The Patterning of Things

axe and knapping debris
What meaning should archaeologists ascribe to material culture?

Humans, as I read recently, look for patterns, even meanings, in things. Archaeologists are used to dealing with things and we certainly like pattern. Half (a generalization) of our data is derived from material culture, the ‘things’ of the past; we deal with the everyday, and other, objects with which people were once familiar and which have survived to the present day. We construct our narratives about the past from the interpretation of these objects. In order to do that, we look for the patterns and we try to explain them. Some of the patterns are obvious: a row of round bottomed pots; a collection of leaf shaped arrowheads, we assume that groups of similar objects relate to a common template incorporating certain desires and functions. Other patterns can be more problematic: the different shapes of certain stone tools can, for example, seem to blend into one another; one shape of pot can, apparently, be replaced by another. All too often, we find ourselves requiring an explanation for the differences, rather than the similarities, in the material that we excavate.

Thus, we have long struggled to explain the meaning of the different types of material culture that we encounter and of the changes in material culture that we perceive. Essentially, much archaeology continues to use the foundations set by Gordon Childe in 1925 (drawing on the theories of, among others, a prominent German archaeologist, Gustav Kossinna), who considered that different suites of material culture could be used to identify different groups with different social commonalities. These groups were generally equated with human communities (known as ‘cultures’) – with the people of the past and the particular traits of behaviour and belief that identified them as separate from their neighbours. Thus, certain types of decorated pottery might define a particular ‘Culture’, let us call it the Round Bottomed Culture, which might, over time, evolve into another Culture with different pots, let us call this one the Square Bottomed Culture.

Childe was working without the benefit of radiocarbon analysis, and the rest of the suite of scientific techniques on which we rely today. He looked for patterns across the different types of archaeological evidence he had to hand, and the general assumption was made that as one element of material culture changed, so other elements would change too. This, it seemed, backed up the idea that social culture was reflected in material culture. Today, the system is cracking, and yet we still seem keen to fit the data into his paradigms.

It is not difficult to identify patterns of material culture, but we struggle with their explanation, and even more with the identification and explanation of the moments of change between them. It seems that it is hard to get away from the idea that when one element changes so should everything else. It is also hard to get away from the idea that material culture equals community. As we refine the evidence with which we work, so it becomes obvious that multiple elements of material culture rarely change together, yet few studies have tried to go back to basics and quantify the chronologies of change. It is, it seems, easier to live with the flawed but familiar understandings of the past. This has led to some big questions and discrepancies that we seem reluctant to challenge.

In the UK, our hunter-gatherer ancestors of the immediate post-glacial period, for example, used tiny stone tools that we call microliths. Microliths come in two basic ranges: Broad Blade Microliths and Narrow Blade Microliths. Many years ago, Roger Jacobi published a seminal work suggesting that the broad blade microliths were earlier and defined those communities able to maintain contact with Continental Europe while narrow blade microliths had developed later and were characteristic of subsequent communities developing within the more isolated environment of mainland Britain. Jacobi’s work has undoubtedly helped us to make sense of the Mesolithic communities of the British Isles but there are two problems with his explanation. Firstly, the assumption that a one-size-fits-all explanation will hold good for the whole of the UK: in actual fact, in the north of these islands the chronological precedence of broad blade microliths is still in question. Secondly, the assumption that microlith type equals community: it might, but then again it might not, and we have not really examined the alternatives.

Moving forward in time, the development of a highly decorated, flat bottomed, style of pottery in Neolithic Britain was at first considered to herald a new society: Piggott identified it as the ‘Rinyo-Clacton Culture’ in 1954. Today, we would be more circumspect in our interpretations: recent research has focussed on the possibilities of increasing complexity and sophistication developing within existing communities (Richards and Jones in their recent book); or the idea that it might form part of a package of goods associated with a complex belief system that spread across Britain to overlie existing society (as suggested in recent popular works). Or both!

We still find it hard to move away from the ingrained wisdom of archaeological greats such as Childe. But surely, the time is ripe to go back to basics and re consider some of those basic foundations on which our archaeological understanding rests. We have the tools to provide more sophisticated studies of material culture. We have the tools to examine whether apparently coincident change really occurs and, indeed, to look for other correlations for example between elements of material culture change and environmental dissonance.

Past archaeologists were seeking to explain the patterns, it seems to me that it is the explanation of change that forms the pressing question for our times.

The world of Doggerland

High Seas Orkney
The sea can unite as well as divide… It can obscure and reveal. It conditions the way we look at things. What lies out there – beyond our coasts?

I’m watching events relating to Britain’s position in Europe with a kind of horrible fascination. Chronologically, my work concerns the period when the land that would become the UK was merely a mountainous, largely ice-girt, peninsula on the north west of the continent that we call ‘Europe’. I realise that this has biased my point of view. Continue reading The world of Doggerland

Archaeological Fiction

With the imminent arrival of TAG I have been thinking about Archaeological Fiction. Has anyone else been enjoying The Last Kingdom on BBC Two? A friend described it as a guilty pleasure. There is no reason why the pleasure of watching TV should be guilty, but I think there is a bit more to The Last Kingdom than mindless relaxation. I’m sure it is full of horrible anachronisms, but it raises some interesting points. The details are more nuanced in the books, but that does not mean that the television series is not worth watching.

First of all there is the depiction of two competing groups living in a single landscape. How do you tell people apart? How do they use the landscape? How do different languages and religions work? How do groups view one another? Secondly there is the depiction of the Christian church struggling to establish and maintain its place within Saxon society. This raises all sorts of questions relating to new influences and new ways: the role of women; education; medicine; food; religion and politics; and religion and language – all of these come into the story. Thirdly, there is the sheer level of violence in the world: how did one maintain economic stability when passing horsemen might burn your farmstead and kill your folks on a frequent basis; how does it affect people to live in a world where extreme violence is commonplace?

Obviously, this is a period about which I know very little – certainly not enough to pronounce on the accuracy of the depiction. But for me the interest lies not so much in the details as in the questions. You could regard it as science fiction, although the details are subtler than in Star Wars many of the questions are the same. It has got me thinking. For me it is a reminder that the stability and unity that we seek so urgently today have always been elusive. It turns my mind to the end of Mesolithic Britain, another great time of clashing cultures. What was it like to live then? Was it violent as some people suggest? There have been so many periods when the landscape of Britain was home to differing and distinctive peoples. Are we unique today in seeking a cosy homeland where all agree?

Finally, I do return to the detail. How on earth did the programme makers manage to find an actor who looked so like the Alfred Jewell?

The alfred Jewell
The Alfred Jewell as depicted on the Ashmolean Museum website
Alfred
Alfred, played by David Dawson, as depicted by BBC Two

Cultural exchange in prehistory

One of the big, and fun, debates in British archaeology relates to the way in which farming was introduced some 6000 years ago. We know that there was already a population of hunter-gatherers well established in the islands, how did they react to new ways?

This week I went to a great lecture in Aberdeen which got me thinking about this. Robin Torrence and Jude Philp (from the Australian Museum and the Macleay Museum, respectively) were talking about their work researching the ethnographic collections of Sir William MacGregor, the first Administrator of British New Guinea in the late nineteenth century. Much of MacGregor’s material ended up in Aberdeen when he retired home. The interesting thing is how the material changed from first contacts to once the relationships had been established. Apparently when the British first came into contact with a new tribe the material they were given comprised mainly objects that reflected the uncertain nature of the contact, and the people they first met, like clubs and mace heads. Later on, when everyone had got the measure of each other, the material changed to more domestic items. So you can see a difference in the collections from different areas over time. Also it seems that here, at least, excavation of the mission settlements and the local settlements suggests that each had very few of the others’ artefacts. I’m wondering what it says about culture contact and material object and particularly to our archaeological evidence for the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in the UK. We need to be very careful of erroneously drawing direct analogies from ethnographic work, and in the UK it is likely that this period of transition saw many different scenarios. But it is obvious that we need to think outside the box a bit.

MacGregor_16_9

Sir William MacGregor (source: University of Aberdeen website)

MacGregor was very aware that the advent of colonial rule would change the way of life of the people he was living among and he was keen that the material he had collected be used for the education of people at home. I’m hoping that he would have been pleased to know that it is still provoking debate over 100 years later.