Looking out at Antiquity, from England to the World, 1927-2028. (Special Section)

Article excerpt

O.G.S. Crawford founded ANTIQUITY in 1927 because the then existing British journals were too limited and parochial in their narrowness of interests. He sent out fliers, and vowed to start the journal if enough subscribers showed support for his programme by signing up for a first volume. Enough did--though fewer than the actual number specified--and ANTIQUITY was off. Surviving a wobble when OGS died in 1957 without arranging for any succession, it is still with us. Within Britain, Crawford was based in southern England, as have been his successors, all at Cambridge University. Nearly all continuing publications look at the world from some home base or territory, even if their gaze takes in the world, and for ANTIQUITY home has been always been southern England (until Martin Carver takes over as editor in 2003 and it moves a couple of hundred miles to northern England--not a substantial distance in most parts of the world).

Now, there is a necessary tension within archaeology, and therefore within ANTIQUITY, between the particular and the general. One engine of public interest which supports and drives archaeology is largely specific and local: not `what the ancient world was like' but the singular singularities of Egyptian; not the broad pattern of European landscape history but why the village plan of Whittlesford (Cambridgeshire) takes the form it does and why the near-by village of Pampisford has a different form; not the large picture of human settlement in New Worlds but what singular activities went on in Mesoamerican ball-courts; or--if one notices the eccentricities on the fringes of archaeology of which Glyn Daniel as editor was singularly fond--whether and where and how often and in what numbers and wearing what ludicrous horned helmets the medieval Vikings (may the Lord preserve us!) indeed did or did not reach their promised land of Minnesota.

Against these parochialisms are the grand theorists, whose grandeur sometimes captures nearly all of the academics' attention. In launching ANTIQUITY, and defining it by its broad curiosity, Crawford declared against the parochial and for the general. Like other permanent wars and tension, this opposition has endured and will endure.

The particular remains alluring. I think, myself--in a contemporary globe increasingly homogenized and, it seems, increasingly owned and controlled by the concerns of a single superpower--the allure of a historical particularism will in the future come to strengthen affinities with, and loyalties to, all the smaller social and topographical units--a parish or commune or region or nation-state: people will increasingly seek and find historical justification for their difference and separateness from whatever irrational directions the collective world will take.

Yet he general is impossible to escape. Many of the research community are concerned with the patterns which unite the particulars. All of us depend on uniformitarian methods, so the archaeological means by which we can make any statements about Pampisford or Minnesota always have been generalizing in their essential logic.

Against the generalists, at the same time, remains the uncomfortable truth that the generalizing laws and strong systematic patterns generated by their generalizations are few and weak alongside the singular particulars which are consumed in the creating of the general. A case in point is Lewis Binford's Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology (1978), intended as a foundation of a generalizing (ethno-)archaeology of hunter--gatherer life (see also Binford 2001); yet I find more inspiration and merit in the acuteness of its singular and specific observations, not the generalizing principles built upon them. The same criticism is rightly made, in my view, of that whole 20th-century programme of a generalizing anthropology whose ambition was to generate law-like statements about human societies in the generality: not enough was gained in generalizing that abstract unity to be worth the loss of so many real particulars. …