 3-volume history of the University of Oklahoma (which was excellent). Plus some short stories, some essays, some internet and excerpts from a dozen books. I've also managed to watch a few foreign-language movies (which was one of the things I wanted to do this summer). I saw La Dolce Vita last night and enjoyed it tremendously. And, to be completely honest, I did manage to take a nap the other day and a few days ago I went the whole day without even turning on the computer.
So, it's not that I've spent all summer napping, only that my attention has been elsewhere, and just when I was asked to join a group blog!
My research hasn't been completely neglected, however.
Just as I suspected, most of the American Medicine Show stuff covers the late 19th century. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when they started being noticed. By the 1730s they seem to be prevelant and by the 1770s they're a pain in the ass. Here is a Connecticut law from 1773:
Whereas the practice of mountebanks in dealing out and administering physick and medicine of unknown composition indiscriminately to any persons whom they can by fair words induce to purchase and receive them without duly consulting, or opportunity of duly consulting, and considering the nature and symptoms of the disorder for which, and the constitution and circumstances of the patient or receiver to whom they administer, has a tendency to injure and destroy the health, constitution and lives of those who receive and use such medicines: And whereas the practice of mountebanks in publickly advertising and giving notice of their skill and ability to cure diseases, and the erecting publick stages and places from whence to declaim to an harangue the people on the virtue and efficacy of their medicines, or to exhibit by themselves or their dependents any plays, tricks, juggling or unprofitable feats of uncommon dexterity and agility of body, tends to draw together great numbers of people, to the corruption of manners, promotion of idleness, and the detriment of good order and religion, as well as to tempt and ensnare them to purchase such unwhole and oftentimes dangerous drugs:
Be it therefore enacted by the Governor, Council and Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That no mountebank, or preson whatsoever under him, shall exhibit or cause to be exhibited on any publick stage or place whatsoever within this Colony, any games, tricks, plays, juggling or geats of uncommon decsterity and agility of body, tending to no good and useful purposes, but tending to collect together numbers of spectators and gratify vain or useless curiosity. Nor shall any mountebank, or person whatsoever under him, at or any such stage or place offer, vend or otherwise dispose of, or invite any person so collected to purchase or receive any physick, drugs, or medicines, commended to be efficacious and useful in various disorders.
But, of course, my research isn't exactly about medicine shows and mountebanks, but about itinerancy. Here is an overly ambitious outline for research on itinerancy:
Itinerancy: A Pedestrian History
Intro – Beyond the Sound of a Bell
1. Indigenous Networks: Trade and Travel Among the 500 Nations
2. Patterns of Settlement: The European Colonization
3. American Mountebank: Medicine and Entertainment in the Western Hemisphere
4. Peddling: Commerce in the New World
5. Nowhere in America: Creating Intentional Communities and Utopias
6. Travelling Justice: The Audiencia and the Itinerant Judge
7. Roads, Ferries and Bridges: The Establishment of Routes of Travel
8. Preachers and Pilgrims: Itinerant Preachers and Pilgrimages
9. Long Hunters: Following Native Paths
10. Getting Mail: Creating a Colonial Postal Service
11. Tales of Adventure: Travel Narratives and Tourism
12. Art for Art’s Sake: Entertainers and Animal Shows
13. Ladies of the Army: The Unsung Support Traveling with the Army
14. Stand-Up Philosophers: Professing on Tour
Just glancing over this as I post it I recognize a few changes I need to make, but the polish will have to come later. ("Nowhere in America," for example, is someone else's title. I also had a better title for 13, but forgot it).
One of the interesting things about this research is how categorized everything is. Medical historians look only at the mountebank. Entertainment historians look primarily at the jugglers and clowns. Researchers of itinerant preaching look only at the religious sermonizing. It seems more likely that these travelling groups fulfilled many different roles. Not only did they provide a potential medicine for those at their wits end, but they also may have provided magical healing for devilish curses, as well as news and gossip (it seems possible there were also itinerant abortionists, but I've yet to uncover more than speculation). Joy Kenseth's The Age of the Marvelous mentions in passing at how widely information about the New World had spread only two years after Columbus's return. These bands of travelers helped spread the news of the world, as well as the gossip from neighboring towns. They probably didn't have just one strategy for making money, but engaged in a variety of tasks to earn enough to continue on their way.
A few of the next steps I need to take is to locate information on early roads and trails. I need to find a history of the colonial postal service, and a demographic analysis of early settlement patterns. One of the things I hope to do with this research is to keep all the European colonizers on the table. I'm not solely interested in the British invasion. I also want to show how the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, etc. interacted with each other and the various indigenous nations. One of my seminars next semester covers the first 250 years of European colonization, and I anticipate that to help me guide my research.
Another speculation I had turned out to be correct. Richardson Wright's Hawkers & Walkers in Early America covers a lot of the same terrain I hope to cover. As delightful as Wright's writing is, he is not a historian and there is a notable lack of references. Nonetheless, I could not ask for a more charming and engaging guide.
I also see that one of the current hot books on the internet is The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler. Crooked Timber is doing a seminar on it, and I suppose I probably need to find time this summer to read it, and some other contemporary works on networks.
But, tonight I have some books on early denistry to work through!
No one has done more to advance the cause of historical interpretation of America's Civil War battlefields than Dwight Pitcaithley - former chief-historian for the National Park Service. I've heard him speak passionately about the importance of bringing the latest scholarship to bear on the way the National Park Service situates military analysis within the broader context of slavery and race and why it is important to do so.
I am interested in this question since my research on memory and the battle of the Crater uncovers the ways in which the presence of USCT and race were stricken from the historical record. A few of my published articles have made it into the hands of park service guides at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, and Chris Calkins (chief historian) has consistently supported my research endeavors. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial just a few years away there is little doubt that this issue will continue to generate heated debate. I hope that my work on one battlefield at least adds some relevant background to the discussion. In his article"'A Cosmic Threat": The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War" which recently appeared in the edited volume, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, (The New Press, 2006). Pitcaithley outlines the arguments both for and against addressing the role of slavery and race on the battlefield.
One of the most common arguments against addressing slavery is the claim that the NPS was not given the assignment to educate the public on the causes of the war. One writer to the NPS declared: "Why and how these two armies got to that battlefield is irrelevant at the point of the battle. The only thing that matters at that point is WHAT happened and not why. Allow the NPS to deal with the facts about the battle and leave the why to the educators." This is an all-too common argument, but what is striking is the arbitrary defining of "education" to include events on the battlefield and not any causal question of why there is fighting at all. Pitcaithley reminds his readers that both the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 and legislation such as the 1935 Historic Sites Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 establish a mandate to educate the public in a way that goes beyond the movements of armies. The obvious point here is that the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, the Women's Rights National Historical Park, site of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention (Seneca Falls), Marsh, Billings, Rockefeller National Historical Park, and the Little Big Horn National Battlefield Park all provide its visitors with a broader causal overview of what happened. Given this fact, it seems reasonable to suggest that the burden of showing why Civil War sites should be the exception to this rule is the job of the NPS's detractors.
Pitcaithley does an excellent job tracing the origin of the reconciliation argument that so many opponents of this new mandate support. As many of you know, veterans' reunions and other forces at work in the late 19th century left an interpretation of the war that steered clear of more controversial issues such as slavery and secession and the way that slavery and race shaped the war itself. The emphasis on shared values such as honor encouraged and made possible sectional reunion by the turn of the 20th century. More importantly, and as Pitcaithley makes clear, this interpretive agenda supported "political agendas and became powerful vehicles for constructing personal as well as national identities." This is an important point, but I wish Pitcaithley had taken the argument one step further. While he makes the obvious point that the "Lost Cause" interpretation was not void of a political and racial agenda he does not situate the NPS within the evolution or as a factor in the overall success of this view. As I show in my own work on the battle of the Crater, by 1936 this deeply embedded Lost Cause view had become the standard interpretation of the battle. Any acknowledgment of the role of United States Colored Troops in the battle or the reaction of white Southerners had been almost entirely erased from national memory. And this is the interpretation that the NPS adopted when they incorporated the Crater site into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936. It is not simply "politically correct" or to engage in "revisionist" history to acknowledge slavery and race at the Crater, it is historical necessity if the hope is to get the story right.
While Pitcaithley is at the forefront in this movement to revise the NPS's interpretation, no one has done more to challenge it than the late Jerry Russell. Russell's favored arguments are easy to dispose of. While his arguments appear to be more focused on the visitor's time it is not difficult to surmise his motivation: "You only get so much of the visitors' time if...if you add to the script, you must take something out of the script. And what they are taking out is honor, honor to the battle, honor to the men." This is a weak argument, though one that is commonly employed. First, there is an assumption that there is a mutually exclusive choice between honor and causation. I'm not even sure it's the job of the park service to convince its visitors of some moral conclusion surrounding the participants of the battle. I wouldn't dream of doing this in my classroom. I've never visited Pearl Harbor, but my guess is that guides are quite capable of discussing the background to the attack without losing anything about what actually took place on the morning of December 7, 1941. The most significant weakness with Russell's argument is the assumption that introducing slavery and race somehow challenges the moral integrity of the individual soldier. As I've stated before on this blog armies did not just fall out of the sky to engage in the kind of horrific violence that so many Civil War buffs find entertaining. If I were to visit a battlefield in Vietnam (imagine for a moment that it was operated by the NPS) I would want to know a bit about why Americans were sent thousands of miles away to fight. Does it follow that a discussion of "containment" and the "domino theory" imply that every American soldier fought in support of such a foreign policy? Of course not.
As we approach the sesquicentennial the toughest challenge will be to more fully integrate the Civil War scholarship of the past 20 years into more casual settings. This will be difficult because the goals of the academy, heritage association, and more common Civil War enthusiasts often diverge. Many Civil War enthusiasts who are interested primarily in the battlefield are put off by discussions of race. They find the discussion to be uncomfortable or simply don't care. And others, as discussed above, see the discussion as a threat to their preferred interpretation of the war. I would point out that the discussion must center on the historical merits of the broader discussion and not simply on preference.
Finally, we need to revise our popular notions of historical revision. This is particularly troubling within Civil War communities as much of these discussions take place in a broader political context. Revisions are often seen as politically motivated. It is incredibly discouraging to engage people who claim to be interested in the past who fail to see the importance of critical discourse and alternative interpretations as a way to advance our knowledge of the past.
Everyone has their favourite period of the past, but the hardest to study in my opinion is the Palaeolithic which, roughly speaking, is everything that happened before farming and approximately 99% of humanity's existence*. It’s in the news this week with the discovery of a skeleton at Vilhonneur Cave, France. Along with it are paintings which may include the earliest known representation of a human face. Or maybe not. Orbis Quintus has photos and you can decide for yourself.
Whether or not there’s a face, it’s certainly enigmatic. Some of this is due to the lack of evidence from the period. The skeleton dates from 27,000 years ago. Beyond bones and hand-axes there’s rarely anything else found from this period. Sometimes you find debitage, which are the waste flakes from knapping flint. If you’re sufficiently patient you can try and refit the flakes to a core to reconstruct the process of knapping. It’s like the most difficult jigsaw you can think of, with no handy picture on the box and no certainty that you have all the pieces. Mainly it’s just a small set of stone tools and in a few rare places art.
Or is it art?
Art in the sense that we mean art is a fairly modern concept. Can you usefully use this concept in studying early societies. I think you can for Graeco-Roman antiquity. A lot of our notion of art is inherited from these societies, but I’m not sure the concept works well in some other societies like pre-Columbian America or Aboriginal Australia. Certainly there are beautiful materials created, but modern art has an existence as a material object, while something like Aboriginal art has meaning in the process of creation. This causes anguish to some Australian archaeologists who would like to preserve ancient art, when faced with Aboriginals who have decided it’s time to add to a painting.
Palaeolithic paintings are evocative, moving and deeply weird. They are in caves which clearly aren’t inaccessible, because someone’s got in there with a paint kit, but are very nearly inaccessible. If you did feel the urge to paint, what would drive you to delve hundreds of metres into caves with only the light of a flickering flame to see by? It seems reasonable to ask if the act of creating the pictures was the purpose and were the paintings that remained the leftovers from the event?
If this is the case then calling the paintings primitive misses the point – which doesn’t stop people doing that:
Officials said the find in the village of Vilhonneur by Gérard Jourdy, 63, was exceptional but could not be compared with the elaborate beauty of the animal and human depictions at Lascaux.
I have met historians of art who have seen the history of art almost as a matter of awarding marks for stylistic achievements. Fortunately the historians of art I’ve met that work on this period have far more interesting approaches to asking how the paintings relate to society and do question the label ‘art’. When we call this type of thing art are we ignoring some of the qualities of the work that make it so interesting and thought provoking?
At the same time, if you are a historian of art who is tackling these issues and you have perhaps 200 words to explain to the public what you’ve found, which you know will get cut to a 100 words by the time it makes the newswires, then how do you describe it? Some concepts might have no modern equivalents, or else be radically different in other times. This is especially true in this period when people are in the process of becoming recognisably human. To an extent all history is an exercise in translation because we all live in the present. So can we really use any word apart from art to describe it? Is it art?
*Technically the Mesolithic, the Middle Stone Age, also happened before farming. To simplify massively you could think of the Mesolithic as a very long transitional period between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles.
Recently, I read a book review which has left me scratching my head. It's by Trevor Wilson (English Historical Review, 71 (2006), 629-31) and is about, among other books, K. W. Mitchinson, Defending Albion: Britain's Home Army, 1908-1919 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) -- according to the publisher, 'the first published study of Britain's response to the threat of invasion from across the North Sea in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century', particularly during the First World War.
Firstly, I just want to say that I admire Trevor Wilson's work greatly -- he is one of Australia's pre-eminent military historians, and I think it is fair to say one of the world's, certainly when it comes to First World War studies. I'm very much looking forward to reading his most recent work (with Robin Prior), The Somme (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005); and his classic The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986) is a treasure-trove of information on all sorts of aspects Britain's participation in the First World War. To my mind, it marks him as someone with a broad conception of what constitutes military history, not just war-fighting and high politics but cultural and social history as well.
That's why I was surprised by his review. The first work he examines is, he judges, 'a thoroughly worthwhile book'. But 'The same can hardly be said with similar enthusiasm of Defending Albion'. This is not because it is a bad book, in and of itself: 'Mitchinson tells his story appropriately'. It's, apparently, because it's a boring subject: 'But a war book which contains no battles (except for the internal, non-violent sort) is of decidedly limited interest ... it must be wondered how necessary this journey has been'. I find this attitude very difficult to understand!
I would have thought that anything that happened in the past is a 'worthwhile' subject for study by historians. Anything! It may well be the case that a book on, say, the material culture of Tasmanian shoe manufacturing between 1853 and 1877 is not going to interest me. (OK, it is the case.) But that does not mean I would dismiss it out of hand as not being worthwhile. Surely the basic criteria for worthwhileness are (1) rigour, and (2) originality. If the book is thoroughly researched and adds something new to the historiography, then it's worthwhile, whatever the subject matter. If it's interesting -- well, that's a (big) bonus. But it's not necessary: a telephone book is pretty boring, but is worthwhile, nonetheless.
More narrowly, I can't see why a 'war book' needs to have battles in it (and if it does, my own thesis is in trouble ...) War is not just a matter of life and death; it's more important than that. I haven't read Defending Albion -- though ironically, I want to after reading this review! -- but it is easy to imagine how an army that did not fight could still have a role to play. For example, the (unwarranted but pervasive) fear of German invasion was a major reason why two out of the six regular infantry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force were held back by Kitchener, instead of going to France with the others. That's a big influence right there; perhaps if those extra divisions had been at Mons, a decisive check could have been delivered to the Germans, instead of just a bloody nose. I can also think of many other interesting questions that might be answered by this book. How were the home forces perceived by civilians -- as shirkers or brave defenders? What role did they play in training men for the front, and conversely as quiet posts for veterans rotated out of the action? Were they used for internal security? Were they reactionary backwaters or did they keep up with the latest technological and tactical innovations?
I don't think it is the case that Professor Wilson is only interested in traditional battle histories or narratives about high strategy. The Myriad Faces of War proves that is not the case; also, he finds the other two books under review worthwhile enough, and they are on working class war enthusiasm, and rear area/home front care for wounded soldiers -- neither exactly from the"maps and chaps" school of military history. I can only surmise, then, that maybe Mitchinson did not make clear why his subject was interesting -- what the motivations for studying it were, what the wider connections are. That still does not, in my opinion, mean it wouldn't be a worthwhile book, but (to take something positive from all this) it is a useful reminder to novices like myself that we need to explain to our readers why exactly it is that they should find our subject matter interesting and not boring! That can be hard to remember when when we have spent months and years researching some obscure topic, the significance of which is blindingly obvious to ourselves, but perhaps not to our readers. Better to be safe than sorry ...
PS for a different take on Defending Albion, try Peter Simkins' review. He seems much more impressed by it.
You may have noticed a the news story that the skeleton of a 30-year-old woman had been uncovered during excavations in the Julian Forum. They tend to share a headline which suggests that the skeleton is 300 years older than Rome. This is peculiar. The LA Times for instance says that the skeleton dates from the tenth century BC. Rome was said to have been founded in 753 BC, which is the eighth century BC. Mathematical puzzles aside, how do the archaeologists know this woman dates from before Rome?
As it happens she was found with a necklace and some pins, and she's not alone. There are many cremations, so there's plenty of ways of giving a rough date to the burial. It's not the date of the burial that I'm questioning. It's the foundation of Rome. Famously it wasn't built in a day, but does it really make sense to say it was built in a specific year either?
According to popular belief in the Imperial period Rome was founded on the 21st of April, 753 BC. There are no historical records from this period. The earliest Roman historian we know of is Quintus Fabius Pictor of the third century BC, but his work has since been lost. The main sources for the foundation of Rome date from the Augustan period. Livy's History of Rome starts with Aeneas fleeing Troy and fetching up in Latium. It moves on to tell of the Kings of Alba Longa and then on to the tale of Romulus and Remus. The story is told in more poetic form by Vergil in his Aeneid. Academics might argue over the precise definition of myth, but this would appear to be firmly in that category. How reliable is it?
To some extent this is a matter of personal taste. Heinrich Schliemann read Homer as history and found Troy. Though his desire to find a rich Troy meant he smashed through the city of Priam, inadvertantly causing damage more thorough than anything Homer mentions. Moses Finley tackled the relationship between myth and history in the paper"The Trojan War" JHS 84 (1964) pp 1-20 (available via JSTOR). In it he looks at other myths which can be tested. like the Song of Roland, a four thousand line poem from the eleventh or twelfth century about a battle in AD 778.
In the Song of Roland, a nephew of Charlemagne, fights against a Saracen ambush and is victorious against overwhelming odds, though he is still dead by the end. In reality the battle was fought against Christian Basques. If you belong to the"there may be something in it" school of mythological interpretation, there appears to have been a battle, but beyond that the myth is a reflection of contemporary times. Finley also tackles the Nibelungenlied and tales of the battle of Kosovo and comes to the conclusion that myths are unreliable when it comes to times they purport to describe. Why therefore should we place faith in myth as many people do? He notes"In the absence of literary or archaeological documentation, there is no immediate control over this will to believe."
That the Iliad is questionable should be no surprise. There's a mention of wealthy Corinth supposedly describing the city in a period when it was nowhere special. The inclusion is clearly from the period when the Iliad was being written, when Corinth was wealthy. What contemporary events could have influenced the myth told by Livy and Vergil?
Both Livy and Vergil were writing in the Augustan period when Augustus was reshaping Rome. Augustus was a master propagandist and was also re-writing the past. Augustus gained his position by constantly referring back to Rome's past. In the Res Gestae he states:"I received no magistracy offered contrary to the customs of the ancestors" (section 6), despite becoming the first emperor. History is not the only way of connecting yourself to the past, there's also genealogy, and Augustus was keen on this. He drew his inheritance back to mythical time. He considered renaming himself Romulus, and in his own forum stood statues of the kings of Alba Longa and Aeneas. Augustus was drawing explicit parallels between his own position and Rome's origins and for Rome to have an origin it needed a founder and a foundation. The tradition of Rome being founded by Romulus is all part of Augustus's genealogy tracing him back to the divine. Does a modern history need a foundation moment for Rome?
I recently attended a seminar by T.P. Wiseman (who pointed me to the Finley paper) on Archaeology and Myth which touched on this in relation to ongoing work by Andrea Carandini. Carandini, if it didn't sound like an unwarranted slur on his excavation technique, could be described as a modern Schliemann. His work is the opposite of Schilemann's treasure hunting, but he does share a belief that you can read myth as history. The news reports also follow this line by suggesting the woman found is from before Rome by 300 or 200 years which only makes sense if you accept the Roman foundation myth. As an interpretation this works for both the pro-myth and anti-myth camps, but as excavation continues it will be interesting to see how interpretation develops, because if there are burials from this period then where did the bodies come from?
My guess is that they date the settlements on the nearby hills (see this map from a UTexas course). The Julian Forum is in an area that used to be marshy, near the Palatine, Capolitine and Esquiline Hills. It would make an adequate burial ground for anyone living on those hills in the same period, so we should also expect settlement in what is now Rome from the period 300 or 200 years before the Romulan foundation.
How do we reconcile this earlier settlement with the idea that Rome dates from April 21, 753BC? Was the area abandoned for a couple of centuries before refoundation? What happens a settlement from the ninth century is found? Is this settlement found dating from 100 years before Rome? What about settlement on site from 50 years before Rome's foundation? At the moment it would be premature to say this woman is an early Roman there is a gap between this burial and the possible foundation. It'll be interesting to see if this gap is real, or simply a result of people being reluctant to dig beyond classical levels in search of Iron Age Rome.
Our relatively poor knowledge of early Iron Age Rome is understandable. Put yourself in the position of an archaeologist who has permits to dig to find Rome's earliest history. If you find remains from the late eighth century would you really be willing to rip them up and go deeper to see if there's anything earlier? What happens if you find nothing? It's good science. You would have tested your hypothesis that you had found the earliest layer and the lack of finds would be consistent with this. But in the process you would have destroyed irreplaceable structures from the period you were investigating.
A modern myth is that one find will overturn everything we thing about the past. Historical evidence, particularly for ancient history, is often patchy and conclusions a drawn on the balance of probabilities rather than certainties. Yet this cemetery could be part of a process that, in twenty years time, leads to textbooks ceasing to draw a firm divide between prehistoric settlement in Rome and the historical city.In the news at:many other places.