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It may suffice to say that anthropological accounts need to be scrutinized with similar source criticism as do historical texts. The problem as I see it, is that archaeologists often treat anthropological theory and data in a too sloppy manner, which tend to restrain the development of more advanced, detailed and creative analysis of archaeological data. It is too easy to classify material traces of a prehistoric social aggregate as a hunter-gatherer group with a typical way of life, relation to biotope and a general cosmology.

Instead, we need to fully acknowledge that contemporary societies generally are more varied, complex and often contradictory than we normally expect. This problematic has been discussed in anthropology for a long time. How odd are they?

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How illogical? In what precisely does reason lie? Many historians have accentuated the heterogeneity and hybrid processes of social practices and collectives which imply that we find very few straightforward origins and developments of certain seemingly similar practices even during short time-spans cf. Ginsburg ff. In prehistoric cases, the time-frames span over several generations and over large geographical areas.


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Most important, however, is that we obviously will encounter social relations, ways of thinking and social practices that no longer are present in the contemporary scene. The big question is then, how do we interpret traces of the possibly unfamiliar and unknown? As an exemplification, let us consider the following quotation from Saul Kripke on the existence of unicorns What Kripke is getting at is, if data are discovered that fit the description of unicorns, they may suggest that there once were horses with horns, but that they are not necessarily the same as the mythical figure of unicorns.

Translated to a more relevant archaeological context, Kripke is hinting that, even if we discover attributes that satisfy everything that we know about, let us say a typical hunter-gatherer group, it does not mean that this is the same thing as a contemporary one. It may thus be appropriate to speak about fictions rather than models as a way of acknowledging their virtual character.


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It goes without saying that archaeological fictions will probably turn out to be most favourable if they are based on the given sociohistorical conditions, that is, the material traces of action. Here the anthropological basis for his fiction is clear and visible. The ritual interpretation of the reflecting obsidian items is clearly inspired by the exotism and the colonial figure of the ritually driven savage which once was a popular theme in pre WWII anthropology such as Firth.

The excavated data, however, do not support such an interpretation; on the contrary, it would be more rational to assume that people who were so keen on elaborate decoration of their houses also cared about their appearance. Would one not expect scholars to consult more elaborate contemporary anthropology?

Think about it, how would we react if someone outside our discipline made interpretations of the past solely based on the work of archaeologists such as O. Crawford or Gustaf Kossinna? In The Sixth Extinction episode 7x03 , the debris of a spaceship are discovered buried in the sand on an African shore which contained disturbing information on human genetics and quotations from the Bible.

Materiality in Contemporary Cultural Theory

The material remains are clearly very old, much older than the discovery of genetics and the period when the Bible was compiled. One of the characters, special agent Dana Scully, is a train scientist who always seeks rational explanations for the unnatural things she encounters in the field. She is constantly struggling to make sense of what she is trained to believe as a scientist which seldom suffices to explain strange facts such as the spaceship in question.

How can I reconcile what I see with what I know? It has been an often repeated mantra that we cannot analyse the past without analogies with the present a generalising statement that to some scholars seem to excuse the most far reaching comparisons. I find it only partly true; why should we not be able to create plausible fictions that to some degree transcend our frames of reference? Fiction writers have done that for a long time, as well as certain scientists.

One example is the interpretation of dinosaur fossils in the early 19th century.

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The idea of big dinosaurs that ruled the earth long before humans appeared was more or less unthinkable at the time. The contemporary religious discourse of the Bible refuted Earth such a long history and there were no living counterparts to the great dinosaurs with which to compare the scattered fossils Cadbury Despite that, that is, against the common thought style and lack of a relevant frame of reference, the growing numbers of data led to the acceptance of an era of great dinosaurs on Earth.

It should be possible to study past material traces of action on their own terms and sociohistorical setting. And furthermore, this difference is actually the prime object for us to analyse: It is a difference that matters. Does it really matter?

Materiality: An Introduction

Concluding remarks There can be little doubt that social worlds are material worlds. Without things and matter there would not be any social constellations for us to discuss and analyse. The material traces of the past do not, however, speak for themselves, neither through regional comparisons nor through analogies with the present. In order to analyse the past properly, we need elaborated fictions of the various ways in which people interact with each other and their material worlds.

Such fictions can be derived from studies of contemporary small scale societies or from historical sources, but we must also expect to encounter ways of doing things and ideologies in the past that are no longer represented in the contemporary world.

Media Matter

We thus need a creative element in our fictions as a way of expanding our frames of reference beyond simple and traditional social models and categories. After all, it is the uncertainty of prehistory that makes our discipline exciting and meaningful. But is it possible to address social analysis if we discard any concept implying the existence of social or cultural units? The obvious reason for this is found in the nature of the data, but also because of the mainly unknown social setting in prehistoric cases.

Materiality | The Matter of Matter | Gallery I

The archaeological record does, however, often contain more information than we generally use. To find new and improved ways of extracting social information from such materialities is a continuing prominent task for archaeology. Archaeology is by tradition a humanist science and thus to a certain degree humanocentric. It is important to point out that emphasising the social significance of the material world does not necessarily imply that we should abandon the human subject and human worlds as an area of study.

Others, like Latour, argue for a balanced symmetry. I believe, however, that it is important not to respond to the previous neglect of the material by dismissing or marginalise the human element. It must be clear that materialities do not have agency secondary or pseudo per se.

Their possible social significancies in given situations need to be analysed on a case to case basis.


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  4. Therefore we need a flexible integrated theoretical and methodological framework that can be applied in different situations and on different scale. We may loose something when abandoning hermeneutics and placing the human beside the pedestal instead of on top of it. But perhaps that loss is nothing more than the faint remaining echo of a culture historical legacy? However, acknowledging social complexity and inter-social variation and development is a greater challenge, and who can resist that?

    References Alcorn Jr, M.

    Materiality Concept

    Bracher et al eds. Press, New York. En introduktion till de historiska arkeologierna. Attfield, J. Wild things: the material culture of everyday life. Berg, Oxford. Barck, K.

    In: H. Gumbrecht and K. Pfeiffer eds. Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford Calif. Bhaskar, R. Verso, London. Brown, B. In: B.