Reports landed today that skeletal evidence from the Jamestown colony shows, on at least one occasion, cannibalism practiced by the first permanent European settlers in what’s now the U.S.
The announcement came first from the Smithsonian’s Newsdesk, in a posting that contains lots of great images and video clips. A number of big-name media jumped on it: Within hours we got writeups and broadcasts from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the BBC, among others.
From what I can tell, a lot of good archaeology and forensic work went into this announcement. At the Smithsonian link above, you can see images of the cutmarks on the skull and mandible-the evidence of what the anthropologists referred to as “hesitant” attempts to deflesh the young woman. Young woman? Yes: Isotope analysis of her bones indicates a diet high in grains native to Europe, implying she was an immigrant, and other skeletal signs point to an age at death in her early teens.
But one part of this story is, to my mind, overblown. Or at least overextended.
When I teach introductory courses in archaeology and anthropology, I always spend time talking about cannibalism. Students tend to be interested in the topic, and it’s one that anthropologists have spent a lot of time studying, so I have a lot of material to draw from.
I always contextualize the idea of cannibalism: endocannibalism (consuming people in your social group, usually for ritual purposes), vs. exocannibalism (consuming people outside your social group, much rarer, and usually for different ritual purposes), vs. survival cannibalism (consuming people to avert starvation). Furthermore, I note that “cannibal” has historically been a slur (with little or no evidence) used by European colonizers to justify enslavement or genocide against Native people.
The point is that there’s a lot of nuance involved in eating humans, and there are times and places where various groups have socially sanctioned cannibalizing some but not others, and that the charge of “cannibal” has historically been a fraught one.
Moreover, better than a century of anthropological fieldwork (cultural, archaeological, and biological) has demonstrated numerous examples in which human societies routinely deflesh, dismember, or otherwise alter their dead, but do not actually consume them. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Kilgrove has an excellent discussion of several cases in this post.
To put it simply, this evidence from Jamestown doesn’t actually prove that a person was eaten, it proves that a person was defleshed. Big difference. The claim that the colonists then proceeded to consume her flesh is an assumption, not something demonstrated by the evidence presented.
What constitutes evidence of cannibalism? Preserved stomach contents or feces containing markers of human tissue are the gold standard, such as that found through molecular analysis of a coprolite at a site called Coyote Wash (Abstract here, though you have to pay to read the article. Also: Some dispute this analysis).
Now, as assumptions go, this one seems quite reasonable to me. I think it’s pretty fair to assume that in the Jamestown case, eating followed defleshing. The skeletal remains date to a particularly bad stretch of the colony’s early years, when food was short, disease was rife, and death was everywhere. Remember survival cannibalism? We know this has happened, for instance, in lifeboat situations: There’s even English case law to deal with it. When it’s eat our own or starve, it seems we tend to choose the former (though as in the lifeboat case, we may not be judged well when things get back to normal).
Though it might seem a bit pedantic to stress the point, good interpretation in archaeology (and all anthropology) involves clearly identifying those things that are demonstrated by our evidence and those things that result from analogy and assumption. No matter how likely the assumption.
Today, with UNC Wilmington on spring break, I’m heading from North Carolina to New York, with a twist: I’m traveling via Amtrak (officially, the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the U.S.’s partially public intercity passenger rail service).
I thought I’d take the chance to use this long trip (~9 hours on the train, plus a 4 hour bus connection to get me from Wilmington to Wilson, NC) to practice live-blogging via the iPhone’s WordPress app, and to offer some thoughts and comments on the materiality of transportation. That last part’s very much a work in progress; the goal’s to go beyond simply “these seats sure are comfy,” though there will be some of that as well.
Below, I’ll be posting time-marked updates throughout the trip, with the most recent on top. Feel free to send comments my way, either on the post or through Twitter (@JohnRRoby).
9:51 p.m. – I think this will be it for tonight. We’re nearing Philadelphia, and the end’s in sight. So it’s a good time to talk about, well, time.
The time involved is one of the big knocks on long-distance travel by car, bus, or rail over air. I think in two ways, this is a false argument. The first is pretty obvious, the second is maybe less so.
First, all schedules are not created equal. A flight that “takes 90 minutes” doesn’t include travel to and from the airport, the vagaries of security, and the ripple effects of hub delays on increasingly consolidated airlines. The last time I flew from Wilmington to Binghamton, the trip took 7 hours, only about 3 of which were in the air.
That’s obvious. What might be more hidden is the notion of what one’s time represents. This is a way bigger issue than I want to deal with on an iPhone keypad. Briefly, then, two thoughts:
1. Is it worth more time to be more comfy, more dignified, more social? If it’s not, what’s more important?
2. Would there be value in saying “no” to the (very odd) expectation that we could cross a continent in an afternoon? What would that value be?
6:59 p.m. – Briefly, for the record, in response to emailers:
1. Wi-Fi on this train’s only in the Lounge Car. Works fine for my purposes, no drops while I’ve been here.
2. Two 120v outlets at every pair of seats. I’ve spot-checked a half-dozen or so, all work.
3. No dining car, just the lounge. Food there is … unappealing to me (all packaged and run thru a microwave.
6:37 p.m. – More on space, this time less material and more metaphorical.
Obviously, train travel gets you around the increasingly intrusive and bizarre and somewhat arbitrary airport security dance. Obvious yes, but it’s still striking to experience. I got the feeling Amtrak wanted my business, rather than attempting to put up roadblocks to it. That isn’t a totally fair comparison, but no amount of forced “we’d like to thank you for flying X today” can erase the sheer pain of air travel.
There’s a sense of openness – dare I say “freedom”? – to seeing the landscape speed by (or even crawl by). It’s a big, and pretty, damn country. A bird’s eye view, oddly, doesn’t capture that.
Metaphorically, everything from the light to the view to the legroom and headroom to the boarding process to the easy conversation, is mutually constitutive, and reinforcing. One aspect glides easily into another, and it seems welcoming and empowering, in a very unforced way.
I’m beginning to wonder why we don’t expect this sort of travel-as-experiential-spectacle more.
As mentioned below, I’m 6’1″, and I can comfortably stand. The big windows let in lots of natural light. I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic on planes; I don’t see how that could happen here.
That openness extends to the seating too. They’re quite clever: they have a sort of extendable legrest and they recline. You can get very comfy very quickly. And the seats are generous enough that two adults who aren’t friendly can relax without awkwardness.
Below, I gripe about seat pitch on the bus. Compare this view of my knees, and check that foot of spare pitch.
3:49 p.m. – Time to take stock of the supplies.
Full water bottle, and the coffee thermos I filled at Wilmington’s excellent Port City Java this morning is (amazingly) still hot. But unlike everyone else in the car, I packed no food. Rookie mistake.
Chapstick, yes, hand lotion, no. It’s quite warm and dry.
Copious reading material: oh yes. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Zizek); Re/Presenting Class (Gibson-Graham, Resnick, and Wolff eds.); and New Directions in Marxian Theory (Resnick and Wolff). On the lighter side, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (Howe) on the Kindle. Hoping to put a dent in all of them this coming week.
3:31 p.m. – Two things strike me already: a feeling of motion and a sense of space. I’ll save space for a bit later.
Motion: This train hauls. Acceleration is quick and smooth, not like a plane or car at all. It feels effortless and fluid.
And passing an intersection, with the guard arm down and flashing, cars lined up and the whistle blowing, is oddly a bit of a thrill.
2:26 p.m. – “All aboard!” I love that they say this.
Scheduled departure from Wilson, NC was 2:23, and we left right on schedule. Compares pretty favorably with most of my recent bus and plane trips.
Briefly, the bus ride from Wilmington to Wilson was fine. Amtrak operates or contracts scores of these “Thruway” routes (on full-size, intercity buses) to connect unserved cities with its train stations. In Wilmington, pickup was from the main city bus station, which was quite convenient for someone like me who is carfree.
The bus made three stops en route. That seems like a lot, and the whole process took nearly 4 hours. I suspect most Thruway routes are shorter. Still, that was made very clear on booking, and it was on time and reasonably comfortable, so no complaints.
Well, one complaint. The seat pitch – the distance between rows – was VERY skinny. I couldn’t sit without my knees hitting the row in front of me. I’m 6’1″, so not everyone will have that issue. This wasn’t an Amtrak bus, but a contracted one, so maybe that’s not the typical Thruway experience.
This semester, I’m teaching a course called Physical Anthropology. It’s one of four core courses for the anthropology major here at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The course is an introduction to that particular subfield of anthropology, and it deals with the theory and mechanisms of evolution, the human evolutionary past, and biological diversity among populations of the human species. Because I’m an archaeologist, this course doesn’t fall directly into my area of interest, though as an anthropologist, I’m conversant and interested in this dimension of the complex whole that comprises humanity.
A primary goal of mine is to demonstrate to my students that though our genes play a role in explaining who and what we are, and why we do what we do, our genetic makeup is just part of the story. Humans are, perhaps alone among all animals, biocultural creatures. You can’t explain anything about being human simply by pointing to our genes. Our DNA gives us certain similarities and differences, possibilities and limitations, but we make sense of all that through culture.
So it’s distressing when smart, well-intentioned people attempt to collapse culture into biology – to explain variation in a group’s cultural-historical past or present in terms of variation in its genetic makeup. That’s the case with a forthcoming article by two economists, who argue that genetic diversity in human populations since the colonial period has had a significant effect on per-capital incomes in modern nations.
The article, by Ashraf and Galor, is set for publication in the American Economic Review. You can download a pdf of what appears to be a draft of the paper here (careful: it’s over 100 pages long).
Culture, biology, DNA, human populations, health, poverty, colonialism, development, history and migration – if you were to scope the landscape of contemporary anthropology, it’d be hard to find anyone in the field whose interests don’t lie in one or several of those categories. It’s reassuring that the discipline has taken notice of Ashraf and Galor. And it hasn’t been complimentary.
The blog site for Wenner-Gren, a private foundation that funds anthropological research (Twitter: @WennerGrenOrg), comments:
[Ashraf and Galor] claim that high genetic diversity (common in African populations) increases the incidence of distrust and conflict, which causes social instability and lower productivity. In addition, they argue that populations that are relatively genetically homogeneous (such as Native Americans) are at an economic disadvantage because genetic diversity increases competition and thus innovation. Ashraf and Galor arrive at the controversial conclusion that colonialism might have had a positive effect on development in Africa and the Americas by changing the genetic composition of the colonized territories.
The current issue of the journal Current Anthropology contains a lengthy response to the economists written by more than a dozen anthropologists, whose areas of interest range from evolutionary biology to cultures of modern Latin America to the history of science. This rebuttal is available for free through JSTOR (I’m not sure how long it will be free, so take a look while you can).
The Current Anthropology article is well-reasoned and copiously cited. The authors summarize the lines of evidence they bring to bear in their critique thusly:
Ashraf and Galor’s study is flawed in three main ways. First, they consistently misuse scientific terminology and concepts; in particular, their understanding of the relationship between migratory distance and genetic diversity is incorrect. Second, their additional data, including population density and various additional variables, are full of factual errors, missing or faulty references, and simplistic assumptions. Finally, their theory is inconsistent with the rich data and robust findings in anthropology, genetics, and sociology on human evolution, cooperation, and innovation, almost none of which they cite.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the anthropology blogosphere replies to this, as there are bound to be many voices bringing their own interests and expertise to bear on particular issues. For instance, archaeologists will likely note the economists’ problematic choice of demographic data for Native American populations before contact. I’ll leave it to others to unpack that more fully (cue my colleague Bob Muckle). In short, there are few areas of americanist archaeology that are more fraught with issues of changing evidence, method, and politics than pre-Contact Native American population size, and relying on a 30-year-old source is, to say the least, questionable.
I’d like to kick off the conversation by looking more closely at the implication of explaining economic competition as a measure of “optimal” heterozygosity – i.e., just the right amount of genetic variation.
It’s striking that the economists identify the level of diversity in the U.S. as “optimal,” on a range from the least diverse population (Bolivia) to the most diverse (Ethiopia). Hence, the U.S. is “optimal” because we have just the right amount of heterozygosity in our population to generate competition, but not so much that discord and distrust will impede economic development. Though our genes undoubtedly play a role in giving us the raw materials to act in conflict or cooperation, it’s culture that channels those abilities. Conflict, cooperation, competition – those are all enormously variable in human populations, an outcome of each culture’s history of interaction with other cultures as well as “sticky” traditions more or less unique to any group.
That means concepts like “competition” are not universal in their contents, functions, or implications. Competition means one thing to an American business executive, another to a Trobriander trying to break into a Kula exchange relationship, and another to a Haida family planning a potlatch.
This article works as a not-terribly-subtle piece of ideology that justifies and validates a particular formulation of success – the kind that’s enmeshed in the logic of contemporary capitalism – by locating the causes of economic conflict and success in the human genome. Solving genetic problems requires genetic solutions, while solving social problems requires social solutions. Collapsing the social into the genetic implies a social problem like poverty is not contingent on a particular culture’s (or nation’s) history, internal dynamics, or position vis-a-vis global structures of trade and exploitation, but rather is an outcome of natural laws and forces beyond control.
Or are they beyond control? The Current Anthropology authors note:
By claiming a causal link between the degree of genetic heterogeneity and economic development, their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity. Ultimately, this can provide fodder to those looking to justify policies ranging from mistreatment of immigrants to ethnic cleansing (especially by groups with real political power, e.g., Golden Dawn in Greece).
It’s reassuring, in a way, to be able to identify a single, proximate cause of some particular ill. Genetic research has led to remarkable advances on that score. Social ills, though, are messy, as human culture is messy. They resist a simple explanation, and often, a simplistic solution. Development and underdevelopment, poverty and wealth, are worth investigating. The history and trajectory of global capitalism can tell us much more about economic differences in Bolivia, Ethiopia, and the U.S., than a few genetic markers in the populations can. And that sort of study also implies ways we can fix the problem.
This is another post in my occasional “Friday Feature” series. Friday Features are published on (surprise!) Fridays, and are longer-form discussions of some aspect of archaeology, history, theory, etc., that doesn’t lend itself to a typical post. Friday Features are archived on a single page, linked at the top, for easy access.
It was early one morning of finals week, and I was short on cash, tummy rumbling. The student union at UNC Wilmington has a very well-appointed convenience store that takes “Seahawk Bucks,” a sort of debit account linked to one’s student or faculty ID card. I had just enough for a coffee and that tasty-looking energy bar over to the left. It had me at “chocolate-dipped coconut.”
Back at the office, I looked a bit more closely at the wrapper. I noticed the print below the flavor: “Whole Nutrition Bar For Women.”
Stay with me. I guarantee this isn’t going where you think it is.
Spanish archaeologists are calling on Discovery Communications (petition is in Spanish) to pull or modify the “reality program” American Digger, hosted by former pro wrestler Ric Savage, which the network has begun broadcasting in Spain. The American Anthropological Association has issued a laudable request for support of that effort, and written letters to management of Discovery and Spike TV opposing the program as “contrary to the ethics of archaeological practice” (see this page for English and Spanish versions).
I’ve written before about the trouble with programs like this one: how they propagate a vision of the material past as a for-profit resource and (however obliquely) encourage illegal private collecting, which the ethical hobbyist collector community opposes. I’m not just pulling that out of thin air, either. Spike TV has noted, in its press for American Digger, that “there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit”
Earlier this year there was an outcry over the launch of American Digger (Spike TV) and Diggers (National Geographic Channel), which included this eloquent dismantling of the rationale for the programs by Society for Historical Archaeology President Paul Mullins, and this thoughtful call for responsible public outreach from archaeologist Jamie Brandon. Following letters from the AAA, SHA, Society for American Archaeology and other professional organizations, National Geographic Channel officials took steps to address legal and ethical concerns about its program. Spike TV and American Digger? Not so much.
I wrote this at the time, and nothing has changed:
A vast chunk, if not the majority, of archaeological research in the U.S. is publicly funded. With that trust comes the ethical obligation that the results of the work we do should be accessible to the public. This is accomplished through curation of artifacts in museums, through public displays of artifacts and interpretations, through public talks, interviews with media, and publications. The system’s not perfect – there are loads of un-analyzed artifacts sitting on lab and warehouse shelves, for instance. But the concept that publicly funded research should be publicly available is a strong one in my field. And that concept goes out the window in programs like this one, and in any case where excavation is done solely to fuel the (private) antiquities trade.
American Digger has been picked up for a second season. Spike TV is super-proud of the 1.2 million viewers of the show’s debut season, especially its share of the male 18-49 demographic.
Of course, SpongeBob SquarePants pulled 1.2 million men 18-49 earlier this month, plus another 3.4 million kids, as it’s been doing for more than a decade, all without destroying or privatizing a single piece of prehistoric or historical material culture.
So please, read the AAA’s letter, consider signing the petition, and encourage Spike TV to follow the National Geographic Channel’s lead in taking steps to ensure its program doesn’t encourage illegal and unethical behavior.
When you’re awarded a Ph.D., the awarder makes a point of saying you’ve earned “all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities” attendant upon that title. I remember snarkily thinking to myself, “Privileges, eh? I bet those will just roll right in.” On Saturday, I got to experience two of them, and it put me in a reflective mood.
It was commencement day at UNC Wilmington, and also the day my department throws a small ceremony for our major graduates and their families. We had nine walking this semester. Since I’m new, I hadn’t taught any of them in my courses. It’ll be different in the Spring ceremony.
At the commencement itself, I sat up front, regalia’d up, with the rest of the faculty, and watched a thousand or so former undergrads mark a major change in their lives with a short walk and a handshake or two.
Fresh graduates face a tough time these days, and there’s lately been a sort of cottage industry in speculating which majors are “best” and which are “worst.” Unsurprisingly, this reduces to a question of salary. Majors where you’re likely to make a ton of money = “best.” Majors where you’re likely to work for a better society, to serve others, to experience personal fulfillment, and so on = “worst.” So anthropology, along with most liberal arts and humanities majors? Don’t even bother, according to the New York Times, as well as Yahoo Education, the governor of Florida, the allegedly reputable Kiplinger, and others.
There has been great analysis and reaction from within my discipline to this sort of simplistic ranking and discipline hate. See, for instance, Jason Antrosio’s brilliant “Anthropology’s the worst major for being a corporate tool but the best to change your life” post, along with Francine Barone’s take at Analog/Digital, Daniel Lende’s Neuroanthropology blog, a sample of what working anthropologists actually do, and an archaeology-centric version of the same.
At the risk of collapsing the variation in a series of diverse, well-argued and thoughtful posts, the authors listed above are all saying, in their own ways, that there’s way more to a college major or a choice of career than simply money. Forbes magazine (!) recently agreed, noting that liberal arts majors actually report being more satisfied with their lives, and, incidentally, earning decently, thankyouverymuch.
So in the spirit of reflection, I spent some time considering what the students who went through my anthropology courses this semester might take away.
Introduction to Anthropology
Anthropologists will sometimes say it’s our business to “make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” This isn’t just a conceit or an exercise in marveling, tourist-like, at exotic people and practices – it’s almost a statement of method. As we learn about different cultures, we gradually come to understand that our way of doing things is merely one method of solving the problems of how to be human. Everybody marries, but not everybody marries the way Americans do. Everybody has family, but in most of the world, people reckon family relationships differently than we do. Every culture has an economy, but our economic system is of very recent vintage, and it raises problems not faced by people who live (quite well) under different systems.
After going through this course, my students have been presented with historical and contemporary examples of people who live and thrive under wildly diverse approaches to doing those basic cultural things we’re all familiar with: playing sports, getting married, bearing children, producing and consuming, having sex, figuring out who we’re related to, worshiping, dealing with sickness and death, speaking, eating, dressing, and learning. They learn how what appear to be separate domains of culture actually correlate or intersect with each other, and how changing one part of the whole tends to lead to changes in other parts.
What do they take away? That there are very good reasons why different people act differently, and those reasons don’t reduce to “culture X is more primitive than culture Y.” You can’t expect to simply change one aspect of a culture without repercussions – “We need to bring our institutions or values to culture Z” is bound to cause new issues you didn’t anticipate. And there’s inherent value in letting different people pursue their lives in their own ways.
I don’t teach this course as an overview of world prehistory. Sure, we cover origins of agriculture, writing, Harappa, Mesoamerica, etc. To me, this is a golden opportunity to push some critical thinking skills. In archaeology, we’re faced with a conundrum: How can we say anything worthwhile about people we can’t observe directly? And once we make truth claims about the past, what are the implications in the present?
So my primary focus is to get students thinking about analogies: The ways we choose examples from cultures and behaviors we can observe, and extend them to help us understand the past. Moreover, who are the people making truth claims, and how do we overcome inherent biases in our interpretations, whether they’re overt or covert?
After going through this course, my students have examined how archaeologists have thought about some of the significant developments of prehistory and been exposed to some of the high “civilizations” of history and prehistory, they’ve critiqued the concept of “civilization” itself, they’ve collected and interpreted data about a fellow student’s discard behavior, and they’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the makeup of the field of archaeology and how that might influence our thinking about all those issues.
What do my students take away? That all knowledge, regardless of discipline, has social underpinnings. It’s created by people who make truth claims based on their own perspectives and biases and understandings of how the world works, influenced by their social position. Before we accept a claim, we need to examine the conditions under which it was made, we need to evaluate its implications, and we need to see if it’s internally consistent.
African Diaspora Archaeology
This course is close to my heart, as it’s the broad area that all my research so far enters into. I didn’t expect most of the students to come into this course having any familiarity with the topic, and I was right. From the outset, my goal was to encourage them to engage with unfamiliar material, unpack the roots of various arguments made by archaeologists and historians who have grappled with diaspora issues, and leave with a richer understanding of the issues and politics of studying this aspect of the past.
Did that succeed? I believe so, based on a semester’s worth of lectures, discussions, and student papers. What did they students take away? How to critically engage with knowledge claims, how to craft a written analysis that enters into a larger social conversation, and how truth claims about even recent history are biased and socially situated, and can be used by people in the present in both positive and negative ways.
Everything is anthropology
Most students I taught this semester are not anthropology majors. In fact, most probably won’t take another anthropology course during their time at UNCW. Some of these take-aways undoubtedly will help them impress employers. Others are less tangible but, to my mind, much more valuable in the long run. Things like critical thinking, writing skills, and that all knowledge is produced within specific social contexts.
Returning to the question of “What’s the value of an anthropology major?”, I
think hope it’s self-evident. You leave a good anthro program as a better writer, a more critical thinker, someone who can appreciate not just the fact of human diversity, but why it’s so persistent and important. You’ve learned how to study up on a topic you’re not familiar with, analyze the basic assumptions and implications of the topic’s party-line thinkers, and how to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. You’ve learned to distrust simple, one-size-fits-all explanations. And you’ve gained experience in defining important questions, collecting and analyzing data, and writing up conclusions that are both conscious of your bias and faithful to your observations.
I know my department’s nine Fall graduates have done all those things in their time here, and I have no doubt they’re going to do amazing things with their knowledge and experience. Because they realize that anthropology’s not a useless field, but that everything’s anthropology, and we ignore that to our great detriment.
The North Korean ‘unicorn lair discovery’ actually says a lot about real-life, non-unicorn archaeology
An announcement from the History Institute of the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences shocked the archaeological world Thursday, along with pretty much everyone else. It seems a “unicorn lair” from Korean mythology has been discovered in Pyongyang, the capital.
Reporting in the West has varied from basically straight (from U.S. News and World Report) to pretty hilarious (as in this from Gizmodo), to short pieces that suggest North Korea might be trying to get back at The Onion, to this from Macleans that includes a graf about Bigfoot.
One thing I stress to my students is to evaluate the analogies we use to classify different kinds of objects and sites. In other words, what leads us to refer to something as a ritual object vs. an ordinary tool, why do we say a particular building is a temple rather than a house, and so on. Or in this case, what makes a unicorn lair a unicorn lair? Fortunately for the North Korean archaeologists, they also found a stone with the inscription “Unicorn Lair” right outside. If only everything in this field were that simple.
But all snark aside, this story illustrates a very important point about archaeology, one that I think is crucial for anyone who wants to understand how this field works and why we study the times and sites we do.
Briefly: Archaeology is a social practice, not a quest for The Objective Truth.
To expand: Archaeologists are regular people who just happen to pursue a slightly odd profession. Since we’re regular people, we’re all members of particular social classes, particular races, particular sexes, and we all bring our more or less unique backgrounds and understandings of what is interesting and important into our research. All of those things, which are affected in important ways by the culture we were brought up in, influence our theoretical position, which is simply a fancy way of saying “how we think the world works.” Our theory and our cultural position both affect the sites we want to excavate and the interpretations we bring to make sense out of the bits of things we excavate.
What’s interesting about that is how archaeologists who live in different parts of the world often approach their work in ways that line up with national boundaries. You can identify general “traditions” in how archaeologists use theory and apply interpretations, based on their country of origin. So you can speak of broad similarities among Mexican archaeologists, U.S. archaeologists, Russian archaeologists, Danish archaeologists, and so on. There are always exceptions and counter-traditions, of course, but it’s interesting how often similarities crop up.
This idea was advanced by archaeologist Bruce Trigger in 1984, with an article describing how archaeology often breaks down into nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist traditions, based largely on the history of the country that produced the archaeologist. You can read the article at this link (it’s a PDF. Fair warning: It’s not the easiest read).
Which brings us back to North Korea and the “unicorn lair.” What’s really important about the lair isn’t the unicorn, but the association with King Tongmyong, who the North Korean press release (linked in the first paragraph) notes was the “founder of the Koguryo Kingdom,” the largest of the ancient kingdoms of what now make up the modern Koreas. The lair’s presence in Pyongyang, by extension, places Tongmyong in Pyongyang. And that, as the press release smugly concludes, “proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom.”
Regardless of whether any of that is true, this “discovery” is an example of nationalist archaeology at work, in Trigger’s sense. It’s archaeology designed to inspire patriotism by drawing on an image of the past that carries great resonance with the people of your nation. In this case, it’s even more nationalistic, considering the separation of the Koreas, and the fact that Koguryo Kingdom extended deep into what’s now South Korea. The message is subtle but clear: This major figure in Korean history, whose realm extended into both Koreas, lived in the North. We know this because we “found” a site linked to his palace. By extension, the North has a right to the South.
So there’s an actual lesson in this story, despite how funny it seems on the surface. Archaeologists, as my former professor Randy McGuire noted in his book Archaeology as Political Action, “work in an ideology factory.” Our work is always political, in that how we interpret the past is influenced by our social position, and can be read as commentary on the contemporary world. The “unicorn lair discovery” demonstrates this once again.