So, What’s it Do? or Anthropologists vs. Imagination

“What did it do?”

“We can’t say. There are no written documents and we don’t want to speculate.”

“Gee, it looks like a bull. Did they worship bulls? Maybe it was part of an altar.”

“We can’t say. There are no written documents and we don’t want to speculate.”

“No, I think it was a chair.”

“We can’t say. There are no . . . .” ad infinitum.

I get frustrated with anthropologists and archaeologists some times. You see, speculation is now discouraged unless it is hedged with such a fence of “perhaps” “maybe” “we can’t be certain” “possibly” “might be analogous to” “some have theorized” “it might have served a cultic purpose” and “we can’t speculate.” Arrrrgh!

I understand why this came about. Back in the days of old when men were bold and the dirt flew with reckless abandon at sites all over the world, people found odd or interesting things, pronounced them to be X long sought historical object or evidence of [thing] and everyone oohed and aaaahed.

Is it a headdress for a woman? Did it belong to King Priam of Troy? Probably not.

Is it a headdress for a woman? Did it belong to King Priam of Troy? Probably not.

After a few decades of declaring everything to belong to this king and that ruler sat here, the tide turned and nothing was identified with any individual or function unless there was very firm proof, like written documents or masses of supporting materials. And so we now get the frustratingly vague “cultic object”

The last three images are all objects associated with the Cucuteni-trypillian culture, a neolithic culture that occupied a region in the Carpathian Basin before the arrival of the Indo-European speakers and the onset of the Copper and bronze Ages. There is a great deal of speculation about the religious and political organization of this culture, and why they seem to have burned down their settlements and moved elsewhere ever 70-80 years or so. I’ll just say that some of the ideas floated about the culture being an egalitarian matriarchy seem unpersuasive.

But what do the things do? This one is an atlatl, dating back, oh, tens of thousands of years.

Is it because the people carved different animals onto their tools to identify which was which? Was it to invoke the desired creature to come and be killed? Was there an informal competition going as to who could do the best critter on their atlatl? Was it a clan identifier (sort of an “if owner found flattened by wild horse stampede, notify the Wild Cow clan?”)  Was it a trade mark belonging to a certain carver? Or did someone just pick up a bone or stick, look it over, and say “Hmm, that looks like a cow?”

But you’re not really supposed to speculate about doll houses or fire-backs or which deity might be shown, or why for critters on atlatls. “We can’t say. There is insufficient evidence to . . .”  Sigh. 


20 thoughts on “So, What’s it Do? or Anthropologists vs. Imagination

  1. Well, if they refuse to “say”, then the fiction writers have more freedom to “invent”. 😉

    Of course, then there are those “ancient astronauts” believers who don’t see the errors in their “guesses”. 😦

    • I remember when Erich van Danneken dominated the odd end of the archaeological pool. It was . . . interesting. Although it did give us the original Battlestar Galactica 🙂

  2. I have heard that certain Native American tribes believed that painting or carving the image of a spirit animal on an object imbuded that object with characteristics of that spirit. Given that, looking at that atlatl, I’d speculate the owner desired great strength to better bring down prey.

    • It’s certainly possible, but then you look at contemporary examples, the most (in)famous of which is a calf with its head over its shoulder looking at the large, ah, movement coming out of its bum, and you have to wonder.

    • Carve off some of the material to save on weight without compromising strength, then pretty it up because you are bored, have time on your hands, and because art fumbles don’t compromise utility while still being good training.

    • High grade guns often have critters engraved on them, I would assume a high grade atlatl would be no different.

  3. LeBlanc’s Constant Battles. Archeologists and Anthropologists speculated, or perhaps fabulized, about peaceful primitives. Now that idea is all over the place, and arguably part of what makes our own society screwed up.

      • A few years back people were going “hog wild” for the Killer Ape theory.

        One of the “proofs” of this idea was caves with early hominids with holes in their skulls.

        “Obviously” these early hominids had to been killed by other hominids.

        Obviously, until somebody pointed out that the “holes” appeared to be made by leopard teeth and leopards were known to eat their prey in trees.

        The caves with the hominid bones were such that leopards could have dropped their eaten prey into the caves after they were finished eating.

        Of course, these early hominids were of a size where they’d be easy prey for leopards. 👿

        • Yes. And then that became an example of the “peaceful hominid” theory, with much speculation as to where humans “went wrong” and became predators instead of prey.

  4. My grandfather collected arrowheads, back when it was legal.
    (DO NOT think of how much damage they did to archaeology by branding all the legal guys as the same as the jerk thieves they’d stop; there were so many burial areas that got looted after nobody was walking around, or wouldn’t admit they were anywhere they might be accused of hunting arrowheads at, nevermind that those guys stopped talking when they noticed that if you told the officials where a burial area was– you’d know, because nobody decent touched those– it tended to get looted. It’s enough to make you cry, and this was decades before I was born.)

    Had a HUGE collection of “bird heads”– you’d find them at the places they were making arrowheads, or right near by. The official theory is that they were used for shooting birds, or large bugs.

    My grandfather? He thinks it was more like a bunch of guys sitting around, making arrowheads, and one goes: “Guys! Check this out!” and holding up a “bird” arrowhead.
    Next guy over grabs a chunk that’s too small for a decent head: “Oh, yeah?”

    And that’s why we have an arrowhead that the original rough had to be the size of my thumbnail. Finished product fits comfortably there.

    I think a whole lot of “must be religious!” stuff was similar. But I also think that the “dogs are wolves that moved into camp” theory is bogus, and it’s really “cubs are cute, you killed the wolf pack but that cute girl would looooove to have a cute, tiny version of the big, scary monster we just killed.” Some wouldn’t ever tame, a lot of them would have to be killed as a threat, but you’d keep the ones that weren’t nasty. And eventually, you have dogs.

    • We can be pretty sure that there was some degree of competitiveness over who was the best hunter.

      It is likely they also had that for crafting.

    • I think 80 mm by 105 mm, but that is translated from Romanian via (I suspect) software, so I have a few doubts. My search fu is weak today.

  5. Gotta agree with Paul… Sigh… The sad part is, no one really knows, so one answer is probably as good as another!

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