PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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An Anthropological Archaeological Perspective on Material Culture

Thomas C. Loftfield, Barbados Museum and Historical Society

The Pioneer America Society is an organization devoted to the study of material culture, especially in the New World. This commitment presents certain problems for the anthropologist because the anthropologist is very likely to want to say that there is no such thing as material culture. Culture, as used by most anthropologists, consists in “shared, learned, behavior.” Here the operative word is behavior, and, by definition, materials cannot be self-motivated behavers, so there can be no such thing as material culture. Now, it is not intended that you should take this statement as merely a semantic argument, even though I think there is some validity to it. Instead, let us look at how anthropologists, or at least the portion of them that seem to make sense to me, will proceed to consider the role of material objects in the action of culture.

Culture, as indicated in the quick definition above, is learned, and it is also shared. At birth we, as humans, know how to do very few things. These natal abilities consist in breathing, sucking in food, and disposing of the end products of that food from the other end of the internal tube. Virtually everything else we do is learned. A somewhat controversial psychologist, Harry Harlow, discovered quite some time ago that if monkeys are raised in isolation from the troop, not allowed to even see adults or other juveniles as they grow to maturity, at maturity they do not know how to copulate. They get excited, they know something is supposed to happen, but without ever having seen adults do it they do not know just exactly what it is that they are supposed to do. Something that basic to survival is, in the primate order, apparently learned.

We learn the expected behaviors of our culture from other people around us; parents, siblings, friends, school, church, the man with the flashing red or blue light on his car who is there to remind us of various elements of our culture such as how rapidly we are allowed to proceed down the highway. The process of learning inherently involves sharing the learned values. As one learns and shares, one reinforces the essential elements of one’s culture, and at the same time one helps to build and promote group solidarity, thus in a very circular way again reinforcing the essential elements of the culture. There is very little, if any, biological or survival value today to many cultural acts, such as cutting off the end of the male member, the eating or non-eating of particular foods, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or attending church. Yet, these cultural acts help to define membership in the cultural group. These acts of definition are critical to preserving the culture of the group, and, according to some anthropologists, thereby ensuring the survival of the group itself. And, because we as primates, and humans especially, are social animals, surviving as groups, the survival of the group ensures the survival of the individual. Individuals, therefore, learn culture, reinvent culture, carry culture, interpret culture, all for the benefit of the group, the survival of which ensures the survival of the individual. It is all so wonderfully circular, convoluted and chaotic!

In the course of practicing culture, changes inevitably creep in. Put crudely, 10,000 years ago the ancestors of all of us were making their living by poking sharpened stones on the ends of wooden sticks into the sides of huge animals. Today, very few of us, anywhere, run around poking at huge animals with sharp stones on wooden spears. Very few of us, as in those reading these words, are in any way significantly involved in the direct obtaining of our food. Mostly we exchange weird little pieces of colored paper for our food in grocery stores, or produce weird little pieces of plastic that seem to have the same effect. It is more than obvious that cultures do change, and it is this change, and the mechanisms by which it is achieved that are of greatest interest to anthropological archaeologists.

The real purpose of culture is to allow us, as individuals, through the actions of the group, to extract the requirements of life from the raw environment in which we live. In the course of extracting those resources necessary to life we inevitably change the very environment in which we live. As the environment changes the mechanisms of resource extraction must change in ways that allow the continued obtaining of the necessities for life. Were culture to not so change the group would eventually become extinct as, indeed, has been the fate of many cultures across time that failed to make those necessary changes. While these changes mostly happen very, very slowly, it would appear that as culture is transmitted from one generation to another, it, meaning culture, is constantly, if slowly, being re-invented. So, while the overall culture tends to remain the same, minute little changes do appear, usually at the generational level, causing the ubiquitous “generation gap,” which can and often does create feelings of anomie, if not irritation, between the generations. I offer this insight to you to help you understand just why it is that your teenage children will, are, or were, driving you stark raving mad crazy.

In the act of learning the essentials of ones culture, one also learns a set of values and meanings inherent in the culture. Claude Levi-Strauss called this set of deep cultural meanings “the structure of the culture,” hence our use of the word structuralism when referring to the notion that societies are driven by the deep, mostly subconscious, meanings and values of their culture. Structuralism, boiled down, suggests that people do things that “feel good” because they articulate with the set of values and meanings that were learned early in life, and that define the world-view of the group.

The anthropological interpretations of things material in culture, or material culture if one must, have changed across time as various schools of thought have been in or out of popularity. In the beginning, meaning in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, items of material culture were viewed as markers of specific cultures. In other words, any given culture could be defined by the presence of a specific set of artifacts with a specific set of attributes. While cultural anthropologists remained, indeed, more driven by observed behaviors in defining specific cultures, the influence of anthropological archaeology forced recognition of specific artifact sets as elements in determining the borders, boundaries, and geographical and temporal extent of particular cultures. This approach to artifacts and culture, called culture history, had spent itself by the end of the 1960s as it was recognized, finally, that ever longer lists of artifacts and attributes failed, somehow, to adequately define past cultures or to effectively model how and why cultures changed over time.

From the 1960s through the 1980s a set of archaeologists tried to investigate the actions of culture, including culture change, from the perspective of environmental adaptation. Calling on “Science,” these New Archaeologists, or “Processualists” as they came to be called, relied almost entirely on the environmental adaptation model to explain culture, and essentially ignored the presence of people, as if culture somehow had its own set of rules and laws entirely separate from those people who learned it, carried it, reinvented it. Processualism, while very “scientific,” was also very sterile. While it often produced wonderfully insightful explanations of the relationship between culture and the environment, its ignoring of humans as the transmitters and translators of culture left its explanations ultimately incomplete in troublesome ways.

The processualist school of thought was eventually superseded by the “post-processualists” who called on Levi-Strauss and the notion of structuralism to put people back into the equation. It was recognized that ancient Hebrews and later Muslims did not eschew the consumption of pork because raising pigs was not viable in the environment in which they lived (which was definitely true), but rather, as a proximate cause, because God told them not to eat it, a notion from within the deep structure of their culture that was definitely not related to any environmental impact statement required by their government. Structuralists, then, put people back into the equation, producing explanations of human cultural behavior that were much more complete, fulfilling, and meaningful than those produced by either the culture historians or the processualists.

Artifacts do have, of course, functional uses. Examining and analyzing artifacts from the perspective of these uses was the goal of the culture historians of the first part of the twentieth century, and, when viewed as mechanisms of environmental adaptation, this same approach informed the cultural ecologists of the processual movement. As well, artifacts were used traditionally as markers of human population movement. If one follows the rather elaborate and complex rules of association between artifact and culture the system is still important, although genetic evaluation is becoming perhaps a more reliable means of understanding population movement.

From a functionalist perspective, an artifact begins life as an idea in the mind of the maker. A tool is envisioned to perform a particular function, either needed or desired. A mental template is created that informs the producer of the artifact as to what the end product should resemble, and what its attributes, both functional and aesthetic, should be. The producer then sets out to obtain the necessary raw materials, and physically creates the artifact. After production the artifact moves towards its intended uses and enters the realm of application. At some point the artifact ends its productive life. It may break, it may wear out, it may be lost, or it may simply go out of style. If lost, it immediately enters the world of potential archaeological finds. If it breaks, wears out, or goes out of style it may be discarded, in which case it enters the realm of potential archaeological recovery. Certain eighteenth and nineteenth century sites have been excavated where, from pits in the ground, complete sets of crockery were recovered, unbroken, undamaged, discarded simply because Wedgwood had introduced a new pattern, thus relegating the older sets to obsolescence. On the other hand, many artifacts are recycled, either directly or laterally. Direct recycling moves the artifact back to its original purpose, as might be the case with bottles that were extensively recycled back to the original owners for re-use in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when glass bottles were very valuable. Today we are trying to reinvent this process for our own extensive array of artifacts in order to spare the landfill. Alternatively, artifacts were often recycled laterally, meaning they were sent on to new uses. The archaeological record is replete with examples of broken crockery that was then used as scoops for grain or animal feed. No longer useful as a bowl or cooking vessel, the larger broken fragments were often sent to the barn or granary. In extreme cases such broken pottery might even have been used in the field to help in grubbing fields by hand. The worn and smoothed edges of broken crockery so used give adequate testimony to this sort of recycling. Another use for broken crockery and bottles was in filling the pit toilets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in urban areas. It was recognized that the air spaces created by filling the toilet pit with broken pottery and bottles helped the subsequently deposited organic contents to bio-degrade. In excavating old toilet pits one frequently finds vast quantities of such broken materials leading to an initial interpretation of the use of the old toilet pit for refuse disposal. Deeper digging into such deposits, however, has shown that there are many references to the use of broken materials as described above, a valid form of recycling. Toilet pit cleaners then often removed the broken pottery and bottles in the act of cleaning the urban pits. The removed materials were usually taken to fields outside the city to be spread as fertilizer. In this way many rural sites came to resemble urban locations in terms of the artifact contents, confusing the lives of poor archaeologists trying to make sense of the discarded functional residuum of past cultural behavior.

Of far more interest to anthropologists, however, is the examination and analysis of artifacts, items of material culture, from the structuralist perspective. In the course of design, production, and use of artifacts, people endow these physical objects with deep structural and cultural meanings, values, if you will. Some values, such as status are more or less apparent on the surface of the artifact. A Mercedes, a BMW, and a Rolls Royce are taken to imply something about the purchasing power of the owner, and by extension in the western world, something about the relative status of the owner. Mercedes purposefully keeps its US prices high just to maintain that image of status. One can go to Germany, buy a Benz, and ship it home for far less than it costs locally. Volvo has cultured the image of safety coupled with high status, as evidenced by one colleague who some years ago went to Europe, bought a Volvo, drove it far enough to have it qualify as a used car, and returned home with said automobile at a cost far less than the local price; achieving in this way not only high status but a reputation for safety and sound economic thinking! Similarly there was a time when a hot rod was perceived of as a slick way to impress the impressionable young ladies. The hot rod automobile implied, perhaps, that the owner may have had a hot rod of his own. Of course values can change. Once, only real men drove Jeeps. Now every soccer mom drives a Jeep derivative without sacrificing her femininity, too much.

Our western culture invests a significant amount of meaning in our architecture. Our public/political buildings are almost entirely neo-classical in design. We understand this look to impart a sense of dignity, importance, and power. Any self-respecting southern plantation house has its main floor elevated above ground level. We understand this elevation to imply power and authority. One has no trouble imaging the “master” standing on the verandah with the slaves/servants looking up at him. The act of looking up we understand to be one of subservience. We regularly “look up to” political, moral, or other significant leaders. Many buildings manifest this notion of looking up to ones betters with elevated stages from which the betters can pontificate while looking down at the mere mortals. The gods reside high on Mt. Olympus, angels reside “on high,” we look up beseechingly to God, you get the point.

What is significant here is that not only do these artifacts reflect deep cultural values, they teach the same values, or at least they provide the classroom in which the teaching takes place. As youngsters we were all told to be quiet in the library, to mind our manners in the town hall or court room, or wherever. The judge and the minister all occupy high places, figuratively, but also literally. We construct daises, pulpits, balconies, and other elevated spaces from which they look down and to which the masses look up, forcing them to look up, making the point and in the act reinforcing and perpetuating the deep cultural meanings.

In the most extreme cases artifacts can cause changes in cultural behaviors. The development of movable type led directly to standardization of spellings as well as type sizes and styles, while indirectly contributing to the rise of other standardizations that eventually gave rise to the development of Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts and ultimately to Mr. Ford’s moving assembly line. Today, essentially all of our artifacts are identical, and we now pay more for individuality and flaws. The most valuable stamps in the collection are always those where there was a printing error.

Artifacts, then, play an extremely important role in the circular, convoluted, and chaotic process that we call culture. Artifacts are endowed with meaning, and they are then used to impart that meaning back to those who use the artifacts. If we see in an artifact only its functional value or immediate technical use we miss what is really the most important role of artifacts—media for transmission and perpetuation of deep cultural values and meanings that define, in the end, any particular culture. In our own culture, today, the automobile remains an especially powerful symbol of status, meaning, and value. In spite of, or perhaps more correctly due to, the rising price of gasoline, the car continues to be employed by people to express status and attract attention. We continue to rely on buildings, from the public ones to our own homes, for much cultural information. At a much less grand level the manner in which we use implements at table expresses our sense of manners and social status. Which hands one uses to hold the knife and fork speaks volumes about how much time one has spent in Europe or the Commonwealth. How we dress alerts others to particular sets of beliefs. Motorcycle gangs espouse a counter-cultural individuality, but dress in what comes close to being uniforms. The advent of the phony pony allowed bankers to enjoy their Harleys on the weekends while meeting the required expectations for use of the artifacts we call clothes during the work week and at board meetings.

These are but a minute drop in the bucket of the millions of possible examples that could be adduced to illustrate the use of artifacts to express and reinforce cultural values and meanings. Artifacts surround us constantly, and they constantly reinforce deep cultural values. The trick is to recognize or identify these values. Most are so mundane, so commonplace that we take them for granted, which is exactly how they are intended to be used. The messages are supposed to be subliminal, to quietly keep order and prevent discord. We are meant to move smoothly and seamlessly through our cultural world, guided, supported, controlled by the messages of the artifacts, the real meaning of material culture.


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