Archive | May, 2015

Fieldwork: The Langtang Survivors Fund, The Ruins of Palmyra, and the Role of the Archaeologist in the Present

31 May

As a subscriber of the University of York’s round-up of Mesolithic archaeological news, in the form of the Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter, it was with surprise and sadness that I came across a first hand account of the earthquake that hit Nepal in late April of this year.  University of York researchers Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton were a part of an archaeological field team conducting work in Nepal, based at the Himalayan village of Langtang, which is north of the Kathmandu valley, when the main 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on Saturday 25th of April.

The field team had left their base at village of Langtang a mere two hours before the quake struck and managed to survive the initial event and the aftershocks with the help of their guides.  Unfortunately, after an arduous and nerve-wracking trek to an evacuation point, they heard the news that the village of Langtang had been destroyed by the avalanches and subsequent landslides as a result of the initial quake and the aftershocks. The small population had been almost entirely killed, with almost every building standing having been flattened from the force of the landslide (see BBC, Reuters & Nepali Times).

Langtang_village

Before the earthquake and landslide. The Langtang village in the Langtang National Park, located in northern Nepal close to the border with Tibet. The village was popular with travellers and winter sport enthusiasts. Image credit: Yosarian via Wikipedia.

Hayley and Emma are helping to raise funds via their Just Giving webpage for the Langtang Survivors Fund, which will go directly towards those who survived the quake and helped guide Hayley, Emma and others on the trek to safety, to help re-build their lives after losing family, friends, their homes and their way of life.  The Nepal earthquake, called Gorkha, that rocked the country and surrounding areas at the end of April of this year, have devastated the Himalayan country.  The main quake and its after shocks, which have continued into May, have killed many in the country (current estimates are at over 7,000 individuals, with many more injured) and has left both the population and its many villages, towns and cities in dire straits and in need of medical aid, food and shelter.

Langtang and Himalayan Culture

The small village of Langtang, in the Bagmati zone in northern Nepal, sits within a national park of some splendour, acting as a starting point for tourists to explore the Himalayan mountain range in the north of Nepal.  Home to around 540 people, the village was a popular destination for tourists visiting the country and hoping to get a glance of the Himalayan mountain range and the Nepalese way of life.  The village catered for the tourists by having almost 55 places to stay, with many of these hotels being  family ran business which catered for the guests.  The Himalayan mountain range is home to a delicate ecosystem and the range has managed to shape the cultures in the countries that share them profoundly, both in their religious worldview (the peaks being sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism) and in their adaptive lifestyle to a harsh environment.

Home to the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, the Himalayans have also been an area of intense interest to explorers from around the world for decades.  An area of outstanding beauty, it is also an area of tense international pressure with both the countries bordering the Peoples Republic of China’s eastern border and the abuse of the mountain guides (normally the Sherpa people drawn from the upper Himalayan range) causing international ire.  For instance, Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is host to many Buddhist monasteries which have seen a relatively severe clampdown on by Chinese authorities following the 1959 Tibetan uprising starting in the capital of Lhasa.  As such the value of cultural heritage is richly viewed as having an important part to play in the formation of identity for the countries that share the Himalayan mountain range.

Since the earthquake, landslides and the subsequent and enormous damage done to villages like Langtang and cities such as Kathmandu, there have been reports of artefact and heritage looting in Nepal.  The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) organisation have highlighted the effect that the selling of artefacts after the earthquake helps to further strip the identity and national heritage of the country and urges individuals and organisations not to buy these artefacts.  Nepal has suffered greatly from the natural disaster, as it is a country that relies heavily on tourism and it has been hit hard by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.  It is hoped that the sale of its richly historical artefacts, although for reasons understandable, slowly trickles to an end in order to help rebuild the parts of the country affected.  As SAFE highlight, the cultural heritage of a country is a non-renewable resource.  Nepal relies on both its natural beauty and its rich history and culture for its economy.  To destroy that would be to wound it twice.

Palmyra: Blood on the Land

In other news the extremist group Islamic State (otherwise known as Da’ish, Da’eesh ISIS, ISIL) have recently taken the city of Palmyra in Syria from the hands of Syria’s ruler Bashar Al-Assad’s army, taking both the infamous Tadmor prison and the ancient city of Palmyra itself in the bargain.  The modern town of Palmyra lies on a strategically important location between the capital of Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zeir (BBC), and represents an important symbolic gain in a country where Palmyra is held up as a UNESCO world heritage site of international importance.  Furthermore it is close to oil and gas fields which help supply the western cities still under control by Al-Assad.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has consistently reported on the conflict in Syria, both on the appallingly violence employed by each of the factions fighting in the country.

BenPalmyra

The massive Roman tetrapylon at the historic site of Palmyra, which acted as a monument generally built near crossroads. The ancient city of Palmyra has a particularly rich and diverse history, of which it’s Roman side was but just one. The ruins of the site are mostly architectural in nature, but do include exquisite examples of a distinct city culture, unique in the Middle East. Image credit: courtesy of Ben Wheatley.

Born out of the 2010-2011 Arabic Spring demonstrations across north Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq, where numerous factions fight a bloody, tense long game of attrition.  Since the start of the civil war there is now currently a total of 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria, 220,000 killed since the start of the violence, and a further 3.9 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries (source).

The so-called Islamic State, a self-styled Islamic caliphate, has become one of the prime contenders for power in the region.  Controlling almost 50% of the land mass of Syria (but not some of major eastern cities) and large chunks of Iraq, the group has thrived on its propaganda to spread its message of intolerance and violence.  Chief among these are the both the show and summary executions carried out in the provinces it controls and, secondly, its wanton destruction of the heritage.  This destruction and the selling of looted artefacts, largely of pre-Islamic art and architecture (particularly any images of the body which the group claims is idolatry) and Shia mosques (the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunis in Nineveh, for example), is justified by their strict adherence to their view of Sunni Islam.

It is this destruction of heritage that has many worried in the world as the group currently controls Palmyra.  Already news has filtered in of the possible destruction of the 1st century lion (Al-Assad name, the incumbent leader of Syria, means Lion in arabic) and of a bloody retribution in the form of executions of police and army forces and civilians throughout the modern and ancient city.  This follows IS’s form from previous takeovers of cultural heritage sites, such as the unique archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra, where they have actively destroyed large parts of the above-ground sites.

There has also been recent news regarding the destruction of a vitally important Mosul Central Library in the Iraq, following the desecration of the main museum.  There is a stark difficulty in attaining reliable sources within IS controlled territory however, as the group fiercely control what and how they show their effect on both the population and territories under their control.  What is clear however is that Islamic State profit hugely by the selling of stolen antiquities on the black market, which helps fund their campaign of terror and slaughter.

It is worth pointing out here the difficulties in finding reliable sources within Syria on the cultural heritage destruction currently taking place throughout the country.  Nor is it just IS who are carrying out the looting and destruction on heritage sites and museums in Syria, but also parts of the Syrian army and other factions fighting in the country.  I advise readers who want to keep informed and up to date to check out Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Heritage, where many of his posts explicitly detail what is known and what is unknown about the situation in both Palmyra and Syria at large. This post is a good start.

Yet it is not just heritage that faces the wrath of the numerous factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Medécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders), an impartial independent organisation that helps medical aid where it is most needed, have repeatedly warned of the violence that medical staff in the country face, both from the government and from the opposition forces.  This is partly targeted attacks against medical staff and civilians.  Operating in clandestine situations, the organisation and it’s staff have also faced sustained violence and intimidation, even whilst trying to give aid to individuals who need it.

Fieldwork Thoughts

The role of the archaeologist in the field, either during commercial (or CRM) work or during research fieldwork is primarily to collect data, often through a combination of surveying, excavation and/or collating samples for analysis.  The role of academic fieldwork where the pace can, at times, be more relaxed, also allows for a greater integration into the everyday life of the people who you may be based with or around.  Although there is a caveat to this in the fact that some fieldwork takes place in remote, inaccessible locations, a good many field work projects could only take place with the help, aid and friendship of various organisations and individuals.

As Hayley and Emma attest in their vivid recollection of quake, this was the case at Langtang.  It was with the help and dedication of their hosts in Nepal that they have had many succesful seasons of fieldwork at Langtang and that they, and their co-workers, had become deeply involved with life at Langtang.  This has involved getting to know the guides personally and meeting their extended family members, alongside taking an active interest within the daily life at Langtang.

Palmyra represents the possible (until there is firm evidence of destruction this website will not indulge in becoming a mouthpiece of propaganda) destruction of heritage that plays a vitally important part in the identity and self of sense in Syria.  As a BBC article highlights  that:

it must be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions – it is the loss of connection between multiple generations” (source).

Further to this the repercussions of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the lack of any in-depth will by international partners to aid and stabilize the countries, could have serious geopolitical consequences on the world stage amongst the international community.

As archaeologists we know that the past and the present are intimately linked by cultural bonds and values that help transcend history, and help inform identity and actions today.  As such, and as a discipline, we would be remiss to conduct our fieldwork without knowledge of the environment in which we work.  Finally, we must ask ourselves what is heritage without the people?

Further Information

  • The Just Giving page for the Langtang Survivors Fund, and the first hand account of the devastation, can be found here.  Donations are still welcome.  The funds raised by Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton are to be given to the Community Action Nepal charity, who are based in Kathmandu, in memory of the many friends that both Hayley and Emma made at the village of Langtang during their fieldwork seasons.  The UK-based Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), who bring together 13 charities, has also launched an appeal.  You find out more and donate here.
  • Medicéns Sans Frontiéres help distribute and organise medical aid around the world, particularly in hard to reach areas.  They often operate in situations deemed too dangerous by many aid organisations.  The organisation is impartial, neutral and independent, and helps respond to both natural and man-made disasters.  They regularly operate in dangerous climates where other aid organisations will not work in and have been instrumental in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in parts of western Africa.  You can help support their important work here.
  • The Mesolithic Miscellany site started out as a journal although this has somewhat petered out within recent years – back editions of the journal are available on their website however.  The Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter is very active though and advertises recently published articles, edited volumes or books on Mesolithic archaeology.  You can subscribe for free here.
  • The Saving Antiquities for Everyone organisation homepage can be found here.  The non-profit organisation helps highlight cultural destruction from around the globe and carry out both research and fieldwork.  The wide range of the campaigns that it carries out, in places such as Haiti and Kashgar alongside general advocacy, can be found here.
  • Conflict Antiquities, a blog ran by Dr Sam Hardy, regularly provides accurate information on the destruction carried out by IS and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The site also thoroughly documents examples of conflict antiquities and cultural destruction from around the world.
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Blogging Bioarchaeology: Advice on Best Practice, Engagement and Outreach

28 May

The latest issue of the peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology journal is titled Critical Blogging in Archaeology and features an article titled Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology by two notable bloggers, Kristina Killgrove and Katy Meyers Emery (Emery & Killgrove 2015).  Killgrove runs the Powered by Osteons site focusing on Roman bioarchaeology, classical archaeology and bioanthropology, whilst Emery runs Bones Don’t Lie, a site focusing on mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology and reviewing the pertinent literature.  I admit here to having an interest in the article as I am, amongst others, one of the bloggers discussed in the article who also helped to provide a quote for the article.

Regardless, I feel that it is important to raise the publishing of this article as it represents an excellent example of an overview of the pertinent issues in blogging bioarchaeology.  These include understanding the benefits, both personal and professional, of running a bioarchaeology blog, understanding the role and importance of authority in blogging archaeology (see also Richardson 2014) and advice on best practice for bioarchaeology bloggers themselves.  In a way this article specifically builds upon a small raft of recent archaeology and anthropology-blogging focused papers (de Konig 2013, Richardson 2014) by focusing only on bioarchaeology as a still nascent archaeology blogging specialism dominated by several main sites.

As Emery and Killgrove (2015) highlight, there is a remarkably small online presence of bioarchaeologists, even though there is a large public hunger for knowledge on the methods used in both the bioarchaeological and forensic sciences.  The authors also raise one of the interesting blogging demographic trends in bioarchaeology – the strong representation of females compared to males in skeletal-based specialisms, such as biological anthropology or palaeopathology. This is something that is replicated in the discipline itself across both the academic and commercial field.  I won’t go any further into the article here as it is wonderfully open access and deserve to be read in its entirety.  I particularly recommend any researchers interested in archaeological blogging to read the article as it offers sage advice that can apply to the whole field rather than just the specialism of bioarchaeology.

It’d be somewhat remiss of me if I did not mention here the other fantastic bioarchaeology bloggers and their sites also referenced in the post.  I’d highly recommend checking them out and seeing what they have to offer as each blogger bring their own unique view on bioarchaeology and tackle a wide variety of subjects within the discipline.  They are as follows:

  • Bone Broke, by Jess Beck – an excellent site to learn about the finer points of human osteology and then have the opportunity to test yourself on the bone quizzes.  Keep an eye out for the various mini series that Jess runs on the site, from anatomy vocabularies to the osteology everywhere series.  The occasional travelogue also highlights the travels that the author heads out on.
  • Powered By Osteons, by Kristina Killgrove – sick of the inaccuracies in the TV show Bones?  Head over to PbO to learn about the real methods used in the study of skeletal material in forensic circumstances.  The site includes fascinating research posts on Roman bioarchaeology, a remarkably little studied specialism on the classical world.  Furthermore you can entertain yourself by looking through Who Needs An Osteologist series to figure out which skeletal element has been misplaced.
  • Bones Don’t Lie, by Katy Meyers Emery – a regularly updated site which features a wide review of current and past academic articles focusing on mortuary and funerary archaeology.  Katy carefully dissects the context and content of the articles and highlights the most important and pertinent parts for the reader, an invaluable service in a world where many bioarchaeological articles are still locked behind a paywall, inaccessible to most.
  • Deathsplanation, by Alison Atkin – Black death research galore as Alison elucidates the finer points of bioarchaeological research as applied to historic populations devastated by this still captivating medieval epidemic.  Keep an eye out for her series on disability in archaeology and for the occasional entertaining and thought provoking art pieces.
  • Strange Remains, by Dolly Stolze – Dolly’s site focuses on the stranger side of death and human remains, whether this is the varying approach that humans have taken to body deposition or funerary treatment, or to the more somber forensic aspects of skeletal recovery and analysis.

Alternatively if you yourself are a bioarchaeologist, or have an interest in bioarchaeology, and want to build up your communication skills and outreach experience then I’d advise joining the crowd and get blogging!

Bibliography

de Koning, M. 2013. Hello World! Challenges for Blogging as Anthropological Outreach. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19 (2): 394-397. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12040.

Emery, K. M. & Killgrove, K. 2015. Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology. Internet Archaeology. 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.5. (Open Access).

Richardson, L-J. 2014. Understanding Archaeological Authority in a Digital Context. Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.38.1. (Open Access).

KORA Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology Workshops at the University of Kent, June 2015

9 May

The Kent Osteological Research and Analysis unit (KORA) at the University of Kent is offering individuals interested in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology the chance to get to grips in understanding the value of analysing human skeletal remains by playing host to two workshops in June 2015.  The great selling point about these particular courses are the fact that they are open to members of the public, as well as to archaeologists who are keen to gain experience of handling and analysing archaeologically sourced human skeletal remains.

Details of the two workshops can be found below on the poster.  The first is the Medieval Burials in Canterbury workshop running on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st of June at a cost of £75.  The second workshop is titled CSI (Crime Science Investigation) at Kent and runs on the Saturday 27 and Sunday 28th of June, again costing £75.  Taking place at the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the Marlowe Building on Canterbury Campus, the two 2 day long courses offer the chance to learn about the methodologies used to estimate the age-at-death, biological sex and stature with hands on activities in using the methods learned beforehand.  The Medieval burials workshop, offering the chance to handle and analyse skeletal remains from the historic town of Canterbury, also includes aspects on funerary archaeology (such as burial position, grave goods and cemetery analysis).  The CSI workshop includes the opportunity to learn about the nature of traumatic injury and the effect that this can have on the skeletal elements in a human body, both during life and death.

This is a great example of education outreach aimed at highlighting just what it is that archaeologists and forensic anthropologists do with human skeletal material and, more importantly, why.  As long time readers of this blog may know the skeletal remains of humans provide an awful lot of both biological and cultural information pertaining to both that individual and their society.  As such I am enthused that such workshops are opening up to the non-specialist in order for the general public to learn what bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists actually do and why it is important.

kora

The University of Kent KORA poster detailing the workshops available.

As always I am very happy to advertise bioarchaeology, human osteology or forensic anthropology short courses, or workshops, taking place in the United Kingdom on this site.  Please feel free to contact me with further information on any upcoming courses and I will endeavor to post an entry about it (time allowing).  I can be contacted via email on the About Me tab or at thesebonesofmine (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Further Information

  • To book your place on either workshop please visit the University of Kent site here or contact Jackie Fotheringham (details here) for further information on the workshops.  The School of Anthropology and Conservation plays host to a wide range of open days, conferences, workshops and education outreach events, please see here for a calendar for the year detailing these (including the anthropology of hands conference in June!).
  • The department at Kent, like the University of Durham and University College London, have a particularly strong anthropology research basis where the fields of biological anthropology, forensic science and bioarchaeology play a key foundation into the study of humanity.  Furthermore the department at kent also boasts a dedicated human osteology laboratory which has the facilities for dental and bone histology alongside stable isotope preparation and analysis.

Death as Life: Guardian Article on the Science of Human Decomposition

6 May

The former neuroscientist and current science journalist Mo Costandi has a new article in The Guardian titled Life After Death: The Science of Human Decomposition.  It is well worth a read for those interested in how the body changes and starts to break down immediately following death, with new insights into the ecology of death itself.  It is well-known that, as the body goes through the initial death and decomposition stages towards skeletonization, it plays host to a wide range of insect life.  However it is only really in the past few years that the study of the so-called thanatomicrobiome has really blossomed, particularly with the rise of the ‘body farms’ across the world where human remains can be scientifically studied and sampled in-situ, in a variety of both buried or non-buried contexts which mimic where bodies are found (Can et al. 2014).  (Although sadly the United Kingdom still lacks a human body farm, there is an animal body farm at Glywndr University in Wales, created by forensic scientists at the university to study taphonomic change in non-human corpses).

There are obvious applications in understanding the mechanisms of the thanatomicrobiome and of the ecology present, particularly with the application of the methods in the forensic sciences in helping to pinpoint the time of death of an individual.  As Costandi demonstrates in his remarkable article the human body can be a veritable oasis of life in death, playing host to many species of insect life – this is particularly fascinating for forensic entomologists and anthropologists, but also to bioarchaeologists who work in conditions where the remains, and life stage, of insects can be identified and placed within a certain cycle of decomposition stage, if found within the context of a body.

It is also particularly interesting for those who study bioarchaeology as it highlights the differentiation found not just between bodies in the act of decomposition but also throughout the same body itself, and how this can change due to body location and environment.  This is highlighted by the observations of certain insects at unexpected places, perhaps taking actions that one would not expect – that is very important for the forensic sciences and bioarchaeological sciences as it can determine the theorised location of the body and if the body has moved after death took place but before retrieval (Lindgren et al. 2015).  The action of the gut microbiome also plays a key role in the decomposition of the body as it aids greatly in the decomposition of the body as whole during the biomolecular breakdown of the bodies numerous and varied cells.  The composition of it can also vary from person to person.  The understanding of the decomposition stages and of the taphonomic sequences in the forensic or archaeological record is thus vital to understanding the context of the body itself; whether this helps to identify if the individual underwent a funerary ritual and/or mortuary processing or to identifying whether the individual was buried in a clandestine or a non-normative manner.

Further Information

  • Mo Costandi’s article for the Guardian newspaper can be read here.

Bibliography

Can, I., Javan, G. T., Pozhitkov, A. E. & Noble, P. A. 2014. Distinctive Thanatomicrobiome Signatures Found in the Blood and Internal Organs of Humans. Journal of Microbiological Methods. 106: 1-7.

Lindgren, N. K., Sisson, M. S., Archambeault, A. D., Rahlwes, B. C., Willets, J. R. & Bucheli, S. R. 2015. Four Forensic Entomology Case Studies: Records and Behavioral Observations on Seldom Reported Cadaver Fauna with Notes on Relevant Previous Occurrences and Ecology. Journal of Medical Entomology. 52 (2): 143-150.

Guest Post: An Archaeologist, an Anthropologist and an Anarchist Walk into a Bar… by Stuart Rathbone

3 May

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to pursue an archaeology career in the United States.  His Academia profile, with links to Stuart’s published papers, can be found here.  A previous These Bones of Mine interview, on the nature of archaeological field work and the issues surrounding this, can be found here .  He also runs the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology group on Facebook and is also quite fond of hardcore jungle music.


There are many different ways of classifying societies based for instance on levels of technology, on economic organisation, on the size of their area of influence and so on.  A very fundamental scheme is to divide societies into those that are organised hierarchically and those which are organised anarchically, i.e. without a hierarchic class or power structure.  Anarchic organisation has long been recognised but it took a surprisingly long time for anthropologists and archaeologists to develop a convincing understanding of them.  The ‘segmented lineage systems’ that were the focus of research by the likes of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s and Meyer Fortes between the 1930’s and 1950’s represent early attempts to understand how complex societies could exist without obvious hierarchical power structures (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Fortes 1945).  Reading these accounts it becomes clear that a major problem was the frequent presence of defined leaders within societies that were not organised hierarchically.

A major breakthrough occurred when Harold Barclay developed his ‘limited leadership’ model which highlighted the widespread phenomenon of anarchic communities that utilised leaders with very defined levels of power and authority, whose rewards from claiming the leadership role are rather difficult to determine, and who are essentially beholden to the collective will of their community (Barclay 1982; 1986; 1989).  The existence of a chief in the limited leadership model is more akin to a spokesman than a ruler.  The leader must discuss with the group to gauge the collective feeling and then present what has essentially already been agreed to as the leaders decision.  With no equivalent to a police force or military guard to call on to enforce their will limited leaders have little individual power.  Attempts to take actions against the prevailing mood fail, and the leader ends up undermined and in danger of ridicule or dismissal, and, in extreme cases, in danger of being killed.  Similarly attempts by such a leader to consolidate their power or to exploit the power they have by claiming too many rewards will likely lead to their expulsion or death.  As William Geddes pointed out in regards to the Dayak tribes of Borneo, “the Dayaks are anarchists” who are led by the nominal headman “only when they agree to be led” (Geddes 1957).

A second very important model was developed by the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres (Clastres 1977; 2010).  Whilst Clastres covers some of the same ground as Barclay, in particular demonstrating eloquently the dangers of a limited leader in over extending their authority, the main thrust of his work is his notion of the ‘Society against the State’.  Clastres argues that the constant levels of warfare seen amongst many ‘simple’ societies should not be seen as an unfortunate social factor restricting the development of more complex social forms.  Rather Clastres proposes that it is a deliberate strategy that has developed specifically in order to stop societies adopting hierarchical forms that would ultimately lead to state formation.  In this model warfare is a vital process that is used specifically to maintain individual and community autonomy, at the cost of forfeiting whatever benefits hierarchical organisation might bring.  Interestingly this model interferes with the commonly used social evolutionary schemes, such as the influential model promoted by Elman Service that sees society progress from band to tribe to chiefdom to kingdom before arriving at the ‘goal’ of statehood.  Instead Clastres model divides all societies into States and Societies against the State which are not stages in a linear progression.  Instead societies switch between the two forms, with the switch to hierarchical organisation often triggered through outside influences.  A switch from hierarchic to anarchic forms can occur through various circumstances, either violent resistance, migration or through social collapse.

r1

Typical ideas of social evolutionary progress as promoted by the likes of Elman Service and Colin Renfrew.

The work of both Clastres and Barclay remained somewhat peripheral until quite recently when a number of researchers began building on the foundations they established.  Recently David Graeber, Charles Macdonald and Brian Morris have all produced interesting work that explores different aspects of anarchic anthropology (Graeber 2004; Macdonald 2008 & 2009; Morris 2005).  In 2012 Bill Angelbeck and Colin Grier published a paper that represented the first time that archaeological data was explicitly examined from an anarchic perspective (Angelbeck & Grier 2012).  The paper reviews historical records of the Coast Salish Indian groups of the pacific coast of North America and identifies a complex limited leadership system that boarders on being a class structure.  The ‘inverted pear shaped model’ takes anarchic organisation to the very limit.  The majority of each group belonged to an ‘elite’ class that are supported by a tiny lower class stratum consisting of war captives held as slaves, and outcasts from other groups.  A clear leadership strata was present, but these positions were held by merit and the boundary between the ‘elite’ majority and the leadership group was permeable in both directions depending on performance.  The paper goes on to examine archaeological data from the Salish Coast area over a two thousand year time span.  The authors identify a repeating pattern of shifts between hierarchical organisation and anarchic organisation with periods of increased warfare apparently preceding each shift towards anarchic conditions.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

At the start of 2015 Robert Bettinger published a book length account of Californian societies based on a large review of archaeological evidence (Bettinger 2015).  The narrative describes a gradual reduction in social group size, linked to developments in technology and changes in the environment.  Bettinger argues that these changes led to the widespread and prolonged existence of small non-hierarchical social groups he characterises as ‘orderly anarchy’.  A symposium was organised at the 2015 Society for American Archaeologists conference to discuss the implications of Bettinger’s work and this suggests a widening interest in the archaeological use of anarchist theory.

Anarchic Archaeology in Britain and Ireland

Given the much greater separation between archaeology and anthropology that exists in Britain and Ireland than is found in America and Europe it is perhaps unsurprising that developments in anarchic anthropology have attracted little attention.  Earlier this year I published a short paper that might represent the first attempt to produce an anarchic archaeology in either Britain or Ireland, although there may well be earlier examples that I am not aware of (Rathbone 2015).  My ongoing research is attempting to fuse the developments in anarchic anthropology with ideas and theories culled directly from political anarchist literature.  Anarchism as a political movement developed in the mid-19th century and there is a vast body of anarchist literature, a substantial proportion of which deals with an anarchist reading of history and archaeology.  This material can be quite wayward and is often an unrealistic reading of the data.  Nevertheless anarchist history is interesting in that it offers different interpretations of well-known events, presents different motivations for why things may have occurred, offers sympathetic accounts of groups and individuals widely criticised in main stream history, and looks at topics that attract little interest elsewhere.  In addition to anarchist history I have been attempting to understand anarchist political theory with the aim of seeing if any of the numerous proposals (and the smaller number of real world examples) of how complex societies can operate in the absence of centralised government might have useful applications in archaeology.  Whilst this is all very much a work in progress, here I want to present four examples of how such a fusion of anarchism and archaeology might be usefully applied, two dealing with prehistoric subjects and two dealing with the post-Medieval world.

Identifying state formation

I suspect most archaeologists would be comfortable with the idea that anarchic groups were present throughout the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods when we suspect only small mobile hunter gather groups were present.  On the other hand it is clear that several centuries before the Roman invasion of Britain state formation had occurred across large areas and that a reasonably stratified society was in place.  What can be gleaned from the proto-historic accounts relating to the Late Irish Iron Age also indicate that the county was dominated by a number of small states with each community enmeshed in a complex network of obligations and responsibilities to their states rulers.  An important question is therefore whether we can identify the process of state formation somewhere between the onset of the Neolithic period and the end of the Early or Middle Iron Age.  It would seem likely that such a process would be complex and occur in different parts of Britain and Ireland at different times.  This may not have been a simple evolutionary process along the lines of Service’s model.  Instead we might find a repeated flipping between anarchic ‘anti-states’ and hierarchical states.  Such a process could explain the oddities in the settlement patterns where we can observe repeated failed attempts at introducing villages to areas dominated by dispersed settlements (Ginn & Rathbone 2012; Ginn 2013; Rathbone 2013a, Rathbone 2013b & 2015).  Each location where villages began to develop could mark the beginnings of a transition towards hierarchical organisation.  The abandonment of villages in a given area might mark a society rejecting the existence of the hierarchies and choosing to return to an anarchic state.  If so we might expect to find evidence of increased violence coinciding with the end of village life at a particular time and place.

Central to the ‘Society against the State’ model is the use of violence between neighbouring group as a method to stop the formation of hierarchical power structures.  Violence is also a common feature within non-hierarchical groups where consensus building and sanctions such as taboos, gossip and mockery have failed to resolve a problem.  Contrary to the utopian visions of political anarchists it seems that when no method to exert authority exists and an impasse in opinions has been reached violence may be the only solution.  Steven Pinker has explored the level of violence in societies across a great span of time and demonstrated rather convincingly that as hierarchical control expands the aggregate level of violence declines (Pinker 2011).  Pinker argues that as state authority has spread across the world and states have claimed ever increasing levels of control over their populations the effect is a drastic reduction in overall violence that he dubs ‘the civilising process’.  Despite the ability of modern states to kill tens of thousands of people in a matter of moments, the monopoly they have claimed over the application of lethal force has led to ever decreasing death rates.  It would seem therefore that decreasing levels of violence can be directly related to the development of hierarchical authority.  There have been numerous attempts to determine the level of violence present at different points in the archaeological record but it remains a difficult task given the incomplete nature of the burial record.  However it does seem that actual skeletal evidence of violence is most common in the European Early Neolithic period and declines after that point, although both the Late Bronze Age and Late Iron Age do seem to also be particularly violent periods (Heath 2009; Rathbone 2015).

This is clearly not the place to present a full interpretation of several millennia’s evidence.  Instead a few elements from a single time period, the Early Neolithic, are offered as an example of how such analysis might proceed.  Martin Smith and Megan Brickley’s study of the skeletal remains from Early Neolithic long barrows revealed a high level of violence that is certainly consistent with anarchic societies (Smith & Brickley 2009).  Similarly the number of Early Neolithic enclosures in Britain that seem to have been attacked by massed forces are exactly what we might expect among neighbouring anarchic societies.  Recent C14 analysis suggests that the use of large long houses in the Early Neolithic came to an abrupt end around 3600 BC.  Jessica Smyth has detailed the high proportion of Early Neolithic longhouses that were burnt down, but favours this as a ritual burning at the end of the occupation (Smyth 2010 & 2014).  However such burning is consistent with anarchic violence and the number of arrowheads and axes associated with these buildings may be more important in terms of their relationship with violence rather than ceremony.  This evidence would be consistent with a widespread implementation of ‘the Society against the State’ and the far less impressive settlement pattern that follows the Long House horizon may therefore mark a shift to smaller anarchic communities.

Anarcho-Federalist Henge Builders?

The monumental construction projects that form such a prominent part of Late Neolithic archaeology are often described as being the work of a specialised ‘ritual elite’ capable of designing and project managing such great undertakings.  In fact much of the language used in discussions of this phenomenon seems curiously anachronistic, with terms like engineers, architects and man hours appearing jarringly misplaced.  Whilst clearly large scale projects involving sizeable groups of people, the evidence to support the presence of these ‘ritual elites’ is curiously absent.  In general the monuments are not associated with either large settlements or large elite residences, and the designs of the monuments themselves seem ill-fitted to be used for the aggrandisement of particularly powerful individuals or groups.  If an elite was really present they seem remarkably restrained in terms of their desire to emphasise their personal power and authority.  There has been little discussion of the mechanisms through which an elite could coerce a large workforce into undertaking decades long construction projects without leaving any obvious traces of a military force or an economic system that would allow for suitable payment of a willing workforce.  The monumental complexes certainly provide ample evidence of an ability to co-ordinate a large number of people working on a significant task, and an ability to utilise resources drawn from a considerable area.  In the 1970’s there were important debates about the existence or absences of elites throughout the prehistoric periods of Britain.  This seems to have reached somewhat of an impasse and a default position of accepting the presence of elites was adopted in lieu of a better explanation (Parker Pearson 2012).

Two areas of anarchist theory seem to offer useful lines of research.  The first is the idea of the anarchist federation which was initially promoted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun and enthusiastically taken up by Petr Kropotkin amongst many others (Marshall 2008).  In the anarchist federation individual groups co-operate in order to undertake tasks that would be beyond their own abilities.  The federation is organised in such a way that the individual groups retain most of their autonomy and only grant the federation the authority to organise for the specific agreed tasks.  Whilst a fully developed federation might superficially resemble a hierarchical power structure the emphasis on consensus building and the limitations placed on the power of its members mean it operates quite differently.  A large number of autonomous groups living over a considerable area might form such a federation in order to accomplish specific tasks, such as the monumental religious building projects seen in the Late Neolithic.  Interestingly there is a significant decrease in the skeletal evidence for violence in the Late Neolithic (Heath 2009).  As explained above this could have resulted from a more authoritarian political structure, but it could potentially have derived from the presence of a non-hierarchical structure that allowed neighbouring groups to co-operate without surrendering their autonomy, thus reducing the need for constant aggression.

Nick Card has suggested that variations in the individual buildings within the oversized settlement at the Ness of Brodgar in the centre of Orkney might indicate that each building belonged to a particular group living in a particular part of the archipelago that came to gather at the site for seasonal gatherings (Card 2013).  The use of distinctive architectural differences between the buildings could have been used to signify the autonomy and independence of the different communities whilst residing in such close proximity.  The colossal construction projects undertaken in the area around the settlement would be a testimony to how successfully such a federation could operate.  Based on a series of early C14 dates it has been suggested that Orkney may have been the origin of the religious practices that came to dominate much of Britain and Ireland during the Late Neolithic.  If this is correct then perhaps the key to the successful spread of the ‘Orkney style’ was not the content of the ceremonies or the design of the monuments, but the development of social schemes that allowed larger scale communal projects to be undertaken without necessitating the surrender of individual and group autonomy to an elite strata that might trigger violent resistance.

The second part of anarchist theory that seems useful in this area is the idea of ‘zerowork’ as promoted by Bob Black in his highly influential essay “the abolition of work” (Black 1986).  This line of argument has considerable ancestry within left wing writing and elements of it can be found in Paul Lafargue’s “the right to be lazy”, in Bertrand Russels, “In praise of Idleness” and even George Orwell’s “Down and out in Paris and London” (Lafargue 1907; Russel 1935; Orwell 1933).  The central theme is that much work is essentially pointless, once you remove the need to generate an excess of wealth to be turned over to an exploitative elite.  If the need to generate surplus profit is removed the overall workload on a society would be vastly reduced.  With an overabundance of labour the remaining work could be evenly shared out between the whole group leading to a vastly reduced amount of work hours for each individual, and given that the work had an obvious utility and was not of an arduous length, work would be transferred into something far more enjoyable, akin to a form of play.  The principles of zerowork do seem to have some justification in the anthropological and archaeological record; it has been repeatedly suggested that the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering or horticulture can be identified with a large decline in the health of a population and a considerable increase in work hours (Diamond 1987).  Furthermore many accounts of traditional societies clearly demonstrate that many tasks were infused with a very un-work like sense of fun and play, and many societies that were not part of a developed economic system seem to have spent much of their effort creating surpluses in order to throw feasts and parties (Metcalf 2010).

The Late Neolithic monument complexes have produced extensive evidence for feasting at a quite excessive scale.  Traditionally these have been seen to be feasts that took place once the construction phase was completed.  A zerowork interpretation would turn this idea around and see the monuments as something that happened as a side effect of communities getting together to hold feasts.  Rather than attempting to calculate the number of ‘man-hours’ that it would take for a group to complete a construction project perhaps it would be better to try and estimate the number of parties that had been held.  Alex Gibson has argued that timber circles were seldom ‘completed’ and that the building process was what was more important than the finished product, which might conform better to zerowork rather than modern notions of a construction project (Gibson 1998).

The recent discoveries at Durrington Walls would certainly make an interesting example to review in terms of Anarchist Federations and Zerowork; not only was there evidence for co-operation of communities from a wide area, the settlement evidence does not so far support the presence of a defined elite, and the associated animal bones assemblage not only suggests feasting on a phenomenal scale, it is clear that the feasting at the site had begun long before the construction of the main bank and ditch (Parker Pearson 2012).

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

Island Paradises

Islands have special characteristics that have long made them the focus of Utopian thinkers, from Plato to Huxley.  During the development of travel writing and antiquarian investigations during the 18th and 19th century the accounts of the Atlantic Islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland often fall into two camps, those that are horrified by the primitive conditions and those that idealise the rugged isolation and the simple lifestyles of the islanders (O’Sullivan 2008).  Recent archaeological accounts of the Atlantic Islands have presented rigorous re-evaluation of the isolation of island life, contending that the islanders were neither peripheral people nor particularly isolated from the contemporary world (Flemming 2005; Dwyer 2009).  Flemming’s review of St Kilda seeks to reduce the isolation of the island and show that despite the distances involved St Kilda was part of an aristocratic territory, entangled in local politics and in particular subject to enthusiastic taxation and rent collection.

The political organisation of the St Kildans is particularly interesting.  The morning meeting, dubbed ‘the parliament’ by 19th century visitors, involved all the men on the island gathering to discuss any issues and make plans for the days activities.  The ‘parliament’ had no formal offices and each man had an equal right to speak an equal vote.  Apparently the woman of the island organised their affairs through a similar meeting, although this features far less prominently in the literature.  According to Tom Steel when there were no tasks that required urgent attention the meeting could last all day, breaking only for lunch, as the men essentially slacked off and gossiped (Steel 1975).  The resources of the island were shared out equally among the community and many aspects of life were subject to communal ownership. A nominal leader, the maor, was a non-hereditary title awarded through merit.  The maor had some ability to resolve disputes but the principle duty was to take the lead during climbing expeditions.  The maor also had the unenviable task of conducting negotiations with the Steward during the annual visit to collect tariffs.  The maor was expected to represent the islanders wishes to such an extent that the steward would strike him three times about the head with a cudgel in a ritualised act of violence.

Despite the predatory relationship with the adjacent state it seems very clear that St Kildan society was organised anarchically, complete with a limited leader.  The relationship with the neighbouring state was clearly exploitative but the St Kildans did receive goods and equipment from the state that they were not able to provide for themselves.  In addition they were able to actively resist the state to some degree. Flemming includes several brief description of such resistance; when a taxman attempted to apply a new tariff he was driven off by the men of the island, when a policeman arrived to arrest a suspected sheep thief the islanders formed a protective cordon around the man and the attempt was abandoned, when the islanders refused to renegotiate a measurement of corn being taken from an advantageously worn vessel, the way the islanders habitually disguised the quantities of various resources from state officials and, more sinisterly, several tales of suspected spies being murdered to protect the islanders privacy and secrets.

Other Atlantic islands also seem to have aspects of anarchic organisation, particularly the presence of limited leaders such as the Rí Thoraí (king) of Tory Island, County Donegal and the ‘Kings’ of the Blasket Islands, County Kerry and the Inishkeas, County Mayo, which seem to be perfect examples of rulers without power.  At present it is not clear how many of the small Atlantic Islands had anarchic political structures and when these individually came to an end.  Although technically owned by large landlords, it seems that many of the smaller island communities were largely left to organise themselves as long as they continued to pay their annual dues.  Had they offered strong resistance to the state authorities they would surely have been harshly sanctioned and the same sort of compromise was used that we see in place with the essentially anarchic Anabaptist communities in North America (Shuster 1983).  The small Atlantic islands might therefore be seen to lie somewhere in between what Hakim Bey has defined as Temporary Autonomous Zones and Permanent Autonomous Zones (Bey 1985 & 1993).

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo.  We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo. We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

Pirate Utopias

The anarchist idea of pirate utopias seems to have derived from the writing of William S Burroughs, who developed a whole pseudo mythology based on the account of Captain Misson found in “A general history of pirates” published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson (suspected to be a pseudonym of either Daniel Defoe or the publisher Nathaniel Mist).  The account details the apparently fictitious life of Captain James Misson, the ‘articles’ under which his ship sailed and the colony they founded on the coast of Madagascar, Libertaria.  Piracy is a complex subject that has many incarnations around the world, and was often a state sanctioned or sponsored activity.  The anarchist interest in pirate utopias principally focuses on the ‘golden age of piracy’ in the late 17th and early 18th century and centres on the possibility of pirate crews that rejected state authority, organised themselves in a manner consistent with anarchist principles and established communities where they were free to create their own ‘lawless’ anarchies.  Whilst this might seem a ridiculous fantasy, especially given the suspect nature of the original source material, there may be something to it.  Peter Lamborn Wilson has argued that the story of Captain Misson may indeed be fictitious but given how little critical commentary it attracted at the time it was presumably consistent with some common understanding of pirate enclaves (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  In fact the ‘articles’ under which Misson sailed and Libertaria functioned are a reflection of the wide spread codes of conduct used amongst pirates that were indeed referred to as articles.

In the Bay of Honduras these rules of conduct and obligations were eventually formalised by a British Naval officer in 1765 and this version is referred to as Burnaby’s Code.  Crucial to the anarchist reading of pirates, Burnaby’s code operated without empowering individuals with titles such as magistrate or judge, it was an example of a formalised collective justice (Finamore 2006).  The archaeology of piracy is in some regards a new subject, leaving to one side the hunt for the wrecks of known pirate vessels, few of which have been successful until very recently.  A limited amount of work has been undertaken on pirate settlements and the results of some of this work are rather surprising.  Lamborn Wilson has written at length about the history of the Pirate Republic of Salé, a large settlement located across the river from Rabat in Morocco (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  Whilst Salé may have been a pirate utopia of sorts, it is hard to see how it may have operated in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, particularly given the role it had in the slave trade.  It seems that Salé is best regarded as a curiously late example of a European city state which depended on piracy to support its economy.  Ultimately Salé may not pass muster, but historians and archaeologists have been able to locate more convincing examples of pirate settlements that fulfil the utopian requirement to a reasonable degree.

A large number of settlements were established by English pirates along the coast of Belize as the golden age of piracy came to its end.  These settlements relied on trading contraband logwood and the settlement of Bacarades, located along the Belize River, is unique in that it has been subject to detailed archaeological investigation (Finamore 2006).  The archaeological research agreed with historical accounts that describe these settlements as consisting of dwellings of only the most simple forms. Nonetheless the range of artefacts present, and in particular the misappropriation of fine goods, especially ceramics, seems to represent an enactment of Hakim Bey’s  notion of ‘radical aristocracy’ (Bey 1985).  Historical accounts suggest the life of cutting logs may have been tedious and dull in the extreme but the one of the main aims of the work seems to have been to provide alcohol for communal drinking, something entirely akin with traditional anarchic horticultural and hunter gathering groups.

If the port of Salé seems little different to a hierarchical city state and the logging camps along the coast of Belize ultimately seem a little dull, the settlement created by English pirates on St Mary’s Island off the east coast of Madagascar really does seem to meet every expectation of a pirate utopia (de Bry 2006).  In a secluded bay on the islands western coast numerous pirates were resident between the 1680’s and the 1720’s including the well-known Captain William Kidd.  The base was used for activities across the Indian Ocean, and during the monsoon season many pirates spent extended stays at the settlement.  As with the Belize pirates the dwellings were generally of the simplest kind, but the pirates apparently fulfilled every stereotype when it came to bedecking themselves in flamboyant clothes, gold and jewels, another enactment of the radical aristocrat theme.  Eventually a merchant based in the settlement, Adam Baldridge, made enough money to construct a sizeable dwelling on Ils des Forbans (Pirate Island), a small islet located in the centre of the bay, which apparently really was underlain by a mysterious system of tunnels that have yet to be explored!  The settlement on St Mary’s Island so closely resembles the anarchist idea of Libertaria it is difficult not to think that this may have been the real world source for the fictional Captain Misson.  One interesting element of the Misson story is the friendly relationship established with the native groups around Libertaria.  Remarkably St Mary’s even lives up to this and the pirates routinely married local Malagasy women, who they draped with “gold, diamonds, sapphires and rubies”.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island (Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar) which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

Moving away from exotic locations half way around the world, Connie Kelleher has examined the archaeological remains of pirate communities along the coast of County Cork (Kelleher 2009 & 2013).  These pirate settlements were initially occupied by English pirates and their families who had relocated from Devon and Cornwall after piracy was outlawed in England at the start of the seventeenth century.  The pirates operated with the tacit approval of the crown, and the pirate settlements were essentially an early stage in the Munster plantation.  Acting in a semi-official capacity and not beholden to the indigenous Gaelic Lordship whose authority had finally collapsed after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, these pirates enjoyed a rather privileged and secure position.

It could be argued that the close links to the crown removes them from the anarchist ideal, but on the other hand the lack of persecution can actually be seen as adding to the utopian nature of the occupation and they might therefore represent Permanent Autonomous Zones (PAZ).  This official sanction is quite different to the traditional forms of piracy previously operated by the Gaelic Lords around the Irish coast, and from similar forms operating around the Scottish coast.  Gaelic piracy was organised and controlled by hereditary aristocracies and does not therefore meet the anarchist ideal, despite the romanticism attached to characters such as Grace O’Malley, the so called Pirate Queen of Clew Bay.  Furthermore the West Cork pirates operated under the same sorts of codes of conduct utilised during the Golden Age of piracy.  Each crew operated individually but the codes provided a format through which they could combine forces for more ambitious projects, returning us again to the idea of anarchist federations.  The numerous remains of the pirate occupation that Kelleher has recorded may therefore represent the most extensive remains of a pirate utopia that have so far been the subject of archaeological examination.

Conclusion

Obviously what has been presented above are merely brief summaries of complicated arguments.  They were not intending to convince anyone that these anarchic interpretations were correct, rather the intent was to demonstrate how much potential anarchic approaches might have for a whole range of topics. Each of the examples discussed here is worth a much fuller examination, and as it happens I am currently working on a book that will explore many aspects of anarchic anthropology, anarchic archaeology and various aspects of political anarchism that might be usefully appropriated.  These examples will be explored in that book, alongside many others, although serious questions remain as to whether I can ever find a publisher for such an unruly tome.  In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to the subject and that some of you might also consider hoisting the black flag over your areas of interest.

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