Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Pamunkey Project

So I wrote an update last week, albeit possibly not a very interesting one, which I now can't post. I'm having some technical difficulties in accessing it to finish it. I have two computers (a four year old Macbook and a secondhand Dell Mini), running two different operating systems, which you'd think would be really convenient for a lot of things. Sometimes, when they both work, it even is. But a lot of the time it's just twice the trouble. I'm not even that bad with technology, just super unlucky. (Okay, I occasionally do something idiotic, but not this time.) Anyway, that post is back on the back burner while I figure out what happened to it and whether I can get it back. I'm going to finish this one instead.

Back in July, I had the good fortune of accompanying the field crew to the Pamunkey Indian Reservation on an outing arranged for the benefit of the students in the William & Mary/Colonial Williamsburg summer field school. It was an exciting opportunity for me personally because I'm interested in Native American history in general and because I wrote two extensive research papers last semester about relations between the first English settlers at Jamestown and the local Indians, including the Pamunkey. It was an especially exciting opportunity, for everyone who went, because one member of the field crew and one of the field school TAs are both members of the tribe; the latter is also the director of the museum on the reservation, and they're both very connected to their Pamunkey identity and were eager to share their history and culture with their students and coworkers.

There's a certain level of abstraction and disconnect involved when white people try to learn about Indian issues. Even if that barrier is an unconscious one, or even if it's one you recognize and consciously try to get around, it's still there. So I think it's a really powerful thing to be able to connect those issues with people you've worked with, people you've had a drink with in the pub. And, from the other side, I think it's a really powerful thing to go beyond just working or talking with someone with a different set of experiences from yours and actually get to see a little slice of their world. Either way you look at it, it really brings things home in a way that can be hard to accomplish otherwise.

(Did you know that Indians weren't allowed to attend public schools until the 1960s?!)

Also, a lot of people seem to be unaware that there are still American Indians in the eastern states, let alone reservations. Perhaps they're vaguely aware of some small reservations in New England or upstate New York, but not much else. They assume that the local Indians all died out or were driven west centuries ago. I blame this at least partly on our school system. I know that my own education was woefully lacking in Native American history. I remember learning about them in the context of early exploration and the wars of the eighteenth century, and I remember learning about the Trail of Tears and about the Indian Wars out West in the late nineteenth century—Geronimo and the Apache, Chief Joseph, "Custer's Last Stand" (ugh) against the Lakota and others. But there were many gaps, historical and cultural, and many details left out or glossed over. As far as my immediate surroundings were concerned... I remember learning in third or fourth grade about the pre-European-settlement inhabitants of the area where I grew up: They were the Lenape, and they were missionized and sometimes educated by the Moravian settlers, and treaties were made with them (sometimes unfairly) by colonial leaders. After the eighteenth century, all Native Americans sort of dropped out of the picture of Pennsylvania history. I learned much later that many, perhaps most, had gone west to the Ohio Valley and eventually to Oklahoma, where the Delaware reservation is today. Only as an adult did I discover that they are not gone, nor have they ever been; the tribe has neither state nor federal recognition in the region it originally inhabited, but many people remained after the migrations west, often concealing their Native identities and passing down their traditions in secret.

The history of the Pamunkey people is just as fascinating. (I wonder if it's also just as much a mystery to locals. It wouldn't surprise me, but the existence of the reservation and the presence that Virginia's Indians have in regional culture and politics might give them some advantage of visibility that the Delaware have lacked in most of their original homeland.) Their reservation is one of two in the state, on land they chose in accordance with what I imagine is one of the earliest such treaties in the U.S. (1677), and the tribe still, to this day, pays annual tribute to the governor of Virginia as stipulated by that treaty—so no one can ever accuse them of not keeping their end of the agreement.

In the museum on the reservation, I learned about something awesome which I had somehow never heard of: the Pamunkey project, which was a large-scale undertaking in experimental archaeology in the 1970s. I had trouble looking up any more details about it, but from what I've gathered it sounds like basically, a group of researchers went out into the woods for a period of time and did their best to live the way the ancestors of today's Pamunkey people would have been living just before the English arrived in the early seventeenth century. They made their own tools and pottery and used them to build shelters and hunt and cook game, among other things. The best part, to me, is that the experiment was/is two-fold. First was the figuring-out of traditional technology, both making and using, and as a bonus creating objects that could later be displayed in the Pamunkey museum, filling in gaps where there are no surviving artifacts or only damaged ones, and second is the part where the site(s?) where the researchers lived and worked and built their shelters can be left alone for a hundred years and then excavated. Looking at what happens to a known and documented site in that time will help future archaeologists make sense of actual Woodland-Period sites. Brilliant. It's a control sample for archaeology! And it's like some kind of recursive time capsule, which is just plain awesome.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rational Thought vs. The Media

Because I prefer National Geographic News to listening to various idiots argue about the economy, here are two short and interesting articles about the archaeology of Pre-Columbian Peru:

The first one (here) is actually a week old now, but as we've learned already, I run behind the times. Anyhow, it seems last week was the 100-year anniversary of the first excavations at Machu Picchu after its "discovery" by American historian/archaeologist Hiram Bingham (a senator AND possible inspiration for Indiana Jones, if you weren't aware). Bingham's work at the site is credited with bringing it into public focus and causing it to become the famous tourist destination it is today, and has also resulted in repatriation issues between the Peruvian government and Yale University, where most of the artifacts and remains from those early excavations wound up. Interesting stuff. The NatGeo piece linked above presents a sort of mini history on the theories about Machu Picchu's purpose, the most credible at the moment being that it functioned as a retreat for Inca royalty, a highly symbolic religious site, or some combination of the two.

This is where the whole "tolerance for ambiguity" comes in—most likely, no one is ever actually going to know why Machu Picchu exists or who lived there. There's always going to be more than one possible explanation, and which if any of them is correct is anybody's guess. Interpreting archaeological evidence is often like putting together one of those puzzles with the flat-edged pieces, where you can match up groups of pieces in an assortment of ways, but there's only one way to fit all of them together at once. In archaeology, you're missing a few pieces, so you can put together all the ones that are left, but usually in more than one way, and you can't ever be sure whether you've got it right or not.

Speaking of which...

The second article at hand went up on Thursday and is about a recent discovery of a pre-Inca tomb.

Basically, the grave of an important person was uncovered at a site that has previously yielded evidence of human sacrifice. Cool. Said important person was buried with grave goods that included big copper knives. Also cool. Big knives are apparently common in noble graves from this culture—they're a status symbol.

And yet the article's headline, the topic sentence, the photo caption, and various phrasing used throughout the article consistently claims that this person was an "executioner" or a "sacrificer". Sometimes there's a subtle qualifier like "so-and-so suggests", but other times the article here straight-up states that the grave belongs to someone who ritually killed people, as if it's a known fact.

Kids... this is what we call CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE.

He's buried with knives at a place where women were sacrificed. Nothing about this proves that he was the sacrificer. The knives alone aren't even very good evidence to support that theory given that they're not an uncommon type of grave good for the time and place. It's an intriguing interpretation, and certainly not impossible, but it's not the only interpretation and probably not even the most likely one. National Geographic latched onto it because it will get people's attention and cause them to click on links. Maybe that's not inherently bad or wrong, but there's a way of presenting something like this that's balanced and not misleading, and then there's... well, the way they did it. If you want to inform the public, by all means do so, but draw a clear line between fact and speculation. Your interpretation of the evidence is merely that, and it really bothers me when a generally respected source like National Geographic fails to make that clear and instead gives into sensationalism.

The great poet W. H. Auden sums it up nicely (from "Archaeology"): "Knowledge may have its purposes,/ but guessing is always/ more fun than knowing."