Histories for Prehistory: Narrative, Scale and the Particular

Posted on December 25, 2019


Merry Christmas. My gift to you is another session from the TAG conference that we videoed:

Session Info

Formal chronological modelling of radiocarbon dates in a Bayesian statistical framework has produced a series of much more precise chronologies for prehistory, as seen for instance in Gathering Time, the ERC-funded The Times of Their Lives (2012–17), and other projects. We think that the implications of this new-found ability to measure time much more precisely are profound, and should encourage ‘prehistorians’ to think in much more specific terms about the sequences of the past, and to realign their practices more closely with history. Absolute distinctions between ‘prehistory’ and history, formerly rooted in the deciding card of written records, can be challenged. Both ‘prehistory’ and history share an interest in the creation of narratives, at multiple scales, and concerns with the nature and quality of sources. Following the American historian John Lewis Gaddis in The Landscape of History, historians can be seen to work with particular generalisations embedded within narratives, rather than embed narratives within generalisations like social scientists. Contrast that with the recurrent practice in prehistory of starting with some form of general model, often generated in the first place in other disciplines such as social theory and anthropology, which is then applied in a soft or fuzzy chronological framework. There is the opportunity now, however, with better control of time, to shift to much more particularising approaches. All this raises much to debate. There are many questions about narrative, sources, choices and combinations of scale, and what a particularising approach to ‘prehistory’ could look like after another generation of research. There are the rival claims of ‘the ontological turn’ for a more dispersed agency. Papers are invited across all these and related themes.

Organisers: Bisserka Gaydarska (University of Durham) and Alasdair Whittle (Cardiff University)


Prehistory as History: Problematizing historical units and scales of analysis


My main concern in this paper is to connect an exploration of history in archaeology with a more general discussion about building and evaluating archaeological theories and analytical frames for a historical outlook on prehistoric societies. Most of all I wish to stress the necessity for a multi-scalar approach that will allow for the interplay between the macro- and micro-level, examine relations and past events at different scales and their inter-linkages, and explore the (inter)relationship of different units of analysis. Archaeology is in a unique position to add a historical perspective to the entire human past, inviting interdisciplinary dialogue. However, our increasing capacity as archaeologists to measure and theorise time continues to surpass by far our capacity to problematize historical process(es) and to translate the archaeological record into historical evidence. A multiscalar approach can be key to moving forward, as well as providing a unifying framework for the various bodies of historically oriented archaeological work. After all, we as ‘prehistorians’ should be at the forefront of the recent interdisciplinary efforts to demolish the divide between prehistory and history and the conflation of prehistoric with ahistoric, and to instigate the acceptance of prehistory into full history.

Stella Souvatzi (Hellenic Open University)

Intensive Scales and Virtual Archaeology


Archaeology has long made a virtue of its capacity to operate at multiple scales, studying everything from the digging of an individual pit through to epochs of human evolution. Our ability to write newly specific narratives about particular sequences of history, through the application of Bayesian modelling, both enhances and challenges how we work at these different levels. In this paper I want to explore how the construction of more detailed narratives might be enhanced through combination with particular theories within the ‘ontological turn’. These offer, I would argue, equally significant challenges to how we think about the interactions of historical scale in archaeology (cf. Harris 2017). Rather than ‘rival claims’, to quote the session abstract, I will suggest that there is nothing necessarily incompatible about these approaches. Just as multiple series of Bayesian analyses both create newly detailed histories and allow us to build up larger scale narratives (e.g. Whittle et al. 2011), so rethinking the ontological foundations of what we mean by scale can open up new ways of thinking about the particular, as well as the general.

Oliver Harris (University of Leicester)

A Path Toward Reconciliation? Biographies, between scales, assemble history


Interest in biographical approaches in archaeology has waxed and waned repeatedly for several decades, with an uptick in interest over the past three years (e.g. Joyce & Gillespie 2015). The difference this time around is the well-developed understanding of relationality in theory today, which refigures what a biography is. Rather than treating objects, structures, or bodies as self-evident entities, today we are able to ask more clearly what, exactly, we are tracing diachronically through the thick mesh of past worlds, and how we are best to do that. Drawing on research into depositional sequences in Catalhoyuk houses, I argue that refiguring the concept of biography in an inter-scalar, relational perspective provides an opportunity to bring together particularising approaches to history with approaches centred on the past’s meshwork of relationships. In particular I ask how types of biographies come to be (cf. Fowler 2016). By seeing lives (broadly defined) as virtually open-ended, but actually channelled along certain paths by participatory relationships between parts and emergent wholes (DeLanda 2006), we can understand biographies as centres of reconciliation among converging and conflicting social phenomena, with structured yet eventful histories as the outcome. Working biographically in this way, and empowered by high-resolution archaeological information, we become better equipped to follow the meaningful regularities and disruptions that constituted the times of past lives.

Kevin Kay (University of Cambridge)

Nature vs Culture in Transdisciplinary Lake Village Research: Theoretical challenges


Current work on the Austrian pre-Alpine lakes aimed at enhancing understanding of spatial and temporal dimensions of the Mondsee Culture involves a series of complex theoretical and methodological challenges, especially in relation to causation and explanation of human action. These themes are philosophically complex in themselves (pace Collingwood and von Wright) without the addition of the kinds of filters and differences that typically operate on data capture within transdisciplinary prehistoric research. This paper reports on a series of interlinked projects which jointly involve dry-land and underwater remote sensing and archaeological excavation and on- and off-site coring and pollen/NPP analysis both on land and in lake sediments. These are generating rich data sets the chronological resolution (precision, accuracy, interval, etc.) of which nevertheless varies greatly and makes assessment of the distinction between anthropogenic impact on environment(s) and responses to natural change within environments hard to judge. We suggest that the classic distinction of nature and culture, and its embedding into conventional disciplinary terminologies (e.g. archaeology or palynology), while apparently analytical, often in fact pre-interprets different causalities. The distinction thus requires, at the very least, critique and redefinition.

Timothy Taylor (Universitat Wien), C. Dworksy, J-N. Haas, K. Kowarik, J. Leskovar, J. Maurer, H. Pohl and C. Ries

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