Guns of the Armada
Editor Simon Denison
Mortimer Wheeler's best known line was that archaeologists dig up people not things. He meant that we ought to go beyond the object to consider the person who once used it - in other words use archaeology to get back to history.
Holding a Roman ear-scoop we should try to visualise whose ear it had last seen the inside of before its long lie-in. In my case, all Romans turn into Charles Laughton, medievals into Max von Sydow, and prehistorics into embarassed-looking extras from a bbc reconstruction of life at the time of Stonehenge, but there you go.
In fact archaeologists dig up things not people; and that's the whole point. Historians fool around with people and look where it gets them - down by the compost bin at the end of the garden path. The point is, people can't tell you very much. If we had someone from Avebury or Wharram Percy turn up on site, you can be sure that they would get the whole thing completely wrong. When you're living in a place for, at most, a blink-of-the-eye 70 year time span, i) you're not asking the right questions, and ii) you're not around long enough to work anything out.
If people were the main object of our inquiries, we'd run to a better line of questioning than the one we actually use on the people we dig up. What sex are you? What age are you? What was your last meal? and Have you broken any bones in your life? These are hardly big questions; definitely not worth exchanging your grave for a box in some museum basement. If you want to know more about a skeleton it will be the things buried with it that give you the answers.
When archaeologists question things, they do go through the tedious bit - What do you weigh? How much use have you had? - but they then go on to What influenced you? What are your relationships? What do you represent? and, at the bar during conferences, even What do you mean? To prove how central things are, we label our time frames after them (Iron Age, Stone Age, etc) not after the Kings and Queens of England like the historians so haplessly do.
The point is that people and things are inextricably linked, but people don't realise it. Only things can tell us what we want to know. Look, for example, at the period plans of a city that archaeologists use. There are the plan views, and there is the great time scale across centuries and millennia - neither of which was ever actually experienced by anyone living there. Yet the sequence presents a unique explanation of the city.
Or look at the different dates and types of coins on a Roman site across the four centuries of coin use. The total profile of these casually dropped and lost items can tell us whether the site was a town, a temple, a military base, or a villa. Weird eh?
Or what about distribution maps? The relative presence of pottery types across Britain tells us much more about life in the past than that Edwardus Stobartus or Norbertus Dentresanglus shipped the stuff. It can illustrate changing demand, changing fashion, and changing influences. In other words all the underlying meanings that the actual participants had no idea of.
The archaeological view can be taken further and used to portray humans as a transient background doing a little moving and shifting, while it is things which are the real agents. What changes over millennia is things first and people second. Those elaborate arrowheads alter through time because one thing leads to another, not because Human A summed up previous developments by Humans B, C and D and so produced change. And where is the memory of the past? It's certainly not in each forgetful individual, it's only doubtfully in a history book - it's actually in those things trapped behind glass at the museum.
Thus, in the end, that joke description of history turns out to be true. It really is one damn thing after another.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005