Too Many Ancestors

By Whitley, James | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Too Many Ancestors


Whitley, James, Antiquity


My thesis is a simple one: there are too many ancestors in contemporary archaeological interpretation, and they are being asked to do too much. I begin with some quotations, taken more or less at random from a number of recent books and articles on British and European prehistory.

`It is in the common emphasis on the collective over the individual that we can trace a concern with ancestral forces' (Edmonds 1999p 61); `The living will have visited Stonehenge ... at certain moments to meet the ancestors, to communicate directly with them' (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998: 318); `The megalithic monuments of Vastgoterland ... must have encoded myths of origin The bones of the ancestors of the population using the monuments were deposited in the chambers along a north-south axis which may well represent the propitious direction of the divine ancestral route.' (Tilley 1996: 210);' Ancestral powers and histories are sometimes vested in trees or stones, and spirits of the dead may be seen in their forms.' (Edmonds 1999: 21); `the ancestors were invited to occupy stone houses, dark, quiet, and difficult of access, and cajoled to remain with the hospitality of gifts of food and stone' (Whittle 1996, 1); `It is very likely that these sink holes ... were conceived ... as places where the ancestors entered and left the earth' (Tilley 1999: 238); `The frequent presence of human remains is also significant: in a society where the dead seem to be of especial significance, the remains of the ancestral departed are overtly connected with the remains of fire and feasting' (Thomas 1991: 76); `Often associated with human remains and sometimes built to incorporate existing long barrows, these enigmatic sites [cursuses] had a close association with ancestral rites' (Edmonds 1999: 104); `The landscape simultaneously passes on and encodes information about the ancestral past' (Tilley 1994: 40); `Not only does the Avebury--West Kennet evidence replicate the spatial segregation of the ancestors' stone-built space from the timber domain of the living, but it also provides a set of relationships similar to those for the Stonehenge--Durrington monuments' (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998: 319); `Planting an axe signifying bone was an act of burying ancestral forces into the land ensuring fertility and regenerative powers' (Tilley 1996: 324); `Inscribed with rich biographies, axes helped define relations between people and the ancestral world' (Edmonds 1999: 42).

A spectre is haunting British archaeology -- the omnipresent ancestor. Ancestors were to the 1990s what chiefdoms (Yoffee 1993) were to the 1970s -- the explanation of choice for a whole range of archaeological phenomena, from the siting of monuments within the landscape to the use of stone as opposed to wood in the construction of stone circles and henges. Like many recent developments in British prehistory, the universal ancestor has gone from being a suggestion to becoming an orthodoxy without ever having had to suffer the indignity of being treated as a mere hypothesis. Ancestors are everywhere, and everything is ancestral.

Unfortunately, those of us who work in other, more international fields of endeavour cannot afford to ignore this trend. British prehistory is influential. Masters and Ph.D. programmes offered by British universities remain popular with European students, students whose first introduction to theoretical archaeology is through the `theoretical' interpretations currently popular in British prehistory. When students learn to `apply' theory, what they actually `apply' are these interpretations, especially to those classes of material which have the same romantic appeal. Like Stonehenge or Maes Howe, the palaces and tombs of Bronze Age Crete have a peculiar attraction to those seeking for an `age of innocence' before capitalism or modernity. I can confidently predict that books with titles like `Ancestral geographies of Minoan Crete' or `A Cretan pheneomenology of landscape' will be published in the very near future. …

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