A cultural systemics

Modern archaeological procedures are designed to identify, and to describe, a material residue with the further aim of establishing the historical causes resulting in its formation. These causes prioritise human activity, and they concern the ways in which that activity was organised. In the first half of the twentieth century the similarities that were observed in the ordering of the residues were taken to represent the common practices of production that were socially, or ethnically, determined:

[sjimilar assemblages of archaeological types are found repeatedly associated together because they were made, used or performed by the same people at the same time. Different assemblages of associated types occur at the same time because they were made by different peoples. Cultures are assemblages of types that are associated because they are made by the same people. (Childe 1956, 111-112)

Archaeological cultures were therefore equated with material variability and this was assumed to represent the actions of a particular ‘people’, and it was as a result of these culturally designed actions of production that different kinds of ‘people’ could be identified archaeologically.

‘Culture’ has been one of the most difficult, and potentially misleading, terms employed in archaeology. One assumption that has enabled its use by archaeologists, and which was expressed by Gordon Childe (above), was that a culture was the cognitive and inherited awareness of people as to how their activities should be executed, leading to the view that socially sustained cultural beliefs were represented archaeologically by the form of their material products. More recently, the use of the term ‘culture’ has been widely critiqued within anthropology, and these critiques have now also had an impact upon archaeological thinking. The central question has been whether the same material reality that we all share (the one ontological condition) might have been perceived and worked from diverse cultural perspectives, or whether the expressions of a cultural diversity actually imply the existence of different realities existing for different peoples (see page 90; Venkatesan 2010). My aim is to avoid the traditional archaeological convention that treats culture as if it was a set of behavioural rules that are represented by an output of material regularities. Instead my aim is to treat cultural behaviour as the various ways in which different kinds of humanness, and their various solidarities, have grown by exploring their various understandings of things that they encountered in the company of others (cf. Graeber 2015). Cultural life was lived as a way of coping with the world as it was occupied, and through various forms of behaviour to bring that particular reality into view. This definition of culture, as a negotiated set of practices occurring within a particular material ecology, accepts that various forms of life have grown and have developed by learning to live in ways that became culturally meaningful, and thus recognisable to those around them. In practice this means that different realities have existed to sustain different perceptions, and that our own understanding of reality is no different in this regard than any other.

Childe had employed archaeological procedures to track the paths of cultural influences that had supposedly crossed from one region to another. It was the New Archaeology' that identified the intellectual weakness at the heart of this reasoning. That weakness was deemed to have arisen because Cultural Archaeology could only ever describe material change in terms of trait changes, and it could only ever explain those trait changes as the result of externally derived cultural influences. This kind of reasoning had been questioned in the United States of America since the 1950s (e.g. Willey & Phillips 1958, 51-52) and, as Binford noted, because assemblages of artefacts were treated, not as the products of cultural systems, but as assemblages of individual traits, as a result any change in an individual trait was treated as if it had resulted from ‘“blending,” “directional influences,” and “stimulation” between and among “historical traditions’” (Binford 1962, 217). In his later examination of the archaeological analysis of mortuary residues Binford argued that whilst archaeology' had assumed that ‘ideas or beliefs were the relevant variables to be used in understanding cultural or behavioural differences and similarities’ (Binford 1971, 7), he was of the opinion that, in the analysis of material variability:

differences in ideas and knowledge ... are never sufficient causes for . . . changes or differentiations. ... It is only after we understand the organizational properties of cultural systems that we can meaningfully make comparisons among them in terms of cultural content. (Binford 1971, 25)

Cultural explanations for change were slowly abandoned in Europe as the radiocarbon chronology was increasingly accepted as having broken many of the previously assumed lines of cultural influence (Renfrew 1973c).

The demand of the New Archaeology, to explain the ways that human behaviour had contributed to material change, required that the functionality of that behaviour be established. As Binford argued, functionality could only be understood in systemic terms, simply because the function of any behavioural component was given by how that component had operated in relation to the other components in the same system - either to sustain the system’s stability or to bring about its change. Material change was therefore analysed as if it was an attempt to correct for systemic maladjustments. All the examples of a non-diffusionist archaeology that have been discussed in the earlier chapters of this book treated the assemblages of material residues as if they represented systems of one sort or another, whether these were systems of economic and social organisation, or systems of belief and signification.

The ‘cultural system’, whose operation was determined by its organisational properties, provided the New Archaeology with the basis upon which to explain the changes that were observed in the material (cf. Willey & Phillips 1958). Despite earlier assumptions that the organisation of these systems could be described in social terms (e.g. papers in Binford & Binford 1968), it was not until Renfrew in 1973 (Renfrew 1973d), and then Redman and his colleagues some five years later (Redman et al. 1978), that the workings of cultural systems were explicitly recast as arising from ‘social’ processes. This change in perception meant that because categories of behaviour could be described in social terms, they must also have had social functions, implying that categories of behaviour functioned according to the social values that had been recognised by the participants of the system. This was likely to mean that each social system was open to internal conflict and to challenges between those belonging to different categories of social status, an argument that was denied by Renfrew (1972, 487) who saw social systems as being inherently stable. However, others argued that each social system was necessarily structured in ways that ensured the preservation of a dominant, if contested, political and moral legitimacy (Miller & Tilley 1984).

New Archaeology’s demand that archaeology should establish the causal explanations for systemic change was met by operating as if such explanations would identify processes that had driven different kinds of systemic change. These processes were therefore assumed to have been generally applicable to numerous historical situations. The implication was that, whatever their cultural differences, archaeological systems were structured by the same processes that were attested in anthropological accounts of similarly organised populations. This meant that analogies could be drawn between archaeological cases and anthropological accounts (cf. Fahlander 2004; see page 78). But why should the systemic causes that had resulted in archaeological residues find comparable analogies amongst recent anthropological accounts? Anthropology in particular, and social theory in general, had developed from the seventeenth century CE onwards in a European context. This was a time when some Europeans had begun to reflect upon their own industrial and imperial histories, and when European domination, conversion, and enslavement of indigenous non-European peoples had already occurred.

Anthropology therefore emerged as a European way of ‘seeing’ others. Given this context, it might be supposed that most social and anthropological reasoning is inherently modernist and Eurocentric in its origins (cf. Viveiros de Castro 2017 [2009]). As such, the use of anthropological and sociological analogies in archaeology' is now seen as problematic, if not entirely inappropriate for use in our study of the distant past.

The debate as to whether change in the systemic organisation of cultural behaviours was driven by either the adaptive demands resulting from environmental changes, or by the internal contradictions that gave rise to strategies of control and resistance, has resulted in replacing the archaeology of the large-scale regularities identified by Cultural Archaeology (e.g. Childe 1957) with analyses of the more localised scales of systemic integration. Such a change in the scale of analysis was advocated by both Binford and Renfrew (e.g. Renfrew 1969a & 1977). It was also implicit in many studies within the tradition of an Interpretive Archaeology. However, if we are to treat archaeology as an examination of materials that were used to build an earlier form of life, then another scale of analysis might be called for.

Rather than attempting to explain how material conditions might have originated as the result of localised systemics, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the forms of life that archaeology seeks to understand had extended, by means of their interpretive strategies, well beyond the reach of the individual social and political system (Arnason 1988, 88). If this possibility is accepted then we might well need to revisit the earlier, and long since abandoned, study of large-scale material-cultural regularities. Indeed, we might question whether the criticisms of diffiisionist reasoning were robust enough to have resulted in the abandonment of this larger scale of analysis (cf. Roberts & Vander Linden 2011a). If the spatial extent of a form oflife was indeed extensive, and if we need to consider the mechanisms that had sustained those forms oflife, then the more localised structures of social and political organisation must have emerged from within these larger-scale traditions oflife.

In their review of the traditional concept of an archaeological culture, Benjamin Roberts and Marc Vander Linden (2011b) have recognised the anachronism whereby, having been rejected as the means to explain change, the concept of culture has nevertheless remained the short-hand, if somewhat inaccurate, label to describe the large-scale material coherencies. Stephen Shennan (2000, 812) has noted that the past was likely to have been inhabited by organisational units that were geographically smaller than the extensive patterns of cultural regularity that are recorded archaeologically. He has concluded that these larger cultural patterns must be explained as resulting from processes other than those which had governed the more local systems of social and political organisation. In taking this argument forward Shennan has sought to avoid the traditional assumption that the patterns of material cultural uniformity were simply the products of‘human group traditions’, whereby cultural change could be treated as the product of population displacement, or as the spread of a dominant cultural tradition. The alternative, Shennan proposes, is to treat archaeological cultural regularities as mapping the transmission of information and skills. It was the transmission of cultural traditions and information that occurred within the fluctuating histories of a population’s reproduction that needed to be understood in Shennan’s view. He has maintained that the transmission of cultural information was governed by the principle of ‘descent with modification’ (Shennan 2000, 824-826), and he later emphasised (Shennan 2018, 3-6, and above pages 117-118) that the reproduction of a population should be regarded as ‘the single most important factor in understanding culture change’, a process that was guided by natural selection.

It is important to notice that Shennan seems to believe that a single point of origin must have existed for any tradition of cultural uniformity. This is rather like the Darwinian assumption that life had itself spread out from a single point of origin (Darwin 2009 [1859J, 112-113). We should however allow that the ways people might have understood their world could well have originated ‘rhizomati- cally’ from amongst a broader set of backgrounds and origins, rather than diffusing out from a single point of origin.

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