Tag Archives: archaeology

Archaeology Ruins Heroes: “Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined”

Sorry for the spacing on my last post, internet. Things were busy. Things are still a bit busy, so I will regale you with another tale of a documentary I was made to watch in class!

That documentary is Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined. As the title suggests, this documentary, based on a book by the same name, tells the tale of archaeologist Richard Fox and how he used a combination of survey and excavation to reconstruct Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn.For those not up with their random battles in the American frontier history, the national mythos surrounding Custer is one of tragic defeat. Custer and his men fought an onslaught of Indians bravely, keeping order and discipline even as they were killed off to the last man. What is generally not highlighted is the fact that Custer was part of a battalion sent to remove a large settlement of Cheyenne and Dakota and force them back onto a reservation. While that fact is something that this film shies away from, it is not the main focus. This short documentary film makes the case that, in fact, the battle was much more chaotic than the popular imagination believes it to be.

Fox and his team to this by studying the distribution patterns of government bullets and shell casings and Native bullets and casings. The bullets themselves allow them to construct the direction of the battle, while casings, which are dropped on the ground after the gun is fired, tell them where the different forces stood. And that’s not even the coolest part. The coolest part is that they can track individuals by studying minute differences in the marks the firing pins of specific, individual guns make. That may sound really boring, but being able to track a single person is archaeology is amazing.

I will admit, however, that I was momentarily appalled by Fox’s field methodology. Don’t get me wrong; he’s going the right thing. He and his team use metal detectors and, when they find something, they dig a small hold to see what it is. Again, this is how you do the study he wants to do. But I was trained to dig things deep underground.. The number one lesson you learn is to always dig in lots (or whatever your terminology calls them) that leave a roughly flat surface. Never dig a hole. But here it’s fine. They’re ultimately doing a survey of things buried slightly underground and they’re taking good measurements of them. But I still had that momentary, emotional reaction.

Fox’s reconstruction of the battle relies on certain assumptions about military order. During the late 19th century, apparently, men were taught to form a ‘skirmish line’ by standing a few yards apart from one another. However, if fear or panic set in, they will tend to bunch as a natural tendency of humans. If things are truly desperate, they will flee and not fight back or only fight opportunistically. It’s somewhat unclear if he’s getting this information from historical texts or ethnographic study, but it does seem to make a certain amount of sense.

With this, Fox makes the argument that Custer’s men were on the offensive for most of the battle, not the defensive as is commonly accepted. While it was believed that they did not go north of what is today known as Custer Hill, the distribution of their bullets and shells suggest that they were headed that direction, presumably to capture the group of women and children who had left the settlement. Once they were outnumbered and their chances of victory looked slim, they began bunching. Individuals seem to have mixed with other parts of the force, breaking what would have been the accepted protocol of battle. As bunching worsens, the ratio of government bullets and casings goes down, suggesting that Custer’s men largely ceased to fight. This is especially true in the final stage of the battle, in which the remnants of Custer’s men attempted to flee into a ravine, an event attested to by Native eyewitness accounts and corroborated by the soldiers who would eventually find the battle ground who reported a number of bodies there. Here, there is only evidence of small amounts of opportunistic fighting by government troops.

I found this documentary to be quite engaging intellectually. Emotionally, I was somewhat cool to it. It’s an emotional subject matter – the US government sent a bunch of men to force people to live on lands far smaller than they were originally promised; these men sought to capture the women and children to force the Native men to comply; over two hundred men were killed, some of them while fleeing – but I didn’t find it as mind-blowing as I think I was meant to. Don’t get me wrong, the tracking individuals by their firing pins was fantastic, but I feel like I was supposed to have an attachment to Custer that I just didn’t and don’t. I remember hearing the words ‘Custer’s last stand,’ but I feel like I never really knew what that was. Which seems really strange, since I’m from just a couple states away. (BTW, did you know that this took place in Montana? I totally thought it was in South Dakota or something. This is more embarrassing when your home state borders South Dakota.) I think I learned about the events around it – Sitting Bull was fairly prominent in my high school history class – but this event didn’t really come up. I feel like a childhood hero was supposed to be shattered in my mind, but I found myself going “well, that does seem more plausible.”

Overall, I’d recommend it. It’s a quick watch if you can track it down. Also, firing pin signatures.

Development versus Conservation: “Saving Mes Aynak”

Saving Mes Aynak is a documentary about, well, saving the archaeological site of Mes Aynak, a site 25 miles southeast of Kabul, before a Chinese company puts a copper mine right next to it. The film came out in 2014 and has since won 19 awards from various film festivals and organizations. It’s quite a beautiful documentary, with a lot of good shots of the landscape of Afghanistan. At the same time, I found it somewhat difficult to get into, for reasons I will explain.

Mes Aynak is an archaeological site most known for the plethora of Buddhist artifacts found within it. In the centuries prior to the rise of Islam, and during the earlier Islamic period, Afghanistan served as something of a conduit for Buddhism, connecting Buddhism’s land or origin, India, with China, where it would be quite popular. In fact, for many Chinese monks, Afghanistan was the destination for pilgrimages and a place to learn proper Buddhist practice. This documentary, however, does not so much focus on Mes Aynak in antiquity as on the state of the site in the early 2010’s. This is because of a lease that the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) was given to mine copper around Mes Aynak, putting the site in danger.

This sets the stage for a very fraught salvage excavation. Salvage excavations are fairly common when major construction or similar projects occur. For example, when the Atatürk Dam was constructed in southern Turkey, a group of archaeologists were working around the clock to excavate and preserve the Zeugma mosaics, a group of mosaics apparently dating to the Hellenistic period (if you’re ever in Gaziantep, I’d highly recommend checking out the Zeugma Museum. Maybe wait till the security situation is a bit better, though). Saving Mes Aynak largely follows the Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori in his work with his team to help preserve the site. Along with Qadir’s team, is a French team (or maybe two French teams, I couldn’t sort it out), and one of my undergrad advisors who seems to show up to have conversations with people at some guy’s house and then leave when American civilians were asked to leave the country. On the other side, somewhat, are the Chinese miners, though they get less screen time than the others.

The real resonance of the documentary, for me at least, is the conflict between the two archaeological teams. They have shots of the Afghan team doing flawed, but earnest archaeology. Their methods are not ideal, largely due to the historic lack of good archaeological training for scholars in Afghanistan, but they are careful to not damage the artifacts and they take note of where major architecture was found. The French team, on the other hand, brings in a giant backhoe to excavate. When confronted by Qadir, they claim that the operator was told to stop if he hit any stone. For those not familiar with excavations, you aren’t going to feel anything you’re blasting through with a big-ass machine. I mean, maybe you could if you found a fortification wall or something, but probably not if you found a small stupa or something.

Throughout the movie, the Qadir is shown talking to various people in the surrounding area about how they feel about the mine and the archaeological sites. In general, people were not huge fans of a Chinese company extracting resources from the country and possibly threatening their villages. I found this part interesting not only because it showed the opinions of actual Afghans, but also, if I’m not mistaken, some of the individuals interviewed were speaking Dari or another Persian dialect, while others were speaking a Turkic one. I’m not entirely sure on this one, though.

I believe that this documentary is very important. It is important to make the international community informed of and invested in the archaeology of Afghanistan in order to protect it. Archaeologists in any situation only have so much power to protect cultural heritage, and this is especially true in countries where antiquities laws are not very firmly established or enforced. It also provides an informative look into the landscape of Afghanistan, which I think many people don’t really understand.

However, I didn’t find it particularly compelling as a whole. Again, it was great in many ways, but it doesn’t have that much emotional resonance. This is due to the lack of a narrative. In all fairness, this very true to life. Life has no narrative and there are no heroes and no villains. At the same time, narrative draws the viewer in and allows them to make sense of what’s happening. In this documentary, a lot of things are happening, but there isn’t really a firm narrative created.

Ultimately, I found this documentary to be both visually beautiful and important. While I had difficulty finding a place to take hold emotionally, this could be important in its own way. It presents all parties with minimal commenting and without creating obvious antagonists. I still think it’s worth a watch, if only to learn a bit about Afghanistan and its archaeology. The archaeologist drama is also kind of fun.