Minds ancient and modern

The Ancient Mind
October 13, 1995

Archaeology is like autobiography - John Buchan's for one. In Memory Hold-the-Door, published in 1940, Buchan looks back on his life, noting that "the abiding things lie in the past, and the mind busies itself with irresistible reconstruction."

Archaeologists too, through their interpretation of material culture, are drawn inexorably to the business of re-assembling the past. Unlike the autobiographer however, they have never had that "experiencing moment", for the past they reconstruct belongs to others.

Denied direct access, archaeologists produce ideas, theories that fit the data they have so painstakingly retrieved. In the ebb and flow of intellectual fashion, one point remains fixed - we can never discover a pristine world of universal truths or unassailable facts, never capture the exactness or totality of meaning. In other words, archaeology deals with approximations, semblances of past realities rooted in the inconstant "present".

In such a slippery arena, few things are trickier than trying to explore the ancient mind. Unlike history or anthropology, archaeology has only the dumb and the dead to work with. Unable to "speak for themselves", artefacts rely on the voice of the archaeologist to explain their preservation, shape, decoration, function or symbolic meaning.

In the current climate of postmodernist self-doubt and the critical re-assessment of archaeology's aims, one unsettling point is crystal clear. All that we think we know of the prehistoric past, we know by analogy to the present.

Under the unifying rubric of cognitive archaeology, The Ancient Mind presents a diversity of interesting and sometimes stimulating papers. Defined by Colin Renfrew as the study of past ways of thought as inferred from material remains, cognitive archaeology is regarded by him also as the latest phase of processual archaeology. His view is that we should now be talking about the functional processualism of the 1960s and 1970s, and the cognitive processualism of the 1990s.

In Renfrew's opinion the current concern with cognitive issues is a natural development of the processualist approach. While there is an undeniable relationship here, it is difficult to see any degree of inevitability at work. Lewis Binford's blueprint statement of the importance of the ideotechnic alongside the sociotechnic and technomic subsystems of culture is not enough.

In the 30-odd years that followed, processual archaeology concerned itself with positing universally applicable laws of culture process, and relegated such issues as religion and ideology to the status of epiphenomena of more important techno-economic sub-systems. Precious little of cognitive significance ever escaped the beloved black box/hole of the processualists.

The stimulus for current concerns with ancient cognition was less evolution than revolution. It was the activities of the post- processualists (called anti-processualists by Renfrew) that represented an unprecedented break with previous approaches. Only when post-processualists began raising such issues as the multi-dimensional pervasiveness and relativity of theory, and the negotiated construction of meaning, did the debate take off in its current form.

It is difficult to believe that, left to their own devices, processual archaeologists would ever have questioned the status of "facts", or denied the existence of one knowable world whose past we can approach if only we are rational and scientific enough. The relatively small impact of post-processualist ideas in the undergraduate teaching of archaeology in the United States, with its emphasis on hard science and expensive technology in pursuit of cultural materialism, is the clearest refutation of the evolutionary view.

Yet the problems surrounding cognitive archaeology do not end there. Several authors question the value of defining or following a specifically cognitive archaeology at all. Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery, for example, prefer to talk of a "holistic archaeology" where all variables are given equal weighting. Similarly, James Hill expresses the view that cognitive issues are not archaeology's strong suit, and that it should concern itself with issues which are amenable to investigation, such as long term cultural change in response to environmental changes. Interestingly, both of these chapters rely on the direct historical approach, where one works back from the known to the unknown, to aid their interpretation. Hill goes so far as to say that it is impossible to assign meaning to prehistoric artefacts without recourse to ethnographic or ethnohistoric analogy.

While some contributions work better than others, I found the chapters by Richard Bradley, on understanding British petroglyphs, and Nicholas Postgate, on text and figure in Mesopotamia, especially interesting. But I also felt strongly that if there is a future for the concerns of cognitive archaeology, several papers pointed the way forward on a broader front.

In a chapter dealing with what might appear an unpromising topic, C. Karlin and M. Julien argue convincingly that the development of human intelligence can be studied by changing capacities for innovation and generalisation in stone tool production. Among other stimulating ideas, they conceive of knapping as implying intellectual operations of abstraction and anticipation, and the memorisation of how to achieve mental representations of forms appropriate to particular materials. They argue, for example, that there is no Levallois method, but rather a Levallois concept based on a three-dimensional volumetric conception of the core, where the number of blades produced can almost equal the core capacity.

A similarly sophisticated approach characterises the chapter by Steven Mithen, where the transition between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic is seen as a significant cognitive event. His argument centres on the idea of mental modularity, where particular cognitive abilities (or types of intelligence) may have been directed towards specific kinds of behavioural experience.

He sees Lower and Middle Palaeolithic hominids as possessing high degrees of mental modularity, where, for example, knowledge of animals, plants and environment (natural history intelligence), did not greatly inform the production of stone tools (technical intelligence).

Despite the diversity of environments occupied by these hominids, the limited variability of their stone tools argues against a free flow of information between these two mental modules. With the advent of the Upper Palaeolithic the barriers seem to break down, resulting in a higher degree of generalised intelligence. This is turn may be the origin of the anthropomorphisation of nature, where social intelligence could now be used to perceive a nonsocial natural world.

In the final analysis, however, no amount of excavation, theory, or technology will reveal the thoughts of prehistoric people. Yet we cannot and should not ignore the material record, and any endeavour that broadens our interpretive horizons is to be welcomed.

As long as conceptual straitjackets are kept in the closet, there is surely room for as many approaches to the past as we can muster. This volume is a step in one direction; whether it ultimately proves to be right one only time will tell.

Nicholas J. Saunders teaches archaeology at the University of Southampton and cultural geography at the Chichester Institute.

The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology

Editor - Colin Renfrew and Ezra B. W. Zubrow
ISBN - 0 521 43488 2 and 45620 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 195

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