Finding the right words

Cave painting.
Communication can be a complex business. Figure from the cave of El Castillo, Spain.

I love writing, I love playing with words to make them sound right and convey meaning. But I’ve become increasingly aware that the way I hear them inside my head, and the meanings I am trying to communicate, may not be same as the meanings and sounds received by those who read them.

There has been an interesting debate over the use of the word ‘ancestor’. I have to confess that I love the word ancestor. Not only does it sound nice, but it ties us back to the past, to those I study. I’ve used it a lot. But perhaps I have been sloppy. I have come to realise how the understanding I have of ‘ancestor’ is a very privilaged one. I have never had it turned against me. Coming from a family who have set down roots (and uplifted them) around the world, I have also developed a loose appreciation of ancestor and place.

When I say ‘our prehistoric ancestors’, I’m not thinking of a direct blood lineage, I’m thinking of a shared experience in inhabiting a place. Even with that in mind, I realise that I am making all sorts of assumptions. I am, for example, assuming that I have a right to feel at home in a place. I’m also assuming that my love of place is the same as a hypothetical love of place that may (or may not), have existed among the prehistoric communities several millennia ago. Perhaps they hated the hills and coasts of their homeland. Perhaps they were starving, or cold, or threatened in some other way, and wished only for a safe haven somewhere else. And even where we might share an appreciation of location, it is likely to be based on very different needs and values.

For me, using the word ancestor has always emphasised the links, the humanity, of past communities. I see it as a reminder that they were people just like us and with needs and fears, just like us. I have argued that you do not need to be a blood relation of those who built, or used a stone circle, to have a commonality of purpose when you visit it today in order to rebalance your life and regain some inner peace, or even just because it is there and people tell you to go see it! You don’t even have to be of close family heritage, if you live in a place, and love it and regard it as home.

But of course, I have never spelt this out, or discussed it in detail with others. And now I find that, though I might use the term ancestors to be inclusive, and to demonstrate a shared heritage, many see it as exclusive, a sign of divisive heritage. It has been used to exclude people.

It is a bit depressing, though also a reminder that we can all be naïve. We need to be careful how we communicate. It is also a reminder of the way in which we can all bend words to meanings that suit us, while others stick to more literal definitions to guide them. Of course, the meaning of words is always changing, but new meaning has to become generally accepted by a wide community before we can use it without definition.

I’d love to reclaim ‘ancestor’ but I fear that day may be a long way off.

In a way, this is all part of a movement which I have recently been trying to follow (albeit in a desultory way). Decolonising Archaeology is (to me) about becoming more aware of our subconscious biases, the inherent contradictions of our words, and the work of others. A good example would be the (hypothetical) instance where a radical new discovery in some remote desert is trumpeted in the British press, only for local archaeologists to point out that it has long been under investigation by other academics. It happens. One thing we do share with people around the world (and in earlier times) is our interest in the remains of past communities and also our ability to study them. It has been going on, the world around, for generations. In the west, archaeology has a long history of ‘drop in and dig’. It was a staple of my archaeological education. Whether working on a remote island, or in an exotic rainforest – there can be good reasons to bring in outside experience, but they are never reasons to exclude local wisdom. Today, I hope, we are more collaborative and inclusive of the contributions of others.

Another example could lie in the words we use to describe earlier lifestyles. It is surprising how many publications still discuss stone tool technology as ‘primitive’ or ‘simple’, when it involves a long chain of complex decision making that few of us could achieve today. Just as the officers and crew of HMS Beagle were not able to recognise the success of the sophisticated lifestyle of the communities they observed along the straits of southern Patagonia because the measures by which nineteenth century Londoners judged ‘civilisation’ did not work in the conditions of Patagonia, so it is impossible for us to assess past lifestyles. We should avoid qualitative language.

Archaeology has grown in so many ways. Its roots are complex, and in Britain they include elements of evolutionary and colonial thought that I’d prefer not to be associated with today. I can’t deny them. But I can try to make sure that I have moved beyond them. My archaeology is, I hope, wider, more thoughtful, and more inclusive than it has been for many in the past. Just as I now work to communicate to everyone, not just fellow academics, so I am also trying to learn to be aware of the pitfalls of the written word.

Archaeology in the twentieth century has its own, contemporary, hurdles, and some can be tied with those of the past. Our worship of hyperbole at the expense of reality, for example, may help us to finance or publicise our work, but can also serve to emphasise the contribution of western teams at the expense of local experience. How many of us work in areas where we do not understand the language?

We have become a bit more reflexive. Self-assessment is taught in school and at university. It is an important skill, and one we should try not to drop as we get older, though the results can be disturbing. For me, I am hoping that it is not too late to teach an old dog new tricks. I still aim for wide communication, and I would love to be inclusive, but maybe I need a bit more help and discussion than I thought. I think it will still be fun!