Time, culture and identity: An interpretive archaeology.

Julian Thomas

Routledge, London and New York, 1996. ISBN: 0415118611. 267 pages.

Book review by Danny Hind

It is five years since we first read the introduction to Rethinking the Neolithic, where Julian Thomas grappled with the problems of self-aware and reflexive archaeological narrative. The past is unfamiliar, so the only way we can understand it is to familiarise it, to tame it; but then its nature has changed. The conclusion seemed to be that sooner or later you had to sit down and write a story, but one which not only captured as much of the 'wildness' of the past as possible, but was ethical with respect to the present. Strange then, many will think, that Dr. Thomas now chooses to work out "what a 'Heideggerian archaeology' might look like" (p.2).

For those unfamiliar with the name, Martin Heidegger (1887-1976) was a philosopher who used the methods of phenomenology to explore the structures of human existence. His work, impressive if often impenetrable, has been largely ignored in some areas because as rector of Freiburg University (1933-1945) he was a member of the Nazi Party, resulting in a tarnished reputation which he made no effort to restore. Two questions then: can Thomas's use of Heidegger be justified and, if so, is it strictly necessary?

It is not for me to write Thomas's apology (he provides his own in the introduction). It is notable that Chris Gosden was unapologetic about his use of Heidegger's ideas in Social Being and Time. To use material which can be associated with acts of barbarity will, to some, amount to complicity. At the same time, to consign such material to the flames is to mimic the same behaviour. One of the tenets of Thomas's book is that ideas are transformed by the context within which they are deployed. If we accept this, we can mourn the past misuse of such material while rejoicing that we can now use it for humane and worthwhile ends. Bourdieu suggests that Heidegger's philosophy cannot be reduced to a political ideology, and I believe most will be happy with that. This said, does archaeology need Heidegger's work at all?

Thomas is undoubtedly well read where Heidegger is concerned but, like Gosden (op. cit.), he uses a wide range of secondary and tertiary sources to back up his arguments with other names. It is a practice we are all guilty of to varying degrees but I can't help feeling that ideas are lost in the transition. The theses of many philosophers were not always intended to be generally applicable across time; like any writing, they were historically situated. It follows that many works assume a more detailed knowledge of the writer's peers and forebears than Thomas or Gosden have been able to accrue. Ultimately there is something almost distasteful about 'soundbiting' someone who spent their entire life writing one opus - these theses were not created to adhere to the departmental points system and cannot be condensed as easily as current research often should be. Heraclitus might have written "everything flows" but it is an unnecessary, and unexplained melisma to page 60 that makes sensible archaeological discourse seem like hippy ramblings ("One cannot step twice into the same river" would have been much better!). At the end of the day, Heidegger is a complex writer and there are many interpretations of his work, of which Thomas's will have its unique tilt. Whether a philosopher reading Time, Culture and Identity would recognise much Heidegger at all is an issue explored in the latest Archaeological Dialogues.

Another thing that struck me throughout the book is that many of the ideas have been expressed by others with considerably more clarity. Thomas himself admits that Heidegger failed to adequately theorise 'the social' (p.42). At the same time there are aspects of his theory which are crucial to clarifying our thought, particularly with respect to the relationship between time and identity, surely key issues in archaeology. Many people will find useful ideas in the first section of the book ('A Phenomenological Archaeology') which, whilst often discouragingly abstract, makes for compelling reading and is a useful supplement to structuration theory.

On the other hand there is little in the case studies ("Three Histories"; chapters five to seven) to indicate that Thomas has had a 'Road to Damascus' experience with Heidegger. For instance chapter five ('The Descent of the British Neolithic' - retracing The Domestication of Europe with Mesolithic agency acknowledged) ends in a phenomenological reconstruction of Dyffryn Ardudwy, a chambered tomb in North Wales. There is no exploration of why it is built there, or of the fact that the place might have had meaning in existing networks of landscape association. Similarly, in chapter seven, Mount Pleasant is explored, effectively in isolation from its surroundings. More work, then, is needed to integrate the essentially egocentric existentialism of Heidegger with the growing body of landscape theory examined in chapter four.

The best developed of the case studies is chapter six ("Later Neolithic Britain: Artefacts With Personalities") where Thomas is forced to confront "our problem in identifying precisely who was using which artefacts and depositing them where . . . Here lies the paradox: it is impossible to grasp the significance of the artefacts without hypothesising the people responsible for their disposition, yet any specific identification of social sub-units can only be hypothetical" (p.179). To develop non-testable hypotheses is not the same as fiction. On the contrary, just because certain aspects of identity will always remain unknown quantities in patterns of manufacture and deposition, to write around the issue is to lose a grip on how the real world operates.

There is hard language in chapter three ("Material Things and their Temporality") with respect to the scientific paradigm as a failed attempt to build knowledge by continual 'dissection'. This in itself is fine but at some moments it seems as if we are to dismiss science as useful at all, especially around pp. 76-77, when the argument turns to 'an archaeological poetics': "not to tackle the earth head-on, but to 'get the measure', finding metaphors to express the way in which the inexpressible cannot be expressed". Everyone will have their own position on this one, but I hope that rather than preaching to the converted, it inspires the debate we urgently need about how to write this sort of archaeology. There is hope rather than polemic in his tone. Like the primatologists and ethnologists, Thomas is concerned with the nature of 'being human', but is not anxious to separate off Homo sapiens. "Human existence makes biology possible, rather than vice versa" (p.18): " . . . we place human beings back in the world not by behaviouralising people but by 'socialising' animals" (p.75). Agency goes beyond men and women; although we may be uncomfortable when people with different ideologies express a belief of consciousness in animals, plants, things we can't see (and don't believe in) and even children, it doesn't alter the fact that such tenets have played an important part in how most people have conducted and still do conduct their lives. To write archaeology without considering these convictions is hollow and banal.

Like Gosden, Thomas is interested in expressing how we perceive prehistoric activity at different time-scales. Gosden produced some very convincing observations on epochal time but remained rather abstract when it came to the rhythms of everyday life. I have no doubt that the ideas of experiencing which Thomas derives from Heidegger will be useful in the construction of a new type of archaeological narrative able to better integrate these scales. Challenging, rewarding and, at times, inspirational reading.

Those interested in Thomas's book may wish to visit the archives of the Arch-Theory discussion group, where there has recently been some relevant debate.

Danny Hind is a Ph.D. student at the Research School of Archaeology and Archaeological Science, University of Sheffield. He is primarily interested in archaeological theory and the Mesolithic - Neolithic transition in Britain, as well as being the assemblage web editor.


Danny Hind 1996

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