6. Conclusion: Social Identity or Social Power?

Thus far we have argued that, to assess the importance of Yorkshire's archaeological resource and interpret it more fully, we should break down, or even do away with, some of the existing divisions within prehistory. Similarly, when different forms of elite hierarchy and associated central places are evident in later periods, we have suggested that archaeologists step beyond documented categories and the terminology associated with them. But what then, if anything, should replace the present structures? Categorising, in one guise or another, is, after all, fundamental to how human beings understand the world. It is thus central to defining the present significance of different aspects of the archaeological heritage, and to interpreting past societies which created that heritage. The challenge is to adopt categories which do not then 'suppress much of the archaeological record' (Tainter and Bagley 2005, 70).

The key requirement, we believe, is to deploy some overarching concepts, constructed using both the chronological and the functional elements embedded in our database. With such themes in place, archaeologists might engage much more fully with past social development. Recent synthetic writing on the archaeology of various periods seems to have begun to recognise this. Influenced by post-modernist ideas, some authors have put forward the notion of identity as providing the basis for just such a totalising framework. This concept has, of course, a long history of applications within archaeological interpretation via the notion of ethnicity (most obviously in countries subject to the influences of 'Germanic' approaches to interpretation: see the various papers in Biehl et al. 2002 for a discussion of eastern and western European traditions, and the importance of transcending them, or at least recognising their diverse potential). However, the whole area has been given a further push in the last decade, at least within English-speaking scholarship, with an explicit link between ethnicity and identity (Jones 1997), an approach which has had impacts across Europe (Graves-Brown et al. 1996).

Hence, in the UK, Gamble's recent (2007) consideration of the human and Neolithic revolutions criticises the whole endeavour to search for the origins of such social processes. His alternative approach involves seeking to define 'tipping points' in development in terms of human identity. Equally, Mattingly's discussion of social dynamics in a much later period, that of Roman Britain (2006), also sees a theory of identity as his key analytical tool (although he then comes up with some fairly conventional categories, divided between military, urban and rural spheres). These general accounts have their counterpart in our more specific, Yorkshire, contexts. Giles (2000), for example, discusses aspects of late prehistory on the Wolds, or Fenton-Thomas (2003) analyses transitions between prehistoric and historic periods in the same landscapes.

Furthermore, this notion of identity is not confined to academic research, but has an impact well beyond, in advice on the management and interpretation of the heritage (Howard 2003; Barkan and Bush 2002), in the general structuring of ideas, and in policy making. Thus Article 1 of the European Landscape Convention (The 'Florence Convention'), when setting out its definitions, says that, for their purposes:

'Landscape' means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors Our emphasis

In essence, the landscape is entirely a cultural construct. Here we have an explicit response to the old philosophical conundrum of whether a falling tree in a deserted forest makes a sound. For supporters of the Convention, natural processes, indeed the landscape itself, only exist in so far as humans are there to 'perceive' them – there is no world, or at least not one that should matter to us analytically and institutionally, beyond this perception. Critically, for present purposes, the Convention's supporting documentation includes detailed case studies which show how people are to relate to the landscape thus defined. The latter comprises a common heritage, a product of shared perception. Yet, at the same time, we take from it in different ways. Hence diverse reactions to the landscape are to be explained in terms of the adoption of different identities – gendered, ethnic, religious, regional, local, etc.

Such approaches and concepts seem set to become embedded in future research work. For example, a recently created project headed up by the Insitut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives in France is concerned with 'Archaeology in Contemporary Europe: Professional Practices and Public Outreach'. Its aim, to be achieved in conjunction with a wide range European partners, is to increase our understanding of the significance of archaeology for the construction and consolidation of identities at local, regional and trans-national levels. What is missing from the list – national identities – is, of course, not without significance. Some reticence is understandable, given the pivotal role that archaeology has played in establishing, or at least bolstering, the idea of 'the nation': Atkinson et al. 1996; Diaz-Andreu and Champion 1996). Beyond this, however, acknowledgement of national identities is problematic for a project funded by the European Union, whereas those of an order below or above this can be welcomed, indeed promoted. In such ways, researchers are encouraged to sign up to the 'identity agenda'. Indeed, the cynic might be forgiven for believing that, without a mention of the word identity in a project's aims and outcomes, it is unlikely to get financial support.

Unfortunately, distinct problems arise in trying to apply this concept to archaeological analysis. First, there is the practical issue of whether we have sufficiently fine-grained evidence to discriminate between alternative identities. Identity-driven studies are often based on quite narrow data-sets, both chronologically and spatially, for just this reason. Once one looks at a regional database in the round, and becomes aware of the underlying character of the record, then it is reasonable to wonder if research questions immune to empirical challenge by most of the available evidence are worth asking. However, our own reservations go rather deeper than this. This narrow approach is defended by its advocates as facilitating understanding at an appropriate human scale, as opposed to the supposedly impersonal level of large population groups inhabiting tracts of land across a region. Yet, as our project makes clear, people did co-exist in different parts of the Yorkshire landscape at any one time in the past. Unless we can come to terms with that co-existence, more localised studies will lack context and, by extension, credibility.

What seems to have been forgotten in the promotion of this concept is that the notion of anyone seeking to establish his/her own identity involves, by definition, an attempt to relate to something outside the individual concerned – the activity of identifying is a relational process. Furthermore, the entity with which a person seeks to make a link is not another human, or even a set of people, but an abstract notion, a concept. This remains true whether people are seen as having a single, or main, identity, or as constructing radically different identities for themselves in separate contexts. Talking of identity per se gives no basis for understanding how these external notions are to be defined, either at the time or in the present, nor of their relative importance, nor of the contexts in which people made such choices. It is for this reason, we believe, that any analysis underpinned by the concept of identity produces, at best, descriptive accounts of social change.

The implication of this argument is that, when seeking to understand the broad regional canvas in its entirety, we do need overarching interpretative concepts – but a framework comprising a mesh of individualised identities will not fit the bill. Ultimately, we suggest, one must understand the material context in which people produced, drank, ate and reproduced, before they died and were buried. This requires not a theory of identity but a theory of structure, and in particular an understanding of the diverse ways in which power was created, maintained, and exercised in society. Further, this is just as essential in early, 'egalitarian' societies as in their later counterparts, where hierarchies had become embedded and bureaucratised. For some readers this will sound like a plea for a fairly conventional, even old-fashioned, Marxist interpretation of history but, in essence, that is what it is! Our view is that the concept of different modes of production – tributary, slave-based, feudal and capitalist, defined along the lines already discussed – provide the most vibrant way of understanding the social and economic development of Yorkshire.

For early processes, this will mean discussing the relationships between the landscape and mobile communities, involving changing environmental factors, technological circumstances and social conflicts. Subsequently, as greater regularity of human movement through the landscape became articulated through monumental statements involving gathering places and burial practices, we might focus on the relationship, and perhaps clash, between mobile and sedentary strategies. A third theme would arrive on the back of spreading pastoral practices and increasingly intensive agricultural regimes. This fundamental change to social and economic dynamics, based increasingly on individual households, must have generated social tensions between pastoral and agricultural components, and between the household and the wider community. Such pressures provide a context for matters such as the transmission of prestige goods.

For later epochs, where social elites are clearly evident in settlement evidence, consumption practices and mortuary behaviour, we can define various mechanisms of surplus extraction and articulation required to support such authorities, and their archaeological correlates. Here a key theme, as noted above, concerns the changing relationships between the taking of surplus as tribute from communities and as rent from households, both occurring after the point of production. Equally vital will be a focus on the relationship between these strategies and the use of slave labour and wage labour in the production process itself.

We are fully aware that our critique of the notion of identity and, especially, our proposed list of alternative themes and interpretative tools will not be universally accepted. There will be other perspectives to explore, and debates to have: the lifeblood of archaeology. That said, we do maintain that topics of such generality would provide a better means of structuring the archaeological resource for Yorkshire in all its variety and detail, and that approaching the analysis of our evidence in this way would produce more new insights than the periodisation currently employed. Beyond the question of specifically regional approaches, we suggest that archaeology as a whole should adopt a more critical approach to the data it has available for interpretation, and in particular to the structures embedded in that record. Rethinking the latter categories would not only lead us to challenge current fashions in archaeological theory, but also raise new questions about the analysis and interpretation of long-term social and economic trends.


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Last updated: Mon Nov 26 2007