Hindsight and Foresight: Preserving the Past for the Future

By Sherratt, Andrew | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Hindsight and Foresight: Preserving the Past for the Future


Sherratt, Andrew, Antiquity


A historical discipline must be true to its subject-matter: each phase must be considered in its own terms, not as the harbinger of what came afterwards. Otherwise we fall prey to what Herbert Butterfield(1) perceptively stigmatized as the 'Whig view of history': the hindsight, and the moral self-righteousness, of the self-proclaimed progressive. David Clarke wrote at a critical period in the development of archaeology as we know it today, at the transition from what was largely a middle-class recreation to a widely taught university subject with the potential for transforming our understanding of all periods of the human past (and hence also the human present). He lived long enough to capture a vision of what that understanding might comprehend, but not long enough to experience the fragmentation of cultural responses to globalization and the profound social transformation which has accompanied its unfolding. His writings offer a brilliant characterization of a world now in many respects radically different, and a prescription which is worth preserving for an equally different future (cf. Sherman 1989). It is important, therefore, to understand the meaning which the artefact had for its maker - the text for its author - and not to imagine that its value is exhausted by its congruence with present-day concerns.

Those of us who knew David remember his sense of humour as a predominant characteristic, and it is important to read his writings with this quality in mind. 'The use of scientific techniques in archaeology no more makes archaeology a science than a man with a wooden leg becomes a tree' was a fairly typical sample of a penetrating observation caught in a crackling phrase. The 'loss of innocence' paper is full of them: its form is a sustained metaphor, its content replete with snappy one-liners referring obliquely to the cherished ideas of opposing schools of thought. Consider, for instance, his description of academic specialization [Clarke 1973: 6): '. . . each expert has a specialist territory such that criticisms of territorial observations are treated as attacks on personalities. This gradually becomes a seriously counterproductive vestige of a formerly valuable disciplinary adaptation by means of which authorities mutually repel one another into dispersed territories . . .'. Old Cambridge hands will recognize this as a caricature of Eric Higgs and the 'Bone Room' (and in particular their defensive reaction to David's foray into palaeo-economy which was to appear in 1976 as Mesolithic Europe: the economic basis), described in terms of their canonical model of human behaviour - a thinly-disguised adaptation of V.C. Wynne-Edwards' famous analysis of the mating habits of the grouse (Animal dispersion in relation to social behaviour, 1962)! David was both subtle, and possessed of a sense of fun: qualities all too rare in many areas of archaeology, then and now.

Although the above example is something of a period-piece, some of his targets are still represented in contemporary thought. 'It is amusing to note that just as "invasion" explanations were conditioned by the metaphysics of the short chronologies, and produced a move towards "autonomous" explanations [Renfrew 1969], so "autonomous" explanations become meaningless amongst networked communities. Indeed the capacity of archaeology to reinvent for itself archaic explanation structures long abandoned in other disciplines is remarkable - invasion "catastrophism" can be joined by the currently fashionable autonomous "spontaneous generation" explanations and that mysterious "phlogiston" civilization [Renfrew 1972].' Dare one even attribute premonition to his generalization that 'disreputable old battles, long fought and long decided in other disciplines, are imported into archaeology to be needlessly refought with fresh bloodletting', which might describe a fair proportion of the TAG sessions which I have attended since the first one in 1978?

It would be a mistake, therefore.

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