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Interpretative archaeology.

It is sometimes said that post-processual theory is nothing if it is not critique, and many archaeologists would accept that in some areas the post-processual critique of New and other kinds of archaeology has been most effective. The post-processual agenda implied by this critique is a more complex matter, a longer-term, more experimental project - a question of choosing different subject-matter, taking particular ideological or political stances, and establishing a fresh relationship between archaeological material and what is written about it. The recent publication of Interpretative archaeology and A phenomenology of landscape [hereinafter IA and PL] allows us a chance to see how these approaches work out in practice.

An important theme for post-processualism is the interpretation of `meaning' in past material culture, which focusses much more attention on art, architecture and style than has been customary in most areas of recent archaeological endeavour. However, there is a certain tension and confusion between getting at meanings 'out there', in the sense of `drawing conclusions' about the mental world of people of the past, and developing an interpretative discussion admirable for its philosophical and rhetorical agility but necessarily, unashamedly, deliberately inconclusive. How far can the new approaches break the log-jam presented by the material? How far do theoreticians desire to have `found out' something new about the past, as well as feeling good about the kind of things they write?

Post-processualist approaches to the interpretation of `meaning' seem to fall along a continuum. At one end is the cognitive/structuralist approach, in the tradition of Leroi-Gourhan, or Hodder at Catal Huyuk, represented in IA by the Thomas & Tilley piece `The axe and the torso', which claims that the symbolic meaning of prehistoric `art' can be read more or less directly after an analysis of pattern and position. In the middle are scholars such as Bradley (in his work on north British petroglyphs, e.g. Bradley 1994), or Kirk and Richards in IA, who also work with pattern and position, but at a deeper and less precise level, more from the perspective of Giddens and Bourdieu, seeking recursive relationships between design in landscapes, buildings or monuments, and power and ritual in the world of the social. At the other end of the continuum are those who are interested in the constructed world as sensuously experienced by the human body, but wish to go beyond the immediacy of design to consider more profound spatial and temporal rhythms (e.g. Gosden 1994).

According to its editor, IA is intended to address the `failure' of post-processual archaeology to provide many clearly worked-out examples tackling archaeological data. The same could be said of much of PL, which is about experience and understanding of `landscape', with special reference to the British Neolithic. Of the two books, Phenomenology hangs together better than Interpretative archaeology, and not simply because it has a single author and a unitary theme. In PL's two introductory essays, Tilley expounds a theory of landscape perception for that long period of relatively fluid and mobile hunting/gathering and early farming which apparently preceded the onset of territory, territorial sub-division and more stable settlement patterns. This is a very clear, eloquent advocacy of the terrain made familiar to some extent by Barrett's Fragments from Antiquity and Ingold's The appropriation of nature, not to mention recent treatments of aboriginal Australian concepts of landscape.

Then the `places, paths and monuments' approach is applied to the megalithic tombs of southeast and southwest Wales. The Black Mountains megaliths are shown to form a clear pattern, in terms of their spacing behaviour as well as the landscape features to which they respond - rivers and prominent hills. Tilley's more selective treatment of the Pembrokeshire tombs emphasizes close relationships with rock outcrops and outstanding hill-tops, which - perhaps inevitably - are regarded as liminal features. The outcrops are also sources of stone for the tombs, however, and it might have been instructive to have considered the landscape correlates - and stone sources - of those Pembrokeshire tombs which are in other kinds of location. Some of these arguments cut both ways. Should one be cautious about postulating sacred mountains in areas like southwest Wales where isolated hills, and the Preseli range itself, are so dominant on the skyline? Or does the topography make such postulates almost inevitable? Neither the hypothesis-testing approach implied by the first question nor the determinism implied by the second will appeal to post-processualists. Yet it is fascinating to note that, of Tilley's two sacred Neolithic mountains, Carn Ingli was the `hill of angels', definitely a liminal place for the Irish saint Brynach. And on the western edge of the Black Mountains, Mynydd Troed - for Tilley the hill on which a group of long barrows was focussed, looking like a giant `natural' long barrow itself - gave its name to Garth Matrun, the `hillspur of the Great Mother', the old name of the 5th-century kingdom based on the zone around Llangors Lake (Thomas 1994: 57 145-6).

Of the 10 essays in IA, two are essentially `approaches' papers and three are not concerned with the interpretation of archaeological data - conspicuously so in the case of the story told in chapter 9, in which a fictitious Welsh schoolboy, Richard Jones, sends off for a lot of British university archaeology prospectuses and ends up shredding them all in disgust. I was delighted that such a snooty little horror would not trouble the admissions tutors further. The recruiting literature of British archaeology departments may well be good for a laugh, but - for whatever reason - university-based archaeology in the second part of the 20th century has been an undoubted success. What is needed here is hardly the epatation of people whose claim to be bourgeois is debatable. Some university departments of archaeology have actually done what they should do, providing the conditions in which unconventional scholars can get on with their work and even eventually get `head-hunted'. Let us see some more incisive critiques of the managerial doctrines which are damaging our subject and the archaeological community in UK universities, and the uncritical and sometimes unethical way in which some of our colleagues are going along with them.

The data-oriented papers in IA deal with art and architecture in the Neolithic and Bronze Age of northwest Europe, and it is here that the reader may have problems. Post-processualists clearly enjoy degrees of freedom in interpreting art and architecture which will not automatically commend their work to readers who are hoping for a `result' in terms of our understanding of how it was in the past. It is not always clear how far the writers are claiming that they have made progress, in these terms, and how far they are simply saying `this is a new approach which you might like to think about'. This is a classic problem for thinking archaeologists, but it is important, in the shuttle between hubris and humility, to be clear about how the argument intersects with the data. Assertion, though unavoidable at times. is not a substitute for argument; a sceptic might conclude that, in some of these writings, argument by assertion is too unproblematic, while argument by one assertion after another is apparently called `rhizomic discourse' (IA: 20). When the interpretation of a megalithic structure and the `art' on its walls seems straightforward, the suggestion is that the `reading' is `controlled'. Thus, for instance, `the provision of a passage may suggest that the monument was to be primarily approached, encountered and interpreted from a single prescribed direction' (IA: 213). But architectural complexity also implies an attempt to ensure that the `correct' reading is made (IA: 92). At the same time, it is also claimed to contain the potential for multiple readings.

In `the axe and the torso', the Thomas & Tilley account of the Breton megaliths, it is asserted that some of the carvings on Breton megaliths - and indeed the plan of Barnenez - represent the human rib-cage, and that since we have 12 ribs, the argument is supported when the rib-like elements among the carvings number about 12. But Barnenez started out as a cairn containing five chambers, with a distinctive central one; and other cairns contain varying numbers of passage-graves. Did they also represent bits of rib-cages? This blurring of the argument occurs frequently. Figure 6.18 sets drawings of `dagger' carvings beside drawings of the human sternum from medical text-books, and the caption invites us to deny the difference. But the difference is very clear! A circle with a dot inside is a breast, apparently, even when there are four on one side of the `body' and three on another (Les Pierres Plates). And when a relatively simple interpretation eventually becomes hard to sustain in its original form, they play the Catal Huyuk Defence (IA: 268):

`the ambiguity is intentional ... depending upon context and association, any or all of these significations might be intended ... particular meanings would have been drawn out ... through discourse, in an interpretive ritual practice.... The way in which all of the figures in the Gavrinis art run into one another is like an allegory for language itself, in which signifiers "run on" into each other, and nothing can be finally pinned down.'

This was doubtless true in the Breton Neolithic; but, conveniently, and unnervingly for the reader, it is also a licence for the authors to say anything they wish.

This kind of approach did not carry much conviction when O.G.S. Crawford tried it in The eye goddess (1958); for this reviewer, it does not do so here. If only a set of more independent arguments could be made to converge on the same conclusions! Clearly, the richest contexts for interpreting the meaning of material culture in this rather immediate sense occur in ethnography, ethnohistory and documented history - which is ironic considering the prominence of prehistorians in developing the approach. For prehistorians, on the other hand, the middle part of the continuum sketched above looks more promising - and the other end at least very interesting.

These volumes inevitably raise the question: in the post-modern world, how are we to judge what, if anything, constitutes `progress' in historical inquiry, and in what sense - if any - do we need such a concept? Despite persistent rumours of the death of positivism and of politically neutral archaeologies, most archaeologists will instinctively prefer to see the rhetoric of philosophy directed towards increasing our knowledge of the past - rather than seeing archaeological data used to support a philosophical stance already open to judgement in its own terms. If post-processual studies turn out to be evasive or cavalier in their approach to archaeological data, we are left wondering just how much has been `established' about the past. The upshot is that, deservedly or not, the philosophical stance itself may appear to have been discredited among archaeologists who do not have time or inclination to go back to the original debates. Sometime in the future, the very theorists who first sensitized us to the ideological penetration of our discipline may find their writings cited as even better examples of the same phenomenon. To ask for academic rigour is doubtless deemed a repressive demand, especially if it is done from within the `patriarchal gerontocracy' (IA: 407) of university-based archaeology. And to be fair, many prehistorians, faced with such a request, would not feel altogether comfortable; most have abandoned the minimalist scepticism which used to pass for source-criticism, and which certainly was repressive. But then again, can we allow those who write about the past to place themselves effectively above criticism, using rhetoric to perform an Indian rope-trick?

Post-processualists should also reflect upon their mantra-like repetition of words coined by writers from other disciplines to meet their particular needs. In terms of the engagement between theory and data, Richard Bradley's Altering the earth (1993) covers a good deal of the same ground as the two volumes under review here, but manages to convey its meaning without the transferred technology of the self, recursive self-interpretational self-constitution, and so on.

For all theorists, the tension between writing as if they have discovered something about the past and trying to demonstrate how the archaeological record supports their theoretical stance cannot be wished away, but there is a strong case for more humility and more clarity in this area. We need to be ready to discuss alternatives, to pick up the ironies in our own work, and to acknowledge the cussedness of data which simply will not bear the weight of our theoretical ambitions. Is it too much to hope that, while more old-fashioned archaeologists develop a taste for critique, post-processualists will become more interested in source-criticism?


Bradley, R. 1993. Altering the earth: the origins of monuments in Britain and continental Europe. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 1994. Symbols and signposts - understanding the pre-historic petroglyphs of the British Isles, in C. Renfrew & E. Zubrow (ed.), The ancient mind: elements of cognitive archaeology: 95-106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crawford, O.G.S. 1958. The eye goddess. London: Phoenix House. Gosden, C. 1994. Social being and time. Oxford: Blackwell. Thomas, C. 1994. And shall these mute stones speak? Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
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Author:Fleming, Andrew
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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