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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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What did prehistoric people think?
The science of cognitive archaeology

Bob Trubshaw

'One of the most taxing problems in archaeology is to determine about what and in what manner did prehistoric people think. Is it possible to make the 'mute stones speak', and will they tell us how (if not what) our predecessors were thinking?'

So begins Colin Renfrew's preface to a collection of papers which he edited under the title The ancient mind: elements of cognitive archaeology (Cambridge UP 1994). These describe an approach to recreating the past which draws upon the recent breakthroughs in cognitive science, that is the scientific study of how humans think.

Most lay people regard archaeology as a pseudo-scientific, excessively materialistic approach to sites and excavated finds, with the emphasis on relationships with the environment, on subsistence and economy, social relations within the society, the impact of the prevailing ideology and belief systems, and the effects of the interactions taking place between different social units.

While this approach worked tolerably well for early hunter-gathering peoples, where the archaeological record left little detail and many ambiguities, the broad-brush assumptions functioned less well for later (and generally better-defined) periods. This approach, known know as 'processual archaeology', was a child of the 1960s and 70s; it seemed revolutionary compared to 'traditional' archaeology which had invoked hypothetical migrations of cultures and also generated such fatuous theories as a 'goddess-centred neolithic' which (indirectly) fuelled the modern pagan movement but is now an embarrassing anathema to today's prehistorians.

A small coterie of archaeologists caught up with the 'post-positivist' and relativistic philosophy of 'post-modernism' and developed an 'interpretationist', anti-scientific literary approach. This was labelled 'post-processualism' (although Renfrew argues that 'anti-processualism' would be a more accurate tag). A more recent development within post-processualism has been to incorporate a hermeneutic, semiotic approach derived from theoretical frameworks developed for linguistic studies.

If all this sounds jargon-ridden and impenetrable, then perhaps I should indicate what the post-processualist approach achieves. By drawing upon the wider perspectives of social anthropology and history it emphasises that the 'context' of behaviour must be understood before attempting to understand its 'meaning'. Contemporary with, and compatible in approach, was the increasing awareness of 'gender politics' in archaeology. If Indiana Jones was Hollywood's larger-than-life archetypal archaeologist, then it reflected real life in that it is macho males (albeit usually of less attractive physique!) who had dominated the activities and interpretations of archaeology.

Most specifically for Earth mysteries, the exponents of post-processualism placed emphasis on ritual and 'social usefulness' and deliberately extended the purely 'materialistic' meanings for the usefulness of artifacts into the realm of 'ritual'. In fact, Renfrew points out that 'employing these criteria for valid argumentation, there is nothing to distinguish the research which [post-processualists] would produce from the most fantastical assertions of the lunatic fringe about flying saucers, earth magic and corn circles.' [1]

Clearly, professional archaeologists do not feel the time has come for destroying all the bastions of defence for their restricted-access domain. Renfrew's attempt to create a scientific and philosophically-sound basis for the activities of academic archaeology has led him in the last few years to develop the concept of 'cognitive archaeology', which he defines as 'the study of past ways of thought as inferred from material remains'. He readily acknowledges that this approach is still very much in its infancy. Whereas he sees post-processualism as the antithesis of processualism, that is one method as excessively materialistic and the other as excessively idealistic, Renfrew's motives are to create a synthesis of the best of both approaches. Scientific techniques of enquiry should not, therefore, be rejected out of hand in favour of literary polemic. For this reason, Renfrew also uses the alternative label of 'cognitive-processual archaeology'.

Whatever the name tag, the emphasis of this approach is firmly on the symbolic nature of much human behaviour. At the most complex this symbolism encompasses the representation of aspects of the real world or of otherworldly or supernatural concepts. Symbolic behaviour is also embodied in the structure and regulation of social relationships; in the measurement of space, weight, time or currency; and at more abstract levels of planning and scheduling, or in the conceptualisation of any planned, purposive behaviour.

For the archaeologist, the problem is whether the material record leaves sufficient evidence which can provide testable interpretations of how this symbolism operated for our predecessors. The key word here is 'testable', not the leaky methodology which leads only to 'interpretation'. Clearly, testable theories can only highlight some features of prehistoric thinking without revealing precise thoughts.

Archeology is rooted in cognition. The material objects (and the relationships between them) which make up the excavated data reflect direct or indirect consequences of intelligent behaviour. At its most basic this simply means that artifacts can be grouped into broad functional classes and subjected to simple statistical analyses which reveal, for instance, that among Indian settlements in western Kentucky, 98 per cent of 'general utility implements' were found in rubbish dumps, while 75 per cent of 'ceremonial items' were found with burials [2].

Clearly, more sophisticated groupings and statistical activities allow for more subtle and less predictable evaluations. Other studies of American Indian customs demonstrate that there was a clear symbolic link between depictions of birds, tobacco pipes and with shamanic activities. Smoking pipes adorned with bird's feathers (or even bird skins) were part of rituals in which tobacco was smoked 'in order to produce altered states of consciousness to enhance visionary experiences.' Ethnographic information gives a clue as shamans commonly reported that when smoking they felt 'light-headed' and that the bird or feathers helped them to 'fly' on their 'soul journeys' to the world of spirits [3].

Closer to home, the same process of applying statistical analysis to symbolic behaviour is applied to prehistoric rock art in north Yorkshire revealing a subtle relationship between the landscape and the siting of the carvings [4].

One way of making the cognitive approach more concrete is to imagine each individual as possessing a cognitive map of the world, built up in the light of experience. This world-view serves in some way as a means of determining the individual's future activities. Such an internal 'map' seems to be an integral part of the 'I:Not-I' dualism that is basic to our self-awareness and self-consciousness. At a more pragmatic level, it implies that there is some complex structural thinking process which links the possible visual patterns of, say, a duck with the sound of the words 'There is a duck!'.

Cognitive archaeology readily extends itself to the archaeology of religion - even if the concept of religion as a separate dimension of society may be inappropriate for many pre-modern societies. One of the papers in The ancient mind applies itself specifically to taking a cognitive approach to the religion, cosmology and ideology of the Oaxaca people of Mexico [5]. This provides such insights as the distinction between what had 'breath' or 'spirit' - characteristically anything which could move and was thus alive and sacred, such as a river, the moon, 'the foam on top of a cup of hot chocolate', or a bolt of lightening - with what was inanimate and could be manipulated by technology, such as irrigation systems.

Like so much theoretical archaeology, cognitive archaeology is wrapped up with idiomatic hyperbole. What is important for Mercian Mysteries readers is the awareness that 'real' archaeologists are developing a worthwhile methodology that readily incorporates ritual and symbolism. Not only does this close the gap between academe and earth mysteries, but means that the next decade should produce some revolutionary revisions and reinerpretations of prehistory.


1: C. Renfrew, 'Towards a cognitive archaeology', in C. Renfrew (ed.) The ancient mind, Cambridge U P 1994 p9
2: J.N. Hill, 'Prehistoric cognition and the science of archaeology' in Renfrew op. cit.
3: Hill, op. cit. citing A. von Gernet and P. Timmins in I. Hodder (ed.) Archaeology as long-term history, Cambridge U P 1987.
4: R. Bradley, 'Symbols and signposts - understanding the prehistoric petroglyphs of the British Isles' in Renfrew op. cit..
5: J. Marcus and K. V. Flannery, 'Ancient Zapotec ritual and religion', in Renfrew op. cit..

Further reading

This article draws upon and extends my article 'Them and us' in The ley hunter no.120 (1994) which itself is largely based on: Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn Archeology: theory, methods and practice (Thames and Hudson 1991).

If you really want to grapple directly with the dense style of the post-processual proponents then the core texts are: Ian Hodder Reading the past (Cambridge UP 1986); M. Shanks and C. Tilley Re-constructing archaeology (Cambridge UP 1987).

Slightly more accessible examples of the effectiveness of post-processualist and cognitive approaches to revealing ritual activities in the neolithic can be seen in: Mark Patton Statements in stone: monuments and society in neolithic Brittany (Routledge 1993); Ruth D. Whitehouse Underground religion: cult and culture in prehistoric Italy (Accordia Research Centre 1992).

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.25 November 1995.

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