Posted by: Johan Normark | July 29, 2009

Non-Mayanist quote of the day: on origins

“The search for the Logos keeps the same research questions in motion that not only constrict the relevance of society in early prehistory, but which also act to maintain our own perceptions of the role and place of the West in the world, together with social and political aspects in our own society. It is no coincidence that the loss of Europe as the primary cultural reference through colonialism resulted in the birth of ethnology and, of course, the Paleolithic…” (Gamble and Gittins 2004:108).

There are two reasons for my choice of quote. One reason has to do with a recent find of very old pottery in a cave in the Hunan province, China. It is between 17,500 and 18,300 years old and at an instant moment it has been labeled the oldest pottery known. I do not doubt this, but finds like this raises several issues, such as where did ceramic production origin (both in time, place, and in what kind of social context). Hence we run into the problems of origins, a topic I have touched upon before when I mentioned the investigations of the origins of the Kaan kingdom at Ichkabal.

The second reason for my choice is the comments I received from the reviewers of my upcoming article in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. One reviewer was concerned that my neo-materialist framework felt far removed from the ancient Maya. Another reviewer felt that my non-human-centered approach was not in line with an anthropological archaeology (this is basically the same critique). I partially agree with both reviewers but that was the whole idea of the article.

Gamble and Gittens use Derrida’s concept of logocentrism. In Greek, logos means thought, speech, account, meaning, reason, proportion, principle, standard, and of course logic. Logos also figures as the root for the suffix -ology, such as in archaeology. Logocentrism concerns the discourse that is based on foundational metaphysical ideas, such as truth, presence, identity, and origin. I have mentioned Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence before. This critique basically means that we rely on a static presence of a timeless and essential entity (“being”) that we depend upon in our analysis. The entity is believed to remain stable even though its content has a tendency of becoming something else.

Logocentrism more specifically concerns the idea that all signification is indeterminate and meaning cannot be frozen, it cannot remain static and stable. Archaeology is logocentric since it is a metaphysical construct that does not exist beyond our language and signification. No humans, no archaeology. Gamble and Gittins argue that the Paleolithic implies a search for the point of origin from where unequivocal meaning is possible. Central ideas, like Culture, are created and these have the effect of making the whole structure natural since it is given a center, a point of reference and origin. But this center is impossible and therefore it is a nonexistent point of truth.

Culture is this nonexistent point of truth. It is a fluffy word that appears to relate to a something real but no one can really say what it is. It for sure cannot be pointed out as a single object. Still, archaeologists argue and debate as if this center actually exists since we have a need to secure our authority. Hence we will continue to repeat the same arguments again and again since it provides coherence and security. Instead of questioning our academic practice we have created a metaphysical system that only support predetermined values and truths. The questions we ask actually predetermine the answers we give. If we search for cosmological patterns we will for sure find them.

This is quite similar to the idea of the master-signifier that determines everything within the arborescent structure of thought in Deleuze and Guattari’s work. As said before, this center of security, the master-signifier is the concept of Culture. Therefore we search for the origins of cultures, of cultural practices like pottery making, and of ancient dynasties within the Maya culture. We do this in order to confirm our metaphysical system. Here it becomes obvious that my neo-materialist approach does not confirm the secured metaphysical system of Mayanist studies. The reason why my article feels removed from the ancient Maya is because the prevalent models of the ancient Maya are deeply intertwined with the essentialist culture concept. It for sure will appear as if it has been written by someone not well acquainted with the Maya culture. If I add cosmological metaphors, ethnographic analogies, etc. into the text the readers will feel more secure and see it as anthropological archaeology. But that is not my chosen path in academia. It will not settle for a place of secure origins. I will for sure hear that my own approach is filled with origins and security as well. But at least they will be different from the ones I criticize.

Gamble, Clive and Erica Gittins (2004). Social archaeology and origins research: a Paleolithic perspective. In A Companion to Social Archaeology. Lynn Meskell and Robert W. Preucel (eds), pp. 96-118. Malden, MA: Blackwell.



  1. The oldest pottery known is the Incipient Jomon from Japan with the rounded bottoms. Although this find is still fascinating.

  2. I am no expert on east Asian pottery but I find these discoveries very interesting. The oldest Jomon pottery is 16-17000 years old according to the article that I link to. Is there any older Jomon pottery than the authors of the article is unaware of?


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