archaeology

Antiquity of Heart Break: Archaeology in Zones of Conflict

duraI’ve had a life-long passion for archaeology. Perhaps it was my love for Indiana Jones as a child that piqued my interest, but all I know now is that history buried in the ground or occulted in forgotten enclaves continues to fascinate me to this day. It is with a heavy heart that I read about the modern plunder or destruction of archaeological sites in zones of conflict.

Perhaps no greater current example of this is in Syria where one of antiquities greatest cities, Dura Europos, has been looted as war roils on. If you are not familiar with Dura Europos it is perhaps one of the greatest cross-road cities of antiquity that brought together Roman, Christian and Jewish history on a plateau in Eastern Syria. The importance of Dura Europos cannot be overstated. It’s loss, destruction or defacement at the hands of zealots or iconoclasts would be a truly tragic cultural heritage event.

The world sat by in 2001 when saw the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan were destroyed. We continue to see similar destruction of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East and around the world without so much of a whisper of public outcry.

In our modern age we have the ability to immediately empower social movements or calls for justice through social media. Yet even cause celebre human rights movements flourish in the first few days of social media empowerment, yet quickly whither when the short attention span meets the idea of putting words, or hashtags, into action. I would call for a social media campaign to protect these cultural heritage sites, to rally the public to the news of desecration and destruction. but when human suffering garners a two week interest online, what passion will a few old rocks and sculptures inspire in the public?

For more on the looting in Middle Eastern conflict zones check out this well-rounded article.

Did Fire Kill the Night and Birth Storytelling and Religions?

With the flick of a switch and by the glow of a smartphone screen we have finally chased away the lonely, terrifying darkness of night. The portable access to light, to entertain and occupy, like the incandescent light bulb, have changed how we deal with and interact with the night. The night was once communally conquered by a bonfire where food was prepared and stories were exchanged. The fear of the unknown that lurked at the firelight’s edge was chased away by tales whispered by the lips of man.

For the better part of 40 years University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiesner studied the Kalhari Bushmen, specifically their communication habits and content. Wiessner examined the content of conversation between Bushmen during the day and night. What she found was particularly fascinating- daylight conversations were mundane or gossip filled. While when the sun set and flames rose stories became supernatural and deeply personal.

According to the University of Utah press release:

“What I found was a big difference between day and night conversation, the kinds of information transmitted and the use of imaginary thought,” Wiessner says.

“Day conversation has a lot to do with economic activities – working, getting food, what resources are where,” she says. “It has a lot to do with social issues and controls: criticism, complaints and gripes.”

“At night, people really let go, mellow out and seek entertainment. If there have been conflicts in the day, they overcome those and bond. Night conversation has more to do with stories, talking about the characteristics of people who are not present and who are in your broader networks, and thoughts about the spirit world and how it influences the human world. You have singing and dancing, too, which bonds groups.”

Healers dance and go into trances, “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says.

Wiessner goes on to note:

“firelight stories, conversations, ceremonies and celebrations sparked human imagination and “cognitive capacities to form these imagined communities, whether it’s our social networks, all of our relatives on Earth or communities that link us to the spirit world.”

Wiessner’s idea that civilization and community were born over a roaring fire is both brilliant and complex. The role of fire in ritual and worship is an important and continuing connection to those bonfire communes of pre-history. Viewed through Wiessner’s thesis the role of fire there is renewed and complexity to the birth of faiths and myths. If we look at the fire as deified symbol the Burning Bush perhaps started as a communal spiritual experience and turned into a solitary prophetic action that helped codify a faith. In Zoroastrianism fire takes on sacred complexity, with Atar, or holy fire as the “source force which is the source of all energy and the symbol of truth and righteousness,” according to University of Derby Multifaith Centre. From Hinduism’s Agni to Maori ahi tapu, or sacred fires, the role of fire of faith punctuates every continent and culture. And it starts with tinder and a story.

For the full University of Utah press release, read here.

Asymmetric Creativity: Righting World Building Gone Wrong

YggdrasilI have an ongoing wrestling match with world building in speculative fiction. I revel in new writers producing ideas that challenge conventional story frameworks or characters. As one of those new writers I still learn as I go, producing some successes and tossing narrative failures. I plug forward with confidence and hope that my stories, short or long, will entertain readers around the world.

All that said, I do have an issue with the idea of world building some writers use in their works. To call it world building is a misnomer, as often we see a hodge-podge of cherry picked pieces of cultural and religious history cobbled together to form new faiths, nations or histories. I would suggest there is a cleaner, more energetic way at world building that harnesses creativity, while keeping the new world authentic to our shared historical knowledge.

Appreciating that many writers lavish countless hours to research before launching into a new story (a research fetishist myself) I feel sometimes the creative energy is lost in the action of stitching together. There needs to be a cohesive view of the world, not a patch work or “everything and the kitchen sink.” Perhaps other readers do not notice or take issue with such incongruities, but as a devotee of history, folklore and religion, I am sometimes distracted by the world building method employed by some writers. Sometimes speculative fiction is like the infamous movie scene where a Roman soldier wears a wrist watch. On the face of it, they seem authentic, but on closer inspection it doesn’t match up.

One of the reasons I started Asymmetric Creativity was to put down ideas that encouraged unconventional thinking that produced exciting results. World building is one such creative endeavor that I think benefits from asymmetric thinking. If I were to offer advice on how to find asymmetric influence in world building I would propose the following:

1- Museum Visits– Seems like a no brainer, but if you live in a part of the world with a robust museum community I would suggest getting outside of your intellectual comfort zone and visit a museum you would not be drawn to. If you are a classic art fan, go to a modern art museum and seek out unconventional sculpture or paintings. If you are a writer interested in world building, avoid the well worn museum galleries of Roman or Egyptian antiquities. Seek out the remnants of other cultures outside the big exhibits or popular galleries. Seek inspiration in the mundane household items or shard of pottery as often they provide insights into the greater culture. Also, spend time at local, smaller cultural institutions as regional history can provide creative triggers.

2- Seek Cultures Old or Overlooked– Unless I am constructing a story set in those culture, I avoid the typical empires or dominant societies favored by most world building writers. While I have non-fiction interest in Roman, Chinese, Egyptian and Medieval England I avoid using them as templates or research starting points for world building. Piecing together Roman imperial system with Chinese cosmology may seem new and inventive, but often they read incongruous or even silly. Find those precursor cultures which we continue to learn of their influence and astounding vibrancy. How do you find obscure or ancient societies?

3- Monitor Archaeology News– Social Media has provided an immediate and constantly updating flow of news about our past. I follow over a dozen archaeology and history organizations, websites and blogs. If you have the ability consider joining organizations like ASOR or at least following their social media updates. Or for a treasure trove of historical, anthropological and archaeological information, possibly join JSTOR. Read reputable history or archaeological periodicals.

4- Read Non-Fiction for Fun. Not Just Research– I have been a reader of non-fiction all my adult life. Currently I read 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, with the non-fiction primarily folklore, religion and global histories. I read non-fiction for the enrichment, helping me keep the modern world in perspective knowing what came before and how it parallels today. This enrichment helps fill in the imagination, providing credible and realistic starting points for my fiction. World building fiction can only come by understand the way the world of the past operated on every level. Avoid confining the richness of your worlds to capes, armor, sword or sexual debauchery. Look at the names of men and women in 19th century America to forge characters in a strange future. Read about the faiths of Central Asia in the Bronze age to conjure a strange, yet authentic religion. While we all cannot be Tolkein, we can aspire to build authentic, individual and engrossing worlds on our own and not create a Frankenstein’s monster.

5- Write a History– If you feel compelled to create a world, then write a brief “paper” on the world you’ve imagine. Consider going back in time to your youth, to college, when you crafted papers with purpose. Now, as a fiction writer, you have a purpose to craft a world as authentic as any real society you would have profiled in college. Break it down in any form as you want, but create a level by level history of the world or society you imagined. Also, write the history with an authenticity and in a way that has a solid academic underpinning. Don’t worry about footnotes or following MLA standards, but take it seriously as you write a report on the layers of your imagined society. This becomes your history resource and creates a cohesive, authentic vision for your imagined world.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Magic in New England’s Fields: People of God in the Devil’s Lands

There was a magic in the woods and glens of Colonial New England. Puritan settlers while quick to eye the forests and mountains with suspicion and fear of maleficium, they just as easily looked upon fellow men and women of God-fearing English stock with fear. The Natives of the region, exemplified by the Abenaki of the northeast, practiced their own form of ‘magic’ in land’s that Puritans believed was once the Devil’s dominion.

To Cotton Mather it made sense that the Devil would stalk the lands of New England as where else would he be than among a group who hated him the most, “Where will the Devil show the most malice, where is hated, and hateth the most.” From his Wonders of the Invisible World of 1693 we get a glimpse of the Devil’s power over not just man but the world itself, creator of wars, heresies and storms, ” Once more, why may not Storms be reckoned among those Woes, with which the Devil does disturb us? It is not improbable that Natural Storms on the World are often of the Devils raising. We are told in Job 1.11, 12, 19. that the Devil made a Storm, which hurrican’d the House of Job, upon the Heads of them that were Feasting in it.”

According to a 2012 lecture by Stephen Mitchell, professor of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, everything which happened on Earth was connected morally and physically in the Puritan mind. These groups saw ship wrecks, storms and infant death with equal suspicion of the Devil’s handiwork as a product of God’s divine plan. Disease or ‘possession’, according to Mitchell, were handled by Puritans through fasting and prayer. These actions further ratifying the connection between the spirit and physical.

Mather wrote of the Natives of Massachusetts at the time of colonization, “The Indian Powawes, used all their Sorceries to molest the first Planters here; but God said unto them, Touch them not!” Mather continued, “The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s Territories.”

One can imagine the pious indignation Puritan’s experienced when they witnessed Native American ‘magic’ in New England. In 1624’s Good Newes, Englishman Edward Winslow wrote, “The office and duty of the Powah is to be exercised principally in calling up the Devil, and curing diseases of the sick and wounded.” The Powah is the Native “powwow” where priests with special powers of divination were exercised over nature, often for the benefit of man but also as a weapon. According to Winslow’s Newes, which preceded Mather’s work by nearly 70 years, the magic men of Native New England, “can raise storms and tempests which they usually do when they intend the death and destruction of other people.”

The most potent conjurer figure from the colonial period was a Pennacook sachem known as Passaconaway who is said to move rocks and return leaves to life. From a modern perspective Passaconaway was a member of a magic practicing tradition that appears to have a marvelous and intimate connection to nature. Yet viewed with the suspicions of Puritan New England Native sorcerers share talents with the Devil himself.

Roger Williams, theologian and New England colonist leader, viewed the healing actions of Native priests with more nuance, “They conceive there are many Gods or divine powers within the body of the man: In his pulse, his hearts, his lungs.” Instead of pulling from Satan for power, these priests, removed the malignant forces within man, an intimate power connected to a larger ideal. However, Williams did write, “These priests and conjurers (like Simon Magus) do bewitch the people,” going on to say rather contradictory, “most certainly (by the help of the Devil) work great cures.” (For Williams reference of Simon Magus, see Acts 8:9.)

One such skilled practitioner was Pennacook sachem Passaconaway, known for leadership skills as well as magic, Passaconaway oversaw a confederation from northern Massachusetts deep into New Hampshire. Uniting tribes from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to bulwark Mohawk aggression, Passaconaway also is said to have possessed powers as a m’teowlin, ‘deep seeing one.’ or powwow.

The native sachem exploits were chronicled by William Wood in his 1634 work, New England’s Prospect, “(Passaconaway) can make the water burn, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphize himself into a flaming man.” Going on to describe Passaconaway’s skills, Wood wrote,”in Winter, when there is no green leaves to be got, he will burn an old one to ashes, and putting those into the water, produce a new green leaf, which you shall not only see, but substantially handle and carry away; and make of a dead snakes skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt, and heard.” Wood, who said powwow practitioners were imbued with exorcist and necromancer charms, did note that the sorcery talents of Passaconaway may be nothing more than, “deceptio visus” or visual tricks.

Men and women of the m’teowlin, shamans or the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society, held a unique place in their communities as healer and shapers of nature. These figures could not only heal, but said to command the course of a river, seeing the future, working with spirits of the departed, aiding in hunts or communal ceremonies. These figures were important mediators with the coursing power around them as their special connection to every tree, rock or animal. One example of the power of shaman is told about the Abenaki at war where a seer consulted with spirits and determined a group of Iroquois foes were on an island and if the Abenaki attacked the next day they would wipe out the opposing force. According to the story, the battle was joined and not a single Iroquois survived, each victim having their head cleaved off and placed on a poll.

An interesting footnote to the belief that New England was filled with heathens thriving in the Devil’s dominion was that when the witchcraft hysteria swept New England in the 17th century Natives were not singled out for punishment. Puritans, it appears, were more suspicious of the Devil working through their fellow English than of the Natives of New England. Even though the New English wilderness contained Biblical evil, Native’s of the region were rarely prosecuted or suspected of maleficum.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

Asymmetric History: Drowning Culture

In the rush to preserve river valley flora and fauna ahead hydroelectric dam construction mankind’s cultural impact is often ignored and often lost. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on Drowning Culture.


Modern protests against nature altering construction projects- in particular river halting dams- generally center on the defense of a geographical feature, saving a species of flora and fauna, or guarding the river itself. Historically, dam opponents and dam builders have overlooked or completely ignored a vital aspect of the landscape: mankind’s cultural artifacts, settlements and cemeteries clinging to river valleys around the world.

Traditionally, the dam construction debate rallies defenders of plants, animals or natural features. Rarely, if ever, has cultural heritage been weighed in these heated debates. The roots of this historically significant problem are entangled in the nature of human exploration. Whether cutting timber or damming a river to create a hydro-electric plant, developers often define the natural world as virgin or unspoiled by mankind. As we see time and again, in North America and around the world, mankind is a proxy term for civilized peoples, ones with technology and determination to shape the future. The very language of progress ignores or devalues the cultures of native or indigenous peoples that lived and thrived in the lands coveted for development.

Mankind’s culture is tied to river valleys even though it may not be obvious to all, according to a report from the World Commission on Dams. An international effort to study and assess the economic, environmental and social effects of dam building, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) possess a unique authority on the controversial subject. Without hesitation the report authors state that large dams, in particular, “have had significant adverse effects on this heritage through the loss of local cultural resources… and the submergence and degradation of archaeological resources”. It is incongruous that the dam is also considered by the WCD to be “our oldest tool” in controlling water, while also drowning ancient cultural artifacts. The detritus of earlier civilizations can take many forms from structures, tools, butchered animal remains and burial sites. The evidence of cultures lost to dams litter history, as the WCD authors explain, ” In most cases no measures have been taken to minimize or mitigate the loss of cultural and archaeological resources”.

In the case of Washington state’s Grand Coulee Dam, Native American burial sites submerged by the dam were relocated by the tribes, but only after waters receded enough to expose the burial grounds. Most famously when the site of the Egypt’s Aswan Dam was selected, the entire Abu Simbel temple complex was carved up and moved to higher ground, in order to prevent its loss. When planning for the large Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, Chinese developers chose to submerge  nearby ancient carvings and building an underwater museum, instead of proactively preserving the site.

Viewing the river valley as a natural place outside the culture of man, a place of detached admiration, implies mankind does not belong there and therefore should not long for a connection to it. Scott Russell Sanders captures man’s connection to place, and its importance, in his work After the Flood, “A footloose people, we find it difficult to honor the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place. We are slow to acknowledge the pain in yearning for one’s native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return” . By constructing a dam, building a housing development of cutting a countryside to lay a highway, we permanently sever our connection to our collective past. The language and act of building in the wilderness becomes an act of redefining history, ignoring a richer collective history in favor of writing a new one. Techniques to protect cultural heritage sites are at hand, according to WCD recommendations, but still very much ignored. Not every valley shelters irreplaceable cultural heritage, but we will never know unless we slow down, acknowledge the entire spectrum of potential loss, whether natural or manmade. Like Sanders, perhaps we should slow our pace, look past the winding river, its fertile shores and through its dense verdant vegetation in order to find those arrowheads. To see and save our collective past.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.