Did anything change?

The move away from attempts to establish possible laws of cultural development came with the emergence of an ‘Interpretive Archaeology’ (Tilley 1993; Hodder et al. 1995). Earlier doubts about the analytical programme offered by the various forms of New, Social, or Processual, Archaeology' had certainly been expressed (e.g. Tuggle et al. 1972), but it was within British archaeology' that an attempted alternative was outlined with the publication in 1982 of the edited Symbolic and Structural Archaeology (Hodder 1982b; cf. Tilley 1989, 185). Hodder claimed that the essays he had collected in that volume actually extended the programme of the New Archaeology and whilst the ideographic and particular nature of historical conditions now needed to be emphasised, he accepted that generalisations were still likely to emerge to explain the historical existence of various social institutions (Hodder 1982c, 13). Nonetheless Hodder’s stated aim for the book was to ‘resolve the culture/function dichotomy’ and to ‘reintroduce historical explanations as a legitimate topic of concern in archaeology’ (Hodder 1982c, 5). This appeared to move archaeology away from the desire to establish the general processes, let alone laws, that might provide for historical explanations, and to open up the possibility' for a more varied interpretation of particular historical conditions. The revised archaeological agenda was driven by the expectation that human history' was not structured by any generally operating processes of change but was the product of the diverse strategies of cultural construction that had been employed in various ways by the members of particular forms of social organisation. The effectiveness of these strategies was seen to have been contingent upon the particular contexts in which they had been mobilised. To this end Hodder dismissed the systemic approach of the New and Processual Archaeology as being incapable of understanding change in the histories of human behaviour in any terms other than those resulting from the need of human practices to adapt to, and thus to function within, trajectories of environmental change. The result, in his view, was that systemic change could only be treated as if it had been environmentally determined, a perception that seemed to miss the emphasis that Renfrew had placed upon possible social strategic drivers of change. However, as Hodder noted, the concept of function implied that a purpose existed for actions that also carried a cultural value or meaning which was particular to the context in which those actions were executed:

[ajll actions take place within cultural frameworks and their functional value

is assessed in terms of the concepts and orientations which surround them.

That an item or institution is ‘good for’ achieving some end is partly a cultural choice as is the end itself. (Hodder 1982c, 4)

These cultural judgements are ones that would have been understood and employed by those who had once operated within the cultural context that is being studied (an emic perspective), rather than perceived from the perspective of the external observer (an etic perspective). This captures something of the thrust of the ‘interpretive turn’ in archaeology. It demanded that the cultural judgements and expectations of the human agents, who were regarded as being responsible for making the historical trajectories represented by the sequences of material, needed to be incorporated into an archaeological understanding of those historical trajectories. The problem however remained: how was this to be achieved?

Hodder claimed that any consideration of the cultural conditions under which meanings and values had been recognised as embodied by things, necessitated an archaeological engagement with a theory of practice (cf. Bourdieu 1977 & 1990). The challenge for Hodder was to establish how such an archaeological theory of practice could be formulated to enable the move beyond the modern archaeological description of material conditions, and to arrive at an understanding of the historical and cultural significance once attached to those conditions. If archaeological descriptions achieved nothing more than being the representations of enculturated practices, such that a burial deposit simply represented the practice of how the dead were once treated, without any implications regarding the role of death and of the dead within that particular historical context, then how was archaeology' to provide for an understanding of the practices that constructed that particular notion of death?

Hodder certainly accepted that the patterning in the archaeological materials had originated in human practices that had drawn upon certain cultural rules, and that these rules were then rendered visible by the material residues. However, this sounded suspiciously like the cultural archaeology that the New Archaeology had rejected. Hodder then asserted that the rules employed in such practices could not have existed simply in the brains of practitioners, and he suggested that this braincentric view of culture arose from the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, which Hodder implicitly rejected. Instead, he argued, cultural rules were routinely reworked or renewed in the practices by which the existing cultural resources (the things that had embodied a cultural significance for the practitioner) had been encountered, used, and re-arranged (cf. Giddens 1979, 1981, & 1984). The implication was that the cultural rules that guided human behaviour were not simply stored internally and thus cognitively, but were also embedded in the material contexts of human existence and thus experienced through ongoing practices. Practices were therefore enacted as a relationship between people and things, and this points us towards Hodder’s more recent ideas concerning the ways that human practices are entangled within, and are thus structured by, existing material realities (Hodder 2012). This argument was only formulated in the very vaguest of terms at the time of its initial outline in 1982 and, as a result, it remained unclear how the structural principles that had aligned institutional patterns of human behaviour had actually operated, and how they could be identified archaeologically (Giddens 1984, 376; cf. Barrett 1994). It was this lack of clarity that resulted in the failure to wrestle a theory of practice away from the grip of a cognitively-based structuralism, a failure that has hastened the rise of a so-called ‘cognitive archaeology’ (Abramiuk 2012). It is in the arguments of a cognitive archaeology that we find the tendency to revert to the view that cultural practices, and the consequential arrangement of things, were meaningfully constituted because those practices, and those arrangements of things, expressed an ‘in the head’ concept of cultural order. Meaning, in other words, was assumed to arise in the human mind before it is then transcribed onto things, as Marx had argued in his comparison of the architect and the bee (see page 24). In the latter part of his opening chapter, Hodder (1982b) began to confront, without necessarily solving, the challenge that has remained basic to the discipline of archaeology': how might we understand the relationship between the histories of human existence and the existences of other material things?

It was with the publication of the 1982 volume that everything changed and yet nothing changed. What did change was the archaeological treatment of human behaviour, now widely regarded as an expression of belief, rather than as the mechanical response to environmental stimuli. What did not change was the demand that ancient human behaviour, and thus the archaeological residues arising from that behaviour, should be explained by reference to some underlying cause. The nature of the cause that was assumed to have determined human behaviour had simply now shifted. No longer conceived as the environmental or social stimuli that were external to, and had acted on, the human subject, the cause of behaviour had become the schemes that were internally (cognitively) conceived prior to their execution. It was these cognitive causes that now acted on the subject.

The idea that human behaviour is to be explained by reference to cognition introduces an obvious problem for archaeology'. If explanations are to be understood in terms of the cultural beliefs that supposedly motivated human behaviour, and if such beliefs were historically and culturally specific, then it would be difficult to see how those beliefs could be recovered simply from the material residues alone. One way of side-stepping this problem was to return to the expedient of using an anthropological analogy' to draw out the lessons that could be leamt from the source of the analogy (a contemporary living system), and to employ those lessons in the archaeological case. Alison Wylie (2002, 136—153) has reviewed the uncertainties that have accompanied the widespread use of analogical reasoning in archaeology, and she makes the important point that the use of analogy is not simply a matter of tracing similarities between different cases, but rather a matter of establishing the basis for the inferential reasoning that is being followed (cf. Fahlander 2004).

There are in fact two kinds of analogy that transfer information from anthropological sources into archaeological target studies. Formal analogies occur when an assemblage of things indicate that the same mechanical processes are recorded archaeologically that are attested ethnographically, resulting in predictions being drawn from the latter and applied to the former in ways that might then be evaluated. For example, in his classic study of the so-called ‘smudge pits’ that have been recorded archaeologically in the middle and lower reaches of the Mississippi River Valley, Binford (1967) compared the archaeological signature of these pits in terms of their shape, positioning within settlements, and the nature of their fills, with mainly nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of the use of fire pits for the smoking of hides. On the basis of the correlation between the ethnographic accounts and archaeologically attested processes he proposed that additional associations, noted ethnographically, should be expected in the archaeological context (Binford 1967). Analogies such as this are therefore designed to provide for, and could be tested by, a more detailed archaeological evaluation of the material record.

The more contentious form of analog)' is that which claims to extend the archaeological understanding of the factors that structured the complex associations of human institutions, material culture assemblages, and environmental resources by means of data from anthropology. These analogies return us to the claim that the archaeological subject and the anthropological informant both share a ‘basic’ structuring principle that determined the organisation of their behavioural characteristics. An example of this kind is found in the work of Binford that was discussed in Chapter 3 (page 43). Here the claim was that subsistence strategies based upon hunting and gathering warranted the archaeological use of anthropological data from similar but recent subsistence economies. This treats hunter-gatherer subsistence practices, operating within similar environmental constraints, as being basic to the organisation of other social institutions. It was upon this basis that the comparisons between the two were justified (cf. Binford 2001). The claim seems to have been widely accepted, in part because of the apparent ‘simplicity’ of the subsistence strategies that articulate hunter-gatherer practices with a seeming directness towards the available environmental resources: ‘For these societies it is often implicitly believed that fewer variables come into play, therefore presenting a more understandable system for interpretation’ (Redman et al. 1978, 6).

The impact of these two types of analogy has been significant, resulting in something of a revolution in hunter-gatherer studies. This revolution in thinking has derived from ethnographies that have overthrown the assumption that hunter- gatherer subsistence was structured by, and dependent upon, male activity that concerned big-game hunting and that resulted in the surviving residues of animal bone. Ethnographically attested hunter-gatherer subsistence appears, by contrast, to depend more upon the female gathering of plants, shell-fish, and small game, the residues of which are unlikely to be well preserved archaeologically (Lee & DeVore 1968). In addition, the archaeological assumption that hunter-gatherer existences had been precariously balanced by the routine pressures of subsistence demands being placed upon human labour-time has also been called into question. There are obvious dangers in the general application of such analogies. Broadly applied they create an a-historical image of human existences under conditions that are, and have been, far more varied than the generalisations might imply (Smith et al. 2010). We should also remember that it was the lives of hunter-gatherers that achieved at times some quite dramatic and quite specific historical outcomes, such as the colonisation of most of the earth’s surface (Gamble 1993), and the emergence of post-glacial agricultural systems in Eurasia, Africa, and central America (Barker 2006). It would seem unlikely that these historical trajectories resulted from the timeless adaptive processes that are inherent to all human activities.

Causal explanations for the patterns of residue are often sought to account for the conditions that might have ‘structured’ the activities that gave rise to those patterns. It is these structuring conditions, whether they derived from the subsistence base, or from other relations of social reproduction, that have been treated as grounding the analogies drawn between archaeologically and anthropologically attested examples. This has resulted in ‘the displacement, for some, of historiography as a defining feature of archaeology in favour of generalization about features of human society’ (Olsen et al. 2012, 185). Obviously some generalisations about humanity must exist, for without them it would be impossible for us to understand each other. This remains the case even if these general conditions might also give rise to cultural practices that render others incomprehensible, difficult and, indeed, dangerous to know. But does archaeology make any unique contribution to this understanding of others? If our understanding of other people depends upon identifying the prior structural conditions that drive human motivations, then surely the social sciences, with their access to the testimonies of living peoples, offer a far more secure basis for analysis than a discipline whose data sets comprise an eroded material residue? Perhaps the archaeological contribution to a wider understanding of humanity lies in our questioning the path that the discipline has traditionally invited us to take, which is to work back from the residues to the activity in the hope of establishing the structural conditions that once motivated that activity (cf. Olsen et al. 2012, 186).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >