Unherd is a London-based web site for Conservative opinion journalism that started in 2017. It’s mission statement includes:
“We want to … identify those things that have been lost, as well as gained, by the liberal world order … instinctively believe … a shift of emphasis: towards community not just individualism, towards responsibilities as well as Rights, and towards meaning and virtue over shallow materialism.”
This statement is actual old-school business-hostile Tolkienian Conservatism, not crypto-Nazism or slash-and-burn capitalist Libertarianism. But the site has many contributors and of course they don’t agree about everything. Glancing over the headlines I found some anti-veganism, attacks on the trans movement and Families First rhetoric, but not much to indicate that this is a web site for the crazy aggro Extreme Right.
My online buddy the philosophy lecturer asked me to comment on an Unherd article from 3 December 2022 by a new contributor. “Is this a correct description of the state of things?”
The man writing as Stone Age Herbalist introduces himself as an archaeologist, as a junior researcher or PhD dropout, and as the author of the book Berserkers, Cannibals & Shamans: Essays in Dissident Anthropology. He has self-published the book and it has only 20 reviews on Amazon. (Its sub-title suggests that SAH might be an American, because in Europe the discipline of archaeology is not organised under the umbrella term “anthropology” like in the US.)
Before I comment on SAH’s claims, note firstly that archaeology is not a unified global discipline. It’s a patchwork quilt of regional and chronological specialisms that share a lot of methods but that have very few shared goals and largely ignore each other. In my research into 1st millennium AD Sweden I ignore Japanese archaeology completely. I also ignore all work on pre-agricultural Sweden itself.
Note secondly that the US political climate is alien to European academia. For instance, there was a ridiculous flap a few years ago where some Americans had discovered that UK scholars used the term “Anglo-Saxon” and thought this could somehow be equated with how American Neo-Nazis use the term.
The article’s sub header (which may not be his own writing) is a fair summary of SAH’s main message: “Censorship is driving dissident researchers underground”. SAH writes:
“… for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious* confines of modern academia.”
SAH, then, describes himself as a “dissident anthropologist” in his book’s sub-title. In this piece he claims that important archaeological matters cannot be discussed openly at universities. Yet SAH repeatedly describes his own views as common sense that is obviously true to the public.
Much of the text summarises recent DNA-based advances in ancient population history. SAH does not say that it’s impossible to pursue or discuss such research: after all, all of it comes out of mainstream academia. But he quotes one archaeologist who opposes simplistic interpretations of the results, and one elderly historian who comments on archaeological matters from a clearly poorly informed position. SAH offers no evidence that theirs are majority concerns or that these two have the power to silence anyone.
Where then are these oppressive universities? Remember, academia has no single discussion about archaeology that can be silenced or moderated “censoriously”. SAH doesn’t name any, but the scholars he quotes disapprovingly are at Cambridge, Nottingham, Freiburg, Turku, Uppsala and Stockholm. Six people in four European countries make for a pretty slim thought police force.
From the discussion of ancient population genetics, the piece just devolves into aggro far right rhetoric:
“… not a week seems to go by without some new claim that today’s morality has always been the norm. For the British public, perhaps no single phenomenon better demonstrates this than the ‘discoveries’ of black people in British history and prehistory.”
“… these discoveries … are weaponised for supporters of mass immigration to make the rhetorical claim that ‘Britain has always been a nation of immigrants’.”
But really, to my mind SAH is baring his heart here as a lonely young man who hasn’t been able to fit in, and who consoles himself by imagining a worldwide “censorious” Liberal hegemony operating against him:
“A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether.”
Finally, note that most archaeologists simply don’t deal with the brief events where one pottery style (and sometimes one set of genetic haplotypes) replaced another in a region. Even fewer pursue “grand narratives of conquest or expansion”. And even among those who do, you need to be really invested in the idea of national identity, like SAH seems to be, to respond emotionally one way or another to the research findings.
I’m one of SAH’s anti-nationalist Leftie bugbears in academia, and I love ancient DNA. I’m completely fine with the fact that both the arrival of agriculture in Sweden and the much later arrival of the Corded Ware culture coincided with radical changes in the population genetics. Because like almost all archaeologists, I seek scientific truth in my work, not validation of my political beliefs. The facts of what society was like 2000 years ago can argue neither for nor against what I would want society to be like tomorrow.
* Censorious: this adjective goes together with the verb ‘to censure’, to express severe disapproval. Not with censorship, as SAH seems to hint.
6 thoughts on “A Response to a Young Conservative Archaeologist”
In general i agree. However, i once read an American cultural anthropologist suggest the need to encourage conservative participation in anthropology, to increase diversity, as the field is so uniformly liberal/left. I guess education for archaeologists is very different in the US than most places as classes at the undergrad and masters level are mainly in anthropology, with specific archaeological learning largely left to field school and individual research with graduate advisor tutoring.
The way forward for the world is to cast out “conservative” thoughts. Today’s Conservative thoughts are as bad as they were 200 or even 2000 years ago. They mean one thing and one thing only, clinging on to an idea of a society that has been expelled from the common democratic way of doing things for as long. Claiming to be Conservative today is equivalent of trying to get a free pass to behave in a certain way against other people because you don’t agree with them or don’t like them. I get it. What I’m writing is a paradox, however, the difference is that what a left or liberal person belive in is balance. Whilst a “conservative” don’t.
Are you describing this person? Self-described “dissident archaeologist” on the substack (using the English, not American, spelling).
I have read some at that site, but really very little – most of it is tl;dr and of only peripheral interest to me, when I have other things to do that are more fun.
One obvious thing to say about the quotes about “weaponization” is that many people use an imagined genetically, linguistically, and religiously homogeneous past to argue that this is the proper state of things! And if as a good scientist you point out that a lot of evidence does not fit this, you are likely to annoy people who like imagined pasts better than imagined futures.
I think of the things in research which I want to change in terms of decades. No one researcher can transform a field’s way of thinking overnight now that far more research is published than anyone has time to read. But a steady program of research, combined with networking and teaching, can move the state of the question.
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Also, if you don’t find the community in a particular academic field in one country to your liking, there are alternatives! Its often possible to work in that field in a department or research institute with a different name. You can work at a university or research institute in a different country. And once you have training and a title, you can publish whatever research you like and network with whoever you wish. Today is a great time for independent scholars. None of this is easy, but if you are conservative-minded you probably don’t think that experts should change their opinions lightly with the political or cultural winds!
There is one part of what he wrote that I feel qualified to comment on, as follows: “The infamous Cheddar Man fiasco, where a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer was identified by geneticists as having black skin, a claim quietly retracted afterwards, was perfect debate fodder and was exploited by anti-Brexit campaigners.”
The geneticists led by David Reich who mapped Cheddar Man’s genome, or as much of it as they could, never said that he had “black” skin. They described him as being like other Western Hunter Gatherers during the Mesolithic whose genomes have been mapped – that he had dark hair and skin, and blue eyes. And at no time have they ever retracted that statement, quietly or otherwise.
Multiple alleles are involved in determining skin tone, so it is very difficult to determine what someone’s skin tone would have been with any precision or certainty, but what is certain, and has never been negated, is that Cheddar Man’s skin would certainly have been a lot darker than modern Europeans, who have become a lot more pale just over the past 5,000 years – just how much darker the geneticists can’t be certain.
And he would have looked in stark contrast to Eastern Hunter Gatherers, who had very pale skin during the same period (and, interestingly, dark hair and brown eyes).
There was no fiasco, and he is not remotely qualified to say otherwise.
I conclude with a high degree of confidence from what he has written that he is English, not American.
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