The central argument of this book is that archaeology' must enable us to understand how different forms of human life have emerged historically through their desire to understand, and to engage with, the worlds that they have encountered. I have termed these forms of human life different kinds of‘humanness’ (Barrett 2014a) in an effort to emphasise their diversity, and I have identified the mechanisms that brought them into existence as ‘biocultural’ processes.
If understanding the historical conditions under which human diversity has been created is indeed the main purpose of archaeology, then we obviously need to specify how that purpose might be achieved. This will require us to be clear as to the kinds of evidence that are available to archaeology, and the means by which such an investigation can be facilitated. It has often been assumed that the kinds of evidence with which archaeology' deals is evidence that represents a particular kind of process, providing us with a record resulting from the actions of that earlier humanity. This assumption is put to one side here; indeed, I will argue that it is an assumption that has contributed to the failure of archaeology' to realise its wider potential. I will argue that the fundamental issue that archaeology confronts concerns the relationship between the various material conditions that once existed and the ways that the various forms of humanness emerged by their learning how to live within those material conditions.
If we characterise archaeology as an investigation of how forms of humanness created themselves by bringing the material conditions of their world into view, then the way that the concept of culture has been used by archaeology needs to be reviewed. As Benjamin Roberts and Marc Vander Linden have emphasised, the term has been widely used as the means to group similar levels of variation amongst the material assemblages: an ‘empirically based framework within which to place new data from excavations and surveys’ (Roberts & Vander Linden 2011b, 5). However, by treating archaeological evidence as if it represented the actions of an extinct human presence in this way, the question is raised as to what these cultural assemblages might represent in terms of human behaviour? This has traditionally been answered by asserting that patterns of cultural materials simply represent the ways people once did things according to certain cultural norms and traditions. Of course, this then introduces the further question of how these human motivations might have originated, and it has been in attempting to deal with this further question that archaeology’s failures in reasoning have been exposed.
Most practising archaeologists (who today are widely involved in various aspects of Cultural Resource Management) are concerned with the recover)' and analysis of ancient materials. These materials gain their significance for archaeology because they are believed to have been structured by processes that once operated in the human past. Indeed, their importance is that it was to a now extinct human existence that these materials are assumed to have once made reference. It is as if that earlier human presence had somehow caused, and had thus been recorded by, the form of the material residues. The American archaeologist Michael Schiffer (1976) once distinguished between the human or culturally motivated ‘c-transformations’ of the material, and the record of ‘natural’ processes of erosion and transformation (so-called ‘n-transforms’). The discover)' of artefacts has therefore resulted in describing them as the representations of the processes of their creation, use, discard, and their subsequent erosion. In addition, some aspects of soil and vegeta- tional history and of soil erosion have been taken to represent a history of human cultivation and land-use. The motivations of human behaviour have then been divided between cultural motivations, which are the learnt procedures of how to do things, and the consequences of those actions in terms of their function, or the requirements that they appear to have satisfied.
Recording the stratigraphic context of sequences of material residues such as these is a basic requirement of field procedures. This was emphasised by Wheeler (1956), and the excavation, recording, and analytical procedures concerning soil stratigraphy have been variously refined in the UK by, for example, Philip Barker (1982), Edward Harris (1989), Steve Roskams (2001), and Martin Carver (2009). It has been by the means of stratigraphic analysis that the patterns across broadly contemporary residues have been identified, and these have been treated as indicating the ways human behaviour was once organised and executed. Sequences in this material have thus been treated as indicating periods of stability or change in the organisation of that behaviour, with the ultimate aim of establishing the forces that might have structured, and might thus explain, the history of that behaviour. This has placed the forces motivating human behaviour at the heart of any archaeological attempt to explain the patterns of material. The challenge ‘to explain’ is considerable, and as Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn (2004, 469) have commented, ‘[t]o answer the question “why” is the most difficult task in archaeology’.
In trying to address the task of explanation, archaeology has moved away from earlier attempts that explained human behaviour by reference to its supposed cultural motivations, and has moved instead towards explanations in terms of what that behaviour had achieved, and these achievements are believed to have been structured by the demands of environmental or social adaptation, or by the playing out of conceptual schemes of moral and political order. As a result, archaeology' has seemed to have been more concerned with the humanity behind the artefacts, and with the forces that had structured that humanity’s behaviour, than it has with the material context of that humanity’s existence. This apparent bias has prompted the view that ‘things... are too often treated as secondary' expressions of society, social structures and cultural values’ (Olsen et al. 2012, vii), and as a reaction against this archaeology of structural explanations (that are often expressed in highly theoretical terms), archaeology has recently been characterised, by some at least, as ‘the discipline of things’ (cf. Olsen 2010).
This move towards archaeology as the discipline of things, prompted by the desire to turn away from viewing the world ‘from a perspective presupposing humans in a privileged position with respect to nature’ (Webmoor 2007, 568), has also recognised that all things display an agency (Olsen 2012, 20) because they changed historical conditions by their very existence. While this accepts that the historical conditions that are glimpsed by archaeology' arose from an assemblage of all existing things, human and non-human, living and non-living (Latour 1993 & 2005; Witmore 2007; Olsen et al. 2012; DeLanda 2016; Jervis 2019), precisely how that mixing had occurred, that is, how it was structured, does not seem to have been discussed. As a result, the attempt to centre archaeological analysis upon the existence of things alone (Olsen et al. 2012, 136-156; Petursdottir 2017), rather than upon the making of the phenomena of humanness that had arisen amongst those things (cf. Marshall & Alberti 2014; Barad 2007; Braidotti 2019a), appears to have been little more than the removal of life’s otherwise messy existence.
All forms of archaeological recording and analysis have depended upon three things: the perspective of the investigator (including their various expectations and prejudices as to the nature of existence); the methodology' that should be employed in analysis; and a belief as to the historical reality' that is being observed. When taken together these things contribute towards an agreed scheme of working, or what Thomas Kuhn (1970) once referred to as a paradigm. The archaeological community' has tended to work within a single paradigm, enabling that community to share a perspective upon the status of archaeological data, and to agree upon the kinds of things that need investigating (past processes), and how they should be investigated (through a theoretically informed analysis of archaeological materials). This has also enabled archaeology' to work ‘cross-culturally’ on the assumption that the cultural differences witnessed between the peoples, represented by different assemblages of material, were no more than the merely apparent differences in the execution of behaviours that were determined by the structure of a limited number of underlying processes. The paradigm that dominated twentieth-century archaeology' can therefore be characterised as a representational paradigm simply because archaeological residues have been taken to represent the target condition of human behaviour, and, behind that, the processes that had structured that behaviour.
The failure of this representational paradigm has been expressed in the complaint that claims that the material evidence is never enough to provide for an understanding of the historical process. Instead that material merely indicates the existence of the forces of history that are the real object of archaeological concern because it was these forces that supposedly directed or compelled certain historical conditions to come into being (Webmoor & Witmore 2008, 53). If we accept this complaint then it means that we can no longer explain the changing patterns of archaeological materials by theorising the existence of this or that determinate force that supposedly operated behind the backs of the contemporary human populations. By way of an alternative, I will argue that the task of archaeology is to gain some understanding of how human diversity brought itself into existence by means of the growing and developing familiarity of people with the material conditions amongst which they had lived and developed, and to which archaeological research can now attest.
The diverse forms of life that have brought themselves into existence, did so without being formed by some pre-existing process: they were not created, instead they created themselves within certain given material conditions. Forms of life therefore act intentionally, in the technical meaning of that term; namely that a form of life emerges by means of its own development, orientating itself towards the things that are of relevance for it.
This argument is developed in this book in the following way. Chapter 1 distinguishes between the processes of explanation and those involved in understanding. Given that claims were once made that archaeology should explain the changes that it had described in sequences of material residues, and the desire to express those explanations in terms of the generally applicable causes for cultural change, we must allow that the formulation of all such explanations will be informed by our own perceptions of how the world seems to work. The alternative that I seek is an archaeology that attempts to understand how others were able to bring themselves into being by their occupation of the different kinds of material conditions that are attested for by archaeological residues. The long-recognised historical and geographical diversity of material culture might therefore be understood as contributing to the material conditions within which different kinds of humanness could emerge.
Chapter 2 reviews the way that archaeological materials became accepted as the testimonies for the existence of a now absent, but nonetheless singular humanity. When these materials were recognised as being recovered from various geological contexts, they were used to argue for the antiquity of that humanity. The principle that a human presence is attested for by the recover}' of material residues in an earth-bound or geological context, and that these deposits can be interpreted in light of the principle of uniformitarianism, continues to inform current archaeological practice. During the latter part of the twentieth century an increased emphasis was placed upon attempts to explain the ways that human lives have been ordered by various indigenous forces, and these explanations replaced earlier models of diffusion and cultural influences.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 consider the various ways that archaeology has, since the 1950s, been used to explain the order observed amongst archaeological residues, not as sequences comprising individual cultural traits but in terms of the systematic organisation of the past, firstly with reference to the system’s adaptation to available ecological resources, secondly with reference to the logic of its social organisation, and thirdly with reference to the way that human systems were likely to have been structured by the cognitive perceptions of their members. Because these chapters concern the changes that occurred in the ways that the past was thought about during the latter half of the twentieth century, many readers might regard a review of these changes as redundant, given the various critiques that have been directed towards them more recently. Consequently, those readers might conclude that there is no point in dealing with these earlier ways of thinking. The need to revisit these traditions is however warranted by the problems that we have inherited in contemporary archaeology. These problems lie not with archaeology’s commitment to the study of human behaviour, but with the ways in which that behaviour, which had resulted in a particular form of material residue, was treated as if it was determined by forces of an uncertain origin. The same working assumption, that archaeological data represent the consequences of one or other of these relatively abstract processes, is shared by all three traditions of analysis. All three have also expressed their failure to recognise what is unique concerning the archaeological understanding of human diversity. Consequently, all three have demonstrated a reliance in their interpretations upon analogies drawn from the neighbouring disciplines of History, Anthropology, and more widely across the Social Sciences. These analogies are assumed to illustrate, or to model, the processes that are believed to have resulted in cultural change. The problem with all such models is that if these analogies do represent the ultimate achievement of archaeological interpretation, then it is unclear why we bother to collect archaeological data, if we are to assume that other disciplines are better able to supply the explanations for human diversity.
Chapter 6 establishes that the basis for understanding human diversity lies in the biology of life, not in terms of biological determinism, as might be implied by the recent emphasis upon genetic analysis, but by treating the histories of human diversity as if they were the products of biological growth, development, and adaptation. Each of these processes of development has resulted from the phenomenological interpretations that have been played out within the biological and cultural context of an evolving ecology. It is the material traces of these ecologies that are partially preserved as archaeological data.
The histories of populations are constructed by the biocultural developments of the individuals who were members of those populations. Such an understanding requires that we accept that humanity, as a form of life, has grown and developed biologically. This process of coming into being is one shared with all other living things, and the growth of a form of life is achieved by means of its interpretation of the material ecologies within which its life is able to develop. Forms of humanness can only ever have brought themselves into existence, therefore, by means of their recognition of those things that had a significance for them. Archaeology studies the various conditions of human possibility which survive today, at least in part, as a material residue. The point of this kind of archaeology is not to explain the reasons for the changing patterns of these residues, as if such changes represented changes in behaviour, but to understand how the diversity of humanness has been created by living amongst these changing material conditions. Whilst neither cultural nor biological resources have been determinant in this process, biological and cultural materials were nonetheless resources necessary for the processes of interpretation that brought a population into existence. This is the theme explored in Chapter 7.
By rejecting the dominant archaeological model in which material residues are explained as if they were the products of past human behaviour, we need to reevaluate the critique of Cultural Archaeology that had been formulated in the latter half of the twentieth century. This critique had claimed that the explanations offered for the large-scale patterns of apparent cultural uniformity were inadequate. The extensive regions of common cultural patterns in the material have subsequently been ignored by archaeological schemes of explanation, although they have continued in use as the conventions of archaeological description (cf. Roberts & Vander Linden 2011). While we might continue to reject claims that these patterns represent patterns of normative behaviour, it remains entirely possible that they map environments that sustained patterns of common human development. Chapter 8 explores this argument from the perspective of the early Neolithic in Europe.
The traditional sequence of analytical procedures in archaeology that runs from the methods of recover}' to the theoretical modelling of the past as a process, has enforced a distinction in the practice of archaeology, between the description of things on the one hand, often undertaken by field technicians, and their academic interpretation and explanation on the other. This has resulted in the eclectic adoption of various theoretical fashions in the hope that they will not only facilitate the processes of interpretation, but also enhance the reputation of the interpreter (Bintliff 2011). Recent attempts to reject the claim that the collection, and the study, of things is only ‘important insofar as they provide access to the human beings assumed to lie behind them’ (Olsen et al. 2012, 7) have resulted in asserting the centrality of things to archaeological experience. Given that archaeologists ‘labor hard to collect their data, their information’ (Olsen et al. 2012, 58), we might hope that the reasons for that labouring would extend beyond a desire simply to care for antiquities. What is it that archaeology might hope to achieve as the results of these labours? The craft of excavation (Shanks & McGuire 1996) has its rewards in the confidence that is gained from participating in that process, in team working, and in the romanticism of discovering things that have been long forgotten. But what is it that makes this work the scene of‘active individual engagements with the past’ (Olsen et al. 2012, 62 emphasis added) rather than merely being an engagement with things? When Colin Renfrew wrote so evocatively of‘the sense of mystery and solitude when I was the first to enter, perhaps for thousands of years, one of the side chambers at Quanterness’ (Renfrew 2003, 40), what did he think that he was encountering?
This is not a book about archaeological theory, instead it is a book that enquires into the purpose of archaeology. The purpose that is suggested here is that archaeology should establish a relationship between our contemporary lives and the historical lives of others in such a way that it enables us to understand some of the ways that those other lives were constructed. This should support our realisation that humanity has been determined neither as the creation of God nor as the creation of genetics. Throughout history', different kinds of humanness have brought themselves into existence with reference to the material conditions amongst which they lived, and whose fragmented residues survive today (Kronfeldner 2018, 8). They have done this out of the desire to understand the nature and the origins of the worlds amongst which they lived. An archaeology of what remains of those material conditions matters because it can, and indeed it should, confront some of the political and ethical challenges that we face today in terms of our current diversities. Fundamental to these modern challenges is our ability to understand, and indeed to tolerate, those others whose lives are different from our own. This will require us to recognise that what is unfamiliar to us in those other lives, along with the familiar normality of our own lives, are not given but are constructed out of the resources that each of us has to hand. This is what, in my view, archaeology should teach us, and it is towards an understanding of this point that this book is dedicated.