Archaeology, the British Museum and Ice Age Art
Last week I followed a bit of a tangent when I talked about saving money when living in London and today I’m going to shift gears again. Ill try to explain some of the reasons I came here in the first place and to describe some of the great opportunities I’ve had over the past few days.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m studying archaeology here and back home at Stony Brook. I came here to learn about the subject in an international context and to experience the discipline from a new perspective and it is for this reason that I recently attended a 3 day conference on Paleolithic (pre-10,000 years ago) archaeology at the British Museum. I find the subject a fascinating one because every human on the planet traces their ancestry to this period and eventually, all those liniages converge (specifically at around 200,000 years ago in eastern Africa).
I think it puts our societies into perspective in really important ways For many centuries, western ethnocentrism (the interpretation of societies in terms of the standards of the society of the interpreter) perpetuated the concept of primitive or exotic hunter-gatherers when in fact, 90% of all humanitie’s time on the planet had been shaped by these lifestyles and many were getting allong perfectly well even then. We evolved as hunter-gatherers and the shift away from that lifestyle is the abnormal state, as modern chronic illness and population pressures often demonstrate
Anyway, the archaeology of these populations can provide a window into their lifestyles, adaptability (arguably the single most important and essentially human characteristic) and more rarely, their symbolic lives. The collection now at the British Museum “Ice Age Art: The Arrival of The Modern Mind” is a beautiful snapshot of symbolism in the upper Paleolithic Europe (“the ice age” 40,000-10,000 years ago). However, that is a VERY loaded title to give to an exhibit like this, not least because it assumes that this is characteristically “modern human” and by implication, other forms of symbolism are not. What about later hunter gatherers after 10,000 years ago, who never produce this kind of art? Are they not fully human? What is the variable human approach to symbolic representation, why is it important to adaptability and how does this small regional representation (Europe is not, after all, a very large part of the inhabited planet) fit into the wider story of our species?
It’s a beautiful exhibit, and the conference on the European Paleolithic this past weekend was a great experience. All the researchers addressed interesting questions; I’ve just reiterated some of them. Alot of people are asking them and I think that this is what makes the field so interesting, because it asks the question of what it means to be human both in the past and the present and how the material record can start to answer this (I’ve just reiterated the mission statement of pretty much every anthropology department in the world so don’t think for a minute that I actually know what I’m talking about).
Link to the Exhibit’s website:
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