Honoring Janus, looking backward and forward

Posted on January 2, 2012

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Happy New Year!

Ever wonder why January 1 is observed as New Year’s Day in the Gregorian calendar? I went on a journey to find a rationale for this unusual choice; biased by years of studying ancient Mesoamerica, I found it odd that with the winter solstice so close, the year began at an apparently arbitrary date. So I traced this traditional date back to the Roman calendar where it marked the first day of a month named in honor of Janus– god of beginnings of all kinds:

harvest time, planting, marriage, birth, and other types of beginnings, especially the beginnings of important events in a person’s life.

Janus has two faces, one looking back, one forward. Looking forward, I will be posting much more regularly this spring, because after a two year hiatus (while I taught History of Anthropological Thought in 2010 and took a sabbatical in 2011) I am again teaching my interdisciplinary course in Berkeley’s Letters and Sciences Discovery Courses program, Archaeology of Sex and Gender.

So, starting in just a couple of weeks, I will be meeting 100 undergrads twice a week for an exploration of the core questions that inspired this blog (and the book it is named after), how we can understand the experience of being a person with a sexualized body indirectly, through the things that people used and made in the past (including texts). Since 2009, I redesigned the course entirely, in part so it would qualify as a way for students to satisfy Berkeley’s American Cultures requirement. Mainly, what the American Cultures program allowed me to do was integrate a lot of great work that has been published in recent years on the archaeology of the Chinese-American experience and the African-American experience, so I will be hoping to give special emphasis in upcoming posts to that work.

But Janus has two faces, and the second one looks back at the previous year. And popular culture in the US has in practice codified this in the form of lists, usually lists of ten items.

Like starting the year on January 1, which has no astronomical or seasonal significance, listing 10 items is entirely conventional, a product of use of the decimal system, a legacy of the Greco-Roman dominance of Europe.

(Ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Arabic mathematics were also based on the decimal system, of course; while the ancient Babylonians gave us a legacy of measurement of angles using the sexagesimal system based on sixty instead of ten. But as a specialist in Mesoamerica, famous for the use of vigesimal systems, I am delighted to discover that my Celtic ancestors also employed base-20 math. To quote Jan Gullberg’s Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers, “The vigesimal numeration system was the usual mode of counting in many ancient cultures because humans have ten fingers and ten toes on which to count.” Got to love that speculative history: take off your shoes, everyone: time to calculate the price of wheat.)

I decided not to do a ten best posts of 2011 list. Instead, here are five highlights of 2011; assume I got tired after counting on one hand:

  1. Without doubt, one story got the most attention: the Gay Caveman. Needless to say, it is important for anthropologists to combat inaccurate and misleading journalism, but sometimes I felt like that was shooting fish in barrels.
  2. So, I am pleased to say that an experimental post I did about a session on bioarchaeology at the 2011 Society for American Archaeology meetings was also popular with visitors. I posted an edited version of my discussant comments– a format that rarely sees print, and seems to me to be a great way to get news out beyond the few thousand members of the SAA who get to see the program. Watch for more of this kind of blogging in 2012, as I am slated as discussant for an exciting session at the 2012 SAA meetings in Memphis on household archaeology.
  3. Weirdly, also in my top five visited blog posts was one I did about a report of an Etruscan dig finding an image depicting childbirth. Partly, I think this post got attention because it dealt with the Classical world– I can say with some confidence that Classical archaeology is way ahead of the rest of us in blogging. But I also wonder if part of the reason this post got readership is that it chronicles an event that we know was ubiquitous but is often absent in accounts of the past. So for 2012, my resolution is to remember that one of my missions is to cover aspects of life that are not being talked up in the mainstream media.
  4. For another one of my top five blog posts by visitation I forgot a cardinal rule (I plead temporary insanity) because I was so charmed by something new to me: the incredible BBC series “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The episode I wrote about started with the sentence “We end with pepper, and we’re going to begin with …” (add a four letter word starting with p and ending with n that denotes materials intended for the arousal of physical affective behaviors). Yes, I had the bad sense to put perhaps the most searched keyword into a post. And then I compounded that by adding a title that makes me wince today. I think I was still operating on the assumption that this blog was mostly going to remain invisible. I still love the BBC series, and like the post; but I feel awfully sorry for those people who search for Roman p…n (on the other hand, why search those terms??) and get my modest little commentary on ancient art.
  5. But visitor numbers shouldn’t be the only measure of what counted. Keeping journalists honest is one good goal, as is publicizing good contemporary archaeological and bioarchaeological and bioanthropological work. But dearest to my heart are those few occasions when what I am writing matters because it counters still-entrenched tendencies within our discipline that those of us who identify with the project of archaeology of sex and gender are trying to change. The “gay caveman” had some of that potential, except that there, the erroneous material was largely introduced by journalists. What I feel there needs to be more of is questioning our own logic within the discipline. In other words: Dead babies are (still) still bad evidence for a Roman brothel. This post received a lot of comments as well as a lot of visitors (second only to the gay caveman in comments, and just squeaking past the witch’s cottage– where I think I learned that writing about cats is inherently attractive). In fact, if we add the comments and audience for the original post from 2010 on the claim that infant remains proved this British site was a Roman brothel, this story is clearly second only to the gay caveman in reader response.

So, there’s my non-decimal list looking backward and forward at once. In 2012, I resolve to continue keeping the press honest; to act when anthropological ideas are being abused or misunderstood, no matter who is behind the abuse or misuse; to connect readers with the life experiences of people in the past whenever possible; and to share with the broader world those discussions that normally take place behind closed doors, in the relative exclusivity of the classroom and the conference room.

I hope you will stay with me for 2012. Thanks for being there in 2011…