Thursday, 23 February 2012

Touchstone Thursday: W. W. Taylor's Old Wine and New Skins: A Contemporary Parable

Before the Subversive Archaeologist, before Shanks and Tilley, before Ian Hodder, before Michael Schiffer, before Lew and Sally Binford, there was W. W. Taylor. 
[Who let those owls in here?] 


This Thursday's touchstone is an article he wrote for an anthology published in 1968, called Contemporary Archaeology: A Guide to Theory and Contributions, edited by Mark Leone. And just so you know. Even though I began studying archaeology only two years after its publication, I didn't encounter that volume until the mid-80s. So, no shame if you haven't seen this until now.
     In 'Old Wine and New Skins: A Contemporary Parable,' Taylor refers frequently and substantially to his earlier monograph, A Study of Archaeology (1948), which was never widely accepted. The traditional archaeologists ignored it (those against whom Lew Binford railed), and the New Archaeology eschewed it in favour of a scientistic approach that sought grander outcomes than those they thought Taylor's 'historical science' called for (too 'particularistic,' as Lew would have said). Indeed, such was Taylor's influence that most archaeologists practicing in the late twentieth century had never heard of him, much less read him. 
     Without asking you to find a copy of A Study of Archaeology and read it (it's a slim volume and wouldn't be onerous to ask, but just the same), I'm suggesting instead that you have a look at Taylor's reflections, written in 1968, which recall his original work and juxtapose it against the New Archaeology of the time. I think you'll agree that Taylor's wisdom, virtually ignored twenty years earlier, eerily prefigures the reaction against processualism--what the New Archaeology came to be called when it was no longer 'New'--that became post-processualism--almost single-handedly engineered by Ian Hodder. Reading 'Old Wine' again, it's easy for me to view it as if the patriarch of anthropological archaeology is trying to herd his cats get his twenty-year-old children to share with one another and do so productively and amicably.
     I imagine there are many among you who 'grew up' hearing that culture was [humanity's] extrasomatic means of adaptation [like me]. There'll be as many who've learned about 'contextual archaeology' and more. And there'll be some who've embraced a fuller set of goals than that promised by either. I think Taylor's work demonstrates that there has been a coherent aim in late twentieth-century archaeology, despite the tendency of many of its practitioners to advocate for one, and one only way (their way or the highway) of attaining its anthropological goals.
     Don't skim this paper. Every bite needs to be chewed 32 times to extract the maximum nutritional value. Only then, I think, will you come to realize what a giant W. W. Taylor was.

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