This post is not about the seasons, but about my research in and of itself. In researching the human interaction with the seasons, I have read a lot of books on archeology and anthropology: two of the ‘pseudo-sciences.’ I learn a lot from studying them, or at least I think I do, but I realize that REAL scientists (Sheldon Cooper, for instance) have little or no respect for them. They are not as rigorous as physics or molecular biology (even standard biology gets a bad rap in academe these days). Anthropology and archeology use some pretty sophisticated techniques for determining dates and establishing timelines, but so much of what they do is subjective, drawing conclusions about ancient human activities based on slim evidence, or on the modern ethnographic record.
I wonder if it is insecurity about the scientific rigor of their discipline that makes anthropologists use so many technical terms to describe things that there are already simple words for. For instance, in some of the world’s most ancient settled sites, such as the Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük, some kind of cult worship was going on that involved plastering bulls’ skulls to the walls and displaying bulls’ skulls on altars. I would be perfectly comfortable reading about these bulls’ skulls, even interested in the subject matter, if they were simply referred to as bulls’ skulls. But on first encountering an article on Çatalhöyük, I read that there was a prevalence of bucrania. Bucrania, is it? So I got out the dictionary and looked the word up, only to learn that bucrania are bulls’ skulls. Is there some reason one cannot just write bulls’ skulls when one means bulls’ skulls?
When Çatalhöyük was first excavated, they found a lot of little female figurines, which were immediately (and incautiously) interpreted as Goddess figures. Everything about the place was seen as evoking worship of The Goddess, even the shrines bedecked with bucrania. Now I’m not an anthropologist or an archeologist, but I know enough about things in general that when someone says ‘bull’ to me I think male, not Goddess. Over the years there has been much reinterpretation of artifacts at Çatalhöyük, and few people are as certain as they once were about the nature or prevalence of Goddess worship there; and for those who still support the theory, saying bucrania instead of bull’s skulls seems to me to smack a bit or rationalizing.
Another interesting term I first encountered when reading about cave paintings. Not many humans are portrayed in these paintings. It is mostly animals, and quite a few abstract, geometrical shapes. One of the rare human representations is a kind of bird-headed shaman, lying on his back as if asleep or dead, a bird-tipped wand dropped beside him; he is also ithyphallic. Ithyphallic, is it? Again I dash to the
dictionary, only to find that ithyphallic means he is erect. I mean, there is a picture in the book. Anyone can see he is erect. Why not just say that? Does an erection in anthropology bear some special significance so profound that it has to have a word all its own? Because I don’t recall anyone using the word anywhere else. They probably use it in art history classes, but really, can you imagine hearing this word in any other context? ‘Oh baby, you’ve got me so ithyphallic . . .’ Are they being coy? One can hardly believe that in a discipline that is always talking about fertility magic, reproduction rates, sex practices and more, they would be shy of saying erect.
A curious exception, one that is just glaring in its boldness, concerns an artifact of the late Paleolithic period, maybe as much as 16,000 years old, shown here. It is a spear thrower carved out of bone. It shows a defecating ibex, turning to look at its own excrement and at the two birds who have perched upon it. This one is reproduced all the time in archeology and anthropology books as an example of how fine the art was at the time (it is very nicely done, for what it is), as well as for the obvious attempt at humor. But here’s the thing: in every single account I’ve ever read of the piece, no matter how arcane and high-falutin’ the language in the rest of the book, the author notes the turd coming out of the ibex. That’s right, the turd. Seriously, you can’t say bulls’ skulls, or erection, but you can say turd? I haven’t heard that word used as frankly since I read Henry Miller’s description of the Hindu boy defecating in the bordello bidet in Tropic of Cancer. And that was Henry Miller! This is modern day anthropology! These are people who say affines when they mean in-laws and consanguinity when they mean related by blood, but they have no fancy word for turd?
Perhaps it originates in the fact that our language has made no . . . provision . . . for referring to a single piece of feces. Of course the word feces is a plural, and technically, one would be a fecis: but that form is never used, and would likely send a lot of readers running to their dictionaries. But of course no anthropologist has ever worried about that. I suspect that somewhere along the line, some anthropologist of note used the term turd and all across the discipline, post-docs heaved a sigh of relief that they could now use at least one earthy, commonly understood term for something. I wonder how many articles and theses have been written on The Turd?
Anyway, I need to get back to work. I have a little notecard on which I’ve written the words ‘swidden,’ ‘otiose,’ and ‘ambilocal,’ and I need to look them up. I have a feeling I know what each one of them means, but it’s always a treat finding out.