UPDATE: Archaeology and the NSF

As a follow up to my October 2 post regarding Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s USA Today op-ed on NSF funding for archaeological research, Rosemary Joyce, James Doyle, and I participated in a radio panel discussion of the issue on Joseph Schuldenrein’s VoiceAmerica program Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality, and 21st Century Archaeology.  It will be streamed on Wednesday November 13 at 6pm and then available by podcast two days later.

In addition, my colleague Sturt Manning has posted his reaction to the Cantor and Smith article.  Now that government websites are back up after the government shutdown, a couple useful statistics are available.

a. Does the US spend more on research and development than any other country? It depends.  According to the World Bank, in 2010 (the last comprehensive data set) we were 10th on a per capita basis, behind Israel, Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, and Denmark.

b. Nevertheless, measures of scientific productivity in the US contradict the notion of lost preeminence. As just one measure, the CWTS Leiden Ranking measures scientific performance of major global universities.  Of the Top 25, all but three are in the US.

c. The Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate represents 3.5% of the NSF’s $6.8 billion budget.  That amounts to about 0.000001% of our current national debt (based on yesterday’s figure).

d. Eric Cantor currently earns $193,400 in salary and his office spends another $510,375 in staff salary alone.  Lamar Smith earns $174,000 in salary and his office staff costs $403,983.  Taken together this is almost twice the expenditure of the archaeological research projects they flagged in their op-ed.

Of course I am not against paying our representatives in Congress.  But given budgetary constraints we must prioritize those who contribute directly to improving the quality of life of the American people.  For every $20,000 saved in Cantor and Smith’s salary, we can sponsor a Dissertation Improvement Grant in Archaeology that will lead directly to new knowledge.  This is not a matter of being anti-House Republicans, it is simply common sense.

Lumpers vs. Splitters: New Findings from Dmanisi, Georgia

Were Earliest Humans All 1 Species?  New research on the early hominid remains from Dmanisi have revived the fortunes of paleoanthropology’s lumpers in their age old battle with the splitters!

 To learn more about the roots of the human family tree, scientists investigated a completely intact, approximately 1.8-million-year-old skull excavated from the medieval hilltop town of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. Archaeological excavations there about 30 years ago unexpectedly revealed that Dmanisi is one of the oldest-known sites for ancient human species out of Africa and the most complete collection of Homo erectus skulls and jaws found so far.

This new skull, called Skull 5, was discovered alongside the remains of four other skulls of ancient humans, all of them associated with the same location and period of time, which back 1.8 million years ago was a relatively temperate mix of forest and steppe near a river. The fossil is unlike any other Homo remains on record — it combines a long face, massive jaw and large teeth with a small braincase, just about a third the size of that found in modern humans and no larger than those of much more primitive African fossils and even modern gorillas. Scientists hadn’t observed such a combination of features in an early Homo fossil until now.

The level of variation seen in Homo fossils is typically used to define separate species. However, the scientists found the level of diversity now seen between the five sets of fossils at Dmanisi — Skull 5 and the four other specimens — is no greater than any seen between five modern humans or five chimpanzees.

Read More here: Were Earliest Humans All 1 Species? Oddball Skull Sparks Debate | LiveScience.

Archaeology as High Priority Research

In a September 30 op-ed in the USA Today, Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith question the use of NSF funds for social, behavioral, and economic sciences when those funds could be used to fund brain research to cure Alzheimers disease or find new cancer therapies.  Amongst the target of their derision: archaeology. Indeed out of the 9 “questionable” NSF grants they call out, a third are archaeological projects.

Rosemary Joyce has a thoughtful rejoinder on her blog that defends the importance of understanding the human past and the integrity of the peer review process.  There is also a critique to be made of the conditions that have created the appearance of Cantor and Smith’s false choice between saving lives and studies of Maya Architecture or Bronze Age Cyprus.

The key phrase in Cantor and Smith’s editorial to my mind is this:

With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.

How is it, any critical thinker should ask, that such a wealthy nation has come to the point where it cannot support a broad spectrum of scientific research? Just by way of comparison, the Republic of Armenia, a nation beset for two decades by the economic crises that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, somehow finds a way to support a broad array of science, including archaeology.  This is to say nothing of the sizable budgets for social science research of all kinds provided by both European nations and the European Union.  So why, we must ask the Republican Congressmen, is such a broad spectrum approach to scientific research impossible for the USA?

The answer is obvious: they have made it impossible by spending like drunken sailors while in control of government and initiating tax cuts that sent the budget surplus achieved under Clinton straight into the pockets of one small segment of the population.  So the choice is not archaeology vs. saving lives.  It is archaeology vs. sending public resources to the 1%.  While I would never argue that research into the Bronze Age Caucasus is more important than curing cancer, I have no difficulty making the argument that knowledge of the human past, broadly disseminated to archaeology’s eager public (our approval ratings are undoubtedly higher than that of Congress), is of far greater value than giving investment bankers another tax cut. That is the real choice covered up by Cantor and Smith’s disingenuous editorial.  It isn’t just that NSF happens to currently have limited funds, these same congressmen created the conditions for those limits.  And they now seek to use those conditions of scarcity that were their own making as an excuse to cripple research that they don’t like.

Here we come to a final concern.  Why does the Republican Congress dislike social science?  In this respect, I think archaeology is a MacGuffin in Cantor and Smith’s essay.  The real target has always been any research that discredits orthodoxies central to doctrinaire Republicanism, such as the perfection of the market, the tyrannical force of government, or, and here we get close, the inerrancy of scripture.  NSF funded research has been critical to unravelling all of these positions.  Rather than engage in a scientific debate by funding more research, Cantor and Smith adopt the rear-guard strategy of shooting the messenger.  Or in this case, the funder.

Update: James Doyle has also posted a nice response to Cantor and Smith’s editorial that considers the true “broader impacts” of archaeological research.

Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life

Leonid Yablonsky reports on his new research into the Sarmatians based on a kurgan excavated in the Southern Urals.  The gigantic cauldron alone is worth a look, but the tatooing equipment is really fascinating.

See the full text here: via Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life – Archaeology News from Past Horizons : Archaeology News from Past Horizons.

From Project ArAGATS: Happy 15th Birthday!

With the close of the 2013 field season, Project ArAGATS found a fitting way to celebrate 15 years of research.

via: http://aragats.arts.cornell.edu/?p=592.

From Project ArAGATS: Iron 3 Tsaghkahovit

In the last day of the 2013 field season at Tsaghkahovit, Lori Khatchadourian and her team recovered a remarkable artifact from Room S of the Iron 3 town. The object is a ceramic spout rendered in the form of what appears to be a bull.

For more, follow the link: http://aragats.arts.cornell.edu/?p=593

From Project ArAGATS: EB Gegharot

The last few days on Gegharot’s West Citadel have brought a flurry of new information about the Early Bronze Age occupation of the site.  The complex stratigraphy is still being worked out but a series of superimposed floors, all with distinct hearth or hearth/oven features are helping us to put together a clearer picture.  

For more, follow the link below to the Project ArAGATS website.

via Project ArAGATS: Archaeology in the South Caucasus | The Joint American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

From Project ArAGATS: New Views on Gegharot’s East Citadel

An unfinished operation on Gegharot’s East Citadel has already yielded interesting results. In an area not far from the East Citadel shrine that we documented in 2011 we have opened a paved stone floor dating to the Late Bronze Age.

via Project ArAGATS: Archaeology in the South Caucasus | The Joint American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

From Project ArAGATS: 2013 Field Season Underway

Today is the fourth day of fieldwork for the 2013 Project ArAGATS excavations.  We are working at three sites this year: Gegharot Fortress, the Gegharot Kurgans, and the town at Tsaghkahovit.  Follow the progress of our work here:

via Project ArAGATS | The Joint American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

Pets and Warriors

National Geographic posted a brief piece on the butchered dog remains from David Anthony and Dorcas Brown’s work at Krasnosamarskoe in the Volga.  You can read it at this link.  They make the fascinating argument that the killing of dogs was part of rites of initiation into a cohort of warriors. If this is indeed that case, it would raise a number of interesting questions pertinent to the long-standing controversy surrounding Napoleon Chagnon’s ethnographic work with the Yanomami.  If violence is socially inculcated within specific historical formations, as Anthony and Brown’s evidence suggests, then that would seem to close the chapter on the exaggerated claims of Chagnon’s initial study.