Change and Archaeology

A book by Rachel J. Crellin

In this recent book (2020) in Routledge’s Themes in Archaeology series, Rachel J. Crellin examines archaeological approaches to change, why those used in the past have been insufficient, and outlines a new approach.

Matthew Lloyd

Rachel J. Crellin’s Change and Archaeology (2020) is a book I wish I had read ten years ago, when I was starting my DPhil. The book did not exist back then – could not exist, as it builds on theory from the last decade – and I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much as I do now, but it is a book that could have structured my ideas about Early Iron Age Greece in a way that I would find much more satisfying in the present. Alas, I can now only read it in my post-academic career, but would strongly advise that any scholar interested in historical and archaeological change check it out.

From the outset, Crellin’s case is bold: that archaeologists lack a clear framework through which to examine change, even though, as she says, “the study of change, over the very long term, is one of the defining features of our discipline” (p. 3). There are two aspects to making an argument against the current way of doing something: showing that the current way is wrong, and proposing an alternative way of doing things. The latter part, while much more difficult, is by far the most important.

Crellin spends the bulk of this book on the former, beginning in Part 1 by outlining what is wrong with current approaches to change, before spending Part 2 on the history of archaeology’s study of change. Part 3, then, outlines the current theory on which Crellin’s own approach is built, before outlining that approach and presenting a case study. Her approach is rooted in the idea that change is constant, although its speed is not, and attempts to confine history to stages, periods, and movements can be counterproductive. It is also a deeply political work, arguing that archaeology needs to tell grand narratives that redress the damage caused by colonialism and challenge beliefs in human exceptionalism that have led us into a climate crisis.

Things have changed

The first part consists of one chapter in which Crellin outlines the problems with archaeologists’ approaches to change in a discipline that is primarily concerned with change. Before doing so, she emphasises that she believes that the role of archaeology should be to discuss grand narratives, which at first sounds like an outdated idea in itself. However, her approach is not to view human history as a singular progressive narrative toward culmination in the present, but to view history from a variety of perspectives offering different ideas about what it means to be human in the world – therefore we must tell grand narratives, in the plural, to reflect this multiplicity.

Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to outlining the hurdles that archaeologists face in their approaches to change, summarised in the table below. All of these are familiar to me from my own research, and, as Crellin acknowledges, they are all interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Since reading this chapter, when I consider what I dislike about a paper I am reading I often think in terms of at which hurdle the hypothesis falls.

#1 The block-time approachThe idea that the past is a sequence of stable or static periods between dynamic transitions on various scales.
#2 Progressive narrativesThe idea that “civilisation” progresses through stages; “evolutionary” approaches to history based on ideas of directionality of progress; the idea that things are getting better.
#3 Teleological narrativesThe idea that past societies “lack” something that modern societies have and that, through achieving these things, those societies become more modern. History with an end, the present, in mind.
#4 Origins and revolutionsOrigins: Searching for the “first” of anything and describing it as a “pure”, “true”, or stable version of a given phenomenon.
Revolutions: Moments of rapid transitions between blocks of time (see Hurdle #1); easy dividing points between when the world was one way and when it became another, often teleological (Hurdle #3).
#5 DeterminismsEnvironmental: changes beyond the human scale, requiring a cause beyond the human.
Technological: human changes; the connection between social complexity and metallurgy. Together, these express a kind of dualism that see humans/culture and the natural world in opposition to one another. Both assume reactions to these changes will be universal across cultures.
#6 Singular causationSearching for a single origin for change. Encompasses many of the above.
#7 AnthropocentrismCentring humans (especially white, heterosexual, male humans) as the agents of change; ignoring the role of the natural world; also not including all humans as humans, excluding women and Indigenous people as well as other marginalized groups.

Fundamentally, she highlights that our current approaches to change are simplifying complex narratives to make them more immediately satisfying. In a case study of the “Three Age System” – that is, the division of prehistory into Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages – she shows how even though archaeologists may be aware of the problems with certain terminology this does not prevent it from shaping our discipline, our specialisms, and our understanding of the past.

In part two, Crellin focuses on the history of the study of change in archaeology, with the specific aim of highlighting what previous generations of scholars have done right. It is usually the case that people approach their study of the past with good intentions, even if their frameworks mislead them. This is one of the reasons why it is essential for archaeologists and historians to understand the underlying theories behind how they structure their arguments.

The first chapter in this section covers the “Three-Age” system of the history of archaeology: culture history, processualism, and post-processualism. Crellin emphasises that this distinction is as problematic as the Three-Age system of prehistory, and uses it as a model to show how the afterlives and prehistories of these theories are evident in the heydays of the others. Thus, processualists criticised culture history as only able to describe change, not explain it; yet in discussing Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself, Crellin highlights the bases for processualism in the work of one of the most influential cultural historians: attempts to be scientific and objective; using comparative archaeology to understand technology; and so forth. Indeed, Crellin’s own approach has something in common with Childe, who used archaeology to tell grand narratives and, crucially, recognised the political importance of doing so. In discussing Childe specifically, but also the major archaeological movements of the twentieth century, Crellin shows how it is possible to be critical of one’s predecessors without being unduly dismissive.

It serves Crellin’s point about “block-time” approaches well that, in discussing these “three ages” of archaeology, she actually includes five. Marxism is included between Processual and Post-processual and she concludes with postcolonial approaches. Noting the interrelationship between each movement, Crellin points out that postcolonial approaches even have something in common with culture history in their approach to change through encounters with outside groups. However, in highlighting this connection Crellin emphasises how postcolonialism advances the approach and shows the significance of archaeological approaches to change, particularly in the use of progressive narrative to justify colonial violence: “Colonial narratives serve to keenly illustrate the violence and injustice that can come in the wake of a problematic approach to change” (p. 46).

Crellin’s next three chapters cover key themes that intersect with how we talk about change. Chapter 3 deals with time and the contrast between measured time and experienced time: “There is a difference between what time is and how we measure it” (p. 73). Crellin concludes that how we measure time emerges from our experience of the world – first the passing of days and seasons, the wear and tear on objects, and now the measurement of time into minutes and seconds – but also shapes how we experience it.

Time happens on different scales, from geological processes to the ticking by of seconds. Scale, then, is the subject of chapter 4: how do we see change at the large-scale and the small scale? At the larger end, change can seem quite simple and be used to divide history into periods; at the other, it is considerably messier as people make different choices within the structures in which they operate that ultimately result in change. When Crellin talks about how archaeology can and should be political, it is clear what she means from this chapter: how do we, in the short scale of our lives, enact change in the long term?

Crellin argues that the problem with scale is that it is approached as if the large and small scales are separable: that we can focus on one level of analysis and ignore its impact on the others. She connects this to the nature/culture divide that she criticises in her fifth hurdle and throughout the book: long-term change is based on environmental factors, while short-term change is based around human agency. As she argues elsewhere, culture and the environment are not separate but intertwined. So, too, are our scales of analysis: the large and the small.

In chapter 5 Crellin tackles biography, both of people and of things, to show how things are always changing on the small scale through people’s lives. In archaeology, human biography usually looks at the skeleton, assessing questions of gender, age, and other aspects of life that have an impact on our bones. With objects, the approach is similar: by looking at the object as it is now, we can tell certain things about how it was made, used, and what has happened to it.

Crellin argues that biography lays the foundations for more interesting approaches to objects, people, and their interactions, but that as an approach it is still limited. It is anthropocentric, often creates “block-time” approaches where significant events in human and object lives are markers between periods of stasis, rather than periods of higher tempo in the continuous change of our lives.

Crellin’s assemblage archaeology of change

Part III brings the history of change and archaeology into the present with emerging theoretical frameworks. At the root of many of these new approaches is the actor network theory of sociologist of technology and science Bruno Latour, who argues that agency exists as a property of the network of relations between things – humans, animals, plants, objects, et cetera (p. 150):

Relational approaches posit that we can only understand the world and the way it changes by appreciating its deeply interconnected nature.

After outlining Latour’s philosophy, the symmetrical archaeology movement built on it, and Ian Hodder’s theory of entanglement in chapter 6, Crellin explains why she does not follow these theories. Crellin argues that as Latour did not formulate his philosophy to understand the processes of history, it is a flawed way to understand historical change. Of entanglement, she notes the criticisms of others that it is progressive, determinist, and teleological (all of which Hodder denies), but argues that her own problem with it is that it is a singular narrative that does not allow for the variety of human relationships with things.

Thus, in Chapter 7 she outlines her own “assemblage” approach to change – and how it overcomes the hurdles she described in chapter 1. Her approach combines three main theoretical bases: it is post-anthropocentric, posthumanist, and new materialist. Such academic terms may be off-putting to the non-specialist. As with all jargon, they have a place within the specialism; however, Crellin is also generally exceptionally good at explaining what they actually mean. Thus, we learn that these approaches are all focused on moving the focus away from human beings as the agents of change in the world, without removing us from the picture or denying our influence.

Posthumanism is specifically concerned with critiquing approaches that present human beings as exceptional, separate from the non-human creatures and things around them – especially such approaches that narrowly define “human” to exclude those who are not white, western, heterosexual cis-male humans. Post-anthropocentric approaches recognize that human beings are just one component of reality, which includes other life forms, unalive things, and ideas and concepts. New materialism emphasises that matter is always changing in uncontrollable and often unpredictable ways, whether or not there is a human to act upon it. Nevertheless, the presence of humans – or non-humans, alive or otherwise – results in different changes.

Crellin’s Assemblage Theory builds on these concepts in the explicitly archaeological concept of an assemblage: “temporary gatherings of diverse, heterogeneous parts” (p. 165). To explain this approach, Crellin uses the example of a vegetable patch: it contains soil, plants, the human gardener, insects, the weather, and so on. Each component of this assemblage can also be conceived of as an assemblage: the plants are made up of roots, stems, leaves, et cetera; the soil contains many diverse elements; and so forth. It also goes the other way: the vegetable patch is part of a garden, which is part of a house, a street, a city. In this way, the problem of scale is approached: each component can be built up onto a larger scale, or deconstructed onto a smaller one.

As each component of the assemblage changes, so too do the relationships between the components. This may happen at different speeds or tempos, but it is always happening. The small-scale changes within an assemblage can have an effect in the wider assemblages – fewer or greater amounts of one vegetable or another, leading the human with excess to pass off to others or a deficit that needs filling.

This leads to a situation where small, constant changes can accumulate into larger effects. Here Crellin describes “phases transitions”, drawing upon the metaphor of the different states of water used by Manuel DeLanda. When heating water, the particles are affected as heat is applied, but it is at one hundred degrees Celsius that they have a more significant effect – the phase transition – boiling into steam. Nevertheless, some particles heat earlier than others – the change is not instant, it is accumulative. Furthermore, while the states of water are different – ice, snow, steam, and liquid – there is no hierarchy between them. So, too, we must understand historical change as being between phases that are not hierarchical.

Crellin addresses some challenges to the theory, most of which seemed pretty easily resolved to me. Principle among these was the idea that it denies human responsibility for their actions; I could figure out the response to this before I read it: in order to tackle injustice, we must understand the whole from which it emerges, not simply the individual actions that we see: “It also helps us see that the key to bringing about a better world will be to work on the relations between components not just simply to remove the components themselves” (p. 176).

Finally, Crellin describes how this approach avoids the hurdles that she described in chapter 1 – the main way is that it is a way of mapping change that recognises that change is constant, and thus things are always in process or becoming; but also that humans are but one component in an assemblage of relations, deeply entangled with other objects, things, and ideas.

So how does this approach work in practice? Chapter 8 is a lengthy case study of the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland using Crellin’s assemblage theory and focusing on metal axes. Crellin shows how this new technology came to Ireland through migration from the continent, but that its use in Ireland and Britain was shaped by pre-existing assemblages, mostly connecting to stone axe production. The discussion is lengthy, although it is clear that it could have been longer and gone into more detail; I found that I could see, through this example, how I might apply this theory to the use of iron, cremation, or alphabetic writing in Early Iron Age Greece (p. 221):

Metal axes came to be understood, initially at least, on stone terms.

General thoughts

Change and Archaeology is a book that outlines a complex theory of change and the complex history of the study of change through archaeology. As such, it is remarkable how plain and readable Crellin usually is. While she uses academic language and technical archaeological terms, these are well explained. Crellin also uses effective examples to convey her points, such as the metaphor of the vegetable patch as an assemblage. Furthermore, at the end of each section she offers a handy summary of what preceded, which was very useful for cementing my understanding.

If I were to distil Crellin’s hurdles into a single point it would be that approaching anything as a discrete, static block is the problem. This applies to time periods, such as the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, but also to different cultures, the concepts of nature and culture, and even objects, materials, and individual human beings. All of these things, Crellin argues, constantly change, and when they interact and we see big changes – new technologies, migrating people – this change is rooted in what came before, and what follows is new and different.

For me, the appeal of Change and Archaeology is in part that much of what Crellin argues seems self-evident to me, but I did not have the theoretical knowledge to articulate it. Indeed, I now find myself seeing myself fall at her hurdles, but can also envision how to avoid that in future work.

But what is most significant about this book is its politics, and how relevant it is to the importance of archaeology and archaeological approaches to change beyond academic research. Crellin’s criticisms of the concept of a nature/culture binary, of environmental determinism, and her focus on scale are especially important when we consider the climate crisis: we can see how the climate forces behavioural changes like migration, and also how human actions have impacted the climate on such a scale that they can be difficult to process at times (p. 233):

Because our world is complex and because change is complex there is no simple solution to our problems; rather, we need to work to alter the multitude of relationships with non-humans that we are all enmeshed within.

Change is constant, from the smallest molecules to the universe itself, nothing is ever truly static. Crellin offers a model through which we can accept this self-evident point and apply it to the archaeological record. Moreover, she emphasises why this matters, and how understanding archaeological change can help us to understand the changes we are experiencing in the present. This book is a complex work of archaeological theory and its history, but one that is worth the time of anyone interested in the subject.