A Bone to Pick (part eight)


The interlocutors were Michael Lane (MFL), Paul Halstead (PH), Mel Giles (MCG), and John Barrett (JCB).


The processualist/post-processualist controversy

PH: Yes, we knew each other. I can also say that several of the people who shared my cynicism of what the 'coggies' were doing could not see that. Some people thought it was very odd that one should fraternise with the enemy. Can I just say something about my perspective on the 'coggies', historically?

MFL: For the rest of the world, we're talking about the people who became known as 'post-processualists'.

PH: They did eventually, but I will explain that too, in a moment. The first public outing, as I explained, was when they went to the Sheffield TAG. They were being mainly baited on that occasion by Paul Mellars and Colin Renfrew and basically they were being 'got at' on the grounds that 'okay, how are you going to do any of this stuff?' When it first started out, they were constantly being challenged as to whether anything they wanted to do was archaeologically operational or not: 'how can you possibly do this?'. To my mind, I think that had very unfortunate consequences in a way, because firstly, their response to that was to start exploring other philosophies of science. You basically end up with the problem that people who wanted to ask different questions of the archaeological record were also operating on different sets of rules of inference, which basically makes it very hard to communicate. I think that was actually very unfortunate because it means that, whereas theoretical archaeology as David Clarke bequeathed it was a very broad church in which people who did archaeology and social archaeology, basically any sort of archaeology you want to do, was all part of his vision of a 'new' archaeology which was wide-ranging, but had some common sets of assumptions about how you proceed at a practical level, it became very split. Cognitive archaeology was developing in isolation from whatever else was going on in the Cambridge department, which I think was actually very bad, in the sense that there was very little dialogue going on. That was probably bad for both sides: those who didn't believe were being challenged less than they might have been, and the 'coggies' freed themselves from challenge by just setting up different rules. Basically, you were allowed to investigate the archaeological past on a completely different basis from the rest of us. I think that's unfortunate because if you look at what subsequently happens with, certainly say with Mike Parker Pearson it's very clear and later with Ian Hodder, they actually drift back into trying to address the issue of archaeological inference. I think a lot of time was wasted. One could have had a more fruitful debate.

MCG: Do you think that was because the department itself didn't have the mechanisms through which to engage with this directly? Although it was good for you personally that a lot of discussion and debate happened in the pub, it lacked in-depth seminars and organised debates in the classroom?

PH: The real problem was that there was no real alternative focus to what Ian's students were trying to do. There were a lot of people involved in the 'debate', but there was really no big alternative focus. I think that was unfortunate. If you look at archaeological theory today, there has plainly been some fusion. A lot of post-processualists have backed off from many extreme statements. A lot of people who would be classified as processualists are plainly not working the same way as they were in 1980, so the field moves on. I think there was a strategic decision made by Ian, partly for practical reasons, developing their ideas, and partly for cynical reasons of promoting that group, that they withdrew themselves from certain circles.

MFL: Perhaps that's always a necessary step in developing a new paradigm?

MCG: When Mike talks about the internal politics of the group and the way in which they were very competitive within that group itself, do you think that was maybe their problem, that they had enough competition to deal with inside the group?

* * *

PH: I'll try and explain how, as I understood it, post-processualism happened, because before Ian and fellow travellers invented the term 'post-processualism', I don't think many of us, like myself, thought we were processualists. Obviously, there was a literature in the States from which that's derived, but I never heard anybody in Cambridge talk about themselves as practising 'processual archaeology' before post-processual archaeology happened. The first time I ever heard the term processual archaeology being bandied around really was when Mike Parker Pearson came from Southampton where, I think because of Renfrew, they were much more oriented towards American archaeology than we were in Cambridge. Mike was very strong on the historical background of processual archaeology in a way which I think we weren't. I think the term 'post-processual archaeology' was actually very significant because, when Renfrew got the chair in Cambridge, his inaugural lecture, if you read it, is an exercise in laying on hands or like incorporating the young Turks, like Hodder. If you look closely, what Renfrew does, amongst other things, is say that Ian Hodder's cognitive archaeology is basically pursuing the ideas that he pursued in his 1972 book Emergence [The Emergence of Civilisation] on the symbolic subsystem. To me it seemed this was an act of incorporation.

MFL: Co-optation?

PH: Co-optation. A similar thing goes on with Mike Rowlands in there if I remember -- it's ages since I read it -- but you can see this act of trying to portray the big players in theoretical archaeology at the time as being logical off-shoots of himself. Ian's response to that was twofold: one is that you immediately try to deny the significance of processual archaeology by renaming cognitive archaeology 'post-processual archaeology', so that the 'post-' is very important. Basically, instead of having New Archaeology, of which cognitive archaeology is a logical branch, you have processual archaeology which is passé, like 'Old' Archaeology, and you have post-processual archaeology. A very clever ruse. And to drive the nail into the coffin even more painfully, you develop this notion of revisionist archaeology in which you draw attention to the ways in which post-processualists are going back to the works of people like Stuart Piggott and Glyn Daniels, and so what Hodder did was start inviting people like Piggott and Daniels to come and give seminars in Cambridge to the chosen acolytes, which an absolute masterstroke, because Renfrew then doesn't have a clue because...

MCG: They are the old guard.

PH: They're also his patrons.

* * *

Renfrew's skill was to be the bête noire of the New Archaeology but to maintain social ties to these patrons in the old generation, which is of course very different from the Binford strategy of posing as a revolutionary and debunking Jimmy Griffin and those who went before. Renfrew's got this funny relationship with those who went before -- they're patrons as well as those he's replacing. When Hodder invites the pre-processualists to come and give talks on their version of archaeological history, it poses him a fantastic problem, because basically what do you do? Do you invite them to dinner at high table which is the obvious networking thing to do, or do you ignore the fact that they're being lined up with the enemy? It's a masterstroke really.

* * *

MCG: Before I came to university, Renfrew was someone who was speaking out on national television against student loans and against the idea that funding should be cut for students because he argued that the most vulnerable would be hit. It's not always so easy to reconcile or to divide off his political affiliations from what they actually do in practice.

PH: Although Colin Renfrew has close personal ties with several members of Thatcher's cabinet -- they were close friends, he obviously politically agrees with much of what they do -- I think as someone who would stand up and be counted, I think he might be a better bet than Ian Hodder to be honest.

* * *

PH: If you conduct debate at the level of labels then you can engage in a lot of trite posturing.

MCG: Which is derived from an authority which is ultimately outside that realm, outside that engagement and that can be part of a defence mechanism of rejecting.

MFL: I've always wanted to give Ian Hodder some credit through much of this debate, not because I agree with him theoretically necessarily, but because he never seems to have stooped to the level that Lewis Binford did in ad hominem attacks. How do you feel about this? Is it because, as you've said, Ian Hodder is apolitical and just doesn't care what Lewis Binford has to say, or is it because Lewis Binford takes things too personally?

PH: I think Lewis Binford certainly takes things too personally, and I think in that sense Ian is much better able to cope with criticism.

* * *

MFL: An infamous episode that many people don't know in this detail....

PH: Ian set up a seminar in which I think, if I remember rightly, three of his postgraduate students -- it might have been four -- did a critique of Lewis Binford's work, with Lewis Binford in the audience. Mike Parker Pearson was certainly there. Danny Miller was one....

MFL: Henrietta [Moore]?

PH: I think Henrietta was one, but I think there was a fourth. I can't remember. For a variety of reasons as to what happened afterwards, I remember Mike and Danny Miller very clearly.

MFL: Did Lewis Binford know that his work was to be criticised?

PH: I guess he must have known that there was a debate going to go on.

* * *

I don't know exactly what Binford knew. He knew there was a seminar, he must have known it was a seminar to discuss his work, and basically they stood up, and they critiqued his work, in a pretty no-holds-barred fashion. Mike did it with some sense of humour and embarrassment, I think. The others were pretty direct. It was fairly embarrassing because basically Binford fairly early on got very very agitated and was standing up saying 'This is horseshit!' and wanting to leave and Robin Torrence was badgering him to stay. To my mind, the whole thing was stupid in two ways: one was that I think the attacks were cheap in the sense that what they did was critique work he'd been doing in the mid-'60s or late '60s -- and I think this was a common ploy of post-processual archaeology, of the cognitive archaeology group, and doubtless of every other faction that wants to change paradigms -- but they never pick the most difficult opposition to deal with. They were basically picking his early work on funerary archaeology, and they were going back to the mid- to late '60s. So I thought that was pretty stupid and his response to my mind was equally stupid because instead of just standing up and saying 'Look guys ...'

MCG: ... it's changed.

PH: ... this is 20 years ago ...

MFL: And admitting that his own thought had developed.

PH: Which patently it had, because the whole focus on middle-range theory. My perspective on New Archaeology is that you basically have two phases of it: during the 1960s. Binford and others stand up and they basically said you can walk on water, given science, and by the mid- to late '70s they're actually turning round and saying that this is very problematic. The notion that you can infer anything you like as long as you've got good archaeological theory has gone out the window. If you look at Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology or Binford's Bones or his stuff on middle-range theory, he's confronted the fact that it's very hard to get to dynamic features of the past from archaeological statics, and he's actually shifted ground massively.

MFL: It's interesting that you say that because, of course, Shanks and Tilley criticise middle-range theory for being obsessed with methodology, as if these processualists still thought that the perfect method would help them obtain the past.

PH: Yes. To my mind, the big problem with a lot of the critiques of Binford, both Shanks and Tilley and Hodder, is that they conflate his writings from 1965 through into the 1980s, as if it's all one thing, and you don't have to be a genius to see that the man shifted his ground greatly. Now, he didn't help his case because, basically, instead of just turning round and saying, 'Look children, I've changed. Attack that if you want, but I've moved on' he, I think foolishly, wanted to stand up and say that everything he's ever said is right, which is a preposterous thing for anybody to claim, and he played into their hands. Ultimately, it was a monumental non-meeting of minds, and I think both parties played a really big part in that.

MFL: So what happened as an immediate result of this seminar?

PH: The immediate result of it was twofold. One was Binford was very upset. Colin Renfrew asked if I would organise a party for him in the evening, so basically, he came back to where I lived in Kings with various sympathisers, plus Danny Miller.

* * *

Binford was actually very, very threatening to [Danny] and told him that he knew nothing about natural selection, and he'd find out about it when he tried to get a job ...

[Laughter]

... which Danny Miller was, I think, quite alarmed by, although history shows that he didn't have any reason to be alarmed.

* * *


Part nine

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