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!

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