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The initial definition of the cultural system

Binford had proposed that the patterns of residues represented three ‘operational sub-systems’: technological, social, and ideological (Binford 1962). These subsystems supposedly enabled humans to adapt to their environments. With an acknowledgement to Leslie White (2007 [1959]), Binford asserted that the subsystems provided for ‘the extra-somatic means of adaptation for the human organism’ (Binford 1962, 218) and that they could therefore be treated as the interrelated assemblage of practices and technologies that had enabled people to work within particular environments. D.L. Clarke also referred to the cultural system as being coupled to ‘the external environing system’ (Clarke 1968, 83) and Fred Plog commented that ‘[a]t a minimal level, a system can be defined as two or more behavioral strategies linked to each other in such a way that a change in one is likely to produce a change in the other’ (Plog 1977, 49).

Identifying the boundaries of each system, along with any internal subsystems, was regarded by Renfrew, and by others, as ‘a matter for the analyst’ (Renfrew 2005a, 261). This confirmed the view that systems analysis involved the building of simplified models of the more complex conditions of history, and that these models were taken to be represented by the residues of‘cultural’ or ‘natural’ materials. David L. Clarke was at pains to stress ‘the arbitrary' nature of this kind of component description ... to partially describe an otherwise extremely complex reality’. If the way that human behaviours were being characterised was indeed ‘based on the prejudices of current opinion’ (Clarke 1968, 102-103), then such prejudices were hardly likely to have been ‘arbitrary'’ as Clarke suggested, but rather they expressed the largely unexamined assumptions, often expressed politically, about the processes which structured the historical condition. The various behavioural subsystems gained their historical reality by being represented by a set of residues (their record), and these subsystems were believed to have had economic/social consequences. These patterns of institutionalised behaviour have been studied by separate sub-disciplinary' specialisations of material analysis, and it is important to recognise that these specialisations also define contemporary' career trajectories within archaeology. Ancient organisational systems and their environments continued to be ‘decomposed’ by the New Archaeology' into subsystems that were represented by different kinds of residue, and it was these that were made available for specialist analysis, before their systemic re-assembling by a process of ‘synthesis’. This process has remained central to current archaeological practice. Kuhn’s original observation is important here. Paradigmatic ways of working are far from being mere intellectual fashions; instead they are embedded in the day- to-day working practices of people’s careers (Kuhn 1970). New Archaeology', by creating models that tied the patterns represented by different kinds of material, such as animal bones, to different adaptive strategies, such as kill-patterns, as way of characterising the past, then used those same systemic models to structure the working practices of the discipline, such as the specialisation of animal osteology. Thus, whilst we might believe that we have now broken with the intellectual programme of the New Archaeology, its working practices continue to structure the working practices of archaeology'.

The principle stating that human systems were adapted to their environment is a tautology', in that any system of human activities that has existed over any period of time must have functioned (that is adapted) within the prevailing system of its environmental constraints (cf. Salmon 1978, 176). The challenge is surely to understand how a particular kind of human organisation had adapted to a particular kind of environmental condition, whilst the New Archaeology sought to establish why a system of adaptation might have changed. It is important to note that it was the entire human system that is here assumed to have adapted to its various environmental constraints, allowing that individual traditions of behaviour might have been adaptively neutral or indeed maladaptive. Lines of maladaptive behaviour could therefore be carried within a total system that was itself adaptative.

David L. Clarke’s early examination of system analysis for archaeology began ‘from the assumption that cultural [human] systems are integral whole units’, and upon this basis, ‘material culture, economic structure, religious dogma and social organization’ were subsystems within the cultural system that was distinguished from an external environmental system (Clarke 1968, 43). Clarke took the historical process to be driven by the communication occurring between the elements within a cultural system that had somehow monitored the adaptive effectiveness of the entire system, although how that process of communication and monitoring might have worked in each particular case is difficult, if not impossible, to understand. The problem of mapping a particular category of archaeological residue against a single subsystem might arise where categories of behaviour resulted in more than one kind of functional outcome, but had generated a single kind of residue. For example, a behavioural tradition such as flint knapping required the procurement of stone, and might have serviced the needs demanded by hunting, butchering, and skin working. It could therefore be assigned to either Clarke’s material culture or to his economic subsystem, or indeed to both. We might recall Clarke’s own assertion to the effect that it was the investigator who chose how the material was to be assigned. Indeed, Merilee Salmon (1978, 180) objected that Clarke had not demonstrated that the material culture assemblage could even be assigned to a subsystem, for whilst technology, as a combination of human procedures and their material resources, might be regarded as a subsystem, material culture, simply as an assemblage of things, could not be assigned to any single subsystem. It followed that Merrilee Salmon expected subsystems to be defined by the particular ways they processed the inputs from adjacent subsystems, for example in the way that the economic subsystem processed the inputs of material, energy, and information in ways that were distinguishable from the processing of those same kinds of inputs by the ‘religious’ subsystem. However, whilst religious subsystems might have processed material by means of ritual procedures, and employed symbolic representations to do so, neither of which were expected in the operation of economic subsystems, food taboos that expressed various religious commitments might well have determined the procedures of the economic subsystem. The category of a behavioural outcome, such as the ‘economic’ outcome assigned by archaeologists to the economic subsystem, did not therefore necessarily match the kinds of ‘inner’ motivation that once drove those behaviours, such as the moral dispositions towards food-stuffs. This returns us to distinction between motivation (why people thought that they were doing something) and what the action actually achieved (its function).

It was the distinction between motivation and function that informed Binford’s suggestion that ethnographic field work was ‘traumatic’ because the observer’s beliefs about the motivations for behaviour were challenged by the testimonies of the people whom they studied and who ‘behave differently, express different concerns, and express themselves and their motives in terms unfamiliar to the observer’ (Binford 1987, 395). Binford’s answer was to maintain the distinction drawn by Collingwood between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of an event, and to distinguish between the inner ‘understanding that must come from the informants’ and the outsider’s understanding that created the data of the field scientist who worked ‘through pattern recognition studies to gain an insight into how the past was organised’ (Binford 1987, 403). His principle was that archaeologists should adopt the etic or outsider’s perception on human behaviour and that, consequently, whilst we might accept that human motivations derived from some inner (emic) source for these motivations, these can be excluded from archaeological consideration.

If we were to follow Binford’s proscription then we would necessarily accept that the New Archaeology developed systems thinking as a way of modelling archaeological data in which material categories represent the consequences of different kinds of activity operating within the constraints of technological achievements and environmental processes. The ‘inner’ motivations for human actions remained unknown and unknowable to the archaeologist. Binford’s thinking implied two things. First, material change was treated as the unintended and potentially long-term consequence of processes that, whilst motivated by an unknown and, for archaeology', an irrelevant cultural logic, attested to what people ‘actually did’. Second, what people ‘actually did’ made sense to the archaeological observer when viewed against the needs that those actions had satisfied. Third, conditions that had operated in different cultural and historical contexts could, nonetheless, be treated as comparable in terms of their functional consequences. The focus for archaeology was therefore directed towards establishing what people had ‘actually’ done and not what they thought they were doing. It was in this way that the forces of historical explanation were abstracted from the stylistic details of the material residues and rendered comparable, thus discarding the details of stylistic practices that had once been so painstakingly recorded by archaeologists.

Given that the New Archaeology' initially treated system dynamics as the transfer of materials, energy, and information between each subsystem, any fluctuations that might have occurred in these transfers between subsystems were assumed to have either been dampened by negative feedback, thus stabilising the system as a whole, or amplified through positive feedback to generate a change in the overall state of the system. The default position, for any system, was assumed to have been its adaptive stability, or ‘homeostasis’. As Renfrew once put it:

[t]his conservative nature of culture cannot too strongly be stressed. . . . [I|t is the natural tendency of culture to persist unchanged - apart from a small random drift which arises from the imperfect transmission of the cultural pattern between generations. It is change, any change, which demands explanation. (Renfrew 1972, 487)

The assumption that systems had ‘naturally’ tended towards a stable articulation with their environments meant that those procedures that archaeologists identified as having an ‘economic’ consequence were taken to be ‘ [t]he primary human adaptation to the environment’ (Higgs & Jarman 1975, 4; cf. Clark 1952). The principle that Binford and others established was that behaviours that had generated these ‘economic’ consequences worked with an adaptive logic to which the culturally specific motivations of the participants must have conformed. Binford could therefore be impressed by the way that it was ‘the subsistence base’ that had contributed to his explanations of hunter-gatherer variability (Binford 2001, 433). The emphasis given to economic outcomes as indicative of systemic adaptation was supported by the belief that the archaeological record of past economic processes was open to reliable interpretation simply because that record was the mechanical, and thus the understandable, consequence of human behaviour (Hawkes 1954). Thus, strategies of adaptation structured the system and were represented by the residues of economic outcomes. The archaeological problem became one of explaining if, and why, economies might have changed.

Systems thinking proved seductive to Anglo-American archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s. It provided a recognisable past by modelling systems that could be treated as if they were taxonomically equivalent to ‘communities’, ‘societies’, and ‘a people’, and ultimately to the nation state, a role which had once been assigned to the concept of‘culture’. Systems thinking therefore enabled the integration of well-established levels of sub-disciplinary expertise, designed to trace the histories of different kinds of material production, into an understanding of a single historical condition. By proceeding in this manner, systems thinking avoided the ‘flattening’ of behavioural diversity that was the consequence of a Cultural Archaeology that had characterised all material residues as the expressions of the same thing: a cultural tradition. Systemic analysis conformed to Binford’s view that scientific explanations were those that demonstrated the ‘constant articulation of variables within a system and the measurement of the concomitant variability among the variables within the system’ (Binford 1962, 217). If the analytical variables of archaeology' were artefact and monument categories representing systems of adaptive stability, then it followed that organisational change was most likely to have resulted from conditions of adaptive instability.

Whilst the analysis of the systemic organisation of human behaviour, operating within an ecological setting, was certainly prompted by Binford’s 1962 paper, an earlier exploration of the systemic integration of human behaviours within particular ecologies had been undertaken by Grahame Clark in his Archaeology and Society first published in 1939 (Figure 3.1a; Fagan 2001, Fig. 5.3; Clark 1957, Figs. 25 & 49). It was the need to understand the ecological integration of human and animal behaviour in particular that had informed the direction taken by Clark in his analysis of the early post-glacial activity at Star Carr in modern-day North Yorkshire, U.K. (Clark 1954). Clark’s analysis was important because, amongst other things, it reminded us that the spatial scale and location of a human system that is adapted to the demands of its environment must have been capable of a significant degree of flexibility as it tracked the seasonality of the available resources (cf. Clark 1952).

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