Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


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* Life is made up of small stories and big histories, and none of us knows which of these makes more sense in the end: the grand narrative with its swooping destinies--or the private dramas and their unresolvable consequences. In archaeology the most essential property of the grand narrative is its chronological framework--today provided mainly by radiocarbon and its isotopic cousins. This year we published a new framework for prehistoric society in south-east Asia (March), and for metallurgy in Eurasia (December). We travelled through 35 000 years in central India (June) and dated the first pottery in Africa (December). For me these are landmark articles from the class of 2009, which you can see lined up for inspection on the next page.

But there were personal stories too, some reminding us that archaeology is every bit as powerful a way of contemplating the human condition as poetry or music. I'm thinking of Eung Tae's tomb of course (March), but those who like the purer forms of artefact biography will love the ornamental trousers from Sampula in China (December). Starting life as a wall hanging in a Bactrian palace, they were abducted by nomads and ended their days in a massacre by the Xiongnu. These are trousers with attitude, trousers that survived everything life threw at them, to finally emerge tattered but unbowed from a tomb in the Tarim basin.

Putting new life into old trousers is only one of archaeology's many talents. On a hilltop in South Africa (September), we were dancing to music in a decorated rock arena, inspired by early twentieth-century life in the Kalahari. And when ethnographic analogies run dry, we can reproduce scenes through experiment: this year we made stone cleavers in an Acheulean quarry (September), compared the killing properties of stone- versus wood-tipped arrows (September) and tested some bronze shields to near destruction (December). Our authors evoked dinner parties at Catalhoyuk where hosts flaunted their aurochs (September), and enlarged the ritual landscape at Stonehenge, which is growing annually in the mind, from a quirky temple to a Neolithic mecca (March).

And it's worth mentioning again the achievements of molecular methodology: the sequence of Viking life obtained from the DNA in a thin core of soil at 'The Farm beneath the Sand' in Greenland; and elsewhere the work of stable isotopes, deducing the provenance of ivory in copper age Portugal, of freshwater fish in Aristophanes' Greece, glass in Islamic Syria, and the diet of medieval bishops at Whithorn. Micromorphology, microstratigraphy and molecular assemblages are joining the tool kit of the ordinary archaeological explorer--or should be.

* Needless to say we could not let 2009 pass without offering a tribute to Charles Darwin, author of On the origin of species by means of natural selection and progenitor of the primacy of evolution as the driver of history. As Chris Evans showed us in June, Darwin studied the earthworm and told archaeologists something about site formation, and even did a dig or two himself (assisted by his family). But some readers may consider that we avoided the key issue: what is the role of evolution in archaeological thinking today? Is it discredited in the post-modern age? Evolution was certainly applied to artefacts--and to societies--in the nineteenth century, but in a way that implied not so much 'the survival of the fittest' as 'the arrival of the British': a vision of progress towards civilisation led by empire--a human trajectory heading towards afternoon tea at a cricket match near Cambridge.

Of course Darwin's evolution wasn't like that: its consequences were diversification not convergence, and so, applied to artefacts, would provide a mechanism for the way ideas spread and were adapted to different ecological niches, like plants. Evolutionary Archaeology, as it is being developed by Stephen Shennan and colleagues, wants us to see material culture as constructed and inherited in a similar way to genes.

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