Friday, April 3, 2009

Stonehenge again

Recensão crítica do livro,

Christopher Burgess, Peter Topping and Frances Lynch, eds, Beyond Stonehenge: Essays
on the Bronze Age in Honour of Colin Burgess
(Oxford: Oxbow, 2007, 448 pp., 227 illus, many
in colour, hbk, ISBN 978 1 84217 215 5)
A publicar no próximo número do European Journal of Archaeology

I worked with Colin Burgess some 20 years ago, when he first came to the Alentejo in order to study the landscape around Almendres, a monument that has been called the Iberian Stonehenge. The project was a truly harsh job in terms of working conditions during the extremely hot summers of the Alentejo, but it opened several new gates to the understanding of Almendres. Burgess was also the first non-Portuguese scholar to pay attention to that outstanding monument, one of the oldest megalithic buildings in the world. I am grateful to Colin and the fantastic team that came with him. In those days, I was an undergraduate student but some years later I was working on a PhD thesis about the standing stones in the central Alentejo, around Almendres.
This book demonstrates throughout the vitality of ‘traditional’ archaeology, that is, the kind of archaeology that has been resisting the assaults of processual and post-processual paradigms. But this kind of archaeology at the same time has benefited from the challenges raised by its ‘competitors’ and transformed itself into a new culture-historical archaeology. It seems reasonable to assert that the renewal of the discipline required many questions to be formulated, even when definitive answers could not be obtained. It is now evident that the strong European tradition of archaeology as a historical discipline has been impossible to eradicate. An anthropological archaeology, though relevant, could not, and perhaps never will be a substitute for the interest in the variability of cultures interwoven in time and space. Whether explicitly or implicitly, this approach stands as an alternative to the current mainstream Anglophone archaeologies, including both the so-called New Archaeology (and its subsequent developments, as in the work of Colin Renfrew), and the multiple (and often frenetic) theoretical advances generally aligned with a postmodern attitude. Seen from Portugal, where the disruptions to culturehistorical archaeology never did go very deep or very far, it sounds quite reasonable to assert ‘the
need (for the investigators) to absorb the tedious but essential detail of archaeological data’ (Harding, p. 9), before interpreting ‘with imagination, but imagination used strictly within the rules of inference’ (Lynch, p. xxi). Or, as Frodsham puts it, ‘using “informed guess”, the keyword being informed’. This book reflects some undeniable consequences of the famous loss of innocence in archaeology, an event which is supposed to have occurred at the end of the 1960s. Indeed, some of the authors of this volume felt the need to make their theoretical standpoints explicit. On the whole, we could argue that this new culture-historical archaeology is part of the post-processual reaction, though avoiding some of its most extreme developments, the ‘fog of subjectivity’ (Lynch) and keeping closer to the traditional matrix of ‘bone and stone’ archaeology. Artefact typologies (mostly metalwork, but also pottery) and chronologicalschemes (always chasing time) are the basic issues of a good part of these essays, following the interests and skills of Colin Burgess himself.
Most of them are valuable advances in the endless task of ordering data. Hoards (particularly weapons and ornaments) have always been a major issue in studies of the Bronze Age (echoing the old antiquarian agenda), but are also, by their nature, very suggestive items for approaching the symbolic dimension of material culture – one of the most fertile core interests of interpretive archaeology. The symbolic framing of archaeological data, is also explored in relation to other contexts, such as caves (Harding; Shepherd), rivers (Butler and Fontijn), wells (Vesligan and Burgess), and stone outcrops (Manby). Along similar lines, the contribution by Warmebol, coming from the francophone world, contains a very interesting and creative interpretation, combining artefactual knowledge with a postmodern approach. Theoretical discussions are not, however, a basic concern in this book. Among those present, the most engaged one is Harding’s outspoken defence of diffusion as a valuable mechanism to explain cultural change during the European Bronze Age. The same paradigm also underlies the interesting text by Gerloff, connecting Atlantic cultural traits with those from Mycenae and arguing for diffusion in a west-east direction.
Cultural diffusion is also the background of several other contributions, focusing on metallurgy of the Late Bronze Age in the West and the input of new techniques and models coming fromthe East, although they are also underlining aspects of indigenous conservatism (Correia, Armbruster and Perea).
Cultural continuity underlying continuous change is also emphasized by Gibson, who reviews the available data from burials and settlements in the Iberian Bronze Age; by Manby who deals with monumental traditions; and by Gerloff who is concerned with artistic styles.
The consequence of this widening of perspective is a weakening of the boundaries of rather artificial periods, which have often been treated as closed universes reflecting the specializations of the researchers themselves. The revision of old data and interpretations led Harrison to the hypothesis of the reuse, during the Late Bronze Age, of an older burial monument, the famous and unique Roça do Casal do Meio.
Two contributors discuss mining: O’Brien is concerned with economy and settlement patterns, whereas Briggs reviews certain chronological problems resulting from 14C dates of mining evidence. Rock art is revisited by Waddington, who confirms the dichotomy between cup-and-ring art on the one hand and
megalithic art on the other hand, suggesting a dual tradition which ‘may not even have been culturally compatible’. This debate, relevant for the understanding of other artistic circles in Atlantic Europe, deserves to be extended in order to include, among others, the Galician petroglyphs and the river sanctuaries of southwest Iberia.
Several texts in this volume attempt a European integration of the Bronze Age data, one of them by another continental author, Roussot-Laroque. This reflects a general trend within British archaeology, whatever the approach assumed. The current popularity of large-scale European syntheses in the Anglophone literature benefits not only from the global use of the English language, but also from the international prestige of some academic institutions in the UK. The latter, in turn, is connected to the ‘British academic export drive’ for which, according to Lynch, Colin Burgess’s work in Portugal has been one of the earliest examples. It is clear that these syntheses are generally very useful, creating a framework for studies developed on other scales. At the same time, when read in countries with less widely spoken languages, these studies often show debilities which are frequently related to ignorance on the part of their authors about the literature published in languages other than English. Linguistic frontiers, even if they are now more frequently being crossed, have not yet been entirely removed within European archaeology. To my mind, this is one of the main challenges for the immediate future.
Finally, this book shows a complete absence of environmental studies, even if Lynch points to the work of Burgess and Shennan about the British Late Bronze Age, taking ‘account of geographical, environmental, artefactual and settlement evidence’. Nor is landscape itself an issue raised as frequently as might be expected in a book dedicated to Colin Burgess. One of the exceptions is the chapter by the Breton archaeologist Le Goffic about the spatial relations of Bronze Age burial sites in Brittany.
One final word regarding the cover and the title of this book; though there is nothing in the contents directly related to Stonehenge, the title is an obvious reference to Colin’s book The Age of Stonehenge. It is also a clever way of drawing attention to the present publication.

Manuel Calado
University of Lisbon, Portugal


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