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The development of comparative archaeology (Part 2)


The development of comparative archaeology (Part 1)
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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The other problem today, I think is a very much more difficult one, it's how we manage to create some kind of comparative archaeology. And we've all realised that the earlier formulations of law-like generalisations, the sort of things that Julian Steward was trying to do when Gordon Childe wrote of the urban revolution or the Neolithic revolution, these were ideas that could be applied worldwide but he actually only applied them to the old world and it was Julian Steward, who was one of the first to say, right, lets apply them across the board, and he compared and then Robert Adams, Bob Adams, compared develops in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica in his book, "The Origins of Urban Society", "The Evolution of Urban Society", which is a really first class book compared, but it was written, what, 30, 40 years ago now, comparing those two, those two trajectories of development. But, if we're going to make sense of things, I think we have to be able to make these comparisons more coherently. And it really is very difficult to do if one accepts those who, the interpretive archaeologists, who emphasise the importance of the context. You won't understand this unless you understand the specific context better. Well, that is true but you won't understand it on its own either, I think. And so, I've begun to have the strong feeling that we need to develop some sort of framework where we can have a real comparative archaeology. We were talking earlier about Mexico and Jane and I had a marvellous time and we went down to Yucatan and went to Chitchen Itsa and Uxmal but there are very few archaeologists working in Europe who know much about the Maya or the Olmecs and those few who do, very often know mainly about the Maya and the Olmec and not much else. We had a wonderful visit to China, as, as I mentioned, where we went for a week to Beijing to give some lectures at the time of the publication of the Chinese edition of “Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice” and, and the visit was organised by Mei Jianjun who did his doctorate in Cambridge on early metallurgy in China and particularly in the, what used to be Chinese Turkestan, now the Xinjian Province, of China and so we had a, I had a wonderful week there and that was where Aurel Stein did his discoveries and got records of the Tocharian language, which was the eastern most known Indo-European language. But although that was one purpose of visiting China another was just to think a little more about the early days of Chinese civilisation in the pre-Shang period, where really very little has been done in a systematic way to understand the origins of social complexity in, in China. It's very well documented for the Shang period, around 1500 BC, we have these wonderful burials at Anyang, which not so dissimilar from the royal burials at Ur 1,000 years earlier. They're, they're completely independent or largely independent from each other but the earlier formative stages of Chinese civilisation, and not well understood. In Mesoamerica they are increasingly, there's very good work on the Maya, and I think in some ways the most distinguished coherent field project in the world is that which Kent Flannery with his partner Joyce Marcus have been doing in Oaxaca, the Mexican area of Oaxaca on the origins of the Zapotec civilisation and the Mixtec civilization, and I think that's remarkably coherent work, because they take a very long time frame and they're examining the circumstances that led to complexity. Well, people in Sumer are working in, on similar problems, as Ken Flannery and Joyce Marcus are very well aware, in the Aegean, we've been working at similar problems. My book, "The Emergence of Civilisation" was very much tackling those issues, but nobody really has yet found much of a way, at any rate since the time of Bob Adams, has found much of a way of really successfully comparing these trajectories. And I had to give a lecture for the British Academy a couple of years ago, and so I called it "Becoming Human", and I drew on the DNA evidence, which I was mentioning earlier which gives us a clear picture of an out of Africa dispersal for our species of 60,000 years ago and I pointed out as I had done in an earlier article called "The Sapient Paradox", that whereas a few years ago, archaeologists were talking about the human revolution as if the most amazing thing happened was the emergence of Homo sapiens at a time when the French cave art, in the upper Paleolithic of France and Spain, seemed to be somehow typical of that human revolution. But now that we've able to situate the emergence of Homo sapiens much earlier in Africa and even in the beginning of some figuration or decoration, sights like the Blombos Cave, 70,000 years ago and the origins of human species probably by 100,000 years ago, then the dispersals out of Africa, 60,000 years ago, what happened in France and Spain 40,000 years ago, is now seen as something very localised. It's just as amazing, some ways more amazing than it ever was, and, and of course you do find little sculptures, Venus figurines in Siberia as well as in France and Spain. But it's very localised and you have very little Palaeolithic art. Art before a period of 12,000 years ago, very little except in France and Spain and that extension to Siberia and some things in Australia. Well, you know all this much better than I do, Paul, because that's your special area. But I think that's not generally realised.

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, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009