Sunday, December 22, 2013

Shovel Testing and Pragmatism

I have been thinking about pragmatism as a philosophy for archaeology. Let’s work through an example of how a pragmatist views their work. We will focus on a common practice in America, shovel testing

Hypothetically, we have a project to do. You and I own an archaeological consulting firm working in the southeastern United States and are awarded a contract by the US Army Corps of Engineers. We are tasked to do a “cultural resource inventory” of a forested 100-acre parcel of Army land that is planned for new developments. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) applies, as does the whole process of quality review that goes with it. Our objective as consultants is to conduct archaeological and historical research on and about the property, and produce a synthesizing report, all of which meets the minimum requirements that the Corps and the state historic preservation office (SHPO), the “regulator”, have previously established for conducting such studies.

The Corp’s goal is to get through the compliance process as efficiently as possible and, under the NHPA, they are required to make a “good faith effort” at identifying “historic properties” (a technical term referring to important, “significant”, archaeological and/or historical resources) that may be affected by the proposed land development. The SHPO’s role is to review the report for conformity with their research protocols, review the development proposal, assess the consultation letter the Corps provides, and then to agree (concur) or disagree with whatever claim the Corps makes about the project’s affects to historic properties. Archaeological work is thus part of a much larger effort at complying with the NHPA.

We assign the project to Jane, an experienced archaeologist, giving her the role of principal investigator. She is knowledgeable about the archaeology and history of the region surrounding the project area, and of the research protocols of SHPO, and of the section 106 process. She has twenty years of work experience and five as being a project manager, leading numerous projects. She has available to her the necessary budget, time and staff to get the work done, including other archaeologists, archaeological technicians, laboratory (lab) staff, a GIS technician, a historian and a architectural historian. She implements the project as a multi-pronged research program. The historical background research is delegated to a historian and is done to ascertain prior land use (who owned the land previously, who lived there and where, and what was the land used for, and if important events, such as battles, occurred there. Local archives, Army records, local histories, land records, historical maps, aerial photographs will be reviewed; prior tenants or landowners may be interviewed. That research could take six weeks. She assigns a separate task to the architectural historian to visit the project area and record four old military buildings; additionally, that person assesses if the project area can be conceived of as a possible cultural landscape, especially, a military one. Meanwhile, two archaeological technicians visit the parcel and do a quick walk over to identify any obvious sites that may there and to discern areas that can be excluded from the more intensive site discovery process known as shovel testing.

Jane had been informed by the Corps archaeologist, Consuelo, that two archaeological sites have been previously recorded within the project area: a “lithic” scatter of stone debris, flakes and other sharp stones, and ground stones, all of unknown age but presumed to be prehistoric; and, a mid nineteenth century farmstead, the main feature of which is a stone foundation. She receives the site forms. From the visual inspection and review of topographic maps, Jane decides that 75 acres are level and dry enough for the shovel-testing program; the other 25 acres are too steep or are wetlands, so they will be investigated through a systematic walk over.

Shovel testing is a technique to discover new sites and to determine the boundaries of known sites. It is typically done when surface vegetation is too thick such that the surface of ground soils is not visible. It is a simple process. The shovel test pit (STP) is similar to a post hole. You dig a round hole, maybe 30 centimeters in diameter, to a depth of 40 or 50 centimeters (deeper if necessary). The removed soil is pushed through a screen, artifacts are collected, and soil types and soil changes are documented. The equipment used includes simple shovels, mason trowels and box screens (a shallow wooden frame with, usually, ¼-inch wire mesh as a bottom). The soil is described in terms of loam, silt, sand, or clay; its color is matched to a Munsell Color chart. GPS coordinates are taken to document the STP location, usually with a device that is accurate to one meter. Photographs of the STP and its soil profile (how it looks from a side view), may be taken. The profile description and all the other information are recorded on standardized field forms (in paper form or digitally). The STP is back-filled to a level grade such that it is not a safety problem for humans or other animals that could walk over the location. Any artifacts found are put in a labeled bag and brought back to the lab for cleaning and cataloging; (it is also possible to be required by contract to do “field identification” and rebury the artifacts in the STP when it is back-filled). One or two people typically do these tasks per hole. Of course, one hole does not provide much information. Thus, many STPs will have to be dug across a project area. Conceptually, you impose a grid over the project area composed of numerous rows, “transects”. The rows will be a standard distance from each other, and within each row, the holes will be a standard distance from each other. The distance in between rows and STPs is called the interval. The maximum interval that can be used is often dictated by SHPO protocol. Tighter intervals are at the discretion of the project manager. A shovel-testing program is labor intensive and time consuming.

Working with the GIS technician Jane identifies on maps the 75 acres for shovel testing by outlining transects, and the other 25 acres for systematic pedestrian survey. She expects that a minimum of 1200 STPs will be dug for the basic site discovery process. The two known sites will need to be re-recorded and another 40 STPs will be dug across them in tight intervals. She has allotted five weeks for the fieldwork. With three teams of two people each doing 25 STPs a day, and maybe record one additional site, she hopes the fieldwork completes in 21 workdays. The extra time is buffer for inclement weather and the possibility of additional sites to record. She sends a crew of five technicians and a field director to do the field archeology.

Since her background is in historical archaeology Jane asks you and I for the help of John, another archaeologist, whose background is in regional prehistory. The two of them work together and start building the report with John doing the archaeological research. Jane also is monitoring the progress of the fieldwork, the architectural study, and the historical research. In addition, she is running liaison with Consuelo, who is doing field inspections and needing weekly updates to pass on to the Corps project manager. Then, a week into the fieldwork, the historian informs Jane that he thinks there may be an 18th century occupation within the project area, in the southeast corner. As luck would have it, the field director had started on the north end, near the lithic scatter, and was working southward. Jane instructed the field director to tighten the STP interval when they got near the southeast corner. Sure enough, they found and recorded a small late 18th century site, an alleged homestead in the suspected area. The tightening of the STP interval was deemed the “correct decision” as the small site could have “fallen through the cracks,” the intervals. Consuelo was happy about this find and would, months later, write a good evaluation about our consulting firm.

A few weeks later the fieldwork was done. Jane, John, the historian, the architectural historian, and the field director wrote the draft report; and the field director and architectural historian completed the required archaeological site and architectural inventory forms for SHPO. The 19th and 18th century sites were recommended as significant and deserving of protection. The lithic scatter was recommended as not significant because no time sensitive tools, “diagnostics”, or features had been recorded. The project report and forms were edited one last time by Jane and delivered to you and me. We reviewed the set and forwarded them to the Corps project manager. The Corps did their review and made a few suggested changes. Jane and john made the changes and we submitted the Final report along with the SHPO forms, original field notes, and bagged and labeled artifacts to the Corps. With the project finished, we invoiced the Corps and received payment. Weeks later, the Corps filed their consultation package with the SHPO in which they determined that the two historic sites were important and will be avoided by the development by being left in “green space”, undeveloped land within the project area. The lithic scatter was deemed not important and a road will be built through it, destroying it. After their review, SHPO concurs.

A year later, and a few other projects behind us, we get a call from the Corps, on a Friday evening. They want to issue us a task order to emergency excavate a Middle Archaic site, five to six thousand years old, and “get it done today”, meaning, as soon as possible. The story is that that during construction of the above project a construction worker, and relic hunter, found several “arrow heads” and other neat stuff not too far from where the lithic scatter had been (it having been scraped away by a dozer). With this find, the construction supervisor stopped work in that area and called the Corps. Consuelo promptly visited the site and had a crisis moment. She recognized the “arrow heads” as being diagnostic of the Middle Archaic and they were likely dart points. She also noticed that at least one fire hearth, and maybe another, had been exposed by the dozer work. In addition, she knew that those features are typically full of important archaeological data. Back in her office, she re-reviewed the shovel-test pit effort and discovered that the STP pattern had just missed the new site by a few meters. A significant site had fallen through the cracks. She hit the panic button and her life would not be easy for several weeks. The Corps contracting officer crammed a Task Order in our hands and we had a crew on site Monday morning with John as principle investigator.

Here we must stop the story. Inadvertent discoveries, as these situations are called, are not fun. They often lead to acrimony and hard feelings.

Indeed, our focus here is on pragmatism as a philosophy of archaeology. Pragmatism focuses our attention on the results and consequences of things and events. Therefore, let’s think about Jane and her response to the situation. We know she is competent and practical but we know nothing else about her. She could be a direct and clear-sighted scientist, she could be a social activist and a humanist with ambivalent feelings about science, or she could be a pragmatist. Knowing her philosophy helps to speculate about her response to the above crisis.

Jane is a scientist: Jane does not take the incident personally but she is aggressive at defending the professionalism of her work. Defending the command and control structure of the system, and her status as a subject matter expert, she takes ownership of the project because she was project lead. The project was done very well. She made an important adjustment during fieldwork. She reminds us that all authorities in the quality review chain (you, me, Corps, SHPO) approved the work. She and our company received accolades for the work. The work was scientific and met the standards set by protocols. Making a “good faith effort” does not mean all sites have to be discovered. Shovel testing is a statistical random sampling method widely used by professionals. It is a scientific method providing probabilistic, not absolute, outcomes. She recommends that SHPO consider changing their interval protocol. She thinks that John is the appropriate person to do the follow on work as the subject falls within his area of expertise.

Jane is a social activist humanist: Jane takes the incident personally. She feels awful that this happened; poor John and Consuelo--they must be suffering. John had to delay a vacation because of it. Everyone did their best; it was a great team effort. She loves the collaborative nature of the work. They all worked within the system and the system failed them. She wished archaeology could provide more clear outcomes; often, what it does provide seems just made up. She thinks real science gives more-better outcomes, and archaeology just comes up short. Additionally, she just wants to help people, especially those that are outside of mainstream society. For her master’s thesis, she got to help “people without history” have their voices heard. She hopes this event does not upset local tribes. Shovel testing is such a terrible technique but what are the alternatives? Imagine using a bull dozer to find sites and the destruction it would do to the environment. She’ll help John all she can if “they” (you and me) need her to.

Jane is a pragmatist: Jane has mixed emotions about the events. She does not take the inadvertent discovery personally but the disruption of the routines and schedules of John and Consuelo is concerning. As she focuses on the here and now, and the project was long ago, she reviews the project files. She concludes everyone on the team did good work. She is also reminded, once again, that success and failure often come bundled together, although the revelation of each might be separated in time. She considers cultural resource inventories to be technical projects that, in themselves, are not science; they are data gathering and descriptive efforts and products that often consume, use the results of, prior descriptive and scientific results. Jane thinks science requires high-level comparisons across several studies. Thus, this study could be compared to several others of similar kind and the new generalizations made could be called scientific results. For example, by comparing numerous projects from within the region, one could calculate the average number of sites present per acres shovel tested for that region. That ratio would be a useful--to archaeologists and planning staffs--scientific fact about the region. Moreover, shovel testing is a mediocre method for site discovery but no economical alternative method exists. Jane does have a personal complaint about not leading the follow on work, which she conveys to you and me. She knows John will do a good job; but given her experience, she believes that she could lead this new research effort with a good team composed of many of the same people, John included, that worked the previous project. What truly irks her is the double standard in American archaeology that allows prehistorians to lead research on any kind of archaeology, including historical archaeology, but “never” (rarely) allows historical archaeologists to lead research outside of historical archaeology. She sees herself as an archaeologist first and the division of pre-history/history is a stupid illusion perpetuated by a fallible profession defending an arcane professional legacy and its internal social status quo.

A pragmatist is a blend of the first two perspectives and the blend is qualitatively different from the others. The first is a scientific attitude steeped in command/control hierarchies and the authority of the professional and the profession. For such people, order in the world is paramount. Moreover, this perspective believes in “testing” no matter what the test is. The second perspective is steeped in compassion for and assessing the well-being of other people. One’s life goals are to help people. These two perspectives are the yin and yang of Western Civilization; they are Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian. Biblically, they are, respectively, Old Testament and New.

A pragmatist who accepts the Western Tradition tries to avoid committing to one side or the other because each is deemed an exhausted dead end by itself, and they will work the two opposing ends into a newly conceptualized middle. The other option for a pragmatist is to reject the Western Tradition and find solace in some other tradition.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Thought for the day

Objective Knowledge, 
the wondrous goal of science, history, and philosophy,
 is an unobservable

It cannot be measured or standardized

Its qualities are revealed when you see it

Sunday, October 20, 2013

On Culturalized Pragmatism

I have been reading much philosophy of late, mostly philosophy of science and of history, in addition, some philosophy of archaeology. All offer great insights to archaeology (my profession).  However, one of the disappointing things about such literature is that after thousands of years of debate there are not any conclusions to basic questions, such as the difference between right and wrong or what it means to be human.  I am stuck with concluding that such answers are likely contextual, cultural and perhaps idiosyncratic.  If such things had universal and/or absolute answers, why would anyone continue debating them after such a long time?

With regard to observable and unobservable phenomena, at best, the philosophy of science gives archaeologists a simple partisan choice: choose between realism and anti-realism.  Apparently, they are incompatible.

From the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2010 we get:

1. interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative, etc.
2. the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.
3. a style of painting and sculpture developed about the mid-19th century in which figures and scenes are depicted as they are or might be experienced in everyday life.
4. a style or theory of literature in which familiar aspects of life are represented in a straightforward or plain manner.
5. Philosophy: a. the doctrine that universals have a real objective existence. Compare conceptualism (def. 1), nominalism. b. the doctrine that objects of sense perception have an existence independent of the act of perception. Compare idealism (def. 5).

In other places, we are told that materialism and naturalism are types of realism.  Both are common in archaeology.

And, of course, it is hard to find a dictionary that defines anti-realism.  So, from we get:
“In analytic philosophy, the term anti-realism is used to describe any position involving either the denial of an objective reality of entities of a certain type or the denial that verification-transcendent statements about a type of entity are either true or false.”  Thus, conceptualism, idealism, and nominalism are types of anti-realism.

I also like the concept of pragmatism because I consider myself practical and well grounded. One formulation is “An approach to philosophy, primarily held by American philosophers, which holds that the truth or meaning of a statement is to be measured by its practical (i.e., pragmatic) consequences. “  ("pragmatism." The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. 20 Oct. 2013.).  

Most people consider pragmatism to be a version of realism but I am not very friendly to that notion because realism/anti-realism is a horrible fiction. If the realism/anti-realism debate has been around since the ancient Greeks then we are all insane for perpetuating it (remembering Einstein’s definition of insanity).  The solution must be contextual and cultural.  In other words, I refuse to play with this contrived choice.

It is very likely that both positions are true for inverse reasons.  I am certain that grizzly bears exist because I have seen them and been scarred of them.  It is a visceral thing.  Is the fear innate? I have no idea. Thinking about grizz in other ways sparks no fear.  The visceral creature is one thing but what about the unobservable grizz?  I know that the mascot for the University of Montana is the Grizz.  Do I also imagine a bear hovering over campus protecting it? No, it is a metaphor enshrined in public discourse and behavior.

If there is a “bear raid” on Wall Street, do I envision grizzlies slashing stockbrokers? If the value of my portfolio goes down then I know the raid happened. When it comes to my portfolio, I am a realist because it is easy to verify the existence of a bear raid. When unobservables are close in time and space to us, especially if they are personal to us, then realism is appropriate.  Our ability to verify and judge is strong, or is at least self convincing.

Likewise, no one has ever seen an atom or the process of evolution.  We infer their existence by analyzing data.  To me they are remote and, honestly, uninteresting.  I am anti-realist towards them because they have little meaning in my life.  Anything that I have no good knowledge of I will remain skeptical of. 

Thus, I believe in some but not all unobservables, and, I refuse to play the absolutist’s game of “choose one or the other”.

I understand that physicists need to believe in atoms; it would likely be difficult for them to be productive if they were non-believers.

Biologists, especially in America, basically are required to believe in evolution.  To be a biologist and not believe in evolution is a sin.  Evolution is the sacred cow of (American) biology. As a theory, it also seems useful.

God is an unobservable.  True believers can provide all the evidence they want. I will remain a anti-realist.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Archaeologists Need to Excavate More

Note: this essay was recently published as Letter to the Editor,  SAA Archaeological Record, 13[4]:3.

A recent essay by Anderson, Card and Feder (2013) encourages us to chase pleasant distractions.  They urge us to fight the forces that have “hijacked” (p.27) the public’s perception of archaeology, and outline a process to do this.  I’m uncertain that archaeologists ever had a claim on those perceptions, or should have one.  As long as professional opinions are viewed as mainstream and the other side as alternative then no hijacking has occurred.  Further, other fantasies are more threatening.

First, our knowledge of why people believe fantastic theories has been much improved by the research they have compiled.  There is enough evidence to support the generalization that humans don’t live on facts, truths, or science, alone.  They also use religion, superstition, fiction, lies, misinformation, and metaphors to create meaning in life.  Honestly, it would be a bland ugly world if facts and truth were all we had to sustain us.  Fantasy is useful.  Certainly, Feder has made a career out of jousting with the con artists and snake oil salesmen; it adds purpose to his life.

I do wonder about scientists who can’t see the world in anything but literal terms.  Ghosts, angels, werewolves, and vampires are metaphors for those people, things, and processes in life that challenge us, make us afraid, or feel wonderful.  There is nothing wrong with calling your car a guardian angel if it saved your life.  A vampire is someone or something that drains your energy, ambition, motivation, such as unpleasant people or governmental red tape.  They are everywhere.

As threats go, the sellers of alternative ideas are minor compared to the oligarchs and politicians draining resources away from our potential use.  Our nation’s economic crisis continues and the worst is still likely to come because the credit crisis of 2008-2010 was the vanguard of a much larger problem.  In comparison, jousting about the origin of rune stones is a pleasant distraction.

American archaeology also has an internal threat.  Like most vampires, this one is seductive, provocative, and promises to give eternal life (job security).  Its name is historic preservation.  With the rise of the preservation ethic in the 1980s, followed by the SAA ethics revision in 1996, and then topped off with the 2004 revision of the 36 CFR 800 regulations implementing section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the preservation ethos has consistently worked to reduce archaeological excavations.  We used to dig more than we do now.

I, too, have participated in this.  In the early 1990s, while working for Fairfax County, Virginia, I always had an excavation underway or planned, and I enabled many others.  In federal service for the last eight years, I have facilitated zero excavations.  Every day, I seek to avoid effects to most sites, especially adverse effects to significant ones.  CRM archaeology has been diminished to locating, recording, and avoiding sites.  Excavation is generally a last resort or the result of an inadvertent discovery.

In 2004 archaeological excavation became an adverse effect under the revised 36 CFR 800 regulations.  This rapidly became an indictment against excavation.  At the Meta level it simply connotes that excavation is morally wrong or is too much of a burden (added costs, time, and planning).  Regardless of the procedures guiding us to resolve adverse effects, most developers and planners choose to not have adverse effects because of the negative perceptions about creating them or the sense that they are too burdensome.  At a macro level, the indictment equates excavation with those other adverse effects that archaeologists despise, such as bull dozing without research.  We know that excavation is destructive but now we also damn ourselves for it.  At the micro level, excavation potentially creates one of the most absurd situations possible in CRM.  Since excavation is still viewed as an acceptable mitigation technique, it is now possible to use an adverse effect to mitigate another kind of adverse effect.  The best response to this is to avoid adverse effects of any kind.

That creepy feeling that we are not connecting with and influencing the lay public in ways we expect or desire will continue even if we joust with con artists because we are not listening to the public.  The SAA sponsored Harris Interactive study identified that the primary association lay people have with archaeology is the image of digging.  And most of us are doing less and less of the one thing the public associates with us--digging.  There is no need to blame others for our social clumsiness.

The best way to connect with the lay public, and to undermine alternative views, is to increase excavations, everywhere possible, using the new Gemeinschaft perspectives.  Preservation should be an ally, not our master.

Anderson, David S., Jeb J. Card and Kenneth L. Feder 
2013  Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Collective Efforts in the Fight to Reclaim the Public Perception of Archaeology, SAA Archaeological Record, 13[2]:24-28.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Our American Winter

This is an update on my thoughts about our current secular crisis.  The basic idea is that our culture cycles through four cultural eras, labeled the high, the awakening, the unraveling, and the secular crisis.  These four eras are equated with the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  And, we are in winter.  The idea comes from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, especially a book called The Fourth Turning (here).  I have described American eras previously (here).

The most important idea to take away about the secular crisis era is that it is a cultural identity crisis.  It may have powerful economic and/or political issues to resolve but ultimately it is about who we are as a people that is the core of the problem.  I summarized much of this previously (here).

To reiterate I think our current crisis is about the question: is America, the US, still Number One?

We have had horrific events, such as the World Trade Center attack, the War on Terrorism, the Great Recession, the FED stupidly owning everything, and we can expect an episode of genocidal warfare.

We can also expect a status quo change, such as: perhaps the US Dollar being replaced by something else; perhaps the US will see a decline in international economic and political influence; perhaps some wealthy people will be torn down from their gilded balconies.

The final resolution will be such that America becomes a more powerful Superpower, or a fallen and shattered one, or just a less influential player shunned by most others.  The fall (a full-blown collapse or just a big trip) can come quickly, as evidenced by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1999. Alternatively, we might take over another large portion of the world.

My previous statements on this crisis had it begin with 9/11 because after that event our government became much larger (a usual sign of a crisis era).  The Big Brother effects of that event are still playing out, especially with the attention to NSA lately.  Homeland security is the mantra as they take away our constitutional freedoms. A focus on this issue means that the core question is:  are we a free people? I think the issue is bigger than this.

Many other people proclaim that the crisis era began with the credit crisis of 2007 and the Great Recession that followed.  We have been in a mild depression since 2007 and I think it eventually gets worse before the economic troubles are resolved.  There is no doubt that fear and anxiety in America (another important indicator of the crisis era) ratcheted up significantly after the market crash of 2008.  A focus on economic issues is one way to view the crisis.  Again, I see it as bigger than that.

Folks in the blogosphere who discuss these things ask us to take sides, our “crisis began in 2001 or 2007”. Choose one.

I am not certain that we can make such proclamations, especially as they would be used to suggest when the crisis ends.

The crisis ends when it does.
If we expect the era to last 20-25 years then it spans 2001-2021 or  to 2026.
On the other hand, it spans 2007-2027 or to 2032.
Either way we have a long way to go.

The difficulty in determining when it began has more to do with our Dionysian age rather than micro analyzing each weird event that has happened. 

In Apollonian ages, events will appear to be linear.  It is easier to identify when a crisis begins and ends.  Our American Revolution and the Great Depression-WWII are two crises that played out under Apollonian values.

During Dionysian ages, reflexive and reciprocal relations are more active. Thus, events are not going to line up in obvious linear sequences. When did the Glorious Revolution start and end? Or, how about the slavery dispute-Civil War-reconstruction? Those crises did not have clear-cut start/end dates, and neither does the current crisis.

It is best to just say, “It began in the early part of the 21st century”.
Thirty years from now, we will have a good idea of about when it ended.