Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Stone: The Past is a Foreign Country

Lost in the rainforest. By me.

 I am guessing that you will most of you heard the quote I've used to title this post, the second in my series on theory. It gets thrown around all the time in various forms- "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." It's actually a quote from the novel "The Go-Between" by L.P. Hartley in 1953. This little snippet has survived the 60 years between now and then to become a trope, a cliche, of archaeological thought. If I had a quid for every time this little phrase has popped up (in the first year of undergraduate study alone), I would probably be able to treat myself to some pre-dig pampering. In the rush of repetition, the meaning of this phrase gets lost. It's actually got some quite deep links- back to some serious ideas about who we are, how we think, and how we perceive other people.

Have you ever got lost abroad? I have. Lost in Merida, Mexico. Lost at night in Rome. Lost (for a very panicky minute or so) in the rainforest in Guatemala in a thunderstorm. Do you remember those feelings? The rush of nerves, the separation of yourself from all the people around you, the sense of your own body as an island in the middle of an ocean of strangeness? And all this in a modern world, where so many of the objects and thoughts around us are familiar- the cars, the electric lights, the universal humiliation of the tourist.

Levi-Strauss looking mournful in the jungle. Image: anthrotheory.

One man who took this feeling to the extreme was a French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (just for the record, he's not responsible for the overpriced jeans). Levi-Strauss was convinced that, underneath surface differences, human experience was structured by the same principles. He was certain that the same series of contrasts would be picked up by any human brain- separating light from dark, day from night, male from female, cold from hot etc. He termed these sets of differences binary oppositions, and considered that all human societies would have conceptualised them. As a good anthropologist, Levi-Strauss then set off for the field. Dashing to Brazil, he wanted to find people as alien to him as possible, to prove himself right. Accompanied by his wife, Levi-Strauss steadily moved through different cultural groups in the Mato Grosso and Amazon- yet each had been, in his view, tainted by the modern world. The very presence of interpreters, imported clothing, cigarettes- any imported idea or object alerted Levi-Strauss to the fact that these groups were impure- and so could not be used to test his ideas. Finally, heading deep into the Amazon in 1938, Levi-Strauss made contact with the Nambikwara, a community which at last seemed to be relatively untouched by the outside world. Yet he couldn't understand his informants. They couldn't understand him. There was nothing, no common ground, for the two to share. The language, the material culture, the behaviour of the people- Levi-Strauss just could not (in the short weeks he spent there) observe or make use of any of the underlying similarities he was sure were there.

I want to leave Levi-Strauss to one side now- I will come back to his structuralist beliefs another day. My point is that his story demonstrates a real truth in archaeological theory- the same truth that squats underneath the glib little phrase that titles this post. Levi-Strauss could not leave his own body, his own beliefs, his own cultures, his own biases behind. No matter how much he desperately wanted to understand the Nambikwara, how much he cared about their culture, how much he believed that he shared a universal set of cultural building blocks (his binary oppositions) with them- he couldn't talk to them. He couldn't understand them. He could never leave behind his Frenchness, his European identity. His white skin. His penis. He couldn't cast that off and instantly understand what it was and what it meant to be Nambikwara. And nor could I, and nor could you.

As archaeologists, we are continually trying to do what Levi-Strauss did. At least the man actually got to visit, live with, attempt to speak to the people he was studying. The feeling of being lost, of being confused, that everyone experiences in a new situation in a strange culture, might have gone away after a few months- yet continual moments would have brought it back. There's no way of living in the past, to lessen the shock. We are stuck in our own skins- we have our own histories, our own stories and experiences. Everytime I write about the Etruscans, I am doing it as a white, middle-class, English woman. I'm not doing it as an Etruscan. I'm not seeing things an Etruscan might have thought important. And I've had to get over that. Nobody is objective- we are all tied firmly to our own culture. You don't need to get lost in the Amazon to figure that out- Levi-Strauss did it for you. As long as you're honest about who you are, and where you come from, and you use the evidence in a convincing way, your view is just as valid as anyone else's on what happened in the past- because it's a foreign country with no airports and no access where you can't even get lost. You can only do archaeology as you- but that doesn't mean you can't think outside the box you were born into (ouch, horrible cliche). In the next "Stone" blog post, I want to explore this more deeply- the methods we can use to try and wiggle away from our own skins and expand our interpretations of the past.

Let me know what you think of Levi-Strauss and company. Have you been lost abroad? How do you feel about the "foreign country" quote? Please do get in touch with your view!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Bone: Greeks vs Etruscans

Let battle commence! A gorgeous vessel by Nikosthenes from the British Museum

I'm off to Italy next week. I can't wait- heading out into the sun to dig of an early morning is one of the best feelings in the world. Before I go, I will be putting the finishing touches to my PhD- then leaving it to fester for a few weeks so I can proof read it properly. Looking back over my PhD, while it's about pottery- the Etruscan experience of pottery- there's an underlying subtext that weaves through every chapter, ever conclusion. That subtext is, perhaps, the second biggest argument in Etruscan studies. The biggest argument is where the Etruscans came from- a topic for another day. The second debate is over the relationship between Greek traders and colonists sneaking their way into the Tyrhennian from Sicily and southern Italy and Etruscan communities, who had themselves expanded their influence all the way down to Campania. There has been to-ing and fro-ing over this issue for over two hundred years- and to-ing and fro-ing is putting it very lightly. Some of the most acerbic, bitter and downright nasty language that I've ever read in an academic context was written about this problem. In the Greek corner, classical archaeologists and scholars howl for the Etruscans as mindlessly consuming Hellenic culture- their only role was to keep it safe for future generations in their helpfully secure burials. In the Etruscan corner are prehistorians and more classical archaeologists who yell back that the Etruscans were independent traders, strongly competing with a rival who, thanks to their later dominance, had the opportunity to traduce them in print (well, in tablets).  So, as I'm loosely doing a series in my "Stones" posts, I thought I'd do another one with "Bones." Over the sumer, I will trace this argument forward from its origins to the contribution of my thesis to the debate, trying to tease out what lies behind the passionate arguments that still kick off whenever Greek and Etruscan scholars wind each other up, in print or the pub.

So, where did the trouble start?

The origins of this argument date back to the rediscovery of the material culture of the classical world and the 18th century. Prior to this, the Etruscans had variously been adopted as independent ancestors of the Florentine Medici, allowing them to claim a past separate from Rome. Generally, their PR was pretty good- the discovery of the first Attic ceramics at Arezzo in the 14th century resulted in these objects being attributed to Etruscan makers- a feather in the Tuscan cap. Into the 1700s, Etruscomania was sweeping Europe- aristocrats built Etruscan salons, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood developed an Etruscan-inspired range. But by the later 18th century, as knowledge of Hellenic culture was increasing, the Etruscans lost their place in the classical ancestry pantheon, squeezed out by Greece and Rome. It's mostly this man's fault.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, gazing innocently out from those doe eyes from this lovely portrait, opened this can of worms. You wouldn't guess his impact on history from that gentle expression, would you? He looks like a generic 18th century Grand Tourist, a gentleman with aquiline nose and a suitable pretension to scholarship. However, Winckelmann was an amazingly erudite scholar- he more or less invented both art history and classical archaeology. Born in a poor family in 1717, he managed to leave his background behind through devoting himself to study- an example of serious social mobility for the 1730s. Winckelmann's obsession with classical Greece began as a teenager- it intensified in the course of his study for a theology degree at Halle University, and finally found employment which allowed for his passion as a librarian for a rich German aristocrat. From this post, he eventually managed to publish his own work on Greek art, and in 1751 moved to Rome to pursue his studies further. His masterpiee, The History of Art in Antiquity, provides a chronological analysis of art in the ancient world- and it incorporates a study of the Etruscans.

For Winckelmann, Etruscan art was a poor cousin to Greek perfection. He chose to compare Greek art to every other form of art in the ancient world- and, of course, nothing could compare. Greek statues and paintings captured naturalistic forms of human life, they were beautifully composed, they expressed pure emotions reflecting the moral superiority of Hellenic society. On the Etruscans, Winckelmann is pityingly scornful. He compares Etruscan imagery to a young boy who has got in with the wrong crowd- he is violent and uncontrolled. By contrast, Greek art is like a well-brought up young gentleman, modest and knowledgeable, a true citizen of the world. The same tone is applied to a metaphor about rivers- Etruscan art is like a raging torrent, bouncing off rocks, while Greek art is a softly flowing river, gently fertilising a green plain. (Some of us prefer torrents to sluggish muddy-bottomed ooze, but then that's just so much sour grapes from me!)

Winckelmann's opinion was plain- Etruscan art had just got it wrong. The Etruscan representation of the human form was either too extreme (bulging muscles popping out everywhere) or unrealistic (carefully stylised figures with the wrong position of the hands and feet). By the time Greek art starts to arrive in Etruria, it's almost too late- the Greek imagery tries to civilise the Etruscan barbarians, but the fools can only make pathetic imitations- nowhere near the real thing. It's only in the late classical period, when Greek art begins to be copied more effectively, that the Etruscans are worth a damn.

I'm being a bit unfair with my paraphrasing here. Yet I think it's justified (although I wouldn't and haven't written this way in my thesis- but hey, what are blogs for?) What Winckelmann did was set up a series of value judgements about Etruscan art, while simultaneously imposing a methodology which would perpetuate them. So, in his eyes, the only proper way for an art historian/archaeologist to go about their business was to compare objects to other objects and look for signs of development. Remember me writing about social darwinism the other week? This is artistic evolutionism in action- a hundred years before the Origin of Species. If it's beautiful, it's civilised/better. Greeks make "better" art, so their civilisation is more sophisticated. If you only methodology is based on value judgements, created from a very particular set of social sensibilities and conditioning, the Etruscans are going to lose every time. In this way of thinking, it's obvious that the Etruscans would want objects made by Greeks- exotic, beautiful objects that were as alien as they were exciting- because they were just better than those they made themselves. This comparitive methodology doomed the Etruscans to a place as the ancient world's underdogs for at least the next hundred and fifty years.

But some of us love an underdog. And in the next "bones" post, I'm going to chase this argument forward from Winckelmann to the 20th century, and the resurgence of the Etruscans (ahem).*

Ok, so maybe not as "perfect" as an Attic red figure vessel... Etruscan red figure Calyx Crater from the British Museum, showing what happens to people who criticise the Etruscans... well. Not really. I'll just give you an evil in the pub. Although Winckelmann was murdered, age 50, in Trieste... I'm pretty sure there's a horror film in there somewhere....L'Etrusco uccide il studioso..

*I apologise for the deeply partisan nature of this blog post.... when it comes to Etruscan-bashing, I just can't help myself. I have also been known to describe the Etruscans as "us" and Greeks as "them," but only after several free glasses of conference wine make me let my guard down. I hope I'm not alone in this- please do let me know if you are similarly passionate about a particular faction/group in the past- I'm envisioning fans of Sulla, Octavian and others fessing up with abandon. To say nothing of all the British Iron Age people I know who detest those dastardly Romans...... I guess this is why you shouldn't pretend to be objective. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Place: Neolithic Safari

There is a big yellow round thing in the sky. It has been there every day for the past five days. It seems to be radiating heat- when you lie out in it your skin appears to change colour? Has anyone else seen this shining orb? After a long, cold, wet, dank, nasty winter, and a late, grumpy, changeable spring, it feels like summer is finally starting to get going. I can't remember the last time early June was quite so glorious. It's funny, but when the weather is like this- still mornings with the sun rising so early you never quite catch it, a soft mist at the bottom of the valley, all the birds enticing you outside- England feels like the most magical place on earth. The world is full of growing things, even if some of them are nettles.

So, to celebrate the glorious weather, the Cornishman and I went back to the land of his birth. We went to a beautiful wedding on Thursday, which involved some amazing Cornish kilts- and, no, Cornishmen don't wear anything under their kilts any more than Scotsmen do, although my own version was sulking in suit trousers. The weekend was rounded off by the christening of a gorgeous little girlie, and the sun was still very much shining down on all the lovely people at both events. It was funny, as between those two events and the sudden change in the seasons I felt like I was seeing new beginnings all over the place- lots of new babies are coming in the summer and autumn, weddings coming up, people starting new lives together, little ones starting new lives from scratch.

So, naturally, we ran away (literally, as above) to some archaeology, to get back to old lives, people long gone, people who met one another, had babies, grew old and died thousands of years ago. People who are probably entirely unrelated to their descendents doing the same things now, but who still seem to have this powerful hold over us. I'm not an expert on the Neolithic, and I'm definitely not an expert on Cornwall, but as we were already half way there it seemed appropriate to head down to the Land's End peninsula and wander around a stunning landscape. 

I'd never been before. Never been further south than Newquay. So I was surprised by the way the peninsula worked- I knew that the north coast of Cornwall further up is rugged and scraggy, with more moorland than fields. The south coast, on the other hand, is all lazy luxurious bays, rich pasture and chubby cows. Down in the depths, this difference was still there- in the four miles between Penzance and Zennor, two miles in the landscape just switched- from north to south. I have never seen a microclimate quite like it- I can't imagine how strange that must have been for people in the past- to be able to walk between two seas, between two worlds. To go from land that was fertile and easy to farm to barren moors fit only for grazing sheep.

Our first Neolithic site was a stone circle, Merry Maidens. It was completely deserted when we arrived, and we skipped over the stone steps and walked right up to it. Apparently, the site's name in Cornish is "Dans maen," or "Stone dance," which is thought to refer to the legend that the stones were originally a group of dancers who got a bit carried away one Saturday night and didn't stop for the Sabbath. There are two standing stones just off the circle which are supposedly the remains of the musicians who kept on playing ffor them. The two standing stones, "The Pipers" are a bit trickier to get to- one is relatively easy, but the other was hidden behind a gate covered in nettles and brambles, so we just looked at it from the road. I looked them up when I got home, and apparently they are the two largest standing stones in Cornwall- and, more strangely, one of the earliest professional reports on the stone circle was written by Hugh O'Neill Hencken- the same archaeologist who later worked at the Etruscan city of Tarquinia! Even when I hide from the Etruscans in darkest Cornwall they seem to hunt me down!

Just down the road from Merry Maidens is Tregiffian Burial Chamber. Like Merry Maidens, it's a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age monument. Apparently, when excavated in 1871, pits with bone remains were discovered and taken to be evidence for cremations, and later excavations confirmed cremation urns- suggesting the deposition of human remains at the site over a long period of time. The original cross-piece of the monument, covered in cup and ring markings, has been removed and is now in Truro, so the one you can see is a replica. It's a pretty atmospheric little tomb, looking sad and empty beside the lane that runs between Lamorna and Mousehole. Someone had left flowers on the stones, crumpled and dying in the growing heat.

As we were in a bit of a rush, we then went on a Neolithic road trip, following the coastal road from Sennen up to St Ives, with periodical dashes inland to hunt for sites up on the moors. We weren't very successful, as we didn't have an OS Map- only a road atlas with very rough directions. We did manage to find Boskednan stone circle, which has been heavily restored. We then went looking for and failed to find Men-an-Tol, which I had been dying to see, but hadn't properly prepared. By this point, after an afternoon of surfing, we were both pretty tired. I think we will have to come back to Cornwall for a proper prehistory safari- there are some great Iron Age sites there too. In spite of skipping gaily around enjoying the spring, looking back on the weekend it seems to have been a bit of an archaeological flop- and perhaps a bit of a physical flop too! Yep, that's me falling off the surfboard like a spreadeagled whale. Always elegant.