Marxist Archaeology Research Paper

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Strictly speaking, Marxist archaeology is something which cannot exist. Archaeology is an ancillary historical discipline that seeks to exploit a particular category of evidence (the material residues of past human activities) for historical and sociological purposes. In this sense, Marxist archaeology would be a nonsensical category, like Marxist epigraphy or Marxist numismatics. More broadly, then, Marxist archaeology is taken here to be the use of the principles of historical materialism enunciated by Marx and Engels to analyze the dynamics of the past societies whose material remains archaeologists study.

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Here one must take into account, of course, Marxism’s political importance, which has made its use as a guiding historical theory range from mandatory to proscribed, with various degrees of toleration in between. Archaeology is an expensive and cumbersome activity that requires extensive funding and official permits, so that political controls are relatively easily imposed, with a corresponding effect on how archaeologists present themselves. Completely uncensored archaeologists may decide (in the interests, not of prudence, but of persuasiveness) to omit explicit references to Marx and Engels on matters concerning which Marx and Engels had nothing direct to say (almost all archaeological cases, that is). Indeed, enough of Marxist thought has become assimilated to the mainstream of the social sciences that archaeologists may be unaware of the derivation of their ideas. One must, therefore, take Marxist archaeology to be constituted by what archaeologists who say they are using Marxist principles do.

1. Soviet Marxist Archaeology

The first broad application of a Marxist approach to archaeology occurred in the Soviet Union. This took the form of applying the ethnological stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization that Engels (1972 [1884]) had adapted from Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1964 [1877]) to the archaeological evidence from Soviet territories. During the 1920s most archaeologists carried on with traditional descriptive studies much as before, on the assumption that ‘because they were studying the history of material culture, their work accorded sufficiently with the materialist perspective of the new social and political order’ (Trigger 1989, p. 215). During the ‘Third Period’ of collectivization and forced industrialization, however, orthodoxy along the lines indicated by Engels and Morgan was imposed from the center: unenthusiastic scholars were dismissed (or worse), local associations promoting the study and preservation of local monuments and antiquities were disbanded for glorifying the past, and so on (Klejn 1993, p. 21).

The result of this imposition, however, was the first systematic, large-scale sociological reading of prehistoric evidence; one that did not fail to render interesting and useful interpretations and to stimulate innovative research. Reading Engels into the preliterate past of the Soviet Union required a broadly functionalist approach that integrated all aspects of the archaeological record. As Trigger (1989) points out, the concrete results achieved in the 1930s in many ways anticipated those of the Anglo-American New Archaeology of the 1960s; a neo-evolutionist processual movement also rooted in Morgan by way of Leslie White (e.g., 1959). At the same time, however, the high political stakes of Marxist theorizing and the intensely hierarchical institutionalization of archaeology under Stalin impeded critical analysis of Engels’s propositions in the light of the emerging evidence, a critique all the more necessary given the provisional character of Engels’s work.

On the basis of the new, up-to-date ethnology of Morgan, Engels had been willing to revise extensively the initial reflections on primitive society and the development of the State that he and Marx had presented in works such as the Formen (Marx 1965, [1857–8]) and the Anti-Duhring (Engels 1934 [1877]), but in the Soviet Union the unilineal stage theory formulated by N. I. Marr, the first director of the State Academy of History and Material Culture, was not formally abandoned until Stalin himself denounced it in 1950, 16 years after Marr’s death (Klejn 1993, p. 27). The post-Stalin relaxation of political controls led, as might be expected, less to the development of a critical Marxist archaeology than to a concentration on practical work in which such theorizing as did take place concentrated largely on explaining the diversity of the Soviet Union’s archaeological record as an outcome. This focus on ‘ethnogenesis’ had a greater affinity to the nationalist archaeology of Gustav Kossinna than to the theoretical work of Marx and Engels.

2. Childe

Outside the Soviet Union, the first archaeologist to develop Marxist perspectives systematically was V. Gordon Childe (Trigger 1980). As professor of prehistory at Edinburgh in the 1920s, Childe (1925, 1928, 1929) had developed a synthesis of Kossinna’s paleoethnological concerns with Oskar Montelius’s comparative chronological approach on a scale that encompassed both Europe and the Near East. Childe was a man of the Left (he had been active in the Labour Party of his native Australia) and he took keen professional and political interest in emergent Soviet archaeology. The Soviet experiment showed him how he could fit the prehistory he had elucidated into a larger evolutionary whole. He would recast the transitions from Savagery to Barbarism and from Barbarism to Civilization as the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions respectively (Childe 1936, 1942), stressing the dynamic interplay of production and social organization.

At the same time, he saw no reason to accept the autochthonic unilinealism of the Soviet school: instead, he anticipated recent world-systems approaches by seeing Europe as peripheral to and dependent on the Near East (Childe 1956a). Finally, he grounded his interpretations in an explicitly realist epistemology (Childe 1956b) in which knowledge is socially constructed, but long-lasting to the extent that it is practical. Precisely because he adjusted the details of his historical reconstructions to the best evidence of his day, many of Childe’s specific contentions are dated, but his consistent view that historical changes are rooted in the social relations of production continues to inspire research (e.g., Wailes 1996).

3. ‘Western’ Marxist Archaeology

Childe’s eminence (and British tolerance of what could be regarded as his eccentricity) permitted him to be a solitary exponent of Marxist prehistory in the West during the first part of the Cold War. A broader avowal of Marxist approaches to prehistory would wait until a generation of archaeologists trained during the university-based radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s attained professional independence. In the United States and Great Britain this renewed, explicit interest in Marxism arose in the context of dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the by-then dominant New Archaeology. This form of neo-evolutionism shared with Marxism many of the same criticisms of the prevailing historicist theory and practice and so was susceptible in turn to a Marxist critique. This critique addresses both of the principal strands of the New Archaeology.

First, the New Archaeology was committed to cultural ecology as an explanatory strategy. Cultures were seen as analytically isolable, functionally integrated, homeostatic regulatory mechanisms in which change occurs due to demographic or environmental pressures external to the cultural system itself. Where small-scale, egalitarian societies are concerned, cultural ecology is not incompatible with Marxism (e.g., Marx 1965, pp. 68–9), although attention to the internal tensions (contradictions) of kinship-organized societies may improve upon an innocent systems functionalism (e.g., Gilman 1984, Saitta 1997). In societies that exhibit substantial inequalities, however, notions that their privileged elites act as higher-order regulators of complex adaptive systems are wide open to critique from a Marxist perspective.

Inasmuch as complex societies are riven by internal competition, the winners of which set themselves above, and exploit the mass of the population, they cannot be adequately understood as systems in which an adaptive equilibrium benefits all their members (e.g., Gilman 1981, Zagarell 1986, Brumfiel 1992). Furthermore, complex societies rarely develop in isolation: their class inequalities emerge in the context of external trade and warfare, so that analogues of the world-system approach to capitalism (e.g., Frank 1967) can be applied to ancient cases (e.g., Frankenstein and Rowlands 1978, Kohl 1989, Frank 1993). Finally, against the New Archaeological view that a society’s ideational system consists of the information regulating its adaptive response to the environment, archaeologists have appealed to a Marxist view of ideology as the means by which competing classes and factions legitimate their interests so as to control and manipulate others (e.g., Leone 1982, Patterson 1986, De Marrais et al. 1996). These critiques have been so effective that they have been absorbed into the mainstream of AngloAmerican archaeological thought.

Second, the New Archaeology insisted upon emulating the methods of the natural sciences by adopting logical-positivist research strategies. This scientism is clearly incompatible with a Marxist view of ideology, according to which archaeology is a body of knowledge developed by social actors in accordance with their interests. Archaeologists have used Marxist ideas to show how the theory and practice of the discipline has been influenced not (or not just) by value-free scientific objectives, but by the social and economic constraints of its setting (Patterson 1995): thus, the pressures of sponsorship (e.g., Gero and Root 1990) would generate archaeological models (e.g., Keene 1983) and popularizations (e.g., Leone 1981) that reinforce the necessity of present-day capital social relations by showing that they existed in the past.

The argument that archaeological claims about knowledge reflect the interests of those who advance those claims is only a short step away from a selfdefeating relativism that sees Marxism as an approach to understanding history that can be judged only on its own terms (e.g., Saitta 1983, p. 301). It is a step that some self-styled Marxists have not failed to take. The concrete reconstructions of the past arrived at by archaeologists (overwhelmingly of European descent) often conflict with the accounts of the past developed by indigenous peoples whom the Europeans have conquered. When the author of a work entitled A Marxist Archaeology (McGuire 1992, p. 243) writes that:

—–Archaeology … needs to be transformed into the writing of specific peoples’ histories as a validation of their heritage … This ‘righting’ of history is part of a global process in which cultural heritage is being reasserted and is replacing the Enlightenment view of human nature as progressively rational—–

it is clear that his sympathies have caused him to forget then that Marx, if he was anything, was an exponent of the Enlightenment project. If the New Archaeology’s naive positivism has lost ground, this is because of its own inherent difficulties (Wylie 2000), not the Western Marxist critique of it.

4. ‘Southern’ Marxist Archaeology

In recent years, the most systematic construction of a Marxist archaeology has occurred within the ‘social archaeology’ current in Latin America (e.g., Lumbreras 1974, Sanoja and Vargas 1978, Bate 1998, cf. Patterson 1994). Here (as in Spain) Marxism has the prestige of being associated with the opposition to a capitalism operating under authoritarian political auspices. It differs critically from the ‘Western’ Marxist archaeology in that it is not so much a critique of New Archaeological processualism as a substitute for it. In Latin America the dominant archaeological paradigm is the traditional historicism that preceded the New Archaeology in the US and Britain, a historicism oriented toward an ethnopopulist emphasis on the indigenous roots of the modern nations (Vargas 1995) and or toward the development of archaeological resources for education and tourism.

Archaeologists politically committed to the Left in Latin America have (where their presence has been tolerated) used a Marxist framework to build a processual alternative to the predominant historicism that does not suffer from the limitations of the adaptationist, ahistorical processualism developed in the US. Classic Marxist concepts, such as ‘mode of production’ and ‘social formation’ are combined with novel constructs such as modo de ida (mode of life) to develop a systematized basis for archaeological research that has none of the post-processual distaste for an evolutionist grand narrative. In Latin America, institutional constraints have prevented this theory from being put into widespread practice, but in Spain the democratization of the late 1970s was associated with expanded employment and funding in archaeology, and this in turn has led to a remarkably active implementation of historical materialist research strategies (e.g., Ruiz et al. 1986).

5. Conclusions

The societies that most archaeologists are concerned with were not at the center of Marx’s attention, and almost no information about them was available in his and Engels’s day. To create a Marxist archaeology, one must, then, critically and creatively deploy the central themes of Marxist thinking. Archaeology is a discipline that requires institutional support, and Marxism, as a critical approach to historical inquiry, is not easily or fruitfully institutionalized. At the same time, an archaeological evaluation of critical Marxist variables, such as property relations (‘it is always the relationship of the owners … to the direct producers … which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure’ [Marx 1967 [1894], p. 791]), is not a straightforward task (Gilman 1997). As a result, Marxist interpretations of the archaeological record are only beginning to be developed.


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