Cultural histories

If cultural practices can be defined as the ways people performed an increasing, and practical, understanding of their material universe by orientating themselves towards that material in ways that expressed their knowledge of how they should behave, then these were the practices that made particular kinds of humanness. It was people’s discovery of how to cope by living amongst things in the company of others, that endowed those things with their particular significance. The patterning of the things recovered archaeologically did not therefore result simply from the transmission of a tradition of production. It was also part of the context through which people had once been able to recognise their own agency. A cultural history is therefore given by more than a sequence of things; it is the history of the embodied dispositions by which a biocultural population developed by making itself into a form of humanness.

Artur Ribeiro has noted how archaeologists have failed to make the case for the importance of the philosophy of history in their various attempts to formulate a conception of the human past (Ribeiro 2018b). As a result, archaeologists appear unaware of the implications that arise from the historical understandings that are necessary for all archaeological interpretations. The historical interpretations envisaged by Ribeiro are not narratives that describe a sequence of materials, nor do they describe how such a sequence was created. Instead, historical narratives trace what was possible in the building of a common level of understanding amongst people, and the ways that the resources utilised in those understandings (including things, memories, and beliefs) could provide the means by which local solidarities and political structures had emerged.

The belief that the history' of cultural systems could occur under conditions of systemic autonomy (Renfrew 1969a & 1977; Renfrew & Cherry' 1986) was initially challenged by the application of World Systems Theory to the operation of the ancient world (see page 68; cf. Kristiansen 1998). The application of this theory' to pre-capitalist worlds has not been without its critics (Schneider 1977; Ratnagar 2001; Harding 2013). The criticism does not however negate the argument that relationships between ancient political and social systems must have been interactive and porous, leading us to doubt claims for the systemic isolation and autonomy of the processes’ political and material development (Smith 2005). It was surely the degree of systemic openness that had sustained the flows of goods, peoples, plants, animals, and beliefs, all of which are indicated archaeologically by certain extensive material distributions, as well as by the current isotopic and DNA evidence for human and animal mobility' (Kristiansen 2014, 13).

Archaeologists have long claimed to be able to recognise the prior existence of different systems of social organisation, and they have also modelled the movement of materials as indicative of the exchanges occurring between systems (Renfrew 1975). The problem, however, is to establish the mechanisms that had sustained these flows of people, information, and resources. This raises the suspicion that archaeology requires another kind of spatial interpretation, beyond recognising of the extent of political organisations, and the mapping of exchanged materials. Such a third scale of analysis would force a return to consider the continental and trans-continental patterning of different areas of material coherency. This patterning might indicate the ground for a particular order to the world that provided legitimacy for the more local social and political practices. Indeed, we might be tempted to treat such an order as ideological, being the generative matrix that regulated ‘the relationship between visible and non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable’ (Zizek 1994, 1).

Michael Rowlands and Johan Ling have referred to the contradiction represented by European Bronze Age archaeology which claims to see the evidence for mobility occurring alongside the evidence for long-term regional identities. As a response, and by assuming that these two kinds of evidence resulted from the operation of a single set of processes, Rowlands and Ling have sought to understand the evidence in terms of hybrid, creole, and cosmopolitan practices which ensured the existence of a general identity across communities, whilst also facilitating the strategies of resistance that constructed local, political obligations (Rowlands & Ling 2013, 517; cf. Rowlands 2010).

Archaeology' has previously sought to represent many exchanges extending across regions and between social groups as the exchange of‘prestige’ items between elites that had accompanied acts of diplomacy and the negotiation of marriage alliances. On the other hand, the function of the bulk exchange of raw materials has been assumed to satisfy the deficiency of local raw material availability, such as the need for copper, lead, and tin to satisfy the needs of bronze production in the lowland regions of Europe (cf. Sherratt 1976). However, the bulk movement of raw materials is difficult to understand outside the contexts of either diplomacy, or commercial trade operating within some kind of monetary economy (cf. Barrett & Boyd 2019, 57). What we can assume is that numerous forms of exchange must have operated on the basis of authority, power, and trust between most of the participants. The actions of participants in any voluntary exchange relationship must have been recognisable, interpretable, and indeed predictable, to each participant (cf. Cronk & Leech 2013). Trust itself can only exist between people when they hold in common some understanding, however schematic, of the forces that govern their lives. Such an understanding would have been expressed through the practices of ‘institutions, techniques, myths, or other practices and products’, in ways that were ‘constant across languages and political societies’, and whose ‘institutions and organisations . . . spread spatially over time’ to an extent that was ‘bigger than political society’ (Feuchtwang & Rowlands 2019, 7-8).

Trust is the recognition of a degree of shared humanness, manifest in the way that co-respondents behaved in relation to the world of things. In sustaining relations of trust two things must follow, each of which is archaeologically significant. In one, people shared a common disposition towards things and towards events which was expressed in ways that extended widely across geographical regions. In the second, institutions of solidarity, and the obligations of political authority, will have arisen within these worlds by the construction of relationships and values that arose locally (Komter 2005). The latter systems would have arisen, for example, when some individuals claimed, by their actions, the attributes of a cultural purity that others might have accepted or have been unable to resist. The claims of purity, and the status that it endowed upon some, might then have been inherited along the lines of a particular genealogy. By recognising that human identities were performed relative to cultural materials, we find ourselves developing a definition of civilisational practices that differs from that which is more commonly employed in archaeology.

The current archaeological presumption is to treat civilisation as a level of achievement on a polity’s path of development. This achievement is often assumed to have moved that polity onto a higher level of organisational complexity, along with increased degrees of social differentiation and display. This current view of civilisation was the one that was employed by Childe (Childe 1950) and pursued by Renfrew who wrote that the growth of civilisation marked the creation of ‘a larger and more complex environment, not only in the natural field through increasing exploitation of a wider range of resources of the ecosystem, but also in the social and spiritual fields’ (Renfrew 1972, 11). From this perspective civilisation might represent a particularly elaborate form of a material insulation that cocooned an elite from the ‘natural’ brutalities of barbarism. Flowever, if we were to pursue a different concept of civilisation (cf. Feuchtwang & Rowlands 2019), then it must be based upon the following two observations.

First, all forms of life, as I have repeatedly argued, have been constructed out of the ways that lives were lived as understandings of the worlds inhabited. While an increasing corpus of material culture certainly created the possibility for a materially embellished environment, it did not necessarily determine that environment’s interpretation. The important point, and the one that distinguishes the approach followed here from earlier attempts to trace ‘cultural influences’, is that the solidarities of ‘life as it was lived’ need not have conformed with the geographical distribution of individual traits. Instead the solidarities of trust, authority, and understanding arose through the degrees to which forms of behaviour were able to recognise comparable worlds. The implication for archaeology is that the extent of a common cultural existence cannot be simply ‘read off’ from a uniform pattern of material traits. Instead the merits of each case have to be argued for.

Second, if we avoid the racist assumption that only some people possess the innate ability to become ‘civilised’, then growth in the idea of a common form of humanness has only ever been possible by virtue of its ability to express, to broadcast, and to experience, mutual understandings between the members of that particular kind of humanity. It is hardly surprising therefore that an elite might create itself by both expressing, and thus by broadcasting, its own understandings of the world and of its own origins by its access to, and its interpretation of, restricted media such as writing, or the esoteric reading of forms of artistic representation (e.g. Clark 1969), or by spiritual revelation.

Obviously, we need to establish archaeological procedures that can identify the difference between the local pragmatics of living, the structures of political cohesion, and the more general and more widely applicable principles by which larger patterns of cultural coherency could be recognised. Martin Furholt (2019) has recently distinguished between the intention of a practice (such as the intention to mark an individual’s death by means of a single grave burial ritual), and the things that were employed by those practices (such as the choice of either corded ware vessels or beakers to be included amongst the grave furniture). The distinctions drawn by Furholt allow us to define three different levels of practice. These are: (1) the function of the practice (to bury the dead); (2) the acknowledgment of a generally accepted order of things (the becoming into being of the individual, the group, and of sexualised lives, and their ultimate death); (3) the local mechanisms that needed to be employed to construct the acceptance of that order (corpse orientation and artefact assemblage). This is similar to the structuralist distinctions which recognise that a functional need (1), is satisfied by a grammar that structures a way of life (2), by employing the practices of speaking and behaving by which that structure is lived (3). My argument is that the structural grammar (2), was widely shared (as implied by Furholt’s identification of single grave rituals), and was the product of localised practices by which the structure was lived (3), and it was out of the latter that political obligations were built.

If these distinctions are accepted then they mean that the examination of archaeological residues should enable us to recognise the ways lives were lived by reference to two axes: one was the localised ways that structural conditions were experienced, and these generated the second axis which was the widely accepted structural conditions that had governed life. Local forms of political authority will have drawn upon these two dimensions to carve out systems of control. Politics becomes a process by which reference to the widely understood structural conditions is used to legitimate the control of local resources. As an example of how this analysis might work, and the problems that it raises, I will consider the contrasts that existed between the early Neolithic of central Europe and the Neolithic established along Europe’s northern and western margins.

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