9 August 2011

Making sense of archaeology

In the last couple of centuries archaeologists have accumulated a massive amount of knowledge about ancient humanity. All over the world, thousands of sites have been dug out and their remains carefully analysed, classified and dated. The techniques used in this endeavour are in constant development, which means all concepts and ideas that are proposed about the archaeological finds are challenged by new, more elaborate proposals. Archaeology has become a highly specialized field, with every single site requiring the processing of an enormous amount of data. The task of comparing all this information and drawing pertinent conclusions about the prehistory of a given area is just daunting. Now, how do archaeologists make sense of this vast amount of knowledge? I can think of at least two practical ways.

One of them is the use of a series of metaphors or theoretical concepts, such as 'Neolithic', 'Iron Age' or 'Mesolithic', around which the information is organized in more or less coherent ways. Needless to say, these concepts are rather inaccurate, even misleading in some cases, but in general they're practical tools that allow scientific debate in archaeology. On the other hand, they're really useful in order to construct a discourse that can be understood outside the sphere of specialized archaeology.

Another essential, and obvious, method is the creation of hypotheses. By organizing the available archaeological evidence around a given explanatory framework, archaeologists can find relevant connections between different sets of materials and draw the corresponding conclusions. In this blog we have already seen some examples of archaeological hypotheses at work, e.g. the one proposed by Marija Gimbutas, and later developed by other archaeologists like Mallory or Anthony, about the origins of the supposed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) people. These authors have devoted a great deal of scientific expertise and effort in order to develop their ideas about PIE homeland and chronology, which incidentally I find quite erroneous. There have been other attempts at trying to make sense of the Indo-European group of languages from an archaeological perspective, like Renfrew's Anatolian Hypothesis and Alinei's Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm (PCP). The problem with all these attempts is that they have to deal with a remarkably extensive amount of data, covering geographical areas that encompass various continents, which makes it really difficult to avoid all kinds of possible flaws. However, these wide-ranging hypotheses can help inspire some more local research based on a more limited set of data. A recent example of this is the proposal of a distinctive archaeological zone in the Atlantic façade of western Europe, with a deep redefinition of concepts such as 'Celt'. One century ago, the term 'Celt' was used as an archaeological metaphor by people who were honestly trying to make sense of some material cultures of Central Europe. Now we are witnessing a gradual change in which the word 'Celt' is used in a different context and with different implications. Celticity is no longer the result of some unlikely migration from Central Europe to the West but more likely the consequence of local developments that started at a much earlier date.

We could ask ourselves if there are other geographical areas in Europe susceptible of being understood as an archaeological continuum with linguistic implications, like the Atlantic Façade. In my opinion, a good candidate could be the Germanic-speaking area of Northern Europe. Mario Alinei was the first to propose this archaeological-linguistic continuum (see here), whose formation would have started as early as the Mesolithic, when the ice-cap started to recede. The Maglemose culture, identified primarily from a series of sites in Denmark, would be one of the earliest examples of a material culture shared in this northern European territory, at a time when the British Isles and the continent were still united by great expanses of land that are now under water (see map on the right; source: Wikipedia). Following this line of thought, Xaverio Ballester proposed an interesting hypothesis about the origins of English (see reference to article below). The idea is quite coherent and deserves serious attention. In fact, what is required is the kind of scientific effort that has guided the work of many archaeologists until the present. Without a deep analysis of the archaeological data carried out by specialists, not to mention the contribution of population genetics and other additional sciences, it will be impossible to make any further step in the direction of proving the validity of the theory. Will any archaeologist volunteer? I hope so.

- Alinei, Mario (2000). Origini delle Lingue d'Europa II. Continuità dal Mesolitico al''Età del Ferro nelle Principali Aree Etnolinguistiche. Bologna: Il Mulino.
- Ballester, Xaverio (2005). "The first Germanic origin of the English language". In Quaderni di Semantica, XXVI, 29-41.
- Oppenheimer, Stephen (2006). Origins of the British. London: Constable and Robinson.

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