Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Archaeology in the news

This past week as seen two interesting controversies come to my attention via twitter and Facebook (this is why we use social media!). One, being the television show on Spike, called 'American Diggers", which is essentially grave robbing. Not exactly, but it a bunch of good ol' boys raiding Civil War sites for 'treasure'. I guess they think it's like Storage Wars, except that this is pretty illegal in most states. needless to say, there is a big outcry from the archaeological and heritage communities all over the world. We have a hard enough time keeping heritage from being destroyed under the current legal system (dig it up before the condos are built, for example in Toronto-can't get in the way of 500 square feet of postage stamp luxury!), much less without yahoos like this encouraging people to loot. Spike TV needs to stick to what they do best-explosions and titties.
The second is somewhat related, but much more complicated. A NAGPRA observer detailed his disgust with a Bioarchaeology conference. It is an interesting read, and I don't really know what to make of it. I think there is a definite disconnect between anthropologists and the indigenous communities when it comes to burials. I remember being at  a conference where we (as archaeologists) were being accused being grave robbers and going around digging up their ancestors. However, the vast majority (probably 98%) of people in the room were not actively looking for or studying burials. The majority were consulting archaeologists who only end up dealing with burials when called in by  a client to deal with them, or academics such as myself who have enough sense to stay away from burials in general. Personally, I have had enough unexplained experiences on archaeological sites and around mortuary relics (in both museums and private collections) to have a healthy aversion to dealing with the dead. Beyond my own heebie jeebies though, it is interesting to see another cultural view on bioarchaeology that I haven't really thought about. The misunderstandings between the author and the conference participants are a mix of poor communication, dismissive attitudes, and bad science on the part of the participants, and cultural views, bias and willful misunderstanding on the part of the author. However, the one statement the author made that did disturb me was the notion of 'race' that is still touted by bioarchaeologists. I mean, really? Aren't we past that? We can make good guesses of someone's background and where they may have grown up, and certainly, some peoples have distinct skeletal markers, however it is not unknown for forensic biologists to make mistakes, for example, confusing asian men and caucasian women. Skeletal analysis is subject to variability, and when other scientific tests (such as DNA) are unavailable, there is a certain amount of uncertainty in any classification based on 'race'. On the other hand, it is this kind of analysis that allowed police to determine the number and identity of native women who were murdered by Robert Picton. It is a touchy subject, and based on this article, there is still a lot of work to be done by the bioarchaeological community to reassure and explain to the native community the purpose of their work and how the remains are being treated with respect not to mention their plans for repatriation. However, there are no easy solutions.

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