and Ideas: essays in archaeology by BRUCE G. TRIGGER
Artifacts and Ideas brings together a series of articles by Bruce Trigger, published between 1967 and 1998, which address epistemological issues in the discipline of archaeology. Trigger’s ultimate aim in bringing these articles together is to chart his reactions to the changing theories of knowledge that have characterised the discipline over the last four decades. There are nine chapters in the volume, with an additional introductory chapter which situates them within an historical framework. The remaining nine chapters include: one article focusing on human evolution and labour from a Marxist perspective; two articles on the relationship between archaeology and contemporary socio-political contexts, particularly with respect to nationalism and indigenous communities in North America; three articles critically reflecting on the character of North American archaeology in the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s; and one article (divided into three chapters in this book) focusing on the comparative cross-cultural study of ‘early civilizations’ and intended to explore how behaviour and culture can be studied archaeologically and how rival theoretical approaches might be employed. Two coherent threads running through them all are a focus on the relationship between theory and evidence, and a concern with the limits of archaeological interpretation rooted in the particular constraints of the evidence we work with.
Such collections of published work, increasingly fashionable over the last decade, obviously provide a useful collation of material derived from disparate, if in this case readily accessible, sources. However, the real value and justification of such books lies in their success in providing a reflective and coherent retrospective overview of the work of significant figures within the discipline. This Trigger achieves by means of the introductory autobiographical account of the history of archaeology from culture history, through processual archaeology to post-processual approaches. In this chapter he reflects on his own stance regarding these different epistemologies drawing out their potential and their limitations as he sees them with reference to the nine articles making up the volume. This highly personal account will be invaluable for those working on the history of the discipline in terms of the insights it provides about the standpoint of one of the leading figures in this field.
As a whole, the volume provides an interesting perspective on one archaeologist’s attempts to navigate a path through the extremes of processual and post-processual archaeology. Many archaeologists will no doubt identify with Trigger’s resistance to the more polemical and evangelical stances characterising the leading proponents of these two epistemologies in their heydays. At times, however, aspects of both approaches are exaggerated, or at least their nuances and complexities underplayed, to distinguish the author’s own position. For instance, his critique of extreme relativism amongst leading post-processualists is based on a brief episode in the work of certain individuals (e.g. Shanks and Tilley 1987) during the late 1980s, which was quickly addressed and qualified in the early 1990s (Shanks and Tilley 1992, 256-8). Furthermore, his critique of the post-processual concern with agency and ‘the empowerment of individuals’ fails to acknowledge the considerable influence of Giddens (1984) and Bourdieu (1977) on post-processual archaeology and hence the synergy with his own arguments.
Trigger’s own approach to ‘doing archaeology’
emerges as an eclectic mix of cultural materialism, evolutionary psychology,
and cross-cultural generalisation. He eschews the positivism and ecological
determinism of processual archaeology, as well as the extreme relativism
and idealism, which he attributes to post-processual archaeology. Certain
approaches he argues are more suited to the study of certain aspects
of societies (and certain types of societies) than others. For instance,
processual archaeology, he suggests, is more suited to studying subsistence
strategies and settlement patterns, whereas post-processual hermeneutic
approaches are more relevant to studying symbolism, ideology or religion.
Furthermore, he is at pains to emphasise that, in his opinion, some
aspects of human societies, notably in the domain of culture and meaning,
are beyond the reach of archaeological interpretation in the absence
of written records. However, whilst many may sympathise with a more
heterogeneous and eclectic approach which stresses the utility of specific
theories for specific purposes, Trigger seems strangely indifferent
to the incommensurable nature of the epistemologies he wishes to put
together and the implications of such amalgamation. Equally, he fails
to address the contradiction inherent in his argument that all human
behaviour is culturally mediated, but at the same time archaeologists
can study aspects of behaviour (such as subsistence strategies) without
attending to this cultural mediation; something which he controversially
suggests is a necessity with prehistoric societies.
Review Submitted: September 2004
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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