Parts and Wholes: Fragmentation in prehistoric context, by J.
Chapman & B. Gaydarska
Fragments are the stuff of archaeology. Our primary task as archaeologists is to make sense of the broken, decayed and discarded things we encounter in the field. But at the same time many of us are obsessed with the complete and the intact: we dream of finding a Pompeii or a Tutankhamen, and in their absence we have developed numerous methods for reconstructing wholes from parts - pots from their sherds, animals from their bones, houses from their postholes. Yet in our desire for the absent whole have we somehow managed to overlook the significance of what is still present: the fragments themselves, the idea that they could be deliberately created and deployed, and the meanings embodied in their breakage, reuse and deposition?
In recent years we have belatedly begun to turn our attention to those fragments through concepts like ‘structured deposition’. The most explicit and detailed approach, however, is John Chapman’s theory of fragmentation and enchainment, set out in a number of papers - including one in PPS (Chapman 2000a) - and the book Fragmentation in Archaeology (Chapman 2000b). This new volume, written with Bisserka Gaydarska, seeks to ground the theory in detailed discussion of Balkan Neolithic and Copper Age data, addresses some of the issues raised in response to the earlier volume and also begins to extend the fragmentation premise to other times and places.
Underpinning Chapman and Gaydarska’s approach is the idea that in Balkan prehistory many objects were deliberately broken to produce fragments which were then exchanged, reused ‘after the break’ and ultimately deposited in graves, pits or other contexts. Fragments originally from the same object, but with lives (and biographies) of their own, were used to establish enchained relations between people, living or dead, which played an important role in the creation of personhood, production of place and negotiation of tensions in Balkan society.
The idea of fragment enchainment is applied to three case studies: Late Neolithic and Early Copper Age Hamangia figurines from a number of sites (Ch. 3); Late Copper Age figurines from the tell settlement of Dolnoslav (Ch. 6); and Spondylus shell rings from the cemeteries of Varna and Durankulak and the settlement of Dimini (Ch. 7). The studies represent a very worthwhile return for all the hard work undertaken by the authors in identifying and measuring fragments, examining their post-breakage treatment, looking for cross-context refits and comparing assemblages from different types of context. Chapman and Gaydarska convincingly argue that deliberately broken figurine fragments were implicated in the construction of (fractal or dividual) personhood, gender identity and social categories, and that the biographies of Spondylus ring fragments bear witness to their role in creating enchained relationships among the living or between the living and the newly dead.
Their work also has important methodological implications, not least the key role of ‘orphan’ fragments (those which cannot be refitted) in demonstrating that broken objects have been brought from other sites or that the missing pieces were taken off-site. Convincingly establishing the absence of something archaeologically requires total excavation and total recovery, something rarely achieved except in long-term research excavations of sites undisturbed by ploughing or other post-depositional processes; it is also much easier for closed contexts such as graves than open contexts like settlements. Nevertheless, Chapman and Gaydarska show that if we really want to understand the role of material culture in social practice we can no longer ignore the question ‘where is the rest of it?’.
These are substantial contributions to archaeological method and theory, and make the volume required reading for anyone interested in material culture. However, while not detracting from the force of their main argument, there remain a few problems with Champan and Gaydarska’s approach at a more detailed level. One of these concerns the significance of some of the patterns they identify. For example, the extent to which there is purpose in the spatial distribution of figurine fragments on the Dolnoslav tell remains unclear in the absence of statistical measures. To take one aspect of this, Chapman and Gaydarska’s claim that the balanced distribution of left- and right-sided fragments reflects a deliberate depositional strategy concerned with community integration (pp 123-7, 136-7) is difficult to assess without evidence that the observed distributions deviate from randomness.
Another problem is a tendency to push the interpretation of those patterns further than may seem reasonable, or at least not to allow the possibility of other readings. In these chapters and the concluding discussion (Ch. 8) Chapman and Gaydarska build a plausibly complex and dynamic model of Neolithic and Copper Age society, but are we to believe that every aspect of the process of fragmentation and deposition should be read in terms of the mediation of social tensions and power? And can the existence of very specific social categories really be inferred from these data? For example, we are told that the left-right distinction in figurine fragments at Dolnoslav is ‘a metaphor for the contrast between ... groups of people with land-oriented labour and groups of craftsmen, artisans and ritual specialists’ (p. 137). What is lacking in such a seamless vision of society, where every action is political, is a sense of the messiness of practice and how meanings might vary in different contexts: something like the layers of ‘lived experience’ described by Whittle (2005) for the Hungarian Neolithic.
Overly neat interpretations are also evident in Ch. 2, which is a study of whole pots and their design elements. Chapman and Gaydarska interpret changes in design complexity on Balkan pottery over time as evidence for social change - for instance, shifts in ceramic design within the Late Neolithic are seen as mirroring ‘the tensions between a rigid dual model of community organisation and the increasing importance of flexibility of cross-cutting membership of social groups’ (p. 50). While it is hard to disagree with the idea that material culture categories enable people to think about and engage with the world, the suggestion that design principles so closely replicate social organisation is less convincing, especially without a discussion of the social context of potting or the relationships between different vessel types, their contents and their contexts of use. Moreover, although this chapter is intended as an acknowledgement of the ‘unpalatable truth’ (to ‘fragmenterists’!) that the meanings of whole objects may be different from the fragments they later become, it is not followed up by a comparative discussion of potsherds.
Beyond the Balkan case studies, another aim of the volume is to extend the fragmentation principle into other contexts and other debates, especially the issue of personhood and agency in prehistoric societies (Ch. 3) and the study of site formation processes (Chs 4-5). Ch. 4 provides an important review of previous work on discard and deposition, rightly noting that the post-processualists’ attack on the rhetoric adopted by behavioural archaeologists like Michael Schiffer obscured the fact that there is much of relevance to the former in that body of work (p. 77). Ch. 5 looks at a number of refitting studies, mainly involving pottery, and the question of orphan sherds. There is an attempt here to elevate fragment enchainment almost to the status of a general theory, given the number of sites world-wide where cross-context conjoins are present but 80% or more of sherd material seems to be missing. Although the possibility of deliberate fragmentation needs to be taken seriously in all cases, especially in the prehistory of north-west Europe, it is also possible that Chapman and Gaydarska underestimate the impact in this region of a whole range of post-depositional processes when they find it ‘hard to imagine that such a high proportion of vessels would have disappeared ... through post-depositional climatic effects alone’ (p. 104).
Moreover, as the authors recognise, the potentially wide applicability of the ideas of fragmentation and enchainment has to be tempered by the contextually specific nature of the practices identified for Balkan prehistory; there are other ways of treating material culture. For instance, in the discussion of personhood (pp 6-7 and Ch. 3) Chapman and Gaydarska accept Fowler’s (2004) point that in Melanesia a similar sort of dividual or fractal personhood to that proposed for the Balkans is not underpinned by fragment enchainment, since in that case gift exchange objects cannot be held by two people at once. As the authors note at the end, the challenge for fragmenterists is ‘to refine the links between persons and things for each specific cultural context’ (p. 203).
The concluding chapter does not therefore attempt to write a general theory of fragmentation - though the final ‘research agenda’ offers some pointers in that direction - but concentrates on summarising the Balkan data. Although diluted slightly by the repetition of too much detail from the case studies, Chapman and Gaydarska make important points about the way fragment enchainment links a variety of spatial scales from individual people to households, sites and landscapes. Perhaps the fragmenterists’ ultimate goal of finding refits between different sites, though methodologically highly complex, offers a potential solution to the problem of integrating different scales of analysis, reconciling current approaches to prehistoric landscapes with studies of artefact biographies. While this book may not convince us that we can find fragment enchainment everywhere in prehistory, it should certainly make us want to look.
Review Submitted: May 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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