Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Bruce Trigger's Understanding Early Civilisations is a book that every archaeologist will eventually read, like Gordon Childe's Man makes himself. Not that I have read it all: at 688 pages the only academics able to do this quickly will be those who are meant to be writing 600-page books of their own. But even starting at the end (like me), you experience the special pleasure of a keen intellect expressing clear ideas in a courteous and considerate manner. Trigger reviews seven selected civilisations (Akkadian, Old Kingdom, Shang, Maya, Aztec, Inka and Yoruba) in order to discover whether what they have in common transcends their idiosyncracies. As a valued pathfinder through archaeological thought Trigger has sought to loosen the grip of the processualists and the post-processualists on our subject: ("It seemed to me that research was being guided to an unhealthy extent by theoretical dogmatism" p.x), and gently bashes the heads of both: processualists have an unduly simplistic view of change while post-modernists are merely the new romantics.

He finds that all his civilisations depended on the production of surplus, had one male leader, oppressed their women, smacked their children, supported an tipper class who took everything and displayed it shamelessly, and cultivated gods who required regular feeding to make them function helpfully. Moreover the peasants were strangely compliant to all this, viewing the whole enterprise as essentially in their best interests. Many of these tendencies (repeated across the globe) apparently have deep roots in biology, psychology and hormones--which he calls on us to incorporate in our new studies. By contrast, the numerous varieties of material culture, for example in art, architecture and agriculture, do not necessarily signify much originality of thought, politics or ideology. Those of us dedicated to diversity as the world's abiding asset (and see it in archaeology everywhere) get a bit of a knock here. Art might have its variants, but its underlying message is painfully repetitive: competition is inevitable and class is the consequence. There will be plenty who will point out that these similarities were embedded in the original selection, and that the "smaller scale societies" have alternative ways to conduct a less obnoxious life on earth than 'civilisation' clearly offers. Sadly, it appears that the periods of 'social generosity' (his phrase) exhibited by the small scale societies are both poorly documented and brief (unless the one also implies the other). The overview is thrilling and the challenge to post-modernism invigorating. But it appears that man did not make himself: far from calling the shots, human agency was little more than a long-legged fly on a stream of hormones. Understanding Early Civilisations is reviewed by Kate Spence in this issue (pp. 939-943).

When academics meet they often compare the half-hearted and pragmatic Anglo-American attitude to funding academic activity (or getting it to fund itself) with the enlightened altruism of old Europe, particularly Germany, in which artists and thinkers are viewed as national treasures. Not any more. The Senate for Research and Health of the City of Hamburg plans to cut by half the staff in the humanities faculty of their University. This will mean a reduction from 155 to around 77 by 2012. Our correspondent writes: "Consequently many important disciplines will no longer be taught there and those departments that survive will not be able to provide a programme that meets international standards". The decision was apparently based on a calculation by a commercial consultant of the prospective demand by employers for graduates in different subjects by 2012. The application of an equation between humanities subjects and the job market must be self-evidently dubious, but the fear is that, given Germany's economic problems, other lander will follow Hamburg's example.

Antiquity is not about antiquities, but continues to be very concerned about their circulation. …

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