Monday, February 16, 2015

Archaeology is Just Another Origin Myth

According to Trigger, “All human groups appear to have some curiosity about the past” and he then proceeds to differentiate the formal search for origins from the tribal notion of supernatural myth [27].  What may make the West unique—even as encountered in the form of a professional archaeologist—is the desire to acquire, materially, the origin myths of others.   Who we are is predicated by who we were.  The definition of “we” is what makes things slippery.  The expansive notion of we/us/ours, initially appears inclusive:  everyone is just part of that great human family.   Who, and what, is worth discovering is determined by who we believe we are.  Our obsession with meaningful objects is a form of ownership and in the act of interpreting their meaning we lay claim.  There is the well-intentioned tendency to chip away at boundaries of cultural groups in order to acknowledge and appreciate a common humanity.  It is the sense of commonality that we perceive as license.
At what temporal point do we decide that an object, fossil or site has passed into the ownership of all human kind?    Where do the boundaries of individual cultures lie?   According to Childe, a “culture can expand and move  about in space; it may intrude in an area previously occupied different culture.  It may supersede these, or a sort of composite culture may arise, blending intrusive and native elements” [History, 198].  And this is perhaps the most basic definition of colonialism.  These acts of evolving, expanding and migrating blurred the definition of a group, perhaps most notably for the newest arrivals—aka the colonizers.   For the original inhabitants, there remained an understandable resistance to assimilation.

 Some of this may have been evident in the Soviet reaction to Childe’s development of Marxist archaeological theory, as described by Leo Klijn. [76] The singular culture of Soviet Archaeology in the mid-20th century may have perceived Childe’s claims of affinity to be those of an interloper and colonizer. All cultural constructs, like more formalized tribes, clans or states, erect protective mechanisms to ward off the dilution of the primary ethos. 

For Childe, culture was a shared “social heritage”, which deviated from the idea that individuals form associations based on shared physical characteristics.  It’s a concept that seems obvious to us now, largely because of this work. But Childe was in the unfortunate position of straddling two epochs of cultural theory.  By abandoning the presumption that physical characteristics determine race and therefore heritage, he began thinking about the nature of humanness in terms of cultural overlaps.  In searching for linguistic history that, like a road map, would lead us back to a singular starting point, Childe, like the antiquarians who preceded him, continued to place the West at the hub of world culture

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