Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


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"Here nature bids us take our stand
And cut a window into Europe,
To build a haven on the strand
And welcome ships from every land
And with our guests make merry ..."

A C Pushkin. The Bronze Horseman

As reported by the incomparable Pushkin, Peter the Great was moved to cut a window into Europe by building the city of St Petersburg (briefly Leningrad) which this year celebrated its 300th anniversary. The organisers of the European Archaeology Association conference which was held there in September opened a number of windows too--in this case so that Europeans from western countries could gaze into the varied and fascinating archaeology of Russia. And not just European Russia either; of 517 papers presented in 48 parallel sessions, more than 70 were actually about Central Asia. Delegates encountered such diverse topics as Palaeolithic migrations and adaptations in northern Eurasia, Iron Age settlement in the trans-Urals, sub-arctic zones of West Siberia in the sixth-eighth centuries AD, reconstructions of private life from the birch-bark documents of Novgorod, and a session on the archaeological story of St Petersburg itself.

The agenda was particularly interesting for its archaeological theory. Contributors stressed that the Soviet period, which had brought its own rather particular view of the past, was only one episode in the work of a vigorous theoretical college long active in Russia. In the 1850s, Prince P. A. Poutiane corresponded with Lubbock about flints he had discovered at Bologoe, and travelled regularly to Europe, returning laden with the writings of Lyell, Mortillet, Cartailhac and Capitan. Boucher de Perthes visited Russia in 1856, while still shunned by the French scientific establishment. As Igor Tikhonov reminded delegates, the teaching of prehistoric archaeology began at St Petersburg University in the later 1880s at the Department of Geography and Ethnography. By the 1920s, as shown by Nadezhda Platonova, Russian archaeologists regarded their subject as a branch of anthropology, and liked to interpret cultural material in terms of "social regularities revealed by ethnology". In Russian circles, this approach is considered to have long foreshadowed the "New Archaeology" in the west. But sadly those early palaeo-ethnologists--or proto-processualists--had no chance to bring their work to fruition, and the "majority of their theoretical and methodological work remained unpublished" due to the dominance of Marxism--then considered "the only true theory". There was also an interesting take on the role of the environment in Russian archaeology from Olena Smyntyna. In Soviet prehistory, ecological case studies began to appear at the end of the 1960s in connection with the large-scale introduction of scientific methods on excavations. But "unlike western scholars, Soviet scholars are inclined to believe that social factors in prehistory reduce environmental impact on material culture". Some would say that east and west are both now getting the social and the environmental into balance.

Other scholars praised the benefits of continual opposition and debate, as a consequence of freedom from a dominant theory: "a battery can produce an electric current only through the operation of opposing dipoles" (Andrei Sinitsyn and John Hoffecker). One is full of admiration that a country which has had to cope with so much politics has also managed to do so much archaeology. Nick Petrov and his team deserve our warmest congratulations. Antiquity hopes in future to give still more of a platform to the discoveries and thinking of this vast area, starting with a special feature in the Project Gallery (http://antiquity.ac.uk).

Brilliant as the papers were, there breathed few delegates with souls so dead that they could long resist the allure of Anna Akhmatova's city. First stop was naturally the Hermitage, well-known as an enormous collection of pictures, initiated by Catherine the Great and swollen by many later donors (willing or enforced) such as Count Stroganoff (of beef stew fame).

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