You are on page 1of 12

Biology and Philosophy (2005) 20:545556

DOI 10.1007/s10539-005-5585-5

! Springer 2005

Book review

Regaining Archaeologys Nerve: Culture and Biology

in Archaeological Theory
Philosophy Program
Research School of Social Sciences
Australia National University

Review of Andrew Jones, Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice,

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, 206 pp., (PB) ISBN 0521-79393-9 and Stephen Shennan, Genes, Memes and Human History:
Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution, Thames and Hudson,
London, 2002, 304 pp. (HB) ISBN 0-500-05118-6.
Like other social sciences, the rise of Post-modernism has confused
archaeologists. What counts as a good explanation, what counts as an appropriate explanation, all become, to use that horrible phrase problematised.
The result has been a sensitivity about science, theory and politically incorrect
situated knowledge. As Stephen Shennan notes in the introduction to his
In archaeology, the impact of these ideas has been heralded, with some
justification, as a much-needed loss of innocence, but it has also led to a
loss of nerve . . . (Shennan 2002: 10)
That loss of nerve relates to archaeologys willingness to go beyond the
basic descriptive process of archaeology and engage in a detailed and richer
description. The rise of post-modernist ideas undercuts some workers confidence in their claims about the past; claims that should be based on a series
of inferences from the remains of past societies to statements about how past
people lived, and perhaps even what they believed. Both of these books seek,
in different ways, to address this loss of nerve.
There is much agreement on how archaeologists conduct their business.
The processes of collecting archaeological data the material remains of past
societies, cultures and people are well entrenched and undisputed. There
are still improvements to be made, and new techniques to be evaluated, but

the general process of fieldwork seems to be settled, and has been for some
time. Likewise, there is little dispute over reconstructing the basics of what
the data implies. There are agreed upon techniques that aid archaeologists
in the interpretation of archaeological remains as settlements or campsites.
They are part of the fieldwork and data gathering business. So statements
such as this was a permanent settlement, and that was a seasonal settlement, this is a hearth, and that is a forge, are statements about the raw
data of archaeology. Such claims are not usually contested. For the purposes
of much discussion within archaeology, this work gets black-boxed, to use
Jones phrase. The archaeological community tacitly grants it. The fact that
research communities accept uncritically some data in order to get on with
analysing broader data is fairly standard within the sciences. It is only once
that raw data has been recovered by work in the field and the initial reconstruction has been done that the debates, the loss of nerve, begins. For the
methodical and careful recovery of objects and data from the past is a goodly
part of the archaeologists task, but it is not the only task. The ultimate area
of study is the pictures of communities, and people living their lives that
emerge once such basic reconstructions have been done. The archaeologists
challenge is in the interpretation, the understanding, and in making sense of
the recovered fragments of the past. This is where archaeology turns into
historical anthropology.
It is in these latter stages of the archaeological process that the disputes
arise. While close examination reveals that all archaeologists agree that
theory guides interpretation in some respect (see Wylie 2002, in particular),
the issue is which theory is the best for archaeology. Given a feature of a
past culture, a pottery style, a geographical location or a shift in subsistence
technology, which theory is going to make the best sense of such a feature?
Both these books attempt to deal with the anthropological end of archaeology. But despite this commonality of aim and subject matter these authors
are engaged in different projects. The economics of the ancient Sumerians
and the sculpture of the ancient Sumerians imply different explanatory
modes. These are different explanatory projects, and different interpretative
devices come in to play. This should not surprise us, for we are dealing with
all the material features of human existence. So in the case of the two authors
examined here, the explanatory target is distinct. The stories that Shennan and
Jones want to tell are about different facets of past cultures, and at different
scales of human organisation. So the two books under examination here sit
at opposite ends of archaeologys project. For Andrew Jones and his book
Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice, theory should be an attempt
to reconcile the use of science to traditionally humanistic ends. It aims to
put human beliefs at the centre of an interpretation. For Stephen Shennan

the scheme of things is on a much vaster scale. Genes, Memes and Human
History is a contributor to a growing movement of social scientists who
are attempting to apply ideas from evolution and biology to the traditionally
humanist social sciences. Such applications typically work at the scale of
populations, rather than individuals, and the means of survival is of more
interest than the means of expression. So, the two authors are attempting to
achieve quite different ends. Yet, it is a measure of archaeologys unity that
they share much in common.
Andrew Jones represents the humanities end of archaeology. In the
1970s and gathering strength through the 1980s, some archaeologists began
looking to the humanities of literature, art history and history for tools that
can make sense of the archaeological data with which they are presented.
The move to incorporate such tools was inevitable. Archaeologists frequently
encounter artworks and the creative expressions of cultures. The religious
iconography found in graves, the statuary of ruins and so forth all seemed
to cry out for explanations that go beyond the explanatory resources of
functionalist archaeology.
Jones embraces an interpretative archaeology of the sort exemplified by
Ian Hodder and Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (Shanks and Tilley
1992; Hodder 1997). Such theorists have attempted to integrate the work
of hermeneutic social theorists such as George Habermas into archaeological interpretation. These workers see the archaeological record, its broken
pottery, discarded bones and spear heads, it post holes and statuary, as a text
to be read.
. . . those archaeologists taking up a textual view of the past believe that
the archaeological record is composed of the remains of signs or symbols.
The symbols are elements of a codified symbolic structure, and such
signs or symbols are viewed as having operated in past communication
systems. Therefore, the existence of material remains notifies us of events
of significance. (p. 17)
For the interpretative archaeologist, the archaeological record is a series of
signs, of interlocking symbols that can, with patience, be decoded. The signs
and symbols are the product of the past cultures, and are embedded in their
systems of belief and meaning. So underlying all of Jones approach is this
notion that human beings create systems of meaning and that those systems
of meaning are coherent, and manifested in material culture.
Part of Jones aim is to integrate the hard physical sciences with this interpretative approach. At first hearing this may sound a little odd. His interpretative approach can at times sound like the antithesis of scientific practice with
its overtures to cultural relativism and the situated perspectives of science.
For an interpretationist archaeologist an unbridgeable division between

the sciences and interpretation is however unsustainable in practice. A
discipline like archaeology that relies on the quantum physics and chemistry
of carbon dating and other similar techniques would be giving away more
information than it could ever hope to gain by embracing the extremities of a
cultural relativism. Jones himself uses sophisticated techniques of the physical sciences for insights into the past; in particular to determine the functions
of recovered pottery. Long amino acid chains will stick to the pitted surface
of pottery. Those amino acids are distinctive and stable enough to point to the
specific substance that was stored in a piece of pottery. Any archaeologist is
going to revel in the information that a long dead individual used one type of
pottery to store milk, and another differently decorated and differently shaped
one to store wheat. Such data is too suggestive, informative and engaging to
be ignored.
So how can Jones reconcile his interpretative talk with the physical
sciences? The physical sciences are embraced at the stage of data gathering
and data production. When archaeological fieldwork transmutes into a social
science, concerned with cultures, peoples, politics and art, for Jones and other
interpretative archaeologists the interpretative approach becomes paramount.
The interpretation of the raw data of archaeology is the interpretation of
symbols and symbolic culture.
Once we are through the rhetoric of the first two chapters we start seeing
that Jones is looking for a systematic means of interpreting of data. This
is betrayed by his concerns about the discipline of archaeology that he
outlines in Chapter three. Jones is worried that archaeology as a discipline has become too fragmented and disjointed. Disparate specialities within
archaeology fail to synthesise their knowledge. There are too many specialists
creating databases within their specialities, and not enough attempt at larger
and well-integrated pictures.
In the later chapters of his book Jones builds his ideas about how synthesis
should emerge around the idea of a biography of things. The idea here
is to track, where possible, the manufacture, use and deposition of a single
artefact. The biography of an object details its extraction, the processing of
its component parts, through to its use and final disposal. The notion here is
that by bringing together an understanding of a complete object and the uses
to which it is put within its context, we might be in a position to integrate the
piecemeal understandings that archaeological specialists produce.
Jones provides a case study in the second half of his book by sharing with
us some of his work with the ceramics of Neolithic Orkney. What Jones does,
and does well as an archaeologist, is synthesise a broad range of data and
apply it to a single community. It is during this analysis that we can reconstruct and assess somewhat the theory that Jones is trying to impress upon

us. Jones tracks the manufacture and use of certain pots within certain settlements. From the constituent components, through use, to deposition, Jones
catalogues the biography of various pottery vessels. This biography of
things is an organisational principle that can be used to classify and highlight
different types of data. Much of this biography is a straightforward synthesis
of reliable data about the manufacture, use and eventual disposal of an object
so the result is suggestive and only occasionally goes too far into the realm of
speculation. It is also separable from Jones commitment to interpretationist
archaeology. The biography of things is not tied to interpretationist views. It
just presents the raw data of archaeology in a way that illuminates the use
cycle of an artefact and its role within a community.
However, in the later chapters things do go astray. The physical sciences
stop, and the biography of things begin to include the interpretative
elements. Claims then cease to have transparent motivations. For instance,
at one point Jones discusses the relationship between the storage of cereals
and the storage of ancestral remains.
. . . there is a strong spatial homology between the location of the large
storage vessels in the houses of the living and the storage of ancestral
remains, especially skulls, in the peripheral alcoves of passage graves:
the houses of the dead. (p. 158)
These relations, coupled with others such as shared decoration, are
supposed to illuminate certain meanings for the long dead people under study.
This ascription of beliefs and meanings to people and things in the past
are the least satisfying component of his explanation. Jones relies upon the
theoretical claim that human material culture reflects a system of meanings,
and that these meanings may be reverse engineered in reliable ways.
Some of Jones ascriptions of beliefs do sound plausible. But their plausibility has to rest on one of two things. Either there are some aspects
of Homo sapiens symbol making and belief construction abilities that are
cross-cultural; they are aspects we all share. They are innate to Homo
sapiens. Or alternatively, they sound plausible because Jones and I share
much in common, and hence our interpretations of things are always going
to be similar. We simply share enough of the same culture to prime our
understandings in similar ways.
My suspicion is that archaeology of the type of Jones slips between these
two possibilities. It sounds plausible, without ever really being testable. There
is no way to constrain the belief ascriptions that Jones makes. I could happily
make up an equally plausible story about the meanings of Neolithic culture,
but one different to Jones. There would be no consistent way to decide
between the two. In the end testability separates the interpretationists end
of archaeology from the scientific end. It is the reproducibility and reli-

ability of the sequence of inferences that Jones makes about archaeological
data. The final step in his chain of inference, one that Jones believes should
be the domain of interpretation, relies heavily on this notion that cultures
produce artefacts in such a way that meanings are recoverable, unequivocal
and always present. Many would have doubt that human material culture
reflects a coherent system of meanings at all. To claim that such beliefs
systems are recoverable from fragmentary remains takes much more than
simply claiming it is so. Jones does nothing to demonstrate why one should
take his interpretative claims seriously and so one has good reasons to be
suspicious about the last phases of Jones book.
Before we turn to Shennan and his book, it is worthwhile highlighting
Jones theoretical shortcomings to see whether Shennan overcomes them.
Archaeology amounts to a series of inferences. From the found remains of
past cultures, be it pottery shards or campfires, archaeologists make inferences about dates, times, whether a group of remains represent a dwelling or
a workplace. From this archaeologists are engaged in something resembling
anthropology, with claims being made about the lifeways of the groups under
study. These anthropology-like claims about behaviour are inferences based
upon those low level statements. For Jones, what counted was the ability to
infer yet further from behaviours to the beliefs of the people that interacted
with the artefacts. However, there was no means to test or constrain these
statements. We are in no position to judge the veracity of such an explanation,
nor are we in a position to judge between competing accounts.
For Shennan, things are somewhat different. For a start, he does not
attempt to reconstruct the beliefs of past individuals. Rather, Shennan seeks
to make sense of the changes in subsistence patterns of groups and cultures.
So Shennan is somewhat less ambitious. More to the point, Shennans use
of theory is more explicit. Shennan does provide us with some obvious
constraints, as we shall see with his use explicit theoretical models that guide
his higher-level inferences about behaviours.
Shennan is in many ways at the opposite end of the archaeological spectrum from Jones. For Shennan, the work of people like Jones, with their
carefully reconstructed history of a small settlement in the Orkneys, can end
up being a data point in a much larger story; the story of human cultural
evolution. While Jones tells the story of a single pot, Shennan seeks to tell
the story of the rise and fall of communities.
The difference is also in what they seek to explain. For Jones it is the
beliefs and stories of a past people. For Shennan it is the means of getting
on in the world, the subsistence strategies are important. Different facets
of different objects may best sum up the difference. For Shennan, it is our
understanding of long-term field use and changes in technology associated

with harvesting that is crucial. For Jones, it is the beliefs of those very same
farmers, the way they buried their dead, and what this meant to them, that is
Shennan too is interested in synthesis, but the theory that is going to weld
his data points together is quite different from that of Jones. Shennan looks
to integrate biological explanations with archaeological and anthropological
ones. He looks, fundamentally, to the natural sciences for his explanatory
models. He is not alone in attempting this. Attempts to use biological theories
to constrain archaeological explanations, and the debates resulting from such
attempts, have been around for some time (Maschner 1996; Boone and Smith
1998; Lyman and OBrien 1998). Biology provides Shennan with a more
explicit body of theory to guide his inferences. It limits the inferences he
can make. So while we could not in principle choose between competing
hypotheses in the case of Jones, we can with Shennan. Thats not always
going to be a straightforward assessment, but nevertheless it is in principle
The first thing that Shennan does in arguing his position is to make an
assumption: The Phenotypic Gambit (p. 23). The phenotypic gambit is
the standard working assumption of most behavioural ecologists. It is the
assumption that the phenotype of behaviour will track an underlying replicator. In studies of animals, the replicator is presumed to be genes. So within
a population an observed behaviour is presumed to be representative of an
unobserved gene. The gambit in the case of archaeology is a little different.
For in the case of human beings, the phenotypic gambit assumes that different
behaviours and different cultural products are indicative of the differential
inheritance of, well, something. As should be clear from the title Genes,
Memes and Human History, Shennan is prepared to extend the phenotypic gambit to accept non-genetic replicators. Now Shennan does not say
at this point what inheritance mechanisms are relevant for archaeological
work. However, there are two basic ones up for grabs; memes or genes.
The issue is whether a single mechanism can account for human material
culture, or whether human material culture necessitates a combination of
both. Shennan does not commit himself, but seems to favour a combination of both. By adopting the phenotypic gambit, it allows Shennan the
luxury of sidestepping this debate. It frees him to focus upon the behavioural
adaptation, the phenotype, without committing himself to a mechanism of
Despite sidestepping the issue of replicators, Shennan must still convince
us that human material culture, that physical stuff that archaeologists in
particular deal with, is amenable to this kind of explanation. Therefore, he
has to convince us that human material culture is partially inherited. So

Shennan is at pains to point out that the archaeological record is a lineage. He
shows that parts of material culture possess an ancestor-descendent relationship analogous to generations of organisms in parts of material culture. This
amounts to demonstrating the existence of changing phenotypic populations
over time.
He does this in Chapter 4 by attempting to rehabilitate some archaeological views of the 1930s. At this period, archaeology was dominated by
a view that we retrospectively call Culture History. The cultural historians
were interested in the process of cataloguing the material remains of past
cultures, and as such went to great lengths to construct typologies of artefacts.
A cultural group that inhabited Eastern Europe approximately 3000BP owe
their designation as the Bell Beaker Folk to the cultural historians mania
for classification by artefact type. The classifications of the cultural historians are attractive to evolutionary archaeologists simply because they are
effectively groupings of cultures through time and space. The existence
of a particular culture is identified with a set of artefacts through time,
spreading out (or contracting as the case may be) through a geographical area.
Through time, the artefacts will undoubtedly change, so the culture historians
developed methods to be able to track lineages; traditions of artefact forms.
Hence the Bell Beaker Folk, and The corded ware culture, to name but a
couple of European examples. According to Shennan the upshot is that the
cultural historians, at least in embryo, developed notions analogous to that of
population geography, but geared for the tracking and measuring of artefact
Shennan is prepared suggest ways to go a little further than artefact
lineages though, and in ways that should be of interest to the interpretative archaeologists. Although he does not pursue the idea specifically, he
Artifact-form traditions are best known to archaeologists but examples
of others might be ethnotaxonomies indigenous ways of categorizing
the world in general and nature in particular or agricultural practices or
ways to organize inter-personal relations. (p. 66)
The fact that these ideas are not pursued in detail is a loss to this book.
They are intriguing possibilities. However such ideas are most tractable when
there exists living traditions descendant from an older one. In this way, there
is the potential to track ethno-taxonomies back from current populations in
the way that languages have been. The use of language evolution as a means
of making claims about past populations is well known. Unfortunately for
us, Shennan fails to develop any of these possibilities. Instead, he concentrates upon the more prosaic evidence left behind by earlier cultures. In
concentrating upon artefacts and the more easily accessible of archaeological

information, Shennan provides reliable insights into the most basic of human
needs and the subsistence level of human activities. This is a long way from
the insights into the belief systems of past cultures that the interpretative
archaeologists wish to give us.
The later chapters, from 5 onwards, are attempts to apply different aspects
of behavioural ecology to the human past. These chapters settle into a pattern,
where an element of behavioural ecology is described and then exemplified
through examples. For instance human life history patterns and changes in
populations are dealt with in Chapter 5. This is then used as an explanatory
mechanism in some particular case studies, notably some European Neolithic
settlements. By using this pattern Shennan provides us with a highly readable
and lucid set of examples over the rest of the book. This is all good stuff. By
taking time to show the models in action, we get a rich and rewarding book.
Moreover some of the examples are interesting and provocative.
The most provocative and interesting work for me was the exploration of
sexual selection and male-female relations in Chapter 7. After a brief exposition of sexual specialisation and its impacts, and an extended look at some
of the use of these ideas in anthropology, Shennan goes on to some archaeological examples. In particular different behaviours that gender defines will
be manifest in the archaeological record. The evidence seems to show sexual
signalling. So, we see the increasing frequency of the portrayal of males in
European pre-historic rock art as the bearers of weapons, once permanent
title to land is required. The logic here is that the invention of the plough and
the permanent settlement of land meant that men were interested in holding
and maintaining resources. Weapons both symbolic and actual become an
increasing feature of burials and artistic portrayals. The insight that sexual
specialisation provides is that this may be the emergence of notions of
private property. A later development in the same area is that women lose
their autonomy to male coalitions who hold resources. This manifests itself,
perhaps perversely, as the burial of women with elaborate grave goods. This is
interesting and theoretically fertile ground, and there are disputes about prehistoric Europe to which Shennans ideas can relate to. But alas, no matter
how intriguing, some of this work is speculative and based less on biology
that on contemporary ethnographic work. It is contemporary anthropology
that is providing some of the interpretative frameworks. For instance the
claim that increased female burial goods indicate a loss of autonomy is given
credibility from ethnographic work;
Ethnographically, however, the wearing of elaborate ornamentation is
negatively correlated with women occupying powerful social roles.
(p. 205)

Falling back on anthropology is no bad thing in itself. But it hints at an
underlying problem with Shennans book, to which we now turn.
In choosing to use the phenotypic gambit, Shennan chooses to ignore
important issues. For Shennan only need give us two thirds of a story. He
need only demonstrate that the cultural and behavioural responses of a group
are adaptive to their environment, and that the changes in lineages over
time can be explained as responses to the environment by a continuous
lineage. However, the phenotypic gambit means he does not show that there
is selection in operation. And this missing third of a Darwinian story is not
something we can ignore in the human case. Take a modern example. Small
rural communities in industrialised countries have declined in population
due to the mechanisation of agriculture. The resulting material remains of
such communities may show unambiguous signs of de-population to a future
archaeologist. But does natural selection provide the best explanation of the
decline or do we make more sense of this process seeing it as an aggregate
of agents making economic decisions? For Homo sapiens are surely capable
of actively choosing between alternative courses of action some of the time.
Demonstrating the operation of selection is crucial to the appropriateness
of Darwinian ideas in archaeology. To do that Shennan needs to convince
the sceptic that the patterns in the material cultural are not the result of
individuals making rational choices about subsistence-economics. Human
selective agency humans making choices in the world can mimic evolutionary processes. Showing that a past population optimised its behaviour in
such a way so as to maximise its reproductive chances does not distinguish
between human selective agency and natural selection.
And therein lies the rub; for truth to tell, much of this book can be done
without the necessity of phenotypic gambit and selection talk in the first
place. A great deal of Shennans claims do not need the biological gloss that
some within the humanities would find offensive. Some of his examples really
are just economics. Consequently, they really could be humans engaging in
rational choices. The fact that some of his analyses are close to economic
is something that Shennan is aware of. In the discussion of malefemale
relations in Chapter seven, he admits The evolutionary approach leads to the
same conclusions as the Marxist analysis, for similar reasons (p. 199). What
it is seems we can take from such statements is that an economic analyses can
generate similar insights in socio-cultural patterns that economics can.
This is not to deride Shennans account. Rather, it is to point out that the
evolutionary content is not always explicit. It is implied rather than overt and
demonstrable. True, the economics are embedded within an ecological and
historical context, but nevertheless, we see little direct evidence of selective
mechanisms presented here. Thus, the explanatory utility of the phenotypic

gambit remains a little obscure. After all, if we can explain the changes
in a communitys structure over time with the aid of economics, and some
widely accepted notions of humans making the best of things in a hard world,
then what advantage do we gain with any form of Darwinian evolution? The
phenotypic gambit means that Shennan need not confront the thorny issue
of the means of inheritance for archaeological phenomena. Until this is done
the utility of a Darwinian explanation remains unclear. A critic of this work
could rightly say that the scenarios investigated here are the results of flexible
responses of social groups to the world, rather than memes or genes undergoing selection. As noted, the Marxist analysis of the increased prevalence
of male armaments looks a lot like the Darwinian analysis. Moreover, it is
fair to say that stripped of their biological gloss, many of these accounts look
similarly like subsistence economics, and the use of biology is a means of
providing a motivation for economic behaviour.
The resulting book from Shennan is stimulating, absorbing, and challenging. It is and interesting, well presented and a damned good read. But it is
incomplete. This book works well at demonstrating the feasibility of using
Behavioural ecology and extending its current usage. As a friendly introduction to the area, it also works well. There is much of interest in this book, and
Shennan elucidates his examples well. But, it is true that Shennan remains
at the most mundane level of archaeological analysis. We can recover the
subsistence patterns, technologies, and to some extent the population structure, of past societies. Shennan then engages in the, for some, controversial
activity of applying ideas from behavioural ecology to provide coherence to
this data, and to explain it. However, much of this looks like good economic
analysis, and the utility of Darwinism is yet to be demonstrated to my
mind. So in the end, an intriguing and entertaining glimpse of Darwinian
Archaeologys potential, and certainly a readable introduction to the subject.
But for all the title, this was a book about human subsistence-economics, and
less about genes and memes. The grand statement of Darwinian archaeology
still eludes us.
Boone, J.L. and Smith, E.A.: 1998, Is It Evolution Yet? A Critique of Evolutionary
Archaeology with Ca* Comment, Current Anthropology 39, S141.
Hodder, I.: 1997, Interpreting Archaeology: Finding Meaning in the Past, Routledge,
London/New York.
Lyman, R.L. and OBrien, M.J.: 1998, The Goals of Evolutionary Archaeology, Current
Anthropology 39, 615652.
Maschner, H.D.G. (ed.): 1996, Darwinian Archaeologies, Plenum Press, New York.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C.Y.: 1992, Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice, 2nd
edn., Routledge Edition, London/New York.
Shennan, S.: 2002, Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural
Evolution, Thames & Hudson, London.
Wylie, A.: 2002, Heavily Decomposing Red Herrings: Middle Ground in the Anti/Postprocessualism Wars, in Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology,
University of California Press, Berkeley/London.