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Three States of Reality

av Adele Änggård

  1. What is of real value today, when rubbish can be turned into costly art? Or when Stone-Age figurines are so abstract that modern minds find them hard to understand? So much depends on the ‘reality’ of each individual. Such reflections confront us with several unexpected surprises.
Tavla av Greger Elliot. Foto Adèle Änggård

Which history is history?

It is endemic to archaeological records to imply that early Europe (before 5000 BCE) tended to be more egalitarian than later communities. Investigations into this exciting observation abruptly stop there. The theme is never elaborated on, it stays a general observation. Egalitarian Europe was said to have undefended homesteads. Protective walls are not necessary unless there is discord; that came with the introduction of metals. This may explain why an archaeologist, in a recent account of Swedish history from 13000 BCE, appeared to find greater inspiration in describing the introduction of weaponry and strife, from and after the Iron Age, than in exploring the reasons for the earlier more socially egalitarian conditions (Welinder (2010) Sveriges Historia).

The opening chapter is ‘history before history began’ describing Europe 15,000 years ago. Into this arena he sees fit to introduce two men obsessed with war, Caesar and Tacitus, as if they were relevant to the Palaeolithic era, although they lived 13000 years later. The situation is further aggravated by sandwiching tool making in-between Julius Caesar and Tacitus on the one hand and the heroic deeds of kings as found in Ynglingatal on the other. Thereby any alternative reason for making tools in Stone-Age Europe is lost. By implication (although it is never said), the reader is led to believe the manufacturing of stone tools is somehow linked to later weaponry.

This implication gets the reader off to a confusing and misleading evolutionary start. To comprehend the enormous differences in Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic societies from those of today is a colossal challenge for anyone (fig 2). Their disconnection is absolute; symbolic art substitutes writing; reading the heavens replaces clocks and calendars and is responsible for timing local get-togethers; while art suggests gender differences did not exist – that segregation had not been invented (fig 3). This calls for mind boggling social rethinks.

We should be aware a talented writer has enormous control over how facts are presented and understood, as the above comments attempt to show.

Fig. 2 An abstract Swedish clay figurine from Korsnäs, Södermanland, around 2600 BCE, from the History Museum, Stockholm. The present view can be seen as a pig with its snout in the air? However two schismatic animals and a human form can be found by twisting the shape around.

Teckning: Adèle Änggård

Modern society is fraught with warring problems. So why isn’t there a storm of curiosity to know how egalitarianism worked practically 5000 BCE? It has been observed, “European dominant ideology embraces a set of ideas about progress of civilization” (Little 2007:56). Is the historic myth that ‘today is more civilized than yesterday’ on all levels, so deeply ingrained, that present day progress means ignoring positive aspects in our past? An added complication is since the victors often write the history of their time, conquests dominate written records – omitting the reality and living conditions of the conquered.

Such factors – as victor’s written records and the obligatory ‘progress of civilization’ – make judging the past complicated. The more so as society tends to be divided into small water-tight boxes (Little 2007:46). The journalist Walter Lippmann is quoted by Barbra Little as drawing up a list of “acids of modernity”, namely “industrialism, urbanism, science, secularism, and internationalism”.

To this she adds “gender ideology, literacy and religious institutions” (ibid). If these are all segregated areas, it ‘makes a shared history a serious challenge, since the perspectives do not mesh into a single history’ (Little 2007:48).

Fig. 3 Figurine from Ajia Irini, Cyprus around 759 BCE; An animal and double gendered human combined. A cup in the right hand and an animal under the left arm must have has a message, while 20,000 years of dual gendered representation means the breasts and penis are discreet, as routine statements of a double gendered society. Taken from M-L Winbladh (1992:58)

Teckning: Adèle Änggård

Segregation and victor’s views are refuted by comments such as; the “Palaeolithic and Neolithic cultures have essentially been an explicit or implicit celebration of man-the-toolmaker stereotype” (Nikolaidou & Kokkinidou 1998:255); another archaeologist claims, ‘centuries of human being’s historical accounts are little more than advertising the aggrandisement of an elite, recorded by admiring relatives’ (Rathje & Murphy 1992:11, 12). John Chapman sums up by saying the period has been squeezed out, by quoting Philip Marsden on the Stone-Age “Old Europe (has) been caught like a fly and squashed between those yellowing pages … .” (Chapman 1998:295)

Yes! Historical generalisations are questioned today by younger researchers, where inquiries into people’s behaviour open new insights, into the limitations of modern understanding about progress, versus lack of progress, at social levels after 5000 BCE.

Before examining recent research, two very different aspects of modern society – the technical and social – need to be examined. Contemporarily, the two spheres are handled as if they were the same thing, which they are not. Finally I shall argue that the technical (as material) and the social (as mental) have to be synchronised, because they apply to two very different, but equally important, sides of human life.

A technical revolution versus social progress

Technical revolutions – from flints to the discovery of metals and ultimately the atom – should not be confused with simultaneous social evolutions which have taken place, especially as social evolution is necessarily the central core of social stability. Technical evolutions are essentially ‘material’, while social evolutions reflect ‘humanitarian’ community life. Technical evolution has been given priority in the structure of the modern state. Consequently, social development, or lack of it, has been swept along in the wake of technique, to get on as best it can, and not surprisingly has therefore declined.

Since both are essential to the human make-up, ignoring either is fatal. The technical world supplies important historic data: isotopic dating techniques make for scientific accuracy and guides organising the past into chronologically order. Accurate dating of buildings, artefacts, and Mesolithic rubbish dumps (politely called middens), alter our view of social history (Renfrew & Bahan 1991:78). The social is equally vital as the individual is given a mental solidarity, which when it works, anchors people sympathetically into the group as a whole.

By unearthing the lives of ordinary people, archaeology and anthropology give us a new glimpse of our social past. Stone-Age people who functioned without today’s central heating and ready packed foods, meant our ancestors had to maximise cooperation in group relationships, resourcefulness and ingenuity (Opie & Power 2008:168; Knight 2008:61). Characteristic of the early period are thousands of tiny abstract figurines, which symbolically unite animals together with people (fig 4); as well as representing countless forms of gender-unity (Mussi 2001: 263; Jennet 2008:12; Gimbutas 1982; 1989; 1999). Stone-Age art persistently joins things together (Fig 2, 3 and 4). Here today’s social insights terminate “caught like a fly and squashed …” overridden by technology that steams off in another direction.

Research has recognised that when the technical (material) and social (mental) are not in sync, humans are seriously impacted at a mental, behavioural and social level. If society is to be stable, the two areas must be closely synchronised (Little 2007:130). .

Fig. 4 Figurine from Porodin, Central Balkans 6th millennium BCE, is a schismatic portrayal of the human and animal combined. The figurine has a bear’s head, and typically for the period, no legs. Taken from Gimbutas (1982:192)

Teckning: Adèle Änggård

The legacy of what we throw away

What this means in greater detail can be understood from what is called “Present Day Archaeology”. This uses the same methods of enquiry as pre-historic archaeology, but examines evidence from today. This mode of research gives us a more objective and penetrating view of ourselves in the system we have created, by distancing us from present day community life.

By excavating what people discard, and how they react to what they discard,

Present Day Archaeologists are penetrating another aspect of human reactions, not often revealed in research. Studying modern garbage has been said to be ‘not the dreams of discovering spectacular objects’, but rather ‘the bread-and-butter work of archaeology, which investigates the most common and routine kinds of discards’(Rathje & Murphy 1992:10). “Garbage is among humanity’s most prodigious physical legacies, for those who have yet to be born. “If we can come to understand our discards”, it is suggested “we will better understand the world in which we live” (ibid 1992:4). If ‘in the eyes of the future, garbage is destined to hold a key to the past, then surely it already holds a key to the present’ is how the argument is presented (ibid 1992:11).

William Rathje and his team carried out what they called ‘the Garbage Project’ at the University of Arizona in 1973. The subjects were mundane, for example one of them was studying food consumption. Historically it had started in 1942 when researchers discovered that studying military eating habits was strictly taboo. However, they managed to establish, that in spite of high levels of complaint, recruits ate more when they were allowed to smoke in the mess hall, did not have to wait in line, and ate on their own initiative, instead of by command. Sixty percent of kale and spinach went into the garbage can, while ice cream was consumed in almost any amounts (ibid 1992:16,17). The ideas were revolutionary at the time, in their method of relating psychology to the intake of food.

In 1973 more intimate studies of food consumption were undertaken. One section of the investigation was into people’s discards, compared with what they believed they had discarded. They found that when food restrictions are enforced, in reality individuals counterbalance this, by consuming the same ingredients in hidden forms. The ‘good provider syndrome’ was the adult women’s tendency to over-report everything the household uses (Little 2007:130). The rubbish dump also revealed domestically there was an overestimation of the size of the family’s appetite, while personal interviews revealed that family members systematically underestimated the sugar, candy, ice cream and sausages they consumed, while overestimating liver, tuna, vegetable soup and high-fiber cereal (R & M 1992:71).

During a twenty year period of research it became evident how illogical humans are, that memory is notoriously inaccurate. “That while a person’s memory of what he has eaten and drunk in a given week is inevitably wide of the mark, his guess as to what a family member or even neighbor has eaten and drunk usually turns out to be more perceptive” (ibid 1992:25).

When it came to alcohol consumption, the interviews claimed family alcohol habits were less, than those revealed by rubbish dump excavations: the waste revealed a 40 to 60 percent increase (ibid 1992:71); nondrinkers in the household more accurately reported what the drinkers consumed (Little 2007:130).

A baffling result was that men believed they had discarded double the amount of motor oil annually, to the number of oil cans found in the garbage. After puzzling over this result, a possible conclusion was; looking after the car is a masculine stereotype ideal. So to believe ‘he’ had changed the motor oil himself, fitted with living up to a masculine ideal. In reality it was the garage that carried out the job. This suggests stereotyping people fundamentally impacts their relationship to themselves and others.

Dreams of ideals and garbage reality

At first Rathje as project leader, believed he had consciously been given the wrong information – people had lied. With time he came to believe that many individuals are unconscious of what they have done, and actually live parallel lives. There is the person they think they are, which differs from what the garbage shows was their reality. “Syndromes” is the term given to people who extensively misrepresent their own behavior (R & M 2001).

There was something disturbing in the size of the gap between what people believed of themselves and what the garbage dump showed they factually threw away. ‘In either case it provokes important questions about the workings of the human mind’ another researcher concluded (Burström 2007:28).

Barbara Little observes “many archaeologists have often direct and frustrating experience with people’s separate realities” (Little 2007:131). She describes these as three different realities; “a mental, a behavioural and a material” reality. When these three states of existence are not synchronised with each other, community life cannot function smoothly (ibid). “There is a disjunction between the meaning and authority given to evidence” (ibid).

Social life at many levels encourages people not to recognise when their minds are out of sync with social circumstances. The garbage researchers sum-up by saying ‘If we don’t know what we think we know,’ how can we comprehend our defective vision? This not only impairs a rational choice being made, but also frustrates predictable results (Little 2007:132). Little and Rathje agree ‘the relationship between these three separate realities – a material, a mental and a behavioural reality – is very important for behavioural science to address.’ Thus, “only when all of these three realities are in sync with each other, people can plan rational public policies and make rational personal decisions” (Little 2007:131).

The garbage project also revealed, the quantity of toxic discards used in landfills today and that the estimations of the biological speed of the garbage’s disintegration in those landfills were totally mythical (R &M 1992:112). The garbage projects results showed reality was serious distorted. Here was another area where a disproportionate gap was evident between beliefs in human achievement and reality.

If people socially fail to synchronise the material aspects of their lives to their mental and behavioural realities, how can they be biologically accurate? If people live double or parallel lives with regard to their garbage, can we really expect the past or the planet’s ecology to be more realistically addressed? By the very nature of what people are, when out of sync socially, if they cannot relate to the present or future accurately, they cannot logically relate to the past either? A lack of clarity over the historic past was where we started this article and to which we have now returned, with some revealing insights.

Torn asunder from lack of reality

The Mesolithic middens (6000-4400 BCE) made up of mounds of mollusc shells, fish bones and other refuse in Jutland, Brittany and Portugal constitute evidence of communal eating habits. This lies on another social level from the warring human remains Caesar and Tacitus encouraged and saw fit to leave behind them before and after year 0, or even the ideas implied by Snorre Sturlasson’s 13th century Ynglingsaga, written four hundred years after the royal strategic events.

Today’s terrorist bombs and projectiles will hardly leave any better evidence of social harmony behind them, for future excavators to unearth. Nor will the scars left by the two major European conflicts of 1914-18 and 1939-45, whatever the technical advancements. An extended view of this is found in New York’s flattened twin towers; bombed Afghanistan; the concrete mound of Chernobyl; the twisted steel of Fukushima; and the extinction of thousands of animal species. What questions does all this evidence raise about homo sapiens’ social abilities as a successful species?

Will future excavators conclude that 5000 years of social regression led to a loss of empathy, social stability and a surprising lack of practical commonsense? That homo sapiens are out of sync with plant and animal life as a whole, as well as their own more mundane characteristics? Will the conclusion be that homo sapiens belief in technical advancement, has cost the race the ability to synchronise their material with their humanitarian lives?


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Mats Burström (2007) Samtidsarkeologi, Sweden: Studentlitteratur
John Chapman, (1998) The impact of Modern invasions and migrations on archaeological explanation, in Allen et al, (2008) Early Human Kinship From Sex to Social Reproduction, U.K.: Royal anthropological Institute, Blackwell Publishing.
Karen Diana Jennet, (2008) Female figurines of the Upper Paleolithic Texas: Honors Program Texas State University
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William Rathje & Cullen Murphy (1992) Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage; What our Garbage tells us about Ourselves, New York: Harper Perennial.
M. Nikolaidou and D. Kokkinicou ‘Greek Women in Archaeology an Untold Story’, in Margarita Diaz-Andreu and Marie Louise Stig Sörensen, the editors of Excavating Women; A history of women in European archaeology. London and New York: Routlage.
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