Digging Into the Life of the Mind

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Science  20 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5393, pp. 1444
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5393.1444

Cambridge, U.K.—As a student at London's Institute of Archaeology in the 1960s, Ian Hodder heard James Mellaart lecture about his excavations at Çatalhöyük, a huge Neolithic settlement in present-day Turkey. The aspiring archaeologist was entranced. “Mellaart was a fantastic speaker, and he left an indelible impression of the site on my mind,” Hodder says. Now, 3 decades later, Hodder himself is in charge of major new excavations at Çatalhöyük, which are expected to take the next 25 years (see main text). The new dig is being closely watched by the archaeological community—yet as much for the way it is being dug as for what it is finding.

Hodder—now at Cambridge University—has spent much of his career leading a theoretical revolt against established archaeological thought. This movement of mostly British and some American archaeologists—which has been greatly influenced by postmodernist trends in the humanities—is usually referred to as “postprocessualism.” It puts much more emphasis on studying the symbolic and cognitive life of ancient peoples than did earlier approaches and argues for the need to accept and even welcome differing interpretations of an archaeological site.

The new school is in part a rebellion against what used to be called the New Archaeology, a movement sparked in the 1970s by Lewis Binford in the United States and the late David Clarke in the United Kingdom. The New Archaeology—which is now usually called processualism, because of its concern with processes of social change—was in turn a reaction against what was seen as the static, unscientific, and speculative approaches of the previous generation of archaeologists. But Hodder and others began to feel that the processualists were focusing too narrowly on questions that could most easily be answered by scientific method, such as adaptation to the environment, economy, and trade, to the neglect of religious and social beliefs. “Humans adapt to their environment partly through system of beliefs or preconceptions of the world,” Hodder says. “Culture and mind contribute something; we don't just respond to the environment the way animals do.”

The debate over these issues often turned acrimonious, with processualists accusing postprocessualists of embracing “relativism” and being antiscience, and the latter countering with charges of “scientism” and “positivism.” More recently, however, the discussion has taken a calmer tone, although there are still occasional flare-ups in the pages of archaeological journals. Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University comments that “processual archaeology had its own rhetoric, and I think the ‘postprocessualists’ have quite successfully deflated a little of that. But that hasn't prevented them from introducing whole balloonfuls of rhetorical wind of their own.”

Hodder is putting a strong emphasis on scientific methods at Çatalhöyük, bringing in dozens of experts who are literally putting the site under the microscope—an approach that some archaeologists take as an ironical indication that he has at last seen the processual light. “Everybody is very impressed with Ian Hodder's descent from the lofty heights of theory to the nitty-gritty of actually getting something done,” says Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego. But Hodder insists that he is using science in a much different way: Rather than focusing only on issues that can be resolved by hypothesis testing, such as the details of economy and trade, he is trying to understand ancient belief systems by using the scientific evidence as pieces of a “jigsaw puzzle” that can never be solved with certainty.

Thus unlike most digs, where excavators excavate and archaeological specialists make short visits to the site or stick to their labs and work on specimens, Hodder has brought in a large team of full-time experts who sometimes work side by side with excavators, interpreting what they see as they go along. Indeed, everyone is encouraged to try to make sense of what they uncover rather than simply collecting data. “People here are pushed to make their own interpretations, to look for patterns,” says team member Nerissa Russell, an archaeologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Hodder fully realizes that excavating the large and well- preserved site at Çatalhöyük is the best chance he will ever have to prove that the postprocessual approach can work. “That's why I am prepared to spend the next 25 years of my life working here,” he says. “This is really a test of whether we can do it.”

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