Artifacts, Assets, & The Limits of Monetization

In a much awaited decision,  US District Judge Robert Gettleman last week provided a summary judgment on a case that threatened to force the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum to sell vast collections of … Read more »

Caucasus Connections Conference: April 4-5, 2014

Caucasus Connections, a conference sponsored by the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus, will be held April 4-5, 2014 at Indiana University, Bloomington in the Indiana Memorial Union.  the keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Harsha Ram (University of California, Berkeley) and featured Speakers include Dr. Ed Lazzerini (Indiana University), Dr. Christina Maranci (Tufts University), and Dr. Kevin Tuite (University of Montreal).

With scholarly contributions that span the humanities and social sciences, as well as pedagogy and innovative teaching, this interdisciplinary conference will focus on the institutions, languages, cultures and histories that connect (as well as divide) the various places and peoples of the South Caucasus. Presentations will cover the themes of Caucasus and Circulation, the Imagined Caucasus, Cultural Connections, and Crossroads and Peripheries.

For those of us unable to make it to Bloomington, the conference will be live streamed on the ARISC website.

Armenia and Archaeo-Tourism

A great post from Project ArAGATS member Elizabeth Fagan’s blog regarding US Ambassador to Armenia Heffern’s recent TedX Yerevan talk:

In 2013, the United States Ambassador to Armenia, John Heffern, gave a TedX talk in Yerevan about the wealth of archaeological remains just waiting to be excavated (and then conserved) in the modern Republic of Armenia. He argued that the vivid history in Armenia should be better known throughout the world, to bring development (i.e., tourist dollars and related construction projects) to Armenia, and also to heighten academic interest in its history, thereby also encouraging international collaboration.

To emphasize the value of bringing international attention to archaeology in Armenia, Ambassador Heffern pointed out a few somewhat recent finds from the caves near the town of Areni in Vayots Dzor, including the earliest known wine-making equipment and a remarkably well-preserved leather shoe that clocks in at 5,500 years old. He went on to discuss the wine-making equipment at length, because of its potential significance to development, as the region of Areni just happens to be the most famous Armenian region for wine production, suggesting marketing connections just waiting to be made.  Ambassador Heffern’s final exhortation to his audience was to look into the use of crowdfunding to help finance archaeological projects and conservation, and to promote the sites for education and tourism.

I am in such complete agreement with Ambassador Heffern’s main points that I have in fact spoken to audiences across the U.S. on numerous occasions about archaeology in Armenia, its origins, its history, and its current state.  In Armenia, if you walk through the countryside with one of the archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologist will point out a historic or archaeological site to your left; an artifact to the right; a series of memorials behind you; or ancient walls directly in front.  The landscape is dotted with reminders of the past, artifacts and constructions like those found in the Areni cave that tell a tale of very early times, up through material remains that teach us about the medieval period and beyond.  The very landscape tells a story, a complex story of different times and different people, and that captivating story—or really, stories—should indeed be better known.

I have even led a group of tourists through every part of the country, telling those stories of the past by providing a unique look at material excavated long ago as well as excavations that are currently ongoing. I led the tour to do exactly what Ambassador Heffern is calling for, to bring tourist money into the country while at the very same time educating people about the past directly under their feet.

And so, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the talk, and yet, I can’t help but wonder what impact crowdfunding might have on what is (and should remain) a social-scientific endeavor.  What happens if institutions like universities and organizations like the National Science Foundation are relieved of their responsibility to fund scientific projects like archaeology?  What happens if the model becomes, in fact, a business model?  Or even a privately-funded model?

I have other questions about the talk, such as why there was no mention of the many internationalcollaborations already going on in Armenia, some of which have lasted for many years.  There was not even a mention of the teams at UCLA and University College Cork who work at Areni, although to be fair, Armenian archaeologists also hardly figured in the speech except to be seen in the photo at the Institute.  My point, however, is that collaborations and academic interest in Armenia already do exist; why not lend support to these projects, which already have the relationships and even infrastructure in place that will allow them to expand their efforts to illuminate the archaeology and history hiding in Armenia’s soil?

In the end, TedX talks are meant to be thought-provoking, not necessarily problem-solving. This talk certainly made me think, but largely, about the proposed solution to the problem of funding archaeological research, and about the problems that the solution might in turn raise.

With the 2014 founding of the new ArAGATS Foundation, whose mission is to promote the co-development of regional archaeology and economic development, Ambassador Heffern’s approach is timely and extremely welcome. We look forward to more conversations on this very important issue here in the future.

Civilization, the Barbarian, and Crimea

Detail of Gold Scythian Vessel from Kul-Oba Kurgan, Eastern Crimea

Detail of Gold Scythian Vessel from Kul-Oba Kurgan, Eastern Crimea

To read dispatches from the ongoing geopolitical conflict occasioned by the revolution in Kiev and Russian military intervention in Crimea, one might understandably think that the world was facing what the late Samuel Huntington called a “clash of civilizations”: a quintessentially late Modern form of conflict where traditional nation-state rivalries are sublimated into epochal battles between rival systems of beliefs and values.

Indeed, this impression has been ably stoked by many of the key players.  Referring to a planed referendum on Crimean independence, the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Andrei Yatsenyuk recently declared: “No one in the civilized world will recognize the results of a so-called referendum carried out by these so-called authorities.”  Here, “civilization”  denotes Europe and the West; Russia, the sponsor of the Crimean referendum, is explicitly excluded, consigned to the role of the barbarian, civilization’s long-standing antithesis.

Russian leaders are using much the same language.  Vladimir Nikitin, a member of the Russian Duma, framed the Crimean struggle in distinctly Huntingtonian terms, writing “The main battle of World War III is under way in Ukraine….  The aggressor is Western civilization, which includes the U.S. and Europe.”

But the circulation of tropes of civilization and barbarity on the Crimean Peninsula is hardly a novelty of late Modernity.  It is instead a highly unoriginal revival of a very old device.  The ancient Greek term barbaros (βάρβαρος) was used rather indiscriminately to describe non-Greeks, but was rather emphatically deployed to describe the peoples who occupied the Black Sea coast where Greek colonies encountered very different ways of life.  Scythians in particular became a kind of “type site” for working out the idea of the barbarian and hence of civilization.   Subsequently, the Romans came to see the people’s of eastern Europe and the Russian steppe as quintessential barbarians pressing against the margins of “Civilization” and forever seeking to blot out its achievements (take your pick from the threatening dotted lines on the map below: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Huns, etc.).

Routes of the Barbarian Invaders

The ancient description of the barbarian carried with it a sense that those outside of Civilizations warm embrace were historical fossils or anthropological “primitives”.  Interestingly, we see this too in the current discussion of Crimea.  President Barack Obama has argued that the Russian military incursion into Crimea was a “violation of international law” which put Russian President Vladimir Putin “on the wrong side of history.” The right side of history is of course the path that leads to us while the wrong side leads to uncomfortable and undesirable futures.

The leader of Britain’s liberal democrats, Nick Clegg, effectively spliced the geographic and historical dimensions of the civilizational trope when he demanded that Moscow enter into a “civilised dialogue” over Crimea, arguing that the Russian leader had a “KGB mentality rooted in the Cold War”.

What is compelling about the redeployment of old tropes to the Crimean conflict is not simply the coincidental geography of its return, but its remarkable unsuitability.  The terms, always imprecise and obscurantist, now seem as tattered and torn as the flags on the barricades of Maidan Square.  It simply makes no sense–rhetorical or political–to claim a civilizational mantle when for both sides the interests are largely strategic: a warm water port for one, an expanded European sphere for the other.  And quite likely, uses of civilization have ever been thus.  The exclusivity of the civilizational club providing nothing in the way of social or cultural content but simply an opportunistic politics.  We might hope then that the absurdity of the civilizational rhetoric now swirling around Crimea might not be a harbinger of either a civilizational clash or World War II, but of a moment when the concepts lost their power to draw lines.

Soft Power Failure

Following in the heels of the recent flap over archaeology funding at the NSF, my colleague Chris Monroe pointed out yet another arena where the US government is failing the cause of research and preservation.  This time, it is the global stage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  A 1990 law passed by Congress law stipulated that:

No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

By voting to bar US funds for any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a member state, the goal was presumably to be preventative.  The US provides a sizable portion of UN agency budgets so the threat of a withdrawal of funds was presumably to work as a kind of soft veto over any effort to bring Palestine into the organization.

Only one problem: circumstances on the ground changed and the soft veto did not work.  In 2011, Palestine was admitted to membership in UNESCO and the flow of US dues was summarily cut off.  The US had been providing 22% of UNESCO’s funding so the damage to its programs was necessarily consequential.

But the damage doesn’t stop there.  UNESCO’s rules require that countries who fail to pay their dues for two years lose their vote in the UNESCO General Assembly.  As the New York Times notes, this makes it considerably less likely that “two American sites on the list to become World Heritage sites certified by Unesco will win approval.”

But perhaps just as importantly, the US can no longer use its role in UNESCO as a form of global soft power, leveraging its support for education, science, and culture as evidence of the good that the US does in the world.  As the government loses the tools of soft power, all that is left of US involvement globally are the tools of hard power–the very tools that are often counter-productive to US geopolitical goals.  So to summarize, a 1990 effort to exert soft power failed so dramatically as to fundamentally undermine the US’s ability to assert soft power going forward.

There comes a time to simply admit a strategy has failed.  This is clearly one of those times.  The US must resume its payments to UNESCO not only for the sake of the organization’s mission, but also for the future of US involvement in the world.

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.