ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Civilisation: a reintroduction
Location Wills G25
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 09:00


David Wengrow (UCL)
Michael Rowlands (University College, London)
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Short Abstract

This panel brings together archaeologists and anthropologists to debate the concept of civilisation with particular—but not exclusive—reference to the revitalisation of Marcel Mauss's work on techniques and technology. We welcome concrete case studies as well as more general discussion.

Long Abstract

Renewed interest in Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss's writings on civilisation provides fertile ground in which to explore future relationships between archaeology and anthropology. Civilisations, for them, are complex and integrated systems of social phenomena, differing in extent from clearly bounded political entities (tribes, kingdoms, empires, nations). When plotted on maps (of a kind once common in ethnographic display) their distributions—often composed of quite mundane material practices—supersede political frontiers in time and space. Yet, loosely integrated as they may be, civilisations nevertheless have their own coherence and modes of expansion. Examples might include styles of communication and depiction, technical traits (e.g. the use or non-use of pottery for cooking), but also forms of magic and ritual (e.g. cremation, pilgrimage). Civilisation, then, is like 'culture', but it emphasises the spread of culture. It is like 'society', but it is partial, forcing us to infer how elements of a culture carry with them habits of relating to others, practices and ways of making things, transformed with additions from elsewhere, from other civilisations. It is a grand, but not totalising, concept of social, cultural and material life, forcing us to analyse mixtures. Recent commentaries have done much to situate these theoretical agendas within the disciplinary politics of their time (Schlanger 2006, Marcel Mauss: Techniques, Technology and Civilisation). Our principal aim is to debate what role they might have in revitalising a contemporary dialogue between archaeology and anthropology, or whether they simply mark a return to old-fashioned notions of 'culture areas'?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


On the trail of blue-haired gods: cultural mixing and borrowing in the 'cradle of civilisation'

Author: David Wengrow (UCL)


It was through their gods that the societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia expressed their attachment to land, locality, and place. Yet the earthly bodies of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods were made of similar materials--exotic to both regions--and were nourished in common ways. This paper explores the significance of such mixtures and borrowings in what was once referred to as "the birthplace of civilisation". It does so through the lens of a single substance--the irridescent blue stone, lapis lazuli--which formed a common medium in constructing the very different cosmologies of these two regions.

Pacific connections: from civilisation to technology with André Leroi-Gourhan

Author: Nathan Schlanger (Ecole nationale des chartes, Paris)


The teachings of Marcel Mauss served André Leroi-Gourhan (1911 - 1986) as a point of departure for developing an anthropological or cultural approach to technology that is now prevalent in the French social sciences. In his first decade of research activities (mid 1930's to mid 1940's), however, Leroi-Gourhan was more of an orientalist, focusing on the ethnography and history of art of the arctic and pacific 'culture areas'. Relating this work to the then dominant evolutionist and culture historical paradigms can help us better grasp the shift subsequently undertaken by Leroi-Gourhan from civilisation to technology: from objectified markers or traits to be localised in time and space, techniques became constituent elements of the 'milieu' through which societies interfaced with each other and their environment, and also a quintessential human characteristic as expressed in gesture and speech. Outlining some of the ideological, theoretical and practical underpinnings of these developments (e.g. from cartography to experimentation) can put in perspective the changing relations between archaeology and anthropology during the 20th century, and possibly lead us to new configurations.

Cuisine from the Nile Valley to the Indus. Core areas and crossroads

Author: Randi Haaland (University of Bergen)


The paper explores symbolic uses of food and food related items (pots, ovens, hearths etc.) and the ways theyare embedded in material forms.

My discussions of such symbolic elaborations are based on empirical material from two core regions (The Middle Asian and the African) defined by two different cuisines (the bread/oven cuisine and the porridge/pot cuisine) within the Neolithic period. I shall also discuss relations between these cuisines in their fringes or cross-roads such as: Deccan, Horn of Africa, and Nubia.

My attempt to identify regions by cuisines is related to the conventional culture area approach formulated long time ago by Kroeber. Cuisines appear to have certain time-space continuum in the sense of their long-term and geographical distribution. From this point of view it becomes important to look at the fringes of cuisines where items of different cuisines overlap as well as changes over time.

My focus is on what I call the Middle Asian cuisine (bread/wheat/barley and connected food preparation items) in the larger geographical region (from the Mediterranean to Deccan) within which incremental innovations and development occurred and spread. However, to explore the Middle Asian cuisine I find it necessary to place it in a comparative context of the African cuisine, where African food crops spread across the Indian Ocean during the 4th millennium bp.

Civilising the uncivilised: examining the origins of Indian Ocean civilisation

Author: Nicole Boivin


The Indian Ocean is a maritime body that has long enabled contact, movement and exchange between distant lands and cultures. There is now growing recognition - based, for example, on archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, linguistic and genetic findings - that some of these movements and contacts have significantly more ancient roots than was formerly appreciated. Nonetheless, certain biases, a number of them centred around ideas about 'civilisation', currently hamper understanding of the origins of Indian Ocean prehistory. In the absence of adequate and evenly distributed datasets, ideas about who was civilized and who was not have tended to colour interpretations of early Indian Ocean contacts and movements. This has led to an emphasis on the activities of state-level societies, a focus on particular types of subsistence over others, and a preoccupation with economic at the expense of other catalysts for seafaring activity. A shift from the still common 18th century conception of 'Civilisation' to 'civilisation in the Maussian/Durkheimian sense holds interesting implications for reconsidering the earliest long-distance seafaring in the Indian Ocean, and suggesting new avenues of investigation.

Civilisations as contrasting cosmocracies: West Africa and China compared

Authors: Michael Rowlands (University College, London)
Stephan Feuchtwang (London School of Economics)


Following Mauss, we see civilisations as spreads of styles,distinctions and cosmologies . Whilst they encompass centres, cosmocracies extend beyond them and have their own logics. What these are will be explored through a comparison on case studies in West Africa and China from relative long term perspectives.

Revisiting the Mande: technology,efficacy and transformation

Author: Laurence Douny (University College, London)


By drawing upon studies of technical actions related to building practice and architectural form and space, we propose to examine how a sense of Dogoness is construtced on a daily basis . We argue that the Dogon are shaping and displaying identity that extends to a much wider geographical spread. We consider the value of concepts such as containment and symbolic reservoir and whether material culture rather than linguistic categories offers a more grounded means of exploring variation in space and time and possible relatedness as part of a broader west-central African 'civilisation'.

The technologies of identification as traditional and efficacious actions

Author: Jean-Pierre Warnier (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales)


Mauss defined technology as "traditional and efficacious action (on... whatever it may be)". He included magic and religion within the domaine of technology. This indicates that, in his view, technology could be applied both to material objects and to the subject, alias "homme total". In this scheme, however, I miss a more precise assessment of the mediations of such an "efficacy". One possible mediation (among presumably many other ones) may be found in the capacity of people to identify with material objects and substances. In my presentation, I wish to explore the notion and the mechanisms of identifications, with examples taken from the Cameroon Grassfields. I also wish to show that such identifications are shared by people belonging to many different polities and linguistic communities, thus sketching an unbounded, yet identifiable, 'civilisation'.

Civilisation unbound: relational ramifications in Africa

Author: Knut Myhre (NORAD)


Aspects of Marcel Mauss's work and Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be brought into dialogue to shed light on recent anthropological conceptions of culture and society. Wittgenstein's emphasis on the interrelationships between language, practices, and objects, and Mauss's ideas of techniques and technology, articulate with contemporary concerns for culture and society as unbounded, partial, and heterogeneous entities. In combination, the ideas of Mauss and Wittgenstein can be used to explore the complex relationships between interlocking phenomena of different kinds that ramify across various social domains. Furthermore, they provide intersubjective conceptions of meaning that allows for the tracing of such relational ramifications beyond the boundaries of what used to constitute the ethnographic field context. As such, they enable conceptions of meaningfulness that do not coincide with social, political, ethnic, or indeed linguistic boundaries. In settings where multilingual capabilities are common, and especially where they involve related languages, these issues rise to a heightened concern. By means of ethnographic material from Africa, these ides will be explored in order to suggest a lateral conception of relational meaning that extends through space and recedes toward a geographical horizon. It is also possible to trace such relational ramifications historically toward a temporal horizon, thus allowing for a renewed engagement between anthropology, archaeology, history, and philosophy.

Civilisation and culture: untangling Tylorian roots

Author: Chris Wingfield (University of Cambridge)


Marcel Mauss visited E.B. Tylor in Oxford in 1898 and later claimed to be his disciple. Mauss went on to write that 'The best collections informing on the distribution of ethnographic objects are undoubtedly those of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which E.B. Tylor founded and which Henry Balfour administers.' This paper will consider whether by engaging with Mauss and the French tradition, in relation to the study of civilization, we may also be indirectly engaging with the older pre-Malinowskian tradition of Victorian Anthropology. This tradition placed the museum at the centre of the work of Anthropology. This paper consider the role Tylor imagined for the museum in the study of Civilization and whether this is a role that these institutions are still equipped to fulfill.

This paper will explore what Tylor meant by the term civilisation and how it was articulated in relation to the questions that he thought Anthropology could answer. It will also consider the implications of Stocking's suggestion that Tylor's adoption of the term "culture" owed much to the publication of Matthew Arnold's polemical work Anarchy and Culture. Tylor's tended to pluralise neither term, and this singular and global outlook poses a challenge to contemporary discourse which has increasingly spoken of cultures and civilisations. Tylor's global and historical vision was one that allowed archaeological and anthropological resources to be brought together in an attempt to answer a set of questions about the place of humans in the world.