Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ritual Objects

A "ritual object;" the bottom is broken, so it used to be a bigger, more impressive object.

One of the oldest jokes among archeologists (which is saying something), is that any artifact that cannot be identified is a "ritual object." On the most comical fringes of the…uh, "discipline" is not the right word, I guess,…but at and beyond the edges of what most archaeologists would recognize as their field, "ritual objects" become more and more common. There is something of an inverse relationship between the frequency with which the "ritual object" is invoked and the seriousness with which any other archaeologist takes said invoker. Like radical diffusionism, it's a gateway concept to the "aliens made it," school of "thought."

But the nature of archaeology is that we often do find things that are mysterious. Amongst ourselves, after a quick glance around to see that no civilians or Mormonist archaeologists are in earshot, we'll hold up a mystery artifact and proclaim it a "ritual object." And then laugh, before talking about who we might show it to that will come up with a real explanation.

This happened a couple of weeks ago at the Mission Spit screening session. After a brief and wishful suggestion that it might be coral (and thus, possible evidence of Hawaiians at the Mission/Tribal settlement), all we could say about the above-pictured object was that it did not look like local stone, it lacked wear indicative of use as an abrader or other tool, and that none of us had ever seen one.

So it became a ritual object.

The gods of archaeology move in mysterious ways, and after cleaning and drying the artifact, staring at it at different hours and in various states of mind, it struck me (while in a drinking beer with other archaeologists state of mind) that maybe it really could be a ritual object. As in, part of a Christian cross. After all, it was found in a beach-load of Mission detritus. After a week of showing it around, reaching consensus that the material is artificial cast stone and that it appeared to be decorative rather than functional, after gingerly suggesting to other archaeologists that it could be an actual ritual object (and getting no laughs, much less a better interpretation), I was pretty well on my way to becoming convinced.

But I know me, and I know that I am a sucker for reflexive irony, or whatever it is when the joke interpretation turns out to be exactly right, and so I didn't really go public. Skepticism is one of the few bedrock tenets of my ad hoc religion.

Then, this past Saturday, in the last bit of sediment to be screened, another one popped up. Same material, same shape and size, even the same breakage pattern. Hmm. Somewhere in the sand that we did not screen, either in the other material that was dumped as fill somewhere, or just maybe still in the part of the spit that was not dug up, I think there is another piece, the end of the third tip atop a cross. Here is my clumsy hypothetical reconstruction:

Two of the cross-topping trinity accounted for.

So yeah, there are just two of the four tips accounted for, but hey, have some faith. If you recognize these as part of a cross, or if you can debunk that theory, please let me know.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Breaking Good

No, not Heisenberg's product, just old broken glass.

People are often visibly non-plussed when they see what archaeologists get excited about. Here in the Northwest, there's hardly any gold, or carved statues, and no pyramids that I've heard of, but it goes beyond the absence of the charismatic mega-finds to the fact that even for the mundane things we find, a frag is often as good as a complete one.

Bottles are an instance of this, and the Mission Spit screening is shaping up to be a good example of the value of repeated mundanity. Every week, we find more shards (or is that sherds?), and never a complete bottle. This is why I could leave a heap of sediment in an un-guarded parking lot and not worry about bottle hunters stripping it clean.

On a desk, not a mantel.

There's no cash to be made with little pieces of glass, and nobody's gonna come over and admire a pile of it on your mantel. But an archaeologist will start picking up the pieces and holding them up to light, squinting in close, maybe run her fingers over the surface to see how it feels.

Any old sherd (or is it shard?) can tell you something. The aqua color of these frags, for instance, is something that disappeared by the 1920s (with some exceptions), and was more common in the 19th Century. Chronology derived from color is norotiously vague and prone to exceptions, but especially when you start amassing hundreds of pieces, it tends to become more certain. Occasionally, color might relate to a certain function, at least within a region, like the "black" glass of liquor bottles in Hudsons Bay assemblages, or the more recent Milk of Magnesia blue found in loggin camps.

Texture has a lot to say as well. There are all sorts of dimples and stipples, striations and stretch marks, marks of tools and indicating makers, and seams and scars that come from the few minutes of production and then stick around forever to tell the story. Hand blown, mold blown, machine made,...all of these technologies tell us something about the age, and maybe the origin, of the bottle. Now and then, we are lucky enough to find a bottle with the embossed name of the company, or product, or even date and location of manufacture; more often, we get part of that info, and must imagine the whole from which the part came.

If a bottle were to be shattered completely, and the archaeologist offered two pieces (or is it frag?), he'd want a piece of the base and another of the top, or "finish." The top and bottom of a bottle hold most of the clues (short of an embossed label on the mid-section) about the type of bottle and its age. Turn-molded, applied-lip,...these interpretations often derive from a piece of the base or heel, neck or finish.

Sure, it would be a lot simpler to come up with the age and function if there were entire bottles, but archaeologists almost never find that, and when they do, they're often as not in a privy (a soft landing in a pit o shit turns out to be great for preservation, but it's a steep price to pay in an area where every such feature is less than 150 years old). Even in a well-stocked logging camp dump, the occasional whole bottle is generally just redundant information already gleaned from the bases of a bunch of ketchup bottles (apparently, logging could be done without alcohol, but never withut ketchup).

It would be nicer, from an archaeologist's persepctive, if all of the bottles were shattered, no pristine trophies to lure looters, but plenty of bases and finishes to tell the story. I doubt if the regulators would go for it, but it's probably true that in cases where historic sites are being hit by bottle hunters, a few hours with a hammer would do as much to stop the looting as anything else. Breaking can be good.