A little glimpse into Bronze and Iron Age mindsets

A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics

One of the fascinations of history is trying to understand the mind of people who lived long ago, and how the societies they lived in were organised. That’s particularly true of prehistory, when we have no written texts to guide us – just physical objects.

In How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Visions, Patterns and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times, Peter S. Wells uses one of the most original approaches I have come across in trying to understand the minds of Bronze and Iron Age Europe by thinking about the shape of their world.

I came away from it thinking that an awful lot of archaeological theory ignores the fact that the world these objects were used in is very different from our own. For example, Wells stresses how different objects look by lamplight or candlelight compared to under electric light, as we usually see them in the museum. If we’re going to understand how they were used, how they were understood, the social context, you’ve pretty well got to look at them in the same way.

It’s also fascinating to think how few human-made objects Bronze Age people in particularly would generally have come across – and how they would have stood out against the natural environment. One spectacular object would probably have lingered in the mind, been talked about for decades – whereas we’re bombarded with human-made images every second. And before writing, interpretting objects – perhaps an object that arrived from abroad, with little “story” attached to it would have relied on detailed interpretation of the object itself – much as an archaeologist has to do today.

Or think about landscape. Wells says Bronze Age people (probably 98 per cent plus of them) were involved in ploughing, digging, cultivating, harvesting, threshing, making fences, and constructing buildings… They perceived a physical world with a directness and an intensity that most of us can only try to imagine. .. he or she would have seen the features of the landscape – the fields, trees, fixes, and hedges – as a product of intensive labour, direct bodily engagement, and also as a potential source of the raw materials for sustenance and trade.” (p. 38)

He uses the concept of “ecological psychology” – the idea that an individual’s perception is directly dependent upon the environment in which the perception occurs. “We see things by interacting with them – touching them, handling them, carrying them, using them. The same principle that applies to our perception of landscapes … Somethings to act in – to walk-through, to collect wood in, to harvest cereals in.” (p. 23)

I doubt that all of Wells’ conclusions are right, it would be astonishing if they were, but they’re certainly thought-provoking. So he notes that storage jars, one of the main categories of pottery vessels in use in the Bronze Age, at the only one that have a purposefully roughened surface, and the only one where every vessel has a different pattern of ornament. Wells suggests that this reflected household ownership, and possibly even reflected the field from which each part of the harvest came.

Yet this differentiation gradually diminishes during the Early Iron Age, which Wells suggests reflects reduced anxiety about productivity, and an increasing tendency to regard grain and other produce is just a commodity. By contrast cups, one of the other main categories of pottery, started with limited decorative range in the Early Bronze Age, and were generally quite large, but they gradually got smaller and decoration became much more varied, suggesting individual rather than group use. So Wells suggests, a focus on the landscape was gradually shifting to a greater focus on the social.

And he attributes to Joanna Bruck the fascinating idea that “the notion that prehistoric people distinguished between ritual and secular activities in the way that we do is probably wrong…. Deposits such as those with early Bronze Age pottery in pigs in the ground may well have been made in the context of activities that the participants felt would affect the desired outcome – a bitter harvest, a healthy community, protections from raids by neighbours – but they most likely did not conduct the “ceremony” (if we may call it that) in a way that we would consider “ritual”. It was simply the way things were done.” (p. 86)

He also looks at burials, not with the eyes of the archaeologist, but the eyes of the participant in the ceremony that created the display that the archaeologist finds. It is obvious when you think about it, the ancient people weren’t thinking of what we find when we uncovered the graves that they created when they were taking part in a solemn ritual – often involving feasting. Maybe they were thinking about the final image they would leave with, but that would be in the frame of all of the ceremonies that came before.

One of Wells’ particular concerns is explaining the much-debated transition from the Hallstatt Celtic culture to La Tene. He suggests that this came not from simple exposure to the culture of the Greeks and the Mediterranean, but a much broader interaction with ideas and objects, from as far afield as Central Asia and China, that led to “the emergence of a whole new mode of visualisation” (p. 202).

Traditionally this has been regarded as a trend only seen in elite culture, but Wells says that archaeology has found many objects in non-elite settlements and burials, ” and there is a trend today to see burials as community representations rather than the statements about the deceased”. (p. 206)

This isn’t a terribly accessible book; it’s an academic text, written as such and making few concessions to the general reader, but it’s worth hanging in there for the fascinating ideas that you will encounter.

One comment

  • Howard Hill
    April 19, 2013 - 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Ms Bennett, you captured my interest when I saw you on Daily Politics today, Friday, 19 April 2013, and you declared your party’s idea of abolishing unemployment benefits in favour of a ‘citizen’s benefit’, as I should call it. What a wonderful idea, just what a philosopher like me needs. So I sought you out, and this led me to this interesting little item on the nature of the human mind.

    It seems to me that before you can engage in the kind of endeavour that Mr Wells thinks he is engaging in, that you find so interesting, you really ought to know first of all, what the human being is as a natural phenomenon. And when it comes to reaching back into the pre-civilised past, we do indeed have a nice vehicle for doing this. I call myself an atheist philosopher, and I have a very particular philosophical point of view on the nature of the human being. If we look at your summary of Wells’ ideas, we get an impression of the mind as something fluid, that changes over time. Hence you speak of an ‘ecological psychology’. But what I am looking for in your piece, are diagnostic signs of your attitude towards what you think humans are, that is characteristic of our ecological psychology, because I mean to pose a challenge to that attitude, that gets right to its very core. I am looking for signs of your assumption that individuals are the objects of human existence, that persons are human beings, existing as ends in themselves.
    This attitude can be detected in the discussion of the environment as understood in directly personal terms, quoted from Wells, talking about intense labour, and sources of requisites and so on. Then we get this reference to religious versus secular life, regarding Bruck, saying that our dualism in this regard reaches back into prehistory. Now this line is more to my liking, not approval, but it is my area of interest. And then you talk about what ancient people were ‘thinking’ about when they engaged in ritual. That is it, that is enough.

    All that you are discussing here, is redolent with the idea that what matters, what is real, is the culture, not the person. That the person is a carrier of the culture, so that the culture is what is real, and the person is just an agent of the culture. And this is what I have decided is the correct way to understand human beings. The human animal is not the person, such an idea is quite ridiculous when you think about. The human animal is a superorganism, within which the person is but a cell of social being. Ideas are the product of language, with a purely biological function, whereby they create the living form of the human animal, which individuals live within. And this is why the absurdity of religion persists, and persists, and persists, regardless of advances in knowledge, something which cannot be accounted for if we are all individuals living as ends in ourselves, but which is easily accounted for once we understand that knowledge is a biological, not a rational phenomenon.
    Thus when you seek to understand ancient peoples you need to understand that just like ourselves today, they were acting under the influence of a cultural identity programme, and when they followed rituals they were not ‘thinking’ about anything, anymore than we think about anything when we do likewise. No one was thinking about any of these factors you identify with burial the day before yesterday, when they engaged with Thatcher’s funeral. The funeral followed a cultural protocol, and all who saw it, saw what they saw. It was the playing out of a linguistic programme that constitutes the living being of the human superorganism as it exists today. In the future it will be different, not because anyone has decided it should be, or wants it to be, but because the growth of the human animal, occurs through this process of transformation in the linguistic identity programme that we all become inducted into, know it or not, like it or not.
    Unfortunately, I should say, that even if you think I may be expounding something interesting, this factual, scientific, and correct way of understanding ourselves, leads to the most horrific ideas, which I do not shy away from because I am a philosopher, but as a politico, you exist to refute the truth, or to make it. Hence politicians are my least favourite kind of person. But naturally, you are only following the programme, and cannot do otherwise. Although that cooky idea of yours on benefit was radical, well done.

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