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Must We Dig?

Introduction to Archaeology

by Shirley Gorenstein
Basic Books, 165 pp., $4.50

They Found the Buried Cities

by Robert Wauchope
University of Chicago, 382 pp., $7.50

Testaments of Time

by Leo Deuel
Knopf, 590 pp., $8.95

New Roads to Yesterday

edited by Joseph R. Caldwell
Basic Books, 576 pp., $12.50

Marine Archaeology

edited by Joan du Plat Taylor
Crowell, 208 pp., $9.50

Most Ancient Egypt

by William C. Hayes, edited by Keith C. Seele
University of Chicago, 160 pp., $5.00

What, one wonders, would a browser in a bookshop expect to find when he picks up a book called Introduction to Archaeology? Probably just what Dr. Gorenstein tries to provide, a simple instruction-book on excavation—finding a site, digging, keeping records, analyzing the data. To most laymen an archaeologist is a more or less romantic, slightly eccentric, and very dedicated character, wearing a pith helmet (at least in cartoons), who digs for old bones, lost treasures, and documents. And in the “heroic age” of archaeology that image wasn’t far off: one need name only Layard at Nineveh or Heinrich Schliemann, men of the same stamp as the great explorers, Sir Richard Burton or Dr. Livingstone. They broke every known rule of present-day “scientific” archaeology and they made the most sensational discoveries. They also knew how to report in an exciting manner, writing best sellers describing to an eager public how they exhumed dead and forgotten civilizations and filled European museums with great treasures.

Today it is all very different. Professor Wauchope notes with regret in introducing his anthology of excerpts from chiefly older writings on exploration and excavation in the American tropics (from Guillelmo Dupaix’s Antiquités méxicaines, published in Paris in 1834, to Louis J. Halle’s River of Ruins of 1941), that now

One rarely reads more than the dry technical monographs that result from these explorations. In their published reports, few archaeologists reveal their hardships and adventures, or even their thoughts and emotions…. perhaps some plan eventually to write about their experiences but never find the time to do so, and feel that these accounts do not properly belong in a scientific monograph. I do not agree.

In archaeology as in every other subject there is a qualitative change, the result of twentieth-century professionalism. Everyone is now a specialist; the team has replaced the individual in most investigations; and the art of public communication has been expelled from the scientific monograph and has been allowed to fall into the hands of amateurs in the pejorative sense of that word. Professor Wauchope is harsh in his judgment:

Most travel reminiscences nowadays appear in books by professional “adventures” and journalists posing as archaeologists; their writings suggest that many of their tales are outright fabrications and the dialogue imagined rather than real. Not only are the adventures themselves largely falsified, but the scanty archaeological content of these books is inaccurate and grossly misleading.

This kind of complaint will be familiar to readers of The New York Review in more than one field of inquiry. Now Dr. Deuel comes along with an excellent idea. The search for lost books and documents is in its way as important and exciting as the recovery of ruins and material objects, and there is need for a popular survey of some of the great discoveries of the past hundred years or so: the papyri of Egypt, the Dead Sea scrolls, the documents in the Cairo Geniza, bark codices from eastern Asia, and others. Dr. Deuel worked hard and read much and there is no question here of fabrication and falsification. But there is the inaccuracy endemic in the amateur, of which I give one example, his brief account of the papyrus fragments of a lost Greek historical work.

It was a fragment of about 600 lines dealing with the period from 396 to 394 B.C. in Hellenic history. As a narrative it could take its place beside Thucydides, whose work it apparently set out to continue, and Xenophon, with whom it was not always in agreement. It is generally known as the Oxyrhynchia Hellenica, and a heated debate is still in progress today as to the identity of its author. Ephorus is at present the leading contender.

The facts are as follows. The major find, made in 1906, consists of a number of fragments, not one continuous passage, and they deal not only with events in the years 396 and 395 but also with the constitutional structure of the Boeotian League. New fragments, discovered in 1934 and apparently unknown to Deuel, report events in the period 409-7 and make it quite certain that the anonymous historian began his narrative at the point where Thucydides broke off. But his style and manner are not Thucydidean, and no one who has read the text, either in Greek or in translation, could conceivably suggest that “as a narrative it could take its place beside Thucydides.” Finally, the debate over the identity of the author has been abandoned as hopeless for about a quarter of a century, hence the name Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (sic). Of all the candidates who had been proposed by one scholar or another, Ephorus was the surest nonstarter. On that there is pretty unanimous agreement.

These are small matters and every reader (who is unlikely to be in a position to control the material) will have to decide for himself where to set the limit of tolerance. He will also have to decide whether Dr. Deuel was right to choose biographies of “scholar-adventurers” as his framework, with some very odd consequences. The account of the recovery of the work of the playwright Menander, for example, is restricted to the fragments despite the fact that at the time Deuel was writing the text of one complete play of Menander’s, the Dyskolos‘ or Misanthrope, had already been published. That is disposed of in a parenthesis because the papyrus had been acquired by a Swiss collector in an embarrassingly prosaic way: He bought it from a dealer. There is no romantic story there, unless one happens to think that the results of searching and digging are in the final analysis far more important—and exciting—than the “adventures” of the searchers. As one reads the seventeen extracts assembled by Professor Wauchope, the conviction grows that he has misdirected his complaints, that what he is trying to revive has very little to do with archaeology. All the stories about poisonous snakes, ant armies, fevers, rock-falls, and nude beauties bathing in a pool who flee from a harmless paint-box and easel can be told by explorers, travelers, and novelists without the slightest reference to, or interest in, Mayan remains—and they have been, often far better. Dr. Deuel’s tales are, to be sure, much more closely tied to the subject-matter, but the stresses and the overtones are essentially the same, on adventures and failures, on the excitement of discovery, on the detective story.

In sum, the archaeologist has moved from the heroic age to the scientific; the public has not. Popular interest in archaeology is extraordinary. Why it should be is not self-evident, and I suggest that the explanation includes a number of elements: a subconscious yearning to recapture a distant past which is filled with wonders and myth, the ambiguous thrill of grave-robbing, the excitement of the treasure hunt, and, for the large number of amateurs who “go on digs,” the satisfaction of engaging in an outdoor activity which is also cultural. These elements may not make up the whole explanation, but they surely help explain the large market for the “romance” books. They also explain the equation with which I began, archaeology=excavation. Digging is a technique and it has become a very refined technique in our time. But like all techniques, its function is purely ancillary; the objective is either to find treasure or to discover, the raw materials for historical reconstruction, or both. The emphasis ought to be on the latter, not, as in Dr. Gorenstein’s Introduction, on the former, reserving only a final chapter for “Reconstructing culture” (the preceding chapter, though entitled “Analyzing the Data,” is about techniques, too). After all, there is hardly a university in the world that does not have a department of archaeology (whether independent or combined with art or classics or anthropology). And digging is not the core of the curriculum. Nor are the skills of excavation and historical reconstruction always to be found in equal measure in the same man: The case of Leonard Woolley, a very great excavator, is an excellent example, as Professor Momigliano recently pointed out in this journal in his review of the UNESCO history.

The hard problem then arises to define the subject-matter of archaeology. When Dr. Gorenstein writes that “the procedure by which the archaeologist attempts to deduce aspects of culture from the artifactual evidence is called archaeological inference,” she falls into an error that is all too common even in professional archaeological writing. “Archaeological inference” is a meaningless phrase, as meaningless as, say, “archaeological transport” would be for the means by which an archaeologist takes himself from his home in Chicago to a site in Greece or Iran or Central America. Archaeologists are specialists in material remains, objects. Things of themselves lead to no inferences whatever without hypotheses or models or previously expressed generalizations, and what they will be depends on the pertinent state of knowledge and the interests of the particular investigation, which might be social history, art history, or the history of technology, or any combination. That is a truism, but a further implication is often overlooked or brushed aside. Unless one goes on to equate archaeology with social history and art history and the history of technology (and a number of other studies), which would make the term so broad as to render it useless as a category, one cannot escape the implication that archaeology must draw its generalizations, models, and hypotheses, from other disciplines—systematically consciously, and professionally. Vague waffle is unacceptable, but not uncommon. I quote Dr. Gorenstein once more:

If he attempts to determine the subsistence pattern, the social groupings, or the political organization of a people, it is because he knows that these things are part of the fabric of men’s lives, and they are likely to have been in existence for most of the history of man.

It will have been noticed that the pertinent disciplines do not include the physical or biological sciences. (I exclude from consideration archaeology in the service of the study of human evolution, which is really a very different kind of study from the rest.) In what sense, then, is it proper to speak of archaeology having become scientific? Why should the American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsor New Roads to Yesterday, an anthology of twenty articles published in the past decade in its official organ, Science? There is a good reason and a false implication. The valid reason takes us back to techniques: carbon-14 dating, palaeobotany, aerial photography, geophysical and chemical analysis have given the archaeologist precision tools unknown a generation ago. I do not for a moment underestimate the advances that have already been made or that we can hope for. But it does not follow, as some of the contributors imply and as the editor, Joseph R. Caldwell, Head Curator of Anthropology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, keeps hinting over and over again in both his lengthy introduction and his article on the “New American Archaeology,” that carbon-14 dating and the rest have essentially altered the problems or the procedures of interpretation. To write, as he does, that the “problem of culture influencing evolution is complex” and “its solution ultimately depends on archaeology,” is to walk into the same trap as Dr. Gorenstein’s “archaeological inference.”

It may well be true, as Professor Braidwood says in his chapter, that in the past “archaeologists’ excursions into natural history have usually ended in disaster,” and it is a welcome change that archaeologists now enlist the cooperation of experts in geophysics and palaeobotany and comparative anatomy. But that does not relieve them of the old obligation of turning to historians, economists and sociologists for their models and generalizations, and on that score this volume is not encouraging. When Dr. Caldwell solemnly reports that “the new evidence from prehistoric Africa, that man is not just the producer of culture but is, in fact, its product, carries far-reaching implications” (my italics), or that “it seems to Adams that man’s well-being may depend more often on the nature of his social institutions than on the presence or absence of particular items of material equipment,” no useful comment seems possible. I hasten to add that Professor Adams is not responsible for the implication that he has made a great new sociological discovery in the highlands of southwestern Iran. I also add that Dr. Caldwell has actually heard of Karl Marx, for he mentions “Karl Marx’s production relationships, which formed the basis for his labor theory of economics” and notes that Gordon Childe “apparently found much in Marx’s historical formulations to stimulate his own conceptions of prehistory.” (“Apparently” is mystifying: Childe’s debt to Marx was openly expressed time and time again.)

None of this is to suggest that there is no place for systematic popular accounts of the contribution the various sciences have made in recent years to the techniques of archaeology. Such accounts in fact exist, as in Science in Archaeology, edited by Don Brothwell and Eric Higgs, also published by Basic Books (1963). The volume on Marine Archaeology edited by Joan du Plat Taylor is the most recent addition to this growing literature. Marine archaeology is ignored in New Roads, which is not a planned collection but merely a compilation of articles that happen to have been published in Science. Only one article discusses a specific scientific contribution as such, and that a singularly esoteric one, about the cortical decomposition of flints and their patination. Otherwise, there are eight more or less general surveys of the prehistory of specific regions, several articles on the domestication of plants and animals, several on “origins” (Polynesians, Eskimoes), and a miscellany of others. There is no statement of the original date of publication (apart from Braidwood’s indication in a prelude that his dates from 1958); the editor mentions that two or three (his writing is ambiguous) were somewhat revised; there is not a single map, though there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of unfamiliar place-names from Iran to Central America. The merits and levels of the writing vary greatly. Some are mere summaries of books or monographs by their authors; others are unreadably technical and loaded with footnotes. Only one or two warrant the editor’s accolade of “landmarks.”

It is difficult to see whom the volume is aimed at. Students of archaeology will go to the full original studies whereas laymen will sink in the jargon and technical details, all highly compressed, of many of the contributions, unsupported by maps. The professional can at least supply context; the layman cannot. If, for example, the latter is really interested in the contribution Professor Butzer’s geomorphological studies have made to our knowledge of the prehistory of Egypt, he must read not the ten-page sketch in this volume but William Hayes’s Most Ancient Egypt, a small posthumous book reprinted from the Journal of Near Eastern Studies for 1964 (unfortunately in the Journal‘s ugly two-column format and again without a map). There he will see how Butzer’s findings have been woven into a historical account, which is the object of the whole exercise.

A basic weakness is the failure to face up to the question I have already posed: What is the subject-matter of archaeology? My own answer is a brutal one, I’m afraid, and that is that archaeology is neither a subject nor a discipline. There is a subject, however, and that is prehistory, the study of human societies which have not achieved literacy and therefore have left no written documents, only objects. The moment documents become available in any abundance, they take priority. Archaeological remains still make their contribution, but to correct, refine, and enlarge upon the information given in the writings. Where there is no writing, there are whole areas of human behavior about which it is impossible to say anything at all, except by speculative extrapolation from literate cultures, and that brings us back to the point that even in the study of prehistory the necessary models and generalizations must be derived from outside “archaeology.” “It is much easier,” writes Dr. Gorenstein, “to talk about the tools and hunting techniques of Neanderthal man than it is to talk about his songs and legends.” Indeed. We know exactly nothing about Neanderthal songs and legends and we can’t even make any reasonable guesses.

Caldwell therefore has the balance and the relationship wrong when he says that for the “archaeology of civilization,” by which he means literate societies, collaboration is needed from “such specialists as historians, epigraphers, and numismatists.” Who is ancillary to whom becomes immediately clear when he goes on, while summarizing Professor Adams’s work in southwestern Iran, to write the following:

Great weirs constructed across the major rivers are still locally identified as “Roman,” doubtless because of the role in their construction played by the 70,000 legionaries captured with the Emperor Valerian by Shapur I.

Actually Adams didn’t say just that, but made the more cautious and precise comment that “there seems little reason to doubt the statements of medieval Arab historians and geographers” that 70,000 captured legionaries were so employed. With all respect to what is perhaps the outstanding article in the volume, there is every reason not to believe Arabic tales told many hundreds of years after the event. The contemporary sources for the capture of Valerian in A.D. 259 are a notoriously unreliable mess. No Greek or Latin writer gives the figure 70,000, which is impossible, for it amounts to about half the total paper strength of all the armies of the Roman Empire at the time. The Arab tale has all the earmarks of an etiological myth: The scale of construction was so remarkable that an extraordinary explanation was required, hence 70,000 captured Roman soldiers.

Be that as it may, the main point for our purposes is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of the explanation but its very existence. There is no “archaeological” reason to link the weirs with captured soldiers or with Romans, any more than with the Chinese or Armenians or with slaves from Ethiopia. Were there no documents, no archaeologist would ever have dreamed up such an explanation. “A prehistorian,” writes Stuart Piggott in Ancient Europe, a new book which is, alas, not under review, “does not and cannot write history as the historian does,” and “essentially,” literate societies are “the affair of the historian.” But the prehistorian can write good prehistory, and, as Piggott has again demonstrated, he can write interesting prehistory, for a popular audience, without sacrificing “science” or the indispensable technical details. That more professional archaeologists do not do so, or even try, is what Professor Wauchope should complain about, not their unwillingness to reveal their hardships and adventures.

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