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Archaeology and language


Moving to Cambridge and my inaugural lecture
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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In 1981 we moved from Southampton to Cambridge because Glyn Daniel had retired from the Disney Chair of Archaeology where he'd succeeded Grahame Clark and so I put in for that job and in the end I got it, so we had all the business of house hunting and so on, but we moved to Cambridge, which of course is a much larger department with many more research students. It has really quite a vigorous intellectual life, but at the same time the social life doesn't centre on the department as it rather had in Southampton where one of the big events of the year is the annual departmental ball and party, whereas in Cambridge the social life centres more on the colleges so it's a very different place. But anyway, we got well installed here and I suppose one of the first things I had to do was to think about my inaugural lecture. In Southampton that had been on the field of social archaeology where the preoccupation was really working out again what had made these prehistoric societies tick when one realised things happened much earlier in Europe than in the near East in some respects, talking about those monuments and so on, so that had been the challenge there. But that phase was really complete in a way. The early new archaeology, the early new processual archaeology, had run its course by then, and so I entitled my lecture, “Towards an Archaeology of Mind”. And the idea was to try and move on towards more symbolic things, towards trying to use the, the archaeological data to allow one to see how people were setting about thinking about things in the past and there had been the earlier theory, Christopher Hawkes had once suggested that it's easy to talk about technology and it's much more difficult to talk about social life and much more difficult again to talk about religion or other related topics, and I suppose I was pushed that way by that excavation I'd done in Melos at the site of Phylakopi where we found the shrine and where I was preparing at that time the book, "The Archaeology of Cult", which was the, the publication of that, or the first part of the publication of that excavation. And so I was thinking about the archaeology of religion, but also thinking how one could try and overcome the criticism, the scepticism there was in some quarters, that you could say anything about the ways people thought and yet it was pretty obvious that there were some things that weren't technological or just social. If you look at the pyramids of Egypt, they're symbolic even if you don't immediately know what they're symbolic of and they're the product of very coherent thought processes and intentionality, which is not explained away in subsistence terms and to know about the technology of the pyramids, how they were built doesn't really tell you all that much about them. And I hit on one thing, which I suppose had made an impression on me while I was in Pakistan, looking at the Indus Valley civilization and that was the system of weights of the Indus Valley civilization and these were rather neat little cubes, stone cubes, very carefully carved, very beautifully carved but when the original excavators, Sir John Marshall and others had published the sites, they had weighed those objects using just the modern scale pan and they'd found that they were in multiples of a unit and they had pointed out that this could only be so if they were being deliberately made to a particular mass or a particular weight and therefore they must have been used as a weighing system and scale pans were also found, not necessarily with them. So it was clear that these people were capable of weighing and it became very clear that by looking at these weights, you could definitely reconstruct their measurement system to some extent and could document that they were indeed weighing things and that led on to further ideas because if they were weighing things, unless they're weighing them against each other, playing with these little cubes, didn't seem very likely, they were presumably weighing one material against another, weighing gold against something else or weighing grain in great quantities against something else, perhaps for exchange purposes and so this was a development of a system of commodities where you would actually evaluate gold or grain or whatever by specific quantities in terms of units of measure. Not very surprising to us, but really one was in, in the path, going towards reconstructing one aspect of their thought system and that seemed to me, a very nice concrete example of how one could, by contemporary observations, make statements about the way these people were thinking. At the same time, Alexander Thom in this country, was claiming they were units of length, which were used in laying out the megalithic monuments, the stone circles and so on. Well, that's still controversial but he was using very precise mathematical methods. He was measuring the diameters of the circles and so on and got a large number of circles and then trying to claim, using quite good statistical methods, that there was a significant unit of measure in amongst all of that, so that seemed to me, a nice way of getting, beginning to get a handle on the cognitive question, what one would today call cognitive archaeology. And you weren't aspiring to know exactly what people were thinking, you can't get into their shoes as it were as some people had claimed was a good strategy. You have to imagine what it was like to be them. Well, there's no harm in using imagination but you can't really put yourself in the shoes of somebody living somewhere else 4,000 years ago but what you perhaps can do, is actually study aspects of the way they were thinking, whether in the area of measurement or indeed in the area of religion where you can hope to claim that this must have been a religious site, particularly if you have some iconography like some frescoes or something and so you can do that without the use of writing. And so that seemed an, an interesting direction, direction to move in, and to try and get beyond some of the limitations of the rather functionless aspects of the early, new archaeology. And some of the so-called post-processual archaeologists I think had a similar aspiration. They were talking about symbolic and structural archaeology, but they were less concerned I think with the methodology, more with the end product, whereas I, myself felt that it was, there's always the risk of just taking a leap in the dark and ending up in the wrong place. I felt there needed to be some coherent structure of reasoning, so that really in my case, came partly out of the excavations in Melos where one was grappling with the archaeology of religion and other aspects of what I had seen as a separate subsystem in that book, "The Emergence of Civilization", that I'd published about the independent origins of Aegean Civilization in the early and then the later bronze age. I'd written about the symbolic and projective subsystem and it was the same idea but I was managing to get it a bit more concrete about that.

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: 8 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009