Archaeology is Rubbish

Richard Fortey

  • After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen
    Weidenfeld, 622 pp, £25.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 297 64318 5

An excavation made in 1975, behind the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, revealed the body of a tiny child laid to rest in the embrace of a swan’s wing. Next to the skeleton was the grave of the child’s young mother, dead in childbirth, her remains decorated with snail-shell beads and pendants; her face had been dusted with red ochre, the better to seem alive. Mother and child had been interred around 4800 BC. It hardly requires the forensic eye of an archaeologist to interpret the grief felt by those who laid the bodies to rest, and the hope perhaps that the swan would carry the infant boy to a place where death was irrelevant. In such a site, the trowels and inventories of the investigating scientist are deployed to allow us to engage directly with people long passed from the Earth.

Approximately twenty thousand years have passed since the Last Glacial Maximum; up to three-quarters of that time was required for the human race to colonise virtually the whole planet. The complex societies we like to term ‘civilised’ had their roots in a thousand villages dispersed around deserts, or on the banks of streams, or along shores littered with shell middens. Hunters and gatherers settled into farming not once but several times. They domesticated the animals they had formerly pursued, unconsciously selected crops they had once cut in season, until the grains that had provided a meagre diet over several months tended to ripen together in profusion – or ‘wait for the harvester’, as Steven Mithen says. Crop and cropper were locked in the cycle of the seasons that every farmer still learns from his father and grandfather. The fisherman perfected his harpoons, learned to trade sea shells in exchange for the best obsidian. The network of commerce grew, and with it the possibility of wealth. All this within what was long ago called the Stone Age: a period now much more precisely calibrated thanks to carbon dating and the refinements of field archaeology.

The evidence for the transformation of humans from just another species to masters and despoilers of all they see comes from what our ancestors threw away or built into the foundations of their new villages. Archaeology is rubbish. The scientist who probes these piles of waste is rather like one of those sad souls who riffle through the trash bins of the rich and famous to discover the secrets of people they will never meet. The tiniest fragment can be crucial; the discovery of the domestication of cotton literally hung on a single thread. No bog is too fetid to dig, no material beneath contempt. There are even those who tease out the husks of seeds washed from the remains of ancient faeces so as to determine what our ancestors had for breakfast. Only deliberate burial – or occasionally a natural disaster – faithfully preserves a morsel of a whole culture, like that Danish mother and child. For the rest, it is mostly inference built on scraps, shards, post holes, pollen analysis, cave floors and the occasional sunken chamber. It’s a laborious business: more than twenty years elapsed between the discovery of extensive stone artefacts in the Nile Valley, north of Aswan, and the appearance in print of the definitive publication on yet another fragment of human prehistory. The story of the discoveries deriving from the Palaeolithic to Neolithic periods is one of infinite pains taken by unusually patient men and women, spread over decades.

Steven Mithen has set himself the task of laying out the whole spectrum of archaeological evidence for Stone Age societies around the world, site by site: an enormous project. He proceeds from western Asia to Europe, and in doing so shows that the British site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire is as important in its way as any of the more famous sites on the banks of the Euphrates. In the Americas, he explores the evidence for early human colonisation of those infinitely varied tracts of land, an occupation starting well before the famous colonisation through the Bering land bridge from Asia that heralded the age of the Clovis culture eleven thousand years ago. The Clovis tribes were hunters of such efficiency that they may have exterminated the mammoth, the mastodon and the giant sloth, and several dozen other species besides. Mankind evidently had blood on its hands from the first. Mithen takes us to Australia, to wonder at the adaptability of its early inhabitants in the face of hostile climates and scant diets; to eastern Asia, where the taming of wild rice gave the world its major food crop; finally back to Africa, from which the human species had originally emerged before its relentless and unparalleled march around the globe. To compile his narrative, he has trawled through a huge amount of literature. The book is a masterly and exhaustive compendium.

Humans have always been opportunistic, ready to exploit any means of making a living as new habitats were conquered. The last hundred years have seen the end of patronising generalisations about ‘the savage mind’ in favour of detailed explorations of particular sites, which reveal the versatility and ingenuity of our ancestors. Artistic expression emerged early, as much a part of being human as a desire for status or, apparently, the instinct for the sacred. Any notions – and these still prevail in many television documentaries – that tribal humans create societies which are necessarily benign are dispelled by learning of the people who lived at Çatalhöyük in Turkey nine thousand years ago: they made images of women’s breasts whose ‘nipples are split apart, and peering from within are the skulls of vultures, foxes and weasels’.

Although Mithen generally avoids speculation, it is impossible not to be struck by patterns that emerge from the chemical analysis of vegetable scraps. That the domestication of cereals and several other crops occurred independently in the Americas, the Middle East, China and elsewhere invites ideas about the inevitability of ‘progress’. With plants, so the story goes, such progress has to be very slow, inching from wild to domesticated over uncountably many summers. But maybe it isn’t the whole story: certainly it minimises the human genius for deducing something new from first principles. Bright ideas probably didn’t begin with Archimedes: why not the idea of improving on the wild types of plants? One of the many theories about the development of explicit skill in artefacts, such as pottery, invokes not merely an improvement in utility, but also a wish to impress: ‘Most striking of all might have been the dramatic smashing of vessels during feasts as an ostentatious display of wealth.’ Keeping up with the proto-Joneses sounds altogether more human. Agricultural surpluses and technological innovations for storing them made possible the building of cities, and all that followed.

Not that civilisation grew in quite such a straightforward fashion. Climatic change stopped some societies in their tracks, especially during the droughts of the Younger Dryas, twelve thousand years ago, when, in the Jordan Valley, tribes reverted to an earlier mode of life. Sites excavated layer by layer reveal the bad times as well as the good: barefoot hunters evidently camped out in the remains of villages that had once been prosperous. It may have been a climatic crisis as much as human rapacity that exterminated mammoths and forced some of our forebears to rely on squash and beans. Now that global climate change is once more speeding up, we would do well to remember that we have been along this path before. Our own apparent omniscience may be more a product of hubris than historical inevitability. To this rich and complex history Mithen is an expert guide.

There is one difficulty with his account, however. The problem facing him, as he must have appreciated, is that one archaeological site is somewhat like another, except to the devotee. There are post holes or the remains of low walls; habitations might be square or round, or provided with cellars; in the waste of human chaff there might be pistachio nuts in one site, hazelnuts in another; stone tools are chipped and shaped in subtly different ways. The devil is always in the detail. The identification of fragments of plant remains is a tribute to the skill and expertise of the specialist, but the laboratory work is often repetitive and tedious, and does not bear description in a book designed for the general reader. The ultimate aim of the archaeology is to reconstruct the living community, to be transported back in time, and to put together all the dry details turned up by the trowel into a portrait of a vanished society which a reader can visit as a tourist from another age.

Mithen’s solution to the problem of dryness is to create a time traveller who can go anywhere, as the text requires. This traveller approaches some Mesolithic village unnoticed, smells the wood smoke in the air, listens to the cries of children or the barking of dogs. He can watch the women at work plaiting ropes, or grinding seeds in a mortar. He can join the men on a hunting expedition, or learn to produce a sharp blade from obsidian by sitting alongside the skilled artisans, or throw a pot, or paint his face with ochre. He moves like a wraith through the ancient communities, unseen but all-seeing. He shares in family life, crouching inside the cramped quarters of a hut, or standing, solemn and invisible, alongside the family funeral which buried the girl and the baby in the swan’s wing. He can journey from Palaeolithic to Neolithic, or from Africa to Australia. Through the medium of his perambulating ghost Mithen reanimates the debris of the past to reconstruct the daily life of vanished cultures.

He has chosen to give this time traveller the name John Lubbock. John Lubbock was also the name of a Victorian equivalent of Mithen himself, who summarised the current knowledge of ‘primitive’ societies nearly a century and a half ago in Prehistoric Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (1865). He, too, visited – through the accounts of his contemporaries – the Stone Age societies known at the time, and summarised what was known of the archaeological evidence of the beginnings of mankind. It is understandable that Mithen should want to show how ideas and prejudices have changed since Victorian times, and to pay homage to his predecessor. It is certainly instructive to see how the concept of the ‘savage mind’ has changed over a century or so: for example, the real Lubbock underestimated the role of women in ‘savage’ societies to a surprising degree. But it is confusing for Mithen to have given his time traveller the same name. He has to distinguish one from the other by referring to his figment as ‘modern John Lubbock’, as opposed to ‘Victorian John Lubbock’, who becomes another ghostly presence in the background.

Then there is the voice of Mithen himself, a working archaeologist, as he recounts the visits he has made to some of the frequently remote archaeological sites he writes about. These, too, are evocative, but Mithen’s voice is, unsurprisingly, not so different from that of ‘modern John Lubbock’. There are even a few places where ‘modern John Lubbock’ jumps his time-ship and moves all the way to the present day: to visit for example a remote region of north-east Brazil in 1984 and an archaeologist called Niède Guidon who has worked on rock paintings there. Presumably, the real visitor on this occasion was Mithen himself.

Finally, there is the voice of Mithen as scientist, which he uses to describe the excavations and enumerate the finds. This is the objective voice that attempts to evaluate various archaeological theories in the light of field evidence, and explains the precise chemical or analytical techniques that can tease out secrets from unpromising materials. A less ambitious book might have confined itself to this conventional account, without jumping about among the narrative personae. Mithen writes well, and perhaps he should have trusted himself to indulge in his reconstructions without recourse to the Lubbocks.