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switched dynasties in 1688 but kept the status quo of the monarchy?
Less contentious are the other three revolutions; the American in 1776, the
French in 1789 and the Russian in 1917. All four apparently led directly to
the modern nation-state just as day follows night, or modernism succeeds
However, Clark™s (2003:37) point is that the use of the term revolution has
been a cheat, suggesting that we can control what we cannot. Christopher
Hill (1986) has shown that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
revolution had a very different meaning. It was applied to the cyclical
movements of astronomical objects rather than political rupture, and the
term revolution expressed disorder rather than a programme of action to
achieve a goal (Clark 2003:45). For Hill it was the English revolution, which
he identified as the Civil War, that transformed history from a cyclical to
linear narrative. Clark (2003:50) is less convinced, claiming that it was not
until 1789 that Frenchmen were able to console themselves with the idea
that political chaos was really a process with a history and one that could be
typologised into stages.
It was at this time that social scientists, or rather their philosophical
precursors, began their analysis of universal developments that historians
have repeatedly challenged (Stone 1966). Three age systems were not
invented by Morgan in 1867. They have a long history dating back at least to
the Scottish philosophers of the eighteenth century (Meek 1976) and in
France, Turgot™s treatise on universal history (Meek 1973; Turgot 1751
(1973)). Deeper roots can be found among Classical authors and in
particular their grading of materials À mud, wood and stone À into a system
of historical value (Pagden 1986:72À3). Such is the hold of the concept of
three ages that anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1986:78) impishly described
this thinking and classifying in stages as the doctrine of Trinitarianism:
that mankind passes through three and only three fundamental stages
16 Origins and Revolutions

in its development. He was of course targeting Morgan and Marxism, but
the roots of such thinking go much deeper still.
Where does Childe fit in? He was concerned with the workings of
the modern state (Childe 1923) and the rise of its ancient counterpart
(Childe 1934 (1952)). He was interested in process and the power of the
economy to transform. His philosophy and values were Marxist and his
metier was the grand narrative. His theme was change and in his address to
the Prehistoric Society he argued that each prehistoric revolution made
room for a larger population than the last.
But Childe™s use of revolutions can take on a further dimension. When
placed in the context of Kossinna and Marr, and the political develop-
ments in Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, we can see how his entire output
is opposed to nationalism and the inevitability of totalitarianism. In his
personal Retrospect (Childe 1958b:73), published after his suicide in 1957,
he recalled that What happened in history was written in 1942 to convince
himself that European civilisation À Capitalist and Stalinist alike À
would recover from the Dark Age into which he saw it heading. The
prehistoric revolutions he described in that book therefore sounded an
optimistic note in desperate times. But how? He wrote later of his
insistence that an agricultural surplus had to be concentrated for the
Urban Revolution to take place, and by doing so he recognised ˜the
Hegelian rationality of the political and religious totalitarianism that
characterized the ancient Oriental States™ (Childe 1958b:72). The hope he
wanted to convey was therefore based on Europe™s historical ability to
transform rather than to slavishly copy an older model of civilisation. On
European soil, the Urban Revolution did not lead to Oriental despotism
but to a positive transformation of the economic and scientific principles
upon which those ancient states were founded. Europe had benefited by
not being the first to attempt an Urban Revolution. Change brought
progress in the eventual form of political systems of democratic self-
government which required revolution to succeed, and this was an
acceptable price to pay to escape the shackles of Oriental absolutism.
Childe™s message in 1942 to his less convinced contemporaries was
therefore ˜wait and see™. Europe had always risen above the Orient and
would do so again, even though totalitarianism and fascism were now
within its borders in Russia, Germany, Spain and Italy. For Childe,
revolutions were indeed locomotives of change, drawing ever longer and
heavier trains behind them. Before they provided the mechanical
horsepower for written history he also used them to spin the wheels on
older, prehistoric carts.
The Neolithic Revolution 17

The Neolithic Revolution as an imaginative archaeology
Of course Childe was not working alone. He was quick to recognise the
earlier contribution of Grafton Elliott Smith (1930 (1934)), who had
welcomed the end of hunting and gathering as follows:
The creation of civilization was the most tremendous revolution in the
whole course of Human History. Within a few centuries so profound a
change was effected in the mode of life, the aims and occupations, and in
the size of the population and in the areas affected by the changes, as to
open a new chapter of Man™s career with new standards of values and new
social conditions and aspirations.
(Smith 1930 (1934):267)

There was no doubt in Smith™s mind that this was a revolution.
˜Agriculture is like the use of fire À the invention was a sudden inspiration
and not the result of a gradual process™ (Smith 1930 (1934):295). Contrasted
with the aeons of Palaeolithic hunting when people lived ˜just like an
animal™ (Braidwood 1948 (1957):122), the ˜brilliant success™ (Childe 1944:112)
of the Neolithic Revolution was to ˜escape from the impasse of savagery™
(Childe 1942:55), enable sedentism and so pave the way for urban
civilisation and ultimately the present world.
It was Childe™s genius to make historical sense of a classificatory scheme.
He took prehistoric artefacts out of the display cases and put them to
work on the stage of world history. He inspired fieldwork to recover more
precise information about the Neolithic Revolution (e.g. Braidwood
and Howe 1960) and the worldwide testing of different models of how
and why it all happened (e.g. Cohen 1977; Ucko and Dimbleby 1969).
These models have included the factors that pushed people into agri-
culture, or at least magnified the consequences of any early experimen-
tation. These factors were usually external prime movers including climate
change, food shortage and propinquity to the right kinds of crops and
animals. Then there are models which favour internal re-structuring,
sometimes independent of such outside changes. Consequently, society is
often portrayed as a complex organism concerned with honing its adaptive
behaviour in order to achieve reproductive success. Population pressure
figures strongly in many of these internal explanations as do the territo-
rial packing of social units and technological advances such as axes,
ploughs and storage vessels. For many archaeologists, creative ideologies
mark the Neolithic mind as cognitively different while for others the
changes are the products of natural selection leading to enhanced adaptive
18 Origins and Revolutions

table 1.1. A three-tiered approach to the study of long-term change found
in many disciplines (after Dark 1998:76)

Interdisciplinary modes
Unit of analysis Explanatory factors of analysis
Individual Politics Ecological
Social group Economics Evolutionary
Polity (state, chiefdom, Social organisation and Economic
nation, etc.) structure
Network(s) of interactions Cognitive and Cognitive
between any or all of the psychological factors
Ecological factors Interactional (contacts and
including human communication)
Ideology Structural
Historical particularist

It is not surprising then that the Neolithic Revolution has become
the catch-phrase for change in both academic and public conceptions
(Cole 1959; Tudge 1999). However, I am not interested here in reviewing all
the competing ideas, although some will be touched upon in more detail in
Part III, and for excellent overviews I recommend Lewis Binford (1968),
Andrew Sherratt (1997b) and David Harris (1996a) as well as more recent
and contrasting accounts by Ofer Bar-Yosef (2001), Marc Verhoeven (2004)
and Brian Byrd (2005). I would note, however, that archaeologists share
many procedures in common with a wide range of other disciplines that
tackle questions of change in human societies (Table 1.1), suggesting that
our endeavours are part of much bigger projects, both modern and post-
modern, and not just structured by deep time and fragmentary data from
pre-literate societies.
As a result I am more concerned with what we can learn from
the Neolithic Revolution about our archaeological imagination
(Gamble 2001; Thomas 1996), the process by which we have an under-
standing of the past and from which we go about the business of
constructing imaginative archaeologies, than in merely cataloguing and
dating the past.
The Neolithic Revolution 19

The concept of the Neolithic Revolution is an excellent example of an
imaginative archaeology. It exists because of the connections spun by
masters such as Childe. The concept alters due to the social contexts
that use such knowledge and incorporates new information and ideas on
a daily basis. The best way to view an intellectual project as complicated as
the Neolithic Revolution is as a network that brings into focus concepts,
arguments, data, personalities and contexts for the production and con-
sumption of the past in the present. The network includes myself while
writing this book as well as archaeological ancestors, such as Childe, whose
ideas I am drawing on. A network, as Marilyn Strathern (1996:521) has
pointed out, is an interpretation. It can represent an argument as it flows
between people through time and across geographic space. But as she also
observes, networks have to be cut if they are not to end up including
everything and everybody and hence becoming unwieldy to the point of
This is another function of the Neolithic Revolution. It acts as a pair of
scissors to cut the conceptual network, taking the continuum of archae-
ological time and snipping it into a big, but manageable, problem. Then
our archaeological imagination can get to work. Such cutting is particularly
suited to an approach that looks for the origins of elements in the Neolithic
Revolution such as villages, weaving, polished axes, pottery, crops and
domestic animals. These were the diagnostic elements in Childe™s (1935:7)
package, but an even better example came with his later Urban Revolution.
Here a ten-point checklist (Table 1.2) allowed an archaeologist to recognise
when civilisation had been achieved in his or her region (McNairn

The Neolithic Revolution and Orientalism
I mentioned briefly how Childe, and many others, juxtaposed the power of
the East against the nationalist agenda of Kossinna and his northern
homeland for European civilisation. Certainly the archaeological data
point to the importance of Southwest Asia for both the earliest agriculture
and cities. However, celebrating proof of evidence is to miss the point
because an acknowledgement of the role of the Orient easily becomes
Orientalism, Edward Said™s (1978) concept of how familiar and unfamiliar
spaces are created by what he termed imaginative geography. Orientalism
is an exercise in cultural strength where the peoples and places of the
East are contained and represented by the dominant frameworks of the
West (Said 1978:40). This process has a very long history, as Said shows,
20 Origins and Revolutions

table 1.2. The list of traits identifying the Urban Revolution (Childe 1950)

1. Size: an increase in settlement size towards urban proportions
2. Surplus: the centralised accumulation of capital resulting from the imposition
of tribute or taxation
3. Monumental public works
4. The invention of writing
5. Elaboration of exact and predictive sciences
6. The appearance and growth of long-distance trade in luxuries
7. The emergence of a class-stratified society based on the unequal distribution of
social surplus
8. Composition and function of an urban centre: freeing part of the population
from subsistence tasks for full-time craft specialisation
9. State organisation based on residence rather than on kinship and involving
territorial definition
10. The appearance of naturalistic art

but a benchmark event in the creation of modern Orientalism was
Napoleon™s occupation of Egypt in 1798 and the surveys of ancient
monuments, history and culture that followed. Through such means the
empires of Europe, and principally those of Britain and France, affixed the
Orient to their continent as a theatre packed with opinions and assumptions
as much as facts. And in this theatre, this contained space, the Orient and
Islam are always represented as outsiders but with a special role to play
inside Europe (Said 1978:71). These imaginative geographies persist as
Derek Gregory (2004) has shown in his analysis of contemporary American
understanding and interpretation of the Middle East, in what he terms
the colonial present. His study bears out Said™s perceptive comment that,
˜it is finally Western ignorance which becomes more refined and complex,
not some body of positive Western knowledge which increases in size and
accuracy™ (Said 1978:62).
The use of the Orient as a theatre is particularly evident in Childe™s work.
His interest was almost totally focused on understanding Europe.
For example, one of his last books The prehistory of European society
(1958a) had its rationale plainly written on the dust jacket: ˜how and why
the prehistoric barbarian societies of Europe behaved in a distinctively
European way™ (emphasis added). In other words, they were not just pale
imitations of the civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Furthermore,
as we saw earlier, in Childe™s view prehistoric Europe made a better fist
of the Urban Revolution than Oriental despotism, benefiting from the
The Neolithic Revolution 21

mistakes by fostering liberties founded on the freedom of its craftsmen
(Sherratt 1997b:60). While Childe™s view contrasted with that of
Elliot Smith™s, ˜thus the civilisation of the whole world was derived from
one original source™ (1933:232), namely Egypt, he shared more with the high
champion of cultural diffusion than is normally allowed. For example,
he described the geographical theatre for the Urban Revolution as follows:

it is bounded on the west by the Sahara and the Mediterranean, on the east
by the Thar desert and the Himalayas, on the north by the Eurasiatic
mountain spine . . . and on the south, as it happens, by the Tropic of
Cancer. The geological, physiographical, and climatic conditions of
this zone proved propitious to the revolutionary development. It provided
the raw materials for the decisive discoveries. It offered inducements
to intensive social organisation and rich rewards for large-scale
cooperation. It gave facilities for communication by which new knowl-
edge might be pooled and essential materials collected and concentrated.
Finally its cloudless skies presented nightly the impressive spectacle of the
uniform motion of the heavenly bodies that in other latitudes is too often
(Childe 1942:77À8)

Even the aridity of Mesopotamia was an advantage since it forced people
to live along the rivers and realise their potential as described earlier. In
addition, the mountains that lie to the north, east and west formed a ˜fertile
crescent™, as the Chicago-based Egyptologist James Breasted called it in
1926, and within whose boundaries the drama of agriculture and social
transformation would be enacted. Here would be found the wild
progenitors of wheat, barley and goats (Zohary and Hopf 2000) and for
a while the oldest villages in what archaeologist Robert Braidwood (1960)
described as nuclear zones.
Edward Said would recognise this process. Rather than celebrating the
Orient, as it might at first appear, the archaeologists were instead setting up
a separate place isolated in this instance by time and geography. And the
reason for making such an imaginative archaeology was their interest in
Europe rather than the Orient. The light from the East that they often write
about, where the Neolithic Revolution burns particularly brightly, is not
so much a celebration of historical difference as an example of an
eternal asymmetrical relationship. Europe took the idea of civilisation
and transformed it in its ˜distinctively European way™. And why? Because
empires and colonial projects require both imaginative archaeol-
ogies and imaginative geographies to feed the asymmetry of recent and
22 Origins and Revolutions

contemporary political power. Europe, and the United States more
generally, have an appetite for the identification of origins and this has
characterised their colonial and national histories. For example, in his
declaration of 1690 that, ˜In the beginning all the world was America™, the
philosopher John Locke (Meek 1976:343) was engaged in an imaginative
archaeology that would fold the peoples of an ever-expanding colonial
world into the ambitions and identity of its self-proclaimed centre. Such
imaginative archaeologies of political development depend on creating a
distinct difference, a temporal realm where the other resides out of time
and where we can go to reflect upon our historical position.
The concepts of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic are two such imaginative
archaeologies which, to extend Said™s analogy to another area of academic
inquiry, hold the same relationship to each other as the Orient to Europe.
The Neolithic dominates this power structure as farmers lord it over hunters
and barbarians over savages. The Palaeolithic is a theatre with some nice
painted scenery attached to the economic muscle of a Neolithic shopping
mall. Consequently, our understanding of Palaeolithic people is very often
phrased in terms of the farmers they are not, rather than the hunters they
were. And to emphasise this asymmetry we find the invention of a third
space, the Mesolithic, which has a particular function in mediating the
transfer of Neolithic political power to the European continent. The term
appeared in 1872 (Westropp 1872) and was later applied to evidence that
showed Europe was not deserted after the Ice Age (Binford 1968:316). This
archaeological space inhabited by the Mesolithic ˜folk™ was the drum upon
which the revolutionary roll of agriculture was beaten out.
The Neolithic Revolution, a snippet from the potential archaeological
archive, is one of those times and spaces that pull into focus those wider
cultural practices that organise and sanction the production and consump-
tion of knowledge about our complex world. It is a network that comes with
a pedigree in understanding humanity in terms of a particular set of values
and achievements and, most crucially, presents them as original.

Continuity backlash and transitions
We have seen that at least one historian, Jonathan Clark (2003), thinks that
the concept of revolution is a bit of a cheat because it implies an ordered
progression that in fact never existed. Following Childe™s death in 1957 the
commitment by archaeologists to prehistoric revolutions has been mixed
for similar reasons. Several more revolutions have been proposed, as we
shall see later in this chapter, and the most important has been the Human
The Neolithic Revolution 23

Revolution, the subject of Chapter 2. However, between the 1950s and
1970s when large field projects in the Near East, Europe and Mesoamerica
were amassing evidence concerning the origins of agriculture, and using
the scientific revolution of radiocarbon dating to establish historical
conjunctures that Childe (1958a) could only dream of, loud voices were
raised in support of continuity.
For a short time, two of the loudest, backed by the Cambridge
prehistorian Sir Grahame Clark, were Eric Higgs and Michael Jarman.
In several papers (1969; 1972) they made the case for repeated experimenta-
tion in crop and animal husbandry rather than a single invention. Their
guiding tenet was that from the Neanderthals of the Middle Palaeolithic
onwards there had been a general trend in economic developments
to increase control over resources and produce more per unit of land
(Higgs and Jarman 1972:12). Cambridge exam papers of the time invited
students to discuss ˜that agriculture was neither Neolithic, nor a revolution™
(Sherratt 1997a:271), and the smart answers concluded it was a ˜continu-
ously developing natural process of great selective value™ (Higgs and Jarman
1972:13). Subsistence practices such as husbandry fluctuated during the
long term that they advocated as the correct time scale for a meaningful
economic prehistory. Furthermore, they successfully questioned Childe™s
Neolithic Revolution by showing that key artefacts such as ground stone
axes, pottery and stone blades that could have been hafted to make sickles
were found at earlier times at sites with hunting and gathering economies.
Once expanded to a global scale the concept of the Neolithic Revolution,
based primarily on the archaeology of Southwest Asia, started to leak like an
archaeological sieve.
These archaeological challenges to Childe™s Neolithic Revolution are
examples of the gradual approach to change that is best summed up as a
study of transitions. Here there are no locomotives to hurry change along
and usher progress in. Instead change takes the form of future-creep. In
future-creep there are no crisp divisions, only some gentle shunting that
moves things forward until difference is inescapable. Such differences are
expected to happen eventually and can be explained simply by the passage
of enough time, a commodity with which human prehistory is abundantly
One of the best illustrations of archaeological future-creep are the
seriation studies of artefact types and their agglomeration into archae-
ological cultures (Figure 1.1). These archaeological icons take the form of
battleship curves describing the levels of occurrence through time that start
thin, grow fat and end by tapering away to nothing. The explanation for
24 Origins and Revolutions

figure 1.1. A chronological fleet of battleship curves. The data are radiocarbon dates
that have been assessed for their reliability. They chart the timing of the origins, rise and
fall of five Near Eastern archaeological cultures (after Aurenche et al. 1987).

their changing shape might be functional differences and improvements
in a single artefact type, the replacement of one people™s cultural inventory
by another™s in a site or across a region, or perhaps the transition from
hunting to farming.
These battleship curves, as opposed to the step-like progression of
revolutions, show archaeologists concentrating not on change but on the
transition between well-defined points. These origin points are established
in advance; for example, we might begin with a time with wild animals,
small settlements and no pots and finish with one that had pots, domestic
animals and large settlements. Transitions then become the passageways
between two very different conditions, which of course we have previously
defined as significant. Stone to Bronze and Bronze to Iron Ages would be
another instance. Then the point of interest becomes the speed of the
transition and whether it conforms to a model of slow gradual replacement,
the incremental addition of novel traits and the loss of existing ones, or
a more punctuated, sudden change. With a concept of transitions, even the
most static archaeological evidence can become part of the long-term
process of change and the ˜revolution™ rolls on over the millennia.

The paradox of change

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