This evening I attended the first of what is scheduled to become the UCL Institute of Archaeology Annual Guest Lectures. It was given by Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, William P. Reynolds Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana USA. The lecture series is new, and apparently funded by a ‘generous donation’ – though exactly who and what that is we weren’t told.

Felipe was a great character. Dressed rather well, he sounded a lot like  Lloyd Grossman, with that transatlantic drawl arcing between posh English and displaced north American. Unlike a lot of historians I’ve met or heard speak, he wasn’t stuck up and he was very strongly passionate about all forms of inquiry, including science. I get the impression he may be a bit of a secret polymath. I suspect that I warmed to him particularly because his political outlook is very similar to my own – liberal, freedom of speech supporter, evolution supporter, generally anti-war and cheerfully pessimistic.

That said, I don’t think the lecture was particularly astounding. Perhaps the title Why Cultures Change was misleading, or perhaps it felt that way because to archaeologists, that title means something rather different. I went hoping to hear an interesting suggestion for why cultures rise and fall, decline and collapse, and why material culture alters, transforms or disappears. Those are really big and challenging questions, particularly for any culture historical archaeologists (like those of us with a Classical bent), and we could do with some help.

What we got was a discussion of Felipe’s theory on how culture develops, and why the speed of cultural change seems to be increasing. If I am correct, this was generally that:

  • Being hunters allowed humans to develop a ‘faculty of anticipation’ (both of where the prey would be and where our own predators might be).
  • This is very similar/developed into the faculty of imagination.
  • This allows us to see what isn’t there.
  • These ideas multiply when they come into contact with other ideas – for example when people from two different cultures try and share a concept, misinterpret it and generate a new one.
  • Thus as more and more of us come into contact with each other we generate more and more ideas,  like when two people from different cultures try to share a concept, miscommunicate it and accidentally get a new one.

Which was great, but I left with the feeling of yes, AND? Where’s the rest? I mean, I know that when cultures meet they interact and new ideas are generated (creolisation, anyone?), and I think the concept of a ‘faculty of anticipation’ is cute, but where’s the application and how does this help me in my practice?

As I’ve said before I don’t find it strange that my favorite meta-creoles (the Romans) picked up the best bits of all the cultures around them – it makes an evolutionary kind of sense to me. But what I wanted was some explicit theoretical framework for the generation of new ideas and how old ones persist or don’t, and why some cultures ‘fall’ or ‘decline’.

I guess one benefit of this perspective was the implication that creolised/hybridised cultural expressions aren’t somehow less good, or just combinations – they are new ideas and concepts in their own right. But we all noticed that Felipe didn’t actually define what ‘culture’ was, though he spent considerable time outlining that he thought some apes had it. I think he sees it as ideas, as things that aren’t there, the ability to conceive of non-physical concepts and to express them. But that’s my interpretation of his words – it would have been nice to have that in concrete. I think this view of ‘culture’ contributed to the sense of disappointment – archaeologists use the word ‘culture’ to mean a more specific and often material based set of concepts.

In general the lecture was interesting, engaging, and Felipe was a very good speaker. I was doubtful that this lecture would be a synthesis of archaeology and history as advertised, and unfortunately my misgivings seemed appropriate. It felt very much like a history lecture, albeit one by a slightly maverick and exciting lecturer. Certainly it would have benefited from any reference to material culture beyond art, and a little less concentration on great apes.

Although Felipe’s approach borrowed a lot from other disciplines (which is a pretty archaeological thing) I’m not convinced it was the right lecture for an archaeology department. Ultimately the thrust of the lecture felt methodologically sloppy with a lot of postulations and little supporting evidence. I would say it was too much pop-science and glossed-over leaps of logic and not enough rigor. I get the impression he approached the lecture as a done deal, rather than considering us the rather sharp and critically minded audience we actually were.

But still, it was enjoyable, and there’s nothing quite like seeing the Institute’s Director squirming as the guest lecturer rubbishes one of his favoured approaches! I’d definitely be tempted to read one of Felipe’s numerous popular-history books, because his tone and the slightly off-centre approach were very engaging. I also get the impression that if you ever got the chance to be tutored or supervised by Felipe, he’d be a power-house of inspiration and ideas. I’d love to get to speak to him, and I imagine that conversations over coffee would be fantastic. I’m just not sure he makes a good archaeology lecturer.

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