Looking back (Archaeology of People) Part 1

My discussion so far has been about the complexity, not to say messiness, of existence, as seen in what constitutes daily routines, the characterisation of individuals and their relationships to larger groupings, the moral community framed by values and intentions, and the ties between people and animals. In exploring what carries life forward, I have so far said little about one important dimension: the past. The argument of this topic is that looking back is a central part of the identities of people in the period examined in this topic. Looking back is present in the routines of daily life as well as in the special times and places to which archaeologists have given most attention; indeed what is remembered at special times of heightened, often collective, self-awareness may often (though far from always) draw on the central features of daily life. Memory can perhaps better be thought of as an open-ended series of rememberings, which resist neat classification. In all spheres, remembering is as likely to be fluid, dynamic and creative as fixed, static and closed. Different ways of remembering may help us, perhaps uniquely, to understand different scales of interaction among people and varying dimensions of self-consciousness. The pervasive presence of the past in the present may have created a history of histories, whose power is relevant to what I see as the slow development of long-term change.

Three initial examples will help to define both the importance and the diversity of ways of remembering.


Remembering at work

The first example takes us back to the Foi of highland New Guinea. The identity of Foi men is cast as complementary to that of women, and vice versa. Men’s routine tasks include responsibility for initiating clearance, plantings and construction, and hunting and trading. There is plenty of routine, daily activity, in gardens and about the house in the longhouse settlement (J.F. Weiner 1988, 43—6). Time is also spent in bush houses and in hunting areas, where men hunt, fish and forage (J.F. Weiner 1991, 34). During the ‘stylised and complex sociality’ of longhouse existence (J.F. Weiner 1991, 5), men reflect on their days out in the hunting areas; at the heart of longhouse existence with its emphasis on the values of ‘gregariousness, competitiveness and confrontation’ ( J.F. Weiner 1991, 8), there is remembering of a more fragmented and separate dimension of social existence. Men remember in other ways. They actively seek contact with ghosts, the disembodied but still powerful souls of the departed, through dreams, partly in association with particular, named places in the landscape (J.F. Weiner 1991, 2). Men also remember the dead in their performances of memorial song poems, linking again names and places. It is women, however, through their primary association with death, who compose these memorial song poems in the first place (J.F. Weiner 1991, 2—5).

Place is also central to the rememberings of my second example. Among the western Apache, Basso (1984) has outlined major categories of speech, including ordinary talk, prayer and narrative or story, the latter in turn divisible into myth, historical tale, saga and gossip. These have differing temporalities and locations, not least in the fact that myths and sagas may take hours to tell. Historical tales are closely linked to named places in the landscape. They are about people ‘who suffer misfortune as the consequence of actions that violate Apache standards for acceptable social behavior’, asserting a sense of shared morality and identity (Basso 1984, 35—6). The rememberings in question are both generalised and from far back in time, but are to do with individual people, and are linked directly to specific parts or features of the landscape. It is these which act as the prompt for remembering, stalking people with their moral presence.

In yet another setting, among the Jivaro of Amazonian Ecuador, both remembering and forgetting are important (Taylor 1993; 1996). Jivaroan sociality can be seen as ‘affective memory’, or the ‘condensation and memory of the affective moods built up by daily interaction in nurturing, sharing and working’ (Taylor 1996, 206). This is also a fragile state, easily disturbed by shifts in social alliances and feuding. Along with many other people of Amazonia, the Jivaro have no ancestor cults, and practise both simple funerary rites and shallow genealogical memory. Forgetting the dead involves transforming them into something quite different, whose otherness helps to define values and relationships among the living. Through concepts of continuity of soul and singularity of face and name, the dead remain important as the source of identity and destiny of the living, for if one person does not die, someone else cannot be born, but according to these conceptions they must be transformed from specific memories as alive to a mental representation as deceased (Taylor 1993, 655) and be reduced to an ‘abstract singularity’. The death of men may cause houses to be abandoned, with bodies left in them or elsewhere to hasten the dissolution of the corpse. Separation and erasure are here central concepts, but the deceased appear to remain a potent force. ‘Being nowhere in particular . . . [the dead] are, potentially, everywhere all the time’ (Taylor 1993, 653).

Cumulative selections

‘Memory is cumulative selection’, wrote Anne Michaels in her poem ‘Miner’s Pond’. Although Bloch has denied that there is a generalised need for people to remember the past (1998, 81), it is hard to envisage life being carried forward without very varied senses of looking back. Debate about the character of memory goes as far back as Aristotle, and already almost a century ago Bergson (1911; quoted in Stewart 1999) struck a promising note in noting that ‘there is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience.’ Not uncharacteristically, archaeologists until very recently have largely ignored explicit discussion of memory, though making heavy implicit use of it in concepts such as culture, monumentality and tradition. The wider literature on memory is impressively large, but it has many strands to it, and there is overall a tendency to seek rigidly to classify memory, as though it were a single phenomenon or a single faculty. This section seeks briefly to outline a case for selective and creative diversity, and I will then use that perspective to examine the importance of memory in action in daily life, in myth, in the development of monumentality, and finally in connection to concepts of ancestry and descent.

Much discussion of memory seems to be characterised by dualistic classification: oral versus written; individual versus collective or social (Halbwachs 1925; 1950; Coser 1992; Fentress and Wickham 1992; D. Middleton and Edwards 1990); habitual versus conscious (Connerton 1989); involuntary versus voluntary (Leslie 1999); inscribed (and dynamic) versus incorporated (and static) (Connerton 1989); and autobiographical versus semantic.All these distinctions, and others, are important, but the point here is that it is hardly possible to retain them within a single concept or phenomenon. Connerton (1989) was among the first to draw attention to the importance of bodily performance in distinguishing incorporated from inscribed practices. For him, performative, ritualised enactment is one of the key ways in which societies remember, commemorative ceremonies being indeed perhaps one of the most convincing demonstrations of the existence of social memory (Connerton 1989, 4). Certain things can only be expressed in ritual, and ritual form demands participation, rather than the mere listening to, say, narrated myth (Connerton 1989, 54); and by comparison with myth, the structure of rituals is claimed to have significantly less potential for variance (Connerton 1989, 57). While these and other observations have led to renewed attention being given to the bodily and material dimensions of remembering (cf. Kwint et al. 1999), they overplay distinctions. Texts or inscribed practices may themselves become fossilised, and ritual may be creative and innovative as well as fragmented and interrupted. To take part in ritual is not necessarily to accept it; while rituals may engender communitas (V. Turner 1969), they may also be contested (e.g. Snyder 1997). Ritual may itself depend on varying kinds of remembering, and can hardly therefore be used to justify the distinction of a particular kind of memory.

The collective and selective dimensions of remembering were perhaps first stressed by Halbwachs (Coser 1992). Halbwachs argued that memory can function only in a collective context, and that collective memory is always selective. As Middleton and Edwards have put it (1990, 1), ‘remembering and forgetting are integral with social practices that carry with them, in important ways, a culturally evolved legacy of conduct and invention, both material and social, central to the conduct of daily life’. In fact, the examples used by Halbwachs are quite limited, drawn from studies of pilgrims and of families with differing class perspectives. It is no surprise that Halbwachs was a ‘second generation Durkheimian’ (Coser 1992, 1), and to avoid the individual being seen as a mere automaton, others sympathetic to his general approach have preferred the term social memory to that of collective memory (Fentress and Wickham 1992, ix).

It is therefore now timely to broaden the approach to rememberings. The example of the Foi shows that the nature of the collectivity involved may vary. The example of the Jivaro demonstrates the importance of forgetting, as is also seen in other situations (Kuchler 1987; Battaglia 1990; Forty and Kuchler 1999). The Tiv of northern Nigeria were obsessed with genealogical descent, but in a way that involved considerable selection of those relationships which were to be remembered (Bohannan 1952). Bloch has shown in studies of Madagascar not only how rememberings can be highly selective, but how they take different forms within the same society, from exemplary tales with moral value (recalling the example of the western Apache quoted above) to mythic representations and more literal accounts based on sincerity but lacking the authority of exemplary tales. There is thus a variety of ways, oral and non-oral, of evoking the past. He concludes:

Adult humans construct a multiplicity of narratives of different types appropriate to different contexts and this very multiplicity ensures that their knowledge is not bounded by the narrative characteristics of any one of them. Narratives talk in different ways about what is known. They are not knowledge itself.

In some situations, the distinction between autobiographical and semantic memory may become blurred, and what is remembered may be the previous instance of recall rather than the original event (Bloch 1998, 126).

Bloch among others has recognised the importance of material objects and places, from the weave of hats (Bloch 1998, 109) to notions of the house and its constituent and changing constructional elements and decoration.Recent studies of the materiality of memory in historical situations (e.g. Forty and Kuchler 1999; Kwint et al. 1999) have focused on memorials, both lasting and ephemeral, and objects, from souvenirs and toys to banners and photographs. There is a tension, however, in this emerging enterprise. On the one hand, memories and associations should not be simply projected on to objects as passive recipients, without giving attention to the inherent qualities and properties of objects and material forms themselves. On the other hand, this may imply both a kind of essentialism and a self-contained agency (Pollard 2001; Gell 1998). The way out of this dilemma may be not only to suggest compromise solutions, such that objects are ‘active in the manner of objects not in the manner of people’ (Gosden 2001, 164), but also to stress again the multiplicity of ways in which material forms may evoke and be used to evoke remembering. The near-obligatory references to Proust (especially to his biscuit), seen in so many recent papers, draw on the force of remembering, but downplay the individuality of the writer’s situation and experience.

Bloch has been one of the few authors interested in the possibility of bringing together the observations of psychologists, concerned with the observation of the workings of memory in the individual brain, and the wider insights of anthropologists, historians and others concerned with memory in social fields. He has noted (1998, 115) the difficulties of such a reconciliation, since much psychological observation is of very short-term memory tasks in artificial, experimental conditions. Despite this perhaps unavoidable limitation, there have been important developments, especially in the field of neuroimaging (e.g. Foster 1999). The emergence of the technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed insight into how the brain actually operates during the performance of memory tasks. Many tasks tested so far have indeed been short-term, but there are signs too of interest in long-term memory encoding processes (e.g. Mayes and Montaldi 1999). Without going into detail, the most interesting feature for our purposes here is that it seems that different parts of the brain are involved in the whole suite of memory tasks. There appears to be no neurophysiological basis for the existence of a single seat or faculty of memory.

This should encourage us to think in terms of diverse rememberings and uses of the past rather than of a single faculty of memory. Seventy years ago the psychologist Bartlett carried out a famous series of tests of short-term or working memory, focused on the recall of written texts. He found that there was considerable deviation in the re-tellings of his readers. More or less a contemporary of Halbwachs, Bartlett’s results pointed in a rather different direction.1 Two conclusions are particularly worth quoting in full:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.

The range of rememberings in daily life

My first example goes back to the Koros culture on the Hungarian Plain in the first half of the sixth millennium BC. It makes use especially of observations from my own recent excavations at Ecsegfalva 23, in the Berettyo valley, near the northern limits of the Koros culture distribution,2 but could as well apply to other sites and situations in the region investigated by others (e.g. Makkay 1992; cf. Chapman 2000a). I will include similar reflections on LBK daily life in the next topic, as I try to give a sense of how daily routines, different kinds of looking back, and a history of histories were all enmeshed.

Like most Koros sites, Ecsegfalva 23 was by water, in this case neither on the edge of the older terraces of the Pleistocene river system nor along the edges of the Holocene valley, but at one point in the loop of a great meander of late Pleistocene origin which was a still-water lake by this period. There is no obvious reason why people should have chosen this particular spot for occupation out of a whole series of other higher and drier ridges or levees; in the succeeding phase, the spot was avoided and the next ridge taken up. Perhaps its initial choice was in a sense random, or connected to very particular or contingent events. But once used, it appears that the locale remained in use, since a 30-cm occupation deposit built up over a period of time probably to be measured in generations. It remains to be established from further analysis of the finds whether this was a seasonal or permanent occupation, or a base used episodically at varying temporal scales. There may have been practical reasons in an uncertain environment, prone perhaps to flooding, whose effects in a flat landscape would have been considerable, why knowledge of what happened or was likely to happen in a given spot was desirable. Movement structured around recognised locales may also have been based on memory of the first land-taking. It is not clear whether the Koros population consisted of people from the south, or of indigenous people from the hills and other zones surrounding the Plain, or a fusion of both strands. In all cases, they can be regarded as incomers to a previously little used region. This may not have been, at least initially, a large population, and repetition of occupation may have been important in establishing a sense of order and security in a new setting.

The occupation of Ecsegfalva 23, and of many other sites like it, was carried forward in a cycle of actions that partly involved looking back. This was a relatively small occupation, so that the remembrance already discussed was played out partly among a human group of modest size, but partly with reference to a wider population. The stratified occupation deposit seems to be the result of repeated, concentrated activities, in what I believe was a cycle of building, use, deliberate burning, abandonment and reoccupation. Perhaps both memory and anticipation were features of this cycle, letting go of and retaking the place on the one hand, and looking forward, in periods of more intense socialisation, to gatherings and even feastings. Pottery is very abundant, though complete vessels are rare. Analysis of former contents suggests that vessels may not have been much used, which in turn opens the possibility that much pottery was made for particular, short-lived events. That it was broken could be due not so much to the material enchainments envisaged by Chapman (2000a), as either the circumstances of abandonment or the desire for closure after gatherings. The material residues, whatever the process, would certainly have given a distinctive texture or layering to the occupation surface. The other feature of the accumulating surface, certainly as excavated and presumably as experienced during the occupation, was a considerable quantity of burnt daub fragments. These were the remains of what I believe were relatively flimsy and short-lived structures, some perhaps buildings for dwelling, others perhaps more akin to shelters or stores. The extent of material accumulations might in some way have been in inverse relation to the length of occupation. There is certainly a striking contrast between on the one hand the material abundance and flimsy structures of the Koros culture and on the other the more restrained assemblages and yet more massive buildings of the LBK. There is much analysis still to do of the remains from this one site alone, to say nothing of the wider phenomenon (cf. Shaffer 1999), but it may well be that here as elsewhere in the wider region of south-east Europe many structures were deliberately burned at the end of their use (Stevanovic 1997). If so, this is another kind of closure, and people would have walked daily over a surface textured by memories of the past in the form of sherds and daub. Indeed they may have deliberately have concentrated such material effects in single locales in order to confine or channel rememberings. Much of what has been suggested as typical of the Late Neolithic tells of the Hungarian Plain in terms of an ideology of deep ancestral time (e.g. Chapman 1997c; 2000a) can in fact be seen as already present in the Koros culture.


Life was carried forward not only by special events and gatherings. Dwelling here consisted of a wide range of activities. Alongside fishing, hunting, fowling, shellfish collection and small-scale cultivation of cereals (whether at the site or elsewhere), people gave much attention to animal herding, especially of sheep and goats. Much of this activity may have been concentrated in the early summer, and tending to sheep grazing and folding, and perhaps from time to time in the season of late spring or early summer floodings moving animals away from the danger of high water level rises, seems to have been a major rhythm in the flow of life. Sheep and goats may, contrary to some suggestions, have done reasonably well in the environments of the Plain. Because sheep and goats were practically ubiquitous across Europe in the Neolithic, although in varying quantities, it is easy perhaps to take them for granted.In the context of the Plain, a contrary suggestion can be made. Whether their herders were from the south, or indigenous people from the broader region, these animals must have been recognised as exotic, deriving from elsewhere to the south. People here regularly encountered a very wide range of other fauna (even though these were probably less important in strict terms of calorific intake), and everything points to a wide knowledge of their environment and extensive movement through it. Sheep and goats would have been strikingly different to other, local fauna in terms of appearance, form and sound, and perhaps also in terms of innate behaviour, smell and taste. Much of daily life may have been structured around tending to these animals, whose very character, however, may have carried potent connotations of different times, oriented to the south, and connecting people even in remote and briefly occupied locales with a much wider network of remembrance.

There must have been other senses of orientation. There is a stark contrast between the abundance of locally made pottery and the paucity of stone tools, in the form of fine-grained rocks, obsidian and limno-quartzite. The former may have come from anywhere on the highland fringes of the Carpathian basin, and the latter two from the north-east and north respectively, at distances of 150—200 km (Starnini 2000). As analysis of other assemblages has already shown, obsidian probably travelled already in relatively small preformed cores, and was subsequently worked right down to very small dimensions, and clearly not often casually discarded (Starnini 2000). It seems hard to argue that this material and the objects made from it, and by extension the routine tasks performed with it, would not have evoked memory of their ultimately distant procurement, either negotiated with forager populations to the north of the Koros culture or acquired directly after long expeditions by people of the Koros culture themselves.

In other Koros culture sites so far investigated, the remains of rather more women and children have been found than of men, deposited in a variety of ways (Chapman 1994; Trogmayer 1969). The evidence from the small-scale excavations so far at Ecsegfalva 23 conforms to this picture, with an adult female burial on one periphery of the site, a child skull deposit on another, and child bones from the main occupation deposit, possibly disturbed from earlier burials. Where then were the men disposed of? Were they merely given separate rites somewhere out in the landscape, to date outside the reach of regular archaeological investigations, marking perhaps the greater range of movement in their lives, or were they in fact deliberately forgotten after death, to free them from the bonds of the living, or to liberate the living from the burden of their remembrance? In this case, there is so far no easy answer. In the Koros culture situation at least, there was perhaps no single dominant form of remembering; being and identity were constituted through many kinds of remembrance. It is difficult to confine these to actual or verifiable memories, as the earlier quotations from Bartlett suggested would be impossible, and personal, episodic memories slide, easily perhaps in some cases, into imagined and mythical realms. It is to myth that I now turn.

Next post:

Previous post: