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Interview with Hans Barnard


📷 UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology

Journalist: Luke Peterson



Luke: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Luke Peterson and I am a journalist for the SciSection radio show, broadcasted on the CFMU 93.3 radio station. We’re here today with Dr. Hans Barnard. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me Dr. Barnard.


Barnard: You’re most welcome. I’m at home anyway!


Luke: Would you like to talk about what you do at UCLA and what your interests are?


Barnard: I’ve been at UCLA since 2000, for over 20 years. I am a researcher at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology which means I am an archaeologist. I am a field archaeologist; I have worked in many countries in the world, mostly in Egypt and in Peru, but also in Ethiopia and Iceland and Panama and several other countries, and I am also a professor for the department of Near-East Languages and Cultures.


Luke: How have you been spending your time during this whole ordeal, this pandemic? Have you found ways to continue doing your work? Or have you had to find ways to get around certain restrictions? How have you been doing?


Barnard: We were shooed off campus on March 18 at the very end of the Winter quarter. I was at that time teaching a cluster course, and I had no more teaching duties so I could easily go home. The following quarter I was teaching a small seminar which was supposed to be a lab course; a seminar on ceramics and pottery, obviously archaeological ceramics and pottery, that has a small in-person component that we had to forgo. With my grad students we just had weekly zoom meetings. I could present my presentations; we could discuss things, and the students each had to also prepare two presentations that they could present through zoom. In that respect, things didn’t change. But during the academic year, during the teaching quarters, I usually sit behind my computer for 7 days a week, and I could do the same exact things at home on my laptop. We have a nice home and fast internet connection so I didn’t face any problems. But then of course a summer started, and the summer in archaeology is the time of the year when we go out into the field. We go all over the world. I was scheduled to go to Italy, and I had two projects scheduled back-to-back in Italy, which of course we couldn’t do, especially in the Northern part. There weren’t even flights available. That completely stopped; in January and February, we were supposed to go to Ethiopia, but we also cancelled that. Our whole planning has been thrown into disarray, which for us is not a big problem, Me and my wife are both professors at UCLA. We have plenty of publications and work we have to do, teaching classes and doing research. Our main problem is our grad students. They are hurt in three ways by this. First of all, they can’t do their research that they need to do for their thesis, in Peru, China, Ethiopia, they cannot go there. Second, their field work, which is funded by UCLA, private donors, or the federal government, so they won’t get the money to go and do that. Thirdly, if they go in the field, what they do is leave CA and LA, which is one of the most expensive places in the world to live. Instead, they go to a much cheaper country, and now they have no income and they are stuck in a part of the world where the cost of living is extremely high. We encouraged all of them to find something to do here; in arq we are always collecting data 4 to 6 weeks of the year while the rest we spend looking at what we collected, so we are encouraging them to find things to do that they can do here. A few students have done that, but others are really stuck. Their progress is really hampered by this. For me personally, this is noy a very big deal. But we are worried for out students and we are worried for the future of our discipline as a whole. When will it be possible to travel to foreign countries, and how difficult will that be? As you know, airlines are cutting routes left, right, and center. They are retiring planes; Boeing and Airbus have stopped building planes, so whether it will be possible or affordable to travel to these foreign countries. Or if we will have to be tested or be in quarantine after arriving or departing to a place, there is a lot of unrest in our field.


Luke: It seems that arq is a collaborative discipline, and that you need that in-person interaction to collect data and work in the field. Would you agree with that?


Barnard: Yes, I would agree with that. IT is a team effort and you cannot do that alone. Second, it is a teaching enterprise for which we teach graduate and undergraduate students to all kinds of places. You are always immersed in a local community and you want to immerse them in it as well because it is their antiquities and their histories; at lest they live on top of it. We want to involve them the best that we can. It is always a multiperons enterprise. Our excavation units are entrenched in 5by5 meter zones and there are usually 6 people in there. Distancing is not easy. We are also usually living in cramped quarters for prolonged periods of time.


Luke: That interaction that invokes reminds me of one of the documents you sent me in which you argued that, in this text, that you’re currently writing or revising, that you say community-based interactions were essential to the development of human sentience. It’s a bit of a jump, but I wanted to segue into those texts, and I wanted to talk about how this has developed and how you might have had more time to work on during quarantine.


Barnard: As I said, we have enough to do, we being the faculty there is always a lot of things waiting and needing to be finished, so part of things that I was involved in included a big project Cambridge University Press which made a series of handbooks for arq which of course, me not being in the field, nor most of my colleagues, everybody has more time to spend on that. I’m also working on an edited volume of arq; it’s called “Arq outside the box” bc people always look at arq as if we were looking for treasure or kings or temples or tombs or something. There is more to arq than that, and we are trying to make it more relevant to our society. Also progress is better now bc everybody is at home and not at the field. The text that you are referring to is a chapter that i wrote for a conference maybe three years ago; these things can take a long time to reach the light of day. There are always two or three authors that you want in a book and they keep saying they will finish their chapter, but it takes a while to finish; I know that from experience. That is going to be a book for the Un. of New York, Buffalo about mobility, about people who move across the landscape, or people who we think as hunter-gatherers or pastoral nomads, but all of the big questions of arq still concern the movement of European languages. Basically the whole of Europe speaks the same language. So French, English, and Italian are all related, and it all goes back to Northern India; there is also Farci… it is a very strange phenomena, there is no place in the world where we don’t speak basically the same language, and there is still a great debate going on about how that came into being. That’s what the book is about. I was invited because of research of pastoral-nomads in Egypt, and at a conference about European languages, I was invited to speak and I spoke about mobility at a personal level and how it defines our consciousness and our intelligence, and the fact that we are able to move and control our movements has enabled us to control our social movements. For the purpose of the book I have broadened that a little bit. For humans, we are of course animals of a kind, but we are very strange animals, and all of the strange things that happened to humans, that have only happened to humans, as animals have moved across the landscape from one environment into another, have evolved into new species. There were 150 species related to us around the world, for every time we have moved into a new environment, we have adapted to that environment. Humans are the only species of animals that took a different track. We didn’t take it consciously, but it happened. We did something that has caused cultural evolution. For all of the humans in the world, all 7 billion, we are all the same species. For all the different environment, we have all developed different cultures to survive, meaning we have discovered tricks for those environments that we passed down through our families. It is not genetic because we taught them, and they can learn new tricks and teach that one to their families too. Within the course of a few generations, we have cultures that develop knowledge that has allowed these people to survive in their environment. We can easily change that if we go into the deserts of Australia or the jungles of Africa, where we won’t survive. But there have been people living there for hundreds of thousands of years, and they have survived not because they are a different species. They are the same, and they are as smart as we are, and they could come up with all the essentials that we could come up with, but they have developed a culture for where to find food, water, and shelter. We wouldn’t survive in those environments, and it’s probably the same the other way around. You could also see that and turn it around for the fact that there are 7 billion people of the same species, and if you look to our closest cousins, the chimp or the bonado, there are maybe 200,000 of those, which is 0.0001% of us. We are not the obvious choice, humans as a species, to take over the world. We did that because we moved across the landscape. We dealt with the problems that we encountered by following a culture, not through genetic routes, but by a culture route. That is what i argue in the book.


Luke: That’s interesting because that contrasts with current events, where right now our mobility is restricted.


Barnard: We have to see what comes out of that. We are currently living in what everyone calls ‘unprecedented times’ which are not completely unprecedented. It is very difficult to look into the future and predict the future because it well may be that this event that came upon is will have serious repercussions; we don’t know. But the longer it lasts, the more of a chance that these disruptions will become permanent. There was already a movement going on of people working from home remotely and having remote meetings and working in the cloud, as we call it. There was always some reluctance, with managers doubting if people would actually work, and people maybe getting lonely at home. Of course there are many other things with the social aspect of going to the office. You meet people at the water cooler and at the cafeteria and you can chatwith them about things. Now we have seen how possible it is, and now we are slowly getting used to it and the advantages of it. You don’t have to spend an hour or two hours in traffic in the morning and going back home, so that’s an advantage. That may well stay; there is already companies that are reducing their office spaces saying that if this whole thing blows over, then maybe we will have 50% of the people at the office and 50% working from home and they’ll come another day. This is better for the environment and people will waste less. If you sit in your car in traffic you’re wasting time. You have three or four hours a day to do interesting things, but we don’t know- it’s difficult to predict. And the shopping experience: I usually got everything delivered except groceries, but now i get those delivered too. I don’t know if we’re going to go back from that; it’s something that people might keep doing. The same is true for restaurants: mny people are happy with getting things delivered, you can sit at home, it’s cheaper, you can drink your own drinks, you can drink and not have to drive home. I don’t know if those things will come back, and the longer this lasts, the more persistent those changes will be.


Luke: You mentioned that we’re in unprecedented times and that there are precedents for what were are going through in the past. I read an article that you forwarded to me where you examined a few cases where in the middle ages or in the 1600s where while Europeans were dealing with plagues, it took a lot of political organization to manage the situation to prevent it from escalating. Maybe you can talk a little about that precedent and if there are lessons to be learned from those moments.


Barnard: The main precedent is that we know a little bit because of historical bias and we know those things because they were written down. The most recent pandemic was the Spanish Flu which was about 100 years ago. There were issues with the flu at the time of course, this was at the tailends of the first world war, which meant that people were moving across the world to fight in Europe. The current theory is that the virus evolved in the US and was taken with soldiers to Europe and the soldiers spread it amongst themselves and then they came home wounded or finished with the war. That went around the globe several times, and at the time, viruses were unknown. This was disappointing for science bc they just figured out how bacteria works and they failed to use that knowledge bc the plague was viral and they didn’t know what it was. The big problem that occurred in the flu pandemic was that almost all governments had very strict censorship about the war so people would volunteer in the war. They didn’t tell people about losing battles or losing 100,000 soldiers a day. The reason why we call it the Spanish flu was that the Spanish were the only ones who reported it with less strict censorship. The Spanish king got infected, but he didn’t die. There was a lot of press about him having the flu, and that’s why they call it the Spanish flu. What I wrote on the website was that there’s a place in CO were there was a very smart doctor who said the only way to prevent this flu from happening here was to not let anyone here or out. They put roadblocks onall the roads in and out of town. They put people who tried to leave in prison for a while. That was successful until the exact same thing happened that is happening today, and that the kids are getting crazy and they are going back to school. Even though they hired nurses to take care of the sick, and made attendance voluntary, they broke the quarantine and there were cases; several people died after that. What is happening today is the exact same thing; people lose patience. They think: we have been in quarantine for six weeks, and we must quarantine at least until the virus is gone and disappears without new hosts or if there is a vaccine or treatment that takes whatever time it takes to be made. People have no patience for that, so it is understandable for kids to want to go to school. But if you look at it from an epidemiological or medical point of view, you have to stay at home. But psychosocially, you can’t do that. You need a strong leader.


Barnard: The other example that I wrote about in the entry online was from the Great Plague in Britain in 1666-1667. That was the opposite thing in which somewhere in the far north of Britain, a shipment arrived that carried fleas. Bubonic plague is carried by infected fleas which spread it from rats to humans and humans to rats, creating a cycle. As soon as the first cases occurred, the priest of a town said that if we don't want the infection to spread to other places, then people can’t leave the towns anymore. He had stones placed all along the roads so you couldn’t pass them and the effect was that over 200 people died of the plague in that village but they also didn’t spread it to the countryside; the village was the only place in that whole area to be infected, but there were many deaths. That was the opposite in CO where they said to keep it out. Instead they kept it in; it was a very noble, Christian thing to do. If you have strong leaders where people trust their leadership, then people listen to them and after a while people won’t lose patience or hope. These times are not all unprecedented, but our society is so interconnected and mobile that you cannot totally compare it to those times. Now we have international aviation, as well as the sheer volume thereof.


Luke: That makes sense. Obviously the past may serve as a parable for today, but obviously there are different contexts. Maybe we can transition to a different, still-related topic. I think that in the “outside of the box” excerpt I was interested in a lot of the documentation that was included in that about modern times. Maybe you can talk about how the methods that arq use to try to record and make observations or implications about modern times, and how that relates to our current situation. For example, you may have written about reductions in pollution or about environmental alterations.


Barnard: You’re talking about seismic noise? If we go back to basics, what arq does is that we talk about the human experience and culture and behavior only by looking at the material remains. So people make things and they use things and they discard things and then as an arq we look at things that people leave behind, which include human bones, obviously; but there are many artifacts and all the objects that we use. And in the common conception, what people think is that we are looking for gold or treasure or things with writing on them, but that is not really the case. We are looking at the simple day to day objects that people have been making, using, and discarding. That of course doesn’t stop a thousand years ago, or a hundred years ago, or ten years ago. That stops an hour ago. At UCLA we have a colleague and what he is studying, and of course we all know there is a migration of people from Mexico into America, so as they cross the American-Mexican border they leave things behind. So if you walk behind these people and you come up later, the people have moved on, or worse, but the things they leave behind let you infer their story, and in this case, they tell us about the horrific stories about suffering and death and rape and all kinds of things. We’re trying to put archaeology out of the treasure-thing of the past and into a more-socially relevant context. That exact same thing is happening in the Mediterranean. There is an enormous amount of people coming from Africa into Europe, mostly Greece and Italy, on rackety boats across the Mediterranean, which is a dangerous sea that many people lose their lives on. You might find the boats or the life-jackets or whatever they leave behind. We as archaeologists have the theory and the technology to infer narratives from material remains that people leave behind. Therefore, in this day and age and with these current events, things are interesting for us because things are changing; things have changed. If you go back ten years from now and you excavate in a controlled fashion in a landfill, you will find layers and layers of face-masks. They will probably be there later as a layer of face-masks that can indicate where the epidemic of 2020 happened. There is interesting research from biology that masks are very popular nesting material for birds. Birds find discarded face-masks which are beautiful, light and soft, so they take them to their nests and they build nests out of facemasks; they’re a popular material. You will find that later as well. Of course there are also longer-term effects with the tremendous decline in international aviation; there will also be a drop in pollution that you might find in layers, so we will have this horizon with this big drop in CO2 and nitrogen-pollution. And there was this other thing with geology, and I don’t think you will find remnants of, but there was an article about a geologist who measured the seismic movement of the earth. There used to be a lot of noise from trains and cars and airplanes which made the earth vibrate, but this has dropped significantly. There are measurably less vibrations in the earth, so they can make much more accurate measurements. There is less pollution in the dataset; there are many things that will leave their mark behind.


Luke: You described arq as the most “interdisciplinary” of the humanities, or the most “scientific” of the humanities?


Barnard: People always say it’s the most “humane” section of the sciences and the most “scientific” of the humanities. That’s kind of true: we study humanity: we only study humanity, and human history and development and behavior, and we do that by using, or borrowing/using/stealing techniques from the natural sciences. We do it not by studying the humans but by studying the stuff they leave behind. How they made it, how they used it, how they discarded it… You can get a lot from that.


Luke: There must be an application of chemistry with chemical tests on on-cite remains. Like you said, geology…


Barnard: Arq is famous for not having any of its own tools or techniques. Our basic tools are the shovel and the brush, which we get from a hardware store. And a dustpan and maybe a shovel, which is either from a hardware store or a grocery store. We study the materials with all kinds of techniques that are invented for biology or geology or chemistry or physics, but we try to sweep it all together into an arq framework, and there’s of course no arq that can do all these things; we are not physicists or chemists or biologists; nobody is. That is another reason why we are so interdisciplinary. If we have a field project, we need to bring somebody who knows botany to look at the seeds, or somebody from zoology to look at the bones we find, or somebody who knows about geology to look at stone tools that we find, and also the ceramics, which are also geological material. We always bring several people with very specific expertise. This is unavoidable because it is such a wide field that you can’t know everything. That is also not desirable because if you spread yourself too thin, then you start making mistakes and getting out of your comfort zone; then you have to bring in the experts. We also bring in people who are excellent excavators who can read the soil; reading the soil by its layers is an expertise in its own right. You can’t do it on your own.


Luke: That makes sense. I would assume that having to practice social distancing would impede that.


Barnard: Also, we would usually maintain close contact with the native population. It is good to do that and to know them. You could bring a botanist from outside, but if you know somehow who lived in and grew up in the area, that person would have a much better understanding of the plants and animals in the area. If you live in that area and if you have lived there for generations, then you can know where stones and from without needing to do preliminary study. There are good practical reasons for being in close contact with the local populations.


Luke: It seems that, even though society, or at least our daily habits, have changed in response to where we are right now, it seems like that aspect of investigation won’t change, or that it is something that is integral to your discipline: having to interact with people in person and going to these locations.


Barnard: We hope it won’t change. The thing is that this whole event has triggered in many disciplines a re-thinking of “what exactly are we doing,” and as you know, one of the things that is at least associated with this pandemic, is the realization of social injustice and how people have seen how unjust society is organized, with BLM and also other things such as how the virus hits harder in specific groups. We also in arq try to rethink the discipline. The discipline is closely related to the colonial enterprise. First in Europe, we started to learn something about the history of Europeans. We went to Pompeii and Ancient Greece and we looked at the history of Europe. But as soon as the colonial enterprise, people went to Africa and India and China, all kinds of places, and they basically came as outsiders and they looked at the places and they took all of the stuff home and put it in museums in Europe. British museums and the Louvre are full of things that you can question how much right they have to be there, and this is currently being questioned. This is one thing that many people will hope will come out of this event that we have now some time and some opportunity to rethink our strategy and maybe step away a lot from this questionable history and try to reorganize the discipline to be more just and with more input from the indigenous people and the set of communities. In that case, things are changing. Of course we hope to go back into the field and we hope to do research in a field setting with interesting histories, but at the same time we hope that we can come into a better dialogue with local scholars and the local population and see what they think about these things and what they want to do. There’s a lot about listening and less about saying; we have to go there and say “what do you want” and listen to what they respond to.


Luke: It seems like being stuck at home has allowed us to contemplate this things a little more, or maybe that has allowed us to gain a greater comprehension of these issues, and it seems like that might pave a way for forward-progress. Even though I know a lot of people like to focus on how restricted our lives have become, maybe things aren’t necessarily only changing for the worse but also for the better.


Barnard: We can hope for that, but people keep asking when we are going back to normal, but maybe that normal wasn’t the best normal. Maybe we can try to achieve a better normal; we can’t go back to normal anyway. You can’t turn time back. We should take this opportunity to rethink how we deal with the world, the environment, other people, and then try to come out of this better than before and not just to normal. We can go to something better.


Luke: That is something that I think a lot of us would be better for if we thought about it for. That seems like a good place to end our conversation. Would you like say anything else or add anything else?


Barnard: I think that is what I wanted to say. As they say, “never waste a good crisis,” and if things are disarray, you might try to rearrange it in a better way and not rebuild it and make the same mistakes all over again.


Luke: Alright. Well, I guess we’ll end it here then. That’s it for this week of SciSection, make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews, and I’ll talk to you later!


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