15 years on: a reminiscence of Bruce Trigger, in place

Fifteen years ago today, I was the temporary occupant of an office that had been, for seven years from 1996 to 2003, a central part of my intellectual life. Since that August, I had been the very junior resident of the office on the seventh floor of the Leacock building at McGill University. It had been for thirty years, and was still, officially, occupied by my doctoral advisor, colleague, and friend, Bruce Trigger. I had come to be sitting on the other side of the desk by grave misfortune. Bruce had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before, and had retired to emeritus status. While he was still poking around the university in the fall of 2006, he wasn’t well, and despite heroic measures being taken, the prognosis wasn’t great. We all knew that. And so I had been hired to occupy his office, to teach ‘his’ history of archaeology course and a couple others as a visiting lecturer, which was fortuitous, since I had a new baby and no other income, since my postdoc at Toronto had ended and we certainly couldn’t afford to stay there. So we came back to Montreal, and I came back to McGill. And there was his office, sitting unoccupied, except now and again when he’d pop by. So that was how in 2006 I came to be on the flip side of the desk where, in 1996 as a new doctoral student, I had first met the great man himself.

Now here’s the thing you need to understand about the Leacock building at McGill. Most of the offices in Leacock are pretty small and not the best. The building is one of those 60s brutalist things, nine stories, and along the long sides (west and east) all the offices were pretty standard. But on the south-facing side, looking out across campus, down the mountain towards downtown, four offices on each floor are extra-long, maybe twice the length of an average office. You can see these great beasts jutting out here in this Google image:

Stephen Leacock Building, McGill University, with Redpath Museum, front centre, and Avenue des Pins (behind)
Stephen Leacock Building, McGill University, with Redpath Museum, front centre, and Avenue des Pins (behind)

So one of those, 724, that was Bruce’s. There wasn’t a lot of natural light or space, because practically every available square foot was occupied with bookshelves heavy-laden with books and journals, most of which, Bruce assured me, he had actually read. Stacks upon stacks of offprints and reprints, Bruce’s own articles and things sent to him. It was all there, a monument to an intellectual life. And all kinds of other crap. Like the inflatable sarcophagus Tutankhamun that just kind of was always, inexplicably, there in the back of the office. Or random 5¼” floppy disks, where Bruce saved most of his manuscripts (yikes! Thankfully, he also printed out everything). Or an axe, just … an axe, which we found after his death in the back of the office, as if somehow, if a fire broke out, Bruce was going to smash the seventh-floor window and then … who knows? I can’t find a photo of 724, though there must surely be one somewhere. The office pictured in his Wikipedia photo is far too empty. It doesn’t matter, because whatever its actual physical stature, it was nothing compared to the magnitude, that September in 2006, of me walking around to the other side of the office and taking a seat to use, however borrowed, as my own. To wait for Bruce to die.

Lots of people have complex, mixed feelings about their PhD advisors. Not me. It’s not that I think that Bruce was perfect — you don’t get to know someone that well, for a decade, and suppose somehow they are immune to human fallibility. But he was, for me certainly, but also, I know, for many others, a truly remarkable and supportive mentor. You don’t really have any expectation that when your advisor is also a Big Personage in the field, that they are also the kind of person who would, as Bruce often did, spend two hours with you in tutorial in the afternoon, then call you up on the phone that evening to talk some more about our excellent tutorial. Or turn around papers with detailed comments within a couple days. Or tap into his research funds to give you some summer work that I honestly think he would have preferred to do himself, because he preferred to do lots of things himself. Or — and this one is still a source of great shame — read and comment on a manuscript on the early modern abacus I’d written, from the hospital bed where he would eventually die. That paper, fifteen years later, is sitting in my metaphorical drawer, unpublished after a too-nasty bout of peer review. Or make sure to leave a detailed reference letter with the department staff, when he knew — though he wouldn’t say it out loud — that he wasn’t going to be there to see me land a tenure-track job. (Look at me, I’m still here, I did it!) 

That fall started out great. Classes were good, and Bruce was, though thin, though unwell, still out and about. He’d been very sick through much of 2005-06, and hadn’t been well enough to travel to receive his Order of Canada in December 2005 (there was a private ceremony instead, in Montreal). But by the summer of 2006 he was, well, better. Well enough to attend the book launch that September of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, the volume that had emerged from a SAA session we had done a couple years earlier, before he was sick. I still remember the speech he gave at that event, ending with Bruce’s still-uninterpreted “cryptic pronouncement“. The book wasn’t originally intended to be a memorial, which is partly why a few years later, we put together Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, to make sure no one who wanted to have a voice was left out. The introduction to that volume summarizes how I still think about his intellectual legacy.  But back in September 2006, we were really not thinking about legacies, but of futures. Bruce was even musing about teaching his renowned arch-theory graduate seminar that winter (which I had taken twice as a student, once for credit, once for … fun?). If I’m not misremembering, it was even on the books for students to register. 

But then it started to get cold, and Bruce was in the hospital by late October, still working, furiously, on new work, a book about conservatism in Canadian politics that I don’t think survives even in his papers (although anyone who would like to take a peek through 5.4 linear metres of the Bruce Trigger Fonds could check for me). In the spring he’d done his page proofs for the 2nd edition of History of Archaeological Thought from the hospital while undergoing chemo (it came out in September) and this was no different. We — his friends and students who were around — would make the trip west along Avenue des Pins, the road you can see behind Leacock in the image above (which apparently Google Maps still calls ‘Pine Ave’, in curious anglo tradition), to the Montreal General to chat with Bruce in his hospital bed, to talk about things. He was cheerful, every time. But we knew where things were heading.

I taught my class that morning, before I heard the news. It was his class, History of Archaeological Theory, the undergrad class he had taught so many times, that was mine only by administrative fiat, not by any right. It met down in the basement of Leacock, a windowless, joyless room. I still have the notes from that day; I still have all my notes from all the classes I’ve ever taught. It was the last class before the exam, and the topic of the day was “What I Think”, the final lecture (in those days it was pretty much all straight lectures from notes for me, which is how Bruce also did it), where I brought the class to a close by trying to situate what we’d been learning in terms of my own personal experiences and thoughts. Looking at it now, it’s a pretty pretentious class for someone who didn’t even have secure employment. I guess it was a good one though. I’m still in touch with some of the folks from that class, and they tell me I was cool back then.

I heard the news from my friend and mentor Mike Bisson, who for thirty years was one of Bruce’s best friends. You can read the obituary Mike wrote here. I had come back up to the 7th floor for lunch, and he caught me in the hall and let me know. No one was surprised; no one could believe it either. Bruce was 69.

I remember calling my wife, sitting on the other side of that desk, though I have no recollection of what she said other than “I’m sorry”. I don’t remember eating; I can’t have eaten. But I remember walking, out of the building, and down the narrow roadway that led, it can’t be more than a hundred meters, to the Redpath Museum (the building right in the foreground of the Google photo). To this day I’m not really sure why I went there. I’ve never told anyone that I went there before. I never, ever went there, except for some talk or event, even though it was literally right there next to Leacock, even though it has an amazing anthropological collection. It was, however, a place where, on a Friday afternoon in December, I could reliably be sure to be alone, to just wander around for a bit, to collect my thoughts. Which was, I suppose, what I needed. I spent some time upstairs on the second floor, in the Egyptology collection. Bruce was one of the central linkages between anthropology and Egyptology, and for a semester I even tried to teach myself some Middle Egyptian. But mostly I went there because it was a place on campus that didn’t remind me of anything. 

But my day wasn’t done.

You mostly don’t remember individual classes. I mean, you remember some of the students, and you remember the courses, maybe even the room you were in, that kind of thing. Perhaps a fleeting moment, a well-timed joke. But the individual class meetings, no, not as individual instances. But I remember that class, or at least the start of it, when I came back to Leacock that day. It was my seminar on writing systems, held in the windowless interior seminar room right across from his office — my office. I don’t know why I didn’t cancel. The topic for the day was ridiculous. It was supposed to be our fun, let off steam, talk about something silly, end-of-term class. Here’s the agenda from that day (totally bizarrely, all the URLs still work fifteen years later!):

Constructed Scripts: We will be looking at three scripts: the phonetic alphabet known as Shavian; the Klingon alphabet, and Tolkien’s Elvish (Tengwar) script. The readings are mostly online; for some of them, it’s really just best to look at the Internet, which is where nerds live (not that I would know anything about that!) Readings: Hibbitt, George W. 1964. Pshaw for Shaw’s British alphabet. American Speech 39(3): 213-216. (Also take a brief look at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/shavian.htm, so you will know what it looks like); Attached Adobe Acrobat file: Klingon.pdf (2 pages); Web sites on Tengwar (Tolkien’s invented Elvish alphabet): http://ring-lord.tripod.com/tengwar/index.htm, http://at.mansbjorkman.net/tengwar.htm

And so I had to pretend to be, well, not ok, but to at least finish off the class, for my eight or so seminar students that day. I told them what had happened — the word hadn’t officially gone out, but of course it would, soon enough — and it’s not like I was in any real shape to do serious seminar work. And so here I was, explaining to a bunch of kids, 19 and 20 years old, that this man, the greatest scholar and one of the finest humans I ever knew, was gone, and to try to convey the monumentality of it all, when seriously, they probably just wanted to go home and work on their term papers which were due the next week. And then, I guess maybe we talked about Klingon? That, I don’t recall. 

* * *

Six rare items from the stacks in Leacock 724, sent to Trigger. From top left:
"New Analytical Archaeological Perspectives" by "Lewis D.L. Binclarke", 1971
"Proto-Indo-European-Beothuk" by D.A. Barnett
"Neolithic Evidence of Old and New World Connections" by Faye Cooper-Cole
Catastrophist Geology, vol 2-1, June 1977
"Seven Cosmological Paradigms: Animal, Ladder, River, Cloud, Machine, Book, and System of Systems" by Mario Bunge
"Stray Number Systems", 1946, signed by Floyd Lounsbury
Six rare items from the stacks in Leacock 724, sent to Trigger. From top left: “New Analytical Archaeological Perspectives” by “Lewis D.L. Binclarke”, 1971; “Proto-Indo-European-Beothuk” by D.A. Barnett; “Neolithic Evidence of Old and New World Connections” by Faye Cooper-Cole; Catastrophist Geology, vol 2-1, June 1977; “Seven Cosmological Paradigms: Animal, Ladder, River, Cloud, Machine, Book, and System of Systems” by Mario Bunge; “Stray Number Systems”, 1946, signed by Floyd Lounsbury

I stayed in that office, his office, through the spring and summer. The job fell to me — although I don’t think I would have let anyone else have it — of cataloging his library, of undoing thirty years of the habit of putting correspondence from authors in their own books on his shelves, so that it could all go to the McGill Archives. Helping redistribute books and journals to Bruce’s friends, family, and colleagues, the high school at Kanesatake First Nation, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, McGill’s own library, the McGill book sale. I still have dozens of his old reprints from the huge piles that were stacked in the office, including some underappreciated classic Bruce pieces that I still assign to students (Trigger 1975, 1976, 1981, 2003). I also have some real rarities and bizarro stuff sent from others (image above), not that Bruce believed the weirder of these things at all. Taking care of weird ephemera such as good old Tutankhamun and the Bruce Trigger Memorial Axe. In the end I don’t think much was just discarded. 

I stayed at McGill another year after that, but in another office. That was ok. 724 wasn’t his anymore anyway, and I certainly had no claim on such a massive empty space. My office the next year was a bright, spacious corner office up on the eighth floor, shared with a full professor who wasn’t around much. And then from there, in 2008, I was off to my current office at Wayne State, which has its own weird ephemera that someone might go through someday. But this isn’t about me and my places.

I still bounce ideas off Bruce from time to time, fifteen years later. I think the Bruce in my head isn’t nearly as clever as I sometimes need him to be, but that’s all right; it does the job. 

Further Reading

Chrisomalis, Stephen and Andre Costopoulos. “Bruce Trigger: citizen scholar.” In Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, Stephen Chrisomalis and Andre Costopoulos, eds., pp. xiii-xx. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Trigger, Bruce G. “Brecht and ethnohistory.” Ethnohistory (1975): 51-56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/481280

Trigger, Bruce G. “Inequality and communication in early civilizations.” Anthropologica (1976): 27-52. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25604955

Trigger, Bruce G. “Akhenaten and Durkheim.” Sup. BIFAO 81 (1981): 165-184.

Trigger, Bruce G. “All people are [not] good.” Anthropologica (2003): 39-44. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25606110

Trigger, Bruce G. “Comments at the launch of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger“. Arch Notes (Nov/Dec 2006): 7-8. https://www.ontarioarchaeology.org/Resources/ArchNotes/anns11-6.pdf

Language, Culture, and History: a reading list

Having appropriately propitiated the curricular deities, it appears that this coming fall, I’m going to be teaching a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology on the topic of Language, Culture, and History.   The readings will be drawn from linguistically-oriented historical anthropology and ethnohistory, anthropologically-oriented historical sociolinguistics, and linguistically-oriented archaeology, if that makes any sense.  Maybe not?

Anyway, last night I put together my ‘long list’ of 40-odd books that we might potentially read. Some of these will come off the list due to price or availability.  Others I haven’t looked at thoroughly yet, and when I do will come off because they aren’t suitable.  That might get me down to 25, but then I’ll need to get it down to 13 or 14, one a week. The rest can go on a list from which individual students can pick to do individual book reviews and presentations.

Here’s the list, below.  Additional ideas of books that fit these general themes would be welcome. Any thoughts?

Continue reading “Language, Culture, and History: a reading list”

New study on co-evolution of language and tool-making

There’s an interesting new study in PLOS One, ‘Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study‘ (Uomini and Meyer 2013) with evidence that potentially bears on questions relating to the co-evolution of linguistic capacities and stone tool-making (for a useful summary, see Michael Balter’s news article in Wired).   The authors scanned the brains of expert flint-knappers both during knapping activities and during a standard linguistic task, showing that the parts of the brain that are activated are common to both activities among the participants.   This is one small piece of a much larger general argument that sees language capacities as much older than many linguists have traditionally accepted, co-evolving along with the Acheulean tool tradition (up to 1.75 million years ago).  In contrast, when I was a student, we all learned without much debate that the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ of 35,000-40,000 years ago was the dividing line for language origins.   Research on Paleolithic language ranges from the utterly wonderful to the utterly ridiculous, mostly because there is no agreement as to what sorts of evidence can be reasonably brought forward in support of different hypotheses, and because all the evidence is, by necessity, inferential rather than direct.  So we will see.

New evidence for Madagascar settlement history

There’s a fascinating new article in PNAS, ‘Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models‘, outlining a long chronology for the settlement and early habitation of Madagascar.   The traditional wisdom is that Madagascar was uninhabited until around 500 CE when Austronesian speakers from southern Borneo migrated several thousand kilometres westward, and Bantu-speaking East Africans crossed the Mozambique Channel, producing a civilization of iron-using swidden farmers and creating an ecological catastrophe in which many native species went extinct.    The discovery that the Malagasy language is most closely related to the Southeast Barito languages of Borneo, proposed systematically for the first time by Otto Dahl in the 1950s, is one of the most significant and surprising findings in historical linguistics of the past century, given the enormous geographic distance between the two regions.  Later, Dahl helped to establish that Malagasy also has an important Bantu linguistic substratum, and more recent genetic evidence confirms that both African and Southeast Asian migration was involved.

This new study, whose first author, Robert Dewar, unfortunately passed away before its publication, shows the situation is significantly more complex, and that there is a history of hunter-forager habitation in at least some parts of Madagascar going back up to 4,000 years (i.e. 2,500 years more than previously acknowledged by the traditional hypothesis).    I’ve always wondered how it was that Madagascar, which is not that far from the East African coast, could remain entirely uninhabited by humans for so long.   The new study, based on fieldwork conducted a few years ago at two rock shelters in the northern part of the country, shows a vibrant hunting-foraging adaptation with microlithic tool technology to have existed far earlier than previously suspected.   This tool tradition has similarities with both East African and Middle Eastern traditions of the same period, but not with Southeast Asian ones (unsurprisingly).    What this tells us is that there was a previously-unidentified pre-Bantu, pre-Austronesian population on the island, probably of East African ancestry for millennia before the extinctions of Madagascar’s megafauna began in earnest,  It requires that we rethink the model that sees the arrival of humans on Madagascar as the simple direct cause of the extinctions, and forces us to instead ask what sorts of human-environment interactions cause effects, and how.

Neolithic Chinese sign-systems: writing or not writing?

The Guardian just reported today on a find from Zhungqiao (near Shanghai) of artifacts bearing writing-like symbols that date back over 5,000 years.  If this were substantiated, this would take the history of Chinese writing back an additional millennium or more from the earliest attested ‘oracle-bones’ and other inscriptions of the Shang dynasty.

The article reports that the artifacts in question were excavated between 2003 and 2006, and the information is both slight and non-specific, and doesn’t link to any specific publication as of yet, so it’s difficult to know how, if at all, this relates to the host of other reports of writing or writing-like material from Chinese Neolithic sites (the Wikipedia page on Neolithic Chinese signs is quite extensive).    The signs from Jiahu are much older than those of the newly reported find, for instance.

I think that the difference that’s at question, and discussed in the Guardian piece, is the presence on some of these artifacts of series of several signs in a row, thus suggesting sentence-like structure rather than, say, ownership marks or clan emblems or just decoration, which is what most of the other Neolithic signs have been determined to be.    I have to say that, if the stone axe pictured in the article is representative of the new finds, then I’m dubious of the entire enterprise – those do not look, to me, to have a writing-like nature, and some of them may not be ‘signs’ at all.   I hate to be so negative, but the tendency to announce finds in the media that never come to anything in publication is so great that we should indeed be highly skeptical when such announcements are made in the absence of a published site report or article.

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