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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S8. Exploring the History of Prehistory

Session organizers:

Andy Needham (University of York, and John McNabb (University of Southampton,

Session abstract:

Understanding the history of the emergence and development of prehistory is deserving of consideration in its own right, but is equally essential in developing a critical awareness of contemporary academic practice. Histories of the discovery and early exploration of prehistory are far from passive in the trajectory of prehistoric research, but are rather deeply intertwined with the very roots of the discipline from which modern archaeological practice has grown. The active exploration of the historical milieu of prehistory can be of value in shining a light on received assumptions and limitations to approaches to prehistory through time that might otherwise be rendered invisible through an incomplete knowledge of the origins of this framework. Revisiting these histories, making them a part of research, allows for an important avenue of contextualization of, for example, systems of temporal division, terminology, categorization, and typology, or can expose the root of long-held assumptions that have persisted through time to become part of the unquestioned fabric of prehistoric research.

This session aims to tug at the threads of this fabric by exploring the histories surrounding the discovery and early study of different periods of prehistory, the formative, shaping role diverse historical contexts played in the development of prehistory, as well as how the study of prehistory has unfolded through time, shaped by these origins. It provides a forum for discussion for both historical and prehistoric archaeologists that share an interest in the emergence of prehistory and its historical context to share a platform on what is a natural meeting point between the two. Papers are encouraged which engage with the history surrounding any prehistoric period or region, or which details the role of a historical figure and their archaeological contribution. Papers that offer critical consideration of contemporary archaeological practice are also encouraged, as are papers that critically analyse the development of the study of prehistory through time.

Contributor Abstracts:

We Are Not Alone: William King and the naming of the Neanderthals

James Walker (University of Cambridge), David Clinnick (National Library of Singapore) and Mark White (University of Durham)

One hundred and fifty three years ago, it was announced for the first time, at a meeting of scientists in Newcastle, that humans had not always been alone in their genus. The announcement in question was given by a man himself originally from the North East, who had grown up in Sunderland. William King, the Anglo-Irish geologist, was the first person to recognise Neanderthals as a separate species of Homo. He did not live long enough to see his proposition or name (Homo neanderthalensis) become accepted, and even now, with his foresight on the matter widely recognised, he is rarely afforded much more than a cursory description as a footnote in the history of Neanderthal research. This presentation provides a timely reflection of King, his roots in the northeast, contextualises his contribution to Neanderthal studies—a watershed moment in the study of human evolution—and examines the moment (and the man) who helped us realise that we are, or at least were, not alone.

Neanderthal Art: A Second Wave Progress Paradox?

Andy Needham (University of York)

Parietal art, first discovered in 1879 by de Sautuola at the cave site of Altamira, was not accepted until 1902, having been widely discredited as a forgery. Palacio-Pérez (2013) and Moro Abadía (2006) attribute this rejection to a progress paradox: Victorian society could accept an emerging Palaeolithic archaeology only if it conformed to a unilinear, gradualist evolutionary position, confirming the Victorians as at the pinnacle of evolution and civilization. In practice this meant that Palaeolithic humans had to be simple; too simple to make ‘real’ art. Portable art, brought to popular attention by the work of Lartet and Christy in 1864 and the publication of Reliquiae Aquitanicae was accepted without delay, the decoration of functional objects according well with notions of simplicity.

The case is made here that we have unwittingly repeated history in the 20th and 21st centuries, no longer within species but across species: a second wave progress paradox. Across the 19th - 21st centuries Neanderthals have attracted deep fascination due to their status as the extinct hominins most like humans. They have been explored not only for their own sake but also as a window into human evolutionary success. Art has been a central point of interest. Arguments in much of the 20th century pointed to a limited capacity for symbolic expression in Neanderthals, linked to a perceived cognitive deficit when compared to modern humans. With the publication of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 (Green et al 2010), the prospect of inter-breeding between humans and Neanderthals has changed their status. At the same time, more new cases of Neanderthal art have been found in the last 5-6 years than in the preceding century. The case is made that this isn’t a coincidence and reflects a breaking down of the second wave progress paradox.


Green, R. E., Krause, J., Biggs, A. W., et al (2010) ‘A draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome’ in Science, Vol. 329, No. 5979, pp. 710-722.

Lartet, E. and Christy, H. (1875) Reliquae Aquitanicae: Being Contributions to The Archæology and Palæontology of Perigord and the Adjoining Provinces of southern France. Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate.

Moro Abadía, O. (2006) ‘Art, crafts and Paleolithic art’ in Journal of Social Archaeology, Vol. 6, pp. 119-141.

Palacio-Pérez, E. (2013) ‘The Origins of the Concept of ‘Palaeolithic Art’: Theoretical Roots of an Idea’ in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 20, pp. 682-714.

The snowball effect: research bias in prehistoric archaeology

Chrissy Collins (University of Exeter)

Certain regions of the world have garnered reputations as ‘classic’ locations for the study of particular prehistoric periods. In some cases, academic interest in these periods has led to the neglect of other prehistoric phases in the same location. Here I will discuss the history of archaeological research in two of these ‘classic’ regions/periods; the Palaeolithic of Southwest France, and the Neolithic of Central Anatolia. I will discuss these ‘classic’ prehistoric phases in relation to other periods in the local archaeology. Here, I analyse the radiocarbon date distributions from ‘modelled’ and ‘unmodelled’ dates from these regions and how these distributions relate to research bias. Radiocarbon dates that can be built into stratigraphic models originate from sites for which multiple radiocarbon dates have been produced; sites that have been the subject of intense research programmes. By contrast, unmodelled dates originate from sites where only one or two radiocarbon dates have been produced, hence they cannot be built into stratigraphic models. The difference between the distributions of these two groups of dates gives us a quantifiable measure of research bias within a region; demonstrating how some phases and sub-phases are favoured over others, despite the existence of sites dating from other periods within the same region. I argue that this research bias is partially the result of early research interest in these periods, leading to a snowball effect whereby increasing numbers of researchers were attracted to these periods, a process that continues to this day. A similar effect has led to an uneven distribution of archaeologists with particular material specialisms working in some regions and periods, a further factor that can skew our understanding of the past. We must be aware of the influence of such historical factors on the body of archaeological data available, and try to counter further ‘snowballing’ today 

Prehistoric Sex Objects: The Phalli of Windmill Hill

Helen Wickstead (Kingston University, London)

What is a phallus and how shall we know it? Today, answers to this question are likely to be different depending on whether the psychoanalytic phallus or a category of archaeological artifact is at issue. Yet these two approaches to the world of things have not always been easily divided. This paper examines how the thingliness of two phalli changed over the course of the early twentieth century, a period in which anthropology, archaeology and psychoanalysis were often closely associated, and the boundaries of archaeological discourse were in the process of construction. It draws on the results of a Wellcome Trust funded project exploring how relations among bodies, objects and concepts have been stabilized through the practices of archaeologists and museum curators.

In this paper I explore the thingliness of two carvings once known as ‘phalli’. Both objects were carved from chalk in the Neolithic. In the 1920s they were excavated from the henge ditches at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire. Unpublished archaeological archives, including archaeologist’s letters and diaries and the records of museums, reveal how each object participated in practices that reconfigured both the emplacement of artefacts and the category of the phallus more broadly. Through these practices one phallus was re-categorized as a “female” figurine and both were subject to changing forms of museum display and representation. Gendered objects participated in practices enacting archaeological professionalization, first wave feminism, ‘primitive’ sexuality, and the receptions of psychoanalysis and sexology. I conclude by asking how archaeological history can contribute to the future of the phallus.

Where time stands still: changing practices of prehistory display in the United Kingdom

Felicity Amelia McDowall (University of Durham)

This paper seeks to expose long-held assumptions in the archaeological interpretation of prehistory in the United Kingdom through the static medium of museum display. This talk aims to highlight how traditional, sometimes out- dated, interpretations of prehistory can have lasting effects on how the period is presented to, and perceived by, the public.

Both past and present trends in archaeological theory and thought are reflected in displays. Thus the longevity of prehistory displays provide a useful insight into the prevailing trends at the time the displays were created. It is only through analysing such displays that these trends can be recognised, as well as the assumptions underpinning them. By comparing how prehistory is currently displayed to how it was displayed previously in the same museum reveals the underlying assumptions embedded in the field and how they are perpetuated through display.

To this point, a series of case studies from across England will be presented to demonstrate the effect the history of the field has upon current museum narratives and how the period is understood by the public. These case studies will review the changes in prehistory display at specific museums and how they reflect regional excavation history, selective collection by early prehistory enthusiasts and trends in archaeological theory and interpretation.

A History for Prehistory? - Rediscovering the lost voices of the British Iron Age

Miles Russell (University of Bournemouth)

One of the earliest attempts to chronicle, clarify and make sense of British Prehistory before the arrival of Rome came from the pen of 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey's magnum opus, the Historia Regum Britanniae (A History of the Kings of Britain) chronicles the rulers of Britain from the earliest times until the 7th century AD. Along the way, it explains how the Britons were descended from refuges escaping the Trojan War, how they battled against giants, Scythians and later Saxons and how Stonehenge was built from a circle shipped directly from Ireland (using magic). It was also the first major work to discuss the life of King Arthur (and as a consequence became a Medieval best-seller) and also Kings Lear and Cymbeline (both later immortalised by Shakespeare) as well as less-well known monarchs Brutus, Cole, Bladud and the impressively named Rud Hud Hudibras. It also contains dragons.

Understandably, perhaps, in the cold light of the modern scientific world, Geoffrey's book has either been completely ignored or cast as a work of utter make-believe. Yet, once you look beyond the tales of sorcery, mythological creatures and general weirdness, what you have left is something rather more intriguing. A detailed re-examination of the Historia, as part of the Lost Voices Project, has shown that elements of Geoffrey's book do indeed appear to originate from a very specific part of Britain in the late first century BC. If the Historia does therefore contain fragments of a 'lost voice', recording the distant past from the perspective of the ancient Britons themselves (and not something filtered through the militaristic world-view of Rome), then how does it change our understanding of the Iron Age? If the Geoffrey’s book is not (completely) a work of Medieval fiction, can it throw any light on a period that we still mistakenly call pre-history?

A research-historical and bibliometric perspective on the possible Neanderthal occupation in Scandinavia

Trine Kellberg Nielsen and Felix Riede (Aarhus University, Denmark)

History of research has the potential to distort the archaeological empirical record through biased approaches and self-perpetuating assumptions. In this way, regional paradigms are formed through the historical attention given to the specific topic in question. Whilst we may long since have left the eolith debate behind us, debates about the earliest Pleistocene occupation emerge regularly across Europe. Examples can be found in Scotland, Lithuania and the Greek islands such as Crete – and in Scandinavia. These debates often centre on particular actors, on problematic empirical material and are played out across publication media from websites to peer-reviewed papers. Also, conflicting acceptance-criteria for autodidact and professional archaeological communities often result in bipartite epistemological frameworks. In our presentation, we focus on a case-study from Scandinavia, addressing how publication strategies and author status have shaped current notions on Neanderthal occupation in this region. We use citation network analysis to investigate the dynamics of the research field using publications as a proxy. This novel analysis allows us to investigate author clusters, time of publication, position in the debate, regional focus and status of main author. Further, the method allows for the visualisation of these structures in intuitive graphs. We supplement this with a qualitative analysis of the, at times, harsh rhetoric of this debate. Our analysis reveals remarkable patterns and structures in the Scandinavian debate, which is argued to be highly influential for the formation of current paradigms regarding Neanderthal occupation in Scandinavia. Similarly detailed studies could be envisioned for other regions.

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