Monday, January 28, 2019

Deciphering the Ancestors

I am slogging through David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel,and Language, about the origins of the Indo-Europeans. Great info that I really want to know, except that Anthony, being an archaeologist is obligated to describe all the changes in terms of pottery and artifacts. So that... the other archaeologists will know exactly why he is saying what he is saying. I get the impression that like historical linguists, there are longstanding arguments, and people are prepared to pounce on every word.  I’ve got page after page of outlines of urns with a few random shards filling in spots, plus descriptions of the materials and methods.  My favorite bit so far: Cucuteni-Tripolye has such an unwieldy name because the Romanians call it Cucuteni and have their listed phases, while the Ukrainians call it Tripolye and have their listed phases.  So by convention, they kept both names so that all archaeologists would get the picture, but everyone else is confused. Pre-CucuteniIII is the same as TripolyeA, so they just use them both at once, presumably so no one’s feelings get hurt. 

A note on the phases, p. 164. 
There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all, but rather a type of pottery probably made outside the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (CucuteniA1) was defined before it was found, and never found; still another (CucuteniA5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was first defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) may not exist. 
Borges indeed.  They are just playing with me here.
It’s a little better with the bronze tools and weapons: analysis of the copper reveals its place of origin and thus, what peoples they traded with. Fewer variables there. I get the overview of the burial customs as well, illustrating cultural changes of increased social hierarchy and suggestions of religious beliefs. Ochre and positioning of the body are significant, as are the status good in the grave. Yet overview is the word I would be looking for here, not a cataloguing of every burial spot.  I suspect the book is designed to be an assigned textbook, well above introductory level. I suppose I could have just read the Wikipedia article on the Yamnaya three times, following some links, and saved myself some pain.
The second problem is Russian names. The Pontic-Caspian area in question extends from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, including that section of Russia north of Georgia. Therefore not only are all the place name Russian, but the people supervising the digs and publishing the papers are as well.  They all start with Kh- and have l’s and v’s scattered throughout them. Sredni Stog, which is both a place and a culture, is one of the easy ones. The worst I’ve hit (so far) is Maikop-Novosvobodnaya, which I have trouble differentiating from Novotitoravskaya.  I am not holding these different places in mind very well.  They all run together. Studying for a quiz on this material would be intimidating. For those who deal with the places all the time I’m sure it is straightforward, but it’s hard to drop into the middle of that conversation. At some dim level I do realise it probably isn’t easy to summarise just the concepts, as how cultures influence each other is not straightforward. Arrows go out in all directions from each name, in a web that is unbuilt in my understanding.  It means more to others, I’m sure.
Quick idea summary: Domesticating horses in order to ride them and control larger herds of horses and other meat on the hoof allowed smaller groups to control more wealth so long as they could find pasturage.  The axled wheel allowed carts and the transporting of tools, water, and temporary shelter.  Together, these open up the vast – like thousands of miles vast – Eurasian Steppe as an environment humans could live in and prosper. Prior to this they had to cluster around the rivers: Danube, Dneister, Dnieper, Don, Bug, Volga, Ural. With the horses and wheels, they could go for entire seasons deep into this uninhabited pasturage, and soon, learn to live there year round, moving at need across large distances.  A cultural change from this is the rise in raiding cattle and defending against raids, which increased the importance of brothers.  Settled land passes from parents to children, whether via mother or father, but herds require the mobility of a small group of the loyal. Cousins yes, allies maybe, but brothers were the ones to trust. The group that learned about wheeled carts from the south and took them north also mastered horses with rope or leather bits - and spoke an Indo-European language, which spread east and west along the steppes all the way to the Altai Mountains. Ultimately then into Europe, Iran, and India, like sparks being thrown from a spinning wheel, over a period of thousand years or so.  It's the importance of cattle and raiding and the culture that goes with those, all the way into Ireland and Scotland, and the American Southwest beyond.


Donna B. said...

Long before Marie Kondo became popular, I started purging possessions. My bookshelves were packed two deep and there were stacks on the floor. It just seemed wrong to me to get rid of a book I owned. I would tell myself that this was a much better thing than my husband's reluctance to rid himself of non-running cars, motorcycles, RVs, and lawnmowers.

It was arthritis, carpal tunnel pain, and tremors that started this purge. I could no longer hold a book open without pain nor could I hold one still enough to read. My daughters got me a Kindle and I was thrilled. I can balance it on my hand without grasping so the pain and tremors don't kick in.

I began to cull my books. The first to go were the paperback "bestsellers" that I bought every week at the supermarket checkout display. This behavior is best explained by my fear of having nothing to read. Along with jumper cables and emergency lights, I kept emergency books in my trunk.

All that useless background information is leading up to telling you that "The Horse, The Wheel, and Language" was in the first load of hardback books I donated. It sparked no joy, but rather a mild headache.

I'm now down to two bookcases which are no longer stacked and stuffed full of books. I actually have a few decorative items displayed, though I'm not yet down to 30 books.

Texan99 said...

"I do realise it probably isn’t easy to summarise just the concepts"--why shouldn't it be? You just did. A scholar with a powerful mind ought to subordinate the detail in an organized way to support a thesis. If there's no thesis, he's just publishing a catalogue.

"It's too complicated to explain" often means only "I don't understand it well enough to bring order to it, and am taking refuge in random data." It's like Casaubon and his "Key to All Mythologies," a book he never writes but only keeps a roomful of index cards for.

Texan99 said...

A corollary: unless you've got about 70 IQ points on someone, if you can't explain it to him, you probably don't understand it.

Texan99 said...

And Ernest Rutherford is supposed to have said that physics is the only science; everyone else is stamp-collecting.

james said...

Heh. True for an extremely expansive view of physics. With increasing complexity, you find that you can't solve the fundamental equations any more, and as complexity increases farther you not only haven't a prayer of even approximating the fundamental solution, but you start to see some emergent rules. And it turns out that those emergent rules are things like the ideal gas law, or chemical bonds, or the things that are sort of like the chemical bonds you learned about in high school but are a lot messier. Or you find clouds of dust collapsing into stars. Or one of the objects turns around and takes a nip out of your finger. Those old F=ma equations are still good, but you need to know some other rules. Might as well call the fields by different names--and stamp-collecting isn't quite descriptive enough.

Texan99 said...

Yes, he did expose himself a bit there, didn't he? It's a funny line on several levels.