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Friday, February 07, 2014

Living on the archaeological landscape

Yesterday the kids, dogs and I went for a walk on Near Island and I learned something of interest that helps me understand what people were doing in the past at local archaeological sites.  Our first stop on the hike was an eroding archaeological site.  I explained to the kids that the red rocks coming out of the site were red because they had been in a fire.  I have excavated a few similar sites and I told the kids how they were probably smoke processing lots and lots of cod.  The rocks were heated up and then they held the heat to help the cod to dry. It was a good way to conserve firewood. Ancient peoples did not have freezers so they needed to smoke and dry the cod so that they could save it for later.

The kids duly nodded their heads, and asked me about how the people who lived here made knives from rocks.  The dogs ran off and swam in the ocean. Stuey went looking for a piece of slate to grind into an ulu knife.  My lesson was over - or so I thought.

A short while later we came upon a couple fishing from shore and they had caught some humongous cod.  One of the cod was darn near as big as Stuey.  A lightbulb went off in my head, 'ah ha, so that's why that site is located where it is - cod are easy to catch here.'  I had previously assumed that ancient Alutiiq peoples had had to kayak far offshore to catch such large cod.  Now I know that such cod can be caught from shore in late winter.

A small point to be sure, but it does highlight something I feel quite strongly about - archaeologists should live on and understand the landscape where they work.  Afterall, there is only so much one can learn from books.  This sounds obvious but most archaeologists live in a city and teach at a University and only visit 'the field' to work for a few short weeks every year - if at all.

Once at a large archaeological conference I checked out a session on Upper Paleolithic Portugal.  The archaeologists were talking about the various animals whose bones had been found in the site.  To my horror they used contemporary pictures of animals in a zoo to show what the various animals looked like.  Clearly these archaeologists had no idea what it means to chase down, kill and butcher something on their own.

Living in the environment makes all the stuff one reads in books so much easier to understand.  You know what is possible or not and you know when a theory is ridiculous.  You know what it means to live on the landscape.  Patrick


Molly Odell said...

That's pretty cool. I've caught cod right off Roslyn beach from a skiff, but so close to shore that I'm sure they could be caught from shore as well.

I agree generally with your point and about getting to know a landscape and resources to be able to understand how people used in the past, but I don't think photos in a presentation give any indication of whether a person is familiar with those things or not. It's convenient to grab photos of the interwebs and might not really mean much more than that.

Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

A zoo animal and something living in the wild are TOTALLY different animals. And yes when I see a zoo animal in a presentation it does make an unfavorable impression. It tells me that the person probably does not really know the difference. That said bad web photos don't impress me either. I've seen people talking about dall sheep and putting up Rocky Mountain sheep by 'accident'. Patrick