Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Constructing Prehistory: Lithic Analysis in the Levantine Epipalaeolithic

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Constructing Prehistory: Lithic Analysis in the Levantine Epipalaeolithic

Article excerpt


Word and world in prehistory

The past thirty years have seen a continuing debate about the relationship between the written word and the world it represents in texts. Archaeologists have located this debate within the Processualist/Post-Processualist paradigms, calling in particular for the replacement of functionalist with social explanations, and attempting to develop 'alternative' archaeologies. Central to these trends have been the works of theorists who have challenged the position of the author in both the text and the world. From an initial concern with works of fiction, texts of almost all kinds are now being scrutinized from a perspective which insists on a separation between the word and its referent. In the field of history, there has been particularly heated debate about the degree to which historical accounts may be accepted as legitimate representations of the past. For some contributors, histories are mere constructs, created by situated historians through the literary forms which they use to give their texts the appearance of authoritative historical accounts (Ankersmit 1990; Fish 1989; LaCapra 1985). Responses to such claims have been equally vehement, with many historians rejecting the attempt to subject their inquiries to this kind of literary critique (Elton 1991; Lorenz 1994; Stone 1992).

Critique has followed two paths: one focusing on the internal construction of the text itself, and the other on the social context of the construction of that text. Here I will identify some of the linkages between these two aspects in prehistoric archaeology. Textual strategies, methods of data analysis, and situated archaeologists all form a dense web creating the picture we have of the Levantine Epipalaeolithic. A case study of practice in the use of chipped-stone analyses in constructing narratives will focus on how three researchers construct the Middle Epipalaeolithic, in a close reading of three key texts.

Using narrative

Archaeologists have only recently become interested in how we use language to describe, discuss, infer, and conclude. Early contributors in the field of human evolution are Misa Landau (1984), influenced by Vladimir Propp's work (1968) on universal narrative structures of fairy tales, and Donna Haraway (1989). More recently, Terrell (1990), Rudebeck (1996), Tilley (1999), and Pluciennik (1999) have investigated the use of narrative in Pacific prehistory, the Scandinavian Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, megalith studies, and the European Mesolithic-Neolithic transitions, respectively. There is a growing realization that archaeological accounts are verbal structures, based only in part on initial statements of fact. Writing is a central and interpretative part of our discipline (e.g. Bender, Hamilton & Tilley 1997; Hodder 2000; Tilley 1999).

Our accounts of the past can be said to consist of two elements. Various statements and pieces of data form the initial stage of researching a past. These can be judged for their accuracy through comparison with, for example, raw data, maps, and independent dating. However, no published account consists simply of lists of pieces of data. Published accounts are translations of these disparate statements and data into a whole picture, through endowing sets of data with meaning beyond what might be suggested by a straightforward list. This is the process that makes an understandable story out of raw data.

This process of choosing elements and bringing them together into a coherent whole possessing the form of an archaeological account is where narrative techniques come into play. It is narrative that connects selected disparate items into a coherent context. This overall written picture of the past, with its select set of chosen statements, arranged with certain facts given extra explanatory weight, cannot be compared against the past and declared to be either true or false. …

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