Tuesday, March 6, 2018

How archaeology is distorted by Science magazine and the National Geographic Society

The public has a lot of interest in archaeology, and new finds and discoveries are often in the news. Sometimes the press reports outlandish, nonsense claims, and sometimes it reports rigorous and important claims. Many archaeologists ignore such press coverage (good and bad), and many of us engage with it. If there are elements of the press that distort archaeology, we may or may not want to deal with this. I often ask myself if it is worth the time and effort to try to correct some misleading claim going around social media and the internet. In a very real sense, this kind of thing can be viewed as separate and apart from the actual process of scientific research. I can do my archaeology just fine without worrying about whether the latest "news" about an ancient monkey god is a pile of baloney or not.

But there are other distortions of archaeology that are more insidious and more troubling. These come from well-established, serious institutions whose missions include furthering research and knowledge in many fields, including archaeology. I am thinking here of Science magazine and the National Geographic Society. Science publishes archaeology, and thus promotes the scholarly work of archaeologists while showcasing our work to a wider audience beyond archaeology. This is good. But the kinds of archaeology article they publish is a biased and distorted sample of current scientifically-inclined archaeological research. Thus, Science distorts archaeology.  The National Geographic Society funds archaeology, and also publicizes archaeology in its website, TV shows, and magazine. Again, this is good. But, again, the archaeology promoted by NGS is often a distorted view of the past, emphasizing spectacular and mysterious finds, often to the point of severe distortion. This is done for commercial gain.

Science Magazine

The review process for Science is a clear example of scholars and individuals who are not archaeologists making decisions about what archaeology is worthy of publication in Science, and those decisions distort our field. The single most popular post in the 11-year history of this blog -- by far -- is one from 2012 called "Rejected by Science" (over 100,000 hits, when most of the posts get well under 5,000 hits). So, let me quote from that post:

 If you pay attention to the journal, you will know that they tend to favor high-tech methods, archaeometry, fancy quantitative methods, and reports about "the earliest" this or that. While I can only recall one or two papers in Science that I thought were incompetent (a much better record than most archaeology journals, some of which are full of incompetent articles), their selection of archaeology papers is definitely biased in a certain direction. I think one way of expressing this might be that Science publishes archaeology articles that will appeal on methodological grounds to non-archaeological scientists. My guess is that papers that are more synthetic or less methods-heavy don't make it through the initial review (which is done by non-archaeological scientists).

I have been rejected by Science at least four times (and about 3 times by Nature, and a couple of times by PNAS). I've been rejected by some of the finest journals in the world! So, maybe my complaint is just sour grapes. But I have had many colleagues over the years express agreement with my sentiments as quoted above. Papers are first skimmed by a high-level reviewer, none of whom is an archaeologist. If they think it might be interesting, the manuscript is sent out for review. Most papers are dropped at this stage. I must say, Nature does the same thing, but quicker. I think one of my rejections from Nature took only a couple of hours!

The fact that papers are initially screened by someone who is NOT an expert in the subject matter of the paper is a common critique of the Science review process. Indeed, one of the ways that PLOS-One touts their rigor is their claim that all papers will be reviewed by subject-matter experts.

This review process, and its outcomes, clearly distorts the archaeological content published in the journal Science. Paper are not judged by archaeologists, and only a narrow range of types of archaeological papers get published. Check out my older on issues with Science and Nature:

"Rejected by Science!"  (2012), initial post

"Rejected by Science, Yet Again!" (2012)

"Problems with Science and Nature"  (2013)

National Geographic Society

The publicity put out by the National Geographic Society provides another case where the nature of the archaeology that is funded and reported is often distorted. But instead of a bias within science, as in the case above, this is a commercial bias that favors sensationalism, mystery, and click-baiting themes. The NGS website may make sensationalist claims, and these get taken up by the mainstream media. The Guardian often seems to swallow them, hook, line, and sinker. The latest example is the claim that archaeologist Chris Fisher has discovered an ancient city in Mexico, using LiDAR, that "had as many buildings as Manhattan," to quote the Guardian. Some Mexican and French archaeologists objected in the Mexican paper, El Pais. They claimed that a city that big could not possibly have existed, because it was not mentioned in the historical sources! Give me a break, that is just silly. The city (Angamuco) IS large, but much of the LiDAR has not been ground-truthed yet, so this is a speculative claim.

Another recent case was the announcement that a new huge city was found below the jungle in Guatemala by LiDAR! It was accompanied in the press by image of Tikal. See my prior post on this. The National Geographic Society press release is mostly hype and speculation, which then got worse as other media outlets picked up the story. My purpose here is not to question hype or expose silly claims. Rather, I want to emphasize that the nature of the archaeological finds that get promoted are in the hands of an institution outside of archaeology, one that does a lot of good through funding and publicizing. Maybe we should give NGS a break, since they do a lot of good for archaeology. But I am more inclined to question their methods and goals. They are commercializing archaeology, and using our hard work to make a buck. That might be ok, if they were more objective in their reporting. I did get some funds from NGS back around 1990, but I'm not sure I would accept their funding now. Who knows what nonsense they could create from my research.

More hype than archaeology
If you want an extended example of NGS nonsense and hype, check out the story of the "Lost city of the Monkey God." NGS-funded "explorers" tramped around the Honduran jungle and came out with outrageous claims about finding a lost city. Never mind that the site in question was well known to archaeologists and had been studied earlier. A whole story of intrepid explorers and fantastic discoveries was generated. The resulting book has become a best-seller. Please check out these sources for some objective, archaeologically-appropriate writing about this episode:

blog post by Rosemary Joyce from 2012

another post by Joyce, 2015

article in Smithsonian magazine about the episode (2015)

An open letter to NGS signed by a bunch of archaeologists that lists all the problems with the activities and their reporting.

These archaeologists are so discouraged that they feel that any additional harping will only increase sales of the book by Preston. I hope I am not contributing to the hype here.

Apart from the scientific and scholarly nonsense of the Monkey God episode, I find it discouraging for the same reason as the reviewing procedures used by Science: archaeology is being distorted by non-archaeological institutions that purportedly exist, in part, to promote and improve archaeology.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Why I am skeptical about the new Maya LiDAR results from NGS

New Tikal LiDAR map
I am skeptical about the hype surrounding the recent press release from the National Geographic Society about the new findings of LiDAR survey in the Maya region of northern Guatemala. I have no reason to question the quality of the LiDAR survey, or its potential usefulness for understanding aspects of ancient Maya society in this region. Rather, I question two aspects of the way these new findings have been portrayed, both in the NGS press release and in the journalism that has resulted from the find. (1) This is portrayed as revealing brand-new ideas, when in fact earlier LiDAR work had very similar results; and (2) The work is portrayed as a major scientific discovery, when in fact it is only the first step of a process, the end result of which will be (one hopes) some major scientific discoveries.

LiDAR is a relatively new airborne remote sensing technology that permits detailed mapping of the surface of the earth at a detailed scale. It is far superior to earlier forms of satellite or airplane mapping in that LiDAR can penetrate dense vegetation. It is ideal for the Maya lowlands, where the jungle vegetation hinders traditional mapping. Wherever it has been applied, in the Maya area, the result is the identification of many new houses and features of the built environment. (1) This is my first misgiving: the lack of acknowledgement that Mayanists have been working with LiDAR for more than seven years (Chase et al. 2012; Chase et al. 2011).

The NGS story has breathless quotes about how suddenly we know about many new features and structures on the Maya landscape. Well, that is what LiDAR does in the Maya lowlands. It finds many more features than archeologists knew about previously. If archaeologists are surprised about this, they just haven’t looked at the prior work, both in the Maya area (Brown et al. 2016; Chase et al. 2014b; Chase et al. 2014a; Chase et al. 2012; Chase et al. 2011; Chase et al. 2016; Chase 2016; Chase and Weishampel 2016; Ebert et al. 2016; Prufer et al. 2015; Von Schwerin et al. 2016; Yaeger et al. 2016), in other parts of Mesoamerica (Fisher and Leisz 2013; Rosenswig et al. 2015; Rosenswig et al. 2013), and particularly at Angkor in Cambodia (Evans et al. 2013; Hanus and Evans 2016).
Lidar-identified small reservoirs at Cacacol. Chase 2016.
One difficulty with LiDAR data is that while it is easy to see large structures like pyramids in the output data, small features such as houses or agricultural fields are more difficult to pick out. They often require a combination of intensive, time-consuming searching by eye, and sophisticated custom computer algorithms that can pinpoint such features automatically. For example, my student, Adrian Chase, analyzed LiDAR data to identify small residential-level reservoirs at the Maya city of Caracol (Chase 2016). In areas that had been mapped previously by traditional methods, Adrian’s algorithm identified 25 times the number of small reservoirs at the site! These did not stand out on the LiDAR landscape like dropped pins in Google-Maps. They had to be painstakingly identified.

As far as I can tell, the intensive phase of analysis has not yet been carried out (or is not reported in this press release). It is easy to use LiDAR to find a bunch of new features and make a pretty map. But the next two steps are more difficult. For the first step, the archaeologist has to analyze the data—staring at maps and applying algorithms—so that one can be confident that most of the relevant small features have been identified. The pretty color maps one sees in all the press accounts are not the only way to portray spatial data in LiDAR; often other visualization methods are more useful. Adrian was able to identify all those small reservoirs only because he did two things: he spent countless hours staring at the output, and he applied custom computer algorithms to the data to identify the features. There is no indication that archaeologists have carried out this intensive level of analysis of the new Guatemalan data.
3 LiDAR visualizations. Chase 2016
A second crucial step is to analyze the results quantitatively and spatially to construct population estimates and study the on-the-ground patterning in settlement data. The NGS article subtitle says there were “millions more people than previously thought.” The report has this quote:

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said [Francisco] Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. “With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

It will take quite a bit of analysis to turn this quick preliminary suggestion into rigorous population estimates for settlements and regions. These additional steps—technical application of algorithms, lots of staring at screens, and then quantification and calculation—are only beginning for the Maya lowlands (Chase 2016; Chase and Weishampel 2016; Ebert et al. 2016), and there is no sign that they have been accomplished for the new Guatemalan LiDAR results.
LiDAR of central Caracol. Chase et al 2011.
So, what is my beef? The new results are just in, and the analysis is probably only starting. This is the normal process of science. (2) My second misgiving is the idea—promoted by NGS, by the people interviewed in the article, and by secondary articles in the media—that archaeological advances consist of discoveries in the field. Yes, the fieldwork is essential. But without an often lengthy period of analysis, one typically cannot know the meaning or importance of the finds.

There is a kind of archaeology where the main discovery is made in the field. If one is looking for the tomb of a king or noble, and one finds it, that may be the essential defining moment of discovery. But I pursue another kind of archaeology. I have spent my career on the archaeology of Aztec provincial households. When I dig up another house or trash midden, it seems pretty much the same as countless I and others have excavated. They are pretty boring, I have to admit. But once I have spent months or years studying the artifacts, quantifying them, sending off samples of technical analyses, only then do I make my discoveries. When I argue that this household was well-off and that one was poor, or when I argue that conquest by the Aztec empire had little effect on local people, these are my discoveries. They rely on extensive analyses of artifacts. I had no idea about these things at the time of excavation. I discuss this issue—what is the real moment of discovery?—in more detail in my recent book (Smith 2016).
Social interpretations at Yautepec were based on study of 1 million potsherds
When one focuses almost exclusively on the actual uncovering of a find during fieldwork (for an excavation), or on the initial pretty maps of a LiDAR surveybefore the hard work of analysis is done—one is distorting the scientific significance of our work. Will NGS have a big feature when the archaeologists involved actually publish a revised population estimate for northern Guatemala, or when they can quantify the amount of construction in rural vs urban areas?
We'll see.

A kind of archaeology based on extensive analysis
How can one spot a finding that seems spectacular but is actually a preliminary find, not yet analyzed, from a finding based on proper analysis and interpretation? Peer-review publication is the primary way to do this. The NGS piece was based entirely on interviews, not on a paper that has been peer-reviewed and accepted by a scientific journal.

Claims that LiDAR will revolutionize the study of Maya settlement and demography may very well be correct, but it is too soon to tell. The Guatemalan LiDAR has reached the stage of preliminary findings and pretty maps, but not the stage of solid architectural, demographic, and social findings. I look forward to the scientific results. I don’t care if they are an internet sensation; I’d rather see them published in a journal.


Brown, M. Kathryn, Jason Yaeger, and Bernadette Cap
2016 A Tale of Two Cities; LiDAR Survey and New Discoveries at Xunantunich. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 13: 51-60.

Chase, Adrian S. Z.
2016 Beyond Elite Control: Residential Reservoirs at Caracol, Belize. WIREsWater 3 (6): 763-797.

Chase, Adrian S. Z. and John F. Weishampel
2016 Water Capture and Agricultural Terracing at Caracol, Belize as Revealed through Lidar and GIS. Advances in Archaeological Practice 4 (3): 357-370.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Jaime J Awe, John F. Weishampel, Gyles Iannone, Holley Moyes, Jason Yaeger, and M. Kathryn Brown
2014a        The Use of LiDAR in Understanding the Ancient Maya Landscape. Advances in Archaeological Practice 2 (3): 208-221.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Jaime J. Awe, John F. Weishampel, Gyles Iannone, Holly Moyes, Jason Yaeger, Kathryn Brown, Ramesh L. Shrestha, William E. Carter, and Juan Fernandez Diaz
2014b        Ancient Maya Regional Settlement and Inter-Site Analysis: The 2013 West-Central Belize LiDAR Survey. Remote Sensing 6: 8671-8695.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, Christopher T. Fisher, Stephen J. Leisz, and John F. Weishampel
2012 Geospatial revolution and remote sensing LiDAR in Mesoamerican archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 12916-12921.

Chase, Arlen F., Diane Z. Chase, John F. Weishampel, Jason B. Drake, Ramesh L. Shrestha, K. Clint Slatton, Jaime J. Awe, and William E. Carter
2011 Airborne LiDAR, Archaeology, and the Ancient Maya Landscape at Caracol, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 37: 387-398.

Chase, Arlen F., Kathryn Reese-Taylor, Juan C. Fernandez-Diaz, and Diane Z. Chase
2016 Progression and Issues in the Mesoamerican Geospatial Revolution: An Introduction. Advances in Archaeological Practice 4 (3): 219-231.

Ebert, Claire E., Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe
2016 Integrating Quantitative Lidar Analysis and Settlement Survey in the Belize River Valley. Advances in Archaeological Practice 4 (3): 284-300.

Evans, Damian H., Roland J. Fletcher, Christophe Pottier, Jean-Baptiste Chevance, Dominique Soutif, Boun Suy Tan, Sokrithy Im, Darith Ea, Tina Tin, Samnang Kim, Christopher Cromarty, Stéphane De Greef, Kasper Hanus, Pierre Bâty, Robert Kuszinger, Ichita Shimoda, and Glenn Boornazian
2013 Uncovering archaeological landscapes at Angkor using lidar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 12595-12600.

Fisher, Christopher T. and Stephen J. Leisz
2013 New Perspectives on Purapécha Urbanism through the Use of LiDAR at the Stie of Angamuco, Mexico. In A Primer on Space Archaeology: In Observance of the 40th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, edited by D.C. Comer, pp. 191-202. SpringerB riefs in Archaeology, vol. 5. Springer, New Yokr.

Hanus, Kasper and Damian Evans
2016 Imaging the Waters of Angkor: A Method for SemiAutomated Pond Extraction from LiDAR Data. Archaeological Prospection 23 (2): 87-94.

Prufer, Keith M., Amy E. Thompson, and Douglas J. Kennett
2015 Evaluating airborne LiDAR for detecting settlements and modified landscapes in disturbed tropical environments at Uxbenká, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 57: 1-13.

Rosenswig, Robert M., Ricardo López-Torrijos, and Caroline E. Antonelli
2015 Lidar data and the Izapa polity: new results and methodological issues from tropical Mesoamerica. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 7 (4): 487-504.

Rosenswig, Robert M., Ricardo López-Torrijos, Caroline E. Antonelli, and Rebecca Mendelsohn
2013 LiDAR Mapping and Surface Survey of the Izapa State in the Tropical Piedmont. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 1493-1507.

Smith, Michael E.
2016 At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic Life. Routledge, New York.

Von Schwerin, Jennifer, Heather Richards-Rissetto, Fabio Remondino, Maria Grazia Spera, Michael Auer, Nicolas Billen, Lukas Loos, Laura Stelson, and Markus Reindel
2016 Airborne LiDAR acquisition, post-processing and accuracy-checking for a 3D WebGIS of Copan, Honduras. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 5: 85-104.

Yaeger, Jason, M Kathryn Brown, and Bernadette Cap
2016 Locating and dating sites using Lidar survey in a mosaic landscape in Western Belize. Advances in Archaeological Practice 4 (3): 339-356.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Teotihuacan fracas: Pasztory claims she was ripped off and ignored by Millon & Cowgill

Esther Pasztory
I just read a strange and inflammatory paper by Esther Pasztory in the Mexican journal, Anales de Antropología (Pasztory 2017). Pasztory, a senior art historian and Teotihuacan scholar, raises questions about the scholarship and perhaps the ethics of two other top Teotihuacan scholars, René Millon (deceased) and George Cowgill. I have three main questions about this paper:

1. Did Millon really steal her ideas?  (the answer is, no).

2. Did Cowgill refuse to give her sufficient credit for her insights?  (the answer is, no).

3. Why would a reputable journal publish this paper? (the answer is, I have no idea).
Rene Millon
This paper focuses on the notion that the government and society of ancient Teotihuacan were more collective or corporate than most ancient societies. This view has been gaining in popularity recently. Pasztory claims to have invented the idea although the published record casts doubt on her claim. Pasztory’s 1987 book was a major early statement of this position. Cowgill (but not Millon) also contributed to the growing consensus that Teotihuacan may have had a more collective form of rule, using the term “oligarchy” and comparing Teotihuacan to Rennaissance Venice in several works. In recent years, Linda Manzanilla has been the major proponent of the collective rule position (Froese et al. 2014; Manzanilla 2002, 2006, 2015), and David Carballo has at least one paper in press arguing for collective rule at the site (see also Carballo 2016). This is not by any means a unanimous viewpoint; Saburo Sugiyama is the most vocal proponent of the single-king autocratic model for Teotihuacan (Sugiyama 2005, 2013; Sugiyama and Cabrera Castro 2007). Personally, I am on the fence. I think the collective model is probably valid, but I do not feel that the arguments in its favor have been particularly strong in empirical terms.

Pasztory has a variety of complaints about Millon and Cowgill. I will limit myself to the most egregious.

Complaint #1: Cowgill ignores her ideas and work.
George Cowgill
The impetus for this article was the publication of Cowgill’s recent synthesis of research on Teotihuacan (Cowgill 2015), which—she claims—ignores her and does not cite her enough times. She claims that the notion of collective rule was her idea in the first place: “esta idea fuse de mi autoría” (p. 219), or, “Soy la responsible del origen de algunas de las ideas centrales sobre la naturaleza de Teotihuacan” (p. 217). Cowgill discusses the collective rule idea, but does not cite Pasztory as its originator.

If one just reads Pasztory’s paper and looks at Cowgill’s book, one could come to divergent conclusions. First, only two of her works are cited in the bibliography, so perhaps she is correct about being ignored or slighted. But her six entries in the index are only exceeded by a greater number of entries for René Millon and Saburo Sugiyama. That is, Cowgill mentions her by name more than any other scholar except for these two. He clearly does take her seriously.

Let’s look at the history of George Cowgill’s ideas about collective rule at Teotihuacan. I will be brief here; however, it would be useful to write a more scholarly account in the future.

(Cowgill 1983) – In this discussion of government at Teotihuacan, focusing on the architectural compound known as the Ciudadela, Cowgill does not specifically use the terms collective or corporate rule. But he was clearly exploring the concept of non-autocratic rule, talking about how there may have been powerful individuals ruling the state instead of a single ruler. Instead of saying the Sun Pyramid was built by a single ruler, he says it was initiated by “persons.” He talks about the possibility of priest-rulers and uses the concept theocracy. He talks about rule by a variety of officials. To me, it looks like he was exploring the notion of collective rule, but without the benefit of an appropriate label or concept. I must admit that I never liked this paper; I thought the writing was wishy-washy, and at the time was convinced that rulership must have been despotic. But then we all thought like that back in the early 1980s.

1983-1991: Cowgill was publishing methodological papers and some quantitative studies of Teotihuacan during these years. He did not give much attention to Teotihuacan government.

(Cabrera Castro et al. 1991) – Cowgill and his coauthors talk about “a shift to more emphasis on a collective, group-oriented ethos” (p. 89) for Teotihuacan society and government.

(Cowgill 1992) – He cites Pasztory as suggesting a more corporate orientation for Teotihuacan rule. He quotes Millon (Millon 1981) as acknowledging that Teotihuacan rule might have been either “individual or collective” (Cowgill 1992:98).

(Cowgill 1997) – This is a major scholarly review article on “society and state” at Teotihuacan. He includes significant discussion of possibilities for collective rule, citing seven works by Pasztory. This is the place where Cowgill gives Pasztory’s views their most detailed consideration. He cites her newly-published book, which contains the fullest exposition of her views (Pasztory 1997). Although Pasztory does not cite this paper in her recent article, she might not consider the level of coverage of her ideas sufficient because—as in his book—Cowgill does not state explicitly that collective rule was her idea in the first place (Pasztory 2017:219). But, if my interpretation of Cowgill’s 1983 paper is correct, then he was exploring these concepts himself before she put her ideas into print.

So, why did Cowgill give Pasztory’s work such short shrift in his 2015 book? At least half of his mentions are critiques of her ideas about various notions, including the Great Goddess concept. I would suggest that he had explored her ideas previously and found them inadequate for his understanding of Teotihuacan society. I have a similar view, which I will describe below.

Complaint #2: Millon stole her ideas

According to Pasztory (p. 218), Millon read the draft of a chapter, subsequently published as (Pasztory 1988). She does not provide a date, but 1986 or 1987 would sound appropriate. The chapter described her ideas about collective rule, but Millon is said to have expressed vehement opposition to this concept (“se opuso vehementemente a la idea”, p. 218). Then, at the Dumbarton Oaks conference on Teotihuacan in 1988, she was surprised to hear Millon talk about collective rule at Teotihacan, while failing to give her any credit for the idea! (“sin darme ningún crédito por la idea”). Now these events are difficult to reconstruct today without a lot of interviews and piecing together the story. But I don’t think stories like this have much importance. What is important is the published record. What did Millon say in the published version of his paper and in other publications?

(Millon 1981) – I first go back in time to an earlier paper, not cited by Pasztory. In this review article, Millon states in passing that rulership at Teotihuacan could have been either “individual or collective” (p. 212). Millon was clearly thinking about this issue long before reading Pasztory’s unpublished chapter. But he does not develop the idea in this paper. As mentioned above, Cowgill (1992) later cited Millon (1981) as mentioning collective rule.

(Millon 1992) – This paper from the Dumbarton Oaks volume is a lengthy and detailed analysis of several decades of research at Teotihuacan. It is the published version of the conference talk in which Millon reportedly discussed Pasztory’s ideas without citation or credit. Millon devotes five pages (pp. 371-375) to the ideas of Pasztory about Teotihuacan society and rule! He cites six of her publications! This is hardly ignoring her, and far from stealing her ideas. He organizes her ideas into four main claims, analyzes them, and concludes that one claim survives the evidence, two are contradicted by evidence, and one survives, but is better explained in a different way. My interpretation of Millon’s complaints about Pasztory’s work (which I report from my 1990’s annotations in the margin of the article) is that it is insufficiently anthropological and too subjective. (One other relevant factor: As I know from recent experience, speakers are not given a great amount of time at Dumbarton Oaks conferences, and the schedule is followed tightly. One simply does not have time for a lot of scholarly citations in these oral presentations.)

So, did Millon steal the ideas of Pasztory? Hardly. In the 1992 chapter, he discussed the collective rule idea, engaging closely with her publications. But he is not convinced. Sadly, this was René Millon’s final major paper on Teotihuacan. He never articulated an integrated vision of government at Teotihuacan.

What are the main issues here?

(1) Humanities vs. social scientific scholarship. Pasztory seems to think that if she came up with an idea first, anyone who later engages with that idea must cite her as having originated it. Apart from the idea of whether she was indeed the first to propose a collective model for Teotihuacan, her expectations are out of step with the standard model of research and citation in the social sciences. When I write about the Aztec empire as being an indirectly control empire, I don’t feel the need to go back and cite the first person who may have proposed that idea (Ross Hassig, although he used the term “hegemonic empire.”) If I am writing a history of scholarship on the topic, of course I’ll credit Hassig. But if I am just going about my scholarly business today, I don’t need to invoke his name every time I talk about the organization of the empire. Perhaps in the humanities, the person who first articulates a concept needs to be acknowledged all the time. But, in the social sciences, the crucial issue is empirical: What do the data show? Both Millon and Cowgill examined Pasztory’s ideas and evidence carefully, and concluded that they were not needed in order to make their arguments. We lack later papers by Millon, but Cowgill’s trajectory is clear: he talks about her ideas in a 1997 review article, and then later references them only where he feels the need.

(2) Professional pride. Pasztory clearly feels that Millon and Cowgill insulted her professional pride by not giving her ideas enough consideration or citation. But, I think my chronological discussion above show that neither scholar was remiss in discussing her ideas and works. Should Cowgill have cited her more extensively in his book? He doesn’t really deal much with the history of interpretations of Teotihuacan, so I don’t fault him there.

(3) Collective rule at Teotihuacan. I am an agnostic when it comes to the collective rule interpretation of Teotihuacan. It has become something of a bandwagon. As a curmudgeon, I have a strong dislike for bandwagons. I prefer to sit back, consider the evidence, and write critiques of poorly supported popular notions. When I first moved back to Teotihuacan scholarship a couple of years ago, I eagerly went through Pastory’s main book (Pasztory 1997). Given my documented infatuation with Blanton and Fargher’s model (Blanton and Fargher 2008), I wanted to review and synthesize the evidence for collective rule at Teotihuacan. But I was disappointed. The book has some insights, but to me, most of her evidence is subjective and open to multiple interpretations. I didn’t find much that I consider rigorous empirical evidence to support a collective model for Teotihuacan government. I do cite her work, though, because her book remains an important work. I feel that archaeologists have yet to develop sufficiently rigorous methods to identify collective vs. autocratic rule with confidence, using archaeological evidence. I have read works by Manzanilla, Carballo, Blanton, Fargher, Feinman, and others on this issue, but I remain unconvinced. My gut feeling is that the collective model fits Teotihuacan better than the autocratic model. But I have not seen a sufficiently rigorous study, with enough evidence to convince me. (Yes, I know these people are probably frustrated at my curmudgeonly approach here. My mantra is, "Show me the data!").

(4) Why did Anales de Antropología publish this piece? It looks like no one checked Pasztory’s accusations against the published record. It would be useful if someone were to write a history of ideas about Teotihuacan government and society. But unfortunately, much of this paper sounds petty and unprofessional. It is published in a peer-reviewed journal, but was this paper subject to outside review? I have no idea.


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher
2008 Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Cabrera Castro, Rubén, Saburo Sugiyama, and George L. Cowgill
1991 The Templo de Quetzalcoatl Project at Teotihuacan: A Preliminary Report. Ancient Mesoamerica 2: 77-92.

Carballo, David M.
2016 Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York.

Cowgill, George L.
1983 Rulership and the Ciudadela: Political Inferences from Teotihuacan Architecture. In Civilization in the Americas: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Richard M. Leventhal and Alan L. Kolata, pp. 313-344. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

1992 Toward a Political History of Teotihuacan. In Ideology and Pre-Columbian Civilizations, edited by Arthur A. Demarest and Geoffrey W. Conrad, pp. 87-114. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

1997 State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 129-161.

2015 Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Froese, Tom, Carlos Gershenson, and Linda R. Manzanilla
2014 Can Government Be Self-Organized? A Mathematical Model of the Collective Social Organization of Ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico. PloS one 9 (10): e109966.

Manzanilla, Linda R.
2002 Gobierno corporativo en Teotihuacan: una revisión del concepto "palacio" aplicado a la gran urbe prehispánica. Anales de Antropología 35: 157-190.

2006 Estados corporativos arcaicos: organizaciones de excepción en escenarios excluyentes. Cuicuilco 13 (36): 13-45.

2015 Cooperation and tensions in multiethnic corporate societies using Teotihuacan, Central Mexico, as a case study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112: 9210-9215.

Millon, René
1981 Teotihuacan: City, State, and Civilization. In Archaeology, edited by Jeremy Sabloff, pp. 198-243. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 1. University of Texas Press, Austin.

1992 Teotihuacan Studies: From 1950 to 1990 and Beyond. In Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan, edited by Janet C. Berlo, pp. 339-429. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Pasztory, Esther
1988 A Reinterpretation of Teotihuacan and its Mural Painting Tradition. In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 45-77. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

1997 Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

2017 Nota: Panorama de los estudio sobre Teotihuacan: un corrección historiográfica: Adding dimension to studies on Teotihuacan: A historiogrpahic corection. Anales de Antropología 51: 217-221.

Sugiyama, Saburo
2005 Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: The Symbolism of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2013 Creation and Transformation of Monuments in the Ancient Citiy of Teotihuacan. In Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing Social Identity: 2,000 Years of Monumentality in Teotihuacan and Cholula, Mexico, edited by Saburo Sugiyama, Shigeru Kabata, Tomoko Taniguchi, and Etsuko Niwa, pp. 1-10. Aichi Prefectural University, Cultural Symbiosis Research Institute, Aichi.

Sugiyama, Saburo and Rubén Cabrera Castro
2007 The Moon Pyramid Project and the Teotihuacan State Polity. Ancient Mesoamerica 18: 109-125.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Does archaeology have value outside of archaeology?

What is the value of archaeology for individuals, institutions, and disciplines beyond archaeology itself? This is the topic of a recent article in The SAA Archaeological Record (Minnis et al. 2017), based on a workshop held at the Amerind Foundation in May 2017. If you have followed this blog at all, you will know this is a topic I am very concerned with. The blog has 43 entries for the keyword "Archaeology and other disciplines", and 17 entries for "Archaeology and the public." I've published a number of papers on this topic, including one I had forgotten about until tonight (see bibliography below). So I was pleased to see this paper and eager to read it. But then I was surprised, or perhaps shocked is a better term, to see that the paper has almost NO consideration of the aspect of the topic that is most important to me: The use of archaeology by scholars in other disciplines to address a variety of historical and social issues.
the Amerind Foundation, one of my favorite places

This paper, authored by a distinguished group of archaeologists, consists largely of two lists (with discussion of the entries).

First: Archaeology can  (pp. 28-29):
  1. Help communities better understand their shared heritage
  2. Feed local or nationalistic pride
  3. Provide corrections, reveal complexities, and yield material evidence unavailable in the written historical record.
  4. Provide methods, techniques and approaches used in a wide variety of non-archaeologal endeavors
  5. Engage K-12 students
  6. Offer a multidisciplinary problem-based approach at the intersection of science and the humanities
  7. Promote heritage tourism
  8. Give decision-makers, planners, and the public a significant deep-time perspective on key issues.

Second, the Constituencies/Audiences/Stakeholders of archaeology are (pp. 292-31):
  • Policy Makers and Implementers
  • Business
  • Educators/Students
  • Practitioners
  • Communities
  • Funders
  • Military
  • Media

I don't want to denigrate any of these areas of relevance or constituencies; these are all important things. But, just where is the SCIENTIFIC VALUE OF ARCHAEOLOGY? That is, where is the discussion of the value of archaeological data and concepts for understanding issues in other disciplines within the natural and social sciences (or the humanities, for that matter)? Not in this paper.

Now, there is a short section that suggests archaeologist should "link natural and human ecosystems through a landscape perspective in order to facilitate outreach to and interaction with other disciplines" ((p.30). This is a worthwhile goal, but it does not describe how I strive to relate my archaeology of ancient states and empires to the historical and social scientific communities and disciplines.

I would like to think that research by me and my colleagues on ancient cities, putting them into a framework that connects to research on contemporary urbanism, might be a way that archaeology has value beyond archaeology. Urban planners, sociologists, geographers, political scientists, and complexity scientists have used archaeological data in their work, largely because some of us have promoted the value of archaeology in these and other disciplines through publishing in their journals and interacting with colleagues (Smith 2011).

Tim Kohler and I recently organized a group of colleagues to publish a paper on ancient wealth inequality in the journal Nature (Kohler et al. 2017). This paper has generated considerable interest beyond archaeology. We have given many interviews and participated in radio and internet programs (I see this as my 15 minutes of fame). Tim was interviewed on All Things Considered! But I have also had contact with a variety of scholars in other disciplines who are interested in our work, and anxious to see the edited volume now in press (Kohler and Smith 2018). This particular set of archaeological findings is valuable, relevant, and of great interest to scholars in other disciplines. It forms a major contribution (IMHO) to the field of study of comparative and historical patterns of inequality. Yet, for Minnis et al. (2017), this kind of work is not an example of archaeology being of value beyond archaeology!
Graph from Nature
Coming soon to a bookstore near you

If you are interested in MY approach to the value of archaeology beyond archaeology, check out my other blog, Wide Urban World. The basic premise is that urbanism and settlements form a domain of analysis, a "wide urban world," that encompasses the distant past, the recent past, the present, and the future. My assumption is that the archaeology of settlements is indeed of interest beyond archaeology. I'm not the only one working and publishing in this area (relating archaeological findings to those of other disciplines), but our work is left out of the recent paper by Minnis et al. I guess we need to not only convince economists or sociologists or ecologists of the value of our work, but we also need to convince some of our archaeological colleagues.


Kohler, Timothy A. and Michael E. Smith (editors)
2018 Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences. University of Arizona Press (in press), Tucson.

Kohler, Timothy A., Michael E. Smith, Amy Bogaard, Gary M. Feinman, Christina E. Peterson, Aleen Betzenhauser, Matthew C. Pailes, Elizabeth C. Stone, Anna Marie Prentiss, Timothy Dennehy, Laura Ellyson, Linda M. Nicholas, Ronald K. Faulseit, Amy Styring, Jade Whitlam, Mattia Fochesato, Thomas A. Foor, and Samuel Bowles
2017 Greater Post-Neolithic Wealth Disparities in Eurasia than in North and Mesoamerica. Nature 551: 619-622.

Minnis, Paul E., Jeremy Sabloff, Susan M. Chandler, Deborah Gangloff, J.W. Joseph, Barbara Little, Patricia A. McAnanyh, Duane Peter, Lynne Sebastian, Christopher P. Thornton, Joe Watkins, and John E. Yellen
2017 Valuing Archaeology Beyond Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record 18 (6): 28-32.

Smith, Michael E.
2010 Just How Useful is Archaeology for Scientists and Scholars in Other Disciplines? SAA Archaeological Record 10 (4): 15-20.

2010 Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20: 229-253.

Smith, Michael E.
2011 Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. Anthropologies 3: (online).

2012 The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8: 15-19.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris
2012 Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 7617-7621.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why I dislike TAG, and why I dislike social media

I saw a tweet a week or two ago about the upcoming TAG ("Theoretical Archaeology Group") conference. I made an offhand negative comment, which set off a series of negative tweets about me. 

"Wow, not a single session I'd want to attend! Am I just out of it, or is "theoretical archaeology" out of it???

I tried to engage with my critics, but it just led to accusations that I am a troll and a bully. Finally I tweeted "I give up." So, I thought I would put down some of the reasons I dislike TAG, and some comments on social media.

Social media first. 

Here are a few things I dislike. Please note that my reference here is social media in relation to professional and scholarly issues.

(1) Ad hominem attacks.  As soon as I made a negative remark about TAG, I was attacked personally. I must be a bad person. I should shut up. This attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.

It's really unfortunate when senior scholars would rather bully and troll than actually have conversations.

I guess my initial tweet shows that I am a bully and a troll. Huh??

(2) Sensibility is more important than facts. My tone of voice had negative overtones (which shows I am a bad person). Maybe I should be more careful in my phrasing so as not to suggest anything negative about anyone or anything. 

came across snooty, elitist and arrogant. Like othet people's ideas arent good enough for you

This is TWITTER, with short cryptic statements. I don't agonize over proper phrasing. I tend to be a direct person, and I try to express myself clearly. Again, the dominance of sensibility over content is antithetical to science and scholarship.

(3) There are "Like" buttons, but no "Dislike" buttons. This is built into social media today. You can like something, but there is no way to express dislike other than some kind of comment or textual response. Criticism and questioning are of less importance than joining a band-wagon. Again, this attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.


To start with, if you care about how I think about theory, science, scholarship, and archaeology, please read my publications. I am a scholar, and what I say in Tweets (and in this blog) is ephemeral. I do discuss real issues here, but what matters is the published record. So, please look at the three papers cited below for my views on theory. These should make it clear why I dislike TAG. But here is a quick version.

First, for me, theory is a tool, something archaeologists use to learn about the past. The domain of "archaeological theory" is pretty small (ideas about formation of the archaeological record, recovery methods, etc.), but the domain of productive theory for archaeologists is huge. It encompasses many disciplines, from political science to ecology, from urban planning to geomorphology, from cultural anthropology to complex systems theory. For many or most people into TAG, archaeology theory is something important on its own, not just a tool to use to explain our findings. Instead of using theory to explain data (the norm in the social sciences), many archaeologists want to use data to "theorize" an issue. My goal is not to create more theory, but to use LESS THEORY (Besbris, Max and Shamus Khan,  2017,  Less Theory. More Description. Sociological Theory 35(2):147-153), or Healy, Kieran,  2017,  F**k Nuance. Sociological Theory 35(2):118-127.

Second, most theory considered at TAG is interpretivist, humanities-based high-level social theory. What is wrong with that? Read my publications. If you want to speculate about the human condition, such theory is great stuff, but if you want to provide rigorous explanations of human behavior and society, it is all but worthless. Please check the citations in my articles about this. My claims may seem outrageous to TAG types, but I am just repeating standard social-science epistemology. 

Here are some comments from my Twitter detractors.

(1) I should engage with TAG, go to a meeting. Here is my reply:

Because most TAG sessions are epistemologically incompatible with my own perspective. Not worth my time to sit through such sessions. If others care about my views, they should read my publications, e.g., ((I provide links to my 2015 and 2017 papers in the tweet)).

(2) I should open myself up to different perspectives and points of view

what's wrong with exposing yourself to new ideas? If you only ever listen to people lile yourself its kinda dull

I have spent a career listening to the postprocessualists, actor-network theory, materiality, and such, and I have rarely found much of use or of interest in this material. Yet given the trandisciplinary turn of my own research trajectory since moving to ASU in 2005, I would guess that I have exposed myself to more new ideas in that period than most archaeologists. Read my publications.

(3) I am arguing for a single narrow view of archaeology that excludes many, "including a lot of marginalized voices." My response to this has two components: (A) for the kind of empirical social-science research that I favor, I believe strongly that the kind of epistemology and theory I promote is the most productive approach. (B) for other kinds of approaches to archaeology, with other goals, other approaches are fine.

I appreciate a lot of your work, but you draw these boundaries and say that it's the only real or valuable archaeology and it leaves a lot of the discipline out, including a lot of marginalized voices. I think you can dislike something without being dismissive of it.

So, here we are back to sensibilities. If you care at all about these issues, please read my publications, and forget about Twitter (or this blog). You can look at my series of three posts about my view of a scientific archaeology:

The 2017 publication covers these issues in a more compact form (although the blog posts do have much more complete bibliogrphies, given the limitations on the Antiquity paper). and the earlier papers have more on the structure of arguments (2015) and the nature of non-asbtract theory (2011).