#273 Interpreting the Past - Manhattanhenge

Twice a year the axial tilt of the Earth and the Earth's position around the sun create a situation where the buildings of New York City line up exactly with the rising and setting sun. New York City is probably the most famous city on the planet which is why this actually makes the news every year. I'm willing to bet most cities on a roughly east-west alignment will experience their own solar henge phenomenon. But, they're not NYC.

Interpreting History

How will future researchers, possibly alien, interpret this astronomical alignment? Across the plant archaeologists ascribe spiritual and ritualistic explanation to structural features that appear to be aligned to astronomical phenomenon. From sunrise and sunset at the solstice to petroglyphs and pictographs that depict astronomical events, there are cultures all over the planet that notice and honor these events. What does it mean? Why do they do it?

Most of the time, archaeologists figure that ancient cultures we're honoring the longest and shortest days of the year in order to keep a calendar, mark the passage of time, and/or know when to harvest. How can we say what value they actually gave to these alignments.

But, here's a question - how do we know this isn't just a coincidence in some cases? How many massive archaeological monuments are NOT aligned to astronomical events? How many petroglyphs and pictographs have nothing to do with astronomy? The answer is likely in the millions.

This brings up Manhattanhenge again.  The famous astrophysicist tells us that Manhattanhenge takes place twice a year - once on Memorial Day and once near the Baseball Allstar game. He concludes that future researchers would find this layout and determine that the ancient people that called themselves "Americans" worshipped War and Baseball. Is that accurate? Perhaps. However, New York City has been around since long before Memorial Day and Baseball. Regardless, we know the orientation of the city is based on the orientation of the island of Manhattan, not the sun rising and setting in a certain location on a certain day. If we go far enough into the future, though, the outlines of Manhattan Island might be indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. Perhaps an earthquake will reshape the land. Perhaps the ocean will recede and land will come back with formation-changing vegetation and erosion. Who knows?

Think before you write

I guess what I'm getting at is that we have to be cautious regarding our interpretations of sites. I've seen so many tin can scatters that I can't keep them straight anymore. We look at these artifacts and say with confidence that it was a short lunch by a couple of ranchers - or it was an oil change on the side of a long-forgotten two-track road - or it was simply a dump that was collected from somewhere else and deposited in the desert without ceremony or reason.

There are any number of reasons why a collection of artifacts are present in a given situation. I'm not saying don't take a guess. I'm just saying to call it an interpretation based on evidence but leave the door open for other interpretations. Try not to bias your site records and reports with your ideas. Don't plant a seed in a future researcher's head that may lead down an incorrect path. Just present your evidence, present your ideas, and leave it at that.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the field!!

#187 CRMArch LCP Book Deal Part 1

 Readers of this blog may be aware of the ongoing, although recently ignored, series I have called the Shovelbums Guide. Search it on this page just to the right of here if you want to see some of the posts. Well, I’ve thought for a while that those posts would be a great resource for CRM Archaeologists, especially those new ones entering the field every year.

#180 Book Review-Brian Fagan “Writing Archaeology”

2010 Fagan, Brian M.  Writing Archaeology: Telling Stories About the Past. Left Coast Press, 2nd  Ed. Walnut Creek, CA

I picked this book up at the Left Coast Press table back in October at the Great Basin Anthropology Conference in South Lake Tahoe, CA. After a few months I finally got around to reading it, and, I’m glad I did!

First, Fagan’s writing style is fun and conversational. I often felt like he was sitting in the room with me having a conversation about writing a book. It made the book really easy to read and actually a real joy to read as well. What makes it really good is that Fagan is a prolific writer and he uses his own experiences, both good and bad, as examples throughout the book.

There are several types of writing that Fagan discusses within the twelve chapters. The bulk of the first two thirds of the text is about writing a book. He then follows with chapters on turning a dissertation into something else (book, articles, etc), writing articles for journals, and finally electronic media (blogs, eBooks, etc.).

I probably got the most out of the first part of the book because I’m in the process of putting a couple books together right now. Fagan goes into great detail regarding the process of writing a book from conception and proposal to marketing. One of the sticking points that I took away was about creating a schedule and sticking to it. I’ve always tried to do that with my blog writing but it has never really stuck. I think just seeing it in writing from someone else has made me want to get back to it and keep a goal of about 1,000 words a day per project. It would help, of course, if I had an accepted book proposal and a few thousand dollars advance money to work on it. I’d find it easier to keep to a schedule if it were my job. Right now I make no money on really anything that I do. It’s all for the love of archaeology! Alright. Get a room!

The chapters on shepherding your manuscript through the publication process were very interesting. I had no idea how much it could change during the editing process and how much and editor can really help. Fagan mentioned several times that you have to find an editor that you can trust and realize that they probably have a better sense of who your audience is than you do. It’s OK when they change your words around and move a paragraph or two. As long as the overall message is the same and the research you’re presenting doesn’t change then let them make the structure something that the public can appreciate and understand.

I sort of skimmed over the dissertation chapter. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever turn my thesis into something else. The project was on a site in Georgia and I work in the Great Basin now. I wish someone would do something with it, though. I also skimmed through the “writing an academic article” chapter. It’s mostly a reference chapter and when I need to do that I’ll refer to it. 

The electronic media chapter was really an overview of what’s out there. Fagan made some good points but it’s clear that he doesn’t blog and doesn’t participate in social media. He’s not like other older scientists though because he says that it’s really where the publishing world is going. He acknowledges the changes that are being made in the digital world and says that the younger generations should embrace them. Agreed! If my book doesn’t get accepted by the publisher I sent it to them I’m certainly going to publish it as an eBook. I could probably get it out the door in about three months. It certainly is a fast paced world that we live in.

What books have you read lately that you really liked? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!