14 January, 2014

The archaeology of the Imaginary Spaces

One of the first things you learn as an archaeologist is that “History” is the study of specialist artefacts involving writing and other forms of recording, and that “Prehistory” is marked by the absence of such material. There is period we call “Proto-history”, in which “Prehistoric” issues are alluded to in later documents, providing plenty of scope for conjecture; ideas like “Druids” inhabit these spaces, along with more peripheral characters like Merlin and Arthur.
Narrative History on the BBC Television is a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and while Prehistory has always had the attraction of the mysterious, and offers the potential of a “Detective Story” format, in reality it has no recognisable narratives. Thus, I was very rude about “The History of Ancient Britain” series’ attempt to manufacture one, and so I greet the news of Neil Oliver's  “Sacred Wonders of Britain” with some degree of scepticism.   However, Neil is keen to get his retaliation in first;
 “We were at all times sensitive to one absolute truth – that it is quite impossible to put yourself in the mind of a Neolithic farmer, or to understand the thinking of an Iron Age druid.”

Good; this did seem to be lacking from the last outing into the past. However, as the program promises an exploration of Prehistoric sacredness, I suspect there is going to be a “but” in there somewhere.  Luckily there are experts on hand; in academia you get the “truth” you pay for.
Realistically, it is not for archaeologists like me, I study the evidence for Prehistoric built environments which are not currently part of peoples’ picture of the past.
Picturing the Past
Time Team condensed the process of archaeology into a merchandisable television format, in which it could be argued the artistic reconstruction of what has been discovered was often the visual pay off.
The “past” has been realised in a shared visual culture, and many people will still remember the pictures in their first religious narratives and history books; I strongly suspect ideas about how ancient people perceived their world, are actually about how we perceive our pictures of their world, reflecting our own visual conditioning.
If only prehistoric people had seen some of Peter Dunn’s excellent pictures we might be able to make some progress on this front; until then we have to make do with imaginary people’s perceptions of imaginary landscapes in the imagination of contemporary scholars. Luckily, these cosmologies are “peer reviewed”, otherwise you might suspect they were just made up.
Monumental Messages 
Monument; noun, 1. a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event. [od]
What we call things is important, and words such as Ancient, Prehistoric, and Monument all carry wider visual and cultural resonance, however specifically we might try to use them.
One of the constant dangers of any enquiry such as archaeology is expectation, and the danger of finding only what was being looking for.
As with Adam and Eve, the past has been frequently seen as somewhere where something was lost; seemingly, religions, which draw on the past for their authority, must by their nature suppose a fall from grace and wisdom.
Thus, the past has been and is a place of lost secrets, wisdom and intellectual treasure, however, its role as source of material wealth, has probably been its most pragmatic attraction.  So, perhaps it is guilt on many levels that has driven the need to understand the spiritual lives and cosmologies of our ancestors.

Ritual axe grinding; life and death in a Postprocessual Madrassa 
While I happy to accept that the protagonists may not be aware of it, but some academics, under the banner of  post-processualism, are creating a faith based narrative of the past.  An idea like  a “Prehistoric cosmology” is not only a tautology, but product of imagination rather than reason; it is a simplistic projection which illustrates nothing more than degree to which faith and irrationality can usurp evidence in a contemporary academic narrative. 
And No – it is not “theoretical” because there is no data; period. 
The past is not Schrödinger's cat – we cannot open the box to establish whether it is alive or dead, so we should not speculate that it is asleep and dreaming of mice.
I do appreciate post processualism is an undoubted boon to Universities like Newcastle, allowing them to teach archaeology, while negating the need for expensive items like excavations, labs, finds stores, or specialised equipment of any sort, and thus also ensuring an equitable division of resources with other branches of “historical studies”.
However, when your own research based on modelling the metrics of real archaeological data, was shafted using the testimony of the Prehistoric dead,  you tend to see the academic world, and places like Newcastle University, in very different light.  So I will keep beating the drum for empiricism and the teaching of evidence based archaeology, otherwise there is little point in doing archaeological fieldwork, and we all may as well pack up, go home and leave it to your imagination.

All the images on this page are imaginary any resemblance to images real or unreal is entirely coincidental; except the image of Neil Oliver who is real and from the BBC 


dustbubble said...

LOL at the duodecadally-lobed quadratic fig., painfully pecked out with lumps of quartzite by superstitious cringing savages, on the top of the "Finnish" (or Estonian or whatever) standing stone.

I always thought of these "re-imaginings" of the utterly opaque mental processes of the prehistoric dead as more along the lines of a kind of Letter To Santa.
"Dear DigFairy, It would please me greatly if something I'm very fond of, and has and benefitted me and my mummy and daddy personally in the past, turns up in my stocking when I "review" the evidence.
Because that means everything is all right with the world, and I can sleep soundly with ProcessTeddy knowing it's all going to stay *just the way it should be*, nice and comfy. Thanks"

Geoff Carter said...

I reason that if Post processualism is free to imagine the past then I have imagined some evidence.
Yes it's finnish - I think I had some confused visitors from that part of the world!
I won't tell you all what message our primitive ancestors pecked out on the quartite - once you see it - you can't not see it, which is part of the illusion.

I go back to Neil Oliver Striding through the Lake District looking like a latter day Romantic Poet, talking about the landscape in terms more reminiscent of Wordsworth & Co than anything we know about Prehistoric attitudes.
I agree that there is the danger of finding what you are looking for, and
projecting the zeitgeist into the past is inevitable to some extent, but we must not knowingly abandon empiricism because convenient.
A lot of this nonsense arises because we have no professional continuity, we squader our talent, enthusiasm, and experience . . . as you well know.

M E Emberson said...

Having just seen an episode of this imaginative series on TV in New Zealand I wonder what is going on in the heads of people who like this sort of thing. They are too young to be hippies

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you for your comment; As I see it, the past has always been a place onto which we project our hopes and ideals, it is something we have lost. As in the Fall from grace / eden, ect.
It has traditionally been a source of military / imperial / political inspiration, [and justification]; more recently it has reflected our concerns with environmental issues. Thus our become ancestors were eco-warriors who held the earth sacred - the past is created to meet contemporary needs.
The many key figures in forming this narrative of archaeology, and selecting several generations of academics, are now in their 50s. . .

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