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The future of archaeology


The impact of publications on work (Part 2)
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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Indeed, I think one of the first experiences I had of that kind was much earlier, back in the 1980s, I think it was published in about 1986 and that was a meeting at the society for American Archaeology, where John Cherry and I put together a meeting on Peer Polity Interaction. And I mention that because I think on reflection that was one of the most interesting papers I wrote. There was a very simple idea, I'd been thinking about how you get away from diffusionist thinking, all these influences from one place to another and I realised that what happens for instance, in the Cycladic Islands in prehistoric times or in early Greek times, is that you, in early Greek times you had a lot of very small city states and they seemed to form independently as city states and they built up, and they sometimes competed with each other, sometimes even fought with each other, but after the interactions between them, the positive trading interactions, but also the competition, competitive emulation, as I called it, they sometimes, sort of, pulled themselves up by their own boot straps almost, and that relates to an idea I'd had earlier when I wrote a paper, “Trade as Action at a Distance”, for a seminar in Santa Fe, where I realised that many early civilisations develop on the same sort of pattern, which I call the early state module. For instance, the Sumerian civilisation, in the early days there was no central, most significant state. There were lots again of effectively city states developing in competition and then they grew and grew and then in the end one became dominant and then it became the Babylonian Empire or whatever. And you see very much the same pattern in early China in the Shang period and you have lots of, apparently autonomous centres, each of which is a small state society and then in the end they become assimilated, whether it's by the first Qin Emperor, the man with the terracotta warriors, or in ancient Greece it's with the development of the Athenian State, which in the end, swamped all the others or in Etruria with the Etruscans you see a similar pattern of early state modules which then ultimately become assimilated in Rome. So we had this very useful meeting of the Society, at the Society for American Archaeology and we invited a lot of people, we invited Anthony Snodgrass, Richard Bradley, wrote a very interesting paper. We invited David Freidel to talk about North America, we invited Jeremy Sabloff to talk about Mesoamerica, and so out of what was itself a good idea, I believe, John Cherry wrote a very interesting paper about early Crete, and so we managed to launch what I think is an interesting though very simple idea which in a way, I think ultimately answers the old controversies about endogenous and exogenous origins, gives one new insights into how things build up and develop their own dynamic. And I mention that in this context, because it was partly the publication of that, that made it a useful idea and that I think is what's been happening to some extent at the McDonald Institute. I was fortunate in getting a grant from the John Templeton Foundation on the theme, the roots of spirituality. They're very interested in the origins of religion and spirituality and so this seemed a good theme for us to address and we did one conference which was actually based at Les Eyzies on the origins of art and of human consciousness and that's now in press. And then, as you know, we did one on the world wide origins of figurative representation, art if you like but arts a rather, sometimes argumentative word, so figurative representation and that is being published under the title, "Image and Imagination" And you of course, Paul, contributed on the earlier origins of rock art world wide. And so, that I think has been quite a good way of operating in recent years and trying to focus on really rather difficult themes. Sometimes difficult get a real handle on the theme and sometimes by bringing a lot of well informed people together, and these have usually been by invitation, it's been possible to make more out of it, than would otherwise, perhaps have happened. So I think the publication initiative in recent years has been quite a positive one.

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: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009