My friend Duncan Miller is an archaeologist specialising in early Southern African metal-work, and it is through him that I became interested in archaeology. He also introduced me to the atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust which exists in that field, and which runs like a dark thread through much of science. The reason for this is the possibility that scientists will break the rules of the discipline, disguising false science as true and in so doing destroy the compact of trust which is the necessary condition of their cumulative endeavour.
If we are to accept David Morris’ dictum that archaeology proceeds from the present, which it uses to explain the past, and that religion, or at least historically-based religions from the Middle East, hope to explain the present in terms of a narrative situated in the past, then we can see that as soon as the scientist steps out of the present, away from the accurate observation of actual data, he or she enters a realm of hypothesis, which shades off into speculation, which in turn blends into religious, flaky or dodgy territory, according to the predispositions of whoever makes the judgement. This puts the scientifically inclined archaeologist in a difficult place, for there is a constant call to go beyond the immediate facts and construct a narrative that contains them. The people who draw the most vituperation in the archaeological field are those who believe in a story before encountering the facts, and who then attempt to shoehorn them into their pre-existing account, or even change any data that might be inconvenient. Outright fraud also seems to stem largely from people trying to prove a point, cleaving to a story of the past that will explain the present.
Archaeologists must face a choice when publishing: some archaeological publications as dry are as the dust that their authors have analysed. Others, more readable, have succumbed to the attractions of narrative. Each scientist, however, is a human with a mind that seeks pattern, and each is inevitably engaged in the construction of a narrative of their own – one which, they feel, satisfies both their sense of history or pre-history, and which, in some sense, fits the data. But at the same time they must distrust everybody else’s narrative. The data, the artefacts that they study, are after all ancient orphans. In claiming paternity over and speaking for them, the archaeologists might really be speaking about themselves. This necessary mutual distrust has had the effect of stripping down the accounts that they give of how humans once were – richer and more exotic notions are necessarily lopped off. Nothing weird.
But this does not accord with my experience, which tells me that humans are weird, that the things they get up to are strange, inscrutable, rife with coincidence and the raw experience of the numinous, and that they are strung together in not just one, but an inconceivable number of narratives, most of them religious or uncanny.
Archaeologists face, too, the fact that almost everything is broken, destroyed without trace, re-absorbed into the great cycles of life and forgotten, along with the weird narratives that impelled them. Like the rondavels at Luitingh’s Guest Farm or the paintings shown at the Lidchi gallery in August 1955, things, dispersed by entropy, have scattered beyond trace. The few that are somehow preserved present only the thinnest threads in what must have been a rich and very complicated tapestry of tales.