The possibility of archaeology

Archaeology’s claim to provide an account that extends across what Frere had come to recognise as the lengthy history of humanity, is only sustainable if it can be demonstrated that the history of the various forms of human behaviour, and the various ways in which that behaviour had been organised, can be understood by reference to the residue of the surviving things that were involved in that behaviour. Understanding in the context of a historical enquiry presumably means more than simply describing what had happened at that time, and yet we might wonder what more could ever be achieved. The traditional practice of archaeology has accepted that the form and the patterning of the residues that we recover are mainly the results of human activity, and that this material can provide for an intelligible understanding of the processes by which the form of, and the associations deposited with, those material things were created. This reasoning develops the principle that all of humanity has registered a particular kind of material presence that is archaeologically distinguishable from other non-human processes of material transformation. This principle was clearly expressed in such book titles as Man [sic] the Toolmaker (Oakley 1967), and it follows that it should be possible to chart the ways in which human activity, as the producer of things, has varied throughout its history. Humans, in other words, do things in ways that we can recognise but in ways that have varied historically and geographically. The simplest expression of this idea in archaeology has been to argue that human behaviour is distinctive because its material products have always been designed to express both a functional requirement and a particular kind of cultural or stylistic order. This is rather like saying that, to communicate, ‘all humans have language’, whilst also recognising that, in communicating, humanity has spoken in many different languages and in many different dialects.

The obvious challenge for archaeology in extending our understanding of human behaviour beyond the description of its existence, is the considerable distance that separates our own cultural understandings of the world from that of those who inhabited the historical conditions that we are hoping to characterise. To pursue the analogy with language, it would be as if we knew that people in the past were communicating by speaking, and that we could hear fragments of what they were saying, but where those fragments were nothing more than a meaningless babble to our own ears. Not only that, but what was being said expressed a different perception of the world from that which was held by us, but it was a perception that we nonetheless seek to understand. Archaeology has therefore needed to establish the basis upon which a cross-cultural understanding of others might be possible, based upon the relics that have survived from those earlier times, and this is a considerable challenge. Whilst the distances between languages can be transcended by means of translation, and where the question might be whether the same kind of procedure might be offered to transcend the differences in the production of material culture, it is important to note that linguistic translation is not concerned with transliteration, but with rendering what is understood as being evoked in one linguistic tradition comprehensible to those operating in another. This should warn us against assuming that the ‘meaning’ of individual things could ever provide us with an absolute by which the user of any one cultural assemblage could understand that of another. Things of the same shape, and indeed of the same function, could vary considerably in terms of the cultural significance they held for different users.

Clearly, archaeological claims to understand others will always be based upon some very significant claims about humanity in general. These generalisations have been widely employed to define what it is to be human, and to distinguish humanity from the rest of nature, not only in the terms already mentioned (Man the Tool- Maker), but also in such terms as The Believing Primate (Schloss & Murray 2009), and The Symbolic Species (Deacon 1997). The ability to represent things that were immediately experienced as if they were ‘merely apparent’ and represented the workings of a more profound, possibly sacred, order appears to mark one characteristic of human behaviour. It is also possible, however, that the emergence of some symbolic behaviour does not correlate with clearly demarcated stages in hominin species evolution - for example, when primates that seemingly lack the anatomically modern features of Homo sapiens, such as those whose skeletal remains have been classed as Homo naledi from the Rising Star cave in South Africa, appear to have been involved in the selective deposition of their dead deep within that cave system (Shreeve 2015; see also and https:// www.newsdentist.eom/artide/2128834-homo-naledi-is-only-250000-years-old- heres-why-that-matters/). Finds such as these raise the possibility that symbolic and ritualised responses to death had occurred amongst individuals who were physically unlike modern humans. Indeed such ‘mourning’ behaviour might be extended to include species other than our own (cf. Pettitt 2011; Pettitt & Anderson 2020; Barrett 2013; Anderson et al. 2018; Piel & Stewart 2016), and there are times when the distinction that we draw between human behaviour, as culturally mediated, and animal behaviour, as the product of biologically determined instinct, can seem far less clear-cut than we might once have assumed (de Waal 2016).

Perhaps we should allow that whilst an archaeological methodology will continue to be based upon the general characteristics that are assumed to render all human presences materially recognisable, the specific forms of particular material cultural conditions will also describe something of that humanity’s internal diversity. This would require an archaeological methodology that defines the basis for understanding others, and it is the widespread doubt concerning the usefulness of archaeological knowledge in establishing anything more than the most general confirmation for an earlier human presence, that accounts for archaeology’s marginality in the study of human diversity. As Gonzales-Ruibal (2013) has commented, reference to archaeology' beyond the discipline itself is normally in terms of a metaphor, not one for the seeking of origins and histories, but simply for the act of seeking, as in ‘excavating’, the underlying structures that might determine the appearance of things (e.g. Foucault 1972). However, if archaeology is treated as a metaphor for peeling away the surface appearances of things, then the practice of archaeology itself seems to be almost obsessively concerned with that surface flotsam of materials. Archaeologists certainly excavate, but this process of going beneath the surface of the ground is merely designed to recover the material debris left by a now absent humanity. Occasionally that debris includes ‘wonderful things’, such as those glimpsed by Carter when he broke the seal of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but more often than not it appears to be the fragmentary detritus of quite unlovely materials (cf. Olsen 2013). How this detritus could ever provide us with a secure understanding of the structures and motivations that have governed the diverse histories of human life continues to pose a significant challenge. Archaeologists have themselves continued to question the extent to which they might ever get ‘behind’ the artefact or the deposit, and to see at last the lives of others that were once lived.

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