Materiality and Memory: An Archaeological Perspective on the Popular Adoption of Linear Time in Britain

By Mytum, Harold | Antiquity, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Materiality and Memory: An Archaeological Perspective on the Popular Adoption of Linear Time in Britain


Mytum, Harold, Antiquity


Introduction

Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in time and memory, examining these two linked issues in a number of ways (Bailey 1987; Gosden 1994; Thomas 1996; Murray 1999; Karlsson 2001; Bradley 2002; van Dyke & Alcock 2003; Lucas 2005). Linear time has become recognised as only one of several competing or, according to Lucas (2005), complementary paradigms that may be applied within the contemporary world, and in the past. It is thus now commonplace for archaeologists to conceive their chronologies in linear time, studying prehistory in relative stratigraphic sequences and equating them to calendar years using calibrated radiocarbon chronologies. Within that linear past, however, they seek an understanding of past actors' world views that may have been of cyclical or experienced time. The origins of popular understanding and implementation of linear time have not, however, been investigated.

Material evidence for the popular perception of linear time in recent millennia in Europe, as an incremental addition of years from the birth of Christ, suggests that the adoption of such a chronological perspective was central in the construction of individual, familial and community histories, to be set besides the developing national histories already identified by historians (Cressy 1989; Anderson 1991). Archaeologists can identify the shift in a popular understanding of time that was a powerful factor in increasing pressure for social and political change in the English-speaking world, and also led to the development of both history and archaeology as academic subjects. The concept of materiality allows for the acknowledgement and investigation of the relationships between ideas and activities (DeMarrais et al. 1996), and material culture labelled with dates not only reflected, but also created patterns of understanding and behaviour regarding such a concept of time.

The Judeo-Christian Biblical counting of years created a framework for understanding and counting linear time, beginning with the Creation, pivoted around Christ's birth, and was scheduled to end with the Resurrection of Christ at the Second Coming. This provided a linear framework, within which years of each king's reign were counted, and the Annals and Chronicles of the early Middle Ages were formulated. Yet time was not normally viewed in that way during the Middle Ages (Burke 1969). Predominant medieval concepts of time rather emphasised the cyclical nature of the seasons, and longer-term change was not perceived within a linear dimension. What to us appears as a certain timelessness was applied to medieval understanding of the remote past, as seen in medieval illustrations of Biblical events where all the participants were depicted with material culture including clothes, architecture and tools that were contemporary with the creation of the image (Panofsky 1960:170). This a historical vision gave time a different quality. Although events could be placed in a linear arrangement, as indicated in the Annals and Chronicles, those early in the sequence could be understood in terms of contemporary concerns and imagery. This may be linked to St Augustine's consideration of personal time, with the present incorporating past memory and expectation of the future. In religious art this would link the Biblical past event with the present of the artist and viewer, and to the future when Judgement would come. Archaeology and history, as would be appreciated today, did not exist in such a milieu. The annual cyclical pattern of religious feast days and festivals created a dynamic of time that in one sense moved on along a linear trajectory towards the Day of Judgement (and millennial movements at AD 1000, for example, reflected this). In other senses, however, the timelessness of the cyclical calendar dominated popular thought and action. This combination of different understandings of time is frequent in many cultures, including our own. …

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Materiality and Memory: An Archaeological Perspective on the Popular Adoption of Linear Time in Britain
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