The question of human exceptionalism

Up to this point we have been concerned to follow the traditional emphasis that archaeology places upon the identification and the consequent analysis of material residues. This has ensured that archaeological residues are identified as being of interest because they are believed to represent, and thus inform us upon an earlier human presence. It is for this reason that archaeology has studied things, and initially this study appears to have enabled archaeology' to get at the ‘Indian behind the artefact’ (Braidwood 1958, 734), before moving to model ‘the system behind both the Indian and the artefact’ (Flannery 1967, 120). Two problems have accompanied this treatment of things as the representations of people’s actions. First, and most recently, doubts have been raised concerning the ways that materials have been treated archaeologically as if the importance of those things was limited to their role as the representations of the human presence. The second problem concerns the largely unexamined assumptions that have underpinned the reasons offered for the changing patterns of human behaviour. The latter problem consumed the efforts of theoretical archaeology' at the end of the twentieth century, whilst the issues surrounding the status of the material itself have now emerged as a more recent concern (Harris & Cipolla 2017). Fundamental to this latter concern is the distinction that is traditionally drawn between living things (with the archaeological emphasis upon humans) and non-living materials.

The distinction drawn between these two states of existence permeated all archaeological analysis throughout the twentieth century'. It is upon this distinction that material residues have been widely treated as a record of humanity’s presence in its various historical forms of organisation, its patterns of behaviour, and its impacts upon the wider environment. Put simply, humans acted on material conditions that were otherwise passive and the traces of those actions, inscribed upon the material, are recovered archaeologically. The result of this reasoning has been to build an archaeology that is clearly anthropocentric in its focus: things are archaeologically significant because they represent people’s behaviour. Recent objections have called into question this way of treating all things, as if the existence of non-living things (as well as the remains of plants and animals) only mattered because they provided a way to reference the human presence. Surely, so the argument goes, the reality of all things has always existed and it is one that extends well beyond their relationship to the human subject. Consequently, it is misleading for archaeology' to assign things to such human categories as ‘prestige objects’ in ways that do not appear to recognise their larger reality' (Webmoor 2007). Olsen has expressed his own dissatisfaction with the dominance of the current humanistic archaeology and its reading of the material in representational terms. He writes:

I am tired of the familiar story of how the subject, the social, the episteme, created the object; tired of the story that everything is language, action, mind and human bodies. I want us to pay more attention to the other half of this story: how objects construct the subject. (Olsen 2003, 100)

Paying attention to the ‘other half of the story’ has involved drawing upon a diverse range of approaches that share the common recognition that all past realities have comprised complex relationships between all the things then existing (Jervis 2019). In a radical move this position denies the distinction between living and non-living things. It states that all things are ‘vibrant’ in their various ways (Bennett 2010) and all such things existed together in the historical conditions that are examined archaeologically. These existences ranged well beyond the traditional priorities of the human presence, which archaeology' has attempted to ‘see’ in terms of the human actions that resulted in a material record. The past therefore included that mass of things of which humanity was but a part, and this includes the things of which that humanity was either unaware at the time or, at most, only partly aware, and all things carry' properties that are withdrawn and unavailable to human perceptions. The immediate challenge posed by this turn towards things-as-things, is that archaeology' should now become a discipline that is concerned with the reality' of the past as a manifestation of all things, rather than remain focused upon the past as it if it were constituted as a human past. Matthew Edgeworth has suggested that the recent turn towards things is underpinned by the desire to get beyond an understanding of things merely in terms of their ‘correlation’ with the human presence (Edgeworth 2016, 93). Correlationism insists ‘that we can never grasp an object “in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject’ (Meillassoux 2008, 5). But what might archaeology gain by adopting a stance against correlationism, and by so doing acknowledge the need to understand the reality of all things as they have existed?

There is clearly the potential for considerable confusion here. Let us therefore start by accepting that archaeological materials, as an assemblage of material relationships, have only ever been part of the wider assemblage of relationships that enabled various categories of materials and various forms of life to come into being (cf. Latour 2005). The demand that we should establish what is, and what was, ‘really real’, as opposed to those things that were made real by and for humans by means of their actions, experiences, and perceptions, might be referred to as marking a turn towards a ‘new materialism’ in archaeology (Olsen et al. 2012). We need to distinguish between this ‘turn’ and a concern with ontological statements that are taken to be statements about the reality' of actually existing conditions (Ribeiro 2018a). The question here is whether ontological statements are believed to concern statements about the world, independently of human perceptions of how that world is, as in ‘there is only one world, despite there being many ways of living in it’ (a single ontology), or whether we accept that because diverse human perceptions were, and are, part of reality, this therefore helps to sustain the idea that there are many different realities and thus many different ontologies (Alberti 2016). I assume that recent calls for an ‘ontological turn’ in archaeology are a call to adopt the latter position.

A further possible confusion is that the new materialism, and the concerns with issues of ontology, are both distinct from the questions that are raised by archaeology’s traditional analysis of things. The latter is a question of epistemology, it concerns the ways that things have been treated as a way of establishing an archaeological knowledge of the past. My point here is that epistemological procedures must be designed with reference to what it is that we want to know. The differences of the approaches that we have traced in this and in previous chapters have concerned archaeologists wanting to know the ways human actions were organised and, optimistically, to establish what might have motivated those actions. My argument is that contrary to these common approaches, archaeology should want to know how varieties of humanness constructed themselves. How we therefore know the world, and how that world is in reality, are not one and the same thing (Bhaskar 1997).


Archaeology' is certainly a discipline of things (Olsen et al. 2012), but it is a discipline of things that operates with the specific purpose of understanding how human histories became possible within particular material contexts (Barrett 2014a & 2016). I argue, therefore, that the ontological move that archaeology needs to take is one that treats the things that we study as a way of understanding how forms of humanness gained their particular historical existences. That they did this by reference to the things amongst which they grew and developed (cf. Hodder 2012) renders the process open to archaeological investigation. This returns us to Olsen’s desire to understand ‘how objects construct the subject’ (Olsen 2003, 100), and it starts by maintaining the duality between the subject and the object, between forms of life and things. However, it inverts the argument traditionally maintained by archaeology. We treat things as making forms of human life, rather than treating those things as if they were merely the products of human actions. The duality that distinguishes between humans and things is thus maintained in this epistemology' but not, as Harris and Cipolla appear to think (2017), because thinking in dichotomies is a pathological characteristic of modem thought. Instead it is the historical construction of that duality, by means of the emergence of various forms of humanity within given material contexts, that is the historical process that archaeology' is attempting to understand (cf. Hodder 2012, 10).

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