Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cause and Effect in Archaeology


Paula Sabloff's book “Conversations with Lew Binford,” which consists of various interviews with the esteemed archaeologist at the end of his career, commences with Binford’s critique of culture-historical methodology. He writes: 
“You just fit your observations to your conventions. Then you put them together. Your conventions literally gave conventional meaning to what you saw. And that was something that I was not willing to work with right from the very beginning” (1998: 6).
In this context, he is specifically problematizing the ways in which Classificatory-Descriptive archaeologists have traditionally identified migration versus diffusion.

            Binford’s own method of processual archaeology, however, does not escape this paradigm. His conventions may be based on ethnographic and experimental analogies, but he succumbs to the same types of circular reasoning as his predecessors. He writes: 
“…the old archaeology said they knew what it all meant. There was a series of conventions that when you see this, it means that, and most any of those conventions could be knocked down. This is what we did in the early ‘60s: show you that there are three or four different ways that you could get the same patterning” (1998: 19). 
While introducing greater variability into interpretation was an important step for archaeological theory, I agree with Tilley’s stipulation that Hodder’s work rather than Binford’s was responsible for a paradigm shift in the discipline (1989). Processualism simply expands a 1:1 cause:effect ratio rather than eliminating it altogether.

            For example, Binford focused a great deal on mortuary practice, arguing that complexity of mortuary practice correlated positively with complexity of the society. First of all, the entire premise upon which this thesis is founded inherently imposes a linear trajectory of the kind imposed by Lewis Henry Morgan. The term “complexity,” as it relates to archaeology, suggests that a diverse material culture can be used as a proxy for a diverse society, with implications that such a society is inherently superior to one that is “less complex.” This diversity in society is generally characterized by an extensive division of labor and large population, both of which tend to result in increasing technological advances and entrenched social hierarchies. I would argue, however, that in actuality these surface types of diversity cannot account for the diversity in mindsets and ideas: in other words, those immaterial categories at the top of the ladder of inference. The notion that the archaeological record can be used to theorize about ideology can be attributed to post-processualism.

            Even if “complexity” is accepted as a viable barometer, there is still the problem of assuming that some societal “cause” produced the material culture “effects.” Shanks and Tilley’s book chapter “Ideology, Symbolic Power and Ritual Communication: A Reinterpretation of Neolithic Mortuary Practices,” within Hodder’s 1982 volume Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, can provide one post-processual point of view to problematize this supposition. They examine communal burials in barrows, which would traditionally have been construed as evidence of a non-hierarchical, not complex society. The authors instead argue, however, “Mortuary practices do not just reflect, they also invert and misrepresent” (1982: 152). Therefore, the act of burying the dead en masse could be seen as one of denying an existent stratification in socioeconomic relations. This abandonment of Binford’s convention that mortuary practice is a reification of these relations, which is reflected in the archaeological record, is one example of the real paradigm shift in archaeological theory.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

We Are the Neanderthal

Oscar Wilde once said, "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." This mantra is perfectly upheld in the way in which research on neanderthals permeates the public sphere. Much news of early Homo sapiens remains from Israel has been triggered on the notion that it could have been among the first anatomically modern humans to have sex with neanderthals. This fascination with interbreeding comes out of the precariousness of a competitor to modern humans, commonly viewed as the teleological end point to evolution. Any threat to that clean viewpoint has difficulty gaining acceptance. It is for this reason that neanderthals have for so long and continue to endure the cave man brute stereotype.

If it was not the humans who engaged in a bloody war to defeat the neanderthals to gain their rightful place as rulers of this domain, then what happened? This is the question that surrounds much publicity of middle paleolithic archaeology. Dying out quietly for a species is not exciting however, but sex is. Thus, there is relatively extensive media coverage of that encounter. It is an implicit desire by contemporary society to still see the human species on top (no pun intended). In accordance with the statement of Wilde, inter-species sex is about power. The encounter between a neanderthal and human may have been peaceful, but nevertheless, a modern human, rather than a neanderthal was born from it.

There is also an academic and public rhetoric that is uncomfortable with seeing anything other than humans having agency and cognition. For much of human history how humans have distinguished themselves: agents and actors with high-level cognition. Everything else is secondary and the other. But evidence problematizing this notion is difficult to reckon with because it gives way to the much feared identity crisis of humankind.

The resulting conservative treatment of hominids in the Middle Paleolithic is one akin to the socially conservative rhetoric observed in America, and the perversity of sexuality. However, this mindset crucially dictates the mindset with which we deal with the study of these early hominids, or 'photo-humans.' It becomes a perverse discourse in the media realm whereby readership is secured through the alluring taboo of the sexual encounter. This defines the rhetoric and regard to which the subject is considered by the public. This narrative captures the erotic imagination and succeeds as a public image: the fair-skinned maiden encountering the chiseled, dark, hairy beast of a neanderthal. Thus, neanderthals are kept in their brutish quarters by the means with which we described them. Perhaps this is a purely a narrative that plays to our sexual imaginations. Or maybe it is an instantiation of fulfilling humanity's desire to tame the beast. Through sexual encounters, humans tamed the brutish race, overcoming them and displacing them, giving way for the eventual and destined rise of humanity. Regardless, through this narrative, the neanderthal remains the other, even if in fact we are the neanderthal.

Where the sun never sets...

Why can't there just be a disinterested interest in a place or time? The foundations of archaeology fall within the particular endeavor to pursue the origins of Western civilization, the zenith of mankind, whether it be from man the hunter to land of King David, or anytime or place in between, there is concurrently this interplay between the burgeoning field of archaeology from the 19th century and the  socio-cultural politics surrounding this condition. In the particular situation of archaeology in the 'Holy Land,' there is a concentrated effort based on the implicit interests pursued through excavation to further the presence of Western, Christian, Anglo-Saxon merits via tracing its origins.

Much of the earliest excavations took place under these conditions, whether it be in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, etc. As Margarita Díaz-Andreu points out in A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past, the archaeological excursions in these regions were due to their links to the Bible and relation to the development of Western civilization. Ironically, in the strand of thought introduced by Edward Said, it appears that early archaeologists pursued the study of the other as an implicit study of us, i.e. the 'West.' To see what one is, one must see what he/she is not. Likewise, in the way of thinking that the West is at the pinnacle of humanity, seeking out the other, in the case of the biblical lands, is a means to seek our origins, albeit a teleological one. Origins imply a privileged outcome. Furthermore, a fascination and characterization with the other, is a form of exoticism that is more reflexive on the one who is defining that other. This mentality foregrounds the entire development of archaeology in the biblical archaeological narrative that Díaz-Andreu describes. For Egypt, it was the land of the other that was a predecessor to Rome, a main stepping stone of Western accolades: "...the attraction exerted by the Pharaohs' land was principally connected to its ties with the classical world--mainly the move of obelisks to Rome in the early centuries of the era--, the presence of spectacular remains like the pyramids and the romanticism of its association with the exotic" (137). It was to seek out those relations of Romans and Egyptians that inspired early archaeologists, as it was to pursue the biblical narrative elsewhere.

This plays out throughout the early archaeology of the region. Through exoticism as a means to preference the self and defining the rhetoric of archaeology in the holy land, archaeology developed as an extremely imperialist endeavor. These efforts, although in some way moved beyond by much of the archaeological community, has endeavored through political influence. Western perceived origins within the land was used to define political boundaries, and has continued to be prevalent in the national subconsciouses and the archaeology pursued under such mentalities.

Free trip to Bible Land!

Why do archaeology in Jerusalem? There are plenty of opportunities for tourism. It's the holy city, land of the Bible. David stepped there, Jesus here, Mohammed over there.

The difficulty with archaeology in the region of Palestine is that there are far too many biases as far as interests guided by explicitly biblical proofs. The dilemma of archaeology by such means is that it is pointed toward the releasing the burden of soil on top of sites that can be claimed as having a historical or biblical significance. But such endeavors do not enhance the understanding of humanity as a hole. It is teleological, inherently tied to political agendas of the contentious region by grounding stakes to the land through precedence that is sought to be proven archaeologically. As Ann Killebrew admits, "Whether we like it or not, archaeology of the twenty-first century through necessity (economically, ideologically, and intellectually) will be a more 'public' archaeology wherein we will need to confront all aspects related to the archaeological endeavor and its interface with many publics" (138).  Perhaps more so than most, archaeology within the region must contend with the varying and pressing interests of this land, and the pressures of developing an archaeology that is explicitly political.

It is for this reason that Raphael Greenberg insists the prevalence of local peoples in archaeology of the region. In such a way, there may be an attempt to save the archaeological integrity of the region for intellectual pursuits rather than those aimed at a political instantiation. The trouble with archaeology in Jerusalem is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all hold a stake in the area. If archaeological pursuits were to be interested as a religious pursuit, as it has so inherently been in the past, then the myriad of other contexts are ignored and destroyed in the destructive process of archaeological excavation. Thus, Greenberg presents a list of considerations for archaeologists, akin to an ethical code of conduct for archaeologists, in order to devoid themselves of as much political bias as possible. Of course, such a desire is quite idealistic, though nevertheless imperative to be aware of in a self-reflexive archaeology that may have some intellectual poignancy instead of archaeology being a political handmaiden for the region.

The object of archaeology?

What does an archaeologist do? What, exactly, is it that one studies? More poignantly, why do we care? This is seemingly at the core of a self-reflective archaeology as alluded to by Ian Hodder in "Archaeological Theory in Contemporary European Societies; the Emergence of Competing Traditions" and Ann Brower Stahl's "Introduction: Changing Perspectives on Africa's Past."

Importantly, Hodder concludes that there is a certain level of objectivity whereby our understanding of the past in the present time is informed by the remains from the past: "...the experience of the archaeological data and the patterning observed in the past do more than resist our ideas; they help create them" (22). However, is this a satisfying response to his previous statement that "The past is undeniably social, as is the practice of archaeology" (20)? He seems to claim that there is indeed some middle ground between the objective presence of material remains from a past existence and the socially-affected discipline of archaeology. However, with considerations such as "...the history of theories used in archaeology cannot be separated from the concrete conditions of practical research or from the social functions of archaeology in society" (21), how in fact can this objective-subjective dichotomy be mediated? Hodder claims that "The continuities we claim with the past have in part been created by that past. Archaeological science involves a dialectical relationship between past and present. The hermeneutic circle is not a vicious one" (22). This seems to be a logical fallacy, however, if the continuities we claim to have with a given past are in fact up to an interpretation of that past. Where does the science come into archaeology? How is that dialectic any different than the discourse that Said discusses on the matter of Orientalism?

If the object of archaeology is a past that is uncovered and interpreted in the present, is not any continuity drawn between this present and that past merely a structure of rhetoric and interpretation? The process that Hodder seems to rectify as in some way objective is anything but. It is a reflexive discourse, as is Said's Orientalism. We are the present, they are the past. We observe and study them through our lens. As the speakers for the past, we describe it and analyze it. Where, exactly does the data come in? How is this any different than an Orientalist discourse?

To be fair to Hodder, he does acknowledge this to an extent by inscribing: "The attempt to embed material events within the whole framework of meaning in which they were once situated clearly involves the analyst in a double hermeneutic in which 'their' and 'our' understandings are gradually accommodated in a moving double circle. This process of double reading has to be critically aware" (18). Is this not a method of navigating the vicious hermeneutic circle that Hodder eventually rejects? Poignantly, the process of archaeology is, indeed, a moving, reflexive discourse. It seems that there is no mere moment of archaeological objectiveness, but more so an ongoing, reflexive, discursive, hermeneutic enterprise. Is this not the history that Hodder so sensitively describes of his account of European archaeology?

So, this does not give an answer to any question asked originally as to what and why archaeologists study. There is seemingly no object of archaeology. The only objective to be found here is that it is a discourse among as many interpreted evidences as possible, characterized as 'data,' and with that to define, redefine, and question a past that is interpreted in the present. Likewise, these are the sorts of systematic problems that Stahl faces in prefacing an account of African archaeology. She considers knowledge to be always interested; i.e., the object of an analysis is determined "... by the social, political, and economic contexts..." of the subject (2). The conclusions drawn from such analyses are presented as universal, objective conditions, or 'knowledge,' but really "...the universal emerges NOT from widely documented shared features, as we might at first imagine, but rather from the elevation of a shared instance or example to stand for the universal" (6).

As for a capacity for archaeologists to do some study of worth, as heretofore they have been perhaps unfairly treated in this reflection, they consider sources--or perhaps objects--of a past, some of which are privileged over others. The direct sources are those privileged over indirect ones, having been produced in the temporal realm of concern. These data points that Hodder perhaps designates too much of an objectivity for, are by no means such. However, their presence and usage in an archaeological endeavor is not to be unsubstantiated, but reconsidered. To reckon with these qualms, Stahl wisely places such archaeological 'data' in its rightful place by claiming, "Archaeological sources...provide valuable independent evidence against which to assess models of the past." The insistence here is on her use of the term models. To bring this discussion to a more hopeful end with regards to the place and function of archaeology, if we are to study 'the past' as models of such rather than an objective sort, and the evidence from which as artifacts to be questioned, analyzed, and interpreted for or against certain models, than in fact archaeology can have an exuberant worth insofar as it acquires and exploits data while questioning it and the meaning thereof.

With this in mind, Stahl puts it far better than I could attempt to here, and will therefore end as she does. Her considerations are universal, however. For archaeology to succeed and have relevancy, it must be a subjective study of the subjective. As one would advise the insecure and miserable pubescent boy, accept and pride in who you are. For archaeology to reach the level of adulthood, it must accept what it is and what it is not. It is an anarchical endeavor, no right or wrong, this or that, us or them. Archaeology is, indeed, the study of everything. It is only different insofar of its perspective. Thus, perhaps archaeology is more suited as a frame of mind than a discipline unto itself. Anyway, rather than belabor this point, Stahl has some words to comfort us all in the throes of archaeological existential crises:

"Africa's pasts speak to us--conceived as an encompassing 'circle of we'--not for what they tell us about teleologically conceived universal progress, or quintessential difference and diversity conceived as a departure from an ever-present phantom standard of 'us-ness.' Rather they offer insight into our humanness; to the struggles of humans as social actors to feed and care for family, to express commonalities and differences, to impose or resist power and hegemony, in short, to make our way in a world of entangled and changing natural and cultural circumstances" (16).

Inscribing Ideology: Construction of the Levantine Landscape

            Alan R. H. Baker and Gideon Biger titled their 1992 co-edited volume Ideology and landscape in historical perspective, emphasizing the way in which landscape is culturally constructed. Humans do not just modify their environments for purely functional reasons; they often do so in an ideological manner, embedding their motivations and paradigms into the space they inhabit. It is this human tendency that makes landscape archaeology a valuable subdiscipline. Through analysis of the physical remnants of human impacts on landscapes, archaeologists can make interpretations concerning not simply which materials cultures historically utilized, but also concepts higher up on Hawkes’ ladder of inference: concepts that are more ideological. Social class divisions can be inscribed on the landscape through privatization and restriction of certain preferential locales, and religious beliefs are evidenced by, for example, the association of offerings with particular spatial attributes (cardinal directions, water features, elevated areas, etc).

            This use of geography to infer ideology is not restricted to prehistoric cultures, however, nor is it restricted to material remains uncovered during excavation. Ideology can just as easily, if not more so, be construed through analysis of historical records, particularly maps. There is a tendency to see the advent of cartography as the beginning of an objective view of space, as if with mapmaking humans were able to visualize the Earth’s “true” geography. Any map, though, inscribes the worldview of its maker, which is dangerous when this subjectivity goes unrecognized. For example, maps of the Levant continue to refer to archaeological sites by Biblical names assigned to them by European imperialists, often without historical or material evidence. Yet, because of the emphasis placed by Western thought on the written word, and because of the Eurocentric global power structure, these maps are preferenced over other narratives that may exist in the eyes of, for instance, Bedouin peoples who actually inhabit the area.

            It is important to consider the role that archaeology played, particularly in the 19th century, in imbuing Levantine landscapes with a Judeo-Christian ideology. In her book A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past, Margarita Diaz-Andreu discusses several instances of archaeologists who set out specifically to map Biblical sites. Some of these pioneering figures in the archaeology of Palestine in particular, including Eli Smith, lived in Missions and thus aimed to convert local peoples to the Christian faith. Therefore, archaeology provided one means to the end of illustrating the essential “truth” of Christianity. Even if conversion of others was not an explicit goal, the naming of sites based on nonspecific Biblical descriptions implies a preeminence of that time period in history, as though little of note occurred before or since. Diaz-Andreu includes this passage from one account of traveling in Mesopotamia, written by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1849:
With these names [Assyria, Babylonia and Chaldaea] are linked great nations and great cities dimly shadowed forth in history; mighty ruins in the midst of deserts…the remnants of the mighty races still roving over the land (135).
The terms “ruins” and “deserts” in particular connote uninhabited, desolate landscapes, even though the land was still occupied at the time of Layard’s travels, and the word “remnants” indicates a belief that any culture that does remain is but a lesser shadow of the region’s former majesty.


              It is obviously problematic to confer Biblical names on archaeological sites, as occupation of the region predates the advent of Judeo-Christian tradition by many millennia. Perhaps more problematic, however, is that these labels are still utilized on political maps to refer to current settlements. As a student of archaeology, it is on some level gratifying to see the extent to which archaeology is valued in the Levant, demonstrated by this constant referencing of land areas by the material remains that exist belowground. Yet, this act intrinsically denigrates the current inhabitants of these regions that do not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian ideology or to a Eurocentric concept of land ownership (e.g. nomadic Bedouin peoples). Like on the African continent, European powers were able to assume control of land partitioning due to military might. But because of the significance of the Levant within the Western religious tradition, imperialist ideology was supplemented by a Biblical one, and thus the names themselves, not just the initial act of naming, continue to elevate the imperialists and their supposed Biblical ancestors, denying others the agency and power to define themselves.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As Myth Begets History, so History Begets Possession





Diaz-Andreu describes Biblical Archaeology as ”a unique case of informal imperialism…[in which] religious interest influenced archaeology in many ways: who was doing archaeology and who paid for it, in what was excavated and in how interpretations were received in the Western World” [165].  The rise of Biblical Archaeology in the 19th century was also a response to the paradigm shift in the science of origins that took place with the publication of Origin of the Species and Descent of Man, in 1859 and 1871, respectively.   Repeatedly, the mission statements of organizations like the Palestine Exploration Society refer to “defense of the Bible” [Shaw via Diaz-Andreu, 151] and in the words of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the scope was “not Theology, but to Theology it will prove an important aid” [Moorey via Diaz-Andreu, 149).   

Diaz-Andreu enumerates the humanist intellectual currents that, like a war of attrition, had been undermining the primacy of the Bible, from the renewal of interest in ancient, non-Biblical, Greek philosophy to Luther and Rousseau.  The arrival of Darwin must have felt like a punch in the gut.  But all was not lost: the new science of Archaeology, with “a single blow of the excavator’s pick [ would shatter] the most ingenious conclusions of the Western critic…the stories of the Old Testament which we are now being told are but myths…will prove to be based on a solid foundation of truth’ [Sayce via Diaz-Andreu, 162].

Whitlam highlights how the problematic discovery of “deep time” by Lyell and Darwin had a devastating impact on Old Testament chronologies [Whitlam, 28].   Small wonder that there was a headlong rush to underpin Biblical narratives with physical associations, fighting Science with Science, as it were.    For 19th century Europeans, the Bible was the singular operating social-principle and Darwin’s work, among others, threatened to place it in the category of myth.   If the Bible could be confirmed as history, it would stand as counterpoint to this intolerable refashioning of human origins.

And history, as much as myth, is in the eye of the beholder.  Specific “historical memories” are selected, even unconsciously, according to the needs of a culture or sub-culture.  Invariably there are conflicting perceptions; narratives that pose as the final word, which in turn become embedded or imposed [Whitlam, 29-30].  In Palestine and Israel we see the result of a frantic response to shifting narratives: to gain purchase in a landscape before interpretation made alternatives possible; to turn parables into events.  By working their way back through the Old Testament, the Biblical Archaeologists might eventually arrive at Genesis and cast out the likes of Darwin, Lyell, Marx and Wallace from the Eden of historic certainty.