Sunday, May 12, 2019

A split in the Rock Pile community

I had an article rejected by NEARA journal editors. It was about the hypothesis that the larger mounds with central 'hollow' are burial mounds - a simple New England expression of a nationwide mound culture. The article included a typology that I find useful (see next post).

The reason NEARA editors gave for refusing to publish this hypothesis is that it is too sensitive a topic. The NEARA organization would not want to be an accomplice to vandalism or violations of the NAGPRA laws. In fact, this policy does protect the organization from an existential threat (i.e. burial mounds vandalized because of scientific reporting, here in New England) but there is a genuine scientific downside:
  • It excludes comparison of New England stone mounds with earthen and stone mounds outside New England. For example, mounds in Ohio, central America, and Egypt are all thought of in terms of burial. To deny this role for New England stone mounds implies they are outside that spectrum.
  • It obliges limited or superficial explanation of features: for example alignments and proximity to water. What is left after excluding basic assumptions, like death and the underworld, may not be worth much.
  • Ultimately it leads to ignoring what may be the most important piles at a particular site. Lacking any coherent interpretation the burial mounds remain invisible, all the more likely to be abused by passersby. 
In the end, I cannot see how burial mounds or sites that are funerary can possibly be protected without divulging their function. How can they be properly "protected" if the sites are lied about? Also how will it work if "secret" topics are to be discussed on field trips and in conferences but not in publication? How is that going to work?

I heard something about climate change denial that seems to apply to rock piles: you cannot suppress the truth just because it is uncomfortable to you. Yet NEARA is implementing a policy of censorship. It is ironic, since many of the recent directions and priorities of organization derive from an open sharing of information, including from this blog. I think it is inappropriate for a "research" society to muzzle its researchers, especially for fear of condemnation.

And I would be glad to hear what readers think, both about the particulars of allowing mention of burial into discussions of rock piles; and about the more general topic of NEARA endorsing a politics of secrecy in its role as a research organization. At a minimum, the organization should stop pretending to be about public "education".


Chris Pittman said...

Peter, I agree with all of this and I support your position on this 100 percent.

I never joined NEARA. When I started looking at stone structures in New England in the 90s, I contacted them with questions about sites but got no reply. Later, I started my own web site to share information and got blasted by at least one person from NEARA for being irresponsible by sharing information. The fact is that in every case where a site I showed photos of was on private land with a known owner, I had gotten permission from the landowner to take and share the photos. There were just a few cases where I found it impossible to determine who owned the site.

I know NEARA has done a lot of good and has raised awareness and I am in no way trying to detract from the earnest people in NEARA who are investigating and researching stuff and sharing their findings. But I really do believe that sharing information on these subjects is not only the intellectually honest and right thing to do, but also the best chance at saving these sites from destruction.

In my time collecting arrowheads I have met people who destroy archaeological sites to remove the artifacts. Generally speaking, these people are able to identify potential sites by looking at the landscape, proximity to water or other features, slope and soil type etc. I really don't think there is any factual, objective reason to believe that stating that some rock pile types may be burial mounds that may or may not have artifacts inside, endangers them. I really believe that logging and (especially) development remain the biggest threat to these places, by far. If we could establish with certainty that these are burial places, it would be possible to protect them.

It is my sincere belief that this blog has done more good in terms of raising awareness and making information accessible to others, than any single other effort. Site information has no value if it is locked in an inaccessible filing cabinet and nobody says anything about it until the day it is destroyed and it's too late.

It's my personal opinion that raising awareness of these sites and their meaning should be as important to the rock pile community, as the search for understanding as to the age and function of these things. Every year, prehistoric archaeological sites become fewer in number. Information not shared is lost.

pwax said...

Thanks Chris. Interesting that NEARA has taken NO steps to protect against logging.

Curtiss Hoffman said...

My impression of NEARA (which, BTW, I also have never joined, though I've spoken at their conferences from time to time) is that it is mostly a group of greying enthusiasts without a coherent political program. Thus, it is unlikely that they would have any influence on protecting sites against logging or development. Individual members may have had some influence - for example, Fred Martin's efforts to preserve King Philips Rocks and Cave in Sharon from impending development, over the objections of our State Archaeologist, resulted in the Town Meeting voting to purchase the site out from under the developer.

At the same time, there is a real danger of vandalism at stone structure sites, whether these are burials or not. For this reason, I think it's important to restrict site locational information to a degree. What Peter does here, by showing little snippets of USGS maps, seems to me to be sufficient to accomplish this, while getting the information out there. In some jurisdictions where I've collected data, I've had to sign affidavits promising not to show site locations more precisely than a 1-km circle or square.

Some SHPO offices have woken up to the importance of protecting these sites. I would cite South Carolina and Georgia in particular as being proactive in their approach.

Norman said...

I agree with Curt that specific site location has to be restricted because of the danger of vandalism. Unlike Scandinavia or Great Britain, where the public and archaeologists accept the fact that archaeological sites are part of their common heritage, here in the eastern U.S. there is a dichotomy between the two groups as to whether enigmatic stone cairns, walls or other stone features are ancient. For the most part, archaeologists in the Northeast claim these features represent nothing but colonial field clearing, a category which puts them at risk of destruction, since they are not valued for their historical importance as are possible ancient ceremonial structures, for instance. But I also believe that a study of stone mounds with hollows as possibly representing burials is a topic worthy of study, providing specific locations are not provided.

It is certainly clear to me that to bridge the huge gap between what the archaeological community believes about the nature of the stone mounds, walls, etc. in the Northeast, and what many NEARA members believe is the age of these same features, we must seek ways to date these stone structures. Having some dates would go a long way to form common acceptance of what these stone features actually represent. And one method that shows real promise for dating soil and even rock, particularly stone that contains quartz and feldspar, is optically stimulated luminescence, or OSL, which has been used in southern Europe and Egypt to confirm the age of known ancient monuments. And it has even been used in New England for dating the Upton Chamber. Having a few such dates could have profound ramifications for how we view the Native American tribes that lived in the Northeast prior to the colonization of the area in the seventeenth century.

Menotomy Maps said...

Something about NEARA made me uncomfortable and I never signed up.

Showing and documenting a site is important.
Water is key.

Sharing the lat/long, no way, not even at 1-km, nfw.

Greg said...

Everyone wants to be in on the secret, special in someway. This basic human desire can overwhelm even the best intentions.

pwax said...

Greg: yes that has a lot to do with it. Ironically, people who benefit most from knowledge being shared seem to be the ones most vocal about keeping it secret from others.

pwax said...

Assuming my colleagues will not see this (as I do not wish to offend): It is worth noting a spectrum of responses above. Researchers who have actually located sites, creating location information are fully in favor of public reporting. Researchers who depend on other's to locate sites, who then do some form of analysis or more detailed site research - are luke warm on the idea of publicity. I find it ironic, or a but hypocritical, that they lecture the "finders" to avoid something they themselves benefit from. How are they more deserving? Then at the far end of the spectrum are folks who neither locate sites nor contribute to the discussion of sites. They are the most adamant about public reporting being bad.

I also feel strongly that the "dangers of vandalism" are promoted by folks who have zero experience of actual vandalisms and its causes. None can understand my grief at find the best mound of all, damaged by passing ATVs in Fitchburg - as they dream of a world where pot hunters research scholarly articles in order to vandalize. That does happen in Arizona but not in New England. There are no known examples of artifacts found in stone mounds of New England - not that I propose going to look. But I propose: this is not a driving factor for a realistic protection policy.

In general it is wrong, or at least ironic, for casual and/or uninformed participants in a reality to be setting policy for the experts. It is also ironic that people who have nothing else to do (I am looking at you NEARA editors) seem to seek out and volunteer for positions where they can be petty bureaucrats - that is beyond the above spectrum.

Greg said...

I’m not sure you are correct on the lack of artifacts, in my opinion it is maybe just a lack of points. Certainly artifacts can be found in the vicinity if not in the mound itself.

Greg said...

I live down the street from the Andover Turle Mound and I’m pretty sure some artifacts were found when the excavated it back in the sixties, or are you talking more about just the walls and piles?

pwax said...

The Andover turtle mound has a documented history of being built by white guys - which shows that artifacts are not a good indicator - especially as they are usually 4K years different in time.

Greg said...

Used by white guys, the linked archaeological reports on the AVIS website for the mound talk of artifacts being found during excavations, and not those of the white man. I have a friend who has a few artifacts from sites on private property.