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Alternative archaeology update

Well, what do you know? The title of this Forbes story that's been going around today seemed awfully familiar, and it turns out it's actually a review, of sorts, of the recent American Antiquity book reviews section on alternative archaeology. The SAA has, in fact, made the entire section open-access. That's awesome, and if you don't already have an AmAnt subscription you should go out and download it. It's definitely worth a read!

Alternative archaeology and American Antiquity

I don't, admittedly, always read the reviews section of the SAA's flagship journal, American Antiquity. I am, however, quite glad that I did last month (or, more accurately, this month, since I didn't open the July issue until just a few days ago). That is because the current reviews section is devoted entirely to reviews of "alternative archaeology" titles, in a special reviews section, titled "Talking to the Guy on the Airplane." These are worth a read for a few reasons. First, many of them are quite funny, especially if you find "alternative archaeology" entertaining anyway, as I do. Second, many of the reviews make important points about why it is that people are much more interested in alternative archaeology than they are in actual archaeology (for lack of a better word). Stephen Lekson's review, in particular, has some good points about why "all archaeologists not named Brian Fagan" tend to be much less successful than alternative archaeologists at writing for a popular audience. Third, for archaeologists, who often tend to ignore this sort of thing, it's an interesting overview of what's actually out there in terms of alternative archaeology. For example, William Conner's Iron Age America gets a review. I occasionally see him posting to the ARCH-METALS mailing list, and have often wondered what he was all about. Well, now I don't have to wonder anymore!

I do find one thing very strange, though. One of the stated purposes of this special reviews section was to provide laypeople with an overview of what archaeologists actually think of various alternative archaeologies and why we reject those ideas. To quote, "Accordingly, the main intent of these reviews is to offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them" (Holly 2015: 616). This is, I think, a good goal, especially because, as Holly implies, most of the people who consume alternative archaeology are probably not "true believers." I'd argue, however, that the best way to engage this audience is not to bury these reviews in a closed-access PDF labeled only "Reviews" that only SAA members can download. This seems to me to miss the point. I should note that Holly has uploaded his introductory piece to his page, but maybe if the goal was to reach a wide audience of non-archaeologists, it would have made more sense to make the entire thing open-access to begin with? Or to make all of them open-access at all? Or to advertise this at all? To be fair, this is not the first time the SAA has done a less-than-stellar job of disseminating information to all of the people who might be interested in it. Still, it'd be nice if they did this time!

EDIT: In the course of my Googling on this topic, I've discovered that Jennifer Raff already wrote a better post on this a month ago. She's asked people to pester the SAA about making all of these reviews open-access, but this doesn't seem to have had much success yet, unfortunately.

Works Cited

Holly, Donald H., Jr. 2015. Talking to the Guy on the Airplane. American Antiquity 80(3):615-617.

Ceramic aesthetics and decline at the 2015 SAAs

I realized earlier this week, as often happens around this time of year, that the SAA Annual Meeting is less than two weeks away. I should really be writing the rest of my talk right now, but rather than do that, I'm going to procrastinate by writing about the talk here, instead. The conference is in San Francisco this year, which is a bit mundane compared to the past two I've attended — Honolulu and Austin — but, combined with the fact that last year's ASOR meeting was in San Diego, does make my conference travel this academic year relatively easy. I already have more entirely archaeological activities lined up than I'd probably be able to do even if I weren't attending a conference, so it should be a successful SAA trip, even if it isn't Hawaii.

I gave my paper this year a deliberately vague title, in order to try to avoid being put into an "Archaeology of Jordan"-type session. I was moderately successful there, but at a rather large price. I'm instead in the "Studies of Technology, Ecology, and Craft Production in South, Central, and Western Asia" session, which is still a catch-all session, but at least with something of an interesting theme compared to "Archaeology of Jordan." I'd say that I hope the crowd will be bigger, too, but I don't expect to be speaking to anyone but the other people in the session for this one. I have the good fortune of giving the 8 AM presentation on Sunday morning, which I suspect is the least-attended time slot of the entire conference. Ah, well, you can't win them all. Plus, my good friend and colleague Aaron Gidding is presenting in the same session, so it's not all bad.

The talk itself is a review of what we currently know about the hand-made ceramic traditions of the Middle and Late Islamic periods, focusing primarily on a long-lived group called the Hand-Made Geometrically-Painted Wares, or HMGPW for short. Rather than looking exclusively at material from Jordan, I've tried to put together a somewhat impressionistic picture of the distribution of this ware (and related wares), which is surprisingly broad. You'll, of course, have to show up at 8 AM to hear more. Following tradition, here's the abstract for the talk.

Questioning Technological and Economic “Decline” in the Medieval Rural Levant

Ian W. N. Jones

This paper argues against a common view of medieval Levantine villages as isolated from larger regional centers by examining a group of hand-made ceramics — commonly called Hand-Made Geometrically Painted Wares (HMGPW), and formerly “pseudo-prehistoric” wares — prevalent across the Levant from the 12th-17th centuries AD, and possibly longer. They are generally seen as the products of non-specialist village potters and, as the older name suggests, an example of technological decline. That view, though, is based primarily on ethnographic evidence from the late 19th and 20th century Levant, and hinges on a number of assumed, and generally unquestioned, dichotomies: urban/rural, specialist/non-specialist, wheel-made/hand-made. As HMGPW is the most visible indicator of settlement during these periods in the southern Levant, these assumptions have influenced the ways archaeologists conceive of rural Levantine economies, leading to a view of villages as disconnected from larger centers where higher-quality, wheel-made pots were produced. This view, however, is at odds with historical evidence for substantial state investment in rural agriculture. In this paper, I present a broader approach to HMGPW — integrating archaeological and ethnoarchaeological insights from beyond the Levant — that helps us better understand what the widespread adoption and longevity of this “retrogressive” technology says about rural economies.