BMCR 2020.05.14

From Stonehenge to Mycenae: the challenges of archaeological interpretation

, , From Stonehenge to Mycenae: the challenges of archaeological interpretation. Debates in archaeology . London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 216 p.. ISBN 9781474291897. £70.00.


The focus of this volume is on how identity was created, altered, or reinforced by individuals in Bronze Age Europe and archaeological approaches to both its recognition and interpretation. Although Stonehenge and Mycenae serve as prominent examples in the authors’ arguments, readers expecting extensive or detailed treatment of either site will not find it here, nor does it simply re-pick the low-hanging fruit of the mistaken connections made between the two sites by earlier archaeologists, although that is part of the story. The authors, taking a familiar post-processual position, are skeptical of building general cultural histories or recovering systemic processes based on comparisons of artifact types or changes in their distribution over time. They strongly argue for an approach that is grounded on the proposition that identity and meaning are inherent neither in artifacts or buildings themselves, nor carried genetically by human participants in a culture. Instead, meaning and identity are continually created, contested, and re-negotiated by people interacting with material things and each other. Barrett and Boyd argue for a methodology in which archaeologists understand archaeological contexts as performances of particular individuals with particular intentions entangled with particular things in a particular material environment in particular places. They use a range of examples from the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Islands and Aegean both to illustrate their critique of earlier culture-historical and processual interpretations and to show the advantages of their own.

The Introduction briefly reviews the culture-historical school of archaeological interpretation, how it was found wanting, and its replacement by the kind of processual archaeology advocated by Lewis Binford. The authors highlight the contributions of Colin Renfrew (who provides a brief foreword to this volume) in undermining earlier diffusionist explanations for the transmission of Bronze Age technologies in Europe and his emphasis on searching for internal economic and social processes. The authors, however, make clear their position that archaeological remains represent neither human beings, nor processes, nor history.

Chapter 1 (“Archaeological Approaches to Stonehenge”) reviews Richard Atkinson’s development of the basic three-phase sequence of development of Stonehenge and the manner in which he and other archaeologists like Stuart Piggott connected the second and third phases of the site to the “Beaker People” and the “Wessex Culture,” respectively. The diffusionist outlook of the times led to the suggestion of quite distant connections between Stonehenge and the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean. Colin Renfrew was among the first to recognize that radiocarbon dating not only severed any plausible connections between them, but also demolished the entire framework of absolute dating for the European Neolithic and Bronze Age developed by culture-historical archaeologists using diffusionist approaches. More recent research has shown that although some stones were rearranged in the Bronze Age and other modifications made, the great stone circle was essentially in place by around 2500 BC, in the Late Neolithic. This re-dating also broke the previously suggested connections between Stonehenge’s main construction phases with the “Beaker People” and Wessex Culture.

Chapter 2 (“The Emergence of an Aegean Civilization”) explores the application of processual archaeology to European prehistory, with a particular focus on the Bronze Age Aegean. The archaeological record was seen as the result of the operation of processes, with societies being conceived of as systems constructed to sustain human existence, with the systems themselves being comprised of sub-systems connected with different aspects of human life. Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civilization: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium B.C. (1972) is rightly credited as a landmark in archaeological thought, particularly its attempt to identify mechanisms for social change. The authors, however, argue that as societies grow more complex and are more buffered from the immediate influence of the environment, they have available to them an increasingly wider range of optional directions in which to develop. Processual archaeology could provide accounts of how a particular set of changes took place but was less able to provide explanations of why they did.

Chapter 3 (“Living with Things: The Politics of Identity”) reiterates the position that archaeological remains do not represent processes that are at the same time stimuli of behavior and the products of behavior. The authors believe that this approach ignores the choices and intentions of individuals who actually were responsible for the creation of the archaeological record. Human behavior is seen as a way of living intentionally towards existing conditions and thus of responding and coping with them. Many readers will likely find the insistence on individual intentionality in all situations an extreme and unconvincing position.  Barrett and Boyd go on to review the ways in which identity is created by individuals through their interactions both with their bio-cultural environment and the world of material things. Ultimately, they aim at a kind of approach that is not concerned with why particular orders of things are created, but rather how orders of things make a range of different forms of living possible. Drawing an analogy with Noam Chomsky’s transformational generative grammar of human speech abilities, the authors argue that simply by virtue of being human, people have an innate ability to recognize some logic between the patterning of things recovered as archaeological residues without the need to understand the mental state or beliefs of those who deposited them.

Chapter 4 (“Things That Mattered: Identity in Production, Exchange, and Use of Materials”) focuses on the authors’ position that identity is constructed by individuals as a kind of performance that will differ depending on the kinds of materials available and the access to them. Performance is seen as an expression of a desire to become a particular kind of being. Societies do not “do” anything; their histories instead are made in an entangled and evolving matrix of things, plants, and animals. To illustrate their points, the authors examine the Ulu Burun shipwreck of the Late Bronze Age, the working of metals in the Cyclades during the third millennium BC, the distribution of Grooved Ware in the Neolithic British Isles, Bell Beakers in northern Europe, sauceboats in the Aegean Early Bronze Age, and finally the use and trade of amber in the second millennium BC.

Chapter 5 (“Places That Mattered: Movement and Belonging”) examines the idea that places achieving historical significance do so only to the extent that they enable residents to understand their world and act in ways that help sustain a particular order of things. Knowledge of the “order of things” emerges through sustained occupancy of places and the material conditions associated with them. The examples offered include sites from the Late Neolithic of Orkney, Stonehenge, the Cycladic sites of Dhaskalio and Kavos, Knossos, and Mycenae. They stress the importance of physical movement such as voyaging and processing in creating meaning.

Chapter 6 (“Bodies That Mattered: The Role of the Dead”) notes that during the 1970s and 80s, Britain was seen by processualists as exhibiting long-term demographic continuity. The recent recovery of ancient DNA from British Neolithic and Bronze Age burials has upended that position, and there can be little doubt now, for example, that a substantial group with steppe ancestry entered Britain around the time Beaker burials start to appear. The authors understand that these discoveries are potentially problematic for their position that cultural identity is not dependent on genetics, and they argue cogently that such identities cannot simply be reduced to biological inheritance. Using examples from Britain, they argue that funerary activities are part of the way in which social position is continually renewed and renegotiated. They highlight the active role of the living in selecting and placing items in graves. They then consider the development of the Mycenaean shaft grave type and funerary practice by considering two graves from Circle B (Zeta and Gamma) and Grave V from Circle A. As with their British examples, they call attention to the role of the living participants in the funerary rites in selecting, arranging, and even using certain of the grave goods, as well as rearranging earlier burials and grave goods from Circle B-Zeta and Grave V from Circle A. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the appearance of the chamber tomb and tholos tomb around Mycenae, seeing the development of the tholos as the response of an elite toward the chamber tombs created by non-elites.

The final chapter (“Living Amongst Things: Practice, Place, and Identity in Expanding Worlds”) restates the authors’ desire to move away from treating material remains as representative of historical processes. The growth of continent-wide networks of material exchange makes it unreasonable, for example, simply to assume that the existence of common motifs in widely separated places must imply similar cosmologies. The meaning of things arises as the result of how they were understood and used in particular places and times by particular individuals. The increase in trade networks, long-distance travel, and voyaging seen in the European Bronze Age had the effect of creating a more complex entanglement of humans and things, leading to a greater range of potential identities that could be created.

The authors are consistently thoughtful and offer some very interesting interpretations. For example, they consider the possibility that the vessels found in the shaft graves were actually used by the participants in the course of the funerary ritual rather than simply being items selected to be deposited with the dead. They also note that the deposition of the body and the grave goods created a kind of tableau significant to the participants, and given the fact that the graves could be re-opened for additional burials, additions, subtractions, and rearrangements of skeletons and grave goods created new tableaux and meanings. The idea of archaeological deposits, especially graves, as representing a kind of “performance” taking place within a “field” of material things is a useful one. Although the idea of “performance” brings us closer to the actual material remains we deal with, it will nearly always be the case that the remains themselves underdetermine the intentions and meanings the authors hope to discern. It could be that in the case of the shaft graves, some or all of the vessels were actually used by participants in the course of the funerary ritual; it could equally well be that none were. One might imagine, as the authors seem to, a large number of viewers in a procession to accompany the deceased to the grave and to behold the arrangement of the body and grave goods; on the other hand, perhaps few were involved and the process largely secretive.

The scholarship of this volume is high quality, and the bibliography is substantial and up-to-date, an especially impressive feat considering the range of examples used here. The target audience appears to be other archaeological professionals with a fair amount of background knowledge. The brevity with which some examples are presented will make this tough going for many students, although the writing is clear.  There are a few typos, but none create confusion. The £70 price of such a physically small and slender volume is high, but that, of course, was the decision of the publisher.