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The historical condition

In what ways did Cultural Archaeology, and then the New Archaeology, think differently about the historical conditions that they sought to investigate? Both were concerned with explaining why sequences of material residue had occurred, and both recognised those sequences as if they were patterns of behavioural stability interspersed by horizons of change. The patterns of stability were demarcated chronologically and geographically as a time-span, or a region, or as a phase of material coherence (Willey & Phillips 1958, 22). These were patterns that the New Archaeology sought to depict as regions or periods of organisational coherence that had undergone change as the result of a growing adaptive instability (Earle & Preucel 1987), whilst Cultural Archaeology had modelled the patterns as if they represented the times and areas over which cultural rules of behaviour had been adopted, and that these might have changed as the result of externally derived influences.

In both cases it was at the perceived chronological and geographical boundaries demarcating the patterns of material coherency that archaeology was called upon to explain why change had occurred. The New Archaeology seemed to assume that the mechanisms for change were prompted by processes that were of a different order from those that had sustained stability, posing the need to explain why, if institutional behaviours had arisen to provide for an adaptive efficiency, those institutions had, at certain moments or at certain places, needed to generate change. Fred Plog introduced his Study of Prehistoric Change with the comment that ‘[f]or me, the archaeological record is a record of change. It holds limited potential for the understanding of the structure and functioning of societies in a synchronic frame’ (Plog 1974, ix).

Colin Renfrew seemed to concur when considering the way that ‘systems thinking’ contributed to studies that concerned the ‘natural regularity’ of those systems, commenting that conditions of‘self-regulation, or homeostasis,... do not of themselves constitute an explanatory mode’ (Renfrew 1982, 8). It was therefore change in material patterns that became the focus for archaeological explanations (Hill 1977; Plog 1974; Renfrew 1973b). Indeed, it appeared as if ‘[stability, apparently, just happens - it does not require explanation’ (Shanks & Tilley 1987b, 34).

The challenge for New Archaeology was that if all historical conditions were represented by the available data, and if all explanations were assumed to be causal (Salmon 1982, 45), then the processes that had secured systemic stability, and the processes that caused change, must both be represented by archaeological data. Given this situation then how might the material be modelled to represent organisations that, under normal circumstances, achieved stability, but under other circumstances could bring about change? The answer to this puzzle was sought by the adoption of ‘systems thinking’ that distinguished between the system modelled by material cultural residues to represent the organisation of human behaviour, and the environmental system of‘natural’ processes (Figure 3.1). Whilst the environmental system was certainly open to extensive modification by human behaviour, the two systems were necessarily treated as being semi-autonomous because each was reproduced, or so it was believed, by different processes. The material-cultural system was treated as if it were reproduced by institutional patterns of human behaviour, whereas the ‘natural’ system was reproduced by biological processes.

The material-cultural system and the natural-environmental system have each become entrenched units of historical analysis, partly by default and partly as the expression of a deeply held prejudice that the human world existed outside that of the natural world. It was from the late 1960s that ‘environmental archaeology’ entrenched this distinction by achieving its continuing status as a sub-discipline within archaeology (Outram & Bogaard 2019). The geographical scale over which the various material-cultural systems were modelled, as if human behaviour had exploited its ‘natural’ environment, varied considerably. The smallest scale perhaps was the single archaeological settlement site at the centre of a catchment of exploitation (e.g. Jarman & Webley 1975), whilst the largest was the regional system of exploitation and exchange (e.g. Flannery 1976, 131-223; Barker 1995). By the 1970s archaeological studies were produced that explored the ways in which changing human and environmental systems could be integrated into a single history' of development (Bradley 1978).

In the case of the system, paths of ‘feedback’ were modelled as if they had operated between various subsystems that functioned to maintain either systemic stability or, under different conditions, systemic change (Renfrew 2005). The appeal of systems thinking seems understandable:

[i]t is clear that if we are to have any adequate understanding of the world we live in, our knowledge must include knowledge of the organized wholes which we call systems, as well as knowledge of component parts of these systems. (Salmon 1978, 175)

It is therefore somewhat odd that environmental archaeology has not developed a systems approach towards its analysis of the interplay of different biological, chemical, and physical forces.

How might we envisage the ‘organised whole’ of which Merrilee Salmon wrote, as having been structured? Which parts, for example, are we to assign to the material-cultural and which to the environmental systems? How are those parts linked within the cultural system, and how is the boundary between the two kinds of system defined? Although Merrilee Salmon (1978) expressed her doubts as to the relevance of systems theories to archaeology, other commentators have been keen to accept that, by identifying the organisational systems the human activities had once maintained, they were able to provide an explanation for the conditions of systemic stability as well as being able to theorise the circumstances that had generated periods of systemic change.

In 1962, Lewis Binford had argued that archaeology should demonstrate the ‘constant articulation of variables within a system’. A historical process that had resulted in a change in one variable relative to changes in other variables would supposedly generate the potential for the modification of the entire system (Binford 1962, 217). In Britain D.L. Clarke defined process as that vector which ‘describes the series of states of an entity or system undergoing continuous change in time and space’ (Clarke 1968, 42; cf. Figure 3.1b). Systems as a whole, rather than the isolation of single behavioural traditions (which had been the analytical focus for Cultural Archaeology'), were therefore taken by the New Archaeology to describe the trajectories of stability' and change represented by the patterns of material residue. It was the system that contained the mechanisms that both secured the stability' and also engineered the changes that were observed in the material sequences.

 
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