Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…


To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.

Epiphanies Happen Even When Speaking German

I have been in Germany since August, and taking German lessons since September. I force myself to go to events that are in German, even though I know that I will not be able to understand everything, and that as the evening wears on, I will slowly come to the realization that I understand nothing of import.

Last Saturday evening, I had a minor epiphany. I went to a barbecue, and sat around and talked for two hours, understood almost everything, and even was able to participate in the conversation. The people I talked to even understood me, and I think a couple of times they laughed at my jokes, rather than my extremely flawed grammar, pronunciation, or word choices. I did not day dream, become confused, or tune out. It felt great.

I remember a similar epiphany in 1981 when I was in the Peace Corps and studying Thai. I am sure that professionals in language learning have a word for when these barriers are crossed, but I am not sure what it is. It certainly does feel good.

Is Being A Scholar Right For You? What Business Are You In?

I have often said that I am not in the business of anthropology. By this I mean that while I am trained in the methods and theories of anthropology, I use that training in a different business. I am in the business of insight generation, risk reduction, sometimes cross cultural understanding. But I am not very concerned with the “giving back” to the discipline of anthropology. I enjoy mentoring when someone asks (people should not impose it unrequested), and helping people make that leap from academic to applied work. But I rarely engage in scholarly work of the larger community of anthro folks.

For me, people engaged in the business of anthropology are those that teach the art and science of the discipline, publish scholarly articles and books, are active in scholarly organizations and are usually found in colleges and universities (but thats hardly criteria). Cindy and Donna are certainly in the business of Anthropology and Tony is very much in the business of Sociology.

You as a student of anthropology don’t have to choose one over the other. There are plenty of people that do both. Full-time teachers and published scholars that consult in various applied capacities. There are full-time applied folks that are very involved with applied scholarship. I pose the question because you as an anthropology student can chose to be in thn business of lots of things and still be an anthropologist. I don’t make claims to being a scholar or engage in the traditional scholarly activities for a simple reason: I don’t enjoy it. I have a chapter published in a book. I hated every moment of writing it, and towards the end it just felt it just like so much “yadda-yadda-yadda”. I have done presentations at conferences and classes, but those have been about my career history (perhaps I get invited to serve as a warning to others?). I am a tinker, an inventor, a person that gets the big payoff when I see something change in a very tangible way. For you it might be seeing your name in print, having the opportunity to share the exciting things you have learned with the widest possible audience. It might be teaching.

Or all of the above. But always remember what business you are in at the moment. Knowing what business you are in helps you keep a sharp focus on the outcome you are responsible for and to who.

Message to HTS Anthropologists: You Need an Experimental Control

Colonel Martin Schweitzer testified before two House Armed Services Committee Subcommittees on April 23 about the Human Terrain Team operating in Afghanistan. After reading it, I was not sure whether to jump up and down and yell yippee! because the military is discussing the role of culture in rural Afghanistan, or simply groan because so little of how social scientists think seem to have gotten through yet.
The statement was interesting for outside social scientists to read for a number of reasons, especially for how the military talks about culture, how the military’s understanding of culture works, and general social science research methods.

The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).
Moderately surprising for me was Colonel Schweitzer’s revelation that there might be more than one source of authority in a village, clan, etc. Apparently the army has always assumed that only one particular village elder is “the boss,” and Colonel Schweitzer’s pleasure—and surprise—that approaching a mullah is also effective. This struck me as Anthro 100 level stuff, but if a five member HTS team is what it takes to get across the idea that authority in “tribal” communities might be diffuse, ok, great. After six years in Afghanistan, it is about time that the military understood that such communities do not necessarily operate using the same type of command structure found in an American police force, for that matter, the US Military.
But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.
The odd thing is that in a pilot program such as HTS, a “natural experiment” is easy to develop. The question to ask is, did the number of “kinetic operations” decline any quicker in the area controlled by the brigade, than it did in areas controlled by brigades which did not have HTS? This would presumably be easy to do in Afghanistan where not only are there more than one American brigades, but other countries also have a military presence. Such other sectors as a “control” and then draw conclusions about HTS effectiveness. Such data is also open to the perils of interpretation, but using it is far better than relying on the vague feelings and anecdote alluded to in Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony. The data is probably already in military files somewhere. I hope that it is analyzed before the next Congressional testimony on HTS.

School Bureaucracies and Childhood

Well, I just got another contract to write another great thriller. The first title was “Bureaucratizing the Child,” and it is about how schools shape childhood and adulthood in the United States. This is no longer the title, but it is not clear yet what it will become. First, I need to come up with about 350 pages by August 2010! I picked the subject because I have been profoundly affected by the education system, as I expect most people are. Most of us today spend at least 13 years in school as a base, and then experience dozens more years of experience whether at the university, or as parents. Many of us also take up careers in education—in fact there are 3 million teachers in the United States! As a result, we all think we are experts about schooling, and all have opinions about how schools should be, are, and will become.

The book is not ethnography per se, but it will certainly draw on the stories others tell. Right now, I am reading a book Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. It is a good read, and explains why and how the current American system of public education emerged in the twentieth century. I am also reading a book of essays from George and Louise Spindler regarding the ethnography of classroom interactions in the United States, Germany, and other countries, and a collection of essays by Pierre Bourdieu’s fans about how education systems create the habitus created by school systems.

I really like the subject of schools, even if writing books about schools (or anything else) is extraordinarily tedious. In fact, blogs are much less tedious! Bottom line is that I will be posting now and then stories and thoughts about the ethnography of schooling. I really enjoy getting feedback and ideas from others on this subject, so if you have any thoughts or ideas there is always the comment line below. All ideas, thoughts, references to other books, etc., are welcome!

Anyway, I am pushing into page 8 of Chapter Two right now. Along with the pages I wrote to get the publishing contract, that means only 312 pages to go!