paleo Ideofact

Saturday, November 23, 2002
Prehistory teaches, that prehistory teaches...
Dr. Weevil notes a term I never came across when I was studying archaelogy, but wish I had: Urdummheit, or primeval stupidity. Actually, it's probably a little unfair -- our ancient ancestors probably did far better for themselves under the circumstances than we give them credit for. If all I had were some flint, and I had to feed, clothe, and shelter my family -- well, we wouldn't last very long, and I even passed the course in which I had to make some crude stone tools (flint knapping, it was called) the way our neolithic ancestors did (full disclosure: it wasn't the tool making that allowed me to pass, but it wasn't solely the badly bruised knuckle I got trying to fulfill the course's requirements, either).

All of this puts me in mind of one of the more bizarre things I encountered those many years ago as an undergraduate studying anthropology and archaeology: the desire of many in the discipline for it to be relevant to ... well, to something. Now, I found archaeology and prehistory fascinating on its own merits. Take the Bell Beaker folk (about whom I've been trying to catch up). I've noted before that some believe they had a sort of warrior ideology (in the same post, I note my skepticism about assigning ideologies to preliterate cultures). The male Beaker burials feature a drinking cup (usually showing traces of mead -- this may be some of the earliest evidence of a widespread alcohol-consuming culture) and some sort of weapon -- usually a dagger of either copper or later bronze. But there are other interesting features to Beaker artefacts as well. Suddenly, there was an international culture -- bell beakers turning up everywhere, along with minerals -- amber for example -- that can be sourced rather precisely, but were found hundreds of miles from that source. In other words, there was international trade as well (I'm using nation in the sense of peoples), suggesting not a warrior culture but a merchant culture instead, and a fairly stable merchant culture at that (it lasted roughly 1,000 years, after all). What was fascinating to me was that with our very limited information, we could make certain conjectures about the past, about how economics worked, about markets, about social structures. What could have persuaded our ancient ancestors, for example, who were suffering from Urdummheit, to cross the English Channel and the Irish Sea in what must have been the most primitive of seagoing vessels to spread the gospel of the bell beaker?

I couldn't help noticing that the book I recently bought, The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe, seems to denigrate the Bell Beaker culture because it represented a shift from the communal megalithic tomb builders to an "elite culture." Suddenly there were far more burials with grave goods, and single rather than communal tombs (the latter showing a poverty of grave goods). Is it possible that the beaker folk represented a more egalitarian phase? That the international style and trade enriched more people than the isolated megalithers?

I can't say for certain -- no one can, which is part of the charm of archaeology. It's best to be modest in one's conjectures and conclusions, to temper one's claims. So I find the introduction to the above-cited volume a bit odd:
We begin with a bare ice-scarred landscape and end with the turmoil of the migrations from which the politics of western Europe were to emerge in the Middle Ages. It was the entrepreneurs born of these political systems and their successors that were to explore, exploit, and briefly colonize much of the world. Our story, then, can fairly be said to form a significant chapter in world history.
No, it can't. Because much of the story -- the prehistory of Europe (and while much of Europe was prehistoric, there were a few Romans and Greeks who wrote about it) is not history.

The plural of anecdote is data
One of the only benefits of having a hit counter is the referrer logs, which allow one to see who is linking one's site. I came across Procrastination that way, and found that Zack (sorry -- I couldn't tell if he uses a last name or not) offers personal observations of Wahhabis not too dissimilar from Bin Gregory, which I'd noted below. Zack writes:
As a Muslim, I can offer some anecdotal evidence about this. The extremist and/or Wahabi strain of Islam, in my personal experience, is found mostly among people who are born-again Muslims. They can be Muslims born and raised in the West who found religion as a sort of rebellion from the mild religion/culture of their parents. They can be immigrants from Muslim countries who found religion as a reaction against Western society. There are also increasingly people in Muslim countries who are finding an extreme form of Islam somewhat late in life after a somewhat irreligious existence.
The whole post is worth reading (I'd quote the whole thing, but then you might not click on his site and might miss the amazing photographs he's posted). Also, he promises to share his insights on the subject, and, as he's from Pakistan, I imagine he'll offer insights that you won't get elsewhere. I don't mean to put any pressure on him, but I hope he follows through.

Thursday, November 21, 2002
Aziz Poonawalla has reviewed a new book about the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, a group fortunate enough to number him among them. I highly recommend reading it. I particularly liked his conclusion:
I am a muslim, and I consider myself to be a Westerner also. My entire life has been a struggle to balance the competing priorities of these aspects of my identity and I have (in my opinion) largely succeeded.
I'd write something to the effect that we all struggle, to a greater or lesser degree, to balance our heritages with modernity, but it wouldn't really add anything to what he's written.

Glenn Frazier, who, like me, is Augustine, notes that I deny I'm Augustine. In fact, reading over my post, I don't think I denied that I was Augustine, but rather denied that I'm super-smart and that everyone loves me. But I never said I wasn't Augustine, although, for the record, I am saying so now.

I'm beginning to get the idea that these Internet quizzes (they're not exactly quizzes either, since they don't test one's knowledge) aren't especially meaningful...

Teenage rebellion
Bin Gregory, to whom I think I owe an email, links an interesting article on Daghestan, which shares a border with Chechnya, and has been drawn into the conflict there at various times. The article notes that Daghestan's tolerant Muslim population has so far rejected Wahhabi extremism. Bin Gregory writes,
Wahhabism is the ideology of discontent. A study just waiting to be conducted is to compare affilliation with wahhabism to lack of religious upbringing [outside of the gulf, of course]. My own observation is that wahhabism appeals more to those who were irreligious in their youth and are then "converted", and those who come from irreligious households, where it plays into that perennial youthful vice of condemning your elders. It's hard to imagine the appeal of a creed that says the last thousand years of Islamic practice are corrupt to anyone with respect for the piety of their forefathers.
This is an interesting conjecture, to say the least: Wahhabism as a sort of theological equivalent of teenage rebellion. I'm not entirely sure Bin Gregory is right, but it's an idea worth pondering. In my readings of Qutb, who's a slightly different but not too different brand of Islamist radical, I've encountered his dismissal of the great figures of Islamic thought and culture, and his insistence that the Islamic world ceased to be Islamic around 680 C.E., and that if his own reading of the Qur'an and the Hadith is followed, then today's faithful will far surpass their elders in piety.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002
The Booke of Idolatry
Meryl Yourish offered a moving post on the Night of Broken Glass, otherwise known as Crystal Night -- which sounds almost peaceful until one remembers that the crystal was the shards of glass from shop windows whose owners happened to be Jews. I had wanted to write something in response -- if nothing else a few words of appreciation for the post (I think I mentioned it in an email to her) -- but for whatever reason, I found it difficult to compose the words, or put two coherent thoughts together on the subject of genocide as a matter of both state and social policy.

But I thought of that post, of those shops with their shattered windows, in connection with an Austrian-Polish-Soviet-German Government General Jew, Bruno Schulz, who was killed sixty years ago today in his native town of Drohobycz. It is perhaps sacrilegious to focus on one man, but in some ways it's appropriate: Schulz's fictions, collected in two volumes, The Street of Crocodiles (the English title for his first collection, Cinnamon Shops), and Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, were drawn from that world, long gone. In the former volume, Schulz -- who was something of an alchemist or even Kabbalist with language, using it to reanimate the dead -- describes the stores of his imagination and experience in the short story "Cinnamon Shops":
On such a night, it was impossible to walk along Rampart Street or any other of the dark streets which are the obverse, the lining as it were, of the four sides of Market Square, and not to remember that at that late hour the strange and most attractive shops were sometimes open, the shops which on ordinary days one tended to overlook. I used to call them cinnamon shops because of the dark panelling of their walls.

These truly noble shops, open late at night, have always been the objects of my ardent interest. Dimly lit, their dark and solemn interiors were redolent of the smell of paint, varnish and incense; of the aroma of distant countries and rare commodities. Your could find in them Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long forgotten countries, Chinese transfers, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars and most especially strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.

I remember those old dignified merchants who served their customers with downcast eyes, in discreet silence, and who were full of wisdom and tolerance for their customers' most secret whims. But most of all, I remember a bookshop in which I once glanced at some rare and forbidden pamphlets, the publications of secet societies lifting the veil on their tantalising and unknown mysteries.
In Regions of the Great Heresy, the recently translated biography and appreciation of Bruno Schulz by Jezry Ficowski -- a Polish poet who has kept Schulz's work alive for posterity -- Ficowski relates the reaction he had to Schulz's work, which he discovered in 1942:
I came across Schulz's address and with all the enthusiasm of an eighteen-year-old, I naively wrote that although it might mean nothing to him, he should know that there was someone for whom Cinnamon Shops was the source of intense delight and revelation, that I was embarrassed that up until now I had not known about the "greatest writer of our time," and that he should not disdain this devotion lavished upon him by an unknown young man. I asked some question, thanked him for everything, and expressed my timid hope that he would answer.

I did not know that the address was no longer his or that Schulz, forced into a small room in the ghetto, was near the end of his life. I had no idea how inopportunely timed my letter was.
Schulz was gunned down while trying to flee the Drohobycz ghetto by a Gestapo officer named Karl G√ľnther on November 19, 1942.

Monday, November 18, 2002
Another quiz...
Via Naomichana of Baraita, to whom I've owed (and belatedly added) a link, I came across another quiz. And this one, for me anyway, is way off:

"God will not suffer man to have the knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience
of his prosperity he would be careless; and understanding of his adversity he would be senseless."

You are Augustine!

You love to study tough issues and don't mind it if you lose sleep over them.
Everyone loves you and wants to talk to you and hear your views, you even get things like "nice debating
with you." Yep, you are super smart, even if you are still trying to figure it all out. You're also
very honest, something people admire, even when you do stupid things.

What theologian are you?

A creation of Henderson

I certainly do my share of stupid things, and I probably share a modified version of Augustine's view of original sin (how else can one explain the Red Sox?), but the super smart stuff, the "everyone loves you..." is pretty far off the mark.

Ideology and human remains
Long ago, at a university far far way (well, not that far, although I-95 can make it seem that far), I studied anthropology, with a concentration on archaeology. While I took the odd course here and there on the Greeks or the Egyptians, for the most part I studied pre-literate cultures. And if I recall correctly, one of the imperatives of that study was to avoid making assumptions about the beliefs of a particular, extinct culture based solely on the material remains it left behind. Unlike potsherds, obsidian or bronze daggers, gold jewelry, bell beakers and the like, ideas leave few tangible remains. A carved figure of a goat can be god or demon, or a puppet to amuse children.

To be sure, material culture is not silent when it comes to understanding social structure. Generally speaking, complex civilizations do not base themselves on a hunter-gatherer economy, and hunter-gatherers don't build obelisks or skyscrapers. But consider that Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Franks all created monumental architecture; yet the ideologies of each culture were different. We may associate the Pyramids with autocracy, the Parthenon with democracy, the Colisseum with empire and Chartres with feudalism, but that's only because we know the history. The Parthenon in its original state, with its painted friezes and huge statue of Athena, wouldn't seem any more democratic to an alien observer than the Sphinx.

Which brings me to the subject of my last post, on the bell beaker culture. As it was a miserable weekend weather-wise, and the four year old was under the weather himself with a cold, I decided it was a good time to relax with a little prehistory, specifically The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, edited by Barry Cunliffe. The chapter, "The Emergence of Elites: Earlier Bronze Age," written by Andrew Sherrat, contains this arresting sentence:
They [the beaker people] thus represent a diaspora of continental north-west European practices among largely alien populations, carrying the aggressive, individualizing ideology of this area to new parts of Europe.
Again, these people left us no name by which to call them, let alone anything on the order of sufficient clues to their ideology to determine whether it was "individualizing" or perhaps one that demanded conformity. I have no idea what the assumptions of archaeologists are these days, but it seems that the profession's modesty and reticence has isn't what it once was...