Self-driving cars and the trolley-car problem

I used to write a lot about the ethics of self-driving cars, particularly with regard to the trolley-car problem (would a self-driving car protect its passengers over pedestrians? would their age make a difference? who would be at fault?). This was when I believed that the people designing, producing, programming, and testing self-driving cars were operating under the same ethical framework as me and a bunch of moral philosophers.

This is apparently not the case. The questions we were asking were not the right ones and were in fact far too advanced. I should have known capitalism would beat ethics.

https://gizmodo.com/the-deadly-recklessness-of-the-self-driving-car-industr-1831027948

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Who’s experimenting in experimental archaeology?

I’d like to bring your attention to this post by my colleague and friend Annemieke exploring who does the research in experimental archaeology, and why many conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt since they’re studying crafts performed by laypersons and not skilled craftspeople.

Skills Shortage, or the Replicator’s Conceit

Teaching in Cyprus

I have spent the last six weeks half in charge of a field school and set of osteological training programs in Cyprus. It has been a massive effort, particularly since I’ve had bronchitis for the past four weeks. Needless to say, I am completely burned out.

On the plus side, I have a job for this year – I’ll be a Visiting Lecturer at Glyndwr University, which is coordinating a distance MRes in Forensic Anthropology and Bioarchaeology. The program starts in January, and I’ll be coordinating classes, teaching, and supervising masters’ dissertations. Some of my students this summer will be my supervisees, so I’ll get to guide their projects.

The first week and a half were the Human Remains Training Certificate. I taught a bunch of undergrad and masters students, mostly American, about bioarchaeology and osteology, and was joined in the second week by Elzbieta, a Polish lecturer who specializes in cremains (cremated human remains). She was absolutely great, and gave me pdfs of all her cracked editions of osteology books and lectures to re-appropriate for my own teaching. She also taught me the Polish word “prowizorka”,which refers to things that shouldn’t last a long time but do, like my $2.50 flip flops that I’ve used since 2009.

The next three weeks were the field school, in which we excavated a commingled pit in Limassol’s historic cemetery. In this culture, family tombs are rented long-term. When a family leaves the area or doesn’t pay, the residents of the tomb were evicted and put in a secondary mass grave. The pit is enclosed on all sides by concrete walls and unshaded, so we had to work in shifts and take frequent breaks. Aside from the Jackson Park project in Chicago (2009), this is the closest I’ve ever worked to toilets and cafes. We woke up at 5 and took a local bus in to site, arriving by 6:30. We’d take levels, then dig with haste until 8:30, at which time the students would go to Coffee Island for snacks and air conditioning while I’d start off a map. We’d then work again until around 11, or whenever it got too hot. Napping students were frequently seen lazing over graves, often covered in cats.

We had an abundance of cats on site. Cyprus holds cats to be sacred, apparently, and there’s a legend that Constantine’s mother Helena sent a delegation of cats to conquer Cyrpus’ snake problem. There’s even a monastery dedicated to cats. The cemetery has a huge population, and people come by with kittens they’ve found (or want to abandon). A few locals feed them and provide veterinary care occasionally. We named a few – Dreamsicle the orange and white kitten, Mama the pregnant one, and Skitty the shy one. One morning, a student heard mewling and went to investigate. She found two dead kittens, less than a week old, in a flower pot and their sibling clinging to life a few feet away. She and the other students took it to the vet and got some kitten formula and a box and took it home to feed in shifts. We named it Bean. Unfortunately Bean was just too young to survive without its mother and died after two days between feeds, and we buried him in a park. I buried three kittens this summer.

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It took us a week and a half to get down about 50cm, when we started seeing bones. After that, it was all bones all the time, which meant we had to proceed carefully. Fortunately, the bones were in no particular order, and seemed to be random collections of long bones and skulls. This is really exciting for the students, and also quite easy to lift compared to complete primary burials. By the end of the season we’d excavated so deep that stepping into the trench required three points of contact, and getting to the other side to work in the test pit was a mission. We developed some great bucket chains to get the dirt out. This was the first time I’d been completely in charge of a site as opposed to a grunt or a specialist, which was slightly nerve-wracking at first. I tried to balance wanting to be in control of everything to make sure it’s right, teaching techniques, and managing everyone being hot and tired. Some days scorched over 90, and the humidity made us feel sticky even in the shade. There was no breeze on site.

 

At noon, we’d have lunch delivered by a lady from the local church, usually a pasta or veggie stew, which we’d eat voraciously with the addition of lemon juice and salt. On days when there were bean dishes, I’d go to a cafeteria-like restaurant around the corner that offered a weird mix of Cypriot foods like bamia and lamb kleftiko alongside Asian fried noodles. In the second week, we discovered our closest bakery. Bakeries here smell completely different than French or British bakeries. Greek bread isn’t very fluffy, and for whatever reason, the baking doesn’t produce the hearthy bread smell. The bakeries are also “zacharopoleios”, or sugarworks, meaning they make cookies. These cookies were some of the more amazing I’ve had. I mostly had jam-filled biscuits or the local homemade Oreo, which I used to bribe students to complete unpleasant tasks. The bakery also had selections of hors d’oeuvres-size spanakopita and tiropita and other savory delights, a few of which would make a decent lunch.

Unfortunately, in the second week I started to cough. It started as a reaction to the dust. It got worse with the humidity, particularly at night. We didn’t have air conditioning in the flat; really, we had AC units but no remotes for them, for no particular reason. We were still waking up at 5 and digging as fast as we could before we were hit by direct sunlight, but we (I) began to get progressively more tired and grumpy. I did find that I coughed less in the café and the gym, both air conditioned spaces.

By week 3, we’d found a large number of bones and opened a subsidiary trench. We then connected that to the main trench, forming a Tetris T-shaped hole. Mapping was slow going, as there were many elements to place, and I wanted every student to get mapping experience. I continued to cough throughout. Later in the week, I approached our building manager to ask why we didn’t have AC. “It wasn’t included in your program rental agreement,” he said. “But you can pay for it separately.” At last! We had a beautifully cold night, waking up fresh and rested. We were positively glowing. My cough seemed to abate. We closed the site and backfilled Wednesday of the final week, but didn’t have enough time to process and catalog the bones, so they’ll have to wait for next year.

students

The final two weeks were the Advanced Paleopathology course, with a new influx of students. Our Canadian undergraduates left and were replaced by mostly British postgrads and more advanced researchers seeking professional development. I was able to teach on some of my favorite topics (epidemiology, untangling sex and gender and the interplay of socialization and biology, the history infectious disease), and gave quite a long lecture on tuberculosis while coughing. My cough continued to get worse as I had no time to rest and recover, and the students told me I needed to see a doctor. Our director told me there was basically no way to do that besides going to the hospital, so that’s what I did.

Of course, I do enjoy being a participant-observer in a medical anthropology experience. I arrived at 11:30 and struggled to figure out what to do. I followed some other people who had just entered to a triage station, where the nurse explained I should have gone to the local clinic, and I explained why I couldn’t (no local referral). I then went to the registrar, who didn’t care that I forgot my passport, and had me write down my name and address and pay 10€. It was all a bit run-down, but I’ve been in worse. Then I sat and waited. The wait was ok, as I’d brought lunch, snacks, tea, and my laptop, and there was even WiFi. Occasionally a name was called. Sometimes people would get up and go in without their name being called. At 4, I was called in. The doctor took me behind a curtain on the triage room, where other people were being seen to, and listened to my lungs. She asked if I smoke. When I said I didn’t, she made a face of grave concern, handed me a pink form, and said “go to x-ray.” I followed the signs and found the radiology department completely abandoned and shuttered. There wasn’t even anyone to ask if the radiologists were on break. I sat down and texted my supervisor, Xenia, who at that point had finished teaching, and she said she’d come see what was going on. When she arrived, it turns out there was another queue for regular x-rays and I had been in the wrong place. The radiologist took me and another woman into the x-ray room together and then sent us into individual changing rooms. I came out first, so I got the first x-ray. The radiologist asked if I was pregnant, I nodded no, and he took the shot. Five minutes later we walked into the treatment area, where the doctor looked at the chest x-ray and sent me into a cubicle to get a steroid inhaler. The trainee nurse chatted with Xenia in Greek, and we got to peek out at other people’s x-rays in a hugely HIPA-violating but fascinating glimpse into Friday’s set of injuries: a broken hip, a broken finger, a chest mass. After about 20 minutes, Xenia went out to find what was going on and called me over to the desk. The doctor wrote declared “bronchitis” and me a prescription for amoxicillin, which I filled at a local pharmacy. This was probably the easiest experience I’ve had at a foreign hospital despite not knowing what to do – in fact, I’ve had more difficult times in the UK. [However, it’s now 3 weeks later and I’m still coughing.]

The final few days both Xenia and I were totally overworked and alternated taking days off. This was the first year the Advanced course had run, so we were still figuring things out. Her lecture on medical implants was really fascinating, as my experience with human remains stops in a period long before surgery for hip replacements was possible. The final day was the exam, consisting of a multiple-choice portion and a bone portion, where students had to identify a diagnostic category for bones with pathological formations. I also got to stretch my exam-writing skills; I hate trick questions and lack of clarity, but I fear I often go overboard on this and make them too easy. One student pointed out a typo (the shame!), but to be fair the editing process was rather brief. I flew out the evening after the exam with the worst sinus pain of my life. While clutching my ears during the descent, the pilot announced over the intercom “There is a state of emergency…” and everyone looked up in panic and I struggled to clear my ears to hear more. I feared we were going to be flying into a new war zone or terrorist incident. We were already over Britain! “Excuse me, a state of emergency has been declared in Greece due to the wildfires, and the flight attendants will be collecting donations.” We all breathed a collective sigh of relief and the usual British silence between seatmates was broken as we all agreed the pilot’s phrasing was particularly poor.

I’m going back next year to teach the field school again, but hoping to not get sick again!

 

Cyprus: an introduction

For the past month, I’ve been working as a lecturer and field supervisor for the Odyssey Field School in Limassol, Cyprus. It’s been rather exciting to be in charge of my own field site, although there were many times the first two weeks when I didn’t know what to do and looked around for a grown-up before realizing that I am the grown-up. There’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s also been a good test of whether I’m capable of running a site — surprise, I am!

I arrived four weeks ago at 1am. For no obvious reason, flights into and out of Cyprus are scheduled at bizarre hours. I either had to leave London at 6 am or arrive here at midnight, and my flight home (on August 3) arrives at Stansted at 2:40am. (No, it doesn’t make them cheaper.) Our city doesn’t have an airport, and the customs queue was so long that I missed a shuttle. After taking the next intercity bus, which dropped me on the side of a highway at 12:45, I saw an off-duty taxi who took me the rest of the way. I knew the address of the apartment but not the name, which is apparently the important thing here as Google maps has all the numbers wrong. I was informed upon arrival that we’d be waking up at 6am to be at the cafe at 7:30 to meet our director, Xenia. I was to start lecturing at 8. This was definitely the longest lecture I’ve given on such short notice, as I talked all that day and all the following day, giving a crash course in bioarchaeology. My students were mostly American (one British), undergraduate and masters level, and it was a challenge to engage everyone at appropriate levels and keep them awake from 8-4 while jetlagged. I pulled through, and could see by the time they had analysed a few skeletons that they were able to apply theoretical knowledge to actual cases.

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Me, travel edition

The skeletons: as a bioarchaeologist, I’ve primarily looked at individuals from a few thousand years ago to the middle ages. The majority of the individuals I’ve examined – for my thesis, hundreds; for my career, thousands – died before they were 50 (although people in the past did live to old age, it was not very common at the sites I’ve studied). Their bones also suffered from being in the soil so long, making many of them fragmentary and crumbly. This site’s collection houses individuals who died in the 20th century and were disinterred for various reasons over the last 20 years. Most of them are named, and we can look up their dates of birth and death – apparently the oldest one is over 100! Looking at the names of the boxes, I can assess the gender of the individual, which useful when the students are learning assessment of skeletal sex. (The pelvis and skull have traits that differ between males and females, but as with these things — it’s a spectrum rather than a strict line.) In a population where most people are cisgender, it’s useful to be able to say “this skeleton has mostly female characteristics” and then check the box to see if they have a woman’s name. Many of the skeletons here have had medical interventions – dentures, hip replacements, metal screws to fix fractures – that I’ve never seen before, since surgery didn’t exist when the people from my other assemblages were alive! Having complete skeletons is very useful, as it makes diagnosis easier. Many diagnostic criteria for joint diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis) ask whether the joints are affected symmetrically or asymmetrically. If you only have one hand preserved, it’s impossible to tell. I’m learning a lot, and feel like I’m really able to solidify my knowledge of pathology by finally seeing the complete picture.

I should also clarify that while Cyprus has many human remains from the war in 1974, the ones we are working on are not war dead. We can’t talk in great detail about the cases we work on as some of them are forensic, so when we tell local people (like the bus driver, who keeps asking why a horde of Americans get on the bus to the cemetery every day) we are purposefully vague. But everyone is still curious, and assume that if we can’t talk about it, they must be from the war. Nope!

We work in a historic cemetery in central Limassol, using its central ossuary (repository for bones) as a lab and lecture room. It’s underground, which one would expect to be cooler than above, but it actually boiling. Everywhere is boiling. It has ben 40°C and humid all day everyday. At night the temperature drops a bit but the humidity increases. The only way to cool down is to jump in the sea. I wish I could spend all day in the sea.

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The cemetery is home to many cats.

Cyprus. I’d never been here before. I had very little time to research what I was getting into. I assumed it would be similar to Greece, so I refreshed my Greek and prepared to only eat Greek food for months. I was totally wrong. Cyprus is very international, with lots of shipping, business with Russia, and links to Southeast Asia. We live in a Russian neighborhood with shops that sell furs, and advertizing is in a confusing mix of Greek and Cyrillic characters. (Since I can read both, it sent my brain into a tailspin trying to figure it out.) I go to the Old Town market on Sundays, where one can buy fresh local vegetables, cheap Asian imports of bedsheets, curtains, rather horrifying fashion, and used electronics. I speak to the veg seller in a mix of Greek and Arabic. On the way back, I saw some Sri Lankan women threading each other’s faces in the street. I asked if I could get my face done and they were a little confused; I figured they were just doing it for friends and not as a business, and they only asked for 5 euros. The first meal I ate out was Nepalese. Most people speak enough English to get the message across, which is rather a shame as I wanted to practice Greek.

We finished the Human Remains Training Certificate two weeks ago and then started the field school. Four students left and a few more arrived from Canada and the UK. We were then able to split into two crowded apartments instead of one very, very crowded apartment (one room had three single beds, which was… weird #fieldlife). The site is quite small – it’s a part of the cemetery with commingled remains that need to be excavated and moved. It’s fenced in by concrete walls, with an open top – we can’t put up sunshades because, as mentioned above, people get curious and then suspicious. (At least a few times a week, someone walks by the ask what we’re doing and whether we have permission.) We leave the apartments at 5:50 for the (sometimes on time) 6:00 bus, getting to site at 6:25. We start with photos, measurements, then the plan for the day. After 6 days of bone fragments and dirt (we’ve excavated down over 40cm), we finally reached complete human bones, and I let out a whoop that definitely attracted the attention of a passerby. We were also able to open up an adjacent text pit that contained more bones, and we’ve now joined that onto the main trench. I’m particularly proud of the very very straight trench walls.

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Some of my students in our PERFECT trench

This is our final week of digging; next week I’ll be teaching the Paleopathology course, so need to write all my lectures for that. More on the dig and travel later!

Sports in the Ancient World

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 24, 2017.

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

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Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

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Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

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Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spearhead. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

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Limestone ball from a game. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Sources

Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.

 

 

December 2 Link Roundup

More on the Lucy-in-the-trees theory, this time from biomechanics: the cortical thickness and relative musculature of Lucy’s humeri are more chimp-like than human-like. This is a much more convincing argument than the one claiming A. afarensis were arboreal because Lucy’s bones indicate that she died falling from a tree, when taphonomic factors were not considered.

Elephants are being born without tusks as a result of poachers targeting those with larger tusks. Anyone looking for a really sad example of selection pressure?

The FDA has approved drug trials to test whether MDMA can be used to treat PTSD. Good work, MAPS! MDMA has shown promise in smaller trials that have helped individuals suffering from PTSD who did not see improvement through traditional treatment protocols.

Nicholas Kristof at NYT wrote a list of suggested charities to give to this holiday season.

Here’s a fascinating and mind-boggling descent into millionaire offshore accounts.

China’s missing girls are probably not missing due to demographic factors (abortion, infanticide) – the reasons are likely political.

November 25 Link Roundup

I wrote a post for the QMUL History of Emotions blog for #NormativityNovember on archaeological racism.

Bess Lovejoy explores the history of medical cannibalism in Europe. (Note that it’s cannibalism and not cannabis.) I’m interested in learning more about this, because as far as I know, the idea of bodily integrity and the soul in medieval/early modern Europe was such that the strongest argument against blood transfusions was that the recipient would inherit the soul of the donor, and autopsies/dissections were not acceptable as they were desecrating the body. Thoughts?

Today is Buy Nothing Day! Traditionally know as Black Friday, Buy Nothing day is a time to opt out of consumerism. Consider giving homemade gifts, items from local shops or artists, or (gasp) no gifts at all. Even better, why not send a donation to any number of charitable organizations? Turns out (as expected) they don’t need your leftovers or used toys, they just need money.

In fact, why not donate to the Standing Rock pipeline protesters?

 

Normativity November: Defining the Archaeological Normal

This post is part of QMUL’s Normativity November, a month exploring the concept of the normal in preparation for the exciting Being Human events ‘Emotions and Cancer’ on 22 November and ‘The Museum of the Normal’ on 24 November, and originally appeared on the QMUL History of Emotions Blog on 22 November 2016.

The history of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be read as the history of European men attempting to prove their perceived place in the world. At the time, western Europe had colonized much of the world, dividing up Africa, South America, and Oceania from which they could extract resources to further fund empires. Alongside this global spread was a sincere belief in the superiority of the rule of white men, which had grown from the Darwinian theory of evolution and the subsequent ideas of eugenics advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton: not only were white men the height of evolutionary and cultural progress, they were the epitome of thousands of years of cultural development which was superior to any other world culture. According to their belief, it was inevitable that Europeans should colonize the rest of the world. This was not only the normal way of life, but the only one that made sense.

In modern archaeology, we let the data speak for itself, trying not to impose our own ideas of normality and society onto ancient cultures. One hundred years ago, however, archaeology was used as a tool to prove European superiority and cultural manifest and without the benefit of radiocarbon dating (invented in the 1940s) to identify which culture developed at what time, Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists were free to stratify ancient cultures in a way that supported their framework that most European=most advanced. “European-ness” was defined through craniometry, or the measurement and appearance of skulls, and similar measurements of the limbs. Normality was defined as the average British measurement, and any deviation from this normal immediately identified that individual as part of a lesser race (a term which modern anthropologists find highly problematic, as so much of what was previously called “race” is culture).

In my research into sites in Egypt and Sudan, I’ve encountered two sites that typify this shoehorning of archaeology to fit a Victorian ideal of European superiority. The first is an ancient Egyptian site called Naqada, excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Petrie is considered the founder of modern, methodological archaeology because he invented typology – categorizing objects based on their similarity to each other. As an associate and friend of Galton and others in the eugenics circle, he applied the same principle to categorizing people (it’s likely that his excavations of human remains were requested by Galton to diversify his anthropometric collection). Naqada featured two main types of burials: one where the deceased were laid on their backs (supine) and one where the deceased were curled up on their side (flexed). Petrie called these “Egyptian” and “foreign” types, respectively. The grave goods (hand-made pottery, hairpins, fish-shaped slate palettes) found in the foreign tombs did not resemble any from his previous Egyptian excavations. The skeletons were so markedly different from the Egyptians – round, high skulls of the “Algerian” type, and tall and rugged – that he called them the “New Race”. Similarities, such as the burnt animal offerings found in the New Race tombs, present in Egyptian tombs as symbolic wall paintings, were obviously naïve imitations made by the immigrants. However, the progression of New Race pottery styles pointed to a lengthy stay in Egypt, which confused Petrie. Any protracted stay among the Egyptians must surely have led to trade: why then was there an absence of Egyptian trade goods? His conclusion was that the New Race were invading cannibals from a hot climate who had completely obliterated the local, peaceful Egyptian community between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Of course, with the advent of radiocarbon dating and a more discerning approach to cultural change, we now know that Petrie had it backwards. The New Race are actually a pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture (4800-3100 BC), who created permanent urban agricultural settlements after presumably thousands of years of being semi-nomadic alongside smaller agricultural centres. Petrie’s accusation of cannibalism is derived from remarks from Juvenal, a Roman poet writing centuries later. It also shows Petrie’s racism – of course these people from a “hot climate” erased the peaceful Egyptians, whose skulls bear more resemblance to Europeans. In actuality, Egyptian culture as we know it, with pyramids and chariots and mummification, developed from pre-Dynastic culture through very uninteresting centuries-long cultural change. Petrie’s own beliefs about the superiority of Europeans, typified by the Egyptians, allowed him to create a scientific-sounding argument that associated Africans with warlike-invasion halting cultural progression.

The second site in my research is Jebel Moya, located 250 km south of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, excavated by Sir Henry Wellcome from 1911-1914. The site is a cemetery that appears to be of a nomadic group, dating to the Meroitic period (3rd century BC-4th century AD). The site lacks the pottery indicative of the predominant Meroitic culture, therefore the skulls were used to determine racial affiliation. Meroe was seen as part of the lineage of ancient Egypt – despite being Sudanese, the Meroitic people adopted pyramid-building and other cultural markers inspired by the now-defunct Egyptian civilization. Because many more female skeletons were discovered at this site than male, one early hypothesis was that Jebel Moya was a pagan and “predatory” group that absorbed women from southern Sudanese tribes either by marriage or slavery and that, as Petrie put it, it was “not a source from which anything sprang, whether culture or tribes or customs”. Yet, the skulls don’t show evidence of interbreeding, implying that they weren’t importing women, and later studies showed that many of the supposed female skeletons were actually those of young males. This is another instance of British anthropologists drawing conclusions about the ancient world using their framework of the British normal. If the Jebel Moyans weren’t associating themselves with the majority Egyptianized culture, they must be pagan (never mind that the Egyptians were pagan too!), polygamous, and lacking in any kind of transferrable culture; in addition, they must have come from the south – that is, Africa.

M0019726 Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These sites were prominent excavations at the time, and the skeletons went on to be used in a number of arguments about race and relatedness. We now know – as the Victorian researchers reluctantly admitted – that ruggedness of the limbs is due to activity, and that a better way to examine relatedness is by examining teeth rather than skulls. However, the idea of Europeans as superior, following millennia of culture that sprung from the Egyptians and continued by the Greeks and Romans, was read into every archaeological discovery, bolstering the argument that European superiority was normal. Despite our focus on the scientific method and attempting to keep our beliefs out of our research, I wonder what future archaeologists will find problematic about current archaeology.