Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The State of Modern Archaeology and Astronomy: Thundering Acclaim for the Thunderbird Challenge or Not?


The response to our Thunderbird Challenge for the world's archaeologists, astronomers and archaeoastronomers has been overwhelming, as modern students particularly, first as a trickle, and then in droves, having grown up in an era of instant answers via digital technology, the Internet and Wikipedia, Android and iPhones -- now via E-Mail, WhatsApp, PushBullet, Facebook, Skype and even via the antique SMS -- report to us of their experiences with the encrusted structures they are facing in academia at colleges and universities throughout the world, whose esteemed specialists have been unable to answer our two simple questions. No one out there has been able to answer both.

What goes on behind the scenes in campus life in the ivory towers of learning?

Two readers sent us their secretly taped sessions as examples, one with famed archaeologist Archie Digg and one with esteemed astronomer Astella Skop.

Archie Digg was met emerging from his walk-in private safe at the museum which he curates. In that safe he keeps his -- actually, the university's -- archaeological treasures under his personal lock and key. The museum has enough physical assets to make a banker's mouth water, with 90% of the holdings kept so deep in cellars, that they never have been and never will be exhibited. Indeed, much in the dungeons has never even been catalogued.

Even access to the library of ancient books and manuscripts requires Digg's special permission, seldom granted. Digg has a list of publications as long as his arm, writings based on those books and manuscripts. The last thing that interests him is giving others access to those treasures. It is like the Turin Canon viz. Papyrus which disintegrated over decades in an archaeologist's chest of drawers because the archaeologist thought he could decipher it ultimately himself, not wanting to give anyone else a chance. By the time others got their hands on it, it was in a thousand pieces. Have or not have.

Digg pointed out to the inquiring student that he was quite busy negotiating a contract with a major publisher, by which he would edit and supervise the publication of a series of volumes containing photographs of the archaeological treasures under his control together with his subordinates' commentary about them, from which he would make a nice profit, monetarily and professionally. Archaeology was a big business, and Digg had his hands at the controls.

Digg snorted upon being asked about the Thunderbird petroglyph and sneezed out a sincere professional answer in which he pointed out that the student completely misunderstood the nature of archaeological inquiry.

"Do you realize", Digg proclaimed, squinting through his glasses, "that our profession is at the forefront of trends in research? If you had done your homework you would know that Archaeology has kept in step with theoretical developments over past centuries."

"In the early years of Archaeology," said Digg, "excavations were oriented to the ruling classes, major cities, great temples, palace architecture, and fine arts. Collectionism and Orientalism prevailed." Digg thought about his many vaults, chock full of exotic artifacts from the eras of "get it while you can".

Digg continued in a nearly forced dignified and serious manner, as if to justify whatever had happened in the past, even if archaeology in its early stages was often nothing more than the looting of foreign lands. Digg emphasized: "Collectionism was  replaced subsequently in the course of time by an emphasis on science, which led to a methodological focus on cultural history, i.e. the creation of historical timelines based on artifacts previously obtained."

"What naturally followed," said Digg, "was the Processual Archaeology of the 1950s and 1960s, which used to be called the New Archaeology. After the artifacts had been timelined in the era of Scientifc Methodology, the focus turned to humans and their societies, and, let me quote my colleague, Colin Renfrew, things then turned to "the underlying historical processes which are at the root of change", for as Renfrew noted, Archaeology "has learnt to speak with greater authority and accuracy about the ecology of past societies, their technology, their economic basis and their social organization. Now it is beginning to interest itself in the ideology of early communities: their religions, the way they expressed rank, status and group identity."

"Of course," said Digg, "societal views are many and varied and Archaeology kept pace with those as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an emphasis on Urbanism, with the attendant aspects of architecture, environmental considerations, populations, and political life. We thus saw Structuralist and Systems approaches, and even Marxist analysis." Digg knew his stuff.


"Today", mused Digg, as if exhorting in himself what he viewed to be inevitable, "Archaeology is right in the middle of applying post-modern and post-processual theory and examining phenomenological approaches. Phenomenology questions the often claimed objectivity of rational science and suggests that much in Archaeology is subjective.

Archaeologists are thus instead now looking to place themselves experientially in the shoes of ancient peoples to sense subjectively what it was like to be there in any given era, through this subjectivity thus making archaeology more real in its conclusions.  It is a form of archaeological existentialism, as in Johan Hegardt, The Existential Possibility: The relevance of archaeology and cultural heritage today, which writes in the Abstract:
"In this text it is stressed that rescue archaeology, archaeological education and research at the universities, and the cultural heritage management at large, is systematically obstructing the political and democratic agenda to make ... cultural heritage more pluralistic and multi-vocal. In this article I argue that the reason behind this political and social problem, can be found in laws and regulations, a methodological and epistemological canon, and in an essentialist perspective. This very complicated and complex situation is understood and analyzed in a historical and social context and through a discussion of the question of existence and Being."
"Assuredly", said Digg, closing the safe door on his treasures, "there are many advocates of Cartesian rationalism who chafe at the idea that there is no objective archaeological reality, but the trend is clear. In modern terms, there is a movement to make Archaeology relevant to real life. You can feel it."

Digg suddenly adopted an austere appearance, asking gravely: "And now, you want me to know something about petroglyphs and astronomy? My dear student, what does THAT have to do with our profession. You mean this Kaulins simply wants to know what really happened in our human past based on some indecipherable scribbles on ancient walls? Good grief. Do not waste my time! I must be going. I have an important group caucus appointment where we are discussing Stonehenge as an ancient Ayurvedic retreat, yoga inclusive!"

So now let us turn to astronomy. To realize how important astronomy is, or can be, one should ponder that "The Little Prince" (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine Saint Exupéry (the hyphen is not found in his birth documents), published "legally" first in 1946, our birth year, is said to be the world's second most widely read book, after the Bible, so Artcurial. We seem to be destined to follow in the track of Asteroid B612, the home of the hero of Exupery's book.

Spark Notes writes inter alia about the themes covered in the book:
"The little prince represents ... open-mindedness .... He ... asks questions .... The novel suggests that such inquisitiveness is the key to understanding and to happiness....

Saint-Exupéry shows that spiritual growth must also involve active exploration....

The narrator places drawings into the text at certain points ... his illustrations are simple, they are integral to understanding ..."
It is much like our own writings.

In "The Little Prince" a Turkish astronomer discovers a new asteroid, unveiling his discovery at an international astronomy conference, but no one believes him, because he is dressed as a Turk, gesticulating at a blackboard and pointing to mathematical equations -- just like astronomical drawings in our writings.

The Turkish astronomer attends a second conference later in the book, dressed as a Westerner, and his discovery is resoundingly accepted. Well, Andis Kaulins is not Turkish, but perhaps we should reveal to the world that the real name of yours truly is Harry Alnwick Potter, and that my friends just call me "Annick".

Now, what about the astronomers? The esteemed astronomer Astella Skop cordially received a student who wanted to know the answers to the questions presented in the Thunderebird Challenge. Astella was a distinct gender minority in astronomy, a profession ruled almost entirely by the male profession (ca. 96% of professors in astronomy are male).

"The problem with astronomy", said Skop, to the inquiring student, "is gender. We have known now from various studies for several centuries already, that the level of human civilization is directly proportional to the status of women. The higher their status, the higher the level of civilization."

She continued, "There is nothing surprising about this. The reason is provided by studies of guinea pigs. If all the guinea pigs in a birth cycle are male, then the "physically strongest viz. biggest" male is the chief of the group. If there is only one female in the birth group, then it turns out often that the "loudest" and not the strongest or biggest male is the chief. Women bring in a new component, so that things other than sheer brute force become important ... and that is the beginning of civilization."

"Wow" said the student, "so what led you to such a male-dominated academic discipline as astronomy?" 

"Well", said Astella Skop, "as a young girl I read ""The Little Prince" (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine Saint Exupéry and it seemed to me to be so right philosophically about humanity and the world, that I was drawn strongly to astronomy. In some way, we are all like the Turkish astronomer, just waiting for the right fashion in the right era, when our time to blossom has come. I have quite an exclusive status, and I like that."

"Right", said the student, being reminded of her purpose there. "What do you think of the Thunderbird Challenge? and can you answer the second question. If Kaulins is right, why have archaeologists and astronomers not discovered these things long ago."

Astella Skop laughed, "You will have trouble finding a modern astronomer who can answer that sky map question about visible stars in prehistoric days. There are very few astronomers who are interested in the history of astronomy or in simple planispheres, especially ancient ones. They really do not want to know that their profession's beginnings were humble, just as any technology.

And for God's sake, don't mention Archaeology. That's an "Earth" thing and these are "Sky" people. Most modern astronomers are "aeronautical" and think in terms of the cosmos. Just look at what has been in the astronomical news in recent days. It is all about a belching black hole in the middle of our galaxy that could eventually wipe us all out ... in billions of years. That is the kind of thing that interests modern astronomers. It has little relevance to life on Earth now or in the past. "History" is an undesired, too simplistic word, for astronomers.

Even the so-called archaeoastronomers reject the idea that they study the "history" of astronomy. Theirs is a cultural thing, and they like all kinds of mathematics, as if numbers were a safeguard against nonsense, which, of course, they are not. If you are merely trying to prove that something ancient shows stars in the sky, that is too simple for all of them, and they want to hear nothing of it. They prefer seeing a sun-dial and/or lunar calculator in every prehistoric garden, as if the ancients needed to constantly check the same solar or lunar alignment data they already had long ago. It is all rather wild."

Astella Skop continued, "The only real answer to your question is to read the works of Andis Kaulins in this field. He is simply interested in what really happened in the past and how the ancients viewed the skies. Having surveyed land in his youth, he is also interested to discover the degree to which primitive astronomy, viz. sky-gazing was used to conduct land survey. One does not have to agree with all of his conclusions, but one definitely should read what he writes. Most of my colleagues do not do so because they feel threatened by ancient astronomy as showing their high tech discipline to have primitive roots, which of course it has, and has to have. Everything started small, like a child. And, quite the contrary, it is rather amazing how much the ancients already knew about things like precession, the location of the ecliptic and celestial equator, and so on. The things that Kaulins produces are valuable. Read them."

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