Difficult individuals (Archaeology of People) Part 1

The previous topic has discussed several different dimensions of agency, and gave particular attention to daily life and routines. The details of such basic activities as eating, sleeping, resting, moving and working could constitute what has been called, with reference to life beside the Amazon, ‘another type of identity’ (Harris 2000, 7). This is the relational and lived side of identity, based in ‘what people do in their daily life, their relationships with each other and the environment in which they live’, a set of ‘elemental interactions and associations’ (Harris 2000, 7). I will argue at the end of this topic that these daily routines were a source not only of considerable diversity in any one horizon but also a major factor in the slow rate of fundamental long-term change. Their importance, though till now relatively little considered in the interpretation of prehistory, can hardly be overstated. But are they enough on their own? From another perspective, daily life can be seen as only one of the significant dimensions of life to be considered. Reflecting on the Foi of Papua New Guinea, James Weiner has noted that there is always the possibility of contradiction or paradox between the meanings of recurrent practices, though it may be dangerous for these oppositions to be visible in everyday social process. Foi men must mask the fact that women are conceptually dangerous to them, in order to engage in normal sexual activity (J.F. Weiner 1988, 16). Weiner has also underlined how ‘the many images of Foi domestic, social and ceremonial activities depicted in myth are no less accurate a rendering of Foi ‘everyday life’ than an observer’s verbal narration of daily activity’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 16).

These analogies are at the heart of the argument of this topic, that identity is complex and many-sided, and in a sense therefore resistant to rapid change. Not only are daily routines and attitudes potentially in opposition to each other, they are far from neutral. The varied ways in which daily life was carried forward must have been important, and there is ample evidence that this was the case. The aim of this topic is now to consider several scales at which the style of daily life could have been expressed. These are the individual, the moral community, and the household; I also discuss the issue of culture. All, including the individual, involve relationships with others. Harris has argued that ‘lived identity can be shared amongst many people or only a few, but it is fundamentally inter-subjective and connective’ (2000, 7). It is consistent with the argument of this topic that I see people in the periods I am discussing as formed by all these dimensions.


A short history of archaeological individuals

Interpretive prehistory has not done very well by the individual, in part perhaps because of the way in which, at least until recently, theory building has been dissociated from other disciplines. There was very little place for the individual in the long phase of culture history (dominant in Britain from the 1920s to 1950s), and very little sign of broader theoretical underpinning of any kind; it is possible that the model of culture as the determining force was derived from the dominance of ‘society’, advocated in anthropology by Durkheim in the late nineteenth century and still a powerful influence in the earlier part of the twentieth century (Kuper 1996) when the archaeological culture appeared. There was limited space for individuals in processual archaeology, apart from Big Men, chiefs and other assorted leaders, and even these were hardly treated qua individuals, but rather as emblematic of sets of power relations in society, at particular points in trajectories of social evolution. Though the explicit talk was of links to cybernetics and systems theory, it seems as though there was a delayed use of a model of society similar to that advocated by the structural functionalists, dominant in British social anthropology from the 1920s to 1940s. It is ironic to find Evans-Pritchard disavowing a functionalist approach (1956, 320) long before an archaeological variety of functionalism was adopted from the late 1960s onwards.

Individuals did begin to be emphasised as a legitimate dimension of enquiry in the 1980s, as part of post-processualism or interpretive archaeology (e.g. Hodder 1986). In large part, this seems to have been the result of a broad theoretical reaction to the generalising approach of what had come before, rather than a considered view of what can constitute the individual. Post-processual approaches of the 1980s and 1990s tended anyway to be an uneasy mixture of the context-specific, the critical and the deconstructive with the universal and the cross-cultural.1 Though literary theory had championed the ‘death of the individual’ (for example as advocated by Roland Barthes) and this is noted in anthropological writing at this time (e.g. M. Strathern 1992a, 77), many early post-processual approaches advocated the presence of the universal individual, largely atomistic and faceless. Even when seen as the knowledgeable actor (for example in Barrett 1994, drawing explicitly on Bourdieu and Giddens), the individual seemed to lack identity, values and motivation.

Perhaps we should follow Strathern here (1992a, 75) and see this conceptualisation as inevitably a reconceptualisation of our society at the time. The one exception to the general post-processual conception of individuals lies in gender-conscious approaches. From the papers by Spector (1991) and Tringham (1991) onwards, there has been a concern to offer people with faces and individual identity (continued also in Meskell 1996; 1998). Attention to gender has also in fact led to a broader view of social relations and a concern with the life course of individuals of each and every gender (e.g. Derevenski 2000). There can still be some reservations, however. Spector’s lively paper rests on the existence of documentary and oral as well as archaeological evidence, and Tringham’s on an imagined soliloquy by a woman as she watches a house burn at one particular – curiously timeless – moment. Analyses of the Early Copper Age cemetery of Tiszapolgar-Basatanya, though sensitive to both (or all?) genders and development through life, are still largely based on literal scoring of the presences and absences of artefacts in the graves (Derevenski 1997; 2000; cf. Chapman 1997a; 2000a; 2000b); it is the scores rather than broader aspects of context and identity which in the end dominate.

Other perspectives

A useful first distinction is between the terms ‘individuality’ and ‘individualism’. These are difficult, and often conflated (Rapport 1996). Individualism is sometimes used in anthropological writing to refer rather disparagingly to the study of particular individuals who may not be representative of a broader group (‘methodological individualism’: Rapport 1996, 301). It can also be used to refer to the historical variability of ‘a particular historico-cultural conceptualisation of the person – the social actor as ostentatiously and conventionally ‘distinct’, sovereign and autonomous, and as this giving onto his dignity and social value’ (Rapport 1997, 6). By contrast, individuality is taken to be ‘universally and ubiquitously present’, the source of ‘agency, consciousness, interpretation and creativity in social and cultural life’; ‘the traditional "primitive" who is not self-aware and self-critical, who leads an unexamined life, somehow amalgamated with others, incapable of a sophisticated and conscious elucidation of his cultural practices and social institutions, does not exist’ (Rapport 1997, 6). Despite the danger of a confusion of terms, I prefer to keep the distinction between individuality and individualism first advocated by Rapport (1996): between the fact of individual action and consciousness (‘the universal nature of human existence whereby it is individuals who possess agency’: Rapport 1996, 298) and the way or style in which that may be carried out. In the modern western world, it is a self-aware and autonomous individualism which has dominated, but this conceptualisation need not automatically be reconceptualised for the past with which we are dealing here. It is clear, however, that the post-processual approach has been mainly to emphasise the possession of agency, and even if the single term individuality is to be retained to cover all these dimensions, it is largely a mechanical individuality which is on show.

A further set of examples from ethnographic writing can readily show a variety of ways in which identity in general can be conceived. This unavoidably involves gender, but the primary focus here is not on gender alone. A useful first example is a contrast which has been made between south India and Melanesia (Busby 1997). Gender in south India is fixed and stable, rooted in bodily difference and focused on the capacity for procreation. Relations between husband and wife are seen as a series of balanced exchanges, while relations with children depend on a sense of differently gendered substance. ‘Men are related to their children in a male way, through semen and male blood, while women are related to their children in a different, female way, passing on female substance through the womb and breast milk’ (Busby 1997, 263); fathers feel closer to sons, and mothers to daughters. The capacity for procreation and nurture is fundamental for male and female gendering, and while these conceptions are different, they are seen to greatest effect in transactions and exchanges between the genders; the person is conceived of as ‘internally whole, but with a fluid and permeable boundary’ and there are ‘substantial connexions between persons who are not bounded individuals of the Western (stereo)type’ (Busby 1997, 269). In Melanesia, by contrast, the person is ‘a mosaic of male and female substances, internally dividing up the body into differently gendered parts’ (Busby 1997, 270). It is not so much the obvious and visible difference of sexual organs that matters, more what is done with them. In this sense, gender is performative, and relational, since relationships make persons (Busby 1997, 272—3).

Ideas of substance permeate other cases from Melanesia. The Hua of eastern highland New Guinea have complex gender relations, a good example of Strathern’s dictum that there ‘there is no single relationship’ (M. Strathern 1987, 29). Among them, 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. The dominant metaphor among the Hua is the idea of vital essence or nu (Meigs 1984). Vital essence occurs in three states, as a solid, a gas, and particularly as liquid, such as water, blood, urine, sap and water. Nu is the source of life, vitality and fertility. Growth is conceived of in terms of transformation from solid to liquid essence; the growth of children depends on parents giving nu, which in turn weakens and ages them (Meigs 1984, 121). Male relations with women seem to be based on fear or awe of the power of female nu, leading to public denigration but private admiration within the men’s house (Meigs 1984, 131). There is similar complexity among the Foi ( J.F. Weiner 1988, 41). The Foi male view is that the innate female capacity for menstruation is the source both of sexual regeneration and lethal illness; Foi men can appropriate this capacity by paying bridewealth and by transforming menstrual blood into ‘sorcery substance, with which they implement male control of life and death’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 41). Through ‘restrictions and regimens’, male identity must be achieved.

In both south India and Melanesia, there has been a powerful concept of the ‘dividual’, connected to others through exchanges of substance, in the former case as a flow from a person but in the latter objectified as part of a person (Busby 1997, 275—6). The major study perhaps has been that of the Mount Hagen people of highland New Guinea (M. Strathern 1988). From the very outset, Strathern is concerned to challenge the appropriateness of a western view of society and the individual for understanding Melanesian perspectives (M. Strathern 1988, 3, 12; for useful commentary, see also Gell 1999). Rather than being seen as unique entities, ‘Melanesian persons are as dividually as they are individually conceived. They contain a generalized society within. Indeed, persons are frequently constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships which produced them. The singular person can be imagined as a social microcosm’ (M. Strathern 1988, 13). However, the composite singular person is not to be contrasted with the unity of collective actions, because singular and plural are homologues of each other; ‘the bringing together of many persons is just like the bringing together of one’ (M. Strathern 1988, 13-14). Part of the conception of the singular person is its partibility, the way in which people are enchained by shared labour, whose products, especially in the context of ceremonial exchange, can be conceived of as parts of persons, ‘apprehended as detached from one and absorbed by another’ (M. Strathern 1988, 178).

In the case of the Garia of New Guinea (Lawrence 1984), it seems as though individuals themselves can stand at times for the whole society, in ways unfamiliar to a western way of thought, in which the individual on the one hand is normally defined in relation to a wider whole and on the other thought of as autonomous and bounded (M. Strathern 1992a). The Garia had an open form of social organisation, with cognatic kinship reckoned through kin on the side of either parent, and no genealogical boundaries marking off groups. Though some relative boundedness to some rights and memberships can be found, it has also been possible to think of the Garia as conceiving the person as the basis of relationships. ‘. . . If Garia society were modeled in the encompassing unity of the singular human being, a person would in this sense not be a part of anything else. A multitude of persons would simply magnify the image of one’ (M. Strathern 1992a, 81). This homology can extend to a collectivity (however defined and however unbounded) such as cognatic stock. The recurrent internal division of persons into male and female elements can be accommodated by reference to a sense of time and future unions and dissolutions; perspectives can be exchanged for one another, and the part is made from the same material as the whole (M. Strathern 1992a, 83-4).

To offer a little geographical balance, the last example here comes from lowland Amazonia. Among the Jivaroan Achuar, ‘being a person is . . . an array or cline of relational configurations, a set of links in a chain of metamorphoses simultaneously open and bounded’ (Taylor 1996, 210). The sense of self is based on an image of the body, including its appearance and especially that of the face, and on other people’s perception of this image through a web of interaction, feeling (hostile feelings not excluded) and memory. This sense of self, in a shifting and often hostile and violent social setting, is fragile, and can lapse into a state of uncertainty equivalent to sickness (Taylor 1996, 207).

My intention is not to suggest that one or other of these examples could be somehow directly fitted on to the archaeological evidence with which I am concerned; there is sufficient difference among them to make that, in itself, a pointlessly arbitrary exercise. These examples do, however, show considerable complexity in what constitutes identity, gender, and persons and the relations between them. They should challenge any complacency, generated from living in our own world, over assigning the same kind of individuality to each and every situation in the past millennia under discussion here. Individuals, dividuals, persons may have varied, from place to place and through time. The next section offers a possible archaeological example of this.

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