From an archaeology of adaptive systems to a Social Archaeology
Renfrew’s concern throughout his work in the early 1970s was to show how a break in reasoning might be achieved from the archaeological tradition, once dominant in European studies of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, where the occurrence of cultural change was traced to the diffusion of influences originating in south-west Asia and the eastern Mediterranean (cf. Childe 1939). Renfrew needed to counter such arguments by identifying the indigenous mechanisms that might explain the development of the monuments and technological changes that defined
FIGURE 4.1 Renfrew’s proposed ‘socio-spatial hierarchy’ of southern British social organisation in the late Neolithic (redrawn from Renfrew 1983, Fig. 3).
the prehistory of Europe. He therefore argued that a Social Archaeology meant that many of the material residues of these periods either represented the ways that the socialised actions of people indicated how past social systems had been organised (into such things as chiefdoms or states), or expressed the social values that were manifest in the production, circulation, and deposition of certain artefacts, or in the building of certain monuments.
Renfrew’s initial use of a systems-based analysis was designed to explain the processes that had resulted in two things: the development of the Aegean Bronze Age (Renfrew 1972), and the sequential changes that had given rise to the emergence of the ranked societies of the Early Bronze Age in southern Britain (Renfrew 1973b, 539—558; cf. Renfrew 1969a). In both cases, Renfrew mapped the sequence of monument building, burial deposits, artefact production, and environmental changes in ways that seemed to reveal an emergent and centralising authority (Figure 4.1), and he equated that authority with the chiefdom type of organisation that had been identified anthropologically (Service 1962, 133ff). He adopted one widely held assumption to explain the rise of chiefdoms: that they functioned to redistribute the various products of localised and specialised processes of production and ecological exploitation, and that the emergence of chiefdoms might therefore be treated as a systemic response to these processes of production. The social system was therefore still treated as a form of adaptation, although the proposal for the emergence of chiefdoms explains neither the development of specialist producers, nor how chiefs achieved their positions of political domination. As Renfrew himself noted: ‘[ijn such explanations there is often opportunity to wonder what caused the cause’ (Renfrew 1972, 480).
Renfrew was responding to Leach’s criticism (see page 47), in which Leach had asserted that archaeological attempts to explain social change were nothing more than a move ‘into the realm of pure speculation’ given that the social processes had been played out in such a way that, whilst ‘the rules of the game are laid out in advance . . . the ways the game is played out is unpredictable’ and that there ‘are always an indefinitely large number of alternative ways in which particular social systems might be adapted to meet particular ecological and demographic situations’ (Leach 1973, 764 & 767). Renfrew countered that much of Leach’s argument was irrelevant to the archaeological project simply because it was possible to use archaeological data to understand the physical consequences of various social realities, even if it was not possible to access the cognitive motivations of the practitioners who had belonged to those realities (Renfrew 1977).
Renfrew’s 1972 study of the southern Aegean and Cyclades had been the first detailed publication of systems analysis in archaeology and it was directed towards providing an explanation for the third-millennium changes that witnessed the birth, and then the growth, of the first European civilisation in the Aegean in the second millennium BCE. The emergence of this European civilisation therefore arose, according to Renfrew, not out of influences from the east, as Childe had proposed (Childe 1958, 7 & 78ff), but out of the indigenous interaction between subsistence procedures that had adapted to a specific soil regime, the available technologies, the traditions of behaviour in the use of symbolism, and the exploitation of trading contacts, all of which were integrated though processes of social exchange (Renfrew 1972, 22-23). In other words, change arose as the result of feedback between different social strategies within the regional system, and Renfrew rejected the idea that any single factor, such as the generation of a food surplus, ‘can of itself produce changes in the structure of the culture. For a “take-off’ at least two systems must be changing and mutually influencing their changes’ (Renfrew 1972,39).
It was after surveying both the material sequences and the development of the hypothesised subsystems that Renfrew identified the social processes that could have driven the rise of the palace economies. One of these was the developing subsistence strategies of the Neolithic. Given the challenging soil conditions of the southern Greek mainland, these subsistence strategies were transformed by olive and vine cultivation, ‘opening the possibility of production specialisation in single commodities’ (Renfrew 1972, 280; cf Halstead 2004). Another process was the long-term development of metallurgy that had occurred in the context of the enhanced trade networks of the Aegean, sustained by the developing naval architecture of the third millennium (Renfrew 1972, 444 & 451). The latter was driven by the need to satisfy the competitively charged search for exchange relationships and for access to items for display. The palace economies of the second millennium thus emerged, in Renfrew’s account, because of the third-millennium developments in subsistence cultivation, craft production, and trade, all of which were integrated through ‘the human inclination to give a social and symbolic significance to material goods’ (Renfrew 1972, 497). The ‘multiplier effect’ that had driven change was the result of the forces of social competition in the second millennium:
[t]he finery of the Minoan palace, the treasures of the Mycenaean Shaft
Graves, the golden drinking cups of Troy, were not conceived solely for
the material well-being of those who enjoyed them. They were produced also to signify the wealth of the owner, and to reinforce that impression by extravagance as well as by opulence. (Renfrew 1972, 498)
European civilisation was a stage in social evolution that had emerged through a system of processes that were integrated as the result of socially motivated actions.
Social strategies had become archaeologically visible in Renfrew’s analysis of the Aegean sequence, and a year later in his published review of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in southern Britain, in two ways. First, the indigenous systems of behaviour were organised according to a logic which seems to have involved an increasingly centralised authority capable of co-ordinating and directing labour in the building of monuments (Figure 4.1), and the management of the redistribution of specialised produce. Second, exchange systems had extended in scale beyond those demanded by the needs of a regional population for a subsistence base, and this introduced into archaeology the need to deal with the notion that human behaviours were driven by ideas of social value and choice, rather than simply by the needs of survival. In his Aegean study these social processes contributed to the positive feedback mechanisms that Renfrew had claimed to identify. Thus, the palaces of southern Greece and Crete were taken to have functioned as the centres of elite display, agricultural storage, and economic redistribution. Although Renfrew would come to doubt his initial attachment to the model of a redistributive economy as applied to the palaces (Renfrew 2004, 266), the equation of an emergent elite with a redistributive function was one that became widely employed in the early 1970s to explain the emergence of social hierarchies. This followed upon Service’s suggestion that the social institution of chiefdoms functioned to redistribute, and thus to integrate, the labours of specialist producers who had operated across a diverse mosaic of ecological resources (Service 1962, 134; cf. Pauketat 2007). This model of a chiefly function was demolished by Timothy Earle (1977), who was able to demonstrate that Hawaiian chiefdoms did not integrate ecologically diverse regimes of production, but instead dominated a region’s production to ensure that they could extract the ‘wealth finance’ necessary for various forms of elite activity. Clearly a distinction existed between modelling the rise of chiefs to fulfil the role of what Gilman (1991) had dismissively referred to as ‘managers’ who had supposedly integrated an increasingly diverse subsistence system, and their emergence resulting from an ability to exploit a portion of the productive output of others. It is not simply that a Social Archaeology provided very different images of the historical processes as a way of explaining the emergence of social institutions, but that the function of a once existing political institution does not explain the processes that had resulted in its inception: chiefs might, in some cases, have functioned as managers but this does not explain how they gained their power originally. Thus, whilst we might choose to regard a functioning social system as facilitating a form of stable adjustment to its environmental conditions, any social distinctions that structured the system must have originated in the development of cultural ideas of the differences between people and between things, as well as in the relations of power existing between different groups exercised by claims of authority and the demands of submission. The problem facing a Social Archaeology was that, having modelled the material as if it represented a system of functioning relationships, archaeology was still faced with establishing the mechanisms that had structured the emergence of that system. Given the contentious nature of the understandings that are offered for the validity of today’s political systems, we might wonder how archaeology was to negotiate these conflicting issues in relation to extinct systems of human behaviour.
It was the suggestion that chiefdoms, as a distinctive type of organisation, could be distinguished archaeologically ‘by the presence of centres which co-ordinate economic, social and religious activities’ (Service 1962, 143) that resulted in the proposal that the sequence of earthwork ‘centres’ in southern Britain, culminating with the final stone-built structure of Stonehenge, was the record of emergent chiefly polities that had arisen as the result of an increasing centralisation of power during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (Renfrew 1973b, 539-558). The brief study of the southern British material offered by Renfrew was of a very different character from that of his much more extensive study of the Aegean (Barrett & Boyd 2019). The purpose of the British study was simply to demonstrate that the patterns identified in the archaeological record could be modelled to correlate with a list of some twenty features that both Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service (Sahlins & Sendee 1960; Service 1962, 133-169) had emphasised as characteristic of anthropologically attested ranked and chiefly systems of social organisation (Renfrew 1973b, 542-543). The emergent polities were thus presented in terms of organisational systems, although a system-based analysis of feedback mechanisms that might have been expected to explain the proposed developments in the social and economic system, was not offered. In addition, only very slight evidence was offered for ecologically specialised production processes that might have been integrated through a proposed redistribution system (Renfrew 1973b, 554-556). It was perhaps in the course of preparing the Aegean and southern British cases that Renfrew had become convinced that the indigenous systems that he was studying could be best characterised as social systems, thus allowing for the active role of cultural values to contribute to the explanation of systemic change. When, nearly twenty years after Renfrew’s paper had been published, Richard Bradley offered another view of the historic development of the supposedly ‘chiefly’ societies in southern Britain, utilising the more refined chronologies that had by then become available, he made no reference to feedback mechanisms between subsystems. Instead the idea of feedback between subsystems was replaced in Bradley’s model by notions of socially inscribed control over subsistence products and ritual practices, and the polities were now depicted not so much as integrated systems but as theatres of production over which different forms of political authority had competed (Bradley 1991).
It was with models of inter-regional exchange that, by indicating contact between different regions and different social systems, the basis for a possible challenge to Renfrew’s argument against diffusionist explanations for material change began to emerge. Diffusionist arguments depended, after all, upon inter-regional contacts in which dominant cultures tended to cause cultural change in those regions that lay on their periphery, and such contacts, when offered to explain material change, were often claimed on the basis of the subjective assessments of similarities in cultural materials. Such contacts, if substantiated, might therefore indicate the paths of possible cultural influence, and Renfrew was careful to demand that any claim for inter-regional contact be supported by the physical sourcing of the raw materials used, rather than by comparisons of artefact styles, commenting that ‘[aj proper interpretation depends upon the scientific characterisation of the material’ (Renfrew 1969b, 151; cf. Renfrew 1975). He did allow, without necessarily accepting in his own work, the ‘careful comparison of artefact forms to establish resemblances so close that they cannot be fortuitous’ (Renfrew 1972, 441), and he argued that the actual movement of materials and inter-regional contacts could be mapped objectively by archaeological analysis, and that different mechanisms of exchange between places of production and consumption could be identified (Renfrew 1975). He was therefore keen to demolish previous attempts to claim regional interaction and cultural influences based upon what he regarded as vague visual comparisons of material similarities (Renfrew 1969a), as well as doubting claims that similarities in the techniques of production, which might have been fortuitous, were also strong enough to sustain suggestions of inter-regional influences (Newton & Renfrew 1970). Renfrew’s analysis of the artefact sequences of the southern Aegean led him to argue that whilst limited contacts between Crete and the eastern Mediterranean could be substantiated for the third millennium, evidence of wider links across the eastern Mediterranean did not exist and ‘no objects of west Mediterranean origin have been found in Aegean contexts dateable to the third millennium B.C.’ (Renfrew 1972, 444). The apparent isolation of the Aegean within the broader eastern Mediterranean at the end of the third millennium stood in contrast to the increasing development within the Aegean itself of an ‘international spirit’ that united the southern Greek mainland, Crete, and the Cyclades in this same period and had ‘transformed what were hitherto essentially independent cultures in different regions of the Aegean into a complex of related units, whose individuality although at first distinct became gradually less marked as the bronze age continued’ (Renfrew 1972, 451).
The general image that was being evoked was that of social change being achieved by the indigenous development of an authority that, by means of the exchange relations that had moved people, materials, specialist products, and information within an expanding polity, was able to weld together larger political, social, and economic units. Widespread contacts from beyond these emergent polities, and which in the case of the Aegean were marked by the procurement of Baltic amber which was deposited in some of the ‘princely burials of the Mycenaean civilisation’, resulted from long-distance chains of prestige exchange that appeared to lack social consequences (Renfrew 1972, 467—468). It was as if the existing elites participated in this form of exchange, but were not themselves created by it.
Political, social, and economic development, including the rise of the Bronze Age civilisations of the Aegean, was therefore an indigenous development rather than one that arose as the result of external political domination:
in terms of this model the decisive factor for the development of Aegean civilisation was the development of a redistributive system for subsistence commodities. This emerged as a consequence of the intensive exploitation of a new spectrum of foodplants, notably tree crops, yielding a new diversity in produce. (Renfrew 1972, 480)