Historicism, Chronology and Straw Men: Situating Hawkes' 'Ladder of Inference.'

By Evans, Christopher | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Historicism, Chronology and Straw Men: Situating Hawkes' 'Ladder of Inference.'


Evans, Christopher, Antiquity


Although widely acknowledged as amongst the leading fathers of modern British and European archaeology, generally Christopher Hawkes' writings have had little influence within recent archaeological thought. This is surprising given that, advocating an 'informed' archaeology, his was one of the few voices raised against the scientific processualism of 1950-'70s, and his papers of that period stand in distinct counterpoint to those of Grahame Clark (Evans 1995). Despite recent interest in historical interpretation (e.g. Hodder 1986: 77-102; Barrett 1994; 1995), lacking an all-embracing theory, Hawkes' work has really had no impact upon post-processualism. To date, his contribution remains entirely overshadowed by Childe and, when not misread, is largely overlooked (e.g. omitted in Hodder 1991; in Trigger 1989 he receives only one bibliographic reference when compared to Childe's 44).

If thus relegated to the disciplinary sidelines, how is it that Hawkes"Ladder of inference' of 1954 commands such fervent notice? Following recent appraisal of Hawkes' work (Evans forthcoming), the aim of this note is specific - to address the extraordinary misunderstanding of this renowned paper. He delivered 'Archaeological theory and method: some suggestions from the Old World' at a Wenner-Gren Foundation supper conference held in Harvard University in November 1953 whilst he was a visiting lecturer in Old World Prehistory at the Peabody Museum. At 14 pages it is a long paper, yet the 'Ladders' argument itself only extends over a half-page. A key document in the history of 20th-century archaeology, citation to it is almost mandatory in any overview of the development of archaeological thought and it often serves as a 'windmill' to be tilted at when marshalling theoretical argument. Lacking a bridging theory and apparently privileging economy over ritual, the paper has become something of a straw man for post-processualism (e.g. Hodder 1982: 11-12), as it was earlier for New Archaeology due to its methodological shortcomings (e.g. Binford 1968: 2023). Hawkes did not refer to ranking as 'ladders'; this seems attributable to Binford (1968: 20) after Chang's (1967: 12-13) 'ladder of reliability'.

Given the character of its critique, in most cases the paper can only have been read quickly, without a sense of context, and many appear to rely on the orthodoxy of established secondary sources. Most telling is that its qualified discussion of inferential limits is rarely married with the remainder - a new framework of chronological terminology. This Hawkes had first presented in his Presidential Address to the Prehistoric Society of 1950, 'British Prehistory half-way through the century' (Hawkes 1951). Its basic premise was to bring the British nomenclature and concept of prehistory more into line with its application on the continent, particularly protohistory. He argued (1951: 12) that the terminology of the subject should reflect the chronological distance from history:

the recognition, in the language we use and the thought it represents, that there is also a grading in our degree of knowledge, and in the range of the limits which must inevitably circumscribe it.

Conscious of the year of its delivery (1950), Hawkes presented this 'little cognitional system' as a birthday present to the second half of the 20th century. In it he proposed a four-fold division: the Protohistoric ('almost history'; 300500 BC); Parahistoric ('alongside history'; 1500300 BC); Telehistoric ('far-off from history'; early Metal Ages and secondary Neolithic) and Antehistoric ('before all history'; primary Neolithic, Mesolithic and Palaeolithic).

Hawkes was not alone in his call for, nor the first to propose, a new chronology. Alluding to conspiracy, he continued his Prehistoric Society address by declaring that within its membership there were 'several philanthropic plotters' working to establish a new pan-European chronology. Hawkes announced that there would be public discussion of the proposals, and that Daniel's new framework would shortly appear within Man (1951), it being similar to that presented by Childe in his Prehistoric communities of the British Isles of 1940 (p. …

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