Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Where is archaeology going? Can Antiquity answer this question? Should it try to? We are privileged to be sent much of the best new research--or that part of it ready to be summarised into short statements. What does it tell us about the direction in which archaeological minds are moving? The submissions are not random: there is a scholarly Zeitgeist which moves among them and could perhaps be detected by an astute geistbuster. Trying to place a finger on the future is a pleasant exercise that could prove useful, even if wrong.

Criticisms of our content heard at conferences take a random form: 'too much Palaeolithic', 'all that Polynesia', 'not many papers relevant to me' or 'bewildering variety'. My first reaction is always one of surprise that so few readers like to read outside their field. But a second imperative is to take stock: do we do justice to the whole world and all the loom of time? As a check and guide to the research we published in 2006, readers may care to take advantage of the new 'Time and Topics' table printed at the head of the index (p. 1038). This certainly presents a feast, but can anyone hope to identify a significant trend from its rich and varied menu? A few subjects quickly suggest themselves for expansive chat: the enduring subtext provided by agriculture; the language of burial; the recurrence of symbols. Bulls have a walk-on ritual role in Europe over ten millennia, featuring on stelae in Iberia, as deposits in Iron Age France and under the Sutton Hoo axe-hammer. Iron Age people are burying their dead as mummies in furnished chambers under pyramids in Mongolia. But presumably we do not suspect an invasion by Rameses II. Do chariot burials mean nomads? New work is mapping horses and chariots over northern Asia, a continent coming increasingly under the spotlight as an originator of movement both east and west. Sea travel is almost ubiquitous, from the time that there was a sea; in this year alone researchers describe prehistoric journeys in the Red Sea, the China Sea, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the North Sea beginning in 8000 and perhaps originating in the earliest hominin breakout. Human mobility is becoming earlier and more continuous, so many additional scintillations of light, spotted in each of the seven seas. This year we even published our first paper about the archaeological heritage on the moon. And three key methods are helping to create this global framework: satellite survey, isotope signatures (as signals of place of origin) and radiocarbon dating. And in case you are thinking, well, the last of these at least is old hat, look at the first article of this issue, which will send shivers of anxiety through many existing absolute dates. The research team suggest that no date before 26 000 BP and few before 12 400 BP are currently safe, and that new mutually supporting networks must be built up.

One could advance the tentative opinion that the dream of a world prehistory is coming ever closer to reality--raising the suspicion that the world always was a global village. If so, it should be possible to build a powerful explanatory discourse about humans, independent of their modern preoccupations. There are still some conceptual inhibitions to such a discourse, the divisions of time and space perhaps prominent among them. My ten 'periods' were creations of convenience, based on datability, designed to help readers escape from their native narratives. A neutral terminology of time could help to link prehistoric fragments that we can now begin to suspect were never totally isolated from each other. As for space, continents rather than countries might provide the neutral scientific ground. Given these, we can anticipate the creation of universal frameworks by the boldest among us.

Global overviews are the business of global conferences. Before the Southampton revolution of 1986 which gave birth to the World Archaeological Congress, the world's archaeological Mecca was the congress of the International Union far Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, otherwise Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques.

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