Saturday, 28 September 2013

Pots: Everyday Irritations and Extraordinary Discoveries (Rant Warning)



I went to a conference last weekend, and gave a paper. I was happy and excited to meet up with friends and colleagues- the organisers are delightful, and I was hoping to hear some of the most interesting research on Etruscan archaeology. Sadly what I heard, in a lot of papers, was the same old culture-history interpretations, with people equating pots with particular “cultures” and the presence of particular objects in funerary assemblages as obvious and unquestionable evidence of gender, ethnicity and all sorts of other complex categories. Fine, fine- so be it, Etruscology remains firmly imbued in the politics and ideas of the 1950s and 1960s and to some extent probably won’t change any time soon. As long as I can keep pushing for new ideas, developed in the sixty years of archaeological engagement with social theory and anthropology from then to now, I don’t mind people keeping to traditional views. I may disagree with them on a fairly fundamental level, but that’s my opinion developed from my history as a product of a highly theoretical university and a free-thinking doctoral supervisor. What I do mind is individuals talking over young scholars, patronising even senior female academics in a highly sexist manner and treating discussions as an opportunity to hold court.

While I was going mad with frustration and being too cowardly to comment on these negative behaviours, however, really exciting Etruscan archaeology was taking place in the field. On that very same Saturday of last week, an intact tomb from a necropolis at Tarquinia was uncovered. I cannot overstate how rare and incredible and amazing this is. So many of the tombs the Etruscans painstakingly created for their dead have been looted- the profession of the tombarolo, or tomb robber, can be lucrative and has a long heritage. Most Etruscan tombs were cleaned out over the intervening centuries, although some have been emptied tragically recently, with artefacts removed and human remains left strewn around in a mess. Yet this tomb was magically, miraculously intact. 
All the objects were inside, in situ around the skeleton as they had been placed 2,600 years ago in the 7th century B.C.E. Lying on the funeral benches were the remains of an Etruscan person, accompanied by a large amount of pottery, some jewellery, a bronze vessel and an iron spearhead.

Now, this is all great. But that spearhead (I'm blaming YOU spearhead) seems to have caused some problems. Yes, this is a rich Etruscan burial- as intimated by the archaeologist in charge, Alessandro Mandolesi, who described the remains as those of an “upper class individual.” Yet all the media coverage has leapt to a conclusion I critiqued some months ago- how many times do I need to yell that this is not a “prince.”  Using that terminology is, as I have ranted before, an example of na├»ve, lazy attempts to put modern labels onto the past. I’ve said that before and it’s even more irritating when this happens in your own archaeological back yard. Yes, the burial was found near to a tomb known as the “Queen’s Tomb.” But the tomb is only known as such due to previous archaeological assumptions! Both the person buried in the “Queen’s Tomb” and the newly discovered “Prince,” even if DNA testing ties the two together, should not be considered royals, with all the modern day baggage that entails. 

Trying to tie that royal label into texts written centuries later (which is what has happened) only serves to exacerbate the situation. Yes, a King, supposedly from Tarquinia is recorded as having ruled over Rome in the 6th century B.C. But that doesn’t mean this burial is connected to him, it doesn’t mean the individual is a relative of this figure (who may not even be entirely real) and it only provides a tiny shred of information about Etruscan social structures, interpreted through the eyes of Roman authors!

Even worse than these right royal assumptions is the individual is being described as a “warrior” prince. That’s the spearhead’s fault. Not a symbol of masculinity, not a token gesture to ancestral warrior identity, nope. That spearhead means that the individual buried in the grave a) must be male; b) must be royal and c) must be a warrior hero. All this from one object that could have a myriad of different meanings. I notice that the pots have been conveniently shoved to one side- he’s not a “banqueter prince” or a “glutton prince” or a “drunken prince.” No- our own cultural values that prioritise male aggression jump straight on that spearhead and use it to transform this extraordinary tomb into an example of the same tired interpretations that were driving me so crazy last weekend.

 I don’t want to be negative. I don’t want to be ungrateful for this discovery or the chance to attend that conference. But until we are honest about the limitations of these approaches and the mismatch between them and the rest of the archaeological community, all the intact tombs in the world are not going to bring Etruscan archaeology into step with our peers in other areas of research.

To be fair, at least (unlike the Poggio Civitate infant remains stories) all the media I’ve seen has actually got something right and called the discovery “Etruscan” and not “Roman.” There’s still time though.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Stones: Don't be so bloody processual!


Your days are numbered, Wheeler! That dashing moustache won't save you!

Well, do. Cos it actually gets things done.

It's been a while since I wrote a "Stones" post, so I hope you are all excited and thrilled to be about to read a chunk of archaeological theory. I know I am! In the last post on Levi-Strauss I arrived at a depressing conclusion- we can never shed our skins, our histories, our biases and preferences and take a good clear look at the past. There's not really such a thing as truth, just opinion.

Except, well, a school of archaeological theory that grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s says that there is. It's called processualism- because it uses structured, logical, sort of scientific processes to find out the most secure information possible about the past. Now, a lot of people who continue to employ this kind of archaeological theory are the people that go "Ugh. Theory is pointless- what a waste of time. It's just idiots arguing about semiotics, when they could be doing good science." But do you know what? They themselves are proponents of a this particular school of thought and way of doing things- they are evangelists for processualism as a way of thinking about the past.

But how do you apply science to archaeology, and call it theory? In a world of radiocarbon dating, intricate osteological analysis, CT scans and all that jazz (let alone the world's most exciting archaeological science, consulting the vole clock*), using new methods to interrogate the past feels second nature. But think back to the first Stones post, and the second- go outside your own head and into the late 1950s. This was a time in which the majority of archaeologists lined up rows of similar pots and called them cultures, arguing for diffusion of ideas and the steady evolution of culture. It took some bright, rebellious thinkers to break away from this kind of practice, dragging archaeology out of Victorian speculation and into the light of the scientific and technological revolution that was coming.

One of Binford's amazing drawings- the anatomy of a kill site

Chief of these young rebels (strange though it seems now) was an American called Lewis Binford. I was gutted when he died in 2011. Binford in later life was kind of a big deal- and rightly so. Because when he was a graduate student, he got very fed up very quickly with the kind of culture history being peddled as archaeology- particularly after early radiocarbon dates proved that most of this speculation was wildly inaccurate. And, unlike me and thousands of other moaning PhD students, Binford actually did something about it. He was interested in the Mousterian, a period of the Upper Paleolithic. But rather than drawing endless pieces of flint and arguing about the position of hearths, he wanted to know why these objects were made, and how they related to the people who produced them. Binford's thought was that the environment of Ice Age Europe had encouraged the creation of particular kinds of site- but how could he make this argument? By going, in 1969, to an area of North America with similar climactic conditions, and seeing how people their used tools, lived in their landscape and organised their seasonal lifestyles. The results were fantastic- assemblages and sites, seen in a similar context, suddenly made sense for the first time.  Binford's research methodology more or less changed the archaeological world. He made the connection between archaeological study and what people actually do- their behaviour, and he proved beyond doubt that sociologists and social anthropologists had a great deal to offer.

Top bloke, Lewis Binford.


Ironically, by developing a more objective approach to archaeology, and spawing the processual movement that adopted his ideas and can be found in any pub bashing poor old Ian Hodder, Binford also laid the ground for modern archaeological theory. He made it safe and acceptable for archaeologists to engage with the ideas of philosophers and thinkers from outside our world of pots, stones and bones. So in the next few Stones posts, I'm going to look at a series of sociologists, anthopologists and thinkers, all of whom have influenced archaeology- but none of whom would have had a chance without Lew Binford and his ability to get up off his arse and change the world.