The archaeological record

The practice of archaeology' has placed an emphasis upon the processes of survey, excavation, and with it the recovery of ancient objects: this is what archaeologists are supposed to do, after all. The initial result of the work of excavation is a descriptive archive of the things encountered, of the analyses undertaken, and an archived collection of the recovered materials (Lucas 2012). These are the cumulative bodies of data for which Kintigh and his colleagues hope to provide a synthesis. The object of archaeological analysis therefore encompasses a number of different kinds of things, either those things ‘in the field’, or the accumulation of things in museums, along with the archived descriptions of things that are encountered by archaeologists and by others. In the eighteenth century, and some sixteen years before Frere offered his observations to the London Antiquaries, the philosopher Immanuel Kant had provided an account of our experience of things that distinguished between the things in themselves, and the human, subjective awareness of those things (Kant 2007 [1781J). Kant’s point was that these are not one and the same, and that whilst things in themselves certainly exist, our access to those things is only ever through the medium of our experiences of them.

It would be an understatement to say that much has been written regarding the distinction that Kant drew, and even a cursory consideration of the resources now available for archaeological analysis will recognise that whilst these resources obviously include things in themselves, they are archived, displayed, and described in terms that are chosen by archaeologists and will conform with the disciplinary conventions of a contemporary methodology (Shanks & Tilley 1987a, 68-99), Nonetheless, the argument has been made that because things-as-such have an existence well beyond the human experience of them (Meillassoux 2008), and because this larger non-human-related existence must be recognised as having operated as long as those things have existed, then a critical account of the archaeological resource should reflect upon the brute fact that things exist beyond our perceptions of them. However, the conclusion that archaeology should be seen purely as the ‘discipline of things’ (Olsen et al. 2012) is itself questionable.

My aim is to develop the argument for an archaeology that seeks to understand how humans have coped with, and developed through, their own relationships with things, rather than merely acknowledging the existence of those things-in- themselves. For this argument to work it will require us to examine the assumption that the material residues represent a record of humanly generated processes involved in their production. Let us therefore begin by asking ‘what is it that we want to know and what is it that we hope to understand from our own engagements with these relics?’

It has been easy to assume that archaeological perceptions of the past arise from the material itself, simply because the material records what we can know whilst also defining those things that can never be known. Lewis Binford expressed the relationship between the record and what it records as being the relationship between a contemporary static pattern of things (the residues) and the dynamics involved in their formation (past processes). As Binford saw it, this relationship clearly distinguished between the object that is the focus of present-day archaeological concern and the historical conditions within which that object once functioned. The challenge from this perspective becomes one of linking the contemporary, static patterns of objects to historical dynamics in ways that have a demonstrable validity. If Binford had questioned Frere on this matter, Frere might have asserted that it was self-evident that the ‘sand, shells and marine substances’ would have been deposited on a sea-shore (the uniformitarian assumption that the same kinds of geological deposits result from the same kinds of formation processes), that the artefacts were humanly designed because that is the way that humans work (a uniformitarian assumption about the nature of human behaviour with implications for how we understand humanity in general), and that these artefacts were weapons because that is what they looked like, an assumption presumably based upon their shape and one that might also have appealed to Thomas Hobbes’s assertion that ‘primitive’ life was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ involving a ‘war of all against all’ (Hobbes 2017 [1651]). The reasoning that Frere might have employed to link the static residues to dynamic processes was therefore grounded upon three assumptions of varying reliability. For Binford the challenge for archaeology was to move away from simply asserting the significance of archaeological things in terms of what they were thought to represent, and to establish how the links between material and its formation dynamics were proven to be demonstrably secure. That security was based upon uniformitarian principles and it arose because the processes resulting in various deposits could be observed ethnographically or could be repeated experimentally (Binford 1983).

It is important to accept that when an archaeologist refers to an archaeological record they are not only establishing the things that are of interest to them but they are also evoking a desire to know something about the past as the condition that once generated, or ‘wrote’, that record (Patrik 1985). The things that are doing the recording range from single objects, which might be assigned to particular archaeological categories (‘Aucheulean’ Palaeolithic handaxes), to kinds of deposits (gravels and sands), to the relationships between things (the handaxes stratified in river gravels). Past dynamics are recorded because they transformed the materials in ways that brought those objects, deposits, and the relationships between them, into being.

This current archaeological consensus tends to define the discipline of archaeology' by what it studies (material remains) rather than by what it might seek to understand (the conditions of the human past). It assumes that the latter gave rise to the former and that the latter is therefore revealed through our analysis of the former residues. In this way the material defines the object of analysis for, having noticed that antiquities exist in the world around us, archaeologists then ask how those antiquities might have come about. Hence archaeology' supposedly discovers something of the historical conditions that determined the production of those antiquities. This is a very' different procedure from one that decides, at the outset, what it is that we want to understand before identifying the material, and designing the methodologies, that might enable us to gain that understanding. The current archaeological practice that endows the collection, and the analysis, of ancient materials with analytical priority has a number of practical consequences. Central to these is the need that Binford identified, to establish a secure methodology that will interpret today’s static material as the consequence of past dynamics. Binford’s research programme therefore became increasingly concerned with explaining the formation of the archaeological record, where such explanations (the historical conditions of the past) are expressed as the causal dynamics resulting in various material residues (Salmon 1982).

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