The New Archaeology

Patrick Wormald

  • A Short History of Archaeology by Glyn Daniel
    Thames and Hudson, 232 pp, £9.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 500 02101 5
  • A Social History of Archaeology by Kenneth Hudson
    Macmillan, 197 pp, £20.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 333 25679 4
  • Rites of the Gods by Aubrey Burl
    Dent, 258 pp, £12.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 460 04313 7

Glyn Daniel is the sort of scholar for whom the word ‘doyen’ might have been invented – what could be more archetypally doyenish than to be honoured, as Professor Daniel has lately been, with a festschrift prefaced by the Prince of Wales? A Short History of Archaeology is the 100th volume in the Thames and Hudson ‘Ancient Peoples and Places’ series which he has edited since its inception only 25 years ago – a notable striking-rate by any standards. It is at least his fourth book on the subject, and amounts essentially to a shortened and illustrated version of his A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology, published in 1975. It blends a roll-call of archaeology’s great heroes and great moments with a panoramic survey of what he summarises at the end as its ‘Great Themes’. The familiar great names are there, of course, as well as some that are less familiar, though no less important: Isaac de la Peyrère, whose argument of 1655 that flints were the work of primitive human beings got him into serious trouble with the Inquisition; Michele Mercati, who reached the same correct conclusion in the 16th century, though his case was not published until the 18th; Thomsen Jefferson, famous enough in other contexts, but also the organiser of ‘the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology’ (in Wheeler’s words); J.J.A. Worssae, who proved Thomsen’s three-age system (stone, bronze, iron) by excavation in the field; Lewis Morgan, whose classification of human development into seven ‘ethnic periods’ from ‘lower savagery’ (up to the discovery of fire) to ‘civilisation’ (from the alphabet onwards) strongly influenced Engels; and, at the other extreme, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who graduated from being a circus strong man to tomb-robbing in Egypt on a scale which makes Elgin seem respectable; or Augustus Le Plongeon, who pursued his conviction of the link between Near Eastern and Central American civilisations to the point of suggesting that Christ’s last words were Mayan for ‘Now, now, sinking, black ink over my nose.’

In the 19th century, archaeology, which was not then identified with excavation, was, like history, largely the province of the gifted man of leisure (and means). Kenneth Hudson demonstrates this with fascinating analyses of the membership and proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and the London Society of Antiquaries. As he says, the very names of these bodies are significant. No one nowadays would think that Natural History had much to do with Archaeology, while ‘antiquary’ has become something like a term of abuse in most historical and archaeological circles. The change in intellectual climate which this fact reflects was in part the responsibility of what Mr Hudson calls ‘the Middle Eastern Spectaculars’. From Schliemann to Mallowan, archaeologists produced sensational results in the Middle East by shifting enormous quantities of earth, and some of them, notably Woolley, had a gift for writing best-sellers. Interest in archaeology was further stimulated by the splendidly orchestrated publicity surrounding Wheeler’s Maiden Castle dig before the war, and by Wheeler himself, Daniel and latterly Magnus Magnusson on television after it. Archaeology was thus increasingly identified with the special skills of excavation. At the same time, the popularity of the subject led to a burgeoining of university chairs and departments. The result, and this irony is the central theme of Mr Hudson’s book, was that the subject became ever more ‘professional’, beyond the reach of even the most dedicated amateur. Yet the large number of unpaid volunteers, by no means all of them students, who still supply the sweated labour for most archaeological enterprises in Britain, unlike the Continent, testifies to the abiding British interest in archaeology, which the Historical Association, whose meetings rarely pull in the sort of crowd that will attend a lecture on Cadbury or Crete, might well envy. So does the popularity of the metal-detector (paranoiacally hated by the professionals) and the rapid growth of Industrial Archaeology, at first entirely and still substantially an ‘amateur’ field. Mr Hudson was himself a pioneer industrial archaeologist, the first editor of their ‘trade magazine’. It is not difficult to see where his sympathies lie.

Like Professor Daniel’s, Mr Hudson’s book contains a lot of interesting and richly entertaining material. He has found some truly astonishing photographs of the governing-class archaeologists of yesteryear, in hat, tie and jacket (in one case sitting on a deckchair), watching their coolies at work in the trenches. He writes with verve and (often acid) wit, which just occasionally topples over into unfairness. Sir Mortimer Wheeler was a controversial figure, to put it mildly, and it is good to have credit given to his wife, who did most of the day-to-day administration of his digs. But, as Daniel’s account of his activities in India shows, it is really not true that he never undertook another dig after her death in 1936. This occasional snideness apart, the one substantial fault of A Social History of Archaeology is its number of misprints.

Hudson and Glyn Daniel share an anxiety about the present state of archaeology, although different features of its condition disturb them. For Professor Daniel, there is a surprising, even distasteful rudeness about the lunatic fringe, from which, admittedly, archaeology suffers more than most disciplines. Cyrus Gordon’s Before Columbus and von Sertima’s They came before Columbus are ‘breathtakingly impudent and totally unreliable’. Barry Fell’s America BC and Saga America are ‘perhaps the most ridiculous, ludicrous examples of what, alas, flourishes on the wilder shores of archaeology – if we exclude the ignorant ravings of Erich von Däniken’. Von Däniken is shortly afterwards described as a ‘purveyor of more dangerous nonsense about ancient man than anyone’. One can understand that it is irritating to the professional archaeologist who, like Professor Daniel, has worked long and hard at the often painfully laborious reconstruction of remote and undocumented societies to have dei ex machina invoked (literally) by von Däniken; and irritation is no doubt compounded by the fact that von Däniken is crying about their criticisms all the way to the bank. Even so, one may wonder whether the word ‘dangerous’ is really appropriate! Professor Daniel earlier, and much more justifiably, applies it to the archaeological dimension which Chamberlain and Kossinna gave to the idea of the German master-race. It is curious that neither Professor Daniel nor Mr Hudson has anything to say about the amateurs and loonies who have made such hay at Stonehenge in recent years. Is this, in Professor Daniel’s case, because the astronomical interpretation of this and other megalithic sites, which started by looking like outright lunacy, now seems rather more respectable?

The problem is posed in acute form by Aubrey Burl’s new book. Mr Burl is neither an amateur nor a loony: he is an acknowledged expert on stone circles. Here he turns to the social and religious realities that may lie behind the abundant evidence of strange and sinister ritual in prehistoric British burials. One imagines that Professor Daniel, author of standard works on chamber tombs and megaliths, and a scholar who claims to share Professor Pigott’s view that ‘all the prehistorian can really perceive is the history of technology,’ will have some misgivings about this. His anxiety is unlikely to be diminished by finding The Golden Bough and Johnson’s Byways in British Prehistory in Mr Burl’s bibliography. Mr Burl’s intellectual method is to take the archaeological evidence of ritual, where it sometimes seems that anything which is not entirely circular is a phallus and anything which is is a mother-goddess, and to juxtapose it with anthropological studies of near-contemporary Red Indians, and with folk memories in Britain, which he argues, sometimes quite forcefully, to have very ancient roots. The results can strike a somewhat farcical note: ‘this was still a time of spirits’; ‘this was a time when the cult of ancestors was growing’; ‘these were strange times, years of change in which the climate was worsening.’ Yet Mr Burl’s objectives command respect. Curiosity can never be stilled about the mentality of those who gave us Stonehenge, however much we are told that we can know only about their technology. It is possible, though these are very deep waters indeed, that the higher levels of the human mind have evolved along parallel lines in different parts of the world, just as technology has, and, to some extent, political and social organisation. One could wish that Mr Burl had made his argument a little more scientific: that he had argued from the archaeological evidence to its possible interpretation in terms of anthropological parallels, rather than vice versa. All the same, the questions needed asking, and if Professor Daniel and his school wish to see them more satisfactorily answered, they could do worse than to ask them themselves.

Professor Daniel is also unhappy about what is called the ‘New Archaeology’. It is hard for an outsider to grasp exactly what the New Archaeology is, not least because it is often expounded in language of Stygian opacity. In a sense, it springs from the revolutionary impact of Carbon-14 dating. This and other undoubtedly scientific techniques tempted some post-war archaeologists to redefine their subject as a science, with a scientific method (called ‘hypothetico-deductive’) and scientific goals (the formulation of ‘laws of cultural dynamics’). Carbon-I4 settled for ever the traditional archaeological debate about whether civilisation was diffused from a single source (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Germany etc) or evolved independently in different parts of the world. Few archaeologists ever took seriously the view that Egypt colonised America: but it was a real shock to discover that European metallurgy and megaliths were older than their Near Eastern counterparts. Attention was thus focused on patterns of social and cultural development in prehistoric societies over long periods of time. The ‘invasion hypothesis’, which ascribed almost every significant change in British prehistory to new arrivals from overseas, was discredited in a seminal article by Graham Clark. But the New Archaeology flourished especially in America, where, as Professor Daniel says, the archaeological record was somewhat lacking in the spectacular monuments and artefacts that had lured Old World archaeologists away from continuous social evolution and encouraged them to think in more catastrophic terms; and where (as in Cambridge) archaeology is taught alongside anthropology. The New Archaeology can, in fact, be understood as an anthropologist’s rather than a historian’s archaeology. The idea, apparently, is that by comprehensive and objective excavation of a site selected for its typical, rather than exceptional, features, one may be able to reconstruct ‘everyday life in prehistory’, and so formulate general principles about the evolution of human society.

The New Archaeology has been attacked mainly for its arcane terminology: as one critic put it, ‘archaeologists of all people ought to call a spade a spade’ Professor Daniel’s point is that it’s not all that new: ‘Archaeologists have always been talking about evolutionary change and cultural process. The American archaeologists of this cult of the 1960s seem unaware of the history of archaeology and perhaps that is why this book was worth writing.’ So much he does indeed prove, although the Anglo-Saxon historian, at any rate, cannot but be aware of a shift in archaeological emphasis towards the reconstruction of settlement economies, and away from the identification of particular groups of invaders by carefully correlating their artefacts with those of their cousins overseas. What cannot be denied is that, as a rule, archaeologists have not until recently sought to establish their discipline as a science, or to formulate ‘laws of cultural dynamics’, and here a sisterly warning from history is perhaps in order. In the first place, it does not seem likely that archaeologists will be any more successful than historians in drawing up laws of human behaviour. The historian’s evidence is admittedly finite: the Anglo-Saxon historian can be confident that he will not be confronted with some earthshaking new piece of historical evidence, and he must reconcile himself to the fact that there is much that he will never know. The archaeologist’s problem is that the reverse applies to him. Since it will never be possible to excavate every square inch of the world, he will never know everything, and yet he might at any moment be surprised. For the archaeologist, as for the historian, it is simply not possible to predicate fixed patterns of human behaviour on such evidence, even if one grants that human behaviour as opposed to human biology is to any real extent predictable. Archaeology can disprove; it cannot prove. Secondly, as Jacquetta Hawkes has observed, too much emphasis on the scientific element in archaeology (though this element undoubtedly exists) is liable to lead to a lack of emphasis on the artistic side. Archaeology must communicate or die. It is even more dependent on the good will, and therefore the funds, of its public than history is: not only must academics be paid, but digs must be financed. The esoteric terminology of so much New Archaeology is an all too ominous warning of what the price of scientific archaeology might be.

Mr Hudson’s anxiety is the growing professionalism of archaeology. He has a lot of time for the leisured amateurs of Victorian days and observes that, while archaeology has now been made popular, it is still insufficiently popularised. He pokes hilarious fun at a prim little set of instructions for volunteer diggers drawn up by the Council for British Archaeology: ‘It cannot be stressed too strongly that excavations are not organised vacations ... Directors want their workers to enjoy themselves, and they usually do, but this is entirely secondary to the research work ... If you are simply looking for a holiday, think twice before applying.’ Mr Hudson’s sympathies are all with the ‘little men’, who resent being patronised and pushed around by professional bigwigs. He is even, heresy of heresies, quite sympathetic to metal-detectors. Such enormities will make few converts in the Council for British Archaeology.

Should they? It is possible to have some sympathy for what the professionals are trying to do. It has often, and truthfully, been said that all excavation is destruction. A charter may be misinterpreted by a historian, but there will always be another historian to put him right. If an archaeological site is raided by metal-detectors for its ‘treasures’, its contents may never be known, and their precious context, which is archaeologically more important than the contents themselves, will be lost. Metal-detection must be part of a professionally-directed excavation. Again, if it is true that excavation is not the whole of archaeology, the importance of appreciating an artefact’s context means that it is still a pretty fundamental part of it. As Leslie Alcock has written, ‘the recognition of material genuinely associated together in the ground is central to all archaeological knowledge ... Without [it] Archaeology cannot ... proceed beyond the pointless exercise of describing objects in terms of themselves.’ The polymathic collectors who founded archaeology may well be the object of modern admiration, but they are also a luxury which the subject can no longer afford.