Footnotes to Plato? Palaeolithic Archaeology and Innocence Lost
Sinclair, Anthony, Antiquity
Trawling through old, dust-covered folders I found out that I first read 'Archaeology: the loss of innocence' as a 2nd-year undergraduate for an essay on whether the New Archaeology was as theoretically sophisticated as it claimed to be. My notes of the time emphasize the beginning and end of the article; suggesting that Clarke's purpose was just to argue that
I there had been a sea-change in the nature of archaeology leading to the development of a critically self-conscious entity in the New Archaeology; and
2 to discuss what a general theory of archaeology might look like. I was not alone in reading 'the loss of innocence' in this way, and indeed, most of the references that I have found to it, note just these parts.
In recent readings, however, it has struck me that, like a good sandwich, the bits of choice (and the parts that ought to be remembered) lie in the middle - in the interplay that Clarke sees between methodologies, observations, concepts and information. Clarke points out in a series of small sections how theory-laden our interpretations of the past necessarily are, and how important it was to be aware of all aspects of our theoretical approaches. Each is inextricably tied to the other, and the product has consequences for all aspects of our interpretations of the past. Clarke's idea of a general theory of archaeology, and his characterization of the New Archaeology, were the product of his reading of this interplay.
Twenty-five years on, much has changed. There is a new environment and there are new consequences as a result of current and recent work. Some of Clarke's concerns are now out of date: the existence of a New Archaeology is an accepted historical event, the idea of a single uniform structure of reasoning or explanation justly died soon after Clarke's comments were published. The central core, however, remains as provocative today as it was when first published. The archaeology of the Palaeolithic world is without doubt more explicitly theoretical than it was. A number of scholars have, like Clarke, dared to think out loud about what an archaeology of the Palaeolithic might be; the thoughts of Lewis Binford (1983; 1991) and especially Glynn Isaac (1989) stand out as the classic and influential examples. But the prospect of a general theory of Palaeolithic archaeology still seems, tantalisingly, both within and yet just beyond reach. Part of the reason for this is the tremendous diversity of relationships between the elements noted by Clarke, none of which can be easily held in control. Part of the reason also lies in the problems that Palaeolithic archaeologists have encountered in defining hominid behaviour in the face of perceived dramatic changes through time, within a field of study that likes to see itself as a social science with its roots in the biological and evolutionary sciences.
As an exploration of this, and in the sincerest expression of flattery, I thought that I might follow Clarke's original structure for the 'loss of innocence', although sticking more with the sandwich filling. In the spirit of the original, references are more implicit than explicit. My apologies to all those who feel that their work is thus not given due credit.
A new environment
Traditional methodologies of 'Palaeolithic' analysis have been expanded. Lithic analysis now commonly includes not just typological and technological observations but the study of raw materials and use-wear traces, along with the refitting of excavated debitage. Despite ups and downs, microwear analysis steadily provides useable information concerning the uses of stone tools; raw material studies provide patterns of calculated human movements in a landscape, and refitting studies are linking together intra-site actions, in a way that statistical analyses could never hope to. Scanning electron microscopes now make it possible to infer the use of lithic tools from other objects such as bone in the form of cut marks, often helping to interrelate the co-presence of faunal and lithic materials in a reliable fashion. …