01 April, 2011

The archaeology of perception

This is my favourite cartoon; it is by the late Bernard Kliban, a New York cartoonist, and one of the founding fathers of the modern cartoon, and in my opinion, a genius of his art. Sometimes the world becomes so strange and distorted, that it takes cartoon to get it into perspective.

Kliban was great at pointing out the absurdity inherent in much of our thinking. He was well known for his work with animals, and anthropomorphism was a favorite theme.

Anthropomorphism is a word I have tried to use to express the tendency for archaeologists to project their own conceptions onto the minds of people in the past, in order to explain the archaeology evidence.
This is a dangerous and seductive game.
Erich von Däniken Syndrome & Ethno-insinuation
One strand in the Kliban cartoon, is the idea that all pyramids were somehow connected, most notoriously by alien intervention, as suggested Erich von Daniken and others. Their only real relationship lies in the mechanics of a pyramid as an architectural form.
Archaeologists also often seek to make the same intangible connections between architectural conventions, forms, and particularly shapes on opposite sides of the world. This allows us to understand monuments such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, or Little Woodbury through the architectural practices of North American Indians, Madagascans, or the good folks in Papua New Guinea; the more obscure and further away the better.
What is being suggested?
A. These people built our prehistoric monuments?
B. These people influenced the builders of prehistoric monuments?
C. Mankind has collective Jungian architectural subconscious?
D. Architectural form is encoded in our genes?
In short, how do ethnographic parallels work?
Answers on a postcard, or in the comments.
Making up stories about the past
Those who do archaeology, creating the basic data, are not allowed to make up stories about the past, only provide the evidence so that authors, filmmakers, and software developers can. Since this is the way that most people interact with the past, this makes the creative arts one of our most important and influential consumers of archaeological knowledge. Both actors and re-enactors help make the past real, and consumer test the evidence as we present it.
In the classical periods it’s relatively straight forward, but venture into to prehistory, and you are on your own; this Past is now so complex that it has developed its own specialist language to explain how things were before people started to write them down.
"This Britain was a strange and alien world"
Neil Oliver, A history of Ancient Britain [BBC]

Authors like Gary Corby and Doug Jackson would pride themselves on their scholarly research, knowledge of their period, and grasp of the evidence; it is the foundation of their work. It is their job to imagine the world of the past through eyes of the people who lived there, that is the essence of story telling.

There is a dangerous tendency in modern prehistory to explain the past in terms of the perceptions of people that we have never met, died thousands of years ago, leaving no written records; are we making up stories about the past?

I know what you are thinking!
Unless you have special powers, saying this to even your most intimate partner, may prompt mixed results.
Explaining archaeology in terms of how people we have never met thought about landscapes and buildings we have never seen, seems to have become a perfectly acceptable methodology in Prehistory.
We seem to know more about prehistoric cosmologies than historic ones, for example presuming a knowledge of the cosmology of Iron Age roundhouse builders, that would be difficult to justify for Vitruvius.
The presence of a man with a bad leg, brought up in central Europe, and buried near Stonehenge, prompts the idea that this structure was a place of pilgrimage and healing; because that is how this skeleton might have perceived it.
More blatantly, it has been suggested that Stonehenge was a place of death, on the basis that, for Neolithic people, stone symbolised death, while wood represented life, prompting the question;
What was their favourite colour?

Bernard Kliban 1935 –90

The Biggest Tongue in Tunisia and Other Drawings, 1986 (ISBN 0-14-007220-9)


sarsen56 said...

I rather like the cartoons. As for Stonehenge being some kind of funerary monument, no thanks, but I guess you don't believe it either.

Geoff Carter said...

I'm 100% certain I can demonstrate it was a timber building with a stone component. I am also sure it is not domestic, unlike Woodhenge.

Beyond that, I have an opinion about the relationship between the Bluestones and the main building.

Ornithophobe said...

There you go again, teasing us about your Stonehenge ideas... you need to put them up! Timber-Stonehenge is intriguing, but I can't for the life of me envision how it would work, with how huge the stones are. It'd have to be one ginormous building. When you do get that one written? Plenty of drawings, please, for those as imagination-challenged as myself.

Gary Corby said...

Thank you Geoff for the very kind words. I do try to get things right, and if it weren't for people like you, digging out the truth, I'd be utterly lost.

Geoff Carter said...

Gary, your dedication, energy and focus put me to shame; you have done it, I have yet to achieve any recognition, and the academic have proved very resistant to interacting with my work, or me.

Hi Ornithophobe,

My work has reached a point that in order to create a structural drawing, I need more than a quality good archaeological plan; if you are going to reconstruct a building, with many thousands of tapering structural timber components, you really require access to 3-CAD of a commercial standards.

So it’s a question of resources, if anyone wants to pay me, I’ll sort it out, but for existing stakeholders, understanding a structure in terms of structural engineering, rather than structuralism, is not even on the agenda.

Stonehenge is very difficult; it is the plaything of those who have earned the right to express an opinion, it has been badly hacked about by generations of investigation, and carries an enormous weight of prejudicial scholarship. Most people are too wedded to images of people waving things at the sky, to even conceive of Stonehenge as a building; after all, it was built by simpleminded primitive people, so it can be understood by simplistic models.

So, from my perspective, it just not worth the hassle, buildings like the Sanctuary and even Woodhenge are easier to work with and understand, although they are still proving difficult to illustrate - because nobody has ever seen one!

The Stonehenge Enigma said...

Sorry don't have a postcard handy but will go with B with a little bit of influence from C.

Just wanted to say a big thank you for your perceptive observations and knowledge you have imparted in this excellent blog site. My only wish is that I had found your essays some years ago, which would have saved me so much head banging whilst attempting to make sense of those 'dam post holes' when writing up my book.

Carry on the good work!

Robert John Langdon

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks for your comment Robert; not sure I concur about B

Architects are certainly portable, and would be as regional as their customer base; if you have the skills to create a palace or a castle, there is an expectation you will to travel to the work. As with any other craft, I am also happy with ‘influences’ in a decorative or technological sense; iron tools and fixings are significant changes introduced from outside. However, I also see architecture as primarily a response to 'local' environments, materials and culture.

In most cases I have studied, posts [postholes] are structural components, with specific load baring functions and properties; they are a product of managed woodland; nothing at all like a standing stone, even when they occur in a circle. Simple comparison often concentrates on shapes rather than form, although ‘the plan’, is how the archaeological data is presented.

Stonehenge is simply a large [type Ei] timber building with stone elements, of which the sarsens served some structural purpose. While, it is an exceptional and singular bit of architecture, it is not the key to understanding anything other than itself, anymore than the Millennium Done is key to understanding 20th century London. Woodhenge is more clearly a domestic building, and as such, is far more interesting and revealing about the nature of culture in this Early Bronze Age culture in southern England.

Ned Pegler said...

Dear Geoff

Delighted to see Kliban in your post. I didn't always get the jokes but that's because he was smarter than me.

I assume your aim is to take the raw data as far as it can be taken without fantasising. However, this of course becomes frustrating for any of us wanting the archaeology to tell us a story.

Geologists used to like to use an old adage that helped them through - 'the present is the key to the past'. It worked wonderfully for two hundred years but is now turning out to be not quite true.
However, it allowed much progress in understanding.

I think it's always been a useful starting point for archaeologists too. Assume similar motives for past peoples as you might have yourself. Where it always becomes difficult, I suppose, is that you cannot assume similar ideologies.

For example, I should imagine that the people who lived near Stonehenge often wanted the best for themselves and their children. They probably argued with their spouses, were disappointed by their children and occasionally wondered what was over the distant hills.

What I suspect we'll never know is what Stonehenge meant to any of them.

At that point it almost comes back to that old post-processual thing - you choose to interpret the past as it makes sense to you. If you want to believe in civilisations from space guiding the hand of Stonehenge builders, go ahead. If you want a communist paradise where the work was shared equally in a spirit of mutual trust and fairness, find it. I think we must all do a bit of that when interpreting the past.

Where I take issue with archaeologists is in not being clear about what part of these 'processes', exactly, they are doing. Sometimes a series of pieces of archaeological evidence bleed imperceptibly into an opinion. And archaeologists who read these opinions often don't seem to be able to distinguish it either.

So Mike Pps opinions about Stonehenge ritual are just that. And, ultimately, any opinion you or I offers on the use of Woodhenge is the same.

(Sorry, that was a bit long.)


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Ned,
Thanks for you comment, i'm glad you share an appreciation of Kliban's work.

Clearly, as you point out, people are people, and share the same basic set of emotion and responses as we experience in the ‘present’.
I think we agree on the importance of drawing a distinction between the evidence, and people’s opinions of it, particularly those offering an explanation of archaeological features in terms of an imagined cosmologies.

I am advocating a better understanding of the physical evidence through more objective mythologies; for example, through science, we can tell a great deal about how a bronze was made, but start speculating on how it was perceived or what it represented are you are on shaky ground, although this does not stop speculation – safe in knowledge that it cannot be disproved.

Aspects of a building can be identified with certainty, its uses can be harder to discern from the evidence, but how it was perceived is simply a conceit.

Postholes are the commonest features found on prehistoric sites, and a the only archaeologist specialising in their interpretation I am determined to push for a more objective approach based on understanding structures not just identifying and comparing shapes, and ignoring those that don’t fit our preconceptions, in this case usually the majority of the data.

My distaste at ‘cosmologies’ arises from having my twenty years research on reverse engineering timber structures from their foundations rejected by my tutor at Newcastle University, because it did not address her ideas about ‘Iron Age building cosmologies’. While she knew nothing about engineering or timber building, she was absolutely certain she understood how Iron Age people she had never met perceived buildings that she had never seen.

Newcastle University took her side; faith in the magical powers of individuals is alive and well in academic archaeology, and trumps objectivity and the evidence ever time.