Prehistoric exchange systems


In 1961, Robert Ascher suggested that analogy could be put onto ‘firmer foundations’ if archaeologists would accept its subjectivity (Ascher 1961). He believed that systematic analogy would pull the method out of its controversial status by stating the use of relevant analogs, why those were chosen as analogs for that particular phenomenon, and that these were merely suggestions, not facts (Ibid. ). In his paper, Binford occasionally omits this from his analysis, which may then make it appear too factual.

Grahame Clark has also used ethnography in order to try and interpret aspects of prehistoric exchange. His analogy draws upon Marcel Mauss’ influential ethnography of Melanesia and the ‘gift’ (Bahn and Renfrew 1996). He links the principles of Mauss gift society, in which exchange is based on the reciprocation of gifts and relationships of obligation and interdependence between people, with an axe trade network that occurred in the British Neolithic (Ibid. ). In his work, Clark used petrography in order to study the texture and sections of the axes (Bahn and Renfrew 1996).

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He concluded from the patterns that a society based on gift exchange existed in the British Neolithic (Ibid. ). This type of formal or processual analogy has been heavily criticised by Archaeologists, who regard processual analogy as a form of analogy that makes too many generalisations, and relies on science to formulate standardized methods of interpreting ethnographic material, thereby creating a false sense of ‘factual knowledge’ (Insoll 2012, Wylie 1985).

According to Insoll, formal analogy should be abandoned in favour of a more complex, relational analogy (Insoll 2012). This form of analogy attempts to find common ground between the materials that are being studied, without trying to establish universals based on similarities between artefacts (Ibid. ) Ethnoarchaeology and the value of ethnographic analogy In his essay on the exchange of obsidian artefacts traded by peoples on the admiralty islands, Torrence stresses the difficulties of using ethnographic analogy in order to reconstruct prehistoric exchange (1993).

Apart from the argument that ethnographies usually only covers one generation, Torrence argues that most anthropological ethnographies lack emphasis on the link between material culture and exchange (Ibid. ) In an effort to combat this gap in knowledge, archaeologists begun to conduct their own ethnographies, leading to the birth of ethnoarchaeology, a branch of archaeology described as ‘’the study of contemporary societies with the aim of understanding how human behaviour relates to material culture. ’’ (Insoll 2012:7).

However, it has to be noted that this new form of ethnography was and is still subject to the same issues that surround anthropological ethnography. The ethnographies conducted by archaeologists may have improved the study on material culture and exchange, but the same limitations on determining authenticity or degree of ‘primitiveness’ (referring to a quote by Torrence earlier in this essay) and lack of longitudinal research still apply (Torrence 1993). Despite these criticisms, there are archaeologists who believe in the value of ethnographic analogy.

Wylie, in her article, criticises Gould for arguing that analogical inference is not desirable and should be omitted, by stating that his reasoning is essentially analogical (Wylie 1985). She uses the example of hunter-gatherers, in which Gould discusses the issue with comparing prehistoric humans to modern nomadic groups, stating that they (like nonhuman carnivores) may not have had access to fire, which would have changed their way of survival (Ibid. ). This statement is analogical, because Gould uses nonhuman carnivores as an analog onto which he constructs an image of what early humans might have been like.

Wylie subsequently argues that all interpretations are analogical (Wylie 1985). This could be seen as actually strengthening the position of analogical reasoning in archaeology, not weakening it. Others have also argued that using ethnographic analogy, despite its sometimes controversial status, can provide archaeologists with valuable insights about the way prehistoric exchange operated (Torrence 1993). Torrence used ethnographic data from museum collections to trace different forms of exchange, and how exchange can be influenced by modern capitalism and contact with foreign societies (Ibid. ). Torrence’s artefacts.

He used museum collections to reconstruct exchange (Torrence 1993) The key to using that data in order to reconstruct trade and exchange, according to Torrence, is ‘’not to expect that the objects represent a direct reflection of a pristine cultural setting free from the ‘nasty’ influences of a modern world system, but to take advantage of the types of variability that are represented. ’’ (Torrence 1993:478). This ‘value’ in ethnographic data is backed up by Bahn and Renfrew, who write that ethnographies on West-African markets and for example pre-industrial China can provide archaeologists with insight into exchange (1996).

Conclusion The way in which ethnographies are used in analogy possibly determines their value as a method of interpretation. Ethnographic analogy is not an effortless way of reconstructing the past through present day reflections in the way that Sollas argued in his studies. It is a method that is considered flawed by some, in the way that it can overgeneralise similarities between material cultures, or assume that societies remain unchanged throughout history.

Gould’s dismissal of analogical reasoning altogether is met with resistance from Alison Wylie, who sees flaws in his argument and claims that Gould actually uses analogy in order to prove his point. Many archaeologists also see the positive sides of analogy, arguing that using ethnographic analogy can open up new doors in the way people think about exchange and trade in prehistory. Ethnographic analogy in discussing prehistoric exchange is perhaps not useful in directly reconstructing the past through reflections from the present, but it can provide archaeologists with new ways from which to approach the subject of exchange in prehistory.

It is perhaps unable to answer directly whether the British Neolithic was an exchange society similar to modern day Melanesia, but it can at least open up a possibility which, without ethnography, would not have existed.

Wordcount: 1821 Bibliography Ascher R. (1961) Analogy in Archaeological Interpretation, Southwestern journal of Anthropology, vol 17:4, pp. 317-325 Renfrew C. and Bahn P. (1996) Archaeology Theories, Methods and practice (2nd edition), Thames and Hudson Ltd. , London Binford, L. R. (1967) Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning, American Antiquity, Vol 32:1, January, pp.1-12 Insoll T. (2012)

Themes in Archaeology week 2: Ethnography, Analogy and Ethnoarchaeology [lecture], University of Manchester, Mansfield Cooper G22. Ostoja-Zagorski J. (1993) ‘Changing paradigms in the study of the prehistoric economy: An example from East-Central Europe’ in Bogucki P. (ed. ) Case studies in European Prehistory, CRC Press, United States of America Sollas W. J. (1911) Ancient hunters and their modern representatives, Macmillan, London Torrence R. (1993) Ethnoarchaeology, Museum Collections and Prehistoric Exchange: Obsidian-tipped Artifacts from the Admiralty Islands, World Archaeology vol 4:3, February, pp.

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