Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Salon: "Why we’re obsessed with glamorizing archaeologists"

There's an interesting article on Salon right now on archaeologists and their profession, tied in with a new book, Lives in Ruins, by Marilyn Johnson, about the same subject. The gist is that archaeologists are funded poorly but they bring some semblance of meaning and fascination to the world through their efforts, which is why the public glamourises them.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ethnological Method

Applying the comparative method in historical linguistics is relatively straightforward and academics habitually apply it to any language they come across at some point or other. But the comparative ethnology attached to linguistic constructions isn't so straightforward or quite so reflexively applied, presumably because 'ethnology' is a word reminiscent of the nineteenth century and because there is no academic department devoted solely or even primarily to such things.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bruno Latour: Imperialist?

    I recently saw a blogpost that took Bruno Latour and his disciples/fellow travellers to task for being colonialist ('An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism'). Latour is celebrated in modern social/cultural anthropology for his absurd views on the nature of the world and the place of people in it. He has been mocked outside of the social sciences for decades by sceptics, philosophers, scientists, and rationalists because of his philosophy, if you can call it that, which amounts to little more than the denial of the existence of a single world outside of our heads and the ridiculous repercussions of this. Latour has spelled out his views in plenty of books and articles, and presumably because of the force of novelty and the Abilene paradox he continues to be listened to and lauded. Anthropologists seem to like the idea that anything goes.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Nazca Culture

    The south coast of Peru is home to one of the more famous ancient South American archaeological cultures, the Nazca/Nasca. The reason it's such a celebrated tradition has little to do with its inherent importance in South American cultural history and more to do with the Nazca lines, a set of enormous lines and cartoons found in the desert in the Nazca region, visible from the air and preserved since the ancient period. The lines are truly enigmatic, and their purpose has yet to be firmly established (there are clues in the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record, though). This means, as you might expect, that the lines have been interpreted in frankly pseudoscientific ways. They are a favourite of von Daeniken, Tsoukalos, & co, and have even been featured in an Indiana Jones movie. That's the pop-prehistory super-leagues (in terms of public awareness - it's obviously not a good thing overall). There's much more to the Nazca culture than these dirt scratches, though.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Invest your emotion elsewhere

People tend to call me a rationalist, and that's not really something I have a problem with. I don't think philosophical ideas should be a matter of identity ('being' a rationalist, as opposed to merely espousing rationalism), so in that sense I object to the label. But aside from that, I do think it is good to be rational. It is better to think, and to attempt to come to terms with what is true, rather than merely to feel and accept whatever is intuitive or emotionally-appealling.

Monday, 13 October 2014

An Anthropology of X

One of the things most guaranteed to raise my considerable ire is the bizarre and frequently incomprehensible jargon of modern social/cultural/socio-cultural anthropology. I'm not a fan of the modern subject of the discipline anyway, so I already feel a little out of whack with prevailing currents in it, as I've said in other posts.* But there are egregious academic crimes regularly committed by anthropologists that make me perplexed and then a little sad/angry, and most involve language.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

BBC: "Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art"

Indonesian archaeology briefly made the news this week with a story about rock art from Sulawesi. The art, which includes the oldest known figurative drawing in the world and some extremely old hand stencils, dates back a little under 40,000 years. Rock art is notoriously hard to date, but there's no reason not to trust the dates provided by the researchers at this point, and that makes these artworks incredible, and precious.

Monday, 16 June 2014

What I'm writing these days

I haven't posted anything in a while, primarily because I've been busy. I've been planning and researching a book on ancient Indonesia, writing out detailed chapter plans and filling half a dozen of those mega-useful Ryman's project books with notes on Indonesian metal age rock art and agriculture in pre-Austronesian New Guinea. I don't know if it'll be published any time soon, but there's a gap in the market for an up-to-date, hopefully well-written popular book on Indonesia. The idea is that it'll look a bit like Michael Coe's Mexico or The Maya - a useful introductory work for undergraduates and the interested public - and there's a definite gap in the market for such a thing.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Britain is a 'Christian Country', apparently

David Cameron has recently claimed that the UK is a 'Christian country' and has said that he will act as a 'giant Dyno-Rod' for Christian organisations here (implicitly equating secularists with sewage). This has attracted considerable criticism, for obvious reasons.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why I'm also quite glad I studied social anthropology

I said earlier that I regret studying social anthropology, and this is still true. It wasn't the best choice. But it wasn't a total waste of time either, and there's a lot to be gained from reading ethnographies and becoming familiar with different groups of people around the world - which was, to be clear, a large part of my motivation for studying it in the first place.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Albuquerque and Drake in Indo-Malaysia - Bows and Arrows

It probably isn't surprising that historical references to bows and arrows in Indo-Malaysia from the age of exploration are relatively few.  The bow wasn't a particularly important weapon by the time Europeans arrived in the Indies, and in many cases European travellers and pirates were dealing with wealthy and established Rajadoms and Sultanates with the money to purchase European and Chinese firearms.  Sulawesi and Borneo were dominated by blowguns and muskets, and the bow in Java and Sumatera seems to have been influenced far more by Indian archery tradition than anything native to the islands (for instance, Javanese arrows tended to have flights, unlike eastern Indonesian, Taiwanese, and Philippine examples).  The reliefs on Javanese Hindu-Buddhist monuments probably don't represent much in the way of native Indonesian tradition.