Tuesday, April 30, 2024


We humans have strange ideas about risk. For example, the ancient Romans were perfectly aware of the risk posed by the volcanic features around the Bay of Naples. After all, people regularly died by falling into holes full of boiling water or being overwhelmed by bursts of poisonous gas, not to mention occasional eruptions. But people flocked there because of the harbor, the weather, and the splendid soil, making it one of the most densely inhabited regions of Italy. The earth rumbled and belched, but life went on. Buildings were regularly destroyed by earthquakes, then rebuilt even more splendidly. Not even the vast destruction wrought by Vesuvius in 79 AD discouraged people for long.

Consider the modern geological map above, which shows the density of volcanic features in the area called by the ancients the Phlegraean Fields, in the northwest corner of the Bay. The whole region is within the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, and there are at least six craters left by smaller, more recent eruptions. 

I find it startling to peruse an aerial photograph that shows dense neighborhoods pressed up against all these features. Italian geologists have lately been monitoring rumbles deep under the bay, and some of them think the supervolcano might erupt within the next fifty years. Fifty years? say the Neapolitans. Plenty of time to keep partying!

Which is great for archaeologists. Besides the unbelievable riches of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the neighboring villas, the whole region is full of stuff that was collapsed, buried, abandoned when poisonous vapors surged over it, or sunk under the sea. Which brings me to today's subject, the seaside resort town the Romans called Baiae, Baia in modern Italian, smack in the middle of the Phlegraean Fields supervolcano. This once rich and famous place was largely abandoned after half of it sank beneath the waves in the 3rd century AD.

Baiae may have been founded as a port for Cumae, perhaps around 300 BC, although none of the online sources seem very certain about that. It entered the historical record around 80 BC when it became a fashionable place for the sybaritic elite of the late Republic. Caesar and Pompey both had villas there; there ought to be a special, obscure word for "civil wars between men who vacationed in adjacent villas."

Nero (of course) built a villa there; Hadrian is supposed to have died there. This wall painting from a nearby villa may depict Baiae.

The Aphrodite of Baiae, recovered in the 18th century and restored by Canova. When you think about European sculptors of the 16th to 18th centuries, you should recall that they were not "influenced by" ancient art in some vague sense, but spent much of their early careers restoring ancient works, crafting pieces that perfectly matched the original. They knew ancient work in a very deep sense.

Suetonius passes on an interesting story about Gaius Caligula and Baiae:
Besides this, he devised a novel and unheard of kind of pageant; for he bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about thirty-six hundred paces,​ by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, afterwards a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days. . .   I know that many have supposed that Gaius devised this kind of bridge in rivalry of Xerxes, who excited no little admiration by bridging the much narrower Hellespont. But when I was a boy, I used to hear my grandfather say that the reason for the work, as revealed by the emperor's confidential courtiers, was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his successor and inclined towards his natural grandson,​ that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.
Seneca (of course) left us a famous denunciation of the place:
Baiae is a place to be avoided, because, though it has certain natural advantages, luxury has claimed it for her own exclusive resort. "What then," you say, "should any place be singled out as an object of aversion?" Not at all. But just as, to the wise and upright man, one style of clothing is more suitable than another, without his having an aversion for any particular colour, but because he thinks that some colours do not befit one who has adopted the simple life; so there are places also, which the wise man or he who is on the way toward wisdom will avoid as foreign to good morals. Therefore, if he is contemplating withdrawal from the world, he will not select Canopus (although Canopus does not keep any man from living simply), nor Baiae either; for both places have begun to be resorts of vice. At Canopus luxury pampers itself to the utmost degree; at Baiae it is even more lax, as if the place itself demanded a certain amount of licence. We ought to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. Just as I do not care to live in a place of torture, neither do I care to live in a cafe. To witness persons wandering drunk along the beach, the riotous revelling of sailing parties, the lakes a-din with choral song, and all the other ways in which luxury, when it is, so to speak, released from the restraints of law not merely sins, but blazons its sins abroad — why must I witness all this?
Seneca even blamed Hannibal's defeat in the Second Punic War on the winter he spent in this region, which softened and corrupted him.

One of Baiae's main attractions was its baths, which left the most impressive on-shore ruins.

The larger chambers of the baths were roofed with concrete domes, one of which was probably the largest in the world until the Pantheon was built in Rome.

It's an amazing place, somewhat ignored because if you have two or even three days in Naples you're probably still better off spending it all at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

I have been thinking about Baiae because of the convergence of two themes. First is all the reading I have done about the surging volcanism around Naples. Second is Graham Hancock. I know I should just get Graham Hancock out of my head instead of letting him have all that space rent free, but it seems like no matter what cool archaeological discovery I look into somebody is citing Hancock to denounce the official archaeological explanation. One of Hancock's recurring gestures is to attack archaeologists for ignoring all the evidence for ancient civilizations drowned by rising seas. But archaeologists love drowned cities! There are hundred of publications about Baiae. The submerged part of the town is an archaeological park, and thousands of people dive or snorkle there every year.

Archaeologists are not dour scholars who hate fun; on the contrary they have, as a group, a love of adventure and a contempt for desk-bound fuddy-duddies. To me the weirdest thing about Hancock's Atlantis schtick is his insistence that archaeologists don't accept his cool version of the past because we are sinister grouches who feel threatened by everything new, different, cool, or meaningful. That is exactly the oppsite of archaeology's real problems.

Monday, April 29, 2024

The Battle of Summerdale and the Witch's Prophecy

In 1529 there was a small battle on the Island of Orkney, known as the Battle of Summerdale. This was, in the best tradition, a fight about taxation. The Earl of Orkney was at that time a young boy, so the right to collect his taxes had been sold to tax farmers who were widely hated. Two illegitimate half-brothers of the Earl eventually rebelled. They seized control of Orkney and declared 1) they were now in charge; and 2) taxation was eliminated and the tax farmers outlawed. But the friends of the Earl's mother responded by raising a force of 500 men under the command of the Earl of Caithness and invading Orkney. The story:

It was said that when the Earl of Caithness and his troops landed in Orphir, a witch walked before them on the march.

The crone unwound two balls of wool - one blue, the other red. The red ball was the first to run out and the witch assured the Earl that the side whose blood was spilled first would certainly be defeated.

It would appear that the Earl put great faith in the witch's proclamation. So much so that he was determined to slay the first Orcadian he met - man, woman or child - to ensure his victory on the day.

The first person he met was a defenceless young herd boy. The Caithness men fell on the hapless youth and murdered him. Only after the lad lay dead at their feet did they learn from the witch that their victim was no Orcadian - he was a Caithness boy who had taken refuge in Orkney.

Unnerved by this event, the Caithness men quickly broke when the fighting started, casting their weapons into Kirbister Loch and fleeing. Those who did run fast enough were killed.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

A Week in the Field

I was in the field for four days this week, with long commutes, so not much time to write.

Here is one archaeological find, a sherd of a kind of pottery called Pope's Creek Net Impressed. This was made and used by the same Middle Woodland people I wrote about three weeks ago, although from a different site.

Incidentally Pope's Creek was named for the same Pope family that created endless confusion over the naming of places around Washington. One of the Popes claimed a land grant in what is now DC that he called Rome, so he could be the Pope in Rome. He named the creek that flowed across this property the Tiber. That, not some later claim to imperiam grandeur, is why Washington had a stream called Tiber Creek.

Don't know what this is beautiful bush is; looked like some kind of feral hydrangea, escaped from one of the expensively landscaped mansions in the neighborhood.

I was near Pimmit Run for much of this time, and I had time to explore down the creek to its mouth. This was an industrial area for two centuries. I believe these stones are a remnant of Pearson's Mill, which is where the Declaration of Independence and other key papers were hidden when the British took Washington in 1814.

This seems to be a remnant of a small hydrolectric station built in the 1890s.

The saw-toothed landscape is a remnant of quarrying in the early 1900s; the Potomac is in the background. 

Very little about this landscape is natural. Knowing so much history about this part of the world, I often find it amusing to participate in environmental impact studies here. Under NEPA, there are two kinds of impacts, "temporary" and "permanent." Temporary means during construction, things like dust and vibration from machines. Everything else is permanent. So I will hear people talking about "permanent" impacts to a forest that I know has only been there for 60 years, growing over an old quarry or a factory or what have you, and while I feel certain that whatever I am helping to build will not really last any longer, I strive to keep my mouth shut about what "permanent" really means; nobody likes a smart-aleck.

Walking along Pimmit Run I beheld the marvelous spectacle of wisteria overhanging the creek, like something from a fantasy jungle.

And then when I walked in the other direction, even more spectacular. There is much to be seen in the world, if you look.

Lewis Hyde, "Trickster Makes this World"

Trickster Makes this World (1998) is a semi-famous book about twentieth-century art, 90 percent of which focuses on the worldwide myth of the Trickster. The book has been extravagantly praised, but not by anthropologists or folklorists; it is artists and writers who love it. I am enough of a folklorist and anthropologist to understand why it might bother academic researchers – and, I imagine, storytellers rooted in Native traditions – but taken for what it is, it is quite wonderful.

I can remember first encountering traditional trickster tales and being both baffled and disgusted. In some traditions, stories of characters like Raven, Coyote, and Rabbit are the most holy lore, told only in winter, in complete darkness. Some of them concern first things: creation, the separation of earth from heaven, the origin of death. And yet, they are bizarre, ridiculous, disgusting, and immoral. In various stories Coyote plucks out his eyes and sends them for a walk, eats his way out from under a mountain of shit, burns his own anus when he mistakes it for a monster's mouth, lies, steals, cheats, disobeys direct orders from the high gods, and violates every taboo. Coyote is a creature of monstrous appetites for food, sex, and fun, frequently unable to restrain his desires. There is a whole class of stories in which somebody tells Coyote, "but above all, don't do X," whereupon Coyote immediately does X.

Why would sacred stories of cosmic origins be mixed up with such nonsense?

When Christian missionaries encountered such stories, first in Africa and then around the world, they often associted Trickster deities with Satan. They weren't just demonizing the enemy, but had understood something vital about these myths. In the Christian tradition it is the temptation of Adam and Eve by the Serpent that sets human history in motion, breaking the perfect sterility of life in Eden and launching us onto the path of birth, death, creation, and destruction. Many Tricksters do the same. As the missionaries saw, they played the part of Satan, evoking and invoking the desire that condemns humanity to life in a world where we can walk freely, but which is walled around with time and death.

One way to think about life is to imagine a balance between order and chaos; too much of either is intolerable. Other gods have a strong tendency toward order. Trickster upsets their orderly systems, breaks their rigid rules, and helps turn a perfect but perfectly boring universe into the crazy one we know. 

To Hyde, this is what avant garde art does. It shakes up our world by breaking rules and pointing the way from sterile stasis toward something more vibrant and interesting. Some modern artists, notably Picasso, have embraced this role and publicly identified with the Trickster. I wrote here several years ago that I see Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei as a Trickster figure, joking his way through a profound challenge to Chinese authority.

In one interesting section Hyde asks why avant garde art has often been criticized for obscenity. Systems of order, he writes, are often inscribed on bodies; the way people dress and carry themselves is often seen as the most powerful expression of social control:

It should by now be easier to see why there will always be art that uncovers the body, and artists who speak shamelessly, even obscenely. All social structures do well to anchor their rules of conduct in the seemingly simple inscrption of the body, so that only after I have covered my privates am I allowed to show my face to the world and have a public life. The rules of bodily decorum usually imply that the cosmos depends on the shame we feel about our bodies. But sometimes the lesson is a lie, and a cunningly self-protecting one at that, for to question it requires self-exposure and loss of face, and who would want that? Well, trickster would, as would all those who find that they cannot fashion a place for themselves in the world until they have spoken against collective slience. We certainly see this – not just the speaking out but the self-exposure – in Allen Ginsberg. . . . To the degree that other orders are linked to the way the body is inscribed, and to the degree that the link is sealed by rules of silence, the first stuttering questioning of those orders must always begin by breaking trhe seal and speaking about the body. (p. 172)

That's a typical bit of Hyde on art, using the cosmic significance of Trickster's ludicrous amorality to deepen our understanding of art from which many people have recoiled.

Another theme Hyde finds in Trickster stories is a dialogue about power, fate, and divinity. Many West Africans, and their New World descendants, use divination via lots to ascertain the will of the gods. But in many stories, the gods themselves resort to divination. What are they consulting, if not themselves? In the African traditions, divination was created by the Trickster figure – Eshu, Legba – when he separated the human and divine worlds. The most important conduit between heaven and earth, therefore, passes through the unreliable hands of the Trickster. Tricksters represent the limits on the Gods' power; they can do many things, but not control Raven, Coyote, or Eshu. This is why Trickster figures are abhorent to the Abrahamic faiths, which cannot accept any limit on God's majesty, and do not admit that there any situations when divine commandments should be disobeyed.

But if the Gods are good, and all powerful, and love us, why are things the way they are? Maybe because Trickster screwed up the Plan. In so doing, he gave us the opportunity to live freely, and to make choices that matter. But his gifts bear with them shreds of the original chaos against which the other Gods erected their creation. We may be free to walk along the cosmic border for a while, but in the world Trickster made we never cross to safety, and eventually fall back into the void.

Father Jetté wanted very much to make a collection of tales, but there were difficulties. The Ten'a were reluctant to let the Raven stories be put in writing, for one thing (though another group of tales – "the inane stories," Jetté calls them – could be had for the asking). Jetté tried to transcribe tales as they were being told, but the utter darkness frustrated him. Nobody would repeat the stories in daylight, and at night whenever he struck a match to light a candle, the storyteller fell instandly silent.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Links 26 April 2024

Rock Art Depicting a Battle Scene at Segar, Algeria, c. 3500-5000 BC

The FTC bans most non-compete clauses, which keep many workers from jumping to their employers' competitors. Of course this will be fought over in court. I think, though, that employers will have hard time proving that this will hurt them, given that they have never been legal in California or a bunch of other states.

Archaeologists find stone tools, rock art, and other evidence of humans in a lava tube in the Saudi Arabian desert. (NY Times, original article)

What Tyler Cowen is nostaligc about.

Industrialization in Stuart Britain: "The research shows that 17th century Britain saw a steep decline in agricultural peasantry, and a surge in people who manufactured goods."

Kevin Drum reminds us that the number of housing units per household in the US has not changed meaningfully over the past 23 years. We don't have a national housing shortage, just a shortage in certain urban areas where a lot of ambitious young people want to live.

A history of gender in Egypt, which has veered between relative equality and severe patriarchy over the millennia. Text isn't that impressive but it's a remarkable collection of images.

A British critic says classical music is dying because people think it is elitist. Considering how much great stuff is on YouTube with millions of views, I think "dying" is going a bit far. Here is Alexandra Conunova playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons without once glancing at sheet music, great performance. But it is true that classical music no longer has the dominant cultural position it had in my youth.

Anti-communism and the beginnings of Singapore's economic boom.

Impacts of Norway's ban on smart phones in middle schools. Summary at Marginal Revolutions.

Spitalfields Life considers William Kent's Arch, a fascinating little surivival of lost London.

The King of Aragon's Stairs.

Contents of the amphora found on a Roman shipwreck in Minorca have been analyzed, and of course it was carrying fish sauce. And other stuff, but, inevitably, fish sauce.

Penelope Fitzgerald, who became a major novelist at 62.

Newly discovered Klimt portrait sells for $37 million. (NY Times, Artnet)

Making gold leaf one atom thick.

Watching six people trying to take cell phone photos of an osprey too distant to be more than a dark dot made me wonder how much of global computer memory is devoted to terrible photographs.

Reports that the US has a cruise missile that can destroy electronic components with blasts of microwaves, and has deployed them to the Middle East (news story, wikipedia on the missile, US Air Force on the program, skeptical take here). Nobody knows what to make of this, and some physicists find the claims for this missile absurd.

Video on Twitter/X of a huge smoke screen deployed to protect a Russian advance from dones.

The Wisteria House

My neighborhood was developed in stages. The first phase took place in the early 1900s, when part of it was divided into 2- to 5-acre lots; the neighborhood is still dotted with houses from that period. This is one.

This particular house has over the past decade fallen on hard times.

The front porch has completely collapsed, and the lovely old lattice fence looks like this. 

On the other hand, the yard has gotten completely overgrown with feral wisteria.

Which is really kind of amazing.

Belief vs. "Belief"

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

In the New Yorker, Manvir Singh asks a much better question: how do people believe in conspiracy theories?

"Belief" is a complicated thing. Singh has been reading French philosopher Dan Sperber (born 1942), who drew a sharp line between two different kinds of belief:

Staying with the Dorze people in southern Ethiopia, Sperber noticed that they made assertaions that they seemed both to believe and not to believe. People told him, for example, that "the leopard is a Christian animal who observes the fasts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church." Nevertheless, the average Dorze man guarded his livestock on fast days just as much as on other days. "Not because he suspects some leopards of being bad Christians," Sperber wrote, "but because he takes it as true both that leopards fast and that they are always dangerous."

Sperber concluded that there are two kinds of beliefs. The first he called "factual" beliefs. Factual beliefs – such as the belief that leopards are dangerous – guide behavior and tolerate little inconsistency; you can't believe that leopards do and do not eat livestock. The second category he called "symbolic" beliefs. These beliefs might feel genuine, but they're cordoned off from action and expectation. We are much more accepting of inconsistency when it comes to symbolic beliefs. We can believe, say, that God is all-powerful and good while allowing for the existence of evil and suffering.

A more recent writer, Neil Van Leeuwen, has extended Sperber's work. To Van Leeuwen, the two kinds of beliefs serve different purposes. We use "factual" beliefs for modeling reality, so we modify them in the face of evidence. "Symbolic beliefs, meanwhile, serve social ends, not epistemic ones, so we can hold them even in the face of contradictory evidence."

The idea that religious beliefs serve mainly a social function is old, but I have never found it convincing. I prefer the notion I associate with Weston La Barre and T.M. Luhrman, that religious beliefs exist because of the way they make us feel. Luhrman wrote an excellent book on British neo-pagans in which she gave up trying to figure out what they believed; they pursued their religious practice, she wrote, because of the way it sometimes made them feel. 

One of the constant themes of Christian practice is the difficulty even committed fundamentalists have taking their own beliefs seriously. They reguarly pray, and have been since the Gospels were written, for God to deepen their faith. Nobody has to pray for more faith in dishwashers.

Anyway it is an old idea, supported by a lot of evidence, that religious belief is something different from more everyday kinds of beliefs.

What category does belief in conspiracy theories fall into? Singh argues, to my mind persuasively, that conspiracy beliefs are like religious beliefs. Thus, they are immune to evidence, and people hold them for reasons that are social or emotional rather than reality-based.

Obviously there are shades to this, because some conspiracies are real, and others might be. Nor is there a hard line between belief in conspiracy theories and a lot of other political beliefs. But you should never be surprised that people believe things for which there is no evidence.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Cormorants and Mayapples

Spent Friday back on the Potomac, a day made interesting by two signs of progressing Spring.

Down on the river, something was clearly happening. At least a hundred cormorants were swarming the half mile or so of river I could see from my vantage point. Here you can see four resting in a tree and one floating on the river beyond.

They were all over the river because the shad were running. Shad (Alosa sapidissima) is eastern North America's main anadromous fish, that is, they spend most of their lives in the ocean but return to fresh water to breed. They were a vital food source for Indians and a key economic support for the early British colonies. 

The swarms of cormorants were amazing. Overfishing, dams, and polution nearly ended the shad migration in the Potomac by 1970, but since then they have been coming back, and it is great to see.

And then when I took a lunchtime walk I found that the mayapples are blooming.

The blooming of mayapples is one of those events that is wonderful mainly because it lasts such a short time, and is so unpredictable, that you are unlikely to see it. It's been at least a decade since I last enjoyed it.

So to most people mayapple flowers are sort of a myth, and mayapples just boring forest plants that other people tell you are amazing when they bloom. In fact just two weeks ago somebody pointed to a mayapple plant growing near our site and said, "They tell me those bloom." They do!

Following the mayapples up a little creek called Donaldson Run I blundered into this concrete dam. I think this had something to do with the quarrying that took place all along this stretch of river from the 1890s to World War II. (The Pentagon was built with stone from around here.)

So it ended up being a pretty good day.

Helen Rountree and E. Randolph Turner III, "Before and after Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors"

Helen Rountree (born 1944) has long been the leading historian of Virginia's Indians. She turned a girlhood obsession with Pocahontas into a successful academic career, writing several books about the people she calls Powhatans. The books she wrote herself cover the period from European contact to the present, and she has also teamed with archaeologists to write two others that take the story back in time.

Before and After Jamestown (2002) is a popular book written at a pretty basic level, but it is full of good information. It is particularly strong on how we know what we know about the Indians of 1607. The sources are: English narratives, especially those of John Smith, William Strachey, and (three generations later) Robert Beverly; archaeology; ethnographic comparison with other Native American communities; and "living history," i.e., modern attempts to re-create past technologies. Rountree makes no use of supposed Native "traditions" until a much later period, when she refers to oral histories recorded in the late 1800s to reconstruct the movements of tribal communities in the reservation era. Rountree is a fan of the English narratives, and while she thinks they misunderstood much, she generally defers to specific claims they made.

For example, John Smith tells us that Powhatan (the person) received the English seated among a dozen of his wives, who were all decked out in their finery. Historians of a feminist bent have challenged this, asserting that the women Smith saw must really have been the Women's Council. But none of our sources mention that Virginia Indians ever had women's councils on the Iroquois model, and even among the Iroquois women's councils had nothing to do with receiving foreign ambassadors, which was entirely managed by the men. Rountree follows Smith's version.

When it comes to archaeology, Rountree is also – how to put this? – pro Eurocentric scholarship. She makes much use of evidence that comes from excavating human burials, including demographic data  and chemical analysis that can document diets and movement between regions. Some modern Indians regard information gleaned from looting graves the way others see the work of Nazi scientists, and think it should never be cited. Virginia's Indian communities have until recently been officially on board with Rountree's approach, and have insisted only on reburial of remains after study. One of the biggest Indian events in Virginia in my lifetime was the reburial of the skeletons from the Great Neck Site in Virginia Beach. I think this probably stems in part from the struggles Virginia's Indians have gone through to establish their identity as Indians, which has made them value historical information over purity. I have the sense, though, that this is changing, and younger generations of Native leaders will try to block any excavation of Indian graves.

Rountree participated for decades in living history programs, introducing generations of her students to Indian basketry, ceramics, house-building, and so on. Some participants in these programs have gotten good enough at the tasks involved to give us real data on how long things like weaving reed mats or stitching shell beads to deerskin actually took. The answer is always some version of "a long time." Certain moderns like to fantasize that more primitive peoples lived laid-back, lazy lives, but this was not true of North American Indians. At least two Indian men are recorded as bragging that they were at home wherever they went, since their houses could be put up in a few hours. But that few hours only covers the assembly of the house. The preparation of the materials could take months, especially in areas where the roofing was reed mats. One of John Smith's famous observations was that forests around Indian villages had been completely stripped of small trees and downed branches, so you could gallop a horse through them unhindered. That was done by women collecting firewood, and it means that after a village had been in place for a few years the women had to travel miles to find fuel for the fires they kept constantly burning.

Rountree has a good eye for issues that are interesting in both the scholarly and general senses. She devotes quite a few pages in Before and After Jamestown to the great difference between men's and women's lives. She has the same impression I have, that certain Indians considered men and women to be separate species that had to come together to make babies but otherwise avoided each other. We have descriptions of Indian women treating their husbands as little more than sources of meat and hides, and mocking or even divorcing them if they failed to provide enough. As for the men, when they entered adulthood they went through a rite that comes down to us under the name of Huskanaw. This was a verion of the standard Woodland Indian initiation rite, in which adolescent boys were taken into the woods and made to hallucinate through some combination of hunger, thirst, pain, exhaustion, and drugs. In the Powhatan version they were supposed to imagine themselves being reborn and emerging with everything they learned in their childhoods forgotten. They even had to be retaught to eat and drink. It's hard to know how seriously to take that claim, but William Strachey wrote it down, so Rountree and I both believe some Indian told him that. Anyway the newborn young men were supposed to forget all childish things and everything else about the years they spent in the company of their mothers.

Randy Turner's contribution to Before and After Jamestown uses archaeology to extend the story back to around 900 AD, when Virginia Indians took up growing corn and beans. This section is pretty thin, because, honestly, what archaeology tells us about Indian life is pretty thin. We have the outlines of their houses, quite a lot of their pottery, enough animal bones to confirm what John Smith wrote about their diets, and thousands of stone arrowheads. Virginia has the worst kind of soil (acidic) and climate (alternately wet and dry, cold and hot) for preservation of anything else. We have next to no art, and all of what we do have was preserved by being taken to Britain. (Like the deerskin cloak above, to which hundreds of small shells were stitched; the Ashmolean calls it Powhatan's Mantle.) We know the Indians made cloaks covered with feathers, but none survive from this part of the world. We know they made music, but we have none of their instruments. 

That leaves us with the burials. From them we learn that Virginia's Indians had a harsh age pyramid, with many people dying young and very few living past 50. We learn that they traded for copper from the Great Lakes region and used it to make ornaments. We learn that they had several different ways of treating the dead, which is honestly one of North American archaeology's more puzzling discoveries. Every Indian a white man ever asked said, "Among my people we treat the dead like this," without any qualifications about different approaches for different kinds of people, but the archaeology shows this was not so.

It is humbling for an archaeologist to consider that there is more information in any one of the three main English accounts of Powhatan life than we have ever been able to learn or could learn by any technology we have or could imagine. 

What archaeology can do is push the story very far back in time. So far as we can tell, after AD 900 Indians in eastern North America were living in pretty much the way that Smith and Strachey described. They were also ethnically the same people, speaking similar languages. Which is why Turner and Rountree started their book at that time. Rountree in particular has been a great advocate for Virginia's Indians, which had led to her being made an honorary member of two tribes, which I think is yet another reason why she chose this framework of dates.

Because so far as archaeologists can tell, the cultures that formed across the eastern seaboard when Central American agriculture arrived – the triad of corns, beans, and squash – were not ancient. Before that Indians practiced a limited sort of agriculture with native North American plants such as sumpweed and sunflowers, but without corn their lives seem to have been quite different. Tracing the story back 10,000 years we can see people living as hunters and gatherers with low population densities, a world Powhatan people would have found very strange.

Linguistics also tells a story. The Powhatans spoke Algonquian languages that anthropologists are pretty certain came from the Great Lakes region within the past 2,000 years. The archaeology points to c. 500-700 AD as the most likely time. And this is, after the issues of burials, the place where scholars and Indians have lately come into the most stubborn conflicts. After having been shoved out of one place after another, many Indians have taken to insisting that their peoples have lived in their current homelands "forever." For eastern North America, this is not true. Archaeology tells a story of repeated migrations and replacements going back thousands of years. As in Europe and Asia, the spread of agriculture seems to have been accompanied by large scale migrations and conflicts. Of course that never means total replacement, and the Indians who lived in Virginia presumably had some genes from people who had lived in the region 5,000 years ago. But archaeologists don't do "forever."

By starting in AD 900 Turner and Rountree avoided all this controversy. Which is fine, their book is about the Powhatan people, who can't really be said to have existed before then. As I said, as a book about the ethnography and history Virginia's Indians it is very fine. It is also highly accessible, even for students, which is a real achievement. So if you are curious about that time and place I recommend it. I wonder, though, if the historical consensus represented by this book can long endure, or if it exists even in the 2020s. The agendas of Indian activists and people who want to science the past have lately been moving ever farther apart, and I expect that will continue.

Friday, April 19, 2024

A Trip to New York

Thursday I rode the train up to New York City for a meeting about a big project in which I have a small role. My journey started at the BWI train station.

Farewell Baltimore.

At high speed through the land of chemical plants around the Delaware River.

Hello Philadelphia.

Arrival in New York at the new Moynihan Train Hall, which is way nicer than the welcome you used to get from Amtrak.

Ah, Midtown.

Actually I had two meetings. First was a pre-meeting meeting in our corporate offices, which are right by Penn Station. But that only took ten minutes, leaving me nearly two hours to kill before the main meeting. So I took a walk. 

The sort of thing you see on the street in New York, a photographer taking pictures of a girl doing ballet in the street.

I walked from up 7th Avenue, past the center of the worldwide liberal conspiracy,

To Central Park. Which was 24 blocks, but I was tense about the upcoming meeting and walking fast.

The playground just inside the park was completely empty on a rainy Thursday.

I think those new towers are what they call Billionaire's Row

Then back to my office to meet the rest of our team and ride the Subway out to Queens for the main meeting. But our subway stop was right across the street from All Faiths Cemetery, a huge place founded in 1852 with 588,000 "permanent residents." So after the meeting I said my goodbyes and went off exploring.

Interesting group of recent Chinese graves.

Awesome, athough photographs can't do justice to the feeling of walking through a cemetery on a rainy day.

And then the three hour ride back home to Catonsville. An amazing, tiring day.