Image: ‘Zulu wooden vessels from the Museum of the Berlin Mission’, from Ratzel 1897 (vol. 2), p. 413. Reproduced as Figure 2.2 in the published version of this paper (Hicks 2010).
The opening sections of my overview of the history of the idea of material culture studies and the "material turn", which was published in 2010 as a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (edited with Mary Beaudry), is published below. The full references are provided in the bibliography of the published version. The full paper is published on my academia.edu pages here
Introduction: Excavating ‘material culture’
The terms ‘material culture’ and ‘material culture studies’ emerged, one after another, during the twentieth century in the disciplines of archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology, and especially in the place of intersection between the two: anthropological archaeology. Today, ‘material culture studies’ is taught in most undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in archaeology and anthropology. In Britain and North America, four distinct traditions of material culture studies in archaeology and anthropology might be discerned. In the eastern United States, one tradition, associated especially with the work of Henry Glassie and his students, including Robert Saint George, Bernard Herman, and Gerald Pocius (e.g. Glassie 1975, 1999; Pocius 1991; Herman 1992, 2005; Saint George 1998), has developed from American folklife studies and cultural geography. This field has developed to include studies in architecture, landscape, and historical archaeology, especially through the work of Dell Upton and James Deetz (e.g. Deetz 1996; Upton 1998, 2008). Secondly, a parallel tradition of thought, which might be termed the ‘decorative arts’ approach, has been closely associated with the graduate programme at the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in Delaware. Including scholars such as Barbara Carson, Jane Nylander, and Arlene Palmer Schwind (Carson 1990; Nylander 1990; Palmer 1993), this tradition has worked more with art historians and historians of the domestic interior, and also with the commercial antiques trade. Thirdly, during the 1990s a group of British archaeologists and anthropologists at University College London (UCL), including Danny Miller, Chris Tilley, and Mike Rowlands, developed, especially through the Journal of Material Culture and a popular graduate programme, an influential model for material culture studies, grounded in anthropology but self consciously interdisciplinary in outlook (Tilley et al. 2006). Fourthly, a much looser, more widespread, and less often explicitly discussed body of material culture work ranges from the physical examination and scientific analysis of objects in laboratories and museums, to the material engagements of archaeological and anthropological fieldwork (including collecting and fieldwork, see Lucas this volume).
Given the currency of the idea of material culture in these fields over the past three decades, it is to be expected that archaeologists and anthropologists might have a clear and distinctive contribution to make to the interdisciplinary study of material things in the social sciences, and especially to a Handbook of Material Culture Studies. This chapter considers the potential nature of that contribution. This is not, however, a straightforward task. The varieties of ‘material culture studies’ that emerged in the 1980s built upon the emergence of ‘material culture’ as an object of enquiry for twentieth-century archaeology and anthropology, which in turn developed from museum-based studies of ‘technology’ and ‘primitive art’ during the late nineteenth century. The idea of ‘material culture studies’ gained a sense of coherence and significance because it was deployed to solve a number of quite specific, longstanding archaeological and anthropological problems. These related to the idea of relationships between the ‘social’/‘cultural’ and the ‘material’. It is in relation to these problems that the field came to acquire during the 1990s a kind of paradigmatic status: falling across, but never quite integrating, archaeological and anthropological thinking. Moreover, it is against the continued relevance of these problems—the idea of relating human and non-human worlds—that the contemporary value of the idea of ‘material culture studies’ must be considered, especially at a time in which there are so many reasons for turning away from the very idea of studying something called ‘material culture’. Central here is the question recently posed by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell: ‘What would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like if it were not about material culture?’ (Henare et al. 2007a: 1).
The contemporary discomfort with the idea of ‘material culture’ in archaeology and anthropology has three dimensions. First is the idea of culture. The past two decades have seen a range of postcolonial, feminist, and historical critiques of the essentialist, static, synchronic, and normative tendencies of the ‘culture concept’, and its place within the discipline’s colonial legacies (Clifford 1988; Abu Lughod 1991a; Daniel 1998; Trouillot 2003). Secondly, there are the longstanding arguments over the utility of a separate category of the ‘material’: whether it is helpful, or even possible, to define some form of ‘culture’ that is not materially enacted (Olsen 2006, 2007; Ingold 2007a). Thirdly—a complement to these tendencies to reduce explanation to the human, or to the non-human—is the nature of the connection, relationship, or boundary between the two halves of this unhyphenated term—‘material culture’ (Miller 2007: 24; see Pinney 2005). Or, of course, the very idea of the existence of such a fundamental boundary in the first place, apart from in certain modernist discourses that beyond their textual accounts could only ever be partially enacted, rather than fully realized (Latour 1993a).
The purpose of this chapter, however, is to excavate the idea of ‘material culture studies’, rather than to bury it (cf. Miller 2005a: 37). Excavation examines the remains of the past in the present and for the present. It proceeds down from the surface, but the archaeological convention is to reverse this sequence in writing: from the past to the present. In the discussion of the history of ideas and theories, a major risk of such a chronological framework is that new ideas are narrated progressively, as paradigm shifts: imagined as gradual steps forward that have constantly improved social scientific knowledge (Darnell 1977: 407; Trigger 2006: 5–17). Noting this risk, nevertheless archaeologists and anthropologists cannot divorce the kind of histories that they write of their own disciplines from the conceptions of time that characterize their own work. As an anthropological archaeologist, my focus here is upon the taphonomic processes of residuality, durability, and sedimentation of the remains of past events. Such processes constantly shape the intellectual landscapes of archaeology and anthropology. In seeking to generate knowledge of the world we encounter these processes, just as we do any chunk of the landscapes in which we live our everyday lives, in the present as a ‘palimpsest’ of layered scratches (Hoskins 1955: 271). Archaeological accounts of historical processes operate by slowly working through, documenting, and making sense of the assemblage, rather than standing back and explaining the whole (Hicks and Beaudry 2006b). By undertaking such an iterative process, the chapter explores how the ideas of ‘material culture’ and ‘material culture studies’ are themselves artefacts of particular disciplinary conceptions of ‘the social’. In conclusion, discussing the current reception of actor-network theory (ANT) in archaeology and anthropology, the chapter explores the limitations of the ideas of the ‘actor-network’ and of ‘material culture’ for archaeology and anthropology, especially in relation to their interdisciplinary contribution.
The process of excavation is, however, a time-consuming one. The reader will forgive, I hope, the length and the pace of this chapter. The purpose of working back over disciplinary histories will, I also hope, become apparent as the chapter proceeds.
Virtually no historical overviews of this very recent episode in archaeological and anthropological disciplinary histories have been previously attempted (but see Buchli 2002a, 2004 and Schlereth 1981 for North America). Nevertheless, anthropological archaeology routinely explores the very recent and contemporary past, rather than waiting until ‘after the dust settles’ (Rathje 2001: 67; Hicks and Beaudry 2006b: 4). The chapter is written in the conviction that such excavation of recent disciplinary histories is not only possible, but is an essential first step in thinking through the contribution of archaeological and anthropological thinking about things beyond these two disciplines. My focus is explicitly upon British debates where the emergence of material culture studies from archaeological and anthropological thought has been particularly strong, and upon Cambridge-, London-, and Oxford-based researchers because of their central role in the emergence of the idea of ‘material culture studies’; however, the international dimensions of the shifting debates over the study of things will be considered along the way. Like all anthropological writing, it is both a situated and a ‘partial’ account in the sense evoked by Marilyn Strathern (2004a): neither total, nor impartial (cf. Haraway 1988).
The main argument of the chapter relates to the distinctive form taken by the ‘cultural turn’ in British archaeology and social anthropology during the 1980s and 1990s. For both fields, the cultural turn was a material turn. An explicit and rhetorical use of the study of ‘the solid domain of material culture’ (Tilley 1990a: 35) was deployed in order to shelter research into humanistic themes such as consumption, identity, experience, and cultural heritage from the accusations of relativism or scholasticism that accompanied the cultural turn during the late twentieth-century science wars between ‘relativism’ and ‘realism’. In other words, whereas in many disciplines the cultural turn was characterized by a shift from objectivity to subjectivity, the situation was more entangled in British archaeology and anthropology, because considerable intellectual effort was focused on the idea of relationships between cultural subjects and cultural objects. The legacy of this epistemological move, which I shall call the ‘Material-Cultural Turn’, has in practice reinforced earlier divisions between archaeological and anthropological thinking—between the ‘material’ and ‘cultural’. I shall argue that these distinctions derived in turn from an earlier set of debates, which had led to the emergence of the idea of ‘material culture’ during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Thus, the chapter seeks to document what remains after this Material-Cultural Turn, and how these remains might be put to work today.
A longer-term perspective, as this chapter suggests, reveals that the contested place of material objects in the study of human cultures or societies has represented a fault-line running throughout interactions between British archaeological and anthropological thought and practice. By working back and forth across this fault-line, rather than down towards any solid bedrock, I shall argue that the idea of distinguishing between the material and the cultural, and of distinguishing relationships between them, was a distinctive artefact of modernist anthropology and archaeology. The challenges for the two disciplines today, therefore, lie neither in sketching out such dualisms, nor in seeking to overcome them, but more fundamentally in shaking off those modernist representational impulses of which the very concept of ‘material culture’ is an effect.
The rest of this chapter falls across five broadly chronological sections, and a concluding discussion. The first section (pp. 30–44) considers the development of the idea of ‘object lessons’ during the late nineteenth century, and traces the subsequent terminological shift from ‘primitive art’ and ‘technology’ to ‘material culture’ during the second quarter of the twentieth century in British anthropology and archaeology. It examines the relationships of this shift with the emergence of structural-functionalist anthropology and (later) the ‘New’ or processual archaeology. I shall argue that, counterintuitively, the idea of ‘material culture’ emerged at precisely the same moment as a very significant hiatus in the anthropological and, to a lesser extent, the archaeological study of objects and collections took place. Thus, the emergence of the idea of ‘material culture’ was from the outset intimately bound up with a radical shift away from the study of things. The legacies of these debates continue to shape discussion of the idea of ‘material culture’ today.
The second section (pp. 44–64) considers how the development of structuralist and semiotic approaches in both fields brought a new attention upon the study of material culture. I shall argue that the emergence from the 1970s of the idea of ‘material culture studies’ developed especially from a desire to reconcile structuralism and semiotics. Tracing the alternative influences upon British archaeology and anthropology, this section a shift from the late nineteenth-century idea of ‘object-lessons’ to the new conception, derived especially from practice theory, of ‘object domains’. Just as practice theory emerged from two principal thinkers—Bourdieu and Giddens—so its reception in British archaeology and anthropology was mapped out through the work of two scholars and their students: Ian Hodder at Cambridge and Daniel Miller at UCL. This body of work used the idea of ‘material culture studies’ to craft the cultural turn in British archaeology and anthropology as a Material-Cultural Turn.
A shorter third section (pp. 64–68) outlines the ‘high period’ of British material culture studies since the early 1990s, outlining the principal themes in this field during that period. It also explores alternative conceptions of disciplinarity in this period, and especially the idea of material culture studies as a kind of postdisciplinary field. The fourth section (pp. 68–79) traces the gradual unfolding of the idea of ‘material culture’ as a fixed and coherent object of enquiry: in debates over the idea of objects as texts, various uses of phenomenology, and the idea of ‘material agency’. Discussing the critique of the idea of ‘materiality’ by Tim Ingold, a fifth section (pp. 79–94) explores how two themes in his recent work—formation and skill—might be reoriented in the light of recent work in historical anthropology and historical archaeology, to account for the positionality of the researcher in material culture studies. Central here is an understanding of both things and theories as simultaneously events and effects: rather than as passive objects, active subjects, or caught up somehow in the spectral webs of networks (Latour 2005a), meshworks (Ingold 2007c), or dialectical relations (Miller 2005a). In this light, a concluding section (pp. 94–98) takes stock of prospects for the idea of material culture studies in anthropological archaeology after the Material-Cultural Turn.
I: From ‘Technology’ to ‘Material Culture’
The idea of studying technology in archaeology and anthropology crystallized during the two disciplines’ ‘Museum Period’ in the last third of the nineteenth century from earlier Western colonial and antiquarian collecting practices (Sturtevant 1969: 622; Stocking 1985: 7). Between c.1865 and c.1900, when firm boundaries between the two disciplines had not yet emerged, material things—especially human ‘technology’—came to be central to attempts to order human cultures across time and space in a scientific manner: in self-conscious contrast with earlier antiquarian collecting practices. However, although it has often been used with reference to nineteenth-century museum anthropology or ethnographic collecting, the term ‘material culture’—the definition of a ‘super-category of objects’ (Buchli 2002a: 3)—was not current in British archaeology and anthropology until the inter-war period of the early twentieth century. This section traces the emergence of evolutionary, diffusionist, and culture-historical models of technology, and the intellectual contexts in which gradual replacement of the term of ‘technology’ with that of ‘material culture’ took place, especially as part of the critique presented by structural-functionalist and early processualist approaches between the 1920s and 1950s.
Evolutionary, diffusionist, and culture-historical studies of
During the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘Three Age’ system, in which the technological use of different materials (stone, bronze, iron) defined changing time periods of Old World prehistory, gave structure to the earliest integrative accounts of European prehistory (Worsaae 1849; Lubbock 1865). During the 1870s and 1880s ideas of artefact typology (the analysis of archaeological and ethnographic objects according to type) emerged. These new schemes came to be used as the basis for new progressivist schemes of technological change, most famously in Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers’ account of ‘the evolution of culture’, which presented a gradualist, linear model of cultural change (Pitt Rivers 1875) in which, unlike Henry Lewis Morgan’s (1877) similar contemporary scheme of social evolution, material things were central. The application of evolutionary thinking to human technologies such as that exemplified by Pitt Rivers’ thinking was paralleled by Marx’s slightly earlier suggestion about studying ‘the history of human technology’, highlighted by Tim Ingold, in Capital:
‘Darwin has aroused our interest in the history of natural technology, that is to say in the origin of the organs of plants and animals as productive instruments utilised for the life purposes of those creatures. Does not the history of the origin of the production of men in society, the organs which form the material basis of every kind of social organisation, deserve equal attention? Since, as Vico says, the essence of the distinction between human history and natural history is that the former is the work of man and the latter is not, would not the history of human technology be easier to write than the history of natural technology?’ Marx (1930 : 392–393, footnote 2; quoted by Ingold 2000a: 362)
As a classificatory project, Pitt Rivers’ scheme was tangibly realized in the organization of his first museum collection. Opened in 1884, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University was originally organized by both evolutionary and typological principles (Pitt Rivers 1891), and was constructed as an extension to the University’s Museum of Natural History (Gosden and Larson 2007). The museum made a connection between human technology and Edward Tylor’s notion of ‘culture’, as set out in his book Primitive Culture (1871). Such thinking was expanded in Oxford by Henry Balfour in his study of The Evolution of Decorative Art (Balfour 1893) and in Cambridge by Alfred Cort Haddon in his Evolution in Art (1895), for both of whom the idea of the development of artefact sequences or ‘series’ over time, rather than a rigid theory of evolutionary change as we might understand it today, was important (Morphy and Perkins 2006a: 5).
The publication in 1896 of the English translation of Friedrich Ratzel’s The History of Mankind (the German edition of which had been published in 1885–1888) was an important milestone in the use of ethnographic and archaeological collections to study human cultures. Echoing earlier developments in geology, and then evolutionary natural history, Ratzel argued that such studies could go beyond written histories:
‘We can conceive a universal history of civilization, which should assume a point of view commanding the whole earth, in the sense of surveying the history of the extension of civilization throughout mankind . . . At no distant future, no one will write a history of the world without touching upon those peoples which have not hitherto been regarded as possessing a history because they have left no records written or graven in stone. History consists of action; and how unimportant beside this is the question of writing or not writing, how wholly immaterial, beside the facts of doing and making, is the word that describes them’. (Ratzel 1896: 5)
The introduction by Tylor to Ratzel’s very richly illustrated volume—containing some 1,160 illustrations—captured the confidence of this late nineteenth-century conception of the study of artefacts. Describing the richness of these illustrations, Tylor argued that they
‘are no mere book-decorations, but a most important part of the apparatus for realizing civilisation in its successive stages. They offer, in a way which no verbal description can attain to, an introduction and guide to the use of museum collections on which the Science of Man comes more and more to depend in working out the theory of human development. Works which combine the material presentation of culture with the best descriptions by observant travellers, promote the most great object of displaying mankind as related together in Nature through its very variation’. Tylor (1896: v)
Tylor contrasted biological and linguistic approaches to ‘the classification of peoples’ with the ‘fuller though less technical treatment of the culture-side of human life’: ‘the material arts of war, subsistence, pleasure, the stages of knowledge, morals, religion, may be so brought to view that a compendium of them, as found among the ruder peoples, may serve not only as a lesson-book for the learner, but as a reference-book for the learned’ (Tylor 1896: vi). The centrality of the classification of technological objects (e.g. Haddon 1900), combined with the curator’s sense of the distinctive knowledge that can emerge from the study of material things, was captured in Tylor’s coining of his famous phrase ‘object-lessons’:
‘In our time there has come to the front a special study of human life through such object lessons as are furnished by the specimens in museums. These things used to be little more than curiosities belonging to the life of barbarous tribes, itself beginning to be recognised as curious and never suspected as being instructive. Nowadays it is better understood that they are material for the student “looking before and after”.’ Tylor (1896: vi, my emphasis)
Tylor’s fin-de-siècle argument about ‘looking before and after’ represented a remarkably confident statement of the potential of the curation and study of objects: as not only documenting the past or understanding the present, but also envisioning the future: ‘not only as interpreting the past history of mankind, but as even laying down the first stages of curves of movement which will describe and affect the courses of future opinions and institutions’ (Tylor 1896: xi).
In the study of European prehistory, the idea of ‘seriation’ (the identification of a series or sequence through typological analysis) was during the 1880s and 1890s combined with a diffusionist approach to cultural change by Oscar Montelius, based at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm (Montelius 1903). Such work inspired what came to be known as ‘culture-historical archaeology’, providing very different accounts from earlier evolutionary studies of technological change that now led to the first overall accounts of the sequence of Old World prehistory by archaeologists such as John Myres (1911) and Gordon Childe (1925).
These new culture-historical accounts of the prehistoric past were, however, associated especially with the identification of particular artefactual types with particular normative ethnic or cultural groups, in order to trace their migration or diffusion through detailed typological study. They also focused upon the socially determining role of technology: for example, in Childe’s combination of Marxist notions of technology and production with a distinctive use of the idea of ‘revolution’ to underline the significance of the emergence of metallurgy in the long-term developments of European prehistory (Sherratt 1989: 179).
However, such confidence in the study of technology did not continue in British anthropology. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of radical new forms of integrative, book-length writing in British archaeology and anthropology. These were both associated with the professionalization of the disciplines as academic subjects, new models of fieldwork, and new distinctions between ethnographic and archaeological knowledge. These distinctions were centred to a large extent on the place of the study of technology. The changing conceptions of ‘technology’ and ‘material culture’ are considered in the next section.
Social anthropology or material culture
In the early twentieth century a fundamental change in ethnographic field practices, which had over the previous two centuries shifted through ‘the voyage [to] the collection of curios [to] the field trip’ (Defert 1982: 12), formed a new horizon in the anthropological study of artefacts. Mainstream British anthropological interests shifted from museums and objects (especially technology and ‘primitive’ art) to extended, direct contact through fieldwork with living societies, unmediated by collections (Miller 1987: 111). This change is generally described as a shift to ‘functionalist’ and gradually, from the 1940s, ‘structural-functionalist’ approaches. The focus of field activity by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown became the generation of field notes, based on participant observation, rather than collections of objects for museum curation. Fieldwork was undertaken for longer periods of time, and led to the production of a new written form: the ethnographic monograph. Evolutionary schemes for studying material culture were rejected as part of what developed into a broader critique of the writing of ‘conjectural history’ of social institutions (Radcliffe-Brown 1941: 1).
Thus in Radcliffe-Brown’s 1922 monograph on The Andaman Islanders, ‘technology’ was simply listed in the appendix (Tilley 2006a: 2). Radcliffe-Brown did study and collect objects, but he wrote about them only as evidence of ‘racial’ and cultural history, rather than of the contemporary society encountered by the ethnographer. The presence of such appendices is instructive: since the functionalism as set out by Malinowski understood each element of culture, such as institutions or practices, to be understood as performing a function, the study of objects could still be accommodated. Increasingly, however, structural-functionalism sought to relate the functions of the phenomena encountered by the ethnographer purely to social structure. Structural-functionalist anthropology developed as a comparative sociology, on a Durkheimian model. It was integrative like the new culture-historical archaeologies, but was distinct in its frustration with the technological focus of a previous generation of museums—rather than field-based researchers.
Thus, Malinowski famously complained that:
‘As a sociologist, I have always had a certain amount of impatience with the purely technological enthusiasms of the museum ethnologist. In a way I do not want to move one inch from my intransigent position that the study of technology alone is . . . scientifically sterile. At the same time, I have come to realise that technology is indispensable as a means of approach to economic and sociological activities and to what might be called native science.’ Malinowski (1935: 460)
The accommodation of objects within such writing was by understanding their role in social institutions: most influentially in the study of exchange in Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). This engendered a gradual dematerialization of social anthropology, which was closely bound up with a move away from concerns with historical process, towards the study of ‘social facts’. In Britain, this gradual rise of a Durkheimian model for social anthropology witnessed a change in terminology, from ‘technology’ to a new compound term: ‘material culture’. This change in the vocabulary of British anthropology between the 1920s and 1940s was very little discussed at the time.
In many ways, the shift from ‘technology’ to ‘material culture’ was a desirable one for both museum- and fieldwork-focused anthropologists. On the one hand, for social anthropologists working in a structural-functionalist model the idea of museum-based anthropology as studying ‘material culture’ allowed a separation off of collections, as a legacy of earlier times, from the emerging modern field of British social anthropology. In this respect, the terminological shift from ‘technology’ to ‘material culture’ was comparable with a broader shift in modes of ‘objectivity’ identified by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (1992, 2007), from the ‘mechanical objectivity’ of the late nineteenth century to the ‘trained judgement’ of the twentieth century. Such a move distinguished a modernist social anthropology from earlier technological determinism, such as that found in one of the earliest volumes to use the term ‘material culture’: Leonard Hobhouse, Gerald Wheeler, and Morris Ginsburg’s combination of evolutionary and early functionalist approaches with statistical analysis to examine TheMaterial Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples, which focused on how ‘material culture, the control of man over nature in the arts of life’ might ‘roughly, but no more than roughly, reflect the general level of intellectual attainment’ in the society in question (Hobhouse et al. 1915: 6; Penniman 1965: 133n1).
On the other hand, the new term ‘material culture’ was equally attractive to museum-based anthropologists wishing to underline that their collections were more than simply assemblages of objects—the legacy of a previous intellectual tradition—and to revive Tylor’s conception of culture in order to do so. In this view, it provided a curatorial refuge from that other compound term of the period, ‘structural-functionalism’. Thus, J. H. Hutton writing in 1944 on the theme of ‘The Place of Material Culture in the Study of Anthropology’ expressed his ‘dissent most emphatically from the functionalist point of view that the study of “material culture” is of value only, or even primarily, as an approach to the study of economic and social activity’ (Hutton 1944: 3). As Mike Rowlands has put it, the idea of material culture represented a place of retreat for museum anthropology during the mid-twentieth century:
‘Material culture in an anthropological context is scarcely ever about artefacts per se. The term connotes instead the ambivalent feelings that anthropologists have had towards their evolutionist and diffusionist origins and towards museum studies, reflecting also their concern that the subject, in an age of specialization, should still aspire to be a totalizing and integrative approach to the study of man. The term is therefore metaphorical rather than sub-disciplinary and survived as a conceptual category to allow certain kinds of study to be practised that would not fit any of the canons established during the hegemony of British social anthropology in the inter-war years’. (Rowlands 1983: 15)
The creation of the new category of ‘material culture’ was thus closely bound up with the emergence of British social anthropology, which increasingly comprehended object-based research as ‘clearly subordinated to sociology’, and defined itself as fundamentally distinct from archaeology (Stocking 2001: 187, 192–193).
British anthropology was concerned with difference in the contemporary worldacross space (between Western and non-Western situations), rather than withchange over time (Rowlands 2004: 474). In a shift often lamented by the increasingly peripheral voices of museum anthropologists (Sturtevant 1969; Reynolds 1983; see Stocking 1985: 9), British social anthropology sought to move its subject matter past objects, to people.
New archaeology and material culture
The implications for archaeology of this shift away from objects in structural-functionalist social anthropology were at first felt less sharply in Britain than in North America. But in the United States similar ideas of lifting the archaeology out of purely descriptive and antiquarian accounts of the past came to be developed by two key thinkers: Walter Taylor (in the 1940s) and Lewis Binford (from the 1960s). Both Taylor and Binford presented critiques of culture-historical archaeology as privileging the study of typology above that of human behaviour in the past, in which new approaches to the study of archaeological material culture were set out. The work of these two archaeologists formed an important context for the reception of structural-functionalism, especially in relation to its implications for the study of ‘material culture’, in British archaeology during the 1950s and 1960s.
Walter Taylor’s A Study of Archaeology (1948), was based on a Ph.D. written at Harvard between 1938 and 1942. It was strongly influenced by the emerging cultural-ecological models of Clyde Kluckhohn and Julian Steward, and especially by Talcott Parsons’ (1937) vision of structural-functionalist sociology as a science of human action. Taylor presented a ‘conjunctive approach’, which foregrounded archaeological methods to argue that archaeological research leads not to ‘reconstructions’ but active, scientific ‘constructions’ of the past (Taylor 1948: 35–36): it had
as its primary goal the elucidation of cultural conjunctives, the associations and relationships, the ‘affinities’, within the manifestation under investigation. It aims at drawing the completest possible picture of past human life in terms of human and geographic environment. It is chiefly interested in the relation of item to item, trait to trait, complex to complex . . . within the culture-unit represented and only subsequently in the taxonomic relation of these phenomena to similar ones outside of it (Taylor 1948: 95–96; original emphasis).
The distinctive identity of archaeology as a discipline was a crucial element of Taylor’s argument: ‘Archaeology is neither history or anthropology. As an autonomous discipline it consists of a method and a set of specialized techniques for the gathering or “production” of cultural information’ (Taylor 1948: 44). Thus, Taylor criticized Alfred Kidder’s study of archaeological objects in his study of The Artifacts of Pecos (1932):
'there is neither any provenience given for the vast majority of artifacts, nor any consistent correlation of these specimens with the ceramic periods. The description of the artefacts seems to be for its own sake and for the sake of comparative study on a purely descriptive level with similar artefacts from other sites. It may well be asked whether the meaning of the artefacts for the culture of Pecos is thought to lie in their form and classification of form, or whether it lies in their relations to one another and to the broad cultural and natural environment of Pecos'. (Taylor 1948: 48)
While Taylor’s study concluded with a lengthy ‘Outline of Procedures for the Conjunctive Approach’, which argued that ‘an archaeological find is only as good as the notes upon it’ (Taylor 1948: 154), the outspoken attacks in A Study of Archaeology upon many of the most senior figures in American archaeology at the time severely limited its impact for a generation (Leone 1972): a fact later of considerable regret to Taylor himself (Taylor 1972; Maca et al. 2009).
During the 1960s Lewis Binford developed the line of thought begun by Taylor into a more direct critique of culture-historical archaeology. Binford’s work inspired the development of ‘processual’ or ‘New’ archaeology during the 1970s. But where Taylor had argued for a strong archaeological disciplinarity, Binford’s commitment (which he shared with Taylor) to a focus on behaviour rather than typology led him instead to define ‘Archaeology as Anthropology’: repeating Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips’ contention that ‘archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing’ (Willey and Phillips 1958: 2; Binford 1962: 217), and extending Leslie White’s neo-cultural evolutionary argument that ‘culture is the extra-somatic means of adaptation for the human organism’ to ‘material culture’ as an ‘extrasomatic means of adaptation’ (White 1959: 8; Binford 1962: 217–218). Binford distinguished between ‘three major functional sub-classes of material culture’: technomic (‘those artifacts having their primary functional context in coping directly with the physical environment’, socio-technic (‘the extra-somatic means of articulating individuals one with an-other into cohesive groups capable of efficiently maintaining themselves and of manipulating the technology’, such as ‘a king’s crown’), and ideo-technic (‘items which signify and symbolize the ideological rationalizations for the social system and further provide the symbolic milieu in which individuals are enculturated’, such as ‘figures of deities’) (Binford 1962: 217, 219–220). He argued that such distinctions would allow archaeologists to develop distinctive theoretical perspectives on the significance of certain material items in social life, and to distinguish alternative methods for the study of past environmental adaptation, social relations, and ideas or beliefs through material culture:
'We should not equate ‘material culture’ with technology. Similarly we should not seek explanations for observed differences and similarities in ‘material culture’ within a single interpretative frame of reference. It has often been suggested that we cannot dig up a social system or ideology. Granted we cannot excavate a kinship terminology or a philosophy, but we can and do excavate the material items which functioned together with these more behavioral elements within the appropriate cultural sub-systems. The formal structure of artifact assemblages together with the between element contextual relationships should and do present a systematic and understandable picture of the total extinct cultural system'. (Binford 1962: 218–219)
Thus, Binford argued that archaeological material culture should be understood as evidence of human behaviour and adaptation, operating in different cultural registers from the practical to the social to the ideational, rather than more general reflections of particular culture-historical traits. He developed this positivist view through the use of ethnographic analogy and a method of making general statements about the systematic relationships between human behaviour and material culture, which he termed ‘middle range theory’ (Binford 1983). In his classic critique of culture-historical archaeology, Binford argued that an analysis of the stone tools associated with the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, in which François Bordes suggested that difference in tools represented could be understood as different traditions that he labelled ‘Mousterian’, ‘Acheulian’, etc., should instead be understood as the evidence of different behavioural adaptations rather than different cultural groups (Binford 1973; Bordes 1973). The materialism of the New Archaeology drew from the contrasting ecological perspectives of Julian Steward and the technological focus of Leslie White: both of which tended, under the banner of neo-evolutionism, towards a materialist determinism for social structure (Trigger 1984: 279).
In Britain, a similar direction to that of the Americanist New Archaeology had begun to be explored by Graham Clark at Cambridge. Clark’s transitional approach, which has been described as ‘functional-processual’ (Trigger 2006), made use of ‘systems’ approaches and an emphasis upon ecological adaptation in the reconstruction of past societies, as set out in his Archaeology and Society (1939). However, the reception of structural-functionalist social anthropology among British archaeologists did not lead in the same way to the development of the positivist scientific models that came to characterize the Americanist processual archaeology. This was for two principal reasons: contemporary debates in British social anthropology about historical change, and the early response to Walter Taylor’s arguments from the perspectives of British culture-historical archaeology. In British social anthropology, the shift in the structural-functionalist anthropology away from interests in change over time, which had accompanied its shift from earlier evolutionary and diffusionist approaches, came to be critiqued. A seminal contribution to this critique was Evans-Pritchard’sMarrett Lecture of 1950,which described the anthropology of Malinowski and (by implication) Radcliffe-Brown as characterized by an ‘insistence that a society can be understood satisfactorily without reference to its past’ (Evans-Pritchard 1950: 120). Evans-Pritchard suggested that social anthropologists write ‘cross-sections of history, integrative descriptive accounts of primitive peoples at a moment of time’, arguing that anthropology should be located within the humanities rather than the sciences (Evans-Pritchard 1950: 122, 123–124).
Meanwhile, in archaeology the transatlantic reception of Walter Taylor’s arguments was framed by Christopher Hawkes’ paper ‘Archaeological method and theory: a view from the Old World’, written during a stay in the United States in 1953–4. Hawkes addressed ‘Taylor’s claim that if archeology limits itself to a mere external chronicling of material culture traits, it will be stopping short of its proper anthropological objective, and will be simply compiling statistics when it ought to be revealing culture’ (Hawkes 1954: 156). Focusing upon the study of a period for which documentary sources are not available (later European prehistory), Hawkes described the archaeological process of inductive reasoning, ‘from comparison and analysis of observed phenomena to the human activity that once produced them’. Such reasoning, Hawkes argued, involved four levels of increasingly difficult ‘inferences’: from understanding the ‘techniques’ producing such phenomena (the most straightforward) to information about ‘subsistence-economics’, ‘social/political institutions’, and finally ‘religious institutions and spiritual life’. Moving from inference to narrative, Hawkes echoed Evans-Pritchard in his criticism of the ahistorical approach of structural-functionalism as ‘scientifically indefensible’, but also argued for the importance of acknowledging human movements and diffusion in the past (Hawkes ibid). These last themes had been important for the culture-historical archaeology of Childe and others (Hawkes 1954: 161–165), but shaped Graham Clark’s later use of scientific dating techniques to generate new accounts of World Prehistory (Clark 1961).
Hawkes’ model of archaeological inference from material remains to technological, economic, political and then ideational dimensions of past societies was rightly critiqued by the ‘contextual archaeology’ of the 1980s as grounded on an a priori distinction between technological and symbolic objects (see below). But for our present purposes it is sufficient to note that Hawkes’ reception of Taylor’s arguments led him to two positions. First, he foregrounded archaeological methodology, and especially its engagement with the material remains of the past, as a central problem: a position quite possibly inspired by his early professional experiences as Assistant, and then Assistant Keeper, at the British Museum (1928– 1946). At the same time, Hawkes retained earlier geographical and historical interests that contrasted with synchronic structural-functionalist approaches: echoing Evans-Pritchard in his criticism of the ahistorical approach of structural-functionalism as ‘scientifically indefensible’ (Hawkes 1954: 163).
While at Oxford the arguments of Hawkes (from archaeology) and Evans- Pritchard (from social anthropology) both resisted the model of social structure presented by structural-functionalism, at Cambridge from the late 1960s the Binfordian model of the New Archaeology was taken up and reworked by David Clarke. In contrast with Binford’s approach, Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology (1968) strongly restated Taylor’s commitment to archaeology as a discipline distinct from both history and social anthropology. Clarke developed an account of how archaeological knowledge develops from archaeological methods as applied to archaeological materials. Central to his model was a concern about a division of disciplinary labour between the material practices of fieldwork or lab-based research and the scholarly writing of integrative accounts of the past:
‘There is currently a tendency to take the term prehistorian as meaning “a writer of history covering periods without written records”, with the implication that the ‘prehistorian’ is an armchair synthesiser of the analytical work of the ‘archaeologist’. Here the term archaeologist is warped to mean the unintelligent ‘excavator’ or the narrow-minded ‘specialist’—the term prehistorian thus acquiring a rosy flush of dilettante value at the expense of the devalued archaeologist. The danger of historical narrative as a vehicle for archaeological results is that it pleases by virtue of its smooth coverage and apparent finality, whilst the data on which it is based are never comprehensive . . . Archaeological data are not historical data and consequently archaeology is not history. The view taken in this work is that archaeology is archaeology is archaeology (with apologies to Gertrude Stein) (Clarke 1968: 11).
In presenting a vision of archaeology as ‘a discipline in its own right’—‘concerned with the recovery, systematic description and study of material culture in the past’ (1968: 12)—Clarke sought to move forward the line of enquiry begun by Taylor by calling not only for a shift fromthe ‘common sense’ description of material culture to a disciplinary ‘self-consciousness’, but further to the development of a distinctive body of archaeological theory that would shift the field from a ‘self-consciousness’ of materials and methods to ‘critical self-consciousness’. Clarke (1973) described this process as archaeology’s ‘loss of innocence’.With reference to the radical revisions of prehistoric chronologies that resulted from the scientific use of radiocarbon dating (Renfrew 1973a), Clarke argued for the contingency of archaeological knowledge upon materially-situated scientific practice, suggesting that ‘a new environment develops new materials and new methods with new consequences, which demand new philosophies, new solutions and new perspectives’ (Clarke 1973: 8–9). The continuing significance of these arguments for archaeological conceptions of material culture and fieldwork will be seen towards the end of this chapter.
This section has traced the layered sequence through which the sociological model of British anthropology that emerged during the early twentieth century led to a shift in terminology from ‘technology’ through the invention of the idea of ‘material culture’. This change was a central part of a division of disciplinary labour (and disciplinary influence) between museum and the collection on one hand, and the field site and the ethnographic monograph on the other. Thus, the idea of ‘material culture’ emerged at precisely the moment in anthropology’s history in which a particular focus upon social structure as the object of ethnographic enquiry ‘effectively banned artifact study to the comparative isolation of the anthropological museum and relegated its practitioners to a peripheral position within the discipline’ (van Beek 1989: 91). However, the influence of these sociological approaches upon archaeology was mitigated by a continued focus upon the engagement with both artefacts and sites or landscapes in the study of the past. Unlike the positivist models that developed in the work of Binford and his students in the United States, the reception of the New Archaeology and the development of ‘systems’ approaches in the UK built, especially through the work of David Clarke, on Taylor’s focus upon the development of archaeological knowledge from the rigorous application of archaeological methods: methods that involved ‘inference’ as well as excavation.
The sociological and humanistic critique of the excessively descriptive focus of previous materially-focused approaches was thus mediated in Clarke’s work by an awareness of the active role of the archaeologist and the contingent nature of our knowledge of the past. In this sense, the New Archaeology in Britain held much in common not only with the historical focus of Evans-Pritchard, but also with the Manchester School’s call for social anthropology to be grounded in detailed case studies (e.g. Gluckman 1961). This sense of importance of fieldwork in which contingent, material conditions were implicated did not, however, characterize the manner in which the new ideas of structuralism, semiotics, and practice theory were received during the 1970s and early 1980s in British archaeology and anthropology. This Material-Cultural Turn is considered in Section II of this chapter.
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