Deep History?


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.

6 thoughts on “Deep History?

  1. I’ve gotta go on the limb here and say that people where I am, in the archae­ology depart­ment I mean, use the term his­tory as being the period with writ­ing. This means that for Mesopotamia it is bronze age. However, it is dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent areas.
    We don’t ignore what comes before, but this is the aca­demic defin­i­tion of his­tory, and we do use it like that quite frequently.

  2. I would agree with thadd. The usual short-hand that I am used to says his­tory has writ­ing, pre­his­tory doesn’t. It’s just an aca­demic divi­sion though really, and it doesn’t mean that any­one study­ing an his­tor­ical period isn’t doing archae­ology. History and archae­ology over­lap a lot, as do many other disciplines.

  3. Alun

    I cross-posted this to Revise and Dissent and I think another pos­sible reason why I don’t see a huge divide between his­tory and archae­ology is that I’m in the UK. Though because I’m work­ing in clas­sical Greek his­tory that also means I see a lot of very his­tor­ic­ally minded archaeologists.

  4. Sent here by the Four Stone Hearth car­ni­val and much inter­ested by what you have to say here. I think that cur­rently in Europe gen­er­ally, at least in my medi­eval field, inter­dis­cip­lin­ar­ity is hot stuff so archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans are talk­ing more than before because there is now fund­ing for doing so. I’m afraid that is prob­ably more import­ant than the actual aims of the field…

    A second obser­va­tion is that although I have cer­tainly seen more his­tor­i­ans be sniffy about archae­ology and mater­ial evid­ence in gen­eral than I have archae­olo­gists reject texts, I have seen the lat­ter. Moreover, this is actu­ally a more developed stance, because the reason that those archae­olo­gists reject texts as evid­ence has usu­ally been because texts are nuanced and what tthey have to tell us is often very hard to trust. Such archae­olo­gists seem to me to have picked up how much stress his­tor­i­ans lay on the prob­lems of tex­tual mater­ial and decided to stay clear of it, whereas all too often archae­olo­gists who do use texts do so with a naïveté that makes cyn­ical his­tor­i­ans cringe. Then the his­tor­i­ans are sniffy about archae­ology as a res­ult and it all goes round again (and I’ve writ­ten about that not so long ago on my blog, indeed).

    The ulti­mate point is that we both dis­cip­lines need to read enough of each other’s the­ory not just to under­stand each other’s work, but also to judge when someone from the oppos­ite side is talk­ing rub­bish. Not as easy as it could be, but far bet­ter for one’s own work than try­ing to do the other discipline’s study your­self and screw­ing up, or else just ignor­ing it…

    In short: his­tor­i­ans need to make friends with archae­olo­gists and read stuff till they can use archae­ology crit­ic­ally; and archae­olo­gists often need the same kind of help with texts. This shouldn’t be con­tro­ver­sial because we each side invest years and years of train­ing in our dis­cip­lines that pre­vents us work­ing out­side it so eas­ily… but it does still cause such trouble.

  5. Ah yes! I’ve taught stu­dents on such a joint course, indeed, and the prob­lem there is teach­ers. As these courses con­tinue to grow, hope­fully this will ease, but people who can teach archae­ology and his­tory with equal facil­ity are hard to find. One such per­son star­ted the medi­eval B. A. course I was help­ing with, and then left halfway through my year there, leav­ing only one archae­olo­gist on staff at the rel­ev­ant (high-profile!) insti­tu­tion and him an early mod­ern­ist. The place more or less had to recruit an archae­olo­gist in order to keep their stu­dents. They got a good one in the end but in the mean­time were ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing let­ting me take over one of the Special Subject courses because I, with a small com­pon­ent of a Masters course and my own read­ing my only archae­olo­gical train­ing, was the best clued up about medi­eval archae­ology on staff… I wouldn’t have minded, but my stu­dents might justly have wondered if they were get­ting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, any such stu­dents who go on to fur­ther study still more or less have to spe­cial­ise in one or other half of their degree unless they can man­age to work with one of those rare dual prac­ti­tion­ers. So though I think change is com­ing, it’s being force through a very nar­row drip­feed meanwhile…

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