21 December, 2012

Inside the mind of a New Archaeologist

In my view, the inability of conventional archaeology to interpret the majority of the excavated evidence from prehistoric sites, in particular postholes, has led to development of “New” archaeology, where academics study and become experts in those aspects of culture we don’t find.  In those countries like Netherlands and Germany, where their archaeology is better understood, their narrative of the Neolithic is generally  about agriculture, while in Britain it is more often expressed in terms of the perceptions, beliefs, rituals, personhood, and cosmologies.

In a clear case of counterfeiting in the knowledge economy, New Archaeologists are employed in publicly funded Universities to teach students what they know about the things we don’t have any evidence for.  Sadly, anyone who claims that they know how prehistoric dead people perceived their world either is mentally ill or a fraud, and quite possibly both.

New archaeology as projection 
The relevant definition of Projection;
 …..8. a. [Psychology]; 
The attribution of one's own attitudes, feelings, or suppositions to others: 

"Even trained anthropologists have been guilty of unconscious projection of clothing the subjects of their research in theories brought with them into the field" (Alex Shoumatoff).

Clearly, New Archaeologists are just projecting ideas in their own minds into the minds of the long dead - who inevitably demonstrate a remarkable unanimity and prescience in their perception of their own archaeology. 
To what extent, in creating a narrative of how the dead perceived themselves, their dead, the landscape, structures, and even materials like stone and wood, New Archaeologists are fooling the University authorities, funding bodies and ultimately the tax payer is an interesting question, but the crucial psychological issue is to whether they are they fooling each other and themselves. 
Do they realise that by projecting their own intuitions into the minds of people evidenced only by skeletal remains they are simply fabricating a mythology .  In short, are they fully cognisant of their own conceit? 
Notwithstanding they teach the courses, review each other’s papers, choose research projects, set and mark the exams, shouldn't somebody have stopped them creating this imaginary past? 
And what of the real victims, the students who go to study archaeology, to be taught to dig holes and think like the archaeologists they see on Time Team? 
They will have their rationality challenged and undermined by the intellectual demagoguery of a faith-based pedagogy characterised by lexicographic prestidigitation and decontextualized-asymmetrical-cross-cultural-anthropology masquerading as a methodology for the  conceptualisation and analysis of archaeological data.   Lucky people.

New Archaeology; a survival guide for students

Students should remember;

  1. You can’t interrogate the dead, but it’s ok to pretend and play along, as long you remember it is just make believe. 
  2. Who marks the exams.
  3. Don’t ask “What was their favourite colour?” 
  4. If you must join in, this is how it works . . . 
. . .Start with a simplistic idea – we all have a favourite colour - so prehistoric people must have had one too; throw in Levi-Strauss, Kandinsky, Gestalt, the extrastriate cortex, the Himba people and Hilbert space, sprinkle liberally with lots of long words and obscure references , then clinch the argument with the Matabele  who have spears, cows, round houses and crucially ware blue earrings. The latter is probably strong enough evidence to establish that blue was prehistoric peoples’ favourite colour. 
So we now know that Bluestones were brought to Stonehenge because blue was their favourite colour, - leaving space for others to argue that it was the dead’s or even a God’s favourite colour, and soon we have a lot to teach students about archaeo-colour preference. 

Obviously, this is a simple reductio ad absurdum, just a parody; besides, it cannot be true because I think Prof Parker-Pierson assures us that stone symbolised death in minds of builders of Stonehenge. [2]. 

Theoretical Structural Archaeology is back.

[1]. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company


James Warriner said...

"Theoretical Structural Archaeology is back."
Good! Finally all those daily clicks on the bookmark paid off.
And my compliments on your sentence "...rationality challenged...", both the construction and the concepts.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you James!
But don't make me feel guilty - 6 months in a cave behind a waterfall wrapped in skin of badger to come up with that.

pdurdin said...

This is pretty much exactly what I've been thinking as I read Francis Pryor's "Britain BC". There is so much invention, conjecture and projection. He does in places make the point that these are just theories, but not nearly strongly enough.

(I'm still learning a lot about the archaeology, however)


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for your contribution, kind of you to comment.
The problem with the use of the term "theory" in archaeology is the lack of a 'data set' to apply the "theory" to.
It is my view that you cannot have a proper 'theory' about something for which their is no relevant data.
The term "in Theory"- as in "In Theory Neolithic people has songs" is a simple observation or even a truism - does not entitle to make some up. So much is just projecting our own academic, political and social concerns into the minds of the long dead.
"Britain . . .a land that was alive with spiritual meaning” - Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain, - is projecting New Age Hippie values onto the Ancestors -Not Aryan super warriors any more - but now the first Greens. It has a long tradition " and did those feet in ancient times walk upon etc"
It also has a touch of imperial racism about it; "primitive" people all think and behave the same.