Faced with the problem of too much input we automatically, it seems, start to deal with it by creating a system of classification. Somehow, being able to say ‘this is an x’ makes us feel that we know more about it. Being able to label something seems somehow to give us power over it. Classifying and defining something assimilates that thing into the known universe, in an orderly fashion.
Personally, I feel this only has value in archaeology if the person who created the purported ‘x’, had x-ness in mind at the time. What if it was a ‘y’ that went wrong? What if an x is a y that’s been used for 50 years and changed shape? What if an x is in fact a y, but just made by different people who had a different idea about how to do the task that y was a solution for?
How do we know that what we classify as similar today, was considered similar then? Similarity is defined by attributes having similar values. But people I consider as similar to each other, generally aren’t considered so by other people, so maybe similar can be different. Perhaps the attributes that I pick out and compare aren’t those that are picked by other people. Perhaps what’s important now when making comparisons isn’t the same as what’s important then.
The other problem with categorisation, I feel, is that it gives things edges. Once we’ve defined the box that something fits within, we forget that the box was a convenient mechanism, a model for understanding, and start to treat it like it was a real thing.
It always amused me, the idea of ‘Bronze Age’, the ‘Iron Age’ and so on. They are neat divisions of technological progression and are used to carve up time into chunks that we can talk about. But at the beginning of the Bronze Age, it wasn’t an orderly switchover, like the change to digital television. It can’t have been. People are far too human for that. So the edges are fuzzy. And what about places that never saw bronze at all, or not for a long time? Do they have their own personal Bronze Age?
In my day job, I’m very user-focussed, so I spend a lot of time considering what people are trying to achieve. I find, when designing new processes, or introducing new systems, that people’s behaviour quickly tends to follow the path of least resistance. Anything that’s overcomplicated gets worked around, or ignored. The thing that is most likely to happen, will happen. Where there are things that are equally as likely, you get a mixture of both. Things rarely polarise into extremes of their own accord.
What has this got to do with archaeology? Well, when considering invasion theory, or diffusion, or other means of technological change and progression, I can’t help feeling that whatever required the least effort, or co-ordination, or unlikely circumstances, is going to be the most likely to have happened. It’s hard enough getting a group of 9 friends to go out for a meal, using modern communication mechanisms and modern transport. I can’t begin to imaging how hard it would be to plan an invasion. But then, I’m not that organised.
But the word invasion, is in itself a box, and I’m making all sorts of assumptions about what that would mean and how it would have taken place. Sometimes, I think that shortcutting the descriptive process by using a single word, hides a lot of necessary complexity. By forcing ourselves to think about what we are describing longhand, we open our minds to other possibilities and get away from the need to label.