SYSTEMS AND THE DYNAMICS OF HISTORICAL CHANGE The New Archaeology

Establishing a 'New Archaeology'

For the first half of the twentieth century, archaeology' treated the variability of the material residues as if that variability resulted from the different ways that people had once followed - and thus replicated in their behaviour - certain cultural norms. It was by this means that archaeologists assumed that people built various forms of social solidarity (Childe 1956). The archaeological identification of these behavioural norms, achieved by comparing various artefact, monument, and burial styles, was then used to chart the extent to which cultural regularities had spread, been adopted, and had thus influenced the behaviour of now extinct communities. All these claims appeared to depend heavily upon the subjective judgement of the archaeologist (Binford 1972, 4-5). The New Archaeology' demanded the establishment of a different kind of methodology. This was to replace the subjective descriptions of differences in the material assemblages with an understanding of material change that could be substantiated by objective procedures of measurement and quantification. This change was predicated upon three claims concerning the future development of an archaeological methodology'. First, that the archaeological concern should shift from the cultural motivations behind behavioural traditions to the functional consequences of those traditions. Second, that those consequences were organised in ways that were systemically coherent and had ensured that the total system of behaviours functioned adaptively within a particular environment. Third, that the uniformitarian link between a type of behaviour and its surviving material residue should be validated independently of any proposed theories concerning the ways traditions of behaviour had developed and changed. Underpinning all these claims was the obvious need to render human behaviour archaeologically visible, and the obvious way to do this was by treating the material recovered as the consequences of that behaviour.

Archaeological methodology thus continued the tradition of ‘seeing’ human behaviour as being represented by certain material residues. Theory’s role was to propose the possible reasons for material change. The catch, of course, was that the latter (the reasons for change) also had to be formulated in terms that could be empirically investigated, limiting those reasons to the residues that had resulted from human behaviour within an environment. The environment, in turn, was widely interpreted as being non-cultural, that is as an environment comprising such things as plants, animals, soils, and climate (Binford 1985 & 1987).

It was assumed that the different kinds of human behaviour that generated the different categories of material residue were organised to satisfy a number of generally occurring human needs (Figure 3.1). This is well illustrated by Renfrew and Bahn who consider the ways that materials have been used to enable communities to function, adapt to their environments, provide for subsistence needs, allow for technological development, facilitate trade and exchange, and enable religious, artistic, and symbolic practices to develop (Renfrew & Bahn 2004,178-428). These different domains of behaviour were assumed to have functioned together coherently, and thus systemically, and the New Archaeology saw its task as explaining why changes in these behaviours, and thus changes in their systemic organisation, had resulted from internal processes of transformation, and not from any externally derived cultural influences. These new explanations were therefore intended to avoid reference to influences supposedly emanating from more ‘dynamic’ or more ‘advanced’ cultural communities.

Obviously, the New Archaeologists did not ‘dig up the past’, they did not find the past ‘as it really was’. Instead they adopted methodologies that modelled the residues of behaviour discovered archaeologically to fit their particular ideas as to how the human past must once have operated (cf. Clarke 1972a & 1972b). Thus, diverse archaeological residues were worked into a form of categories, assemblages, distribution patterns, relationships, and systems that brought that particular image of the past into view. The priority was to explain material change by identifying the general processes operating in differently organised systems, whilst those changes had actually been instigated within particular cultural settings. This meant that archaeological residues were treated as resulting from two different facets of human behaviour. One was the way of doing things. This was expressed as a cultural style that was specific to time and place and was sometimes seen as deriving from the cognitively motivated desires of people to adhere to local norms of behaviour. The other was what the human behaviour had achieved, which was its function, and this could be understood as a facet of behaviour that all humans shared. Thus human behaviour appears to have resulted in certain material outcomes which could be recognised by the archaeologist and rendered comprehensible by reference to the functions that those outcomes had fulfilled.

Cultural traditions had no role in the New Archaeology’s explanations for systemic change. For example, in his study of hunter-gatherers Lewis Binford argued that it was the way that subsistence demands were met by hunter-gatherers that was the key to his understanding of hunter-gatherer behavioural diversity, and whilst

Diagrams that represent

FIGURE 3.1 Diagrams that represent (a) the integration of different aspects of human activity (redrawn from Clark 1957, Fig. 25), and (b) subsystem states within a ‘sociocultural system’ in ‘dynamic equilibrium’ with its environment (redrawn from Clarke 1968, Fig. 14).

this does not deny that aspects of cultural behaviour are represented archaeologi- cally, these representations did not contribute to Binford’s understanding of the historical development of these groups:

I have never suggested that culture is not manifest in the archaeological record or that observable difference in the archaeological record might not have cultural significance. What I have suggested, however, is that behaviour is the byproduct of the interaction of a cultural repertoire with the environment. . . . Variations in the frequency with which certain culturally patterned behaviours will be executed is referable to the character of the environmental and adaptive situations in which cultural man [s/VJ finds himself at different points in time and space. (Binford 1973, 229)

It was upon the basis of the reasoning adopted by Binford that the ethnographies of hunter-gatherers could be read as if they attested to a form of life that was structured by the demands of subsistence adaptation. Consequently, it was from the perspective of their mechanisms of adaptation that the ethnographies of hunter-gatherers proved to be relevant to the archaeological understanding of hunter-gatherer histories. In his substantial, if somewhat confusing, volume Constructing Frames of Reference (Binford 2001), Binford argued that the ethnographies of 339 hunter-gatherer groups had enabled him to correlate their organisational components in terms of technology, biomass exploitation, population size, task and status organisation, and niche environments, and upon the basis of these correlations he could identify’ the processes that structured different ‘system states’. What Binford meant by a ‘system state’ was never very clearly defined (e.g., Binford 2001, 165 & 211), although Amber Johnson, who had worked with him on his 2001 volume, treats these states as the rules (presumably of behaviour) that determined the variation between different adaptive strategies 0ohnson 2014, 5). The patterns of archaeological residue are assumed to represent these rules, which had arisen from the necessity of a population, in possession of a particular technology, to adapt to various ecological constraints. There is clearly some circular reasoning here given that the patterns of material residues represent the execution of rules of adaptation, and the rules of adaptation are employed to explain the pattern of the material residues. As a consequence, archaeological analysis does not seem to tell us anything of any real interest because the rules governing the network of resources employed in an adaptation to the subsistence base were designed by that same ‘base’. The particular ways that people might once have understood their world, and have acted on that world in light of that understanding, is therefore bypassed by the logic of this analysis. The New Archaeological perspective was that an understanding of humanity’s diverse perceptions of the world was not only archaeologically impossible to reconstruct but was also irrelevant to the archaeological project, given that we can see how the various behaviours, utilising a particular technology, had adapted to their environment.

Binford accepted that the organising processes that he believed were recorded in the ethnographic cases of hunter-gatherers in various ecological settings would also have been amongst those employed in similar settings by post-glacial hunter-gatherers across Eurasia. He did not aim to offer direct ethnographic analogies for the interpretation of archaeological residues; his aim was instead to use the ethnographic data to establish the kinds of strategic processes of adaptation that were likely to be attested archaeologically. It was the strategies of hunter-gatherer adaptive variability that Binford reasoned must have enabled their transformation to agriculturalists (cf. Johnson 2014). In other words, these communities always had options, but those options were constrained by the physical correlations that existed between the available resources, the size of the population, the available technologies, and by the need to adapt and thus to survive. The recurring theme for Binford was that the various strategies by which the ‘dynamic properties’ of hunter-gatherer organisations were known must have arisen from a combination of their occupancy of different niche ecologies, and from the ways that the organisation of labour and the patterns of resource exploitation were designed to accommodate the ‘packing’ that resulted from increasing population densities:

hunter-gatherers living at population densities below the packing threshold vary in their group sizes, subsistence bases, patterns of mobility, and labor organization, and they may live in a wide variety of habitats. None of these groups, however, whose populations are below the packing threshold are sedentary. Even among those groups that have exceeded the threshold, few are fully sedentary unless they are aquatic specialists.

After packing occurs and mobility is severely constrained, affected groups position their labor units adjacent to resources and their sites are usually organized in terms of residential units. (Binford 2001,438)

As in his earlier 1968 paper, Binford was keen to avoid simple, deterministic explanations for hunter-gatherer histories. Instead environments are treated as resources that provided certain niche options for their occupancy, and population densities provided both constraints and opportunities for the population systems that coped with those resources. To claim that here, as in his earlier work, a causal determinate is on offer to ‘explain’ the origins of agriculture would therefore be to mis-read the subtlety of his arguments. We are offered instead the causal conditions that were necessary' for systemic change, including the available terrestrial and aquatic resources and certain levels of human population density. Whilst these conditions included those that were necessary for the development of agricultural systems, we might wonder whether they, by themselves, amounted to a sufficient cause for that transformation.

The three major organisational changes that attracted, and have continued to attract, attention in old world archaeology' are those that were involved in the transformation from hunting and gathering to agriculturally based economies, the adoption of metalworking by previously stone-using communities, and the rise and subsequent collapse of city states and empires. We therefore need to understand why it has proven so difficult for the New Archaeology to establish the explanations that it sought for these kinds of transformation.

 
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