What happened in history?

2015-02-14 10.44.07 ‘If he [Colin Renfrew] were to be removed [from the Disney professorship] and placed, say, in a fruit canning factory in Bradford, no statement he might make, however scientific, would necessarily be accepted as a serious speech act worthy of attention…’ (Shanks & Tilley, 1989)

I shall start this blog by regretting that the authors of this quotation never thought to check if Bradford was a likely place for a canning factory. Sadly my city is not famous for peach trees nor fragrant orange groves. What fruit could one possibly expect to be tinned in Bradford; rhubarb perhaps? I should also explain that the Disney professorship of archaeology has nothing whatever to do with Walt, except possibly that some chemists and physicists regard archaeology as a Mickey Mouse science. The current holder of the chair is the wonderfully named Cyprian Broodbank. I should explain that Lord Colin Renfrew was the author of a successful archaeology textbook and was an early advocate of the scientific, or processual, school of archaeological thought. His opponents, like Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Tilley, questioned Renfrew’s appeals to science and impartiality. They claimed that every archaeologist is in fact biased by his or her personal experience and background. This crevasse of variant opinion is as yet unbridged but some commentators regard the arguments between processualism and post-processualism as more a reflection of the clash of personalities during the 1970s at the University of Cambridge, where the Disney professorship is held.

Post-processualists have many differences among themselves but their shared core belief, which I think has much merit, was that the earlier theory treated people in the past as virtually mindless automatons and ignored their creative individuality. You will all be glad to learn that the archaeological heretics who refused to accept the prevailing orthodoxy did not face the headsman’s axe but were wafted to prestigious jobs at famous UK and US centres of learning. In some cases they are now housed quite near to orange groves, a fact I reflected on this morning as I tramped through damp brambles looking for long-abandoned mine shafts. I guess that much of the early history of archaeology was motivated by an attempt to distance the subject from pseudo-archaeologists who wrote popular paperbacks, antiquarians, antique collectors, dilettantes, or flint and brick enthusiasts, and in fact to establish archaeology as a proper science. Although current practitioners probably cannot provide neutral impartiality whether much would be gained now by everyone analysing themselves before starting to dig I’m really not sure. They would probably be more biased about each other than they are about stratigraphy and artefacts. Perhaps we should call in scientists from psychology departments to do the analysis. There, I’ve used the words scientist and psychology in the same sentence and they said it couldn’t be done. Anyway can we agree that archaeology is a ‘sort of science’?

Well, I’ve had my fun but seriously you do need theory to structure your thoughts. It would make no sense to simply accumulate facts but make no attempt to interpret them. Those practical people who refuse to consider modern archaeological theory risk unwittingly adopting someone else’s, out of date, theory without realising it. To explain the need may I offer telepathy as a sacrificial victim? On many occasions enthusiasts have tried to convince me of its reality by reporting experimental evidence. My feeling is that what is necessary is not yet more evidence but rather a theory that explains how telepathy might occur. Under those circumstances one might start to devise further experiments to investigate, and if possible falsify, elements of that theory. The difficulty I have met with telepathy believers is that they attribute the phenomenon to unknown mental powers or forces. Such a belief cannot make predictions about the natural world and so, in Wolfgang Pauli’s words, ‘is not even wrong’.

Long before Colin Renfrew there was an alternative school of theory known as culture-history. It’s most famous practitioner was Gordon Childe who I just remember, along with Mortimer Wheeler, from his appearances on BBC TV’s ‘Animal, Vegetable and Mineral’ in the 1950s. Vere Gordon Childe (1893-1957) was a classicist born in Sydney, Australia. In addition to his writings and theoretical work he was the excavator of the famous Orkney Neolithic sites of Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and held a professorship at Edinburgh. Although he was the son of a minister he became a life-long Marxist, and as a Marxist Childe believed in the crucial importance of the political, economic and social systems to which human beings were exposed.

The founder of the concept of a ‘culture’ had been Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), a German archaeologist and philologist. His basic intention had been to trace the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans. His conclusion was that Indo-European was the original language of the Nordic-type Aryans or ‘master-race’. As you can imagine these views tragically seemed to be a mandate from archaeology for the rise of Nazism. I’m sure Childe saw peoples as a social not a biological group, but it might not be completely unfair to regard him as a cultural imperialist. He was a distinguished classicist after all. Like so many scholars in the 1920s he saw the Bronze Age as the creation of Indo-European peoples. He grouped artefact types including: pots, weapon types, ornaments and house forms which together he saw as signifying a ‘cultural group’ or culture. He also took the next step in regarding such cultural group as the material expression of a ‘people’ or tribe. In the 1930s Childe drew diagrams in which blocks took the counterpart of tribal groups. These diagrams started in the Bronze Age when there was no history, and ended with historically attested tribes in the Iron Age. A popular concept at the time was that superior technology ‘diffused’ into adjacent areas. Generally a change in technology was assumed to reflect an actual migration. Some scholars envisaged mass movements with slaughter or enslavement of the indigenous inhabitants. Childe posited the migration of small groups of craftspeople. Ironically it was Colin Renfrew, using the new information derived from radiocarbon dating, who exposed the inadequacies of the assumed diffusion routes.

After retirement Childe travelled briefly but then committed suicide in Australia. It is often said that he was demoralised by the perceived inadequacies in his work and failures of Russian communism, however those in a good position to know believe that it was rather fear of old age and infirmity that were responsible for his final act. His writings were the first I ever read on the subject of archaeology and I still have my copy of What Happened in History purchased in 1966. Typically Childe is said to have selected Penguin Books as his publisher so that a cheap edition of this 1941 work could be made widely available. It is clear that Childe valued the golden tradition of civilization from Mesopotamia and Egypt, via Greece and Roman, to northern Europe. Native Americans and Australians don’t rate a mention, nor amazingly do the Chinese. World history is very different now. How different might my own personal history have been if I had first studied archaeology rather than medicine? On the whole I think I have had a narrow escape but it could have been fun, in theory.


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