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The development of comparative archaeology (Part 1)


The future of archaeology
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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So, how do you see archaeology at the moments and more importantly where do you think it is going in the next 10-20 years? Well, I think one thing has become very clear, that one can try and draw on a number of different sources of information and try and work them together, but one has to develop a framework for working them together. Some years ago, about10, 15 years ago, I think in the first issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, I wrote an article called, "Before Babel", talking about very early languages which arose of course, from my point of view, from my thinking about Indo-European problem, and I wrote then, perhaps rather optimistically about a hope for new synthesis, which would be between the fields of historical linguistics and prehistoric archaeology and molecular genetics. Well, certainly can't claim that the new synthesis has happened because all these fields are very controversial but nonetheless, I think most people would agree there must have been one reality. I mean if we're talking, whether we talking about genes, or language or material culture, at one particular time, in one particular place there were people making these pots, who had those haplotypes in their veins as it were, who were speaking that language. And there was a single reality, philosophers might wish to take a different view, some of them, but to most people it seems obvious there was a single reality and it's our job as those reconstructing the past, whether historical geneticist, archeogeneticist or linguists or archaeologist, to try and reach towards that. Obviously it's a very different question as how you decide what that reality was and how you decide whether you were right in thinking that, but that is, I think, part of the story. And so I think, one direction in which archaeology is going, is to think coherently, more coherently about those things and I think it does need a coherent theoretical basis, which for me is fine, if that's within the framework of science, speaking broadly, I think the philosophy of science is a very good way of thinking about these things, so long as you don't automatically believe what this or that philosopher tells you. When Carl Hempel was writing about law-like behaviour and saying that all explanation has to be law-like in form, so the people were talking about the laws of culture process, that was probably a little over simplified and the criticisms of the anti-processual archaeologists were right in that respect. But in fact, there were very few philosophers of science at that time even who were taking so, extreme a position. And many philosophers of science see there are different ways of explaining things and different forms of explanation, even though we don't always know very clearly what those were. And that indeed has been the experience in the hard sciences. The philosopher of science, it's after quantum mechanics that the philosophers of science move in and tell you what quantum mechanics is supposed to be about. They certainly weren't in a position to do so until the great innovations of Einstein and Dirac and all these great thinkers. So, I think we have to continue to work on archaeological theory but in a pragmatic way and we'll have to be able to bring in these different components as it were, which I think is no easy task. And then, I do see the most significant progress as coming from more serious thinking, about how humans engage with the material world. I keep on using that phrase, material engagement, because it helps us to get away from the dualism, the distinction between mind and body or body and soul. That duality, which is often attributed to the philosopher Descartes, is actually unhelpful because we are embodied people and we won't understand the, the world if we insist on dividing the world and artefacts into signifiers and things signifying, these are relationships we've got to get into the middle of and so I, I think, trying to understand how the mind works, not just how the little neurons work inside the brain, but for the archaeologists, how the mind works in allowing us to learn things, how we modify our behaviour, through our increasing understanding of and engagement with the material world. Now a lot of that, I think, is very much in harmony with the thinking of the interpretive archaeologists, also called post-processual archaeologists. They use the term agency a great deal which I find not a terribly helpful abstraction, but I absolutely agree with what they're trying to say, that it's humans as being active in the world and active in an intelligent way that makes things happen and that changes the world. Ian Hodder used a very good line of thinking many years ago, which was the active role of material culture. Well, I think we can see it's not just the culture that's active, it is the humans above all that are being active using the material culture, yet it's true that the artefacts produced by humans, have an impact upon humans. In our contemporary society, probably the most powerful motivating force for most people is money. Well, money is a construct, a human produced construct, just, we were saying earlier with the intrinsic value of gold. That is a construct. It's not intrinsic in any way. And so, I think we have to be able to develop those lines of thought, and I hope when we do so, they may help us to understand a little better also, the origins of belief systems, the origins of religion. That's why I think the initiative which the Templeton Foundation supported us in, was a productive one, although I think the most interesting aspects of it, are not the elaboration of the religion, but how things come to be of great spiritual significance. It's very much at the roots of that process, which is why I think the Palaeolithic is so interesting and why cave art and rock art indeed, are so interesting, because these are some of the earliest indications we have of humans interacting with the world and beginning to create categories in the world which we today would call religious. So, I think there's a need for some fresh thinking which I think is going on and I hope very much that some of the original thinking of some of the interpretive archaeologists may actually begin to work more constructively with that of the processual tradition. And as I say, I think it's been a bit of a dislocation of the past 20 or maybe now 25 years that we've moved away from a coherent working in that direction. Perhaps diversity is essential and one needs different people's insights but I think it's a pity when a previous body of work tends to be rejected rather than expanded and modified which is what I feel about the so-called new archaeology, it started off as functional processual archaeology and as we've said in our book, we can see now, it needs to be cognitive processual. But those things have to be, not just slogans, they have to be made to, to work in, in the world.

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, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009