Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Myths and Monuments II


In other places there can be a finer balance. The origins of a piece of oral history are typically much more obscure than the historical context of written records or inscriptions. It can be extremely difficult to separate genuine traditions and stories that stretch back over many generations from more modern inventions or infiltrations. In Hawai’i, a very rich oral heritage existed until the early nineteenth century, of which only fragments now survive. Yet in assessing the significance of temple alignments in these islands, some of those surviving fragments may contain vital gems of information. They are of uncertain provenance, so must be used with extreme caution, but one would be unwise to simply ignore them and revert to statistics alone.

Where the only available evidence is archaeological, it is possible to use analogies from different cultures where other forms of evidence exist to suggest interpretations. Thus in the 1970s, the Scottish archaeologist Euan MacKie attempted to use the analogy of Maya society to argue (in support of theories, popular at the time, that many of the British megaliths were high-precision observatories) for the existence of highly skilled astronomer-priests in Neolithic Britain. However, this direct use of ethnographic or historical analogy is generally fraught with problems. Most archaeologists concluded, for a variety of reasons, that MacKie’s efforts were badly misguided. On the other hand, analogies can be very useful in challenging assumptions that might have been made too unquestioningly, and hence in suggesting new interpretative possibilities. It is generally assumed, for example, that any people who observed the changing rising and setting position of the sun on the horizon over the year must have understood that this regulated seasonal events. Yet while it is true that some of the Mursi, already mentioned, track the changing rising position of the sun on the horizon, the MURSI CALENDAR is based upon the moon. The sun is regarded as no more reliable a seasonal indicator than the behavior of various birds, animals, or plants. The Mursi example stops us leaping to conclusions about practices in the past by showing us that the range of possibilities is wider than we might have imagined.

In summary, where we have only archaeological evidence to go on, it may be possible to gain insights into prehistoric worldviews by recognizing symbolic associations in the material record. Analogy may be useful in the process of interpretation, but our conclusions will never be categorical. We can only ever have a certain degree of belief that a specific association had meaning to a particular group of people, although our belief may be strengthened or weakened by further evidence.

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