What happened in history? (Archaeology of People)

Soon before and then in the middle of the Second World War, Gordon Childe published two topics, Man makes himself and What happened in history (Childe 1936; 1942). These were in many ways remarkable, on the one hand for their scope and bold generalisations, and on the other for the employment of archaeological evidence to support an optimistic view of human development, which was not otherwise suggested by the conditions of the time. Of the two works, Man makes himself has perhaps the more sophisticated and detailed arguments, but it uses the same general thrust as What happened in history. The story in both is of progress and evolution, through a subtle combination of economic, technological, ideological and conceptual factors. Whereas the former work concentrates on the Neolithic revolution, the urban revolution and then the revolution in human knowledge, the main themes of the later work, perhaps because things in the contemporary world had become even worse, are couched in an older style, of development from savagery to barbarism and eventually to civilisation. This language now seems rather quaint, as few if any specialists today would think in terms of ‘Neolithic barbarism’  or the ‘higher barbarism of the Copper Age’.And, obviously, rather different evidence could be brought to bear compared to that available in the 1930s. This is not to deride Childe in any way, as it is part of his enduring appeal that his general arguments have seemed to last so well. Perhaps, for all the accumulation of new data since his day, this is not in fact so surprising, since his main successors were ‘processualists’, and in turn their successors or protagonists, ‘post-processualists’, have often been little interested in the same sort of long-term perspectives.

Because ‘the whole long process’, as Childe called it in What happened in history, can be broken down into chronological stages, and because it is obvious that profound changes did occur in the long term, it was easy for Childe and has been easy too for successors to assume that change took place steadily. The nineteenth-century idea of evolution has had a long hold on archaeology. There has also been a kind of horror vacui, an unwillingness to conceive of periods of human history in which not much went on, as Colin Renfrew (2001) has hinted for the Upper Palaeolithic. For Renfrew (2001), the key shift was to sedentary existence, whose material and especially cognitive consequences were to realise the potential of the loitering brain of Homo sapiens. His argument is truncated, but the implication seems clear that a more active time followed the kickstart of sedentism, with monuments, commodities and property among the foci which kept people busy, and changing.

In this topic, I have concentrated mainly on the early parts of sequences in just a few regions of Europe. I have tried to explore different layers of human activity, relationships, values and identity in those times, in order to suggest a complexity to human existence which resists being reduced to a single dimension. In this brief coda, I want to begin to consider some further implications of this point of view. I am not arguing for a lack of change through time, which would be more or less absurd, and have given plenty of examples, from the Hungarian plain to the loesslands to the Alpine foreland, of things shifting over the generations. But what if the till now dominant model of steady and ultimately directed change is incomplete? Childe’s title is now more challenging with a question mark added: what did happen in Neolithic history?

Subjects for discussion

I have set out these arguments in more detail elsewhere but it is useful briefly to touch on some of the key themes again.

In the first topic of What happened in history Childe wrote that a ‘single directional trend is most obvious in the economic sphere in the methods whereby the most progressive societies secure a livelihood. In this domain it will be possible to recognize radical and indeed revolutionary innovations, each followed by such increases in population that, were reliable statistics available, each would be reflected by a conspicuous kink in the population graph.’ To Childe’s general argument of the emergence of a food-producing economy, Andrew Sherratt (1981; 1987) added the idea of a ‘secondary products revolution’.It is not as though no changes took place in the domestic and other economies of the Neolithic. The Alpine foreland, for example, offers some of the most striking evidence of a combination of gradual changes in the scale and duration of clearances, and the conditions of preservation allow very specific markers of ecological difference, such as birds, small mammals and plants, to be identified (Schibler and Jacomet 1999). But in this context, the longer-term trend in animal husbandry seems to be a consolidation of the importance of cattle (e.g. Gross et al. 1990; Schibler, Huster-Plogmann et al. 1997) rather than the emergence of the large sheep herds necessary for the predicted rise in importance of textiles. The same thing may be reflected elsewhere, to the north and east, in the importance given to cattle in fourth to third millennium BC burial practices (e.g. Pollex 1999 and references). In other regions, such as the Paris basin, trends may have been different again (e.g. Tresset 2000, fig. 4). The kind of dramatic and universal trends long proposed prove very hard to find, and the search for them has obscured the extent of regional diversity and local development.

Another favourite search has been for a clear pattern in the development of social formation and social difference. Despite prolonged attempts to find chiefdoms or other kinds of social formation with ranking and structured difference, one of the best observations remains that of Andrew Sherratt (1982a, 14), who commented on Europe after the introduction of farming in the seventh millennium BC that ‘the long intervening period cannot adequately be described by a simple evolutionary succession of increasingly ranked societies’. In one of the most sophisticated examples of ‘social evolutionary’ modelling, developed for peninsular Italy, a Big Man society was still seen as characterising the early second millennium BC, to be followed by a semi-stratified tribal confederacy (Figure 7.1) (Robb 1994, table 1). Many other authors agree that it is not until as late as the mid-second millennium BC that small-scale chiefdoms appear in central Europe (e.g. S.J. Shennan 1993), coinciding in part with the appearance of a male warrior elite or aristocracy (Treherne 1995; Kristiansen 1998). Even thereafter, there is no convincing case to be made for state formation, nor even necessarily of elaborate or large-scale chiefdoms, in temperate Europe before the arrival of the Romans.

A more recent concern has been with gender relations. I have already discussed views of the significance of the Ice Man in relation to his wider context, and criticised the view that he can be seen as standing for a newer world of the male-dominated and more aggressive agrios. In a similar vein, it has been argued by several other authors that the nature of gender relations altered from the third to the second millennium BC. The outcome, in this view, was the appearance of a warrior ideology in the mid second millennium BC (Treherne 1995), and beginnings have been sought in gender distinctions claimed in Corded Ware mortuary practices from the earlier third millennium BC onwards, leading to a process whereby male activities and associations were increasingly emphasised, with a concomitant downplaying of the value of women (S.J. Shennan 1993, 149), to the point where some women buried with valuable items in the Early Bronze Age of the earlier second millennium BC have been regarded as possessing such valuables by virtue of their husbands’ wealth or as bridewealth in a pattern of exogamy (S.E. Shennan 1975).


Gender emphases/oppositions

Social regulation

6000 bc

Early-Middle Neolithic

Male/female balanced

Formal ritualisation Great Man?

3500 bc Late Neolithic

Proto male hierarchy Exclusion of women

Formal ritualism/incipient male prestige competition

3000 bc Eneolithic/EBA

Male hierarchy Exclusion of women

Male prestige competition Big Man

1400 bc

LBA inland/upland

Male hierarchy Exclusion of women

Male prestige competition Big Man

1400 bc

LBA lowland/coastal

Male hierarchy/proto female hierarchy Exclusion of women/ peripheral males

Elite male prestige

competition Semi-stratified tribal confederacy

Figure 7.1 Suggested aspects of gender relations and social formations in the Italian sequence from Early Neolithic to Late Bronze Age.

A related model has been argued in detail for Italy (Robb 1994). A central problem with this view in central Europe is the instability of representations of gender relations in mortuary ritual from place to place and through time (S.J. Shennan 1994, 124-5). In one account, the development of the use of ‘secondary products’ should have led to an increase in female power (Chapman 1997a, 137). There was much variation within the vast Corded Ware area, and cemeteries in central Europe in the second millennium BC (e.g. S.E. Shennan 1975; 1982; O’Shea 1996; Harding 2000) have much in common – apart from their size – with earlier examples of the Early and Middle Copper Age of the later fifth and earlier fourth millennia BC (e.g. Chapman 1997a; Derevenski 1997; 2000). The treatment of women in death can be distinguished from that of men, but age and life process are at least as important as biological sex (Derevenski 1997; 2000), and the scale of difference is hardly ever extreme. As has been argued throughout this topic, it is not clear anyway that we should be seeking a simple or single pattern. In one example from elsewhere, the Hua of eastern highland New Guinea, Meigs (1990) has emphasised a threefold male ideology, of accentuated chauvinism on the one hand, but of envy of women and of complementary interdependence on the other.

Curiously, what does seem to have been neglected in explanations since Childe’s time, apart from a brief flurry of interest in the early years of processualism, is the possibility and role of population increase. As we have seen above, Childe seems to have regarded population increase as the effect of economic-technological innovation. In the Neolithic context, he is presumably in general right, in that the conditions were created in which subtle changes in fertility and mortality resulted in more people across the European landscape. The settlements of the Alpine foreland might again be one of the best indices at our disposal, since they last from the late fifth to the second millennium BC. Not only do clearances in this area get bigger and last longer, but so too do settlements themselves (e.g. Schibler, Huster-Plogmann et al. 1997). Another useful index might be the sheer size of single-grave cemeteries by the time of the Early Bronze Age in central Europe.But this process may have been much more gradual than Childe’s reference to ‘conspicuous kinks’ presupposes. And while population increase might have followed other change to begin with, there is the interesting but neglected possibility that in time it could have come to be one of the most influential factors with the potential to alter what John Barrett (2000) has called ‘structural conditions’.

Different kinds of history

The kind of view of existence and identity which I have explored in the topic for early Neolithic situations may therefore have considerable implications for what came after. It looks as though it is in fact, despite evolutionary assumptions to the contrary, very difficult to claim profound or sustained structural change before the second millennium BC. (And it is a moot point, far beyond the scope of this topic, whether change from the second millennium BC onwards was as complete as often characterised in the past.) In local contexts, in regional settings and in wider networks, things did not stay the same. The early longhouse did not last more than about a millennium, and even within that span it altered in form and setting. There were fluctuations in the distribution and concentration of people across the landscape, and variations in preferred animals and crops. At different times, this and that material was of greater importance. By the second millennium BC the production and circulation of bronze is often taken as distinctive in scale and complexity, but it is debatable whether the winning, use and deposition of copper and bronze really exceeded in complexity those of stone. And there may have been cycles of change. The Hungarian evidence explored in earlier topics is one informative case of gradual change towards a concentration of people in potentially dominant places in the landscape, but followed by dispersal and different kinds of relationship and community played out partly in the mortuary domain.

These are different kinds of history to the single story of directed change, with its consistent and persistent trend towards greater social differentiation and economic specialisation and intensification, which has dominated generalising accounts since Childe’s day and even earlier. If there are different kinds of history, they are no less interesting or valuable simply because they do not resemble the nature of change from the second millennium BC onwards. And this perspective puts two questions into sharp focus. If what I am suggesting is valid, why should it be so, and what happened finally in or by the second millennium BC for things to change?

My suggested answer to the first question rests in the complexity and layered nature of existence which has been the substance of this topic. People cannot be reduced to single dimensions, because they existed inescapably in a complex web of routines, socialities and networks, relationships with animals, memories and attitudes to the past, and sanctioning values created by the shared moral community. I have argued for fluid identities in many situations, and this lack of fixity may have made people hard to pin down. I have not wanted to imply a cosy, wholly peaceful world. Discussing the use and duration of enclosures in Denmark, Nick Thorpe (2001) has referred to the possibilities for competition, a kind of jostling for position, that taking part in special arenas would afford, and suggested that their apparently episodic and generally short-lived use can be seen as the result of the inability to maintain aggregations or combined activity before conflict or worse broke out. People normally had the option to go elsewhere. But in seeing people as hard to pin down, I am not thinking only of the physical conditions of their residence and daily routines. It seems to me that profound and lasting structural change would require alterations in many if not all the dimensions of what constituted identity, and I cannot think of any generalising explanations of long-term change so far which have addressed this problem.

An answer to the second question would require another topic. It is informative, however, to contemplate what an answer might encompass, in the terms of reference considered here. We would need to explain how people came to adopt or fit into changed routines, how they thought differently about animals, perhaps more as commodities or objects than partners or subjects of value, how they began to draw on different memories and pasts, perhaps more immediate ones with a different sort of creativity at work, and how they were now channelled into more fixed identities. Such processes were, I suggest, incomplete even in the second millennium BC. They may be partly the result – perhaps an old-fashioned view – of the very gradual increase in human numbers, of more people on the ground. The effect of social distancing has normally been neglected, except in discussions of hunter-gatherer existence. Intimate networks might have changed very little through time, but the ‘worlds of otherness’, in Neustupny’s phrase, may gradually have widened. Some of what is often summoned in support of the emergence of social differentiation, such as the building of very large monuments in the third millennium BC, or the creation of more extensive field systems in the second millennium BC, might have been an attempt in part to counter this tendency, and to re-emphasise commonality. But a very gradual widening of worlds of otherness may have made its mark in the long term. It might have become very gradually easier for groups, small networks or individuals to have avoided or escaped the demands of the wider network and the sanctions of the wider moral community. And finally, people were not on their own for ever. The focus in this topic has tended to be on the local, on small-scale settings and immediate socialities, in relation to a wider frame of value. When other worlds began to impinge to a much greater extent, first in the third millennium (the Corded Ware complex) and then in the second millennium BC (as interactions with the changing Mediterranean intensified), an older Europe began to alter for ever.

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