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Setting up the excavation at Sitagroi


A visit to the USA
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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While we were excavating at Saligos in the Cycladic Islands, which we did in 1964 and 1965, we had a visit from Marija Gimbutas who was a dynamic, by then, American archaeologist originally from Lithuania. And she had left Lithuania during the war and was a refugee in Germany and then moved as a refugee to the United States and first of all worked at Harvard. But then she got a much better job in Los Angeles at UCLA and was beginning to put together her ideas on the Indo-Europeans and the archaeology of the Indo-Europeans, which I never particularly warmed to her theories there, but she was a wonderfully outgoing lady and she visited our excavation in Saliagos and wanted to begin excavations in North Greece and in the Balkans. The Balkans was her special area. And so she invited me to go to UCLA for a semester which I did in 1967 in the January, February, March of 1967, and that turned out to be very good fun. I'd been to America only briefly before, to New York and Washington and so on. But she had a very nice house in Topanga Canyon, which is above Malibu and there wasn't so much traffic in LA in those days, so I rented a car from her and would drive into UCLA each day down from Topanga through Malibu and along the coast and then along Sunset Boulevard, not quite to Hollywood because Hollywood's a bit beyond. And, so that was a nice environment to be living in and there were a lot of interesting people in the department. It was a department of anthropology, as it usually is in the States, and Jim Sackett was a specialist in Paleolithic and Jim Hill, one of the specialists in - in North American archaeology, and Lewis Binford was also a professor there at the time. And my own teaching was mainly in European prehistory which my teaching didn't involve those very much. It overlapped with Marija and her students which were partly in the department of Indo-European studies but it was very good fun to get to know Lew Binford who already was known as one of the more dynamic, younger American archaeologists. But his book which really set the new archaeology going in a major way, wasn't published until the following year, 1968, although his interesting papers, archaeology and anthropology, and so on, had already been published some years before. And so he was a very robust critic of almost anything one cared to say, and I was interested in the chronology of the Cycladic cemeteries and was getting interested in a seriation technique. There was a research student there who was working with me on that, Eugene Sterud, and with the advice of the professor of chemistry who'd got some interesting ideas, really, thinking in terms of chemical bonds, that was his thinking. This, we called it in the end, close proximity analysis, and by trying to situate each element, in this case each Cycladic cemetery beside the one that would be nearest to it in terms of similarity, you could construct structures where the most similar was lined up with the most similar, which in some circumstances could give you chronological structures. And so we were following up on ideas that had been developed much earlier in archaeology by Flinders Petrie in the early years of the 20th century and so that was an interesting piece of work which we ultimately published, Gene and I, in American "Antiquity", but Lew Binford was very sceptical of the whole thing. He thought seriation for the purposes of chronology was a complete waste of time so we had some robust conversations but it was very good to get to know him and pleasant later on when he came to - to visit us in Southampton at a later stage. And then I'd been advised by one Americanist archaeologist, Bob Eric whom I'd met the previous year, that if I was going to America I ought to go on a tour of American universities, which seemed to be very grandiose, but he said you can just write to somebody at each department and offer to give them a lecture and say that they'd have to pay the flight, the internal flight. And so that worked very well and I lectured in Berkeley. Then I went up to Michigan. Jimmy Griffin invited me to speak there to Ann Arbor and to New York again and to somewhere in Texas and so that was - and by that time I had the obsidian work to lecture on so I went to stay with Bob Braidwood outside Chicago and went through some of his obsidian which he'd got samples of. And so that was academically a very profitable visit and it was also nice to just get the feeling a little for the sort of anthropological archaeology which was being developed in the United States by people like Lew Binford and Jim Hill and so on and some of the others, Ralph Solecki that I met and, indeed, the Americanists including Jimmy Griffin in - in Ann Arbor. And in retrospect that was a useful visit just to be in touch a little bit with Americanist archaeology. And perhaps arising, certainly arising from that was our excavation in Sitagroi because Marija had invited me to LA partly because she wanted to get an excavation going and so we agreed that we would try and mount a joint excavation at the site of Sitagroi in North Greece in the Plain of Drama, which I had already prospected. I'd already been doing some prospection in - in North Greece.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 6 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009