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Attending the Society of American Archaeologists meetings


The Theoretical Archaeology Group
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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It was while we were in Southampton that a colleague of mine from Sheffield days, Andrew Fleming, and I, founded the Theoretical Archaeology Group and that, I think, partly came about through the experience of the Society for American Archaeology, the SAA meetings, in the United States, which in the '70s and '80s always seemed to be really very lively, I think because in those days they were talking about theoretical issues a great deal and debating issues that arose from the new archaeology, how you could give a better basis for the statements, how could you apply statistical techniques in your sampling. There were some really very good ideas going on which is less so in the United States today when the SAA meetings devote themselves mainly to what they call salvage archaeology what we call rescue archaeology, rather more practical issues whereas in Britain at that time, the archaeological lectures always seemed terribly sedate. The Society of Antiquaries who got some description of some detailed finds, very interesting, and even at the Prehistoric Society which is where you ought to have very lively debates about how to interpret things, it always seemed to be very descriptive and with few exceptions not really very challenging intellectually and so we were impressed by the - also by the circumstance that in the Society for American Archaeology meetings, you had quite a lot of graduate students speaking not just very wise and old heads, so Andrew and I decided that we would get something going and we started off with a meeting in Southampton where we invited all the research students and the staff from Sheffield, not a huge number, four or five staff, and seven or eight research students at that time, down to Southampton, and they were found accommodation and people in Southampton provided the meals and we had a two day meeting when many of the research students of both departments would give some account of their work and of the problems they were addressing and so did the staff of the departments, with a lot of time allowed for discussion. And we thought that was really interesting. We got really pleased about that so the following year we did the same thing in Sheffield, they were the hosts, and again there was room for accommodation and meals to be provided and this time we made - we did something which changed the course of the situation, we decided to invite one of the interesting theorists from the Institute of Archaeology in London, Mike Rowlands, to take part and he did take part and but became rather angry that we were having these meetings behind closed doors, one in Southampton and then one in Sheffield, and this was outrageous and why were we such a closed shop and we should be ashamed of ourselves, and so as a result of that, the next year we had a - the first meeting, national meeting, of the Theoretical Archaeology group which we proclaimed ourselves to be, so we invited all and sundry to enrol and to come but we retained some of the things, most people stayed in university accommodation which they paid for but for impecunious research students, there was still accommodation on floors, bring a sleeping bag, sleep on somebody's floor, and we kept the subscription fee very low and it was possible to get food locally quite inexpensively, and we tried also to encourage graduate students to speak about their work and also to allow a lot of time for discussion and so I forget which year the first TAG was but it must have been in the late 1970s anyway, 1979-1980, something like that and it really took off and each year it goes to a different university department who are the hosts. We had one quite early on in Glasgow and later on one in Cambridge and then to quite smaller universities like Lampeter, it's been to Lampeter twice, and it's turned into something on the archaeological scene because it's a wonderful forum and one does deliberately hear quite extravagant ideas or interesting theoretical ideas. This was just the time that in England there was a reaction developing against the so-called new archaeology, against processual archaeology, which was felt to have too firm a basis in scientific approaches and too much fuss about ecology and subsistence, the food basis and so on, which, indeed, did characterise quite a lot of the new archaeology in the Americas at that time and so the emphasis of some of these people who called themselves post-processual archaeologists was to avoid scientific methodology, avoid trying to make generalisations like scientific laws, but emphasise the richness of different individual contexts and also try and look at the symbolic side much more to try and look at art or look at burials and what one might seek to infer about the practices which people were deliberately introducing into the burials and so to lay more emphasis on interpretation in that way. And so that controversy found itself fought out really in successive meetings of the theoretical archaeology group. Ian Hodder, who was by then in Cambridge, had a lot of graduate students who were very deliberately being non-new archaeology and non-processual and proclaimed themselves to be post-processual, and there were many of us who still admired, as I do, some of the achievements of the - the traditional processual archaeology and so the theoretical archaeology group meetings became a forum for that - that debate, which has been one of the interesting debates in archaeology, not only in Britain but more widely, I think. So sometimes volumes were published arising from these conferences and that was really quite an interesting - an interesting development in the archaeology of the time.

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, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009