Ancient Pollution

In my last post, I wrote about the Hebrew University campus where I am staying this summer. I didn’t really get into why I am here, though. Well, I have one word for you… pollution! Today, pollution is an issue that is as relevant as ever, wherever you are in the world. But many people may not think about the impact ancient pollution had on societies of the past. Or that in some cases, ancient pollution is still harmful to humans, even after 3000 years!

Consider this – between 1000 BCE and 300 CE, the area of southern Jordan where I work was a main source of copper for much of the Middle East. Over the centuries, archaeologists estimate that thousands and thousands of tons of copper were smelted and shipped out to other locations in the eastern Mediterranean. Ancient smelting technology easily would have produced five to ten times as much waste as copper. We’re talking about some serious trash here.

In each region of the world, the kind of pollution that can result from smelting depends on a few things. For example, what elements occur naturally in the ores, and are released when smelted? What techniques were used to smelt the ores? Sometimes smelting requires the addition of toxic substances to extract the metals from the host rock, while other times it may only require heating (though at really high temperatures!). Where I work, the most common byproducts are copper (of course) and lead, but arsenic and other toxic substances may also be present.

The big question looming over this research is a basic issue of our human heritage: why is there pollution? Of course copper smelting produces some highly undesirable substances. But why does it spread beyond the confines of a copper smelting factory, to say, nearby agricultural fields? Now, color me crazy, but I really don’t think it’s fair to assume that ancient societies were naturally destructive. Or that they were entirely unaware of the damaging effects of pollution.

At an even more general level, this research is about a fundamental aspect of human nature. Is it natural for human societies to destroy the environment? Is environmental degradation – whether erosion, pollution, deforestation, or animal extinctions – an unavoidable consequence of being human, of living in cities, or of development?

Often people approach these kinds of questions by looking to the past. How has the situation changed over the course of human civilization? One way of looking at it is to say that things are only getting worse, that human civilization is contributing more and more to the destruction of our world. Another way to answer the question is to say that ancient humans were oblivious to the consequences of their actions, and thus were equally or more destructive than now. I don’t think either of these answers is sufficient.

During the next two months I won’t be able to even come close to answering these broad questions. Even answering some of these questions for southern Jordan specifically would take years and years of research (as one of my recent (negative) grant proposal reviewers pointed out). But, by looking at how the environment was polluted, when it occurred, and under what conditions, we’ll begin to see the bigger picture.


Hebrew University

Greetings from Jerusalem! I’ve been here for about two weeks now. After getting over some pretty bad jet lag, I’m alert, awake (sort of), and analyzing the crap out of some samples I excavated in southern Jordan. I’ll get to that later, but let’s talk about this campus! The Hebrew University in Jerusalem has three campuses, one for science, one for medicine, and one for the soft sciences. I’m at the Givat Ram campus, which has most of the hard science labs. Givat Ram is also where the Knesset is, you know, the Israeli legislature. When I go runing at the track, I can see the Knesset up on the hill.

The campus is also beautifully landscaped. Yeah, I know. I really like the landscape. But there are so many TREES! And everything has a natural feel to it, like they didn’t tear every single shrub for miles before erecting buildings.


There’s also this really nice open air theatre. As far as I can tell there aren’t any shows this summer, unfortunately.


NSF and Anthropology

Ryan at Savage Minds wrote about the House panel scrutiny of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences division of the NSF. His post is a nice summary of the proceedings and testimonies of witnesses. what I want to talk about here are two issues: Peter Wood, one of the testifying witnesses, and the public perception of Anthropology.

Peter Wood is the President of the National Association of Scholars, and apparently an anthropologist. Here are some of Wood’s suggestions for making cuts to the SBE from the Chronicle:

Pay attention to the rise of anti-scientific ideologies within SBE disciplines. In my field of anthropology, for example, the recent controversy over the attempt by the Executive Board of American Anthropological Association to jettison “science” from the AAA’s mission statement is a pertinent example. Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?

Cut funding for economics. Alternative funding for research in economics is abundant.

Cut funding for social-science dissertations. It is perfectly possible for graduate students to complete dissertations while supporting themselves.

Cut every program that is designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences. Women and minorities are seldom disadvantaged in these fields, and anyway it isn’t the task of the National Science Foundation to engage in social policy.

I don’t agree with Wood’s characterization of the #AAAFail controversy, especially the notion that the AAA executive board attempted to “jettison” science from the mission statement. This portrayal is plain wrong. Furthermore, I don’t think Wood is the best spokesman for anthropology, let alone science. As an advocate for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution he himself is engaging in social policy and pushing an anti-scientific ideological agenda.

Anthropologists need to try harder to engage these issues publicly. The hype of the #AAAFail controversy resonates with people like Peter Wood, who is validating that hype to members of Congress. Wood and his colleagues are setting up a dangerous divide between ‘hard-science’ and ‘soft-science’ disciplines: where project funding is drawn on ideological lines; where science produces more legitimate, useful research than social science. His argument that funding should be cut to dissertation research, women, and minorities is based on this ideology, rather than actual inequalities between science and non-science fields.