Last week I embarked on my annual pilgrimage to the conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG), this year hosted by the University of Birmingham. Described by one popular archaeology magazine as “the permanent floating agglomeration of the best theoretical brains in archaeology” (Current Archaeology 2005), this end of year 3-day conference usually provides an opportunity for staff and students of Worcester’s Archaeology department to combine daytimes devoted to weird and sometimes wonderful research, with a lovely cup of tea and a rich tea biscuit in the evening. The timing of this year’s conference in the middle of the week rather than the weekend meant a smaller contingent from Worcester than usual (i.e. me), so I had to content myself with filling my pipe with a quality tobacco, reclining into a Queen Anne chair and recalling the glory days of empire with a genial cat called Darren.
TAG was initiated some 33 years ago to bring together archaeologists from around Britain, but also increasingly Europe and other parts of the world such as the US, to discuss theoretical issues surrounding the practice and interpretation of archaeology. This was a break with traditional conferences which concerned themselves with the presentation of new findings. Although this privileging of theory over data presentation still holds true, it has also evolved into a sort of training ground for post-graduate students to present papers. Whilst undoubtedly TAG is indeed the place where these papers should be presented, every year there are concerns that too many papers are given too early in the speakers’ research projects, so that sessions increasingly consist of statements of intent by new post-graduates. In itself this can of course be of interest, it allows the wider discipline to see where the latest research is going, yet the complaint is that many papers give little beyond a literature review of the broad subject matter they are researching, for example, a thematic, chronological or methodological reiteration of past research of which the majority of the attendees are familiar. This may perhaps explain the disparity in session attendance between those with papers delivered largely by established academics and those by early researchers (sessions run concurrently over the course of three days). This is unfortunate in that a session dominated by post-grads may be avoided because of the perception that it offers nothing new. I wonder if this is widespread throughout the other disciplines or if it is largely confined to archaeology?
The session of particular interest for me this year was entitled ‘How can we model Bronze Age society in Britain’? It has been over 30 years since the publication of the last grand narrative (Burgess 1980), an attempt to incorporate the data from the various strands which traditionally make up Bronze Age studies, i.e. funerary evidence, monumentality, ceramics, metallurgy, settlement and subsistence practices and so on. The narratives previously presented of these societies were initially explicitly, and latterly implicitly, based upon core-periphery models, the core being the Wessex region of southern England. A largely arable farming population was dominated by prominent male individuals and powerful elites controlling the distribution of Bronze and other exotic objects. This volume continued the theme and subsequent supposed representations of society across Britain and Ireland never really delivered on the promise; the data from the south was privileged, partly due to the simple explanation that this was a widely studied area, and partly because of the ‘richness’ of the material. In the meantime, scales of research have narrowed and focus has shifted so that over the last 15-20 years, research has centred on the agent, identity, the sensual world and meaningful landscapes. The scale of study is no longer that of pan-regional economic systems but of particularistic studies on a local or regional scale, of individuals and kin or family groups. The session organisers felt that such modes of enquiry, whilst important, did little to transcend the local context and the short term. A series of papers were offered by a mix of long standing academics and post-graduates. Some more successfully approached the problem than others, attempting to understand how new models could incorporate the masses of new data. Prior to the conference I was sceptical that any models offered for my period of study would be valid or useful.
The Bronze Age in Britain can be divided into two periods, the Early (c.2400 – 1500 BC) and Later Bronze Ages (c.1500-700 BC). The most distinctive element that divides these periods in the archaeological record is a concern with funerary monumentality for the Early Bronze age which disappears in the Later Bronze age to be replaced with visible field systems: from the open landscapes of the dead to the bounded landscapes of the living to coarsely generalize.
There is a problem with attempting to construct a model for Early Bronze Age society that goes beyond very broad generalisations. There are almost no houses, very little evidence for settlement, especially away from the ‘core’ areas, and crucially very few people as determined by their physical remains. The principle evidence for the Bronze Age comes from the ubiquitous monumental remains of what are considered to be funerary mounds, known as round barrows. It has been estimated that less than 5% of the population were buried in these mounds, we can only guess what happened to the rest. Of the mounds excavated, (the majority of which are concentrated in three regions; Wessex, the Peak District and North Yorkshire) less than 5% have any accompanying material culture. Any model of Early Bronze Age society is thus concerned with a minute fraction of the populace in geographically restricted areas with little beyond their cremated remains. Yes, we should still try to explain something of the lives and deaths of these people, but is it really feasible to create an all encompassing model that describes and explains their world when for the most part all we have is evidence of how some of their dead were treated? At this stage I think we would be doing a disservice to the large proportion of the population who were not afforded barrow burial but had just as much a claim on their society.
Burgess, C. (1980) The age of Stonehenge. London: Dent
Current Archaeology (2005) TAG: The Theoretical Archaeology Group [online] available from: http://www.archaeology.co.uk/join-in/research-body/tag-the-theoretical-archaeology-group.htm [accessed 19th December 2011]