Home: A Human Project With Many Meanings

Highclere Castle, used for the exterior filming of Downton Abbey. By JB + UK Planet. Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I’ve been indulging in early episodes of Downton Abbey. I confess my fascination with the fictional exploits of aristocrats (and the servants who answer their bells) in a sprawling Yorkshire country home that looms large as a character.

“I’ve given my life to Downton,” gruffs The Lord Grantham to his mother in the second episode of the Masterpiece Theatre series. “I claim no career beyond the nurture of the house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child.”

From English estates that have been passed down through generations to Navajo hogans that must be departed when someone dies there, humans have arranged a variety of dwelling places with many meanings. Archaeologist Jerry D. Moore explores their rich permutations in The Prehistory of Home (University of California Press).

Navajo hogan.
Photo by PRA. CC By-SA 3.0

While a number of animal species construct shelters for themselves, only human lodgings take different forms based upon factors such as social status, cost, style, and symbol, writes Moore, a professor of anthropology at California State University-Dominguez Hills. “In adddition to their basic and fundamental function of providing shelter from natural elements, dwellings are powerful and complex concentrates of human existence. More than passive backdrops to human actions, our dwellings reflect and shape our lives.”

When this business of home-making began is a question that archaeologists have struggled to address. To do so, they must interpret fragmentary or scarce evidence of occupation, from postholes to baked-clay hearths to debris from everyday activities, Moore explains. “Between about 1.4 and 0.7 million years ago, hominids created the sites we can recognize as temporary encampments,” he writes. “More anchored than chimpanzee or gorilla nests, these sites were places of arrival and returns, locations where our ancestors made stone tools and cooked over ancient fires.”

It was only later, when humans began to stay in one place for longer periods of time, Moore surmises, that homes became imbued with symbolic meaning. In one, comparatively recent example, he writes about the circular, domed Navajo hogan, which first appeared in the American Southwest about three centuries ago. Even as construction materials and size have changed over time, the hogan still serves as both “a domestic space and a sacred space.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The east-facing door receives the first blessings of dawn-light. The southern side of the hogan is the male side and the north side is female. The western side is the seat of honor allocated to singers and shamans …

While there are specific spatial associations within the hogan–men should move to the left, women to the right–there are no internal divisions. Just as the Navajo recognizes the distinctive but intertwined realms of male and female in the cosmos, the hogan reflects the unity of differences …

The hogan is a living space and a space that lives. Ritually sanctified during its construction, hogans are alive and must be blessed and fed. Alternatively bad fortune and death contaminate the hogan, sometimes irreversibly. If someone dies in the hogan, the house is abandoned and avoided. The corpse is removed through a hole chopped in the north or west wall, instead of through the east-facing doorway. A hogan where someone has died is a “ghost hogan” or a “no-hearth home.” The entire homestead site may be abandoned until the ghost hogan collapses. No new hogan will be built near the contaminated no-hearth home.

I’m in the early stages of my Downton Abbey watching (so no spoilers, please). But somehow I doubt Lord Grantham’s family would vacate their own dwelling-place quite as readily.

Cannibals, Crash Blossoms, and CEOs

Kadavu (Fiji Islands). From the Scottish Geographical Magazine. Published by the Scottish Geographical Society and edited by James Geikie and Arthur Silva White. Volume V, 1889.

I’m not sure how many hours of my life were wasted watching Gilligan’s Island reruns as a child, but it always seemed like one or more of the characters was getting tied up by the local “headhunters” while a big pot of water boiled nearby.

Mrs. Howell: Thurston, I didn’t know we were asked for dinner.
Mr. Howell: I’m afraid my dear we are the dinner.

The mortuary and bioarchaeology blog Bones Don’t Lie provides a more nuanced picture of the practice of cannibalism, reviewing (in its Oct. 4 post) a recent study of human remains from archaeological sites and a museum collection in Fiji. The research, conducted by Sharyn Jones (University of Alabama-Birmingham) and others, is published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Anthropologists and other scholars study a variety of clues, including cut marks on bones and ethnohistoric accounts, to place cannibalism in cultural context. This allows comparisons to be made between different case studies from around the world.

As the Bones Don’t Lie blogger, Katy Meyers, points out, “Cannibalism occurs for a number of reasons in a number of ways: people consume other humans when they are foreigners or from that culture, it can be for veneration or violation, or it can be as a source of sustenance.”

In Jones’ study, she goes on to explain, stable isotope analysis showed that “human flesh” was not a significant part of the diet of the individuals examined. Nor did the remains bear the marks of violence. “This means it was ritualistic, perhaps associated with ancestor worship.”

Crash Blossoms

“No, dear. I can’t make sense of this one either.”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston










I actually paused before posting on cannibalism, wondering if I was guilty of seeking an attention-grabbing headline. Some other headlines just leave you scratching your head, because they read in a way that was not intended by the headline writer. Although this phenomenon has probably been around as long as newspapers themselves, it finally got a name a few years ago: crash blossoms.  Editors Mike O’Connell and Dan Bloom coined the term after discussing an ambiguous newspaper headline: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.”

Linguist Bill Zimmer wrote in The New York Times:

After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context.

via On Language – Crash Blossoms – NYTimes.com.

Language Log, a great place to learn what linguists are talking about, discusses the occasional crash blossom. The Crash Blossoms blog is devoted entirely to these confusing headlines.


I’m not sure if this qualifies as a crash blossom, but the following Science Daily headline caught my attention: “Summer Babies Less Likely to be CEOs.” Once I wiped away the image of infant-executives screaming and flinging strained peas across the boardroom, I read the article.

“What do you mean 1st quarter earnings are down?” Crying Baby by bbaunach, used with Creative Commons licensing.

According to the Science Daily piece, researchers at the University of British Columbia business school examined the birthdates of 375 CEOS from S&P 500 companies from 1992 to 2009. They somehow determined which executives had been the youngest and oldest in their classes. They found that the “oldest,” who were born in March and April, made up 12.53 percent and 10.67 percent of the sampled leaders. In contrast, the “youngest,” born in June and July, made up only 6.13 percent and 5.87 percent of the CEOs.

The results will be published in Economics Letters in December. It’s unclear to me how the researchers accounted for who was held back and who was advanced at school, and why those particular birth months were chosen to represent the youngest and oldest, so I would like to read more.

Maurice Levi, coauthor of the study, explained that older children typically perform better than younger classmates in their grade at school, which may lead to them obtaining leadership roles and other advantages.“We could be excluding some of the business world’s best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early,” Levi said.

Interesting news. But I don’t think it’s anything to fling your peas over.

Butterflies, Blushing, and the Bard

A Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a Pu...

A Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we wrap up our first round of Bs at the Curiosity Dispensary, I’m looking forward to seeing Flight of the Butterflies. This IMAX 3D movie depicts the astounding annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies—from Canada, through the United States, down to Mexico—and documents how scientists spent four decades tracking down their “hidden” roosting sites in the Mexican state of Michoacan (actually known to local residents for centuries).

I’m sure the movie will be a treat for the eyes. But according to Chip Taylor, a professor of ecology at the University of Kansas and director of the conservation group Monarch Watch, we shouldn’t take that colorful display of orange and black for granted.

“The population is declining,” Taylor says. “There’s no question about that. It’s about half the size it was over a decade ago, and the reason is quite clear. It has to do with the loss of habitat.

“We lose a lot of habitat [in the United States] due to development and due to our insistence on managing our roadsides so they look like somebody’s golf course,” Taylor says. Overuse of herbicides destroys the milkweed plants where Monarchs lay their eggs. Weather extremes, such as drought in the Midwest, also reduce the butterfly’s numbers.

In Mexico, logging has removed many of the the oyamel trees that Monarchs cluster on during the winter, though steps have been taken to slow the problem in recent years, Taylor says. The trees have been a significant source of income for many who live in the area. “It’s all a matter of economics and what the price of trees is. If it would double, there’s no way we can keep people out of the forest.”

Monarchs must spend the winter in a place that’s cold, but not freezing. Those which emerge from the chrysalis in the late summer and early fall start arriving in the Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico at the end of October. They settle in the trees there for several months, living off their fat supplies, Taylor explains. Returning to the United States, they lay their eggs before they die, and start the cycle all over again; their shorter-lived bring that show of color as far north as the milkweed grows in Canada.


One natural show of color that many people dread is blushing. But according to this ASAP Science video, it can actually be useful as a sign of social remorse, making others look more favorably upon you after you’ve made a mistake.

The Bard

I wonder if theatre-goers in Shakespeare’s day ever blushed at the bawdy lines in his plays. Perhaps they were too busy snacking and drinking. Recent excavations of London theatres have helped recreate the play-watching experience in Elizabethan England.

Discovery News features photos of some of those playhouse artifacts, now on display at the British Museum, including ceramic pots (for money collection), beer and wine goblets, costume beads, fruit pits, and shellfish remains. In addition to oysters, whelks, and cuttlefish, Shakepeare’s audiences apparently noshed on turtle, walnuts, grapes, peaches, plums, and figs.

Shakespeare In The Park

Shakespeare In The Park (Photo credit: BayerNYC) Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial

Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, describes some of the food finds in a post on the British Museum’s blog.

British Archaeology magazine has a more detailed article (not available online) about the playhouse excavations.

And for those who can’t get enough of the Bard, The Museum of London Archaeology and Cloak and Dagger Studios have put together a digital recreation of Shakespeare’s first theatre, built in 1576 in the district of Shoreditch. Londoners who wanted to sit for performances had to pay an extra penny, but your virtual seat is free. So sit down, take a tour of the 14-sided theatre, and maybe snack on some cuttleflish.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Battlefield: Solving mystery of a frontier fight

Musketballs, old maps, and an anonymous newspaper article are among the clues that researchers have used to identify the site of a 150-year-old American Indian Wars battle in southwest Oregon. Past Horizons Archaeology has an interesting piece on the 1855 Battle of Hungry Hill and how a team led by Mark Tveskov, of the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, finally determined its location. In it, Tveskov explains why the battlefield had been “lost” for long:

“In the pre-Civil War decade of the 1850s, the conflict over State’s Rights and federal power were already being played out on the frontier in places like southern Oregon,” says Tveskov. “Locally organized militias and federal Indian Agents and U.S. Army officers were frequently in opposition—often violently—over the proper way to interact with the Indians who lived in lands being colonized by the United States.”

As a significant defeat, the events of October 1855 exacerbated these tensions and it is possible that participants in the battle were motivated to let the details of the defeat be forgotten. According to Tveskov, “what we know about the battle comes mostly from second hand or brief contemporary reports, later memoirs by veterans and other participants, and pioneer and Native American oral histories.  Despite concentrated efforts by historians from the 19th century through to very recently, no detailed, contemporary first-hand report about the Battle of Hungry Hill by any army officer has been found.

via Archaeologists discover lost Indian War battlefield : Past Horizons Archaeology.