Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Proper Term of Venery for Archaeologists

I was recently flipping through the pages of James Lipton's famous An Exaltation of Larks, and I noticed that the venereal term for archaeologists, "an entrenchment," was quite possibility the weakest of all the thousands listed in that charming book. If you're not sure what a term of venery is, look at the title of the book. Some are familiar and sound today mundane:

a school of fish,
a gaggle of geese, and
a pride of lions.

But there are thousands of them, some ancient, others new, and many clever, quaint, or colorful.

A parliament of owls,
a murder of crows,
a party of jays, and
a crash of rhinoceroses.

You get the idea. At their best, they use synecdoche to parody a notorious or comical attribute of the thing to which they refer. A "wince of dentists" is one of my favorites.

Lipton made a game out of inventing them. He proposed many himself and publicized others contributed by friends or correspondents. One whom he credited was Ian Graham, the famous Maya archaeologist and founding editor of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, published by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. 

As I will be going to the University graduation ceremony in my regalia tomorrow, I looked over the terms related to students:

An unemployment of graduates hardly seems funny at the moment, but the antiquity of the phrase may bring comfort to some, knowing that many generations have survived similar tribulations.

A vale of graduates is gentler, but how many today will understand the joke?

I'll be entering final grades for the semester tomorrow too, so "a failing of students" is a bit too literal.

These are touchingly true:

A fortitude of graduate students,
A doggedness of doctoral candidates, and
An angst of dissertations.

But, returning to the ostensible purpose of this post, I like "a tribe of anthropologists" and "a stratum of geologists" but "an entrenchment of archaeologists" is weak and labored.

Here are my suggestions:

A trench of archaeologists (better).
A trowel of archaeologists (doesn't sound like a quantity).
A typology of archaeologists (by far the most logical, but will not make sense to the layman).
A seriation of archaeologists (too technical?).
A debitage of archaeologists (too obscure and not mellifluous).
An assemblage of archaeologists (but the connection will not be obvious to the non-specialist).
A dust of archaeologists (my favorite).

My experience suggests that a "diarrhea of archaeologists" would be accurate but unappealing. Let's keep it clean.

Here are some other suggestions for anthropology:

a theory of anthropologists,
a kindred of anthropologists,
a clan (or lineage) of anthropologists (too obvious?).

Some new ones:

A shatter of lithic analysts.

A crack of flintknappers. 

A temper of ceramicists. Or a paste of ceramicists. Or, of course, a sherd of ceramic analysts

A skeleton of bioarchaeologists. Also, a "phalanx" but that could be applied to many occupations, including, most obviously, soldiers.

A bloom of paleoethnobotanists. (Not to be confused with a bloom of algae!)
How about "a flotation of paleoethnobotanists" or "a light fraction of paleoethnobotanists"?

I like "a menagerie of zooarchaeologists" but it seems heavy-handed.

Please comment on those you like best or suggest your own!

New Book: The Ancient Maya of Mexico hits the streets and newstands

The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands, edited by Geoffrey Braswell, is now available from the publisher, Equinox, and of course, like everything in the universe, from Amazon.

The volume emerged from symposia in honor of our doctoral dissertation advisor, E. Wyllys Andrews V. Congratulations to Geoff for producing such a handsome and intellectually distinguished volume.

Thanks for everything, Will!