Monday, August 24, 2009

Caution: Archaeologist at Work

I knew all this blogging would come in handy for work someday. I am writing a journal article about some extensive collections a guy made west of Phoenix in the 1940s when he noticed that several large Hohokam sites were going to be damaged by irrigation and hydroelectric (I think) work along the Gila River. Almost all of the stuff--buckets and bucket and buckets of stuff, mind-boggling in both sheer numbers and the superhuman quality of workmanship--is from mortuary contexts, cremations to be exact, and while a few people have dipped into the collection over the years to write dissertations and master's theses, it's never been comprehensively presented to the public.

So that's my job, at least for the arrowheads, and until this afternoon I had no real idea what to say beyond holy shit will you look at all these amazing things. A lot of the arrow points that were included as offerings in various cremations are stunningly well made, on the order of 10 cm long and yet no more than 2 or 3 millimeters thick, but there's an equal number of offertory points that were clearly intended to be of the same design as the big showpieces, but whose workmanship falls far short. Even accounting for the warping and twisting incurred in the intense heat of the crematory fire, they are asymmetrical, unevenly serrated, thick in the middle. Why? What social mechanism was at work here?

I don't know for sure. Nobody does. But! This afternoon, as I was thinking about mortuary rituals and grave furnishings, I remembered the field trip I took last summer to a tiny cemetery in the limestone country of southwestern Indiana, which I wrote about here. These completely unrelated cultural settings provide my favorite kinds of analogies, the sorts of parallels I best like to draw between in attempting to understand the human forces behind the extinct technology I study for a living because the initial apparent absurdity strips somehow strips away the superfluous and lays intrinsic processes bare (ask me sometime about 17th-century European gunflint industries and arrowhead manufacture in the US Southwest circa A.D. 900). Cultural parallels between central Arizona in the year 1000 and southwestern Indiana in the year 1880 are pretty much nonexistent, but in both places and times people had to deal with the deaths of friends and family, and had to send them off with the requisite ritual and grave furnishings.

The dead needed certain things, and then as now the survivors were constrained somewhat by their ability to pay for the really good stuff, the highly visible status items. In Gila Bend, they wanted chalcedony arrowpoints with long, serrated blades, side notches, square shoulders, and deep basal concavities. In Needmore, they wanted a limestone grave marker inscribed with a name and dates, ideally with a bit of scripture and a decorative motif. Those who had the resources to acquire these things from a master craftsman got the long thin arrowheads, the headstones inscribed with a lengthy bible verse and topped with intricate scrolls, ferns, and flowers. Those who didn't were left to make their own uneven points with mismatched serrations and awkward humps, left to scratch names into unadorned slabs with an unsteady hand, letters backwards and dates squeezed together, scrollwork passed over in favor of a stick-figure sun.

Or maybe not. It makes a good story, though, the thread of common humanity weaving possibilities across hundreds of miles and years.

1 comment:

Damien said...

Wow! What a superb collection to work on. Good luck :) I agree that linking or comparing times and places via how the individuals there handled death, mourning, and manipulation of the dead is what makes mortuary components of archaeology so fascinating. These parallels will always be present if you ask the right questions. You should take a gander at some of the beautiful nephrite grave goods we find in SE Asian cemeteries. Green, white, grey, black, axes, adzes (sharp as the day there were made practically), bracelets, anklets, beads etc. etc. etc. Gives you some idea of what looters are after...