Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Suspecting the Speculators.

I watched a TV documentary once in which the distinguished TV historian, Neil Oliver, introduced us to the contents of a Bronze Age burial chamber (or it might have been Iron Age or even Neolithic. Please excuse my ignorance; round barrows and long barrows confuse me.) Anyway, he showed us how all the leg bones were piled up here, while the rib bones were stacked here, and they built a little mountain of skulls here, and so on. He then went on to declaim, with commendable passion, that this showed how Bronze Age (or Iron Age or Neolithic) persons had little sense of personal identity, but were more inclined to perceive themselves as part of the greater community whole.

It’s a compelling theory, but isn’t that all it is? Couldn’t it be that Bronze Age (or whatever) persons simply had a taste for arranging things in pleasing, homogeneous piles by type? I know people like that. They’re a bit strange, but mostly harmless. Or maybe there was another explanation, who knows? And doesn’t this suggest that historical anthropology is a process of endlessly seeking to know the unknowable, while building definitive conclusions on speculative foundations?

I’m hoping that the Oracle of Upstate New York will tell me why I’m wrong. Or maybe she’ll remind me that she told me as much six months ago (which I think she might have done.)

Meanwhile, this is my latest favourite track from the band to which the Oracle introduced me. The lyrics are a bit sad, but the music is nice.


Madeline said...

Yep. Archaeology has a lot of cool theories, but it's hard to know the truth. That's why I switched from prehistoric archaeology to medieval archaeology and finally to historical archaeology (circa 1500-1900). I want more evidence. Or to be more specific, I want to read things written by people and then compare them against artifacts from the same era. That being said, historical archaeology does also involve a fair amount of speculation. For instance, in my thesis I argue that the homogeneity of 19th-century middle-class gravestones represents a strategy of building group cohesion and solidifying class identities at a time when many people were anxious about maintaining their middle-class status. But I'm sure someone could come up with an alternate theory.

I've heard the whole "communal bones = communal identity" argument and I'm not sure I buy it, either. Maybe it's true, but how do they know it was the same way before death as after? Maybe it was death that transformed someone from an individual into a part of the community. With secondary burials, death is a long, drawn-out process. Maybe the person's identity withered away with the flesh.

JJ Beazley said...

I assume 'secondary burials' refers to the practice of letting the flesh rot somewhere, then breaking up the pieces of skeleton for permanent storage. Quite.

I'm sure the TV historians/archaeologists/anthropologists know very well that they're on speculative ground. I just wish they'd say so when making documentaries instead of serving up dubious 'certainties' to the public. I suppose they assume that most people are uncomfortable with speculation.

Madeline said...

I recently met an archaeologist who has been interviewed in a National Geographic program. It seems, from what he told me, that the networks determine a lot of the content and character of the archaeologists' input. I don't mean that the networks tell the archaeologists what to say, but they tell them to focus on certain things and then edit out all the things that they think the public won't find appealing. He was somewhat disappointed that NG wanted him to focus on more sensationalistic topics (like MURDER and SACRIFICE) rather than what he actually studies, which is material culture.

JJ Beazley said...

But of course. There's the advertising revenue to be considered.

And might I point out that I just discovered an embarrassing error in my original text. In the unlikely event that you come close to expiring from a surfeit of boredom, you might consider re-reading it to pick up the correction.

Oh, and I was also unable to watch your Freedy Johnston video because it hasn't been made available in my country. I was miffed.

Madeline said...

Try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhOL4ufyLyA