Archeology as projection or We usually find what we look for

Psychological projectionis the unconscious act of denial of a person's own
attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the
outside world, such as to the weather, the government, a tool, or to
other people. Thus, it involves imagining or
projecting that
others have those feelings.

Machu Picchu

In 1988, I had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu with a native guide who was an archaeologist. When I say native, I mean an Inca. Or a decedent of one of the other tribes subjugated by the Incas. Every once in a while, I read a sort of rhetorical question along the lines of what ever happened the Incas. – or Mayas? or, for that matter, the Romans?

The answer is nothing, they are still there but, because they are the indigenous people, they are usually ignored. Anyway, this anthropologist was one of the first indigenous people, in Peru, to get a degree in Anthropology. And he immediately set out to prove that the European anthropologists were full of shit.

Hiram Bingham, who is given credit for discovering Machu Picchu thought it was the estate of an Inca emperor or high priest, and he had all sorts of theories on what the various structures were. Usually the theories revolved around some sort of bloody sacrifice. Our guide thought it was just an run of the mill small town, like an Inca Healdsburg, and the only reason it was noteworthy is because it wasn't sacked by the Christian explorers like everything else.

He also showed us, what the Europeans thought were several "sacrificial altars" that even had little channels that "carried the blood away". Except that he showed us that the channels were lines that lined up with the sun or moon's location at
the Winter and Summer equinox. They were really solar and lunar observatories. One channel was even lined up with the true North-South axis.

He went from altar to altar, site to site, saying Look, look at this, they don't even ask what it is for. They don't even speak good Spanish and they don't speak any Quechua. They don't talk to the locals. Why not, they are Incas. I am glad to say that now pretty much everybody agrees with our guide. 

I bring all this up because, yesterday, I read an article in the NYT that there is going to be a show in California of mummies and artifacts found on the Silk Road in China. It looks like it will be a great show. The Chinese have found, or re-found, an old cemetery in a desert region of western China. And in this cemetery are mummies that turn out to have European features and DNA from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia, but not China.

Small River Cemetery

According to the NYT,

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet
tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from
some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

So what do they think these 13 foot tall poles are? phallic symbols,
signaling an intense
interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation. The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism.

Maybe they are right, but, in reality, they have no idea. Just like Hiram Bingham had no idea so he projected the bloody rituals on the Incas, the Chinese anthropologists project their idea of sex-crazed Europeans on these 4,000 year old mummies.But it still should be a very interesting show.

2 thoughts on “Archeology as projection or We usually find what we look for

  1. When we all stop projecting will the universe cease? And if it does, will we care?
    Hopefully those are sufficiently profound to segue into the more mundane shout out to my grandfather who while in college got to help Hiram Bingham sort through all the loot HB brought back from Peru.
    It helped fuel my grandfather’s passion for history; a fire he tended quietly through all his working years and then let burn in retirement with two full books and several monographs of family history. Full of projection no doubt but still I appreciate having those stories available today and my memories of the sparkle in his eye when the talk turned to history.

  2. Richard, I didn’t know that about your grandfather. I think it would be a great act of homage if we went to to southern California to see the show. It looks like a real winner.

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