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The Mass Media

Professorial Profiles: Introducing New Faculty to the Students of UMB

This week we talked to Professor Stephen Silliman, who has joined the Anthropology Department at UMass Boston. Prof. Silliman comes from California where he was recently doing fieldwork studying the archaeological remains of a Native American population. This semester he is teaching Anthropology 241, Archaeology Method & Theory, a laboratory class. He shared some of his experiences and thoughts on the subject of archaeology, teaching, ethics ,and fieldwork.

Although versed in many aspects of anthropology, Silliman’s area of expertise is Native American populations in North, South and Mezo- America. His most recent research interests included a study of how post-Columbian (the era after Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492) European colonialism affected Native American populations.

Silliman said the origins of Native American people is “still questioned.” “There is a general archaeological consensus,” he said, “that the entire Northern Native American areas were populated by people coming out of Eastern Siberia whether they came through Alaska or down the coast.” It’s also likely, he said, that different waves of people came through at different times.

The origins of South Americans are even harder to pinpoint. Silliman said that the “dates [of first arrivals] are not yet resolved…they either seem too early or it means that people were moving very rapidly, well into South America very quickly and we’re not sure how that might have happened.”

“For awhile,” said Silliman, “it was thought it [the first arrival] had to be in the 12 to 15 thousand year range…There is some ambiguous evidence about it being earlier than that.” A marginal group of archaeologists maintain a date as early as 100,000 years ago.

As to the questions of origins, Silliman, whose own research includes a debt of respect for the cultures he studies, says, “There are some Native American people who are tired of the archaeological version of their heritage. They have these stories of having been created in these particular areas [in the Americas].” This is an example, Silliman said, of an ethical question he thinks scientists should not consider when digging up history – “Whose past is it?”

One of many debates in the anthropology/archaeology field centers on the studying human remains. Silliman says he has been “fortunate enough to never have encountered human remains in all the work” that he’s done. While he thinks archaeologists can obtain “interesting information” from studying human remains, he prefers to study “peoples’ houses, their trash, their tools, their everyday lives.”

When Silliman begins a field research project, he says he has a policy of “working explicitly with the Native American community from the beginning so that they understand what I’m doing and I understand what they want – the kinds of issues they might have.” Together, he and the community in question, develop, “protocol, something set up ahead of time. If human remains are encountered, what do you want us to do, how would you like us to handle this situation?” When asked if most archaeologists work this way, Silliman shakes his head. “Not as much as they should. It’s changing but there are still a good number of archaeologists who prefer not to deal with Native communities or see them as obstacles. I’m trying to come at it from the other side.”

Recently, Silliman did a field research project studying the remains of a Mexican colonial ranch in California that employed large numbers of Native Americans in the 1830s, 1840s before the U.S. annexed the terrritory. Silliman says, he “used archaeology to bring to life some of the Native American aspects of this colonial ranch…to make sure that this silent majority [the workers] would get some voice in history since the documents don’t record that sort of thing.”

When asked if living persons’ accounts of history help in his work, Silliman said, “Yes, definitely. That can be one of the most fruitful ways to do this kind of project. People have oral histories that can be combined with the archaeological data.”

One of the things that surprised him in his fieldwork on this ranch was the “mixture of things” the Native American laborers were using. Silliman said, that as compensation for their work the laborers were “being given livestock…beef, mutton…things like corn, wheat, barley and these were hunter-gatherer peoples before this kind of colonial contact. They weren’t raising crops or livestock before.”

“Had they wanted to survive on these provisions they might have – I’m not sure about that – but you see mixed in with [the ranch provisions] fish, water fowl, acorns, grass seeds, shellfish… the sort of things, that indicate they were still making the effort to get out off the ranch and actually find food” as they had before provisions. “They were doing the same thing with stone tools, making active efforts to get raw material” and make their own tools even though metal implements were being used on the ranch.

The impact of Europeans settling in the Americas had a generally negative impact on the Native American populations. Said Silliman, “Disease was such a horrible factor…there are some estimates that 90 per cent of all Native American people died out very quickly, long before they even saw Europeans…diseases spread that fast.” Among those diseases were “smallpox, flu, syphilis and bubonic plague,” against which the Native Americans had no previous exposure or resistance to.

The different European groups landing in the Americas also “tried to subjugate the Native peoples. Tried to use them as workers, enter into trading relationships with them, married them – all these processes of colonizing them for the last 500 plus years,” said Silliman.

In response to the encroachment of Europeans, “some [Native] people used the ‘vote with your feet’ notion.” They left areas they previously inhabited or faced off with Europeans in violent confrontations. In some cases, such as certain Spanish “mission” communities, the Europeans “had a policy of congregating people together at the mission to work and where the Spanish could keep an eye on them.”

Said Silliman, “Some Native leaders would form alliances with colonial administrators because it would ‘up’ their political clout among other Native American groups,” by allowing them to “control the flow of goods.”

Having worked in the field, Silliman was able to describe some of the methods archaeologists use there. “The methods of dating a found object, he said, “depends on the object. Each dating technique has different limitations as to how far back you can go. If it’s organic – woods, seeds, shells, bones – you can use carbon 14 dating,” a process that measures the amount of decay of that element which has a predictable decay rate. Some rocks can be dated back millions of years.

One of Silliman’s own specialties is dating obsidian – “volcanic glass” – artifacts. Said Silliman, “Once obsidian is broken open – say if someone were making a tool with it – it starts to absorb water and you can measure the width of that water band. You can get some sense of how old some of these things are.”

Remote sensing, said Silliman, is “using instruments to get some sense of what’s under the ground without actually having to excavate it.” It’s a method that can save time and prevents unnecessarily disturbing the ecology of a place. Although remote sensing is expensive, some archaeologists also use it.

The equipment can “measure magnetism, how well the soil conducts electricity. [It uses] radar, which will bounce off whatever’s down there” so scientists can “try to figure out what the different signatures might mean.” For example, high magnetic readings can indicate the presence of metal or heated rocks that may have been used in cooking. If someone has dug a trench deep in the ground or “a loose, moist trash deposit” exists, it will “transmit electricity better [than normal soil] because they [the sites] retain water ions.”

“One application of remote sensing,” said Silliman,” is that people can use it to either help find gravesites or avoid digging near them.” Silliman’s course takes students into the lab to examine animal bones, measure stone tools, and learn map-reading.

When asked why he left sunny California for the unpredictable climate of Massachusetts, Silliman laughed and said, “I like the four seasons, the Northeast – which has interesting archaeological questions.” He also cited the “vagaries of the academic job market”.

Silliman said he has found UMB to be a “friendly place,” citing “great colleagues” and a diverse pool of students. He formerly worked at another public urban campus with diversity, at the University of California at Berkeley.

Next week’s interview will be with Professor Shirley Suet-Ling Tang, of the Asian-American/American Studies program.