Review of ‘The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings’ edited by Ian Hodder and ‘Archaeology as Long-Term History’ edited by Ian Hodder

26th May 2014

‘The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings’ edited by Ian Hodder, 1987, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-32924-8 (hbk)
‘Archaeology as Long-Term History’ edited by Ian Hodder, 1987, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-32923-X (hbk)

Review by Matthew Spriggs

Sent two Ian Hodder (ed.) volumes to review over a year ago I read them with interest which soon turned to disgust. Hodder’s atrocious Reading the Past (1986) I had hoped was a one-off aberration from a scholar with many challenging ideas to his credit. It was reviewed in AA somewhat generously I thought by Bruno David (Australian Archaeology 28: 155 – 8) and more cogently elsewhere by Chris Gosden (1990). These two collections, by a herd of largely Cambridge contributors corralled to provide exemplars of the approach Hodder was attempting to define in that earlier work, seemed pretty dismal on first reading. I put off the responsibility of that review for a year, but the papers en masse still leave a nasty taste on re-reading.

Making two books titled differently and published simultaneously out of material which is interchangeable is close to fraudulent, especially when the papers worth reading could conformably be fitted into a single volume and to buy both will set you back $180 for just under 300 pages of not always enlightening text. Even the editor of the volumes admits that ‘volume two’, Archaeology as Long-Term History (henceforth LTH) addresses one aspect of contextual archaeology, the general breadth of which is covered in ‘volume one’, The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings (henceforth CM). Still, after the outrageous description of Hodder and his students as ‘Childe’s offspring’ in Symbolic and Structural Archaeology (Leone 1982) it is at least good to see the real father unmasked who did the dirty deed: R.G. Collingwood. This seems, however, as woeful a choice of preferred progenitor as Binford’s early seizing upon Carl Hempel and his philosophical father figure (Carl who? as a bemused philosophy of science lecturer once said to me when as a young student I breathlessly explained that we archaeologists too had seen the light and were now becoming real scientists. Shanks and Tilley, whose own approach to similar questions seems increasingly disengaged from Hodder’s program, seem much more on the right track despite their somewhat Stalinist mode of exposition which appears increasingly out of step in these days of glasnost and perestroika (see the review by Tim Murray in Australian Archaeology 28:151-3).

This somewhat intemperate introduction off my chest and the nasty taste therefore somewhat abated, it has to be admitted that since the mid-70s Hodder and his students have shown themselves to be some of the brightest sparks in an otherwise long starless night of archaeological conceptualization after the giddy days of the 1960s new archaeology. The challenge of structural and symbolic anthropological approaches had to be faced and assimilated by archaeology (as pointed out by Leach in 1977) if it was to engage in serious dialogue with current sociological and anthropological thinking. Some archaeologists had already gnawed at the edges of these approaches (and that of Marxist anthropology too, at which I’d had a nibble myself in the mid -late 70s), but Hodder et al. really brought archaeology up against them and ultimately through them. There must be few archaeological theorists around today who have not been influenced importantly by Hodder’s work, even if only by reaction to it as in the cases of Binford, Renfrew and Trigger.

But is contextual archaeology getting us anywhere? If it is to stand as a viable archaeological approach, not just an anthropological one pushed back a bit in time with a strong dose of ethnohistory, it has to cut its teeth on prehistoric contexts without easy direct historical analogies or texts. It is exasperating to find in these works as in previous Hodder volumes the preponderance of straight ethnographic, modern material culture, and historical studies, some with and some without any attention to archaeological data. Also, by his own admission, contextual archaeology as currently practised presents only a partial view: ‘The analysis of symbolic meanings in only part of contextual archaeology, but it is at present an important part given archaeology’s recent emphasis on behavioural contexts’ (CM: 2).

The meanings of cultural objects are earlier dis-cussed as being of three types ‘First, there is the object as involved in exchanges of matter, energy and information. We can talk of how the object is used, and how it conveys information about social characteristics, personal feelings and religious beliefs … The object’s meaning is the effect it has on the world’ (CM 1).

Hodder situates processual and Marxist archaeology as concentrating on this particular context ‘Second, we can say that the object has meaning because it is part of a code, set or structure. In fact its particular meaning depends on its place within the code’ (CM 1).

This is seen as the domain of structural and other semiotic approaches ‘Third, there is the content of meaning … the historical content of the changing ideas and associations of the obiect itself, which makes its use non-arbitrary’ (CM 1).

Hodder notes (CM:2) that though neglected of late, this third type of context was the concern of earlier culture-historical and historical idealist archaeologists, and this is where Collingwood slips in the back door and up the stairs. It is concluded importantly that a material symbol has all three meaning components – action, structure and content. We have yet to see an analysis by Hodder et al. where all three are fully integrated and this is why I suggest that so far we have only been presented with one third of the picture. This may on the surface seem an odd conclusion because in distancing himself from context one and two Hodder can often be ‘read’ as simply dismissing those who investigate them rather than putting forward context three as an additional meaning. At times he seems to be replacing the technological or environmental determinism often associated with the first type of context with a cultural determinism argued from the third, theorising complementarity whole practising a new determinism. This apparent tension in his stance has yet to be resolved.

In considering the substantive papers In CM and LTH I don’t intend to present them in order, but rather to examine them in two parts – those with a place in the single volume they should have formed (‘Division One’) and those which either should never have been published or should have been published elsewhere (‘Division Two’).

Division One

The volume within the volumes would include papers from CM by Hodder (Ch.1), Jameson (Ch.6), Ray (Ch.7), Gibbs (Ch.8), Sorensen (Ch.9), Therkorn (Ch.10), and Taylor (Ch.12); and from LTH papers by Helskog (Ch.3), von Gernet and Timmins (Ch.4), Collett (Ch. 10) and Greene (Ch.11). This would give a total of eleven papers and be equivalent in length to one volume of the two under review.

Hodder’s introduction to CM, ‘The contextual analysis of symbolic meanings’, would largely stand as the introduction to the volume containing the usual set of definitions of terms, while the mercifully short Chapter 1 of LTH, ‘The contribution of the long term’ could be further cut to provide about two paragraphs for insertion therein.

The volume would then have three parts: Prehistoric archaeological studies, Continuity and change from prehistory to history, and Historical archaeological studies. As already pointed out, contextual archaeology is short on fully prehistoric archaeological studies and only two are found in CM and LTH, those of Gibbs and Sorensen. In CM Hodder claims three more studies as prehistoric but they all invoke historical textual sources as providing a major input into the interpretations offered.

Gibbs’ paper, ‘Identifying gender representation in the archaeological record: a contextual study’, examines changing gender relations as shown in the archaeological record of the Mesolithic to Bronze Age of Zealand, Denmark. The evidence is from hoards, burials, rock art and figurines. In different time periods females may be highly visible or invisible in particular types of data. Over time a symbolic association between males, agriculture, woodwork and warfare become less visible, while that between females and agriculture become increasingly visible at a time of agricultural extensification and intensification.

Whether or not one allows the particular explanations she invokes to explain this patterning, the paper demonstrates that a prehistoric perspective on gender generated by archaeological analysis rather than Mutterrecht mythology is possible when gender clues can be fairly unambiguously reconstructed as in burial data. Excellent stuff.

Sorensen’s contribution is the only other truly pre- historic paper in either volume, titled ‘Material order and cultural classification: the role of bronze objects in the transformation from Bronze Age to Iron Age in Scandinavia’. It overlaps in part with the concerns and time period covered in Gibbs’ paper. It is bad editing that Hodder did not consider any cross-referencing between the two, especially as there is at least the appearance of contradiction in relation to the conclusions about gender. Sorensen produces some very interesting data on bronzes, which become extremely standardized at the end of the Bronze Age. As this is not the case with pottery and stone tools, the bronzes can be seen as playing a different role than these other materials. During the very latest period of the Bronze Age the previously rigidly formalized material culture becomes fragmented and disappears at the beginning of the Iron Age. This change is attributed to the disappearance of a complex of associated ideas, objects and con- texts (CM:92) seen as, ‘stressing traditional structures and values focussing on the reproduction of society as opposed to facilitating necessary adaptation of the system in response to internal and external changes’ (CM:99).

My only real complaint about this well-reasoned and written analysis is the breathless way in which it finishes, tantalizingly hinting at a ‘transformation of the economic basis and in particular … changes in organization and relations of production’ (CM: 101), to which the bronzes and their ascribed meanings/ functions fail to ‘adapt’ (that dangerous word again!). As the paper purports to deal with the Bronze Age to Iron Age transition, introducing the latter period effectively only in the two concluding paragraphs is insufficient. Despite this it is still a very good piece of research.

Part two of the ‘ghost’ volume, Continuity and change from prehistory to history, consists of papers where the interpretation of the archaeological material relies on direct historical analogy involving usually sketchy and somewhat later historical accounts from the same or adjacent areas. Thus, continuity between prehistoric context and that recorded historically, and differences between the archaeological and the written databases can be used to see how much change has occurred within this general continuity. Two papers each from CM and LTH would make up this section, which again stresses how the two books contain papers making essentially the same points.

Helskog’s ‘Selective depictions: a study of 3500 years of rock carvings from Arctic Norway and their relationship to the Sarmi drums’ makes a plausible argument for some level of continuity between rock art beginning about 6000 years ago an Sarmi concepts as represented on 17th and 18th century AB drums. The methods of comparative analysis used here will be of interest to Australian rock art specialists.

Von Gernet and Timmins’ paper, ‘Pipes and parakeets: constructing meaning in an Early Iroquoian context’, is a fairly conventional essay on the use of direct historical analogy reminiscent of Bindford’s early ‘Smudge Pits’ paper, although here the ideotechnic rather than technomic sphere is being addressed. This might suggest to some that much of contextual archaeology could be subsumed in Renfew’s new phase of processual archaeology as examples of ‘cognitive-processual’ archaeology (Renfrew 1989:39), a conclusion I’m sure Hodder would reject with horror. About 500 years separates the contexts discussed in this paper and the conclusions are plausible if prosaic. This latter judgment, however, may only be showing my ignorance of North American prehistory.

Ray’s contribution, ‘Material metaphor, social inter- action and historical reconstructions: exploring patterns of association and symbolism in the Igbo- Ukwu corpus’, despite its inelegant title is one of the best papers in the two volumes. It also shows how much of a difference a detailed body of ethnohistorical material can make to the plausibility of contextual explanations. Here the gap between the archaeology and observed rituals is about 900 years and the argument for continuity is a strong one. Well worth a read.

Therkorn’s ‘Inter-relationships of materials and meanings: some suggestions on housing concerns within Iron Age Nord-Holland’ relates changes in housing to the sociopolitical / economic situation of Aoman taxation demands in this frontier area and also invokes Medieval and earlier historical sources to flesh out her interpretations. The paper comes to no startling conclusions but shows a promising research direction and the data are certainly there for a detailed consideration of male-female relations and economic and ritual changes. More information on later and earlier settlement patterns is clearly needed as the author recognizes.

The third section of the book would be Historical archaeological studies, the justification for which might be that when dense contemporary historical accounts are available then the plausibility of our concepts can be better understood (cf. Greene in LTH: 117). This would presumably be Hodder’s position. I would prefer the justification to be that a contextual approach has something to offer those dealing with more recent periods, that the archaeologist can contribute an understanding beyond that gained from the written record alone. That said, it is a bit of a ragtag army bringing up the rear.

The point that similar themes are covered in both CM and LTH is again shown in comparing Taylor’s ‘Flying stags: icons and power in Thracian art’ (from CM) with Greene’s ‘Gothic material culture’ (from LTH). Greene states that his paper, ‘attempts to explain the adoption, transmission, and eventual abandonment of certain forms of artifacts and artistic idioms in early Medieval Europe. It will examine ways in which tribal identity could be defined, reinforced or abandoned, and will argue that abstract concepts about society were displayed by decorated metalwork’ (LTH:117).

Strike out ‘early Medieval Europe’ and replace it with ‘4th century BC eastern Europe’ and that is what Taylor’s paper is about. This was presumably recognized, at least at the level of practical consciousness, by Hodder who places both papers as the last in their respective volumes. These two papers present very interesting analyses of somewhat ‘difficult’ material. Taylor makes a point in relation to the depiction of ‘fantastic’ animals that our own rock art experts seem to find hard to comprehend on occasion, that the a priori divide we are likely to make because of our own cultural background between ‘the here-and-now and the mythical, the real and the fantastic’ is inappropriate in discussing other systems of representation’ (CM 128).

Also in this section would go Collett’s ‘A contribution to the study of migrations in the archaeological record: the Ngoni and Kololo migrations’ (can’t these people come up with catchier titles?), another skillful melding of archaeological and historical sources this time relating to a series of migrations in southern Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Collett makes a number of good points about the way in which archaeologists should investigate the migration of political and ethnic groups. The moral outrage shown’ by some processual archaeologists in the Pacific at the very suggestion that migrations may have occurred in the past, I am thinking here of Terrell and particularly Groube, leads precisely to the situation described by Collett that, ‘ignoring the problem of migration may mean that an archaeologist is in the unfortunate position of explaining how one culture develops into another when the reality is that one culture system has been replaced by another which developed elsewhere’ (LTH: 105 – 6).

Nothing necessarily contextual here but that comes in later with his point that migrations can only be recognized from changes in material culture when it is seen to be part of systems of belief. The archaeologist needs to, ‘establish the cultural significance of different aspects of material culture and then try to show that the new system of beliefs represented in the material culture is more easily derived from elsewhere ‘(LTH:115).

In line with the particularist slant of contextual archaeology he argues that any particular migration should be understood in its own terms and not In terms of a general model of typology of migration. Much food for thought here for Lapita archaeologists.

The choice of Jameson’s ‘Purity and power at the Victorian dinner party’ as the last paper to be included is mainly because it is fun and pretty heavy fare has been served up so far. Etiquette manuals are the data source and thankfully we are not presented with the menu of simplistic cooked/uncooked contrasts but a quite subtle dish of the redefinition of the basis of social ranking in Victorian England through a widened notion of gentility. This uses a recipe derived from Miller’s (1982) analysis of ’emulation’ in an earlier Hodder (ed.) volume. To a messy eater the whole meal was very easy on the stomach although the sex/food link was only vaguely articulated, some Victorian prudery perhaps staying the author’s pen. My response to the food as served was ‘Please Sir, I want some more’, which would, I realize, have gone down like a lead artichoke at one of the gatherings under study.

Division Two

If we were to construct a second ghost book, the ‘out-takes’ of a contextual archaeology volume in ’60s sound recording jargon, five of the other papers in CM and seven in LTH would be included. None of these would represent our previous themes of Prehistoric studies or Continuity and change, four could loosely be labelled Historical archaeological studies, and six would have to be included in a category used in CM of Contemporary archaeological studies. This leaves the two Introductory theoretical chapters of LTH , categorized in that volume as The historical approach in archaeology.

I have already suggested that Hodder’s introduction to LTH should be drastically dismembered and inserted as a paragraph or two in the introduction to the ‘Division One’ volume. The second paper in this section, Whiteley’s ‘Art history, archaeology and idealism: the German tradition’ should simply, like the Bismarck, be sunk. Hodder’s introductory blurb to Whitley’s paper claims that, ‘Anglo-American archaeology would benefit from an Incorporation of these more humane yet scientifically idealist aims and methods within a broader contextual approach’ (LTH:9). I would claim on the other hand that Hodder is off his rocker if he sincerely believes that. Whitley does a workmanlike job of presenting a totally outmoded and boring approach best forgotten. Next time give the lad a better seminar topic!

If we look at the Historical archaeological studies, they are a mixture of half-formed ideas (albeit interesting-Vestergaard), conventional historical archaeology (Sinclair), mildly interesting history which more usefully could have been presented elsewhere (Pratap), and ethnic prejudice (Merriman).

Vestergaard’s ‘The perpetual reconstruction of the past’ would have been a fascinating pre-fieldwork seminar, some good ideas on reconstructing anthropological history from the Scandinavian Volsunga cycles and the German Neibelungenlied with interesting archaeological expectations. She hasn’t yet got as far as distilling what these might be though, if that was her aim. If it wasn’t, then what is this doing in an archaeological publication?

Sinclair narrowly wins the prize for the longest title in the two volumes with his ‘All styles are good, save the tiresome kind. An examination of the pattern of stylistic changes occurring among silver candlesticks of the eighteenth century (1680 -1780)’. Surely the collective authors of CM and LTH must have been having a contest between them for the longest and/or most boring title? One assumes Sinclair won. His paper is O.K., a fairly conventional analysis which would not have disgraced a specialist historical archaeology journal. Hodder’s introductory blurb suggests we are in for much more than actually meets the eye when Sinclair illuminates these particular candlesticks.

Pratap’s paper, Shifting cultivation in the Rajmahal Hills of India’, is equally misplaced in these volumes, contextual only in that it makes the point that to use groups of modern shifting cultivators as simple models for the neolithic is naive, given their over- whelming links to the world economy (in this case through money-lenders). That said, it would have been better placed in a historical journal or a special issue of World Archaeology decrying mindless ethnographic parallels.

Merriman’s paper ‘Value and motivation in pre- history: the evidence for “Celtic spirit'” starts well with a description of said spirit which can only have been ghost-written for him by a well known Canbera- based Welsh archaeologist in a mood of mild self- congratulation: ‘… brave and excitable, boastful and vain, yet with strong notions of honour and etiquette, dynamic, With a great sense of adventure and progress, and quick to assimilate new influences, yet at the same time a poetic, dreamy, romantic people with a strong spiritual nature‘ (CM:113).

Merriman concludes that the Celts never really existed except as a piece of Roman propaganda and later as a romantic eighteenth century invention of local ‘noble savages’. What all this tells us about archaeology I’m not quite sure. It seems to tell us even less about Celts, real or imagined, and is a very superficial sketch of a set of much more complex issues. What does the La Tene style mean in cultural terms if it is not a unity at some level? How did the Celtic language group develop? Could a putative ‘Proto-Celtic’ or set of closely related Celtic dialects have served as lingua franca over a wide area of Europe at anyone time? How might archaeology seek to integrate with the historical study of language and ethnic groups? Is there widespread similarities in social structure over widespread parts of north- west Europe at the time of Roman expansion? On the basis of Merriman’s argument I’m not at all convinced that such a ‘spirit’, perhaps better labelled a cultural style, could not have existed at one time.

It is of course the role of the conqueror to denigrate the culture of those s/he is oppressing, even unto denying the existence of their culture. As a Cornishman and therefore a member of the fourth world, such a ‘white’ view of our history by Herr Merriman does not surprise me. I thought though that Hodder was calling for a self-critical approach to archaeology?

The remaining six papers were dismissed from ‘Division One’ more out of sorrow than in anger. Contextual archaeology seems to throw up endless pop sociology or superficial ethnographic accounts masquerading as important contributions to archaeological theory. Those of a cynical bent might suggest that second rate anthropologists find it easier to publish their stuff in less-critical archaeological journals and publications than they would in the dog-eats-dog world of anthropological publishing. I wouldn’t myself go so far but of the six papers in question there are some of extremely marginal interest to archaeologists albeit worthy pieces of research in their terms (Crawford, Moore and Nowakowski), I’m somewhat dubious about one other (Lane) an the papers by Hodder and Williams are simply frightful.

Crawford’s ‘Iconology, sacred and secular: visions of the family’ is about recent changes in what pictures are on the walls of Cypriot houses. All it seems to be saying is that a changing economy and a changing lifestyle are related. Nowakowski’s’ Staddle stones and silage pits: successional use in an agricultural community’ involved interviewing in- habitants of Bodmin Moor on their attitudes of old farm buildings and the re-use thereof. Moore’s paper ‘Problems in the analysis of social change: an example from the Marakwet’ deals with questions of modernisation in a comparatively isolated part of Kenya.

Lane’s ‘Reordering the residues of the past’ starts with a long-winded paean of praise of our old somewhat mouldy friend RG. Collingwood, ‘a work generally overlooked in contemporary archaeology’ (LTH:61) and, one might add after reading his exposition, ‘mercifully so’. This is followed by fairly standard Hodderian fare on how the Dogon of Mali represent the past and its bearing on the organization and use of settlement space today. What this all has to do with Collingwood’s maunderings, except by assertion that it does, escapes me.

Hodder’s ‘Bow ties and pet food: material culture and the negotiation of change in British industry’ is best passed over in silence. To find out why, one should compare it with the way Danny Miller (1987) gets stuck into modern material culture. Not in the same class at all. Williams’ (‘An “archaeology” of Turkana beads’) seems to have been the victim of one of those terrible creative writing seminars which semi-famous writers inflict on university students in order to keep above the poverty line. After gyn-Ecology we now have archaeology or reflections about writing about writing about Turkana beads. Really I’m jealous as I would love to be able to get away with writing like this about archaeology or about anything actually, but I can’t. Nor can Williams.

After rescuing one ‘ghost’ book from the ruins of two whose publication was unforgivable, can we conclude that there is something called contextual archaeology and if there is, is it going anywhere? If there is something distinct about contextual archaeology, as opposed to it being simply a more sophisticated form of processual, as opposed to it being simply a more sophisticated form of processual archaeology (perhaps the congnitive- processual archaeology of Renfrew), then quite clearly many of the papers in these two volumes would not qualify for inclusion. If we strip away the rhetoric and ritual invocations of Collingwood’s name (Childe as idol has presumably been snatched by the Shanks and Tilley mob), the methods used and the plausibility of the interpretations are generally ones any sane (?) processualist could approve of. In this sense Hodder’s theoretical stance does seem different than most of the contributors. The problem may be the one alluded to earlier, of the partial programme of contextual archaeology as practised so far. A more recent Hodder publication (1989) about material culture as text, called ‘This is not an article about material culture as text’ also seems to show some important changes in Hodder’s own position which may signal contextual archaeology’s coming to maturity. Let’s hope so, for the sake of all the far too many trees that have died to feed it during its wilful adolescence.


Gosden, C. 1990 Review of ‘Reading the Past’. Mankind, in press.

Hodder, I. 1986 Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Hodder, I. 1989 This is not an article about material culture as text. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 8:250- 69.

Leach, E.R. 1977 A view from the bridge. In M. Spriggs (ed.), Archaeology and Anthropology: Areas of Mutual Interest, pp.161-76. British Archaeological Reports: Oxford.

Leone, M. 1982 Childe’s offspring. In I. Hodder (ed.), Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, pp. 179 – 84. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Miller, D. 1982 Structures and strategies: an aspect of the relationship between social hierarchy and cultural change. In I. Hodder (ed.), Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, pp.89-98. Cambridge University), Press: Cambridge.

Miller, D. 1987 Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Blackwell: Oxford.

Renfrew, C. 1989 Comments on Shanks and Tilley, archaeology into the 1990s. Norwegian Archaeological Review 22(1):33-41.

Spriggs, M.
Review of 'The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings’ edited by Ian Hodder and ‘Archaeology as Long-Term History’ edited by Ian Hodder
June 1990
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