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There’s an article on history in the week’s Times Higher Education Supplement which has baffled me. It’s by Daniel Lord Smail of Harvard and its part of the promotion of his new book On Deep History and the Brain. It’s stuck in my mind because it also appeared in New Scientist (sub) and baffled me there as well. Smail’s idea is that there is a flaw in thinking that history starts with Mesopotamia in 4000 BC. The dependance on Mesopotamia for the start of history is, for Smail, a secular Garden of Eden Myth. The reason I’m baffled it doesn’t match any perception of History that I’ve come across. When I talk to people in the UK, it seems that history starts with either the Egyptians or Stonehenge or, if they’ve been in the news recently, Neanderthals. Smail is talking about academic historians, rather than the public.However, I don’t know any historians who work from this position. It is quite possible that I’m in my own little bubble.

For instance one excellent historian I can listen to is Campbell Storey. I know for a fact that Campbell Storey is a fantastic historian because I sat through a talk of his on the history of the Conservative Party in the 1980s and was genuinely interested. I’m not sympathetic to party politics in general nor the Conservatives in particular, but he was bringing out some interesting problems in the subject from a historical, rather than overtly political, point of view. I’ll admit you simply don’t meet people like that in real life, so I could be in my own private world. What do you ask a historian like that? There’s plenty of questions you could ask, but one I didn’t ask was when he felt his history started. I’d be willing to bet a small amount of money his answer wouldn’t have been Bronze Age Mesopotamia. It’s an extreme example, but a lot of historians tend to be based in a period. The origins of history don’t impinge on most studies.

It would if you were a more thematic historian. For instance a military historian could certain compare uses of landscape across many periods. This could extend back into prehistory, and Smail’s argument is that crucially it doesn’t. History is textual and because historians stick to texts they don’t enter prehistory. This is an interesting point but he doesn’t have much opportunity to go far with in the articles, nor have the previews brought much out of it. History is, in my opinion, a highly specialised form of archaeology. Historians deal with artefacts like archaeologists, but these artefacts are extremely rich in detail. Just like a palaeobotanist can get more out of seeds than I could with a quick dekko down a microscope, so too a historian uses specialist skills. So I don’t see a large problem, if you’re interested in history as a technique, in specialising in written sources. Smail is interesting because he’s very clear the purpose of this technique is to illuminate the past, and he seems to think the subject of study is more interesting than the tools we use.

I agree, but the tools do define what we can study. History is very good in examining past instants. If an archaeologist wants to do this they tend to require a convenient volcano or landslide. At the same time prehistory in particular has the ability to examine change over huge periods of time. The transition to farming for example took thousands of years in Europe. While to two disciplines deal with the same subject, the human past, they do it in different ways – which is why the problems I study I usually combine them. Combining the two brings different perspectives. That seem to be the big weakness in Smail’s argument. He sees the difference more as one of time. In his THES article he states:

An appreciation of deep time is nothing new to the fields of archaeology or palaeo-anthropology. Whether these fields want to be brought within the embrace of history is an open question, given the degree to which many practitioners identify themselves with the study of societies without texts.

This may be true of North American archaeologists who identify with anthropologists, but in Europe Archaeology is closely bound with history. The Three Age System (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) was invented in Denmark expressly to create a history for a society which lacked texts. Gordon Childe wrote the classic work What Happened in History? In my first lecture on my degree course Graeme Barker introduced the Annales school of history and stated that archaeologists write histories. They don’t just write histories, Prof. Barker’s moved to Cambridge where they were recently looking to appoint someone to study cognition, but writing a history is not in conflict with being an archaeologist.

Further the idea that archaeology is study without texts is dated. The Ovenstones Project is an archaeological investigation of 19th Century miner’s housing. The Changing Beliefs in the Human Body Project is a multi-period archaeological project bringing together classicists and archaeologists. The study ranges from the Palaeolithic through to the 17th – 19th Centuries. Hopefully in the New Year I’ll be talking about a project using archaeology to examine a 21st Century (AD) subject. Contemporary and Historical Archaeology is a fast growing subject and I don’t know of any archaeologists in the field who ignore contemporary texts. In contrast I do know some historians who ignore archaeological evidence, but not enough to concoct a convincing stereotype of a blinkered scholar. Perhaps it’s my fault for only hanging out with the coolest historians. If I was in History departments on a daily basis my view might differ, but the historians I talk to seem to be open to dialogue.

As an example I’m co-organising a session on ancient astronomy for the Classical Association conference in 2008. There’s room for four papers and the four speakers we have are a classicist, an archaeologist, an astrophysicist and someone from a History of Science department. It only occurred to me as I was writing this that there’s a mix of disciplines. It wasn’t a self-conscious attempt to create an interdisciplinary panel, it was simply bringing together interesting people.

If this kind of cross-disciplinary communication isn’t happening in the USA, then it would be interesting to know why. Deep time may be a problem. A small department focussed on modern history does not need someone searching for the secret of fire. Nonetheless as far as the use of technique such a department can benefit from archaeological and anthropological viewpoints. I’ll be adding On Deep History and the Brain to my to read list, but if it’s about the scale of time I suspect I’ll find that it’s something archaeologists have been doing for years. If historians aren’t then the book could be a useful primer explaining what basic propositions have to be explained to historians.

You can also read Smail on When Does History Begin? at Powells. There’s also an interview with him at the Harvard Gazette and a review of his book in the Boston Globe.