A SOCIAL ARCHAEOLOGY

Introduction

In 1973 Colin Renfrew recast the modelling of archaeological residues to represent the operation of social systems and, by so doing, he provided a basis upon which the development of a ‘Social Archaeology'’ might occur (Renfrew 1973d; cf. Renfrew 1984). Although this remodelling has often been treated as if it were a continuation of the programme of the New Archaeology, it had the potential to disrupt the earlier approach. This was because while the New Archaeology' treated historical change as if it had arisen largely from the need of systems of human behaviour to adjust to changing environmental constraints, a Social Archaeology introduced the idea that social strategies were amongst the processes that brought about historical change. In other words, the move to a Social Archaeology shifted the focus upon the agencies of change from the mechanisms of environmental adaptation to the mechanisms of social competition.

Renfrew argued that a Social Archaeology would signal the need for archaeologists to engage with ‘the things which distinguish human culture from that of other species, which are unique to human experience’ and that these should be investigated ‘as intensely as others, such as subsistence and technology’. Renfrew therefore implied that it was these things that were the products of the socially informed behaviour of humans (Renfrew 1973d, 6 & 7), indicating that social behaviour, if not in itself unique to humanity (Wilson 2012), gains a unique set of characteristics when it becomes the product of human behaviour. Amongst those characteristics is the human ability' to further extend the ‘extraordinary diversity'’ of the way's that life can be lived (Ingold 1994, 329), while the analysis that Renfrew and others offered remained committed to explaining the emergence of the general similarities that have also existed in the ways that life was organised. Both the particular cultural achievements of life, and the general patterns of life’s systemic organisation continued to be taken to be represented by archaeologically recovered materials, and each was the product of lives that were lived ‘socially’, that is, among and with others.

Renfrew’s commentary, along with the one that was offered by Redman and his colleagues (Redman et al. 1978), argued that the development of a Social Archaeology' would extend the scope of archaeological reasoning. In place of the simple description and dating of past human cultural conditions (presumably describing the specifics of how lives were lived at certain times and in certain places), and the emphasis upon the organisation of subsistence economies as the means of environmental adaptation, Social Archaeology' would mark a concern with the function of human activity when expressed through the existence of rank, status, and the workings of political institutions. These views were set against the pessimism that had been expressed by Margaret Smith (1955), Christopher Hawkes (1954), and Edmund Leach (1973) to the effect that the investigation of the archaeological residues to reveal the social strategies employed by extinct human communities lay beyond what was methodologically possible for archaeology' to achieve.

Renfrew turned towards establishing a programme of Social Archaeology' immediately after publishing the first full-length use of systems analysis in European prehistory (Renfrew 1972). The move implies that he regarded Social Archaeology' as a more effective perspective from which to explain the processes driving long-term material change than the use of ‘systems thinking’ alone. While Renfrew still saw a Social Archaeology working as a generalising discipline of analysis (Renfrew 1973d), the important developments heralded by the move included the idea that the feedback processes within the social system did not need to be treated as functioning primarily to dampen change and sustain stability. Feedback could now be treated as the ongoing consequence of strategies that were driven by competition between the authority of some, and the submission of others: it was the social strategies of various agencies that might drive the broad spectrum of systemic change which affected systemic stability', growth, transformation, and contraction. It is therefore important to understand how the archaeology' of social strategies began to disrupt the idea that archaeological materials could be modelled to represent behavioural systems that were adapted to meet various environmental constraints.

 
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