Tarzan, tsars and theatre of Ortelius

March 7, 2003

This wide-ranging survey of archaeology around the world is one of 11 monographs marking last year's centenary of the British Academy.

Archaeology comprises section H7 of the academy, with nearly 50 fellows. A number of overseas scholars (such as this reviewer) are corresponding fellows, and membership spans the globe in its archaeological interests.

The editorship of the volume illustrates this: Colin Renfrew is a Cambridge prehistorian; Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University specialises in the Iron Age and Roman periods; and Wendy Davies of University College London deals with the medieval age when documentary evidence marches pari passu with that from material culture.

However, only five of the 25 authors are fellows. The decision to look outward was a good one, exemplified by William Fitzhugh's very up-to-date survey of circumpolar archaeology. "Yamal to Greenland" covers an area traditionally neglected by British archaeologists, but one where recent work has been informative and provocative. Fitzhugh observes that, although the early history of mankind is usually thought of as a tropical story, "during the past hundred thousand years Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens lived under Arctic and sub-Arctic conditions similar to those of today's Eskimos". He notes the uniqueness of the circumpolar environment, linking all the continents except Oceania and Antarctica, and dismisses notions of the "hostile" Arctic and its "remote" peoples. His illuminating survey brings important loci such as the 8,000-year-old Zhokhov site to the wider notice they deserve.

How humanity got that far is outlined by Robert Foley, who states that "institutionally and intellectually the study of human evolution is nowadays quite divided from that of archaeology". Archaeological theory has gone haring off along postmodernist tracks, while evolutionists have found inspiration in cladistics and molecular genetics. Foley believes that for palaeolithic archaeology especially "it will be as important for archaeologists to know the details of molecular genetics as they do of Quaternary geology". He sees the power of evolutionary theory as "explaining how populations change and adapt at all timescales and in all populations". Foley gives us fact as well as theory. His concise essay ties in tool technology with biological development, emphasises that debate on human origins is now within rather than about the "out of Africa" model, and makes the crucial point that the emergence of Homo sapiens is biologically significant and associated with economic, technical and social adaptations that take its import beyond just biology.

Renfrew, the only editor to contribute a substantive chapter, continues his exploration of the links between molecular genetics, historical linguistics and human dispersal across the globe in a useful update on the position he took in his pioneering Archaeology and Language .

Some contributors go for the broad-brush survey: George Cowgill and colleagues, given all North America and Mesoamerica, sensibly opt to highlight specific areas where they are expert. Even so, there is not enough room: Cowgill can give classic Maya civilisation only two paragraphs and the Aztecs one; George Milner has to cover the period from the first Americans to the first farmers east of the Mississippi in three pages. They define the status quo, with a useful bibliography, but have no room to discuss where current research might lead.

Gustavo Politis similarly cherry-picks his South American themes. The sites of Monte Verde in Chile and Pedra Pintada (Monte Alegre) in Brazil epitomise the quarrel about the first Americans south of the equator, but the emerging consensus that Monte Verde at least was occupied 12,500 years ago suggests that still older loci should exist up towards Alaska. Politis' is the most clearly politically committed piece, discussing attempts to make archaeology useful to indigenous communities in South America, and the murder or exile of a number of archaeologists who thus annoyed reactionary governments. He takes the prize for the most unexpected illustration in the book: the excavation by Argentine forensic archaeologists of the skeleton of Che Guevara.

Rhys Jones' and Matthew Spriggs' survey spanning Australasia and the Pacific, "Theatrum Oceani", was Jones' swansong: he was still tweaking the text on his deathbed. They use "theatre" in Ortelius' sense, "to exemplify the grand geographical terrains upon which the histories of human lives have been carried out", their stage the oceanic hemisphere from Indonesia to Easter Island. Arrival of human species ranges from possibly 1.8 million years ago in Java, if the latest argon dates from Mojokerto and Sangiran are right, to a mere 650 years ago in New Zealand. Australia was apparently colonised 60,000 years ago, given the luminescence dates for Malakunanja II in Arnhem Land and (perhaps) the Mungo 3 burial in New South Wales. Mungo 3, and all other early Australians, are Homo sapiens , which makes our later arrival in Europe under 50,000 years ago rather odd. Jones and Spriggs suggest that this may be a consequence of the "event horizon" of the limit of radiocarbon dating around 40,000: some of the archaeological dates may be minima, the real age being greater. There is a lesson to be learnt here, as there is for the correlation between human arrival and the extinction of the Australian megafauna: men did not kill off the giant marsupials directly, but environmental changes resulting from firing dry vegetation each year shifted the balance.

Charles Higham's survey of Eurasia east from the Urals to Japan makes China central, emphasising new evidence for rice cultivation early in the Holocene at sites such as the Diaotonghuan and Xianrendong caves on the middle Yangtze and even earlier at Yuchanyan, where incipient domestication of rice may be 12,500 years old. The relative belatedness of the Peiligang and Yangshao "neolithic revolution" in the Huang-he valley, long assumed by retrodiction from our knowledge of the Shang to be the fons et origo of Chinese civilisation, is striking. Bronze working first appears far to the west, in the Gansu corridor that links China to Central Asia, and there is a plausible case for the technology itself having diffused east in the early third millennium BC, although what the bronze casters of Erlitou and Zhengzhou achieved with it remains among the wonders of ancient art.

Anthony Harding looks at Europe from the perspective of ethnogenesis, taking the Celts as his exemplar and noting the continuing debate about when Indo-European speakers arrived (and agreeing cautiously with Renfrew that they may indeed have been the first farming peoples, some 8,000 years ago). He also examines whether models such as Elman Service's band/tribe/chiefdom/state succession and Immanuel Wallerstein's world-systems theory have real utility in the European situation. A portmanteau chapter on the Mediterranean coasts and islands south of Harding's inland area, with sections by Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri, Alberto Cazzella and Alain Schnapp, reviews the processes of social evolution and interaction, with a useful bibliography and some mention of recent excavations.

Nicholas Postgate on the Middle East gives a thoughtful polemic about nationalism, development, conservation and looting, and the relationship between archaeology and its wider audience. Martin Hall's chapter is of similar tenor, attacking press coverage of the Royal Academy's 1995 exhibition of African art as patronising, and placing the origins of "timeless Africa's" image in the history of imperialism. Hall suggests that a disjunction between the materiality of research, the ethereality of theory and the realities of the African world today leaves the traditions of Tarzan and Rider Haggard "likely to sneak back into the archaeological narrative".

Martin Carver's "Archaeology with texts" is also polemical, but more a postmodern rant, skipping from using the Picts' liminal historicity to argue that since "material culture and text are equally powerful forms of expression", the "hybrid archaeologists" who work in the medieval and post-medieval periods should not be "wracked by anxieties of alignment", to ascribing this to "the professionalisation of academic life, the formation of economically supported cartels" and to the malign influence of too much trendy theory (a field that Ian Hodder surveys more calmly in his short chapter). Carver identifies a distinction between Americans' "historical archaeology", defined as the archaeology of European expansion and the the rise of capitalism from 1500 onwards, and the earlier period when sparser textual evidence must be interleaved with the archaeological record to reconstruct a fugitive past.

The last three papers continue in this vein, and deal with what has been dubbed "the archaeology of us", the intersection of material culture studies with modern society. William Rathje and colleagues identify a "black hole" in the very recent past: while archaeology begins yesterday, protection of sites and funding for research do not. Ethno-archaeology, or "living archaeology", studies the archaeological potential of the present, and is distinct from "applied archaeology", which includes forensic studies such as the identification of the massacred family of Tsar Nicholas II, Michael Schiffer's documentation of the evolution of modern artefacts such as the portable radio, and Rathje's "garbology" studies of refuse disposal with their important economic implications.

Nick Merriman examines archaeology as heritage and the emergence of a "public archaeology" that embraces politics, law, looting and the antiquities trade. Archaeology is now much more than an academic discipline, and deals as much with contested areas of ideology in contemporary societies - with tourism and the creation of a usable past - as with scholarly objectivity. Socially relevant projects, such as the "Peopling of London" at the Museum of London, and popularisations, such as York's high-tech Jorvik Viking Centre or Flag Fen, show how wide the net has been cast in England alone.

Much of what goes on now would be impossible without computers. Robin Boast makes a case that ideas such as H. G. Wells' World Brain of 1938, "a nervous network... knitting all the intellectual workers of the world...

information without pressure or propaganda", find fruition today in the worldwide web as a vehicle for rapid scholarly publication. But it will not lead to Jacques Derrida's anticipated death of the book: while early electronic records may be inaccessible through obsolescence, the Codex Siniaticus is still legible after a millennium and a half. The book, like archaeology and the British Academy, is very much with us. This volume provides instruction, provokes discussion and celebrates institutional history in a most satisfactory way.

Norman Hammond is professor of archaeology, Boston University, Massachusetts, US.

Archaeology: The Widening Debate

Editor - Barry Cunliffe, Wendy Davies and Colin Renfrew
ISBN - 0 19 726255 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press/ The British Academy
Price - £45.00
Pages - 6

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments