Fieldwork Entry 1: Antigua and Semana Santa

As some of you undoubtedly know, I’m now in the beautiful Guatemala for the first leg of my research–and honestly, the words to properly describe this place escape me. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in my short life, but Guatemala is hands down the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The seismic activity of the area has carved out a landscape of enormous volcanoes, jutting ridges, black sand beaches that sparkle gold, and vast lakes that shift from grey to bright green with the changing light. I have yet to see a monkey, but everything in its time I suppose.

Without realising, I booked my flights for the beginning of something called Semana Santa, the celebratory week before Easter Sunday. This meant that when I arrived in Antigua, the locals were preparing for a week of religious processions that would shut down the city, and for the overwhelming influx of people from the surrounding areas.

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Locals and visitors alike composed carpets of flowers and coloured sawdust along the cobble streets. These lined the path of the processors who hold aloft enormous wooden floats with statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, transforming the Central American city into the Via Dolorosa. There was something haunting about how these floats swayed in time with the slow march of their bearers, and even a staunch agnostic like me couldn’t help but feel catharsis as these believers carried their god upon their shoulders, with a full orchestra following behind. To add to this impressive spectacle, men in full purple or black robes walk ahead of the floats and filled the air with thick incense.
Semana Santa also presented some problems as a newly arrived anthropologist, it was nearly impossible to be seen as anything but a gullible tourist. To be fair, this was the peak of the tourist season, but attitudes towards my presence seem to have softened now that Semana Santa is over. And maybe I come across as less of a tourist now that I know how to hail a chicken bus–the flamboyantly painted American style school busses that act as the cheapest form of public transport–from the side of the highway and not get ripped off by the driver. Or maybe because I’m slowly becoming able to communicate with those who speak no English at all.
After a bit of tourism, I’m now set up in an apartment just outside of Antigua with a local I befriended, and can make my own tortillas and pepián, a local dish resembling mole. On my first day in Antigua, I made the interesting decision to try and navigate the enormous open air market by myself without any Spanish and no Google Translate. After getting ripped off fantastically for some onions, I came across the only English speaker in the entire place, who directed me to a stall that sold lemongrass. And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment, this gentleman ran the cooking class I turned up to later in the evening!
In fact, most of this trip can be described as serendipitous. On my second day, when I took my camera out for the first time, a pigeon pooed on me–a clear sign of good luck back in Brooklyn. In my short time here I’ve met some really amazing people, and one who even contributed significantly to my research already. So here’s hoping that luck holds.

Keep your eyes out for my next post on Lake Atitlan and the first stages of my research with the FAFG!

Archaeology – An Overview

For my final four-field overview post, I want to talk a little bit about archaeology.  You can find some more specific information about bioarchaeology in my previous posts, but there’s far more to archaeology than just the bones!

First and foremost, let’s clarify, archaeology is not the study of dinosaur fossils.  That would be paleontology, which is a subfield of geology.  Archaeology is, broadly speaking, the study of ancient communities through what they left behind–i.e. their artifacts, architecture, their bones etc. It may seem like an obvious distinction, but it’s a mistake made hilariously often.  My supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History volunteered to talk to a kid on a radio show, and this boy was only interested in dinosaur bones. So please learn the difference and save the soul of an archaeologist today.

Much like biological anthropology, archaeology has some pretty iffy roots in colonialism and eurocentricity.  The first ‘archaeologists’ emerged from something called Antiquarianism.  Interest in artifacts, or even bodies, was superficial in the sense that antiquarians were only concerned with aesthetic.  Provenience (the artifact’s location of origin) and context (what the artifact was associated with in situ, including geological features) were incidental to these early ‘archaeologists,’ and whatever deductions were made about these ancient cultures were correspondingly superficial. A PRIME example of the antiquarian archaeologist is Indiana Jones.  Another good way to break an archaeologist’s heart is to compare them to this particular character.  From an archaeological perspective, the boobytraps that Indy nonchalantly destroys are far more informative in regard to the community that created them than the shiny statue!  These early attitudes lead to the pillaging of colonized countries for their national treasures under the guise of ‘rescuing history.’  The Ishtar Gate, which now resides in Berlin, was originally ‘saved’ from Iraq, and the museum even uses this kind of language to justify their continued possession of this beautiful Babylonian treasure.  Even here in merrie olde England, the debate rages on about many of the collections in British museums across the United Kingdom.  The most famous, or infamous really, is the case of the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum came by these sculptures while Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, bought from a man who literally lassoed them down from the Parthenon and sold them for pennies.  Most of the damage done to these statues is not because of age, rather their acquirement by the British.

This is a cringeworthy history, on a social level by stealing the ancient heritage of disenfranchised peoples, and on an academic level because we could no longer examine these artifacts and monuments in context. Thankfully archaeology has come a long way, producing truckloads of theory. With some stops in between, Antiquarianism morphed into Processual Archaeology, meaning that archaeologists began to look at artifacts in order to learn about the culture they came from.  To the Processualists, artifacts were culture manifested outside of the body and could be used to objectively examine the ‘evolution of culture’ through the scientific method. I put the phrase ‘evolution of culture’ in quotation marks as this concept is based upon the erroneous notion that evolution is a strict line of progression, with civilization (i.e. European civilization) as the pinnacle of progress to which every other culture naturally aspires.  Processualism then became Post-Processualism, which emphasizes the subjectivity of the archaeologist when analyzing archaeological remains. To the Post-Processualists, archaeological finds could only be interpreted in relationship to material that exists in the archaeologist’s experience, and in order to gain the most insight, archaeologists must remain as reflexive as possible.  And when archaeology became a subjective practice, it opened up the discipline to all types of different paradigms of analysis. With this mindset, archaeologists could look at artifacts through a Marxist, structuralist, or feminist lens to name a few. And these conversations are still happening today. Some of my thesis is based upon something called Sensorial Archaeology, which deals with the preeminence of the visual in the practice of archaeology, and how problems with the western hierarchy of the senses manifest in excavations.

Hopefully that didn’t put you straight to sleep, although I wouldn’t blame you. The methods used in archaeological excavations and analysis are a bit more interesting, but probably not nearly as exciting as the movies make them out to be. There is a lot of tedious digging in spots where you’ll inevitably find nothing. My first proper fieldwork was the test pitting stage of an excavation run through Cambridge University. It involved wading through endless fields of rapeseed in the rain, with a grim sandwich for lunch, and looking for lithics (manipulated stone) in a field brimming with flint deposits. It was an exercise in character development.

Working on the more advanced stages of an excavation was far more satisfying.  Barring the 5am wake up call, the excavation of a Roman Necropolis in Spain was incredibly enjoyable. Each dig produced finds, as we were trained how to identify the graves before we began troweling. You can see the edges of the tomb beginning to emerge here after 4 days with a literal broom and dust pan.

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From my personal experience, putting eager young undergrads into the field is an entertaining yet probably foolhardy decision.  I was so keen to get to the bottom of the grave that it took every fiber of my being to excavate slowly.  I could see from the grave I had taken over from the previous field school group, that they had suffered from the same problem. There were two individuals in this grave, with one full individual laying supine (on his back), which was a rare find, but in their excitement they had removed the femurs before the skeleton had been fully excavated.

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Look at all the loose femurs!

In these scenarios we need to be careful. A fundamental paradox in archaeology is that we excavate to reveal the context, but in so doing we destroy the context. So each step needs to be documented through field notes and sketches at the very least.  This can be a glacial process that the untrained archaeological student can mess up in a matter of minutes. Nothing is more tempting than to pull out a pesky root as you would when gardening, but roots are sneaky and you cannot risk damaging any artifacts they may have grown through by pulling them willy nilly. And as a novice I was so excited to do things like cranial reconstructions, but the taphonomy that lead to the breakage of the skull in the first place is just as much part of the context as anything else in the grave, and so it’s actually frowned upon now to glue pieces of the skeleton back together.  Undergrad Sarah didn’t understand that the reconstructed skull on the left was actually inferior to the one on the right held together by soil.

Forensic anthropology is, of course, a bit different because if we reconstruct a cranium we can then attempt a facial reconstruction or to match dental records. And in the instances when we do find relatives to return the skeleton to, a full skull helps to humanize the skeleton–which is incidentally another aspect of my doctoral thesis!

Have any questions about archaeological theory or methods?

As always, ask away!

 

 

Linguistic Anthropology – An Overview

A similar subfield to Cultural Anthropology is Linguistic Anthropology. Contrary to popular belief, linguistics is not the study of languages for translation or speaking purposes, rather it is the study of how languages evolve and function within a cultural context. Some subfields of linguistics include:

Linguistic Analysis – the technical study of language

Sociolinguistics – how language influences and is influenced by culture

Ethnolinguistics – the study of languages of specific ethnic groups

Linguistics is a vital aspect of anthropology because there’s a mountain of evidence that suggests language is incredibly influential in the development of culture, and that culture will influence language as well. The popular movie Arrival, which is about a linguist’s interactions with an alien species, touches upon this aspect of linguistic theory. Our thinking is limited by our means of expression—for example some languages have words that cannot be translated into other languages because that concept doesn’t exist in other cultures. While this may seem like a chicken and egg issue, linguists argue that the blade cuts both ways. We may not have a word for a concept because we do not have the concept at all, but our inability to express concepts verbally also then hinders the development of those concepts within our culture. A famous example of this is the Inuit lexicon for snow. The context of their lifestyle necessitates 50 or so terms for snow, where English-speaking peoples would struggle to find even 10, and would correspondingly struggle to perceive the distinctions between these 50 types of snow that the Inuit can easily see. Another Inuit example is the concept of ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked.’ In order to maintain a healthy intake of vitamins, the Inuit will eat ‘raw’ seal meat. It wasn’t until English-speaking people tried to communicate with them that they had any notion of what ‘raw’ even was, let alone that some people didn’t like ‘raw’ food!  Linguistic anthropologists will also look at how subcultures’ dialects develop and differ. My mentor in undergrad, the late Dr. Denise Szafran, ran a module on AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the many means of communication utilized in rap music.  And this type of analysis can extend to all forms of dialects, including combinations of languages called creoles, the independent languages formed through the combination of preexisting languages (i.e. French Creole), or pidgins, a combination of a speaker’s first language and second language.

Referring back to my post on social anthropology, linguistics can be conducted as an ethnographic study with language as its focus. In this way, linguistics is absolutely interconnected with social anthropology, but linguistics is very much interconnected with biological anthropology as well. Primatologists will examine primate communication in the context of linguistics, often looking for similarities to human language to inform our understanding of evolution and the brain. There have been many fascinating studies on vervet monkeys and how they communicate danger to one another. Their alarm-call system is the closest thing to human language that primatologists have yet observed, with specific cries for leopards, hawks, and snakes, each stimulating a different group reaction.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 7.48.35 PM

Primatologists have also explored communication with other apes through sign language. Chimps especially are quite good at learning the meaning of each sign, like the famous Washoe, but cannot seem to figure out syntax, the rules of sentence structure, and therefore cannot form proper sentences. They can spontaneously recombine signs, but in a disjointed way.

This aspect of anthropological research has also been used to study human development. For example, we’ve discovered that babies can easily understand sign language and respond to parents in sign language at 6 months old, before they are able to physically speak. This is because infant throats are formed to safely breathe and swallow simultaneously, which makes speech impossible.

The technical aspect of linguistic analysis also seeks to inform the evolution of the brain and human development, as well as human migration and cultural diffusion. The well-known Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of language as a genetic imperative–that all human brains are set up to form language, and will do so with regardless of the quality of language exposure.  Meaning that all languages will have universal similarities in grammar, if not phonetics (how words sound).  We can also tell how different languages are interconnected, giving us insight into divergence of groups across the world.

Language Map

Any questions about Linguistic Anthropology?

As always, let me know!

Cultural Anthropology – An Overview

When anthropologists study different societies and their cultures, we look at many different things.

We study:

Religion and mythology
Art
Food
Interpersonal dynamics
Dance
Music
Family structures
Marriage
Literature
Economic structures
Clothing and fashion
Body modification
Warfare
And much much more

And the way we study most of these things is through participant observation. This means that we do our best to join in everyday activities, experiencing first hand what people do, how they act, and their motivations. Participant observation is no easy task, anthropologists were often thrown headfirst into a community without so much as a ‘goodbye and good luck.’ Some anthropologists had no understanding of the language before they left for fieldwork!

The product of this type of fieldwork is called ethnography, which is a body of research pertaining to a particular culture. The slightly less common ethnology is research that compares aspects of different cultures. For example, the project I did in undergrad that looked at the use of candles by different religions was an ethnological study.  We can also use other mediums to present our research, like ethnographic film. Nanook of the North is considered the first ethnographic film, and you can find the significantly less important ethnographic film I made in undergrad on gender in zombie pop culture on YouTube somewhere.

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Nothing says participant observation like getting trampled in the final round of Human vs. Zombies.

There are a few challenges that anthropologists have to deal with during ethnographic fieldwork. While anthropologists are academics, we’re also human beings with biases that can get in the way of objective observation. And these biases can often lead to ethnocentrism, the mindset that your culture’s values are superior to others. Very often, people don’t even realise their attitudes are ethnocentric as these biases are so insidious. A way we combat this is through something called cultural relativism, which is the acceptance of the legitimacy of a people’s way if life to them, even if it’s not legitimate to you. And if that makes some of you uncomfortable, well, it’s supposed to. Cultural relativism is an exercise in being uncomfortable.
It’s not about forcing yourself to accept a practice or way of life as legitimate, which is what anthropologists call amoral relativism, but merely embracing that some people will find them legitimate. As one of the foremothers of anthropology, Ruth Benedict, said, ‘the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.’

This system is not without problems, especially for an anthropologist like me who studies forensic anthropology within a social anthropological context. After genocide, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity while studying victimisers when you’ve just excavated 200 of their victims. And this extends to other controversial circumstances as well. The noted anthropologist, and cool dad, Dr. David Rosen, is largely known for his research into child soldiers. He encourages the abandonment of the ethnocentric Western narrative of the child soldier as the product of adult abuse, for the far more complex understanding of children as autonomous actors.

If you are a Harry Potter fan who wants to know more about child soldiers, check out our work here.

For more information on what cultural anthropologists study, look out for upcoming posts or ask in the comments section!