Sunday, August 29, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101 - Dinosaurs and Cosmic Monsters in Prehistoric (and not so Prehistoric) American Art

I touched on this topic in the first Weird Archaeology 101 post, but lets go more in depth today. At the bottom of this post you will find video of a Creationist presentation on evidence for human interaction with dinosaurs in artwork from the late prehistoric Southwestern United States, several periods and cultures in the prehistoric Andes, and post-Roman Israel. But before the videos, some discussion on why dinosaurs are so important to Creationists.

Until recently, I think most mainstream scientists were not aware of the importance of cryptozoology and the idea of surviving dinosaurs to Creationists. Some people might joke that Creationists "believe the Flintstones was a documentary," but the ironic truth is that this is quite accurate. Just as moviemakers have known for 85 years Creationists have realized that dinosaurs, and especially dinosaurs interacting with humans, is an extremely appealing idea. This has been foregrounded in the various Creationist museums, but has been knocking around evangelical Christianity for some time.

What may escape some more secular observers is that the interest in dinosaurs is not just an attempt to support Young Earth Creationism (based on a divine Creation several thousand years ago), but also to incorporate specific bible elements, namely Leviathan and Behemoth. Leviathan is a sea monster and Behemoth a land monster in the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish religious literature. Both of them will be killed and served as a feast for the righteous when the Messiah arrives. In fact, sea and other monsters are an overlooked element of the Hebrew Bible, with some controversial suggestions that they existed at the time of Creation. Both of these characters have been equated by Creationists with dinosaurs, and this underlies their interest, as well as the Young Earth timetable.

Furthermore, Leviathan and Behemoth are echoed in the Beasts of the sea and of the land in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Drawing inspiration from these apocalyptic monsters, Poet Laureate of the Victorian British Empire Alfred, Lord Tennyson composed "The Kraken," in 1830. He combines the Scandinavian legend of a tentacled sea beast with the biblical Leviathan to write of a monster that will come to the surface and die at the end of the world.

Which brings us to Cthulhu. As part of a project I'm working on, I recently "interpreted" the iconography of a Moche golden mask as being a representation of horror author H. P. Lovecraft's dead but living alien god Cthulhu, a millions of years ancient monstrosity that rests in a sunken city at the bottom of the Pacific until the stars become right, and on an unknowable and immense cosmic cycle it will arise and bring about the end of human civilization. The thought processes of this entity are obscured by the water above it, but from time to time geological processes raise it close or above the surface, and sensitive humans receive the creature's thoughts and form religions in honor of it (if you have two minutes, you can get the whole story here). In my little exercise, I assembled evidence of a looted Moche mask (probably from the site of La Mina), Moche painted iconography of anthropomorphized fish, the results of an oceanographic survey, and anomalous sounds recorded by underwater microphones all to point to the inescapable conclusion that there really is a dead alien god slumbering off the coast of Chile.

I don't actually believe that Cthulhu dreams in his house in R'lyeh. But look how easy it is to start taking disparate bits of information and shuffling them together to support something utterly absurd. And unlike the videos below, all of my evidence is at least real if misinterpreted, I don't have Ica stones in my argument. And I certainly don't have quite real khipu and pottery (though when you watch the videos, take note of the one pot with the applique "dinosaur," particularly the difference in texture and apperance of its neck with the rest of the vessel) being flung about during an argument that the Moche and Nazca people were fleeing for their lives from abundant living dinosaurs. I winced when these materials were presented.

If you want to know more about Leviathan and Behemoth, I would recommend Religion and Its Monsters by Timothy Beal.

The texts of the Bible, Tennyson's "The Kraken" and Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" are all available online.

Here are the videos (3 parts), part of a series by the director of a Creationist museum.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Archaeologist Tracks Development of Gitmo Prison with Google Earth

Archaeologist Adrian Myers has utilized Google Earth, ground level photos, and descriptions of the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to track the prison's construction, change in architectural nature, and expansion from 2003 - 2009. In a news article in Science, reported on by Neuron Culture, Meyer's research methods and conclusions are summarized. He determines that the makeshift nature of the early camp reflects a lack of a plan to deal with Global War on Terror detainees, but that as the war dragged on, a larger permanent super-max style prison showed the intent to keep an operating prison there indefinitely (and indeed there were reports in 2005 of plans for keeping detainees in the camp indefinitely). The news article compares this work with the use of Google Earth to track antiquities looting and find new archaeological sites.

Myers' work with Gitmo reminds me of similar tracking of the expansion of the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, the secret military base popularly known as Area 51, but with the operating name "Homey Airport." For years UFO enthusiasts, anti-secrecy protesters, and the curious took photos of the base and drew maps from observation. When a commercial satellite imagery company decided to advertise on the internet about a decade ago, they chose to show Area 51, garnering huge amounts of attention. Likewise, it has been a source of interest for Google Earth users, and such imagery has been used to show the growth of the facility despite rumors it had gone out of business.

But beyond the methods, I do wonder about Myer's interpretations. I haven't read his original research, but the idea that Gitmo reflects a lack of planning strikes me as not including all variables. In particular, while not as visible as Gitmo, the US operated secret prisons throughout the world, including converted former Soviet-client prisons. The location, number, and size of these prisons is still not known to the public (one of the prisons has been located in Lithuania), though early in the Obama administration these prisons were supposedly ordered to be closed. Perhaps the Bush administration underestimated how much prison space it would need, especially once the Iraq war began. Alternatively, there may have been a realization at some point that a facility at Gitmo was probably less damaging or legally questionable than the CIA's constellation of black sites. Perhaps Myers considers this hypothesis in his actual research.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101: Solar Flares Affect Radioactive Decay Rates

While fascinating scientific inquiry still underway, expect to see this in Creationist and other alternative archaeology/paleontology/geology arguments very soon.

"It’s a mystery that presented itself unexpectedly: The radioactive decay of some elements sitting quietly in laboratories on Earth seemed to be influenced by activities inside the sun, 93 million miles away.

Is this possible?

Researchers from Stanford and Purdue universities believe it is. But their explanation of how it happens opens the door to yet another mystery."


The story begins, in a sense, in classrooms around the world, where students are taught that the rate of decay of a specific radioactive material is a constant. This concept is relied upon, for example, when anthropologists use carbon-14 to date ancient artifacts and when doctors determine the proper dose of radioactivity to treat a cancer patient.
The Strange Case of Solar Flares and Radioactive Elements [symmetrybreaking]

Monday, August 23, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101: Glenn Beck Revives Moundbuilder Pseudoarchaeology for Millions of Viewers

The Clown Prince of Fox News just pwned your entire profession, fellow archaeologists

A Hot Cup of Joe has the details on why this wrong

Courtesy Savage Minds, via Dave Anderson

UPDATE: Anthroslug has done some solid work on taking this whole thing apart

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Friday, August 13, 2010

Revolutionary change in paleoanthropology and rumors of coverups

One of the attacks fringe belief enthusiasts (pick your poison, from creationists to conspiracy theorists to cryptozoologists) is that scientists won't overturn old ideas because it would endanger their egos, their grant money, and their jobs. I've heard the notion that astounding archaeological discoveries have been covered up and destroyed for this exact reason (IIRC, referencing all the 19th century reports of giants found in North American graves).

Paleoanthropology shows how absurd this notion is. Now, I'm something of a lay person in this field (my expertise is in Mesoamerican archaeology, early European colonialism, and ceramics). But it's pretty obvious that in the last decade or so, our picture of our hominid legacy has changed dramatically. We've got another species of hominid co-existing with humans right up to edge of the Holocene, in the form of Homo floresiensis. While the floresiensis case is still being investigated to better understand the nature and culture of these little people, the concept of another species of Homo existing so close to the present is fascinating. It now looks likely that Neanderthals did indeed contribute their genetics to modern humans, a long contentious question answered, though the exact nature of the interaction (besides the genetic mixing) with modern humans is still fiercely debated. In the 1990s, symbolic material culture and behavior was generally believed to be something that exploded with new tool technologies 40,000 years ago or so in a triumphalist conquest of the world by modern humans overtaking all the other versions of Homo due to some revolution. Now we know that such behavior is twice as old, wrecking the neat 40K modern package idea. I'm sure there are other earth-shaking discoveries I'm forgetting.

And now, stone tool use has been flung backwards a million years, before the existence of our genus, dramatically changing the picture of Australopithecus.

The story of humanity and its cousins has changed dramatically in only a few short years. And there is every reason to believe it will change even more as new discoveries are made, and new techniques are brought to bear. And yet, no anthropological men in black swept it under the rug, no cabal of status quoticians hid the fossils in Warehouse 23 (not a typo). Scientists like when their discoveries make comfortable ideas fall apart. Not surprisingly, those who accuse them of the opposite are often promoting a new-fangled version of a comfortable idea already blown apart by earlier discoveries.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101 - A New Series Educating Archaeologists about the Weird World

I'm going to be sporadically posting examples of bunk, pseudo, alternative, fictional, etc. archaeology here for your perusal and reference. While there are other sites and resources (Bad Archaeology, the Hall of Maat come to mind immediately) that cover these topics, as well as skeptical sites in general (Skeptoid for example), the amount of ideologically driven and research/reason-poor claims and ideas out there is staggering. Furthermore, many of these ideas are nearly as old as scientific archaeology itself, and after the heyday of media interest in archaeology in from the late 19th century until the Great Depression, have become more popular than archaeology itself.

Far too many archaeologists I have met know nothing or virtually nothing about such claims, concepts, historical streams, subcultures, and the like. In part, this is because they are often quite busy. But I believe there is also a distaste there, and laughing off these notions because they make no sense. Evolutionary biology used to think the same way, until in the United States the intelligent design/creationism movement started to gain real ground in the 1990s and 2000s, and people realized that they couldn't just ignore the problem anymore. Ever heard of Swift Boating? Ignoring a problem doesn't mean it will go away.

I believe one element of this problem is that too many archaeologists simply don't get how diverse and pervasive, and downright weird, some of the ideas are out there. Confront them with someone who believes extraterrestrials built the pyramids, and most will mutter "von Daniken" and maybe reference the fictional movie/show Stargate. But few will know, as we'll see in future posts, that such ideas go back nearly a century, and are extremely pervasive in both pseudoscience and mysticism, and in fiction, long before and independent of von Daniken. And of all people, an archaeologist should know that context is everything.

It will be the purpose of this series to point to some of the weirder, more obscure, and at times older but influential weird ideas that are passed off as "archaeology," or deal with the human past and material culture. Let us start with a video on "crypto-archaeology," a Creationist investigation of depictions of dragons on archaeological ceramics. Despite the old saw that "fossils were placed by the Devil as a test," Creationists love dinosaurs these days. They realize the marketing potential, especially to children. And they have also read their Old Testament, which has all sorts of monsters in it, and have equated the two to argue for a created young Earth. So showing dinosaurs and humans as contemporaries has been a significant Creationist concern, and it underpins interest in cryptozoological expeditions looking for dinosaurs in the Congo, pteradons in Indonesia, and the Loch Ness Monster. I have previously linked to a video on the Acambaro figurines, which is a relatively well known case.

This little video, with public access TV style and production values, has numerous comments and over 2000 views.

Let me ask you this: Do you think more than 2000 people have read your dissertation? Have they emailed you to let you know what they think about it?