The Star.Ships conversation

Milky Way.jpg

Hey everybody. Long time, no post, huh? I am working at a temp job which is mind-numbingly tedious and at the end of the day I am fried and have no writing in me. This could, possibly, turn into a permanent position and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a question of whether the fear of continued unemployment is greater than the fear of this particular employment.

Anyway. I think we’ll all be musing on the implications of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits for a long time, and hopefully this will generate an ongoing and edifying conversation. I have the feeling that this root will produce many and varied branches. And so with that in mind, here are my preliminary thoughts.

Recontextualizing magic and human history

When I was a teenager and living in Spain, one of the princesses got married in Sevilla, where I lived. Prior to the wedding the city went to great pains to get spiffed up, which included laying new pavement in the Plaza de los Reyes, between the Cathedral and the Alcázar (the royal family’s residence when they are in town). As soon as they took up the old cobbles, they started turning up archaeological remains, including the place where people would do their ablutions before entering the mosque (now the Cathedral). They got down to the Visigothic period and then basically said, “Eh, fuck it.” They could have kept digging indefinitely: under the Visigothic would be the Roman layers, under that the Greek and Pheonician and Celtic, under that the Bronze Age, then the Neolithic, and on and on back to who knows when. They couldn’t possibly go all the way down to bedrock before the royal wedding, and the archaeologists probably didn’t have the funding anyway. So they just stopped at an expedient point, backfilled, and called it good.

That memory kept coming back to me as I read Star.Ships. It’s a good analogy for what our historical understanding of magic has been until the recent attempts to recontextualize it. On one level, we surmised that some form of magic went way back into our “primitive” past, but after you pass the PGM and Alexandria, you start to lose the threads. Plus there’s the whole materialist orthodoxy to struggle against, so we collectively said, “Eh, fuck it.” We picked an expedient place to be the beginning of the WMT and called it good.

In Star.Ships, Gordon is arguing that, by taking a synthetic (as in “pertaining to synthesis,” not as in “fake”), cross-cultural, and comparative approach and using multiple lines of evidence, you can in fact trace magical threads into the deep past. And in doing so, you discover some interesting things about human history generally–because it turns out that magic is intricately intertwined with the story of Homo sapiens.

Now I have to say this was extra exciting for me because the research I did for my dissertation was synthetic, cross-cultural, comparative, and relied on multiple lines of evidence. It also had everything to do with magic, although I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. My research was profoundly out of step with the current intellectual mode in archaeology. Cultural anthropologists generally thought it was very interesting, and my advisor (who got his Ph.D. in 1980, a very different time intellectually) thought it was, to use his favorite word, “delightful.” He was perpetually baffled by my utter failure to secure any grant money. At first I was too, but after a few years I got savvy to what was happening. But I finished it anyway, because fuck that. I am of the opinion that anthropology is by definition cross-cultural and comparative, and yes, that has led to racist excesses; but to disavow that methodology is to scuttle the entire project of anthropology and archaeology. Star.Ships is what I imagine a Ph.D. thesis would be like if archaeology weren’t forced to maintain its methodological materialism and scientism (or would be if Gordon added 100 pages of boring literature review) and I feel totally vindicated by it. Gordon has repeatedly emphasized (in the book and subsequent interviews) that comparison per se is not bad, indeed quite the contrary, but it’s important to be discerning about your comparanda. In Star.Ships he has presented well-researched, intellectually rigorous, and parsimonious arguments that meet that standard.

Challenges to orthodoxy

Scarlet Imprint promised that “minds will be blown” in reading Star.Ships. And my mind was no exception.

In fact, I noted with some interest that the things that blew my mind were generally different than those that blew Gordon’s podcast interviewers’ minds. For example, I already knew about Göbekli Tepe and that Homo sapiens lived alongside other hominins for longer than we have been solo. But I was surprised at how persuasive I found Gordon’s evidence regarding a Southeast Asian/Sundaland home for sophisticated palaeolithic culture, and the construction and purpose of the pyramids.

In the case of Sundaland, I was simply unaware of the genetic evidence for dispersal from this region, or the very early dates for cultivation of certain crops such as rice and taro. This is something I plan to look into further on my own as it is totally fascinating.

The pyramids were another matter. Although I have grown a lot intellectually since leaving academia (ironically?) and no longer accept a priori the judgments of knowledge-production factory hacks, I still have been skeptical of some alt.history claims about, e.g., the age of the pyramids. In part that’s because I was mainly exposed to the more wackadoodle end of the alt.history spectrum (AAT et al), but the bigger issue was that I am not an Egyptologist. We can’t be experts in everything, and it falls to each of us to decide whom to trust in the areas where we lack expertise. Too often, we award that trust based on membership in our in-group (however we define it) over actual knowledge. For me, academic archaeologists have been my in-group for virtually my whole adult life. Yes, I know some of them are cranks, a disturbing number are misogynistic pigs, and then there is Zahi Hawass, who is in an asshat league all his own; yet, being familiar with and mostly secure in the methods of archaeological knowledge production, I accepted the general Egyptological wisdom that the pyramids were tombs of the pharaohs. I mean, that “truth” is so widely accepted within academia and conventional history that I am ashamed to say it honestly never occurred to me to challenge it. I could imagine challenges to the dates, say, or the construction methods, but I accepted the purpose as a given.

It is generally held by archaeologists that, given enough time and Turks*, even humans armed only with stone tools can build a monument. But the data that Gordon presents now make it clear to me that the reign of Khufu was simply not long enough, nor the entire population of Egypt big enough, to build the Great Pyramid with copper tools during his lifetime. Similarly, I knew that no mummies had been found in the pyrammids, but accepted that this was due to grave robbing. I had never even heard of the heb sed ritual and how it related to the architectural complexes surrounding the pyramids. Anyway, long story short, my mind is now thoroughly blown by the fact that there aren’t more challenges to the tomb hypothesis even from within the hoary halls of academe.

I can’t help but get a little chuckle over the irony: Materialist-scientistic academics are utterly resistant to the idea that myths encode real history (unless, of course, that history can be boiled down to something entirely material and un-mythic in nature), yet are completely hogtied by their own mythology. But ’twas ever thus with zealots–they can’t see that their beliefs are beliefs.

*The Turks thing is kind of an inside joke, referencing the large numbers of (Ottoman) Turkish laborers employed by early Egyptologists and antiquarians.


My dissertation research focused heavily on prehistoric Japan, a subject not well known in the West. Partly this is because Japanese archaeologists only started publishing in English relatively recently, and few Westerners have been willing or able to do the work necessary to learn Japanese language and culture sufficiently well to work with Japanese archaeologists. (And probably not by accident, none of them–so far as I know–are women.) The Japanese are as insular as the British, both geographically and culturally, but their language is more inconvenient for Westerners.

Although Gordon doesn’t really go into it, I think that Japanese archaeology offers some really tantalizing hints that Sundaland may indeed have been a center of Palaeolithic human occupation and subsequent dispersal. For example:

  • Gordon mentions the findings of a 2013 genetic study showing trans-Pacific contact in Ainu blood samples, going back possibly as far as 10,000 years ago: “If you are looking for the smoking gun for global sea travel right at the end of the Ice Age, then this may turn out to be it” (p. 70). This was exciting for me because I have long hypothesized that the Ainu (and before them, perhaps the Jomon, who most anthropologists believe were ancestral to the Ainu) were sailing to Alaska, if not further down the North American coast. We have archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Ainu and Jomon were/are deep sea fishers, hunting big sea mammals on the open ocean. From the islands of present-day Japan it is but a short hop up to Sakhalin, then to the Kamchatka peninsula, then along the Aleutians to Alaska. Japanese fishing floats wash up in Alaska all the time (I own three that were collected in the 1960s, and a friend of mine found one just a couple weeks ago), which suggests that the currents facilitate, or at least don’t impede, travel in that direction. Next, though I can’t quantify it, I have always felt impressionistically that Ainu art (e.g., as reflected by their textiles) is stylistically reminiscent of the art of the Pacific Northwest. And since the 1970s, the Ainu have taken to carving totem poles which they describe as a nod to their cultural affinity with Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. That can be–and has been–put down to environmental influences: the Ainu and Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are all “affluent foragers” living in food-rich environments around the north Pacific. But, between you and me, I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. Now we have genetic evidence that suggests I was right.
  • The Japanese language is something of a mystery. It’s classed as an Altaic language along with Korean and Turkish (among others), and is recognizably similar to Korean, although not as close as you might expect for countries that geographically close. It has been suggested (I don’t remember by whom) that Japanese is descended from a dialect of ancient Korean which is now extinct. I think that’s a likely possibility, but many linguists have noticed that Japanese has some vocabulary which is probably Austronesian in origin, and Okinawans even more so. Quoth Wikipedia, Austronesian “is a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean…” (Sundaland and its diaspora, in other words.) Archaeologically, we know that people from the Korean peninsula began to settle in Japan around 500 BC. It is an unusually clear case of foreign settlement, with people who looked drastically different from the native Jomon population and used different technology. That may be when the Korean elements of what would become Japanese language arrived, becoming superimposed on an earlier, perhaps proto-Austronesian, language.
  • William Solheim considers prehistoric Japan to have been part of his Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, whereof he says, “I now define Nusantao as natives of Southeast Asia, and their descendants, with a maritime-oriented culture from their beginnings, these beginnings probably in southeastern Island Southeast Asia around 5000 BC or possibly earlier.” (I realize this is inside baseball if you haven’t read the book yet.) And seriously, I require an explanation as to why maritime traders in Southeast Asia/Sundaland would not have gone slightly north to visit Japan.
  • Japan currently boasts the oldest pottery in the world at about 14,000 years old. That means that not only is that pottery completely unassociated with the other elements of the “Neolithic revolution” as defined by V. Gordon Childe (e.g., settled villages, agriculture), but it dates to the end of the Palaeolithic. Pottery of similar age has been found in maritime Russia and Jeulmun pottery of Korea dates back to 10,000 years ago–again, without any other elements of the “revolution.” This earliest pottery was very simple and crudely made, decorated with simple fingernail impressions, but around 5,000 years ago, Jomon pottery became very elaborate. I can only describe it as 3D psychedelia. This was pottery made by hunter-gatherers, people who usually don’t bother with pottery because let’s face it, who wants to drag a set of china all over the landscape? However, around the northern Pacific, food was so plentiful up until recent times, that hunter-gatherers could live in permanent villages (though these post-date the first pottery by a few thousand years). Note that like Sundaland, Japan was not glaciated during the last ice age.
  • Based on Gordon’s summary of Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Japanese mythology definitely retains some Gondwanan features. For the most part, Japanese/Shinto myth is a collection of barely-related tales about the creation of specific things or places, or vignettes about the deities. This isn’t unique to Japan, but, given the Sundaland-adjacent geography and the apparently Austronesian stratum in the language, it could arguably be a holdover from pre-flood Sundaland.
  • When the Kennewick Man skeleton (dated to about 9,000 years ago) was first analyzed by biological anthropologists, they compared his facial morphology to anthropological databases with measurements from thousands of individuals grouped by culture and geography. These measurements are the same ones used by forensic anthropologists to identify missing people’s skulls. KM was found to be most similar to the Ainu (the Wikipedia page says Polynesian/Southeast Asian, but James Chatters personally told me Ainu). And the Ainu have been recognized to be the most similar of all modern groups to the ancient Jomon. Chatters speculated to me that KM’s features were of a putative type ancestral to both Ainu and modern Native Americans. The most recent genetic analysis, from 2015, indicates that KM is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other extant group. However, as mentioned above, it is very possible that KM falls within the period of trans-Pacific contact after the flood. KM’s maternal (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup is X2a, of which Wikipedia says, “Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago.” Haplogroup X is pretty rare generally, even in North America, but unlike the haplogroups more common in Native Americans, X is also not common in East Asia. It is found in low levels in Southern Europe, Caucasia, and the Near East. This suggests that the conventional model of the settlement of the Americas (East Asians crossing the Bering land bridge) is insufficient to explain the observed genetic variation, and that KM belonged to a population with a different ultimate source. Although by itself the distribution of Haplogroup X cannot confirm Gordon’s hypothesis of post-glacial maritime diaspora, it is consistent with such a model.

So basically, everything about Jomon Japan has been regarded as a weird, isolated mystery. But what if it was instead the northern hinterland of Sundaland? Could it show us a glimpse of the cultural complexity that once existed, or be an analogue for the embryonic civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Harappa?

I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just spitballing here. I’m no more expert in the archaeology of Southeast Asia (or the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition at the end of the ice age) than I am in Egyptology–but now I have learned my lesson about accepting any just-so stories.

Concluding thoughts

In no particular order, here are some other thoughts engendered by my reading of Star.Ships:

  • Boats and seafaring were way more important, way earlier, than has been recognized.
  • Europe was a really crappy little backwater for most of history.
  • Our relationship with certain deities–such as the Civilizing Trickster and Underworld Goddess–is much older than previously recognized. This is not necessarily saying that all Civilizing Tricksters are the same Civilizing Trickster, but it does raise some interesting questions. (I don’t have answers.)
  • Fears of cultural appropriation in magic pale in comparison to the ancient roots that all magic appears to share.
  • It occurred to me that the modern space programs are, like magic (and as Chris Knowles has argued, they are often the same thing), recontextualized as a much longer-term human project to connect with the stars. But what does it mean that this project is now framed in materialist terms? (I have a horrible vision here of some monstrous Neil deGrasse Tyson x Zahi Hawass hybrid.) What happens to Nuit when she is reduced to balls of flaming gas in empty space? Do we have to relocate the Otherworld? Or is materialist space science/travel merely building an addition onto our virtual reality prison?

This last point gets us closer to the heart of the book: Ultimately, Star.Ships asks us magical folk to take back our reality and our rightful role within it. I remember once in college when a pre-med friend of mine was opining that only M.D.s should have the right to be called “doctor,” and I was like, “Excuse me, Sawbones–philosophers were the original ‘doctors’ back when you were just a bunch of filthy barbers.” Like the non-medical doctors, we magicians have dropped the ball. We were the original philosophers of reality, ours the original “science”; it is our job to interface between our tribes and the world of the spirits, to be the memory-keepers and cunning-folk, but we have ceded our power and authority to the materialists. Now they deny we even exist. And we let them dictate reality to us? The very notion is absurd. So, are we just going to sit back and take it? Are we going to let our people struggle on alone? Can we stop worrying about gatekeeping “authenticity” and start working together to resist the hijacking of reality? Do you accept this “mission at the end of the world”?

It’s go time, wizards.

An interesting mythic parallel

So at the risk of sounding like a mad fangirl, I realize that writing a review of Star.Ships isn’t enough because I can envision myself having a continuing conversation with ideas in the book (and in other books cited by Gordon). There is that much to think about. I’m sure I won’t be the only one. Anyway, one of the main streams in the book riffs off Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies which proposes a “family tree” of myths explaining the non-random distribution of common themes. While I’ve been reading Star.Ships, I’ve had this thought in the back of my mind.

Perhaps synchronicitously, on Tuesday I chanced upon an interesting parallel in two disparate mythologies–Greek and Japanese–that I had never come across despite my love of mythology and my interest in both those mythologies specifically.

Roman statue of Baubo

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the myth of how Demeter’s grief while searching for her lost daughter, Kore/Persephone, led to the blighting of the land. A part of the myth I did not know, but which was celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, is an episode where Iambe (daughter of Pan), or in some versions Baubo, made Demeter laugh by telling bawdy jokes and revealing her genitals. Iambe gave her name to the poetic mode of iambic pentameter, which back in the day was considered very lowbrow. In the end, Kore spends part of the year with Demeter, and that season is fertile, while the part she spends in the underworld is winter.

Ame no Uzume

Meanwhile in Japanese myth, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was infuriated by the rude behavior of her trickster brother, Susanoo. In high dudgeon she retreated to a cave and sealed herself inside, so the world was without sunlight and consequently everything started dying. In order to lure her out, Ame no Uzume (“Heavenly Alarming Female”, a.k.a., “the Fearless One”, “the Great Persuader”–a kami after my own heart and particular favorite of mine) performed a bawdy dance among the assembled gods, revealing her genitals. They had devised a plan, hanging a mirror on a branch near the cave entrance. When Amaterasu heard the gods laughing, she rolled back the rock that sealed the cave entrance to see what was going on. In so doing she saw her own reflection in the mirror, and was so captivated that the other gods had time to permanently seal up the cave. Uzume’s dance is considered the origin of the sacred dance form kagura and she also appears as a bawdy stock character in kyogen comic theater. Uzume is revered in Shinto as a kami of “art and entertainment, marriage, joy, harmony and meditation”.

Ame no Uzume dancing

Now I’m not arguing that the original Laurasian mythology included a “female comic bawd cheers up depressed fertility goddess” mytheme. I mean, maybe it did, I have no idea. But you have to admit these two stories are remarkably similar. I’m not the only one to have made this connection, but if you do an internet search as I did, you’ll find that apparently not many people have made it, and there is a very regrettable tendency to all-one-goddess the various characters.

A history of archaeological theory in 7 acts


Pssst. This is actually Part I of my review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) It was starting to look like my review would be very long, so I decided to break this part out. Anyway, it’s not technically a review per se. What follows is:

  • One archaeologist’s quickie review/opinions of archaeological theory and practice. It’s longish, but not technical.
  • A former insider’s view, but not an exhaustive one. I speak here in terms of general trends within Anglo-American archaeology. (For historical and economic reasons, English is the hegemonic language-of-record for archaeology, but there are regional differences that I’m not fully versed in.)
  • Possibly of interest as background/context for those reading Star.Ships. I am still reading it, but I find that it frequently motivates me to reflect on changes in archaeological theory, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of what we think we know, what information is canonical, and what is “anomalous”. I find myself thinking of what a non-materialist archaeology might look like, for example. The point of the book is to correct misapprehensions about the past which are there in part due to the fossilization of academic thought; my point with this summary is to give a former insider’s view of how the current (mis)apprehensions developed.

Act I

In the beginning there were antiquarians. They read a lot of (Classical) history and collected artifacts–and usually lots of pretty rocks, fossils, bird eggs, two-headed fetal pigs, and other curiosities of natural history.

There were some pretty remarkable ruins still visible on the landscape. Some of them, like Hadrian’s Wall, were known from historical records. Others, like Stonehenge, were mysteries and warranted further investigation.

Generally speaking, explanations came from either Roman texts or the Bible. If a ruin was big, and it wasn’t Roman, then almost by necessity it had to have been built by lost tribes of Israel or one of Noah’s sons.

At the same time, European countries were vigorously imperial, which was bringing Europeans into contact with very different cultures and people who looked very different. Racism was born, and so were the first stirrings that would one day become anthropology.

Act II

Antiquarians started to notice that artifacts and ruins didn’t necessarily match the received wisdom or historical texts about the past. There were civilizations where there shouldn’t be (i.e., where brown people lived), for example. Some started being more methodical when digging holes looking for artifacts.

Romanticism was all the rage. Wealthy young men went to the Mediterranean for a “Grand Tour” to sigh over the crumbling splendors of civilizations past, and stole the nicer bits for souvenirs.

A number of well-known antiquarians were Freemasons, then Druid revivalists, and instead of lost tribes of Israel, they credited the Druids with anomalous ancient ruins. There was an element of nationalism here–now, finally, Britain and France could lay claim to an indigenous civilization that, while obviously not as grand as Rome, was still pretty cool, and perhaps in possession of Lost Wisdom.


The scientific method was all the rage. If you were independently wealthy you could round up some young peasants and go destroy some poor farmer’s field looking for booty artifacts. The better digs actually employed painters to make illustrations of remains in situ.

Archaeology, geology, historical linguistics, and palaeontology diverged as separate fields of inquiry. (In the Anglophone world, especially in the US, archaeology aligned with anthropology, the study of all things human.) Now instead of just keeping your finds in cabinets in your house, though, you donated them to museums for the public betterment. Scholars were busy classifying everything into typologies: eras, cultures, language groups, and so on. They particularly liked tripartite schemes, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic.

It was clear from all the artifacts and ruins that had been found that there had been great changes over time, only a small portion of which was recorded by history. This correlated with the evidence for gradual change found by the geologists and palaeontologists, and even–galling though it was for some–with the theory of natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin. The Bible began to look not so credible as an explanatory framework.

Observed cultural changes were usually put down to migrations. After all, historical accounts were full of invading Gauls, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Angles and Saxons, you name it. Also, as imperialism and global trade put Europeans almost everywhere on earth, I imagine the idea of migration and invasion as catalysts for change seemed rather natural.

In a reaction against the racism and ethnocentrism of previous eras, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) proposed the “stage” theory of human cultural development: all societies, left to their own devices, passed through stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. This was a corrective insofar as it reminded the imperial powers they once were savages too, and tried to make them feel a little guilty for derailing the civilizational processes of the assorted brown-skinned societies whose heads they were busily measuring with calipers in between all the murdering and enslaving.

Act IV

Things continued apace until the era of the World Wars (WWII in particular). By midcentury, the Bible was right out and Science-with-a-capital-S was in. Science had just given the world chemical fertilizers, nerve gas, and the A-bomb so obviously was the pinnacle of human achievement. Archaeologists could rely on radiocarbon for precision dating, even.

In true scientistic fashion, archaeology became about finding out “what really happened”. It was still entirely historical in the sense that it was about establishing chronological sequences, but it was anthropological insofar as it looked for evidence of how humans interacted with each other and with their environment. There was also increasing interest in what ordinary people did (e.g., as revealed through trash piles) rather than grand narratives about the great and the good.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a Marxist and materialist who was very instrumental in formalizing archaeology’s nascent material bent. He mostly rejected the three-part stage theory developed by Morgan, but, being a Marxist, he did very much believe in the notion of cultural evolution. His big contributions were (1) to systematize, in explicitly material terms, the characteristics of categories such as “civilization” or “Neolithic”–in other words, he defined what these terms would mean as archaeological categories. And to a great extent, his criteria are still being used, because they are now efficient and convenient. (2) He attributed cultural change to purely material causes. And (3) while not rejecting migrations entirely, he argued for change due to other factors. I can’t help but think this was in part a reaction to the fact that a number of countries in Europe and Asia had literally just been invaded, and were feeling the sting. Also, the Nazis had revealed the dark underbelly of archaeology and anthropology.

Chief among these “other factors” was diffusion, which is basically just a fancy word meaning that objects and ideas can move without migrations, e.g., through trade. If you live in the West and own a Korean smart phone, that’s an example of diffusion. However, while it’s not technically part of the definition of diffusion, an underlying assumption was often that objects and ideas go from “more advanced” to “less advanced” cultures.

“Historical particularism” was very popular as a theoretical framework, basically rejecting the idea of human universals and attributing cultures’ specific features to their specific environments, prior histories, and internal dynamics. “Cultural-historical” archaeology has probably had more longevity, worldwide, than any other mode. It is constantly mobilized in the creation of both national identities and nationalistic propaganda. I would say it is the most popular form of archaeology for the general public, too, who mostly what to know “what really happened” for a given time and place. Chronology and treasure are the bedrock of archaeology.

Act V

In the US (which is what I’m familiar with), the 1960s saw the rise of hard-core scientism with the “New Archaeology” a.k.a., “processual” archaeology. (Processual because it focused on processes, you see.) Archaeologists were desperate to make it clear to all and sundry that archaeology was a (social) science, dammit, not humanities! When I say science I mean physics. It’s pretty absurd–nothing humans do is similar to what, say, atoms do; but it was the Atomic Age, after all. It was also the Cold War. No one knew what the hell was going on archaeologically in Russia or China, except that it was undoubtedly bad, and Marxism was very out of fashion as a theoretical framework. (It continues to flourish in Japan, and of course in China.) New Archaeologists desperately wanted universal rules that would explain human behavior, and if a proposed mechanism wasn’t general it was regarded as irrelevant.

On the positive side, American archaeologists developed extremely methodical and precise excavation technique which is, in my opinion, unequaled in other countries. They also developed the concept of “interaction spheres”, where it was observed that, in contrast to the assumption that ideas and objects diffused from “center” to “periphery”, interaction forms complex webs and things move in all directions. On the negative, the theoretical became incredibly mechanistic, materialistic, and and deterministic. Consensus opinion swung even harder away from migration as an explanation for change, and the attempts to put everything down to independent invention got silly.

Act VI

Beginning in the late ’80s we had “post-processual” archaeology, which was a straight-up reaction to the excesses of the now-not-so-new New Archaeology. Things got very postmodern, but also very philosophical, and therein lay the big contribution of this period. French philosophers like Foucault, Latour, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu were wildly popular. Archaeologists (and anthropologists) really began to question the epistemology of anthropology and of academia in general. Instead of just asking, “How do we know these people did X?” they started asking “How do we know anything at all?” Unfortunately, they did so with the worst kind of jargon you have ever seen. Anthropological texts became completely opaque, difficult even for insiders to understand. The attitude seemed to be that if it was clear, it was not worth publication (let alone a tenured professorship).

Popular topics of inquiry were “habitus” (borrowed from Bourdieu) and “agency”. Some archaeologists even considered whether artifacts have their own agency, although not, sadly, in the animistic sense. Instead of looking at cultures as collections of mechanistic “processes”, archaeologists became increasingly focused on the individual. Which is interesting, and a bit futile, since individuals’ concerns and acts are rarely visible in the archaeological record. Interpretation was focused on the hyper-local, in contrast to the universalism of the previous period; and interpretations were explicitly identified/confessed as such.

Archaeology remained “methodologically atheist” and materialist, but more attention was paid to people’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings. The processual archaeologists and the cultural historians laughed and laughed.


You will have noticed that during the 20th century, theoretical fashions started changing much more quickly in archaeology. Well, of course that parallels the rapidly changing fashions everywhere else. We seem to have settled into a series of reactionary swings of a roughly 20-year pendulum. Each new generation rejects the models of the previous one, but because the shifts are so rapid, the supporters of the previous theoretical framework are still around to heckle the young upstarts.

We are currently (since the ’00s) in a very scientistic mood, where more archaeology is done in labs than in the field. About the only kind of research that can get funding is research that involves some kind of physics or chemistry–isotopic analysis, X-ray fluorescence, genetics, microprobe assays, 3D scanning and printing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these techniques, and they have revealed new kinds of information we couldn’t get at before. For one thing, isotopic and genetic analyses have put migration back on the table in a big way. Cultural changes (such as the Bell Beaker phenomenon) that were first put down to migrations, then to competitive elite status displays across interaction spheres, are now turning out to have actually been related to migrations. Mathematical shape analyses of bones have revealed evolutionary differences that we previously had to pretend didn’t exist because they couldn’t be quantified.

Unfortunately, the theoretical, anthropological questions that used to motivate such analyses are getting to be scarcer than hen’s teeth. I feel that the current moment in archaeology has borrowed the worst traits of the two previous eras: the super-scientistic, materialistic bent of processual archaeology that naturalizes and legitimizes certain interpretations of the data; and the hyper-locality of the post-processual era that is so laser focused as to be virtually irrelevant to anyone who is not a specialist in the time, place, and individuals under investigation.

In our current anti-intellectual climate, ain’t nobody gonna get no funding for a project that ultimately seeks to investigate what it means to be a human, and what the human experience has been through time. Funding agencies want sexy results that will make the New York Times and National Geographic and in turn bring in even more money. This usually means either discovery of treasure (rich tombs with lots of gold, King Tut-style); something that claims to turn everything you ever knew about X upside-down (ancient Caucasian-looking mummies found in China); or discovery of a new civilization or fossil human ancestor (the latter isn’t even archaeology). You would think that would at least make for some exciting, Indiana Jones-style research, but that’s not the stuff that makes for tenured professorships: When I was briefly on the academic job market (before my mom getting sick saved me), it seemed like all the job listings were for people who would do some kind of lab-based sciency analysis of pottery and work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yawn. (Even so there are too many applicants for those positions.) Meanwhile the journals were full of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of this or that cemetery which noted that X% of the people interred were migrants from Wherever, but never bothered to tell us why we would give a shit and why it was worth grinding up some irreplaceable ancient teeth and spending tens of thousands of dollars to find that out. In the worst cases it’s just fill-in-the-blanks culture-history.

In conclusion

If you’ve read this far, it’s probably pretty obvious (if it wasn’t already) how and why archaeologists end up painting themselves into interpretive corners. To use Gordon’s analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga where, if you pull just one little log out, the entire edifice comes crashing down. And ultimately, it wouldn’t just be the edifice of archaeology, or even anthropology. All of academia could come down with it.

Stuff in the news I thought was interesting

I love The Daily Grail’s news briefs. They dig up some weird and fascinating stuff. I thought this article was interesting in light of what Gordon has been saying about the state of intellectual inquiry today, i.e., academia no longer has a monopoly on it and holes are appearing in the walls of the cloister gardens of the disciplines. At the same time, it’s an example of what’s wrong with the scientistic-materialist thinking that dominates the West.

“Renowned classicist and linguist Susan Brind Morrow” has published a new translation of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Whereas your typical scholar views the Texts as “merely a series of funeral prayers and magic spells”, Morrow opines:

“‘These are not magic spells at all….These are poetic verses constructed just like poetry today, sophisticated and filled with word play and puns….I realized I was looking at a very vivid, poetic description of the actual world’.”

The article elaborates:

“Instead of looking at the Pyramid Texts as something written by a primitive and superstitious people, as she claims many Egyptologists before her have done, Morrow put the texts in the context of Egypt’s vibrant literary tradition and its cultural connections to nature….In this earliest form of Egyptian philosophy, Morrow said she believes it’s not a goddess or a spiritual personality that the Egyptians worshipped, but the sky itself. It was nature itself that was sacred, and that held the promise of eternal life.”

So the assumptions are that (1) sophisticated written expression is beyond the meager capabilities of the sort of foolish primitives who believe in magic or pray. Also, (2) spells and prayers, and descriptions of nature and the “actual” (presumably material?) world are mutually exclusive. And (3), also mutually exclusive are a belief in the sacredness of nature and theism. Basically anyone stupid enough to believe in magic and gods simply cannot be astute enough to appreciate nature, let alone write about it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I suppose Morrow would be horrified that her fellow writer, Jessa Crispin, just published a book about using tarot cards to inspire creative writing; and for her part, Crispin must have missed the memo about how the sort of benighted savages who would use tarot can’t write well anyway.

Morrow believes hieroglyphs are “very accessible to anybody” and we should all read the texts for ourselves. I applaud that sentiment, at least. But the Egyptological establishment isn’t taking that lying down.

“James P. Allen, an Egyptologist at Brown University who produced a 2005 translation of the texts, isn’t convinced. He likened her translation to the work of ‘amateurs’ and called it a ‘serious misrepresentation’ of the Pyramid Texts.”

Because you see, Morrow is not a professional academic, but a mere author. Gasp! The nerve of that peasant! Of course Allen might be right for the wrong reasons; Morrow’s translation might actually be bad. (I wouldn’t know, as I don’t read hieroglyphs–yet, anyway–and haven’t read her book.) Certainly I disagree with her a priori assumptions, but then similar assumptions are held by most academics and right thinking people nowadays. It just goes to show what happens when people who don’t practice magic try to understand the minds of people who did. It’s pretty ludicrous. That would be like me, I don’t know, telling an astronaut how to pilot a space shuttle. We have a word for mansplaining; would this be materialistsplaining? That’s something Gordon talks about in Star.Ships, but I’ll leave that for my forthcoming review (have to finish reading it first).

Meanwhile we have this piece which argues that

“…we are entering a time of new acceptance [of the paranormal]. Sharing mutual curiosities and otherworldly experiences is no longer unusual, or even unthinkable….Leave it to the Big Apple to sufficiently water a once-taboo seed of thought into a blooming tree of knowledge. The branches have stretched far and wide. I’ve overheard brilliant minds debating the paranormal at art shows throughout Brooklyn and Chelsea. I have partaken in conversations about apparitions and vortexes while sipping on my cucumber martini at the latest and greatest fancy-pants places.”

The author of the article has dubbed this sensibility “metrospiritual” (gag). One could argue this is not so much a watering of the tree of knowledge as a watering down of knowledge for popular audiences. But, says the author,

“It’s actually much deeper. It’s hope against feeling hopelessness while having faith around the faithless. Its inherently understanding things others insist you know nothing about.

(Emphasis added.) I hear that. Nihilism isn’t exactly an uplifting worldview, and to me this sounds like more and more people have gotten fed up with being materialistsplained to and are embracing the empirical validity of their own experiences. Hoist the colors high, fellow weirdos!

Speaking of hoisting the colors, rumor has it that there are real human skeletal remains in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Once upon a time, so they say, all the skeletons were real.

Pirates of the Caribbean

I wouldn’t be the least surprised, although for the record I disagree with those who think the skull and crossbones on the headboard of the pirate captain’s bed are real. First, bones don’t turn brown with age. Bones change color due to adsorption of minerals from their deposition matrix, e.g., soil, and that usually takes a long time. If some former Disneyland employee did indeed donate his skull and crossbones, they would likely not have had time to “age” to a brown color, that just so happens to exactly match the “wood” of the bed, even if they had been buried for a few years. Secondly, the texture just looks all wrong to me. There could very well be real bones in the ride, but nowadays skeletal casts look really authentic, so it’s unlikely you’d be able to tell the difference unless you handled them. And if you haven’t handled a lot of bone before and don’t know what it feels like, maybe not even then.

This story intrigues me because the Pirates ride is quite magical. At least, I have always  felt that, and I suspect a lot of people do, and that’s why it’s their favorite ride. Most people just don’t realize it’s magic they’re feeling. I’ve never been to Disneyworld, but a close friend of mine told me the Pirates ride there doesn’t have the je ne sais quois of the original. I’m betting that’s because it doesn’t have the juju.

What strikes me about the (human-constructed) magical spaces I’ve been in is that the magic is palpable even though your rational mind “knows” none of it is real. Disneyland rides are incredibly detailed, but you can easily tell the difference between animatronics and real people. Another magical space I experienced was at a Halloween puppet theater event put on by the Bare Bones theater group in St. Paul, MN in 2011. The play itself wasn’t memorable but the visual effects of the kill-time-while-people-find-their-seats part had tapped into a legit magic current. While walking to the seating area, you had to go down a path while dimly lit hobby horse-psychopomps with glitter-bedecked cardboard skulls flitted among the shrubbery and a distant gong rumbled. I remember thinking, Somebody read their Eliade. But was it accidental magic by someone who likes anthropology? Or did someone who knew what they were doing create that part? If I had known in advance I might have been able to enter into a state of consciousness where I could have seen what was going on “behind the scenes”, as it were; but then I think the element of surprise can be a power source for magic. If I had had any advance preparation, there might have been no magic at all.

Mari Lwyd
An actual hobby horse (Mari Lwyd). Not from the theater production but you get the idea.

Anyway, that is how Pirates the ride feels to me. It’s like a world unto itself. Going in there feels similar to entering a church–not that it’s holy, but there is that palpable shift in energy as you cross the threshold. Methodologically, magic uses mimesis and analogy such that relatively small and temporally-limited actions (e.g., a ritual, an altar) become entangled with…I don’t know, something…to produce bigger effects elsewhere or elsewhen. A lot of it is effectively mumming, in the sense that you put on the mask of a more powerful being to act as that being. Which is not necessarily the same thing as invocation or spirit possession. Anyway, I suspect that Pirates has somehow created a mimetic bridge to the mythic forms of pirates and of the Caribbean. When you into the ride, it’s like part of you goes somewhere or somewhen else. You know it’s not “real”, but it seems to leap right over the uncanny valley and have something real under the illusion, so you’re not creeped out but carried away.

But perhaps it has something to do with the human remains there, or the ones that were formerly there. Perhaps the place is full of ghosts, and what I’m feeling is that sensation  I get when I enter a cemetery. (Though it doesn’t feel like a haunted house.) Or perhaps the combination of the mimetic rendering of the Pirates of the Caribbean myth and the presence of the dead from other times and places has created some sort of necromantic thing. It would be really interesting to go there after hours alone and do a little experimentation. You could do some wicked chaos-style piratey magic at the very least. On the other hand, the place is nicknamed the Magic Kingdom, and maybe someone involved with Disneyland’s creation was a wizard. I mean, the place makes money hand over fist, so at the very least you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had done some strong prosperity magic there.

I feel more than a bit ridiculous saying all this about a ride at an amusement park. I realize how it sounds. But stranger things have happened, and in sillier places. If you’ve been on the ride and didn’t get any of this magical sense I’m talking about, I’d be curious to know–maybe it’s just me?