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Intellectual Honesty

August 2005 - Posts

  • Review of Review I

    Review of the Review of �The Land of Houlouf: Genesis of a Chadic Polity, 1900 BC � AD 1800� . Memoirs of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology No 38 by Susan Keech McIntosh (2005) in Antiquity 79 (304) June 2005


    There has been at least four different reviews of this book, by Henry Tourneux in Mega-Tchad� the Bulletin of the research network of the Chad basin), Scott MacEachern (American Antiquity 70: 194-5, 2005), G. Connah (African Archaeological Review 20: 171-4, 2003), and this one by Susan McIntosh, whose web version has just been made available. The problem is not to be praised or criticized. There are important differences in emphasis between the four book-reviews alluded to above, but the last one is special.

    The review by Susan Keech McIntosh stands out as the most abrasive and unfair for unknown reasons that will be probed in this review of Reviews. The reader(s) will allow the writer to use extensive quotes from the original review. But before proceeding ahead, it is important to have a little background of the situation. West Africa is huge; there is room for hundred of archaeologists working side by side to explore the past of that part of the African continent. Different ideas are explored and in fact researchers studying similar processes would have been expected to learn more from each other. This writer has always done and will continue to do that. For Susan Keech McIntosh on the other hand, if judged from her published record, Holl�s West African research does not exist, otherwise, it has to be erased.

    The Review�s introduction

    The first segment the review introduction runs as follows: �Land of Houlouf reports primarily on findings from ten short field seasons conducted between 1982 and 1991 at fourteen settlement mounds in Northern Cameroon. These mounds are among the thousands distributed on the clay and sand plains south of lake Chad in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. Relatively few have been excavated in Nigeria by Connah in the 1960s and by an interdisciplinary team from Frankfurt in the 1990s� . After a quick allusion to the 4000 years long sequence and the expression of high hopes, the book is summarized in a few lines: � The monograph presents the research programme goals and data (pp. 27-202), set between a brief background section and two concluding chapters that recast these data into an evolutionary sequence that culminates with the emergence of a chiefdom in the second Millennium AD�. That is precisely all that is provided to the reader about the whole book.

    A textual analysis of the wording and structure of these opening statements provides interesting insights: (1)� findings from ten short field seasons�, (2) �most extensive and reliable research�, (3) � a brief background section�, (4) �two concluding chapters�. As can easily be noticed, all these assertions are in the �diminutive� tone., but let us examine them in more details.

    (1) It is not clear what is referred to by �ten short field seasons�. The writer�s ten field seasons lasted for 4 to 8 weeks each; the 1989-90 field season was split into two visits of 4 weeks each, in December 1989 and February-March 1990. All the other 9 field-seasons lasted for 8 weeks each, more or less the standard length of annual field seasons. The choice of the word is very interesting.

    (2) The meaning of � most extensive and reliable research� seems obvious uttered as it is before reviewing the book. G. Connah excavated 7 sites, Bama Road Site, Bornu 38, Daima, Kursakata, Ajere, Yaw, Birni Ghazzargamo, stretched along a 1000 kilometer north-south transect. The Frankfurt-Maiduguri project did the same, with excavations at Konduga, Gajiganna. Kursakata, Megge, Dikoa, with however a more vigorous and coherent palaeoclimatological. Botanical, and zoological components. None of these project was framed as a tightly integrated regional project as the one reported in The Land of Houlouf. All these are archaeological works but the have different goals.

    (3) The expression �A brief background� lumps two chapters together to give the impression that it is a shallow irrelevant part of the book. The book�s title and structure are explained and made explicit in the preface on pages xv-xvi. Chapter 1 (pp. 1 � 18) deals with the history of Chadian plain archaeology. Chapter 2, (pp. 19-26) Social Formations..� delineate the theoretical perspective adopted in the book. One of its aims is to move away from unproductive terminological quibbling. And finally, chapter 3, (pp. 27 � 34) spells out the research program, bringing chapter 1 and 2 into a pragmatic and operational perspective.

    Assertion (4) is symmetric and complementary to assertion (3). The book surprisingly has �two concluding chapters� because the reviewer is unwilling to call them what they are: an integrated discussion of the emergence of complex social systems, from seasonal camps to Kingdoms, framed in the Annales perspective

    The introductory statements presented above set the stage for the next step. For the reviewer, Land of Houlouf disappoints. It is painful to say this, in view of the vast effort that went into the fieldwork and the preparation of this volume�

    On Excavation methodology

    The reviewer disappointment is then spelled out in the remaining part of the paper. The second paragraph of the review identifies �several pervasive problems�. The first to be mentioned revolves around the excavation methodology. The second is that of �interpretive specificity�. The allusion to faulty methodology is glossed upon, but never elaborated. Inversion in radiocarbon dates are not a mystery; they can be explained and are explained rationally wherever they occur. In fact they provided very interesting insights into the �life� of the archaeological site itself. Pits are dugs; other are filled. Erosion remobilized cultural remains and dropped them somewhere else, etc� An archaeological site is not a mausoleum. The misplaced dates are not taken into consideration in the general reconstruction of the regional sequence. The allusion to faulty methodology is expanded further, raising doubts on the field competence of the writer. If the materials collected within each 20 �90 cm deep occupation horizon were not �treated separately during collection and reporting�, one can but wonder how the frequency distribution and spatial scatter of shards as shown in the description of Houlouf Site would have been possible. One would equally wonder how it was possible to separate the material from habitation surface from that of the fill of collapsed and reworked material. There are at least two tables per excavated site dealing with a detailed taxonomy of the stratigraphic sequence. The sites sequence is divided into �Sedimentary units� based on litho-facies. They are divided into Occupation horizons that include a living surface, topped by a fill of collapsed and reworked material. Potsherds frequency, weight, density, and fragmentation indexes are used to assess the formation process of the mound under consideration. A very innovative work not only by West African standards. The issue raised at the end of the paragraph, falls in the category of the disputed �interpretive specificity�; the disagreement on the �horse house� suggestion according to which �the very same deposits were interpreted in an earlier publication (Holl 1988: 25) as a secondary accumulation due to water erosion from an abandoned sector of the site�. Unfortunately the reviewer reading of my previous description is partial and inaccurate; it is severed from its context and truncated. The idea developed in the writer�s 1988 book was derived from the comparison of sherds fragmentation indexes:

    Ainsi, les tessons des unites stratigraphiques comprises entre 1,60 et 2,00 m rsulteraient de laccumulation provoqu�e par le ruissellement dans un secteur abandonn� du site. Les indices de fragmentation compris entre 10,36 et 10,41 semblent indiquer un pi�tinnement de faible intensit� (Holl 1988: 25)

    Translated as:[.. Accordingly, shards from stratigraphic units exposed between 1.60 and 2.00 m may have been accumulated by water run-off from an abandoned part of the site. Fragmentation indexes, varying from 10.36 to 10.41 tend to indicate a low degree of trampling].

    In addition, any archaeological feature takes its potential functional interpretation from its context and the cultural remains it is associated with. The idea of 钓horse hut� is inferred from the watering-trough, the dung shape (round hut), and evidence of horsemanship found with the adult skeleton buried in what was part of the courtyard, with dispersed complete vessels. The inference is not as ad-hoc as the reviewer intends it to be understood.

    No Data in Charts and Tables?

    The third paragraph starts with a wish, that �the excavation data from the fourteen sites were clearer and more user friendly�. But as can be expected the reviewer is disappointed once again: �Instead of presenting quantitative and descriptive data on artifacts and fauna in charts and tables, the author embeds them in a dense narrative, that consider each occupation horizon and excavation unit in turn� . It was precisely the intention of the writer to discuss archaeological evidence within its context of finds before moving toward higher generalization. However, the next assertion according to which �For the numerous urn burials excavated, there is no summary table of grave goods, urn types, body position, age and sex, ..�, etc.. flies in the face of the evidence. A listing all the grave-goods from the urn burials is found in table 37 (p. 218). Details from the pottery is found in table A7, to which the reader is referred to several times on pages 176-177. The position of the body is identical for all the burials from the Houlouf phase cemetery. �The 24 deceased uncovered in the cemetery were buried in almost the same position: facing southwest, in a sitting or almost upright position(..), and 21 with their feet in pots� (Holl 2002: 177). All the deceased are adults and the state of preservation of bones did not allow for the determination of sex. There is nothing wrong with a reader having to search for the information he/she wants. That is what library research is all about. It is surprising to required from any potential writer to provide �ready to cook� data files.

    The reviewer is well known for her advocacy of pottery sequences and it is from this background that one can understand her comments on shards �not studied at all�. First of all, sherds were used in the study, not build a pottery sequence but to assess site formation processes. Second, with few exceptions, there are enough complete vessels or restorable size pieces that are used to bring to light the potting traditions that developed throughout the 4000 years long archaeological sequence. The aims of the research is to reconstruct the patterns of craft practices that developed in the past and follow their change /or lack of it through time. The issue is not to stick to a specific method.

    It can easily be seen that most of the assertions uttered in paragraph 3 are incorrect.

    A dubious Chronological Framework

    The reviewer has her strongest words in the four paragraph of her review. For the use of radiocarbon dates what matters really is not their quantity but their distribution, in combination with stratigraphic information. It is as simple as that. The phasing of the regional sequence is �based on major changes in settlement pattern. Each settlement was named after the site from which the most significant archaeological record from the phase has been recorded� (Holl 2002: 203). Not surprisingly, the conclusion is inescapable. � In the end, one must conclude that the ambitious theoretical agenda persued is not sustained by the data presented��


    The writer does not wish to second guess the intentions of Dr. Susan Keech McIntosh. All along this review of the review, it has been shown quite systematically that her assertions are incorrect. Her conclusion is even more troublesome if one reads the review by G. Connah, the research she cites as exemplar. He has his own critical stance on The Land of Houlouf and his development are particularly interesting:

    �These criticisms must be balanced against the undoubted merits of this book. For instance, the recognition of Occupation Horizons in the excavations and their detailed description is very important and goes far beyond the mechanical recording of arbitrary spits or the identification of more general units of natural stratification that have often been the case on such sites. In particular, the analysis of those surfaces, with their remains of dwellings and evidence of domestic, industrial, and ritual activities, and the application to them of radiocarbon dating, allows the construction of a series of sites sequences that relate to actual occupations and form components in an overall sequence for the area. In the end the book really does live up to its title, managing to trace the process by which intermittent seasonal sites gradually evolved first into autonomous villages, then into a cluster of villages with two dominant centers, and later into a chiefdom where one large city dominated the rest of the settlements, only to be integrated finally into an even larger state(..) Also deserving credit is the ambitious analysis of the Houlouf phase A cemetery, of AD 1500-1600 (�), particularly for its attempt to assign rank and occupation to the different burials� (Connah 2003: 173).

    The Land of Houlouf is a highly innovative work; it generates its own problems but it stands out as a unique case of strongly integrated regional analysis and empirically sound study of a specific case of the emergence of complex social systems. Dr. Susan Keech McIntosh has a different take. So be it.

    Augustin F.C. Holl

    Museum of Anthropology

    The University of Michigan,

    Ann Arbor

    Posted Aug 05 2005, 05:42 PM by intellectualhonesty with no comments
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  • Review of Reviews

    Books reviews are with many other aspect of scholarship, an important component of the ongoing advancement of knowledge. critical reviews are very useful for any author when they are fair and balanced, and can reveals facets of the topic taken for granted by the original writers. But it is more and more common for some colleagues to discharge their frustrations and settle scores in books reviews. Some journals, as the Journal of Anthropological Research, have established precise guidelines to avoid the mis-use of the book reviews. Most journals still trust individual contributors and in this sense, keep the Pandora Box open. Two of my recent books went through unfair and blatantly hostiles reviews. The review of "Ethnoarchaeology of Shuwa-Arab Settlements" by Dr. N. David (Antiquity ) and Dr. MacEachern (Journal of African History 45:347-8, 2004) are patronizing and insulting. that of "The Land of Houlouf.." by Dr. S.K. McIntosh (Antiquity 79 (304), June 2005, is the materialization of profound dishonesty, articulated on allusions and fabrication. It is important to protect books reviews from ill-intended scholars, who target some individuals they dislike, and chase them all over the academic landscape. ---------------------
    Posted Aug 02 2005, 03:23 PM by intellectualhonesty with no comments
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