Saturday, April 27, 2013

Keeping archaeology safre from vampires, dung, and twisted animal bladders

Vampires:  I just had a journal insist that my co-authors and I tone down some of our wording in a paper. Jason Ur, Gary Feinman and I will publish a paper in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research taking contemporary geographers and others to task for promoting the VERY incorrect opinion of Jane Jacobs that cities preceded agriculture in prehistory. I blogged about this some time ago, and I thought it was a settled issue (duh!). But then Peter Taylor published a paper in that journal touting Jacobs's ideas again. So we fired off a critique, which we are now revising for publication. But we were told to remove the vampire metaphor. Here is what we said:

We view the historical part of Jacobs’ “cities first” model as a vampire. It normally sleeps, out of public view, only to emerge periodically and wreak havoc among the unsuspecting. Then it quietly returns to obscurity, leaving people to wonder whether something so contrary to normal experience can really live on. We intend to put a stake through this vampire of a model and end its tortured life once and for all.

In fact, we had discussed this passage and decided to include it, even though the reviewers and editors would probably not like it. We even considered using a zombie metaphor, but vampires seemed more apt. Oh well, I guess the world of publishing on archaeology is now safe from vampires (and maybe zombies), at least for a while.

Dung: The "manuring hypothesis" in Mediterranean archaeology explains the presence of sherds and other small artifacts in non-site locations as deriving from the use of animal dung as agricultural fertlizer. When farmers scooped up the dung, they would have also scooped up some sherds and such from domestic trash, which then ended up spread on fields, far from settlements. One of the major papers on this topic is Alcock et al (1994). One of the authors gave me a copy of the manuscript prior to publication, and I was very pleased to see that it began with a quote from a Monty Python skit: "Q: What's brown and sounds like a bell?  A: Dung!". (Note, this joke is from "The Visitors", NOT from the skit where John Cleese shows up with a bin full of dung.
"Dung, sir."

When the book came out, this quote had been removed from the chapter. I've always meant to ask the authors who was responsible for this, but never got around to it. One certainly wouldn't want to include scatological humor in a serious archaeological book! Standards must be maintained. Dung and vampires need not apply.

To continue this serious scholarly discussion, I want to share two recent emails. It seems that as an Aztec specialist, all the odd-balls out there want Aztec information from me.

(1). I glanced at the subject line, and thought it said "Aztec demography." Great, we need more research on this topic. But when I opened the email, I realized that the subject line in fact read, "Aztec demonology."


I found your email when I was researching professors who specialize in Aztec studies. I'm a screenwriter working on a horror script. If you're not too busy, I was wondering if there's anything you can tell me about Aztec demonology, or Aztec goddesses who protected women?

I don't know what "demonology" means, and I really don't want to know, so I replied in the negative.

(2) This week I got this email:

My name is XXXXXX; I am a researcher for XXXXXXXXX looking at alternative subcultures. I'm currently researching an interesting story on balloon fetishism, and I was hoping you could confirm the following tidbit of internet information regarding balloon animal origins: is it true that the Aztecs used to inflate animal bowels and then twist them into animal shapes for sacrificial offerings?

Give me a break! I don't claim to know every single primary source on the Aztecs in detail, so it is possible that I have missed this important feature of Aztec ritual behavior. But I think I would have heard something about this weird practice if it were indeed described in a reputable source. It would be an excellent example of weird ancient practices that gross-out undergraduates, always something to be noted.

Alcock, Susan E., John F. Cherry, and Jack L. Davis
    1994    Intensive Survey, Agricultural Practice, and the Classical Landscape of Greece. In Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies, edited by Ian Morris, pp. 137-190. Cambridge University Press, New York.

PS - the IMDB has a nice list of quotes from Monty Python's Flying Circus.


Jason Ur said...

Since this internal debate has become a matter of public record, let that record state that I was in favor of zombies over vampires!

In a reply to critical comments on his 1994 Current Anthropology article that included this "manuring hypothesis," Tony Wilkinson suggested that it "perhaps should have been entitled, 'No Turd Unstoned.'" If Tony can get "turd" into CA, we should have our vampires.

Marcus said...

Strange to go for vampires when zombies are more popular these days, as in the term 'zombie economics' that goes around a lot (see the work of John Quiggin who wrote a book with that title).

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, this just shows that Jason is hipper than I am. But I'm sure the reaction of the journal would be the same if we had chosen zombies over vampires for our comparison. And they are right - if we come off sounding like kooks, then Jane Jacobs idolizers would be more likely to dismiss our argument. We need to sound like solid empirical scholars, judicious and unbiased, given the fact that the Jacobs myth is perpetuated by people who tend to disrespect archaeology from the start.

But in choosing the name of a popular article, or a blog entry, then sensationalist and bizarre terms and concepts are in order. Maybe I should go figure out what "demonology" means and exploit that phrase!

Anonymous said...

Mike, great fun. I just tweated this.
(Peter Turchin)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the post!