EXPLANATION AND UNDERSTANDING

What might an archaeologist expect to know and how might they expect to know it?

In 2014 a group of fifteen academics, all but one of whom were resident in north America, identified what they claimed to be the most important scientific challenges that archaeology might be expected to address in a subsequent twenty- five-year period (Kintigh et al. 2014). The exercise was certainly optimistic. It assumed that researchers should be able to synthesise the very large data sets that archaeology had collected (Kintigh 2006), and that these data sets would provide ‘knowledge of the long-term trajectories of past societies’ (Kintigh et al. 2014, 6). It is with this knowledge that archaeology could, or so it was claimed, address current problems of a global and a contemporary significance. This claim was supported by the assertion that archaeological interpretations had already contributed to debates about ‘human responses to climate change, the eradication of poverty and the effects of urbanism and globalization on humanity’ (Kintigh et al. 2014, 6). The proposal outlined by Kintigh and his colleagues resulted in the 2018 founding of a Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis (archsynth.org).

The search for the various ‘archaeological challenges’ had originally involved enquiries directed to the major ‘North American and European professional (archaeological) organisations’ and a work-shop that was run for key participants, all of which resulted in twenty-five ‘grand challenges’ being identified. Instead of focusing upon individual historical events, these challenges focused upon analysing the general ways that human and cultural systems were organised and coupled together with their environments. The entire programme seems to echo an earlier observation that ‘the conviction is widely held that the discover)' of cultural laws is an ultimate goal of anthropology, to be attained when fact-collecting and detailed analyses of particular cultures and sequences are sufficiently advanced’ (Steward 1949, 2).

The challenges that were identified by Kintigh and others can be grouped under five broad themes. These describe particular kinds of human historical trajectories that might be characterised as: (1) emergence, communities, and complexity; (2) resilience, persistence, transformation, and collapse; (3) movement, mobility, and migration; (4) cognition, behaviour, and identity; (5) human-environment interactions. All these challenges express the belief that archaeologists can, and should, co-operate to investigate the regularities that can be identified as operating through, and might thus explain, the various historical trajectories of humanity.

The Kintigh proposal maintains the belief that a clear distinction exists between archaeological data that are given and might describe something of what happened in the past, and their interpretation, for which we are responsible and which might seek to explain why those things happened. This reflects the current working practice in which the methodologies of fieldwork and analysis appear to be untroubled by changes that occur in theories that might impact upon historical interpretation (cf. Lucas 2012). Data are thus the archived results of excavation, survey, and collecting, where the archive contains the descriptions and samples of material residues that relate to the human past. Interpretation, on the other hand, establishes the significance of these data for our understanding of the past. The relationship between data and interpretation, between observation and understanding, is perhaps more complex than has sometimes been allowed, given that the data are collected, described, and catalogued with the expressed purpose that those data will then submit to interpretation. It would seem likely, therefore, that the means by which the data are to be interpreted must reflect something of the ways in which they have been collected and catalogued.

Archaeology has been defined as the discipline that enables us to examine the past by means of its surviving residues (cf. Chapman & Wylie 2016). We will review the kinds of historical knowledge that archaeologists have sought to establish, and how they have gone about establishing it, before considering the basis for an archaeological alternative. It was by assuming that they knew how the analysis of archaeological data should be undertaken that Kintigh and his colleagues established the priorities that, in their view, justified a financial investment by the National Science Foundation of the United States of America in the archaeologi- cally directed development of information technologies. Whilst these technologies are intended to synthesise archaeological data and thus produce a form of historical knowledge, the entire process is obviously grounded upon knowing the kind of ‘historical knowledge’ that we want, and how the kinds of data that have been collected can furnish us with that knowledge.

The archaeological convention is that the surviving residues provide us with a material record of human history (Lucas 2012), and how they do this is one thing that this book is designed to investigate. Indeed, the ways in which archaeo- logically recovered residues might be interpreted have recently become matters of contention (cf. Moro Abadia 2017), and the processes of interpretation have often been expressed in terms that are both theoretical and abstract (Johnson 2010). One obvious point that must be emphasised is that these are our interpretations of a past that we do not inhabit. We might be tempted to treat such pasts as if they had once existed ‘apart from the present’ (Olsen et al. 2012, 6), and of course the lives that interest us were once lived in worlds that existed before our time, but the historical accounts of those other lives remain our accounts, we do not discover the past. This bequeaths to us a considerable responsibility, for the assumptions that we are prepared to make about those other lives will inform the assumptions that we will also be prepared to employ in our attempts to understand all other people, including our contemporaries.

By treating the material as if, in its degraded form, it represented or was in some way derived from human activity, it has seemed reasonable to distinguish between the ways that people once chose to do things, and the functions that their activities fulfilled. Thus, whilst all people need to eat, for example (providing food with its function), what they have chosen to eat and how they have chosen to eat it are matters of cultural convention and material availability. This distinction has proven to be remarkably important in the history of archaeological thinking because it has facilitated a distinction between the stylistic (cultural) traditions that were specific to particular historical and geographical contexts, and the more general themes of function and organisation that appear to have been shared across different cultures (Dunnell 1978).

The revitalisation of archaeological practices that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century employed this distinction between the cultural style of an activity and the kind of function that activity had fulfilled. This revitalisation is often taken to have originated with the publication ofBinford’s 1962 ‘Archaeology' as Anthropology’, with its reference to the earlier assertion by Willey and Phillips that ‘American archaeology' is anthropology or it is nothing’ (1958, 2). In his paper, Binford argued that archaeological data ‘represent the structure of the total cultural system’ and that ‘change in the total cultural system must be viewed in an adaptive context both social and environmental’ (Binford 1962, 217). The emphasis upon the context of a cultural system’s adaptation underscored the need to establish how human activity had functioned, rather than a concern with the stylistic ways in which those activities had been executed. Previously, archaeology’s emphasis had been upon tracing the history and the geographical distribution of different patterns of cultural styles, and this had meant, according to Binford, that whilst archaeology' had made a major contribution in elucidating ‘the total range of physical and cultural similarities and differences characteristic of the entire spatial-temporal range of man’s [sir] existence’, it had nonetheless ‘made essentially no contribution in the realm of explanation’ (Binford 1962, 217). It was in the realm of explaining material-cultural change, expressed in terms other than the supposed spread of cultural influences, that Binford and others came to believe the particular contribution of archaeology lay. Twenty years after Binford’s paper was published Colin Renfrew commented that:

[a] recurring theme in the thinking and writing of most contemporary'

archaeologists - indeed perhaps the single dominant theme - is the need for archaeology to go beyond the mere reconstruction and description of the past and to seek insight enabling us to explain how that past came about. An essential characteristic of what is today called ‘processual archaeology’ is the intention to seek explanations for the archaeological record of the past in terms of valid general statements .... (Renfrew 1982, 5 emphasis original)

Kintigh and his colleagues have now repeated the demand that archaeology should be able to explain why the human past, as represented by archaeological materials, followed the direction that it did. Given that it has been more than fifty years since the first of these calls for a New Archaeology' were made, we might begin to wonder why so little appears to have been achieved.

The impact upon the ways different observational data are prioritised as a result of the shift from reading the material record as the product of a variety of cultural influences, individual motivations, and past conventions of how to make and how to do things, to treating that record instead as if it attested to the economic and social functions which various activities had arisen to satisfy, can be illustrated by the way that Colin Renfrew re-orientated the study of the stone-built monuments that had been erected by the first agricultural communities of western Europe (Renfrew 1976).

 
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