01 June, 2011

Is Post-processual archaeology a form of religion?

Anyone who has excavated a complex prehistoric archaeology site will have realised that they are quite difficult to understand. Some archaeologists, faced with deciphering this complex phenomenon, decided the easiest thing to do was abandon objectivity, go beyond the empirical limits of the evidence, and simply ‘make up’ something to explain it, redefining the terms of reference for archaeology to allow them to do this. For convenience, I will use the term ‘Post-processual’ for this new archaeology [1], although this term covers quite a wide and very complex can of worms.
Among university academics, these post-processual archaeologists are in the probably unique position of being paid to invent knowledge to cover those topics currently beyond our understanding, especially in those areas where objective knowledge is impossible. 
Traditionally, this is the province of religion, whose prophets have special insights beyond our shared objective reality, and whose texts can testify to events that transcend normal physical laws. While priests can report on opinions and beliefs of prophets, and even gods, at least they have some written records to work with; professors of prehistory can profess a detailed knowledge of the minds of people who left no records at all, and use it to explain the physical evidence.
Is it time to reclassify this form of archaeology as a religion, differentiated from mainstream scholarship, and fund it accordingly?
The Heretic
As a practitioner of archaeology, I naively thought that objectivity had place in the intellectual culture of archaeological interpretation, and based my now-abandoned PhD on detailed measurements and observations taken from real data [below], but I was greeted with consternation and disbelief.

Treating postholes as building foundations, and therefore susceptible to rational analysis and interpretation as part of engineering process, had no more relevance to ‘post processual’ archaeologists, than evolution has to creationists.
Archaeology had redefined itself, and understanding ancient buildings, something I regarded as just a part of my professional practice, was apparently no longer part of it.
I was told to write about ‘Iron Age building cosmologies’, or how prehistoric individuals perceived the buildings they lived in--a quite legitimate and peer reviewed topic, and apparently the basis on which my tutor understood the term ‘building’.
Here’s the problem: as a professional archaeologist, examining the plan of a building foundation, I could only model the shape of the roof and estimate things like post loading; a post-processual archaeologist, however, can perceive a whole belief system for the people who lived in it [2].

Mike Parker Pearson's account of how an Iron Age person perceived a building [2]
We have never met anyone from the Iron Age, or seen their buildings; but that is the whole point: nobody can prove you wrong; and this miracle of intellectual reasoning becomes just another article of faith.
I had missed a synod; archaeology is now about belief, and peer-reviewed revelations of ancient cosmologies are sacrosanct; I had insufficient faith in the extrasensory powers of my colleagues, and I was summarily excommunicated. To be fair, Newcastle University eventually forgave me, and despite my work's being of ‘no value’, were prepared to let me resume paying my fees.
However, since the laws of gravity are not part of their peer-reviewed canon, and therefore are not a relevant or credible basis for an argument in prehistory, it was clear I'd be flogging a brain-dead horse.
Like all but the most extreme religious fundamentalists, Post-processual archaeologists are more than happy to accept the benefits of modern science, from radiocarbon to DNA, but they have a complete blind spot when it comes to mechanics. Thus, postholes are increasingly understood as the product of special rituals and beliefs, that have been specifically imaged to explain them, and to suggest that they are the product of a rational process like timber building places you well outside the church of academic prehistory.
So, in a way, this is more than just about postholes; it is a battle for a rational past, with built environment, something that we can understand and relate to, rather than a set of mystical insights we have to believe in; it’s about the soul of archaeology.
The Loss of faith
In the decades following the War, the large-scale excavations of key nodal sites in the landscape produced archaeological plans of such fiendish complexity that they defied comprehensive explanation. Hillforts like Danebury [3], and complex crop mark sites like Mucking in Essex [4], produced what came to be referred to as posthole palimpsests.

Part of the Mucking Cropmark site [North rings] [4]
Field archaeologists struggled with the thankless task of processing, interpreting, and reporting on this mass of confusing data, and consequently a backlog of unpublished excavations built up. It was while working on a report for one of these old excavations that I came to realise that my education and training had simply not equipped me with necessary knowledge and intellectual tools to understand archaeological plans, prompting my 20 years of research.
Nevertheless, the only rational way into this data was to start by finding similarities between sites; Bersu’s findings at Little Woodbury before the War are of central importance in this respect, and his findings, roundhouses and four-post structures became points of reference for future reports. [5]
The little Woodbury roundhouse [5]
It is a crude but effective methodology; once these types of structures had been identified, the necessary connections to the existing scholarship had been established, and further costly analysis could be deemed unnecessary. As a result, archaeology began to look only for similarities, and ignore differences, disregarding evidence that does not fit the expected pattern. Thus, while some postholes became central to our understanding, most of the others were ignored.
While this methodology is logically circular, it does ensure a tidy and consistent set of results: put crudely, all prehistoric buildings were round, because anything that is not round is not a building [qed].
The new dogma
Archaeologists lost faith in their ability to interpret the data rationally, and I would venture that this failure led to a rejection of conventional and utilitarian explanations in favour of accounting for archaeological features in terms of the supposed spiritual beliefs, rituals and cosmologies of their creators. 
Thus, while I was looking to the nature of timber frame engineering as an explanation, Post-processual archaeologists based in university departments, and often divorced from the physical and intellectual realities of real excavations, went in quite the opposite direction.

Danebury Hill Fort Hampshire [3]
If you can’t understand the archaeological plan as a product of a rational process, you can simply invoke a belief system to explain it. You can make up one to fit, or borrow one from the anthropology of a contemporary ‘primitive’ society and adapt it. Obviously, not just anybody can make up cosmologies and belief systems for peoples who died millennia ago: you have to part of a select academic peer group, and this is why we have peer review.
The peer review system ensures faith is maintained in the power of contemporary prehistorians to divine these ancient beliefs from archaeological features. It also ensures that, once an idea has been accepted as part of the canon, it is safe to suspend your critical faculties, and believe it. In addition, one of the great advantages of academic freedom and peer review is that you can block any research that challenges your subjectivity. It is no longer ‘our’ shared and objective prehistory, but ‘their’ subjective intellectual property they are selling, and they have cornered the market.
Post-processualists redefined archaeology so as to put it beyond the reach of science and rational objectivity, and as long as they articulate their explanations in terms of the unknowable, it is a valid approach to make up a narrative to explain real complex phenomena. Just as the adherents to a religious sect don’t have to justify their beliefs to anyone from outside their faith, so academic archaeology does not have to make sense in a wider world, and can teach what it likes to its students.
It has been my experience that British academic prehistory is effectively a closed shop, and the minimum price of entry is your objectivity; you won't survive in the seminary if you question the infallibility of the prophets.
The broad church
It would be wrong to assume some deep underlying academic conspiracy here, and I should make a very real distinction between prehistory and archaeology of classical or historical periods. Where we have evidence of real belief systems, it is simply not acceptable to make up new ones or import them from elsewhere. Similarly, rational, utilitarian, and even process- based accounts of the archaeology are allowed, and even expected, in non–prehistoric contexts. [Medieval people dug pits to shit in, not to redefine their relationship with the earth.]
I also suspect prehistorians in continental Europe are more grounded, and less reliant on their supernatural powers of perception to explain archaeological features. It is mainly British academics that are making the running in divining the belief systems of these preliterate and extinct cultures.
Unfortunately for scholarship in general, and my own research in particular, once a subject has been colonised by post-processual archaeology, it is lost to rational analysis. Thus, postholes cannot be regarded as the product of a logical empirical ‘process’ like architecture, since archaeology has been redefined to exclude such heretical explanations. Once something has become the object of a subjective belief, it cannot be given up, since this would threaten the integrity of the whole faith. Once you have created your own or someone else’s cosmology to explain reality, there is no way back to rationality.  
Post-processual archaeology had created a world in its own image; it is an irrational, simplistic, dysfunctional, and structurally illiterate mythology of the past, and sadly, once you have plumped for the Garden of Eden, you are stuck with the talking snake.

Sources and further reading.
[1] Post-processual archaeology: I don’t think anybody is quite sure about this, but it covers most new ideas about archaeology in the last 30 years that are different than ideas developed in the previous 30 years. http://www.answers.com/topic/post-processual-archaeology-1
& http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-processual_archaeology
[2] M. Parker Pearson (1999). 'Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire'. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1999 (a) 9:1, pp. 43-69.
[3] Cunliffe B, 1984. Danebury: an Iron Age Hillfort in Hampshire. Volume 1 The excavations, 1969 –1978: the site. CBA Research report 52.
[4] The crop-mark sites at Mucking, Essex, England. In Bruce-Mitford, R Ed. Recent archaeological excavations in Europe. Jones, M. U & Jones, W.T., Robert Routledge Kegan Paul 1975: 133 -187,
Bond, D,1988 Excavation at the North Ring, Mucking, Essex, East Anglian Archaeology
[5] Bersu, G: 1940. Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111.


Odin's Raven said...

You are a practical and rational man obviously out of sympathy with romanticism. That, however, has been an important part of the public interest in history and archeaology.

I've been reading Peter Ackroyd's book 'Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination', in which he points out the strong yet melancholy and 'romanticised' attachment to the past that has always been part of English culture.
'Classical ruins were agreed to be delightful, especially if adorned with ivy and judiciously arranged cracks, but it was believed that ancient British monuments were more suitable in an English landscape as 'an object to be seen at a distance, rude and large, and in character agreeable to a wide view'.'

The value of the study of history and ancient ruins was thought to be the discernment and emulation of great achievements, more moral than material; but the knowledge of how the men of old built ingenious wooden buildings would have been accepted as worthy, even if less prestigious than the building of temples and pyramids in stone.

Of course you are welcome to continue your distinguished double career in post processional archaeology, in the interwoven DNA-RNA like processions of excavated post-holes and of blog-posts!

You might like to relax and consider something that treats the past in a different style, such as
the interesting post about Demeter and Eleusis at

Then you might like to consider using a spade, not to dig up tightly controlled archaelogical evidence, but in a garden, such as this http://roburdamour.blogspot.com/p/romantic-gardening.html
whose author even has a post on gardening and psychological types.

Of course, it's up to you whether these processions of posts proceed as a 'religious' process to link or tie you back (religare)to the first things or primal principles of the past in an 'arche'-logical process or proceeding.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi OR, thanks for the comment.

How people consume, visualise, and conceptualise the past is something way beyond my remit as an archaeologist. Mystery is one the past’s biggest selling point, if King Arthurn or Stonehenge is a way in, I cannot complain. Indeed, such romantic icons have helped sell many serious books on archaeology.

However, there is an inherent danger in scholarship pandering to popular culture, In the 1930’s some German archaeologists sought to demonstrate the superiority of the Arian race, and issues about the archaeology of ‘the City of David’ illustrate there are still plenty of live political issues.

I have said previously that historical/ classical fiction is immensely important avenue for bringing people to thinking about and appreciating the past and how it has helped shaped the present.

However, it should not be the roll of contemporary archaeologists to create their own mythology; I do appreciate that archaeology is far more difficult and complex than we might expect, there is so much we don’t known yet, and indeed won’t ever know; but we just have to be honest and admit it. Making something up to cover our ignorance should not be an option for the professional. You would not expect your doctor to make-up a disease to fit symptoms, or simply tell you what he thinks you want to hear.

Thanks for the interesting links; I actually am quite a romantic at heart; I 'm a Discworld addict who enjoys gardening, and suffers the degree of ‘magical thinking’ as most humans.

Odin's Raven said...

I'm glad that you like gardening. It is a good hobby.

It's not just in archaeology where integrity has been replaced by personal advantage and political correctness. The recent exposure of the anthropogenic global warming scam suggests that being on a government or corporate payroll may not be a good position from which to seek or defend truth.

Of Truth and why it is often less in vogue than lies, it is difficult to write better than Sir Francis Bacon.
"WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

Orwell knew why the evil Ingsoc would want to control the view of the past: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past".

Maybe there's a connection between the current pc efforts to destroy English identity and merge the country into the EU and the attempts of some archaeologists to abolish the Anglo-Saxons.

Even honest views of the past change over time. Half a millenium ago the best informed people thought the Britons were descended from the Trojans, and would have thought present views absurd. In another few centuries people will probably also think present views to be absurd.

There's also an artificial divergence between mechanism and meaning. A wise man pointed out to me that our ancestors didn't see so much of a split between the material and the spiritual. Both aspects should be considered, and integrated. Gothic cathedrals were not just 'high status' exercises in stonemasonry to be used by 'elites'. Oh yes, he also pointed out that even excretion can be regarded as serving a spiritual as well as a material function.

You can complain that the current fashion undervalues the practicalities of how things were done; but there is just as much truth in the opposite complaint, that there is too much focus on the material at the expense of the meaning, which (in my view) is the more important aspect, without which people have little reason to be interested in the relics of the past.

For instance, when I visited Newgrange I noticed that their bookshop didn't even stock the most popular books of explanation, and that the official archaeologists had been reluctant to accept the mid-winter sunrise alignment until it was virtually forced upon them. There's also Seahenge, about which a most eminent archaeologist wrote a book without more than the vaguest explanation regarding it's function - but being able to tell to the month when the trees were felled, how many axes were used and how many axe strokes were applied. Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees!

You're probably better off not having an official position that requires you to defend official positions.

At any rate, you are free to pursue your interests and approach, even if few people get to know of them. As one of your loyal followers I look forward to more of your informative articles, including one about the roof you think was on Stonehenge.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi OR,
Cathedrals are an interesting case in point, we have a secure and well documented cultural context for such buildings. Without it archaeologists would be wondering why such big buildings were erected in graveyards, with an iconography of torture and execution. It would be impossible to understand medieval Christianity from its archaeology alone; But this is what we are trying to do with prehistoric structures.
Think of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem; It has political and religious complexity, which is culturally extremely important, but all of this would be virtually invisible to archaeology.

Of course the spiritual is important, but is not visible to the archaeologist; just to a prehistoric person, their name and lineage may be of utmost significance, - I cannot invent names and identities for bodies I excavate, and neither I should not make up belief systems for them. - Unless I am the writer of fiction.

Odin's Raven said...

There's no need to make up anything. If the archaeologists report the stones accurately, much may be inferred. The location of churches in graveyards, often at sites with pre-Christian origins, would give a broad hint that this is a religious site, and likely to be associated with beliefs about existence after death, the orign and purpose of life and suchlike questions.

I'm not sure that without literary evidence the cross would be interpreted as an implement of torture, particularly as the earlier depictions are said not to accurately portray Roman crucificions. It seems that Jesus was only portrayed on the cross from about the 7th century, and the early examples show him in majesty as conqueror of death, rather than as tortured victim. Inquisitive archaeologists would note and compare the earlier Celtic crosses.

In any case, even if the details and dogma of Christianity were lost, but the stones survived, the 'Sacred Geometers' would be able to infer much of the spiritual significance. Just ask Prince Charles.

More to the point, ask people like Keith Critchlow, or John James.



Diggers have their expertise, but it's not the only one that's relevant.

Wisdom and Understanding are not dependent solely on the rational mind. If the great Rose Windows survive, it may still be possible to 'lift up one's heart' from the Rose Garden to the Rose Window, and down again to the Neolithic stone circles.

Enjoy the summer.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi OR,
This site is about is a particular form of archaeology; reverse engineering buildings from their foundations. I try is make it as broad and varied as possible - built environments are very important artefacts, and interact with most aspects of the wider culture.

I agree that you can often infer what is and is not a religious building. What you can’t do is infer a detailed cosmology. As you say - there are ways into this knowledge and general conclusions can be reached, but building foundations is not one of the more obvious ones.

But I will relent; in the next post I will give you my take on geometry, mostly profane, rather than sacred, and how it relates to the archaeology of the Bronze Age roof. Building is all about the roof !

Also, as reward for your consistency in engaging intellectually with the site, I will explain what I can about Stonehenge, but it’s only the nave. You have to understand, it is not a good site to work with, I do not have a complete & authoritative plan of the postholes, and the two structural stone elements are badly damaged. To work well, TSA models have to have an accurate ground plan. I would not want to draw attention to my work simply by mentioning this site – I can’t ‘understand’ the roof as it as well as sites like the Sanctuary, Woodhenge, and Mount Pleasant with a better-preserved plans.

While it is a very interesting and important site, it carries a heavy burden of romantic expectations and speculative scholarship. It is also unique, which presents its own problems. It has been badly used as the central theme in explaining prehistoric archaeology; it’s a bit like using the millennium dome, or more fairly St Paul’s Cathedral, being used to explain a period in history, especially if we don’t understand the site on a physical level, and are prepared to invent the spiritual.

edward pegler said...

Dear Geoff

This was an eloquent post. I suspect that there are, believe it or not, many archaeologists who share your views on the current British fashion.

I think that in any discipline there is room for both careful, painstaking research and wild arm waving. Unfortunately, for the careful their work is never that exciting to the general public or to most academics.

Often the arm-wavers (like me, sometimes) have more fun and attract more attention(unlike me) Having said that I don't quite understand why putting random words on plans and maps is so interesting to the general public - perhaps it isn't.

However, only when the arm-wavers can potentially be proved wrong by the evidence of the careful is there any use in what they say. Otherwise it's just so much hot air.

As an angry young geologist I also felt like I'd been burnt by academics with political agendas. I thought that their 'truth' was less truthful than my 'truth' but wasn't allowed to put mine in my PhD. I have no idea whether either was right.

But a more close approximation to truth has been aquired in archaeology and other disciplines over the last few hundred years. MPP-style archaeology will pass when it's shown to be silly, the pendulum will swing somewhere else, then someone will come up with some other daft idea. Plus ça change...

Please don't lose heart. What you're doing could be wrong or right but it is worthwhile. The internet is slowly changing the way that research is seen and peer review will need to change with it.


Geoff Carter said...

Hi Ned,

Thanks for your contribution, we have both experienced academic geology, but at least I felt that is still mostly arguments about real piece of rocks, and the processes affecting them; how rocks perceive themselves and their relationship with to the process is not central to the discussion.

There some fantastic archaeology going on, Dr Sarah Parcak – Egyptian space archaeology - well worth waving yours arms about! Archaeologists are a wonderful mix of skills and detailed forensic knowledge, and my concern is strictly limited to those who interpret prehistoric archaeological features by imagined ancient belief systems.

I'm not loosing heart, but I may have sink to the level of playing a Stonehenge card.

While it is a personal tragedy that twenty years of detailed objective analysis can be trumped by MPP’s back-of-beer-mat theorising, and that Newcastle University should throw itself behind the magical extra-sensory perception of its staff, - it raises deeper issues for those people who wish to ‘do’ archaeology, as well as the credibility of what the consumer is being sold.

I don’t think Newcastle is exceptional in this, but it’s my local University, and in some way representative of where I live, it’s my academic football team, and I care.

If I went to study skin surgery – I would be outraged if I was told we don’t do that, you will have to take ‘wart charming’, or equally, that since we don’t have any staff who do Latin, so have redefined Classical archaeology to exclude literary sources, allowing us to make a simple one-size-fits-all cosmology to explain Roman archaeology.

Outside the well paid confines of academia, there a group of people who endure poor condition and pay to actually ‘do’ archaeology. It is their job to understand what they find, and report objectively on it. Who is to teach how this process should work, and how will it ever improve and develop?

Universities have to be able to train archaeologists, not the just the next generation of lecturers, or why should anyone wanting to be an archaeologist, go to a university and pay their fees, to be taught how to make up stories?

As much of the research in universities is driven by subjective, and even metaphysical, concerns about ancient belief and behaviour, it cannot ever be of any use to practitioners, and serves only to ensure a future generation of dysfunctional and simplistic teaching in prehistoric archaeology.

Archaeology has moved on in leaps and bounds, largely by borrowing and adapting scientific and analytical techniques from science.

Apart from ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ issues that are unknowable and incomprehensible, what have the past decades of ‘post-processional’ archaeology actually taught us?

DDeden said...

On earlier "cathedral" symbolism, I noted an unexpected similarity:


Have you seen anything like the 'hands & breechclout' motif in European ring-fort or temple artifacts?

Geoff Carter said...

HI Dude, thanks for the contribution; once you get onto religious symbols and their developmental, I am well out my comfort zone. [Also i never wore a breechclout!]

I am happy to view the development of religion, as an organic process, where religions grow out of one another;divine revelation aside, with the eye of faith you can see very ancient anthropomorphic myths underling much later religions, as well as the more obvious borrowings in texts like the Bible.

So I expect connections and similarities to occur, but they signify is whole different question.

Your link raises Göbekli Tepe; this is a bit of an archaeological elephant in the room; it is unique and calls into question so much we were being to take for granted about the development of culture in the earliest neolithic.

The problem with temples and Ring forts is that they were mainly timber and we can only imagine their carvings and iconography, as virtually nothing survives.

Geoff Carter said...

Corrections and Clarifications!

I have corrected my spelling from 'post-processional' to 'post-processual', so as there is no possible confusion, as to who I am having a go at!

Geoff Carter said...

. .or should that be whom?

Woody said...

Dear Geoff,

Thank you for this post. I had an encounter with post-processual archaeology just a few days ago. I'm just an interested lay person, with no education in archaeology beyond reading voraciously about it.

Like anyone who has visited an ancient site, I can't help but wondering, "what were the people thinking when they built this?" It's a curiosity that has followed me ever since standing outside West Kennett Long Barrow four years ago, and every so often I go looking to see if anyone has discovered anything that might give me some insight.

So I went to Google, typed in "Life in neolithic Britain" and found a thesis that looked promising. I read how the plan of a causewayed enclosure can tell us maybe how neolithic gender roles (but not sex, or maybe sex is the same thing as gender, and maybe there were at least three genders/sexes because other cultures far removed had a concept of many genders) were part of neolithic identity and personhood, and how neolithic structures enforced/created those perceptions.

Wait, what?

I immediately thought: they're just making this stuff up as they go along. I mean, I'm just a lay person, but I can connect "A" to "B". Those post holes and the distribution of deposits just don't look at all connected to conjectures of neolithic gender identity, or much about any statement of identity for that matter. And if one can't even define gender, how can one interpret what neolithic people thought of it?

Some interpretations I've read seemed plausible, such as MPP's interepretations of Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, but I never realized anyone looked at it as anything other than conjecture and that the proponents took those ideas as certainties.

I'll keep reading, dreaming of visiting the UK and Wiltshire again, and imagining the lives of people so long ago. At least I now know my fantasies are rooted in no less reality that what's being passed off in archaeology today.

Atlanta, Georgia USA

Geoff Carter said...

Dear Woody,
Thank you for your comment; it is easy to be swept along by the eloquence of the arguments and the complexity of language deployed by modern archaeology, and forget we are talking about holes in the ground.
I admire you persistence in delving into the subject, as it not always easy. However, it is 'our' /'your'archaeology, and should be accessible and comprehensible.
I don't agree with MPP's ideas about Durrington, -there is evidence for feasting and lots of postholes; he sees a special ritual place with feasting for dead by the living; I see a high status building with conspicuous consumption. His idea that 'stone' was symbolic of 'death' and 'wood' of 'life', that underlie his assumptions, is way too simplistic.

There seems to be a search for some 'unified field theory' that will explain and link all aspects of both anthropology and archaeology, but all to often we are simply projecting contemporary ideas about 'culture' onto the archaeology -to the benefit of neither.
While, I am not opposed to the consideration of personhood, gender, etc, I do think we should try to understand where they lived and went to the toilet first!

I hope you make over here soon, and thanks again for your contribution,