Blog : Posts tagged with 'prehistory'


Calling Dr Jones (part three)

In which we return to Tudor Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant, and consider how archaeology has changed

About time I finished off writing about SOAS Modern Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, and his rather dodgy theory, shown on TV in his documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, that the Biblical Ark Of The Covenant was not the ark that is biblically described, but was in fact a drum; that it was taken to Africa, survived in the possession of a Jewish tribe there, and that its final version is now in storage in an Harare museum. Which might make more sense if you read the previous posts I’ve written about it: part one, and part two.

Previously we’ve discussed the theory itself, and its basic flaw: in order for it to be true, every piece of evidence for the original ark’s existence has to mis-describe it in a fundamental way. Now, I want to discuss why Professor Parfitt might have come up with his rather misguided theory. He has trouble with a concept which archaeology itself had trouble with, in general, for many many years. The Parfitt theory states that there is a medieval African war drum which was constructed to replace an earlier Ark of the Covenant, so those earlier Arks, all the way back to the Mosaic period, must have been drums also. This is because Parfitt is unwilling to consider any degree of cultural change.

Cultural change is, as I said, a concept which archaeology has always had trouble with. In traditional archaeology, it was one of several concepts which was not so much discarded as never considered. Change in material cultures was almost always explained by means of migration, often mass-migration: wave on wave of homogeneous and distinct peoples moving about the map, rather like a game of Risk, never themselves changing. There are probably a few reasons for this. For a start, archaeology as a discipline arose after the formulation of the classic “nation state”, and during the period that the Western countries were dividing up the third world with lines across the map in just the same way that archaeologists then divided up prehistoric maps. For another thing, there was a rather patronising attitude that invention was rather too hard for “prehistoric barbarians” to do. If your stereotypical woad-covered Ancient Briton wasn’t up to inventing new stuff, then any archaeological change must come from outside. Small changes in style could be explained by trade; large changes by immigration.* This theory was known as “diffusion”, and was finally put to bed in the late 60s and early 70s.**

Cultural change took a long time to accept, partly because it complicates things. It’s not, itself, an easy explanation, compared to diffusion and migration. Moreover, archaeological theories of change were first adopted by “processual archaeologists”, who explained change in terms of biological and ecological analogies like the spread of muskrat populations.*** They were followed up by “post-processualists”, the postmodernists of the archaeological world, who liked to use words like “hermeneutics“. They introduced some important concepts into archaeological interpretation, but not in a very accessible way; and nevertheless their concepts were still the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change.****

Looking at historical evidence, though, it’s hard to see why the supposed correlation between migration and cultural change was accepted for so long. Take British history, for example. In the first millennium AD there were three major migrations that we know about from British history.***** The first, the Roman invasion, probably involved the fewest people of the three, but is extremely well-represented in both history and archaeology. The second, the invasion of the English-to-be, is represented in archaeology quite well, but there is huge debate as to the actual number of people involved. Particularly, genetic research has shown that the old 19th-century theory, that the Angles and Saxons completely replaced the previous Welsh-speaking inhabitants, is almost certainly wrong. The language changed, the rulers changed, but most of the people probably did not. The third, the migration of the Scots from Ireland into western Scotland, is well-known from history; it changed the language of western and highland Scotland, and the government of the whole country,****** but is impossible to find in the archaeological record. There are plenty of buildings and sites from the period in Scottish archaeology, but none of them give any indication that the culture of western Scotland was changing in the way that history tells us it did.

I had intended that this was going to be the final post about Tudor Parfitt’s Ark theory; but this post is growing to be rather larger than I’d thought it would end up.******* Additionally, my dinner’s ready. The final final part of these posts will talk more about cultural change, and show how it could, potentially, correct Professor Parfitt’s ideas.

The fourth and final part of this post follows, here »

* Moreover, changes in metalwork were seen as indicating trade or war, because metalwork must have been a man’s job, distributed either by traders (men) or raiding warriors (also men). Changes in pottery were seen as indicating mass migration, because pottery must have been “domestic”, made near the home, used by women, and so must have indicated homes, families, and therefore population movement. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a history of archaeology, largely because theories like that are so easy to take the piss out of.

** after Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe.

*** I’m not exaggerating: when I was a student, we were given, as a prime example of processual archaeology, a paper that compared artefact distributions to the spread of muskrats in, um, Canada I think.

**** the processualists, on the other hand, were pretty hot on technological change. I am, of course, extremely over-generalising on all this.

***** at least before the Danes and Norse arrived, towards the end of the millennium.

****** and gave it its name, of course.

******* and I’m clearly running out of footnotes.

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In which we know where the bodies aren’t buried

Archaeology news story of the week: British pagans have decided that archaeologist should hand prehistoric skeletons over to them for reburial. Which is, of course, a silly idea, and one that a lot of archaeologists have a problem with.

Archaeologists naturally tend towards conservation. It’s something that’s drummed into them all through their training: you can only dig something up the once, so once you have it in your hands you have to look after it. You store it away carefully, because you never know when you’ve managed to extract all possible information from it. That’s why throwing something away – and that’s what reburial amounts to in many ways – is anathema to an archaeologist. To most practical archaeologists, artefacts like skeletons are a bit of a nuisance. If you’re in the field, they lead to lots and lots of paperwork.* If you’re back at the lab, you have to look after them – artefact aftercare ends up costing about ten times as much as your average dig does, at the least.** But you still have to look after them, because otherwise you’re not really an archaeologist.

A pagan quoted in that article says:

Any story that is reconstructed from [prehistoric skeletons] will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past

Which is, indeed, true. But it’s also true of modern pagan religions, to be fair. Modern paganism is an entirely modern religion. It draws influences from prehistoric religions, but so do other modern-day religions such as Mormonism. There’s very little direct link between any religion today and any European religion of three thousand years ago, so any claim of continuity is rather suspect. For one thing, there’s a huge variety of religious practise in British prehistory, which suggests that religions changed in nature over time then just as they do now. At some times people were buried in graves as they are now; at some times they were buried, or exposed, and then their skeletons were taken apart and stacked up somewhere.*** At some times, they were cremated. Sometimes they were buried in a “partially articulated” state – which means the body was still meaty enough for some of the major joints to hold together, but rotten enough for some big bits to have dropped off. In East Yorkshire, rich people were buried in chariots; which just goes to show that people from East Yorkshire have always been slightly strange.****

Which of those different types of burial represents different religions? It’s hard to say, because religion doesn’t always determine burial type. Which of them represents any of the various strands of modern paganism? None of the above. There’s no reason why remains shouldn’t be treated with respect; but equally there’s no reason why any modern religion should claim to have responsibility over them.

* especially for skeletons, because there’s all sorts of legal paperwork to fill in to prove you didn’t just bury the body the other week.

** and digs are bloody expensive

*** this, with burial, is more or less what happened from medieval times through to the 18th century; it was only after that that people started to see the grave as “eternal rest”.

**** no, really, the Iron Age archaeology of East Yorkshire really is rather distinct, and different to anywhere else in the whole of Britain.

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