Ceraunia (n): In folklore, stones, arrowheads, stone axes, and similar artifacts, believed to have fallen from the sky

Ceraunia was the name given to stone tools, fossils and other distinctive objects from the ground by classical and renaissance scholars. Ceraunia were originally thought to be natural in origin, caused by extreme natural processes such as lightning strikes. Eventually Ceraunia were recognized as the solid traces of humanity’s deep past and became foundation of our scientific understanding of human origins.

Stone tools, encountered in landscapes, archaeological sites or museum collections still hold the potential for connection with our evolutionary past. They represent durable traces of early technology and the radical development of our relationship with the planet. Tools and technology shaped us, our consciousness is extended through them, understanding our umbilical connection to technology brings into focus how we extend ourselves as individuals and connect with each other as a society.

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Sussex Ice Age Map

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We’ve been experimenting with using simple Google Maps to share information about Ice Age finds held in Sussex museums. This initial trial map takes all the known positions for finds of Pleistocene fauna and a selection of stone tools photographed by Lisa Fisher from the collections of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

You should be able to view the map here:

To produce a definitive map and set of useful linked images would be a considerable and expensive undertaking. But the value of such a map is demonstrating how widespread, and potentially local  to where people live, finds of the distant Ice Age area and then unlocking the stories of landscape and environmental change, discovery and analysis which come along with each mammoth tooth or ancient stone tool.

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23 Propositions For Stone Artefacts Studies

I’d been thinking for a long time, how to translate those thoughts you acquire over the years about a subject into something vaguely coherent. As a student I was always wowed by the moments where some writers, in a book or paper, were able to open up clearly how they saw the archaeological record, but there never seems space in modern academic writing to do that.

Last year I was given the opportunity to write something for the Journal Lithics  and came up with 23 statements on how I think about stone tools and how I think we should approach them.  Of course these statements didn’t come from nowhere and owe a huge amount to those colleagues who over the years who have talked these ideas through with me in the pub or in the field. But this also comes from many conversations with students where I’ve tried to get them to think about what stone tools can and can’t tell us, and how we might develop a better understanding of the past from them.  The questions they’ve asked back of me, helped to break a big subject down into manageable ideas.

Anyway, for better or worse, here’s a link to my 23 Propositions. Any feedback of course hugely welcome!

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When Artefacts Go Viral

Love locks fixed on the Pont des Arts in Paris

Agency is all very well, but sometimes pulling the focus back can tell us some interesting things about human behavior.

The BBC story below, on the phenomena of love-locks, interested me as it’s a great example of how human behavior can feedback on itself and create really interesting signatures in human landscapes.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-27221707

I’m interested in how we define and interpret ‘place’ in really early prehistory and in my PhD research looked at assemblages dominated by huge number of bifaces; large stone cutting tools that occur in their hundreds or thousands at certain places. I suggested their presence in such large numbers at certain places could be indicative of systems of structured transport and discard, with pre-existing biface clusters actively cueing more discard of similar material.

Thinking about these things means I’m always looking in our urban landscapes for similar behavior cued by non-verbal spontaneous signalling. Examples I often see are:

  • Where people put their bags and coats on the floor at parties or conference receptions.
  • Where people discard trash when there isn’t a bin.
  • Where people stick chewing gum
  • The placing of flowers after an accident or tragedy
  • The tossing of coins in fountains or ponds.

In each case someone had to be the first to toss a coin in the pond, place an empty drinks can on a window sill or lay a bunch of flowers. But the presence of that object changes the landscape dynamic, and other will cognitively engage (largely unconsciously) and modify their behavior accordingly. In the case of coins deposition, we don’t even live in a society where we actively believe in votive deposition. Interestingly, the practise has become largely externalized and encoded into the landscape by people discarding their money, initially on an individual, spontaneous basis, but then cueing watery discard to a hugely amplified degree.

The placing of locks on bridges has no deep roots as a behavior or explicit body of belief behind it. However, the visibility, emotional charge and built-in permanence of the landscape signature left by the behavior is obvious. It would lead you predict that they have the capability to create a profound level of engagement from people encountering these assemblages; leading, over time, to a very amplified landscape signature.

I still feel understanding the nature of these feedback mechanisms and their role in structuring human behavior at landscapes scales is an interesting approach to considering how we self-organize in complex ways as a species.  When it comes to understanding individual behavior, or those of small groups, it cautions us against placing too much emphasis on what is going on in the individual’s mind. It might point the way to understanding the human hive and the fundamental stigmergic, viral behaviors and material structures  it’s built upon.

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There is a Green Hill……

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It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here but I’ve been pretty much on pause , thinking about objects in landscape, how we react and interact to them, how we hang and project memories and concepts onto them, how we enculture them.  In my last post I introduced the idea of ‘gravity’ as a concept to explain how singular features in landscapes entrain our awareness in orbits of attention and interaction.  Each individual’s orbit, following broadly the same law of cognitive gravity, will ultimately coincide with those of others, overprinting paths of attention and thus amplification of the significance of the feature. This in turn increases the singularity’s gravitational pull.

Last summer I talked obliquely about stones, both natural erratics and humanly placed megaliths, which both in the past, and through to the present, exercised a pull on individual awareness and collective culture. But the past month I’ve been thinking about hills.

Not long ranges of rolling hills or dramatic escarpments, but isolated, distinctive hills.

Less imposing and dramatic than a single mountain peak, mesa or volcano, but contrasting with surrounding low relief landscapes and visible on the horizon at distances of 10 or 20 miles.  The sort of thing quite rarely encountered in nature but which populate our imagination as type of archetype, such a child might draw if asked to crayon a ‘hill’ onto blank white paper.  How do these topographic features play out in the dynamics of our evolutionary psychogeography? how can we start to define the gravitational relationship between human consciousness and these features?

On Good Friday we don’t have to think to far for a relevant example of a hill with enormous cultural gravity, albeit one we can’t actually demonstrate ever existed. From Early Medieval times, Good Friday was day the collective Christian imagination was firmly focused on the hill of Golgotha, the site of crucifixion.  Now it doesn’t matter that  Jerusalem’s  1st Century execution has never been formally identified by archaeology or that Golgotha more likely means “place of the skull” or “skull-cap shaped place” than “mount (or hill) of the skull” , or indeed that none of the four Gospels actually mentions the execution took place on a hill; the collective imagination has worked in such a way that the entire sequence of events leading to the crucifixion take place as a procession and orbit around a distinct topographical feature, an isolated hill surmounted by three wooden crosses.  This ‘hill’ has been reproduced endlessly, as sacred imagery, 3D models and dioramas, even as actual small hills or calvaries created by the devout as a focus for their devotion.  What interests me about this, is that literally forming the bedrock of a key moment in a 2000 year old religion with, currently, 2.2 billion adherents, is a topographic singularity which has developed an immense cultural gravity entirely divorced from any tangible physical reality.  So with that in mind, I can’t help thinking how hills, knolls, and tumps potentially play a role in cultural landscapes in more routine ways.

Unlike mountains and dramatic isolated rocky outcrops (eg Uluru, Australia or Devils Tower, Wyoming) hills are relatively accessible, they invite approach, ascent and inhabitation. Unlike great eminences, hills are, from later prehistory, possible to engineer. Either by collective long term and (possibly) unconscious endeavour as in Tell mounds or in the creation of monumental ‘hills’ (barrows, larger mound such as Silbury and even pyramids) hills are possible to create. Hills are places which not only form landmarks on the horizon, but can be easily climbed and allow a view of wider horizons, they are scaled and can be contoured to integrate with the human realm, not the Olympian haunt of the Gods but a stage where, potentially, the human landscape and the otherworld overlap.

Before we journey into the mythic though, it’s worth considering, in evolutionary terms, what hills offered to mobile, hunter gatherer groups in our evolutionary past,  from their earliest dispersal across the old world up the event of more settled ways of life.

In new, unknown, landscapes, tracking onto and heading directly for hills offered some distinct advantages. Faced with a horizon where to the north lies mountains, the east unbroken flatness and to the west a single hill, I can guess which direction offered the best survival choice.  A hill suggests an isolated geological outcrop, whatever the sub-surface conditions of the plain, the hill will most likely be different. That means different rocks (maybe useful rocks), different soils (maybe nice free draining ones) different vegetation (maybe including good grazing for game) and the possibility of springs at the junction between the outcrop and surrounding geology.  The hill also offers shelter and a view, after water and food, perhaps the two most important survival requirements in a new environment.  These are facts of geographic reality, which exist independent of human thought and simply come about by the energetic dynamics of the hunter-gather way of life and the distribution of resources in landscapes.  What we don’t know is when in our evolutionary journey a hill as a mental concept became sustained in human culture and when, as a result, a hill glimpsed on a distant horizon started to exert a gravitational pull on the group.  Archaeologically we can think of ways to approach this but the important thing here is to realise the role this gravitational effect would have on human society and population success once it started to play a role.  As a concept it breaks down the subject-object duality between the observer and the topographic feature and sets in train a dynamic that plays out between the two, has implications for how humans organise themselves in space, culturally embed knowledge in landscapes and successfully exploit environments.

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From later prehistory onwards, hills (natural and man-made) have far less utility as niches for optimal use of landscapes, but are certainly not disregarded. They appear to be richly encultured as addresses for the unseen forces of the spirit world, the stages for heroic episodes in myth or even the direct creations of mythic beings. My local hills were all created when the Devis shovelled out spoil from the Devils Dyke, a deep natural valley, casting huge lumps of chalk here and there creating the distinctive downland summits. In the creation myths of Australia, hills are the chewed and spat out bones of miscreants gobbled up by the Rainbow Serpent. But one of my favourite examples is the Chocolate Hills of Bohol in the Philippines. Four creation myths exist for these wonderful, conical hills.

  1. Two giants fought for days hurling rocks at each other until they forgot their feud became friends.

    2. A mighty giant called Arogo was heart broken after his true-love died and the hills are his tears.

    3.  After being poisoned by angry villagers, a giant buffalo who has been rampaging through farms, had an attack of diarrhoea.     The hills are the dried remains of this monster’s faeces.

    4. An overweight diet extracted all his stomach contents to win the hand of a beautiful woman.

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The plurality of stories serves to illustrate that the mythic content encoded into these features is irrelevant. What is relevant is that humans seems to habitually do this. The bare hill at Uffington became the site of a dragon slaying, two hills in County Kerry became the Paps (breasts) of the Goddess Anu, the eminence at Dol, Brittany the site of the battle between St Michael and Satan, while Govarhan Hill was that raised by Krishna to protect the people from Indra. Pick a long inhabited landscape with a distinctive hill within it and there will be myth attached to it.

Hills, like the stones of my previous post, offer addresses for the embedding of cultural knowledge. We should be mindful of the role they may have played in past societies and of how we engage with and regard them today.  In enjoying and conserving our own landscapes and helping others across the world to keep access to theirs, the deep and fundamental role they play as culturally pivotal, gravitational singularities needs to be considered too.

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A Stone in an Urban Landscape: Culture, minds and ‘gravity’

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Last week, in order to bring the celebrations of our 75th anniversary as an archaeological Institute a commemorative stone was unveiled in Gordon Square.  The stone itself was a squat boulder of sarsen, lifted from the edge of a field in the Kennett Valley, Wiltshire and transported to the north west corner of Gordon Square in London.  The significance of the stone, in archaeological terms, is that it formed part of the concentration of similar sandstone boulders (known as Grey-Weathers or Sarsens) which are found in the Kennett Valley around the village of Lockeridge. These boulders and outcrops formed the source for the megaliths of both the Avebury complex and the Stonehenge monument.  The stone is not the first monument in Gordon Sq, already there are memorials to Noor Inayat Khan and the poet Tagore; it is however a unique one, celebrating an institution rather than an individual and comprising an altered natural stone rather than a sculpture.  The monument was unveiled with the rituals of corporate celebration: speeches and applause, and then toasted more informally with a libation of a fine single-malt.  It’s a monument we can take pride in and enjoy along with the wonderful square on a sunny day. But despite my best efforts to spread the rumour that it’s aligned towards the sunrise on Mortimer Wheelers birthday, the stone has no further expressed significance to us an institution.

But of course stones in a landscape, even an urban city-centre one, have a cultural life of their own. You simply can’t expect to place a stone anywhere without it starting to perform it’s own cognitive magic, and that’s what I want to write about today, my observation of a newly planted megalith and my observation of its first interaction with a primate mind.

So the next day the square was the venue for our annual World Archaeology Festival, where the public are invited to take part in activities as diverse as flint knapping, cave painting and mosaic making.  I had just finished my activity, a demonstration of deer butchery using stone tools, when I noticed a woman standing behind the stone, eyes closed, a serene look on her face and her hands lightly placed on it’s upper surface.  I continued to tidy up and waited until her reverie had finished and then decided to engage her in conversation. Here, less than 24hrs after unveiling, the stone was exercising some kind of pull on a member of the public and I knew this was a moment to collect an oral record of the event. Deep cognitive magic was at work.

The woman was called Jane and she had travelled to London to attend a conference and had wandered into the square to find some green space and peace. Sat on a bench across the square she had noticed the stone and recognised it for what it was, a sarsen. She was drawn to the stone and had spent the previous minutes communing with it and feeling it’s ‘energy’. We engaged in conversation for the next 15 minutes recognising that we both had very different perspectives on the stone’s significance but enjoying a sharing of our different understanding of it and what it was doing.

I came away feeling that something that had been rattling in my brain for a few years had crystallised. The beliefs held by Jane are very easy to dismiss as trivial, wacky or irrelevant to our discipline and yet they had connected with a memorial set up to celebrate our august institution. Jane’s experience of the stone could be dismissed as the very kind of thinking archaeological explanations attempt to counter in their interpretation of the megalithic record and yet, if we pull back our focus and examine coldy what occurred it might tell us something fundamental about minds and objects.

The moment for me was significant in the sense that I witnessed the moment the stone took on a cultural life of it’s own, interacted with the mind of an individual, led to the exchange of information and forged a social connection between two strangers. I was struck by how this was a perfect example, in a raw and immediate event I was lucky enough to experience, of exactly what this blog was about: people and objects. The Sarsen stone was a modern example of Ceruania, an object apparently out of place, dropped from the sky (by crane, not lightning) that then took on cultural significance. As an unmodified natural object, moved by individual and collective human agency it perfectly blended the divide between the natural and the constructed environments; and yet this didn’t matter a jot, the stone began to organise and structure the movements, thoughts and social interactions of human individuals.

I’ve written in the past, and am currently continuing to develop, the concept that objects in landscape are structured by and also structure, human behaviour and cognition.  Through the primate equivalent of stigmergy, modification in the environment by an individual (or group of individuals) will form changes in the thoughts and behaviour of other who recognise that change when they encounter it.  Attached significance, either prosaic or magical, is part of the mechanism which facilitates this recognition and so I have begun to feel that cultural  understanding plays a big part in this process, at least within modern human communities.  Jane, who expressed beliefs we might consider as New Age, possesses an aspects of cultural identity very different to those responsible for the placing of the stone. Yet there was enough overlap (an interest in and direct knowledge of the materials used to construct megalithic monuments) that an object of significance to the community who placed the stone, resonated a different significance in a member of another cultural sub-group.  It will now be interesting to see how this plays out, I’m broadcasting the moment here through my blog (largely people with an academic interest I imagine), Jane may well relay her knowledge of the stone and our conversation amongst her social network (which may have a high proportion of people with an interest in new age beliefs). While the events and these thoughts are encoded and transmitted culturally through cognition, language and technology, in a sense these thoughts and my interaction with Jane are culturally embedded ‘in’ or ‘around’ the stone.  Even if you never visit London, you reading this blog may have already mentally attached these thoughts to the stone, colleagues who pass the stone regularly might find themselves accessing these thoughts when they see the stone. In a sense these thoughts now have an address, existing in real three dimensional space and a defined time line. Take a moment to consider the future events, stories and thoughts that mind become attached to that stone in its considerable life time as well as the possibility that, in the million years it has shared this landscape with humans, those previously embedded in it.

Let’s leave the urban modern present and consider the role of natural stones in human landscapes, perhaps within those of modern humans with apparently modern cognition in cultures which are not building monuments from such materials. Sarsen stones are often erroneously called erratics. This is wrong because they are not out of place geologically, merely represented the survival of cemented Tertiary deposits overlying the British chalk, perhaps moved small distances by periglacial processes. However, in terms of human perception the appear distinctive and separate from the natural landscape, isolated rocks or clusters of rock, lying on or emerging from the chalky ground surface. People in the past could not point to a clear exposure in a cliff of sarsen and large areas of the landscape they inhabited were devoid of such boulders.  To me it is inconceivable that hunter gatherers of the British Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic did not notice and attach some significance to these objects in the landscape. Isolated boulders or distinctive rock outcrops are a regular but distinctive feature of our planet’s surface and, where recorded in the ethnographic literature, will have attached cultural significance in the form of names, folk-memories and deeper mythologies.

Being part of an collective extended mind means that, once information establishes an orbit around an object, the information is not dependant on proximity to, or even persistence of, the object itself.  It’s continued presence does however facilitate access to and the coherence of the information itself.

The cogntive magic occurs in the space between cultural significance and the material objectivity of the stone, hill, tree, etc to which that information becomes attached.  This propensity for humans to attach cultural knowledge and significance to objects might allow us to start to speak of objects as possessing a quality of cultural gravity, that is the degree to which an object because of its size, shape and dissonance with the surrounding landscape, will effect a pull on human cognitive processes and start to place ideas in cultural orbit around them.  Landscapes from this perspective, even modern urban ones, will therefore have their own logic of attachment which we can begin to decode in terms of likely patterns of cognitive connection, extension and embedding of information.

‘Our’ stone and this little anecdote I’ve shared with you illustrates something I think we need to consider when understanding modern human cognition; the brain did not develop in a vacuum, information requires storage and behaviour is not entirely structured by agency.  We live within engineered worlds in which the stigmery of human life is clearly embedded and in which information is encoded consciously in real and virtual landscapes. The pre-conditions for the evolution of this complex, information-saturated and intricately connectedly world may well lie in the structure of landscapes and the mute natural objects we encounter in them.

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Stones, Blood and Bones: Stonehenge and the politics of the dead.

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Today, the self-styled leader of British “Druids” Arthur Pendragon has again called against the display of human remains at Stonehenge, attempting to make the site the focus for wider calls from the neo-pagan and neo-druid community for reburial of human remains from British Prehistory. Here’s the BBC coverage http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-22438232

I’m going to keep my thoughts on this short and I’m going to ignore a whole raft of important issues which arise from this (legislation relating to human remains, the level of access to Stonehenge, and changing public perceptions about “Druidry” and its irrelevance to the monument). I’m going to do so because under this issue, one which will continue to face archaeology for many years to come, there lays a very dangerous trap which we could find ourselves in, one which we must very publically and openly address. I want to add my feelings to concerns already articulately raised by Mike Pitts and others on the unfortunate and, I’m sure, unintentional coalencse of neo-pagan and right wing arguments about British Ancestry. You can read an excellent article by Mike Pitts on the matter here and further references are provided at the end.

In the calls from the neo-pagan community there is a conscious and potentially powerful alignment with the wider issue for the repatriation and reburial of human remains collected by western institutions during the colonial era. There has been a general consensus for the return of such remains to their place of origin into the hands of cultural groups making often legitimate claims on the return of their “ancestors”. These cases are particular powerful when museum specimens can be traced directly to belong to a named individual or historical continuity can be demonstrated with an original population. While not uncontroversial, most reasonable people can see the logic of the claims and the need to engage in a sympathetic and constructive way.

At first glance the claims of some in the British neo-pagan community, holding sincere beliefs in the sanctity of prehistoric human remains, might seem parallel and a process of constructive engagement or discussion appropriate. However, it is critical that before attempting to do so we consider a major implication, opening the door on discussion about the “aboriginal rights” of British citizens to determine the fate of their “ancestors” opens the door on much darker and dangerous false logic.

Four years ago I first took notice of how the BNP were using archaeological narratives, when Bonnie Grier openly challenged them on this footage from BBC1’s Question Time. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party was called on his arguments for a British ethnicity extended back to the end of the Pleistocene. You can see how the BNP use the archaeological narrative here to claim for a British ethnicity here, concluding

The historical and genetic evidence support the fact that there is indeed a native people of Britain who have a right to this land. We have as much right as the American Indians, Aborigines or Maoris. There were invasions and a small amount of migration but, as has been already stated, these were from people just across the channel.

Archaeological studies are being actively woven with real political and social “impact” on the far right. The dry bones of British prehistory had been invoked to make claims of blood-line ethnic descent.

Now of course I am not making claims that the neo-pagan community are campaigning on the basis of nationalist or right-wing ideology, although we should consider what role these political beliefs might play on the fringes of the community, but we must take the overlap between the parallels between both groups seriously.

Let’s look at the language Arthur Pendragon uses:

According to Mr Pendragon, the bones were the remains of members of the “royal line” or “priest caste” who could have been the “founding fathers of this great nation”.

While I don’t for a minute think that this quote is referring to right-wing ideology it is easy to see how such thinking could be high-jacked by the far right. Bloods lines, “castes” and references to the “founding fathers” and the “great nation” sound to me like a recipe for a world view which supports the idea of Britain as unified nation deep into Prehistory (which is wasn’t) and long-lived lines of royal and priestly descent (which there wasn’t). I would hope the neo-pagan community could see these concerns, perhaps modify the language used and publicly distance themselves from those who seek to use the concept of “British Ethnicity” for political ends. These issues addressed then perhaps engagement could continue, until then I feel it carries unintended dangers.

This is especially important given how high-profile the focus of the campaign, Stonehenge, is both nationally and internationally. Stonehenge is undoubtedly an icon of our modern national heritage, and is recognised globally, hence the incredible levels of investment we are seeing by English Heritage into the new visitor centre. It has and will continue to be a high profile battle ground for interest groups such as the neo-pagans to argue their case for access, religious, freedom and reburial of human remains. We should therefore consider carefully the implications on even beginning to open the door on the legitimacy of any claims of “ancestor” status for the remains from this site or any other. With the rise of right-wing political movements across Europe we must be very careful how the archaeological record is invoked by minority groups to make modern political claims and understand that concessions for relatively benign causes might give succour to more malevolent causes.

See Also:

Spoilheap 2008 One man and his bog (and the consultation committee). British Archaeology 101, 29.

Spoilheap 2010 Who are you calling an ancestor? British Archaeology 110, 4.

Pitts, M. 2011. Digging Deeper: Comment on Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 21:20-22,

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Early Impacts

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This week, while we watched the near pass of a large asteroid, an unseen meteor slammed into the skies above Russia.  A wonderful coincidence and more than a good enough excuse to spend a few minutes looking skyward, especially for those of us who spend far too much time looking at the earth.

For me, that same day, I had pause for thought while walking a nearby field at dusk.  The field interested me as there were river terrace gravels outcropping in the soil, part of a terrace that has produced a few handaxes in the valley and where my son found a rolled biface five years ago.

That evening the soil wasn’t going to yield any tools but I didn’t find a rough and worn marcasite nodule.  These objects are fairly common in the chalk and, being comprised largely of iron, can easily been found in the ploughsoil. I collected them as a kid, both fresh from the chalk quarries and from fields while looking for old Second World War mortars.

The reason they held such fascination for me as a child was that I had in my head they were meteorites, that they had fallen from the sky.  It struck me that for me they were my first grappling with the theme of this blog, Ceraunia.  My attempt to explain these objects, which stood out from the natural jumbles of chalk and flint as distinctive, misplaced, heavy in the hand and with a surface which looked like cooled viscous metal, was informed by a 6 year old’s knowledge of nature.  It’s very telling to me now that as a child I looked up to the sky for an explanation rather than to the ground below where the answer lay. 

I haven’t really started to talk around this subject here but this confluence of experince and thought seems like a starting point. My interest in Ceraunia comes directly from this thunderbolt moment of human consciousness which I experienced as a kid and can still access now: what sense does Homo make of the object which apparently stands out from ‘nature’? what thought processes does this trigger? and how does it alter human understanding and behavior in evolutionary terms?

It’s my intention in this blog simply to scrap-book relevant examples of human interaction with the environment and explore this theme for myself from a few angles.  

This week it struck me that rocks, when they appear unexpected from a clear sky, still carry a real and sometimes dangerous potency.  I think its very useful to address what significance such objects, from the small fossil or tool to the large erratic boulder, played in our developing, conscious understanding of the world.

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Dogs, Domestication and Dumps.

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The publication today of some significant  genetic research suggesting dog adaptation to eating starchy foods  is a good excuse to expand on last week’s post on the evolutionary relationship between humans and mammals.  More than the horse, the dog has the longest and strongest relationship with humans, born out by fossil evidence which might put the origins of dog domestication possibly as early as 33k BP.

Aside from the implication for palaeodieters (if dogs have adapted to eating plant-derived starches isn’t it highly likely we have too?), the coverage caught my eye for further discussion of the mechanism for early overlap between humans and dogs which led to domestication. The argument goes that as humans started to develop more stable and intensely used habitation sites, peripheral accumulations of food debris would have attracted wolves, which became over time habituated to humans and opened up a context for domestication.  It’s a neat, passive explanation that fits our perception of the wild being at the margins of our “domesticated” social place and bleeding into it. I’m also interested in the explanation as it sets a human behavioral construct, The Rubbish Dump, at the center of a process of social interaction, self organisation and genetic change.  In this sense it fits very well with my perspective of human behavioral signatures as being drivers of evolutionary change in terms of niche construction/allogenic engineering.

I do have three  questions about it which I’m just going to raise here as food for thought.

Firstly, if we are leaving food debris dumps conspicuous enough to attract wolf packs, what else are they attracting? With bear and other dangerous predators in the environment, leaving accessible food is a recipe for disaster. We know hunter gatherers groups are smart about disposal in landscapes with other predators, so we should think smarter about this too or find the archaeological evidence.

We have a much deeper history of leaving food traces in the landscapes, providing food sources for larger social predators like foxes and smaller scavengers for millenia.  Why then does complex social interaction with the wolf happen so late? It would seem to me that, in the absence of a clear behavioral change in human food waste disposal, it is more likely to be driven by processes of human social or cognitive change. In the context of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic I think we should look to the changes in human behaviour relating to animal and human/animal hybrid portrayal in the exceptional record of art that appears after 40k BP.  Whether driven by cognitive or cultural processes, the art suggests a important perspective on the relationship between the animal and human world, one which is routinely blurred to powerful effect.  Is it possible that this blurring sets the stage for integration of some mammal species into human society?

This leads me onto my last point. The hypothesis which see the wolf as scavenging on the margins of human settlement,  is a very passive explanation that robs the process of an immediate, emotional as well as functional/economic basis for domestication. The relationship between humans and domesticated animals has a far more deeply rooted basis than simply utility and food. Canines embed themselves in human societies because wolf pack behavior matches our primate social structures enough for a functional relationship. If we accept this fact then we must also accept that human and dogs are active agents in these dog-human hybrid societies, negotiating biological, hormonal, resource sharing and social dominance dynamics to constantly maintain position and cohesion   The complexity of this incredible process is rather reduced by the dog on the dump hypothesis.

Ultimately I think we have to look at how we conceive and use the term domestication. It’s far more than a taming of the wild through conscious manipulation,  humans as a force of natural selection and genetic engineers. We need to think about the transformations at work within our own brains and societies.  Perhaps  viewing  the integration of wolf into human societies as a significant addition to the Late Pleistocene package of behavioral modernity, rather than a prequel to Holocene domestication of livestock.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature11837.html

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022821

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They Eat Horses Don’t They?

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Us Brits love a good food scandal, whether it’s salmonella in eggs, spinal cord in our beef products or killer food colourings, the media doesn’t have to work hard here to whip us up into a frenzy. It’s rather ironic given the average British appetite for mass produced junk food, but there are, apparently, lines we are not prepared to cross when it comes to eating.

So the first great food shock of 2013 was the revelation that up to 30% of meat in various budget burger brands was not good old British beef but foreign horse meat. Yes, meat from actual horses, with hooves and manes and long swishy tails. I kid you not!

I’m actually totally indifferent to this non-scandal. I’ve eaten horse a few times (horse sushi is the only way to do it justice) and I think its no better or worse than eating any other mammals. I’ve also spent some time looking at the half million year old horse butchery site at Boxgrove (GTP17) and more widely considered the long term predator-prey relationship between our two species before domestication.

From this perspective, the revelation that the mechanically reclaimed sludge that goes into a burger had originated from one large mammal and not another didn’t strike me as one likely to provoke outrage, but it turns out us British are very particular about the genetic origin of our meat sludge. While the cheeks and arseholes of a cow or pig are considered a treat when reshaped and slapped between two pieces of bread, bits of horse are definitely off the menu on our island. And yet other cultures, including our nearest European cousins, the French, are rather partial to an equid steak.

We have a long evolutionary relationship with meat, possibly extending back to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, 6 million years ago and certainly from 2.5 million years ago. Back then our Australopithecine ancestors were fuelling their evolutionary path with meat scraps, which can be seen by the marks left by their Oldowan stone tools on animal bones. So given we’ve had several million years to sort it out, shouldn’t it strike us as odd that  there is no universal consensus on what constitutes an acceptable animal to eat? On the contrary we have a fairly universal propensity to holding all sorts of taboos over which poor animals it’s ok (or not) to kill for food and which, for reasons of sacred status, ethical concern or perceived uncleanliness should be left off our plate.

That the British disdain for horse meat is quite deeply ingrained is equally surprising.  After all we revel en masse in racing our horses to death over lethal hurdles and only abandoned their use in warfare less than a century ago, having ridden them previously at regular intervals into hell and shellfire.  But despite our willingness to sacrifice our horses at Aintree, the Somme and the Crimea, damn it man, we’d never eat the beasts.  So where does this red line in culinary acceptability stem from?  It’s hard to make a case that our taboo against horse meat is ingrained in any issue of sacred value or uncleanliness, it’s a far more personal issue than that. The truth is, in British society, horses have a social status and position within our culture, which simply makes eating them unacceptable.

It has struck me for a long time that human propensity for complex social engagement with the animal world is very paradoxical, and nowhere does this manifest itself more starkly than in our attitudes to which animals we hunt, kill or eat.  The social brain paradigm has proposed that a large degree of our cognitive abilities stem from our abilities to establish, maintain, invest in and manipulate social relationships with each other. But I believe this ability goes much further than just interaction with each other. Humans are of course very capable of forming social relationships with individuals from other species at a deep personal level. This extends to integrating certain animals, at a cultural level, within human societies.  It is often considered that there is a fault line between human understanding of animals as agents and animal products as things. If we consider that fault line in terms of human social capabilities it is potentially far more complex, animals can be viewed as agents but also as kin, colleagues, slaves, friends, spirits or gods;  our attitudes to the ‘things’ we can derive from animals varying greatly accordingly to this perception.

It has been at least 6000 years  since we regularly hunted wild horses in Britain and for much of the later Holocene we see horses turning up in the record rarely as food and more generally as beasts of burden of one form or another.  Through out our history the cultural relationship of the British with horses is just as exploitative as any other nation on the planet, but somewhere along the line horses were able to claim a stake (along with a restricted range of other domestic animals, notably the dog) as part of our extended social network.

The social basis of our relationship with animals when considered in this way is important but rather bleak. The human basis of social interaction with animals is, at a meta-cultural level, wholly sociopathic. We recognise and engage in meaningful social interaction with some species and yet subject others of equal objective social ability to extermination on an industrial scale. Hunter gatherer societies aren’t an exception,  they exploit their social understanding of animal behaviour to effect greater predation success. Our evolutionary development as a species is  partly predicated on our ability to intimately understand other organisms in social terms. We use that knowledge to predate, harness or bond with animals according to our cultural norms, ecological need and personal make up,

The horse is safe from the plate in Britain because it has been a relative winner in the inter species social drama of our prevailing culture.  Modern urban societies have a problem enough being confronted by the living animal they consume in a bun, pie or pasty; let alone it being revealed as an animal considered part of our extended society.  The issue opens up a paradoxical chink in our social integrity, one that I believe is both innately sociopathic and also an evolutionary necessity.  Considering the arbitrary nature of human dealings with each other, understanding the paradox in our social intelligence could take us to darker places than the slaughterhouse.

 

After Thoughts: Two things have struck me since writing this yesterday. Firstly that the real upraor should have been about the traces of pig DNA found within the burgers, this wasn’t the result of a corrupt food chain but apparently just part and parcel of reusuing processing plants over long time periods. The implication are that, unless you are buying from a Halal or Kosher butcher, its probably impossible to guarantee what DNA you are ingesting. Food taboos are currently near on impossible to maintain within the framework of urban mass consumption.

Secondly, from the  social hunting paradigm I’m starting to develop here, is it coincidence that the first clear examples for claimed hunting come from archaeological site associated with horses: Boxgrove GTP17 and Schöningen?

Did the unique social behaviour of the horse leave it exposed to han intelligent predator developing abilities to read and manipulate it’s social behaviour to lethal effect?

Reindeer feature early in the record of mass hunting. Both animals go on to become closely associated with humans in symbiotic roles beyond consumption. Could addressing the origins of predation as a social phenomena throw light on how we came to develop such a complex interdependancy with other mammals?

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Hardwired To The Gun

I started the blog because I wanted to find a space to explore the relationship between people, places and objects outside of my day-to-day work as an archaeologist.  I always wanted to find the contexts where aspects of the deeply rooted human past cross over with experiences and issues in the present . Then try to develop new perspectives on our current relationships with each other, the environment and technology.  It’s with some trepidation that I tackle the issue of gun crime and gun culture, but in the two weeks since the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings the subject has rattled around in my brain. Perhaps it’s because so many children the same age as my daughter were slain, or the proximity to Christmas or the fact that there is a real chance this tragedy will mark a watershed in western attitudes to guns but I haven’t been able to ignore it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that our cultures relationship with the gun is an immediate and urgent issue to address and if the wider discipline of anthropology really has nothing useful to say on it then we are failing the society which supports our subject and careers.

So what have I got to say, as a mud-scraping archaeologist interested in early stone tools, which could be of any use? Well not much and certainly I don’t have any answers. What I do have is an inkling of perspective which comes directly from my own experience of gun culture and from my work considering the relationship between early humans and technology.  I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to adopt and promote a radical and perhaps rather esoteric perspective into the mainstream if we are to collectively change cultural behaviour towards these lethal artefacts.

So to begin requires something of my own personal perspective. As a kid I was obsessed by guns and the military. I spent the ages from 5 to 10 pretty much dressed in camo, was rarely without a plastic replica firearm and utterly consumed every war movie, comic or coffee table book on weapons and warfare I could lay my hands on. German weaponry in particular captured my imagination: from the futuristic looking Luger to the sleek lines and folding stock of the MP40 submachine  gun.  The MG42 and Twin-magazined Oerlikon were modeled in detail on the hundreds of toy soldiers and model aircraft I amassed and I longed to own a real weapon of my own, which finally at about 11 I achieved, in being given my first Airgun.  But until that moment I had only interacted with the simulacra of the gun, rendered in Hong Kong factories in brittle plastic, without any real knowledge of the weight or feel of the real thing.  But having watched so many hours of glorious Technicolor footage of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Michael Kane, Steve McQueen and other obvious heroic role models wielding guns, it seemed that by simple mimicry I was able to emulate the movement and ergonomics of handling the lightweight plastic objects as if they were made of wood and metal. I would hold them as if they had weight, slow my movements down when raising  the object, hold the object tightly and precisely when taking aim and after vocalising the report of the bullet fired execute a perfect kick up or recoil of the weapon.  Despite having never held a real gun, somehow my brain had mapped the experience of using a firearm through repeated exposure to media portrayals of gun use and my own mental and play-acting rehearsals of the use of these weapons. By the time I was six I firmly believe that the gun was hard wired into my brain and represented an object fairly central and of especial significance in my personal inventory of material cultural.

Now all this appeared to have happened despite the fact that I grew up in the UK. My parents didn’t own guns, nor did any immediate members of my family, no one in my town ever showed me a gun and before I was 14 and joined the cadets I never held a firearm. Even the police didn’t carry firearms when I was a kid.  However, the gun still permeated 1970’s culture enough to embed itself deeply in my pre-adolescant brain, reinforced largely by positive role models including the war stories of my Nazi-fighting grandfathers or the SS/Bandit/imperial Stormtrooper-killing heroes of Hollywood.

When I finally became an adult the nascent obsession had thankfully waned, I left the cadets, grew my hair, and began to find new heroes, one’s who wielded guitars, pens and poetry. But I still continued to find excitement in movies in which guns occupied central totemic positions, from Leone to Tarantino: Scar Face, Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry the central characters of pivotal cultural reference points were augmented by that most powerful of personal accessories: the gun.

Now I could conclude here and add to the long running argument that guns are just fetishised too much in western culture though tv, movies and video games. But that argument has been forwarded too many times to carry any real weight and I think we need to look deeper to find any real hope of a solution. There is another glib logical progression which starts with the liberal thesis “Gun’s kill people”, the realist/conservative antithesis “No People Kill People” and the more enlightened synthesis “People with guns kill people”, I’m not sure really that any of these statements get us anywhere on their own but what they do is open a chink of useful light in the relationship between humans and objects that I feel might really be use here.

If I go back to my six-year-old self and think about my relationship with the gun as both a Platonic concept and plastic simulation, I get a very clear sense of how my relationship with that object transformed me as an individual. In the long-term my brain was hard-wired through play, imagination and handling to map the space the gun occupied and my ergonomic relationship to it. So much so that I could throw it from hand to hand, spin it on the trigger guard and flip it 360 and hold the gun in a firing position. This wasted ability could have easily been tracked on a musical instrument, paint brush or other creative tool but my object of choice was the gun. Instead of developing the neurological mapping of strings, piano or the QWERTY keyboard my brain mapped the geography of barrel, grip and trigger and the performance of drawing, raising, aiming and firing. Such mapping is not simply the acquiring of task specific skills, it represents the transformation of a young and malleable brain around an object. It is not simply a child learning to use a tool through play; it is the moulding of a nervous system around an extended part of its extended material culture.  The effectiveness of the interaction is so loaded with values and endochrinal reinforcement that it is far more than simple skill acquisition going on here. I found playing with toy guns fun and exciting, I dread to think what was going on in my brain and those of my friends when we lay in wait for each other and sprung up simulating the emptying of a clip into each other bodies until one of us pretended to go down. I do know it was fun and I enjoyed it, that makes me suspect the experience released endorphins and adrenalin, that our play was creating powerful peak experiences around the use of simulated lethal technology.

Are those same endorphins activated when we watch a movie gun fight or laugh at the wise-cracking humour of our gun wielding heroes? If so it is easy to imagine the possibility that our relationship to the gun is far deeper than cultural, we may in some respects have a biochemical relationship with it. Taking our cues from the theory of the Extended Mind, first developed by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, I feel that if we are serious in wanting to unpick ‘gun culture’ we have to understand fully the relationship between our biology, cognition and technology and stop viewing them in separate ways. The Extended Mind paradigm sees cognition as not being limited to the mind or indeed the body but existing outside and separate or, more correctly, in the space between the subject-object duality that often separate us and the material objects of our culture.

If we can explore how individual consciousness is transformed permanently by exposure to or use of an object, and how that transformation is reinforced and accelerated by cultural values we may begin to see the gun from a different perspective. Not simply as a tool which can be either in the ‘right hands’ or the ‘wrong hands’. Not as an object which we should either have the ‘right’ or ‘no right’ to own, but as a powerful cultural virus which maps so perfectly to human fears, drive for empowerment and security that we are struggling to control. We might conceive of the gun as occupying almost a new class of object, one where ergonomics, evolutionary imperative and efficiency lead to its extended and deep embedding in the biotechnological human nexus. We might add the handaxe, sword, automobile and mobile phone into this class too but the guns lethality is what makes this embedding so immediately toxic.

The power of an object to transform the individual into something greater, something more than human, sits at the core of the Extended Mind approach. As a species and individuals we constantly reconfigure around technology as it extends our individual and collective tolerances and influence. While we have a pretty good handle on behavioural and chemical addiction we are perhaps only at the beginning of understanding the deep embedding of technological co-dependence. Until we stop viewing the Gunman as just a man with a gun, and start viewing the Gunman as an augmented organism, a resulting cyborg nexus of biology, cognition and technology, detoxifying societies riven by gun crime might be near to impossible.

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