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The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology.

'The central issue . . . is . . . a critical one that archaeologists share with all students of the activities of our species: how can one use the perceptible human-produced events and objects of the phenomenal world to make inferences about the non-perceptible abilities, meanings, ideas and intentions in the minds of those who produced and used them'

FRAKE 1994: 119

When Ian Hodder and his students at Cambridge in the late 1970s and early '80s were beginning their reaction against the ideas of the New Archaeology, they were known, rather disparagingly, as 'The Coggies', a quaint group arguing for the importance of what past people thought in guiding their everyday lives, and thus in the disposition of the material phenomena whose residues we construe as the archaeological record. Moreover, they argued, people's ideas and thoughts are culturally specific and hence not amenable to any sort of generalizing approach, thus virtually all archaeological claims perch on the topmost rung of Hawkes' notoriously tottering ladder of archaeological inference. Shortly afterwards the argument was taken a step further: not only were archaeologists' constructions of the past not determined by evidence; on the contrary, they were largely determined by their social context in the present.

In the introduction to The ancient mind Colin Renfrew in effect suggests that the volume is a manifesto for 'cognitive processualism', an approach first sketched in his Cambridge inaugural lecture more than a decade ago, which acknowledges a debt to what Renfrew calls 'anti-processualism' in its insistence on the importance of 'mind' and meanings, but maintains that statements about 'the ancient mind' (a horrid phrase incidentally, in my view, implying a dubious essentialism) can be supported by and tested against archaeological evidence 'through the construction of frameworks of inference' (Renfrew 1994: 11), hence the paper by Bell which follows the introduction, on the importance of testability in theories about prehistoric thinking.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that the volume is not very convincing as a manifesto against 'post-processualism'. This is so for several reasons. In the first place the main emphasis of post-processual ideas today is much less on issues of past meaning and much more on the social and intellectual contextualization of our ideas about the past, a subject which this book does not claim to address. Secondly, 'the ancient mind' as represented in this volume is in no sense a unitary subject: the range of issues raised is enormously wide and the approaches adopted equally diverse. A claim to be based in the empirical is not an adequate focal point. Finally, the critique of 'post-processual' work in the field remains at the level of the general and the rhetorical; it would have been far more productive and illuminating, for example, to carry out a detailed analysis of Chris Tilley's study of the Namforsen rock art (Tilley 1991) or Ian Hodder's treatment of early agricultural societies in Europe (Hodder 1990), to examine the claims being made, their empirical justification and the assumptions behind them.

The papers themselves are very variable; the strongest are those which are more extensive and based on archaeological case-studies. Some of the papers are mercifully brief; others are much too short. Zubrow's GIS study is so truncated that it is virtually incomprehensible, although this is not helped by what in places seems deliberate mystification. Similarly, it is unlikely that anyone who has not read van der Leeuw's other papers on his present subject will understand the vanishingly short version presented here. Hill reviews approvingly two case-studies in which archaeologists have made convincing inferences about prehistoric values and symbol systems and then, true to his 1960s New Archaeology upbringing, maintains that such approaches are not significant because only ecology matters!

But what are the problems posed by an 'archaeology of mind' in general and this book in particular? Perhaps the most important and obvious is the issue posed in the quotation from Frake's paper placed at the head of this review: how do we use perceptible information to make inferences about imperceptible processes going on inside people's heads? But Frake also usefully reminds us that the problem is not unique to archaeology - it is faced by all students of human activity and indeed by everybody in the world as they go about their daily lives. Contrary to popular belief, however, it is something which archaeologists are rather good at. In effect, most models of human activity in the past make inferences about human intentions. If, for example, an analysis of a faunal assemblage of domestic animal bones leads to the conclusion that cattle were being kept for milk rather than meat, the inference is not just about the age/sex structure of a community's cattle herds but about the human intentions and priorities which resulted in that outcome. Similarly, when Mithen (1990) tells us that the structure of Mesolithic faunal assemblages is not compatible with priorities based on maximizing subsistence gains but with hunting as a means of gaining prestige, this represents an inference about ideas in people's heads. Indeed, another way of looking at these situations is to say that we have a basis for the era-pathetic understanding of some aspects of the lives of Mesolithic foragers or Bronze Age pastoralists: we can imagine ourselves, if we wish, on their hunting expeditions, or looking after their cattle. Likewise, to use an example from Collingwood, an analysis of the reasons for building Hadrian's Wall at that time, in that place and in that particular form can be conceptualized and presented in terms of an empathetic understanding of the thoughts and priorities of the decision-makers concerned: if this factor had weighed more heavily than that things would have been done differently. In this sense, then, an archaeology of mind as an attempt to infer the imperceptible ideas in people's heads is not only not a naive and unachievable idealism or some last cognitive frontier yet to be overcome. On the contrary, it is something most, if not all, archaeologists do much of the time, more often than not without realizing.

A second important topic which the volume addresses is the subject of prehistoric symbol systems. These are certainly not merely in people's heads - they are out there, in the form of megalithic tombs, rock engravings, pyramids and many other material phenomena. The issue of their 'meaning' is something of a red herring since, as we all know, things mean different things to different people, nor is the issue one of inferring intentions from actions. The problem in a prehistoric context is the lack of a key to the code given by the observed patterning of the symbols, since such codes are culturally specific, the key being the reference of the symbols. As a number of the contributors to the volume point out, we can get quite a long way in understanding symbol systems without a key; moreover, as Barth (1975) has emphasized, material symbols are not necessarily arbitrary and often play particular roles because of their specific physical properties. However, this is not to deny that external information can be useful in understanding their physical remains. Marcus & Flannery's outstanding paper on ancient Zapotec ritual and religion illustrates this with its use of the so-called 'direct historical approach', in which documentary evidence from post-conquest Spanish sources is used to throw light on the iconography and spatial layout of Zapotec ritual: the observations in the documents provide a key to the code because they offer a different perspective on a ritual tradition maintained by high-fidelity cultural transmission. However, one of the many strengths of this paper is that it goes beyond demonstrating the existence of the historically known symbol system in the precolumbian past. Marcus & Flannery are able to use the archaeological information at their disposal to trace the way in which the symbol system came into existence during the course of Zapotec history. Apart from the obvious importance of this to the case concerned, and as an exemplar to others of some of the possibilities open to archaeologists, the study is also significant in showing that the use of historical or ethnographic information need not inevitably involve the projection of the present onto the past. It does not seem particularly helpful or illuminating, though, to see this study as pertaining to 'the ancient mind'.

The link is much clearer in the case of Mithen's study, which indeed squarely addresses the nature of the ancient mind on the basis of recent work in the field of evolutionary psychology and makes important and interesting suggestions about the cognitive significance of the Upper Palaeolithic. As authors such as Cosmides & Tooby (e.g. 1992) and Pinker (1994) have argued, the 'standard social science model' of the mind, to which most archaeologists implicitly subscribe, presupposes that at birth it is a tabula rasa, waiting to be stamped with socially determined beliefs and perceptions. The evolutionary psychologists take the view that a considerable degree of modularity exists in the mind, involving specialized psychological mechanisms: for example, a language acquisition device, mechanisms for cheat detection in social contract reasoning and for classifying and categorizing animate as opposed to inanimate objects, differential male and female perceptions of reproductive advantage, and so on. Furthermore, they argue, these mechanisms, which are human universals, have resulted from the operation of natural selection over long periods of time. As Mithen shows, the issues raised by evolutionary psychology are extremely important for archaeologists concerned with long-term human evolution, and it is not, or should not be, just a one-way process, with archaeologists borrowing ideas from psychologists; on the contrary, the latter make assumptions about the nature of the 'environment of evolutionary adaptedness' which only archaeologists can investigate (Steele & Shennan in press). However, such views also have considerable implications for archaeologists concerned with the more recent past, since they suggest that there exists a stock of human psychological universals (many not politically correct!) which can be deployed in inferential arguments; the arguments over these issues are not ones which archaeologists can avoid.

But this does not exhaust the issues which the volume addresses; another is the study of what we may call 'cognitive achievements'. Language may be a human universal but the knowledge and skills used to navigate the Pacific are not, nor does it seem convincing to suggest that they were somehow an inevitable outcome of living in such an environment, although they were clearly conditioned by it. The same is true of the Indus valley weights discussed by Segal, following Renfrew (1982), with their complex relationship between fixed multiples of mass and the linear dimensions needed to produce them. In both cases, however, the point is not that these involved ideas in people's heads, although they obviously did, but that both represent traditions of (semi-) public knowledge which can be lost if the transmission process breaks down, as Frake shows it largely did in the case of Polynesian navigation.

Finally, it is important to consider the French approach to the study of technology, represented here by the papers of Karlin & Julien, Schlanger and van der Leeuw. This is in itself a good example of a micro-tradition, founded by Leroi-Gourhan and focussed round the concept of the chaine operatoire, 'an ordered train of actions, gestures, instruments or even agents leading the transformation of a given material towards the manufacture of a product, through major steps that are more or less predictable' (Karlin & Julien 1994: 164). The approach is particularly well suited to the subtractive nature of lithic technology, where the successive operations can often be reconstructed through the process of re-fitting. Such work is also within a broader French archaeological tradition which rejects 'Anglo-Saxon' speculation and tries to build chains of inferences tightly linked to archaeological evidence (cf. Gardin 1980: Gallay 1986). It is significant in several ways. It is concerned not just with plans and intentions in human or pre-human minds but also their realization in the light of knowledge of the qualities of the raw material and the acquired motor skills brought to bear on them. These matters are obviously of great importance to the study of hominid evolution and the emergence of modern cognitive capacities, but not just in this field. As Karlin & Julien show, the study of differential expertise in lithic knapping, a matter of the archaeology of the body and of the mind which has been greatly advanced by the empathy (to be provocative!) gained from knapping experiments, has thrown considerable light on the links between technology and subsistence systems in terms of planning and the organization of communities. Van der Leeuw, on the other hand, uses the approach to characterize the decisions made and priorities evidenced within a particular ceramic tradition, as a basis, among other things, for exploring what innovations are conceivable within that tradition and what are not.

It should be apparent by now that the volume contains much of interest even though the topics covered are juxtaposed within the same covers rather than integrated. Perhaps we should simply echo Collingwood's 'all history is the history of thought' with 'all archaeology is the archaeology of mind' and leave it at that. However, there are people out there trying to forge an integrated materialist theory of mind which should be of considerable archaeological interest, and this volume contains elements of it. It starts with human individuals and their plans and intentions because only individuals take decisions and act. On this view, human minds, as we saw above in discussing Mithen's paper, are products of evolution by natural selection, as a result of which there are human universals which have an impact on people's situated actions, perceptions, emotions, preferences and capabilities; archaeologists have a role in understanding their evolution. However, human minds are also the product of cultural information, or, if you prefer, infestations of 'memes' (Dawkins 1976; Dennett 1990; 1991). These are passed from mind to mind by epidemiological processes of cultural transmission (Sperber 1985) and have at least a semi-independent existence from human minds which is particularly apparent in the case of the material items dealt with by archaeologists. Moreover, just as there are regularities in sound changes in languages which occur in the process of transmission, so there may well be such regularities with regard to change in material culture; in fact, Justeson & Stephens make such an argument with reference to change in Elamite symbol systems in their contribution to the book under review. Such traditions can be traced in sequences of learning or apprenticeship in pottery or lithic manufacture as well as in the use of symbols. They are dispersed through populations and therefore social, but at the same time formative of individual minds and thus intentions; they are susceptible to a variety of selective pressures not identical to those which act on their human hosts. The exploration of these ideas and their implications has barely begun.

But it is easy to see that this project too rapidly becomes all-encompassing. Perhaps we should say after all, making a significant distinction, that all archaeology is the archaeology of embodied minds.


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RENFREW, C. & E.B.W. ZUBROW (ed.). 1994. The ancient mind: elements of cognitive archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

STEELE, T.J.M. & S.J. SHENNAN. In press. Introduction, in T.J.M. Steele & S.J. Shennan (ed.), The archaeology of human ancestry: power, sex and tradition. London: Routledge.

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Author:Shennan, Stephen
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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