75th Anniversary Lecture Review
The Institute's Annual Lecture, inaugurated as the Institute of Archaeology 75th Anniversary Lecture in 2012, was given at UCL on 19 January 2012 by Professor Daniel Lord Smail (Harvard University).
Prof Daniel Lord Smail gave a very thought-provoking 75th anniversary lecture on Thursday 19 January, on ‘History and the Pre: Perspectives on the Structure of Deep Historical Arguments’. For an archaeologist it was sobering to see his demonstration of the way the discipline of history has become increasingly focussed on the ever more recent past over the last several decades so that in the first decade of the new century by far the bulk of the discipline is concentrated on the history of the 20th century.
Characteristic of much of this history writing is an obsession with beginning points, the ‘birth of modernity’ for example has become a very popular topic, as Prof Smail showed with a nice graph showing the increasing number of occurrences of this term over the last couple of decades. Such an approach presupposes the existence of a ‘pre’, some static time before the new phenomenon, such as ‘modernity’ brings history to dynamic life. By definition almost, the ‘pre-modern’ can’t be of any interest or relevance. However, as he was careful to point out, archaeologists are guilty of the same approach, with our emphasis on such topics as the origin of the state, or agriculture, or anatomically-modern humans and their behaviour.
It turns out to be very hard to escape the mentality of the ‘pre’, as Prof Smail admitted. One possibility relevant to archaeologists, he suggested, was to focus on lineages of objects through time – coins, for example, he suggested, are a new branch on the lineage of beads and often have the holes in the middle for stringing to prove it. From this point of view there is always some relevant pre-existing state and never an empty ‘pre’.
Needless to say, as someone who has written papers on ‘descent with modification’ in the archaeological record I found this a very attractive idea but had to admit that I too have succumbed to the ‘pre’ in things I have written as much as anyone else!
Review by Stephen Shennan, Professor of Theoretical Archaeology and Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
The Institute of Archaeology 75th Anniversary Lecture is one of a series of events being held in 2012 to mark the Institute’s 75 years leading global archaeology. Further details of all anniversary events are available on the Institute’s dedicated 75th anniversary webpages.