Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Looting and the urge to grope history

A damaged petroglyph at Volcanic
Tablelands (Greg Haverstock BLM)
I had an earlier post on some archaeological site vandalism that actually may not have occurred--at the Glenwood Erratic in Alberta, Canada.  I thought it was a shame that that incident had gotten so much attention, because vandalism is a real problem on Native American sites.  Now some real vandalism has taken place at a petroglyph site, this one on BLM land at the Volcanic Tablelands near Bishop, California (Huus 2012, Sahagun 2012).

The looters used power saws to cut away at least five petrogyphs (one of which they broke and left in the parking lot), and deface a number of others.  They would have had to use at least a portable generator and a ladder to get get at the petroglyphs. This is more than casual vandalism. The effort suggests it was done for money.

Greg Haverstock, the BLM archaeologist at Bishop, notes the monetary value of the panels at $500-$1,500 a piece.  That's not much given the effort and risk. I wonder if they had a guaranteed buyer to make it worthwhile--an antiquities collector who will now own something they can't show off too much.

Just from the point of view of an archaeologist, I don't get the antiquity-collecting mentality. But looters and collectors do strike a chord with the US public.  Obviously there is the populist appeal of being "jes' plain folks" against "pointy-headed intellectuals," an argument that always plays well in the US.  But the needs that drive looting also make sense to a public marinaded in the assumptions of capitalism.

Reductionism and context
The idea that complex phenomena (like, well, human history) can only be understood when reduced to a pile of constituent physical bits is an ingrained one. When archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians talk about "context," the usual response is a polite but blank look.

In this vandalism case, however, the notion of context is pretty easy to understand. The petroglyphs formed a physical unit--the looters had to break them to get them out.  Most people get that some meaning has been lost. In other cases, where there is not a physical connection that needs to be physically destroyed, people have a harder time seeing the need to maintain context (or "provenience").

The second intuitive appeal here is that nearly everything is reducible to a thing that can be alienated--bought and sold. The value of, in this case, Native American cultural heritage is a financial one.  Even in those rare cases where looters are caught and prosecuted, the assessment of damages is a financial assessment.  In this society it has to be, I suppose, but it does make for strange arguments.  How much money is the knowledge that was destroyed worth (awkward since so since we have no idea what that knowledge potentially was)?  How much money is the anguish over the violation of an ancestral burial worth?

Related to this is Americans' instinctive distrust of the commons. The idea that there are things out there that are worth money but are not owned by anyone disturbs many people. Looters on federal or state land are seen, not as stealing from the public trust, but as individuals taking on the government.  The conversion of the commons to private property seems almost righteous.   

However the petrolyphs have a sacred character, and this was a act of desecration. I think many Americans (although obviously not all) are uneasy with too much mixing of commerce and religion. So there is a sense that not everything should be commodified, which might contribute to some of the outrage over the vandalism.

Looted artifacts, these now-isolated commodified objects, have a meaning that goes beyond their use-value.  There is an almost erotic aspect to how this is expressed--touching, feeling, holding the past. Ric Savage1, the former wrestler who stars in Spike TV's reality show American Looters Diggers, usually expresses justifies his activities using this trope.
“Anywhere anything ever happened, there is going to be something in the ground,” Savage explains. “Relic hunting depends on the hunter and what they are interested in and looking for. I look for historical artifacts. Modern coins, jewelry — that’s more scavenging. I like touching history.”
But critics don’t like Savage touching history. The Society of American Archaeology has criticized relic hunters for promoting illegal looting. [Huus 2012]
Of course the driving force behind the antiquities market is not the urge to "touch the past," but the urge to own the past.   And it's not even "the past."  It is a single isolated object that happens to be old.  There are people, many people, who feel they cannot appreciate the past (or other cultures) unless they can own it. If it isn't theirs, they can't feel any connection with it or have any understanding of it. The physical act of holding and owning an object satisfies some yearning for connection.  But of course it doesn't--that's why people have collections of artifacts.

When the only pleasure is ownership, the urge to consume is never satisfied.

1Sorry for the juxtaposition of "erotic" and "Ric Savage."

UPDATE (2/2/13).  The petroglyphs have been recovered, due to an anonymous tip.  Whoever left the tip did not give their name, giving up the chance for a $9000 reward.  This suggests the looters themselves left the tip.  They were pbviously unable to sell the petroglyphs.  Unfortunately they remain at large.  


Hoekstra, Dave
2012  "Relic hunter Ric Savage finds his Navy Pier souvenir."  Chicago Sun-Times, March 20, 2012.  (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)
Huus, Kari
2012 "Theft of sacred rock drawings stuns California tribe, federal officials." NBC News, March 20, 2012. (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)

Sahagun, Louis
2012  "Petroglyph thefts near Bishop stun federal authorities, Paiutes."  Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2012,,0,6886011.story (last viewed Nov 21, 2012)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jon Stewart on the history of anti-immigrant hysteria

19th-century nativism.
"The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things"
by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 2 September 1871.
Wikimedia Commons
Jon Stewart puts the US Right's nativist hysteria in historical context.  It's all good, especially since he is responding to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Bernie Goldberg.  The both get a quick lesson on how Irish and Jewish immigrants were decried in exactly the same terms now used for Latino immigrants.   But the highlight is about the 04:00 mark.
You don't need to worry so much.  What you are demonstrating is the health and vitality of America's greatest tradition--a fevered frightened ruling class lamenting the rise of a new ethnically and religiously diverse new class, one that will destroy all that is virtuous and good, and bring the American Experiment crashing to the ground.  Except you are fogetting one thing.  That is the American Experiment--an ethnic group arriving on America's shores to be reviled and hated, living in squalor (or, if they are lucky, Squalor Heights), working hard to give their children or grandchildren the opportunity to @#$%* on the next group landing on our shores.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

One of my favorite things: Zotero

Having lanced my evo-psych boil for the time being (although I am sure it will erupt again), I thought I'd do something a little more fun, and cover one of my favourite research/productivity tools.  That would be Zotero.

It's free and open-source. I think it started off as a bibliographic manager, but has expanded well beyond that to a library and file of notes. You can grab the citation (usually a painless single click), and stash the pdf (usually grabbed automatically) and your notes (via a built-in editor) underneath the bibliographic entry.  If it is a webpage, zotero grabs a snapshot.  You used to be able to annotate webpages, but that function seems to have been recently dropped.

Once you have the entry, you can tag it.  You can also have another level of organisation by creating folders of citations.  I use tags mainly as permanent keywords (except for workflow-related tags like "To Read") and use folders for specific projects, which I delete when I'm done.

Creating a citation and bibliography in a document is just a matter of dragging and dropping, but for more involved work there are dedicated plug-ins for Word and OpenOffice. If you remember doing bibliographies manually, this is science-fiction, the kind with jet packs and flying cars.

You can sync your Zotero library among multiple computers using a remote server. has limited space, but I use JungleDisk (for about $8.00/month).

There are a couple of other Zotero-related applications that I find indispensable.
The main one is Zotfile.  This is an add-on that manages the pdfs attached to the references.  It will automatically rename pdfs to something a little less cryptic than the usual downloaded article filename. You can set the renaming rules, but the default author's-surname_date_title works for me.

If you use a tablet for reading, Zotfile will send the article you want to your tablet via Dropbox.  Read it on your tablet from Dropbox, mark it up and annotate it, and, when you are done, use Zotfile to retrieve it from Dropbox back into Zotero.

Zotfile will then extract your mark-ups and annotations and create a note under the bibliographic entry!!  This is brilliant. Zotfile is free but you should definitely make a donation.

 On my smartphone (Android) I have Scanner for Zotero.  With this I can scan a book's barcode and upload the bibliographic information into my zotero database.

Obviously I have an 8" Visio Android tablet (a Costco special) for reading pdfs. I use ezPDF Reader for this task.  It's not free ($2.99), but worth every penny, and more.  It's the best app for marking-up and annotating PDFs. As I noted earlier once you are done, Zotfile can go through and create a text file from your highlighted or underlined sections, and your marginal notes.

Zotero. Yes.