2.4 The 20th Century: 1900 to 1960

During this period, perhaps more happened outside the discipline of archaeology which in due course would fundamentally influence the discipline. This is not to say that nothing happened within archaeology itself, because changes did indeed occur.

Archaeological techniques and methods, and science

Within UK archaeology during this period, excavation, recording and publication methods were further developed, a high degree of professionalism was introduced, and ultimately books were written to disseminate good practice in the subject (for example Atkinson 1946; 1953; Wheeler 1954). It was not until the very late 1920s and the 1930s that sound practice seems to have been established as the rule rather than the exception. Wheeler's example at Maiden Castle (Wheeler 1934; 1935; 1936; 1943) was followed for decades, and was internationally influential.

Additions to archaeological methods and techniques continued to be made through the period. Childe (1953, but writing in 1946) refers to the use of geographers, palaeobotanists, meteorologists, air survey and photography, petrology and geology. Hawkes in his mid-century essay on British prehistory (1951) adds resistivity surveying and radiocarbon dating. The significance of these 'harder' scientific methods lay in increasing the number of non-invasive techniques of enquiry, and in enriching the information retrievable from data. Radiocarbon dating, however, had a dramatic effect since (to take one example) it moved the study of megalithic tombs from the historical model (based on taxonomy and typology) to the contemplation of a method which considered the variety of construction and rite. The tomb could now be studied 'as an artefact which embodies social, religious, economic and technological behaviour within a local cultural context.' (Chapman 1977, 25-26).

Explanation in archaeology of the period

It is a general view (Chapman et al. 1981, 3) that in the first fifty years of the 20th century archaeological explanation was dominated by the normative, cultural approach. In European prehistory (they suggest), the large amount of mortuary evidence from excavations and museum collections played an integral part in the recognition of regional as well as chronological variations in material culture. Childe (1929, v-vi) had defined culture as when 'We find certain types of remains - pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, house forms - constantly recurring together. Such a complex of regularly associated traits we shall term a "cultural group" or just "a culture". We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what would today be called a "people". Only where the complex in question is regularly and exclusively associated with skeletal remains of a specific physical type would we venture to replace "people" by the term "race".' He goes on (1956a, 9-10, 16) to say that the types including burial rites were socially approved, and common to members of particular societies at particular times. The normative view, as summarised by Chapman, Kinnes and Randsborg, was thus 'that common patterns of behaviour produced spatial regularities in traits, including mortuary practices, and these were crystallized into "cultures".' (1981, 4).

The approach of Childe was first widely published in 1925 in The Dawn of European Civilization (although Chadwick 1907 and Haverfield 1912 had anticipated him in using an interdisciplinary approach). Other eminent or soon to be eminent practioners in the field shared these views for the next 30-40 years, and admission of other evidence or approaches was difficult. Binford termed the approach 'historical-distributional' and summarised the assumption behind it as 'the degree of formal similarity observed among independent socio-cultural units is a direct measure of the degree of genetic or affiliational cultural relationship among the units being compared' (Binford 1971, 9).

On the social approach to the archaeology of death, the first half of the 20th century leant towards the broad horizontal (tribal areas) rather than to the local vertical (social stratification). Social distinctions were inferred within the 'cultures'. The idea of chiefs and aristocrats arose from the existence of large barrows and rich grave goods, the rest of the society being treated as homogeneous (an interpretation which was at least a century and a half old, and given some fresh impetus by Lubbock, in the 1900 edition of Prehistoric Times [1865]). The social approach, however, was not universally interpreted so as the next section will describe.

Anthropology (or ethnology) and archaeology

The first beginnings of the use of anthropology, in particular social anthropology, as a formal discipline applied to archaeology have been described. Perhaps there are two important strands concerning anthropology and archaeology in respect of burial archaeology in the period 1900-60, at the end of which the links and relationships had become more clear. The first strand concerns attitudes to the usefulness of anthropology within UK archaeology as opposed to attitudes outside the UK and particularly in the USA. The second strand concerns the development of anthropology and in particular social anthropology itself in the period as a discipline as it relates to burial archaeology.

The use of social anthropology in UK burial archaeology

Some scholars such as Crawford and Radcliffe-Brown were very early proponents. Crawford held that anthropology is the parent of history and archaeology, man and his works giving unity to all researches. He stressed the inter-relationships of the different branches of science and called for a broad anthropological outlook (1921, 28-29), advocating 'a change of spirit' (1921b, 53). He was to repeat his theme in later publications (1925; 1953).

Radcliffe-Brown wrote his thesis on the Andaman Islanders in 1908-09 (published 1922). He did not believe from his review of methods then available that speculative history as a method of reconstructing an unknown past could give results of real importance for the understanding of human life and culture. He pointed to the emerging work of the French sociologists on the use of ethnological data to help towards this understanding, and criticised historical ethnologists for not being concerned with the meanings of actions because there is no tried method. He recognised the risk that interpretations are governed by reference to modern attitudes, and pointed to the need to seek a method free from the personal equation. 'The notion of function in ethnology rests on the conception of culture as an adaptive mechanism by which a certain number of human beings are enabled to live a social life as an ordered community in a given environment.' (1922, ix). He identified internal and external adaptation, 'social integration' being taken as the term to cover the internal mechanisms, stressing that meaning and function are different but related things.

He warned that the comparative method is not simply finding superficial similarities in usage or belief. Rather, a hypothesis about the nature or function of a ritual or myth must be formulated and tested in a series of studies. The problems presented are therefore not historical but psychological or sociological. His stance is referred to at some length, since it expresses fundamentals which in the UK took half a century to recognise for their worth. The historical-culturalists tended to concentrate on more material-oriented work in a series of notable publications over the decades (for example Wheeler 1925; 1943; Crawford 1925; 1953; Childe 1929; 1930; 1935; 1945; 1949; Kendrick and Hawkes 1932; Grimes 1939b; 1951; Hawkes 1940c; Daniel 1950; Piggott 1954a; Fox 1959b; Ashbee 1960; 1984b). These works ranged from major excavation reports through syntheses of regional material remains integrated with reviews of related publications, to major theses on period cultures over wide areas. There is occasionally the suggestion of process referred to amongst the mass of monumental and material data largely but not wholly derived from burial materials, as well as what Radcliffe-Brown would call speculative history. A methodological exception to much of the UK work was seen in the development by Clark in the 1930s (Clark 1952; 1989) of the archaeological reconstruction of past economies based on material evidence alone 'stressing its ecological context and the importance of understanding the environments that formed the setting of archaeological sites and finds.' (Dark 1995). He went beyond this to integrate social and economic archaeology (Clark 1939; Clark and Piggott 1965), and to stress the importance of the global perspective (Clark 1961). This forms a wider context for burial archaeology.

The development of social anthropology

The potential contribution of social anthropology to archaeological interpretation and explanation of mortuary processes is covered in Section 8. The development of social anthropology found its stimulus in seminal works by Hertz (1907, tr 1960a), van Gennep (1909, tr 1960), Durkheim (1915, tr 1965) and Mauss (1922-23, tr 1970). These showed a greater concern with social organisation as a relevant variable in the understanding of mortuary practices, and effectively replaced the later 19th century concern with primitive religion. They provided a new interpretation of death-related behaviours, and although their methods could be criticised, their influence was nonetheless strong on such workers as Radcliffe-Brown: he started a long tradition of problem-oriented ethnographic research concerning mortuary practice within the context of social relationships, accepting van Gennep and Durkheim's theses of rites of separation and reintegration, and of mortuary practice as role behaviour enforced by society on its members.

Malinowski (1944) differed, putting forward a theory of culture related to organic needs, and believing that there was an innate fear of the corpse and of death (like Frazer 1886, but unlike Radcliffe-Brown). Most British students of the 1930s and 1940s followed the last (for example Firth 1967), or extended the thinking (like Max Gluckman 1962a). Forde (1962) followed aspects of Malinowski's thinking. Onians (1951) in writing more broadly on the origins of European thought, combines elements of social anthropology, psychology and Classical sources in his chapters on death and cremation and grave offerings.

Many studies in social anthropology since 1940 have not only correlated death with observable social patterns, but have merged these social patterns with psychological variables. Much of this is due to the impact of Freud (1912-13, tr 1960). His interpretation of dreams and corpse fear amounts to a psychoanalytical re-evaluation of Tylor, Frazer, Lang (1898) and Robertson Smith (1889). The time that it took for earlier writers to influence UK archaeologists can be read into Radcliffe-Brown's own criticism of the diffusionists for 'a threads and patches conception of culture as a collection of disparate entities - the so-called culture traits - brought together by pure historical accident and having only accidental relations to one another' (1935, Amer. Anthrop. 37, 401). Childe quoted these words in 1953, but then went on to say that archaeologists were turning to the use of ethnography 'to supplement the deficiencies of their own sources' (1953, 14). Yet not much later, in the first UK book which explicitly discussed methodologies, he makes scant and diffident reference to what ethnology could actually do (Childe 1956b). Corcoran (1958a; 1958b; 1959), in a series of articles reviewing burial practice in British prehistory, shows similar absence of interest. Grinsell some years before, however, had begun to attempt to analyse mortuary practice from the standpoints of the people involved in a work which, while making no reference to Hertz and van Gennep, began to sound some of their notes (Grinsell 1939a; 1953a). Daniel (1950) began to analyse physical mortuary process, but not what was happening or why. Later Fox (1959b) joined in. The importance is not scale, however, but that a shift had begun among some of the archaeological establishment after many years of passivity towards anthropology.

There was (and still should be) a discriminating attitude to the employment of social anthropology in burial archaeology. Atkinson (1946; 1953) expressed it well when he wrote 'some knowledge of cultural anthropology is valuable ... Too much importance and weight should not, however, be attached to apparent parallels between our own prehistoric communities and primitive communities existing today. To suppose that modern "savage" peoples are culturally static, and therefore preserve as it were in vitro the culture of prehistoric periods is a common but dangerous fallacy.' (1953, 171). We should ask about cultural group, subsistence method, trade, demography, religion and beliefs, but not all questions are answerable from the evidence. In effect, Atkinson reminds the anthropologists that there is a time dimension of which prehistorians must be particularly conscious.

The influence of USA archaeologists and anthropologists

Taylor (1948) criticised New World archaeology for limiting itself to charting the connections in space and time of the types of archaeological material obtained from sites. He argued that these connections could not have entered directly into these peoples' lives, but are outside them. The significance of these types inside these peoples' lives will have been something immediate and local, something cultural in the functional sense of the term, and this sort of archaeology was missing in the USA. Taylor wanted 'where and when' archaeology, but also further inquiry into the life of the people being studied, and into the significance of this or that type to that way of life. He recommended a 'conjunctive' approach to correct this. In his own style and terminology he was expressing similar opinions to those of Radcliffe-Brown. His criticism perhaps did not give enough weight to the interpretation of North American Indian tribal customs and cultures which had exposed more complicated societal organisations, an idea which did not cross the Atlantic in the early 20th century. On the other hand, Kroeber's view (1927) of mortuary practices as fashion rather than social expression was widely influential in the USA, and thus the methodological basis for a social analysis of mortuary practices within archaeology had not been formulated when Taylor was writing.

The proposal of Taylor was summarised and examined by Hawkes (1954), who put forward the hierarchy of explanatory difficulty which epitomised attitudes in the half-century: to explain techniques - relatively easy; subsistence economy -fairly easy; socio-political institutions - considerably harder; religious institutions and the religious life - superficially easier, but in fact is the hardest of all as the imprint of mind is never unambiguously in the record. He summarised it as 'the more human, the less intelligible' (1954, 162), and reminded anthropologists again of the time dimension. In his criticism he followed Childe (1951, 55): for them, impossibility was almost axiomatic.

Perhaps the seed for the next period of development was sown by Willey and Phillips (1958) writing on method and theory in American archaeology. They produced the statement that 'archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing', advocating what they called a processual interpretation. Archaeologists should make 'an attempt to discover regularities in the relationships given by the methods of culture-historical integration'. Having stumbled across the next period's developmental grail, they then became caught in the traditional problem of defining archaeological units and the urge to explain was not followed up. They may have given the stimulus to compatriots and others to do so, however.


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