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The Theoretical Archaeology Group


Phylakopi: Writing up the report
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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That turned out to be a very interesting site because it had different things. We had fortification walls that we had to date more securely. We had a deep sounding to get down to the early Bronze Age but the most interesting thing was this quite complicated shrine or sanctuary, which had quite a complicated stratigraphy. It had been damaged or destroyed and then it had been partly rebuilt and so we had to try and get the - the pottery sequence established and so on. And so that was a really profitable excavation that took a lot of thinking about in the writing up precisely because we'd done the excavation quite thoroughly, we'd got our stratigraphy straight, we'd drawn the sections, the finds were all properly recorded. A lot of them were very broken so we had to do a lot of mending of the pottery and of the figurines and the joins seemed to come from all over the place. The pot mender would suddenly find one figurine from here joining with one from there, but they were perfectly secure joins so we had to keep track of all those to find which joined with which, which helped us in some of the stratigraphic interpretation but it took a long time to - to get sorted, and so that gradually turned, the excavation report was being written, but in the end it turned into a book that was as much about methodology as it was just direct reporting, and so I edited the book. Of course, we had all kinds of specialists, Elizabeth French, the great authority on Mycenaean figurines, described the figurines. Penelope Ann Mountjoy did the specialism on the Mycenaean pottery which is a very abstruse field which had been well beyond my abilities, and so it ended up being called "The Archaeology of Cult", with the subtitle, "The Sanctuary at Phylakopi", and I began by trying to set out in a more coherent way, how one might hope to recognise a sanctuary or a cult building meaning a building that had been built for religious purposes and how would you hope to recognise such a thing? So I started off in a more deductive way talking about places which had been set apart for religious ritual and what sort of criteria would you have and one of the things is that you have visual ways of heightening awareness and using other senses so that you expect there to be prominent positions where things have iconographic significance will be placed, then maybe you have music, maybe you have special things to eat and drink in the course of these rituals. Maybe you have censers with things that you burn and so on. Clearly you have the possibility of a congregation but also you may have places that are rather apart as a sort of sacred place, or maybe you have great groups of people. So I tried to think all that through and I think was able to show that with these rather strange finds, it really had to be a cult place, and I remember when I gave my inaugural lecture in - in Cambridge, John Chadwick was - who was a great authority on things Mycenaean, was heard to observe, not by me but when he left, saying - oh, must have just been a toyshop, and that actually, if you're an archaeologist, presents quite a difficult problem. Are you really sure what these things mean and, indeed, play and toys do have a very special role in human existence; if one wants to be rather serious about it, there's a wonderful book called "Homo Ludens" that talks about the different ways in which humans play, and how play is so serious and, after all, you see that with, say, football matches, football matches in Turkey, people have lost their lives in the riots afterwards and so on just as in the chariot races in - in what is now Turkey, in - in Byzantium in Constantinople, there were sometimes riots leading to deaths after the royal chariot races. So there's a whole field there about the archaeology of religion which never had been very systematically developed, so this excavation report was the opportunity of doing that and that, I think, is quite an important point because one of the principles of the new archaeology, so-called new archaeology or processual archaeology, which had emerged in America in the 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, Lewis Binford was one of the key figures and his great book, "New Perspectives in Archaeology", an edited book was published in 1968, while in Cambridge, David Clarke who was a very bright archaeologist, teaching in Cambridge, he published his book, "Analytical Archaeology", in 1968, and both of these books had as one of their main points, the need for archaeology to make its reasoning processes more explicit to try and develop a framework by which you can make statements about the past that are in some ways warranted statements. Well, that work hadn't been done. It still hasn't been very effectively done in the area of prehistoric religion and prehistoric ritual, or, indeed, historic ritual and religion, but it becomes more extreme in the prehistoric period when you have no written evidence to confirm your observations so what you do have is the finds but you may also have the iconography, if you're very lucky you may have frescoes which depict religious scenes which help you with the interpretation. So, that was a good challenging experience really but the book didn't get written until about 1974, no, after that, 1984, I think, but it was - it was a good challenge to - to have to try and think that through and make sense of the excavation in that way, and so I got started on that during the excavation while they were based in - I got started in that while we were excavating, while I was based in Southampton, but it didn't get published until - until after we got to - to Cambridge, we moved to Cambridge in 1981, and so it took quite a while to get that publication complete.

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: 7 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009