Civilisation: a reintroduction
David Wengrow (UCL)
Michael Rowlands (University College, London)
Wills G25
Start time:
8 April, 2009 at 9:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel brings together archaeologists and anthropologists to debate the concept of civilisation with particular—but not exclusive—reference to the revitalisation of Marcel Mauss's work on techniques and technology. We welcome concrete case studies as well as more general discussion.

Long abstract:

Renewed interest in Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss's writings on civilisation provides fertile ground in which to explore future relationships between archaeology and anthropology. Civilisations, for them, are complex and integrated systems of social phenomena, differing in extent from clearly bounded political entities (tribes, kingdoms, empires, nations). When plotted on maps (of a kind once common in ethnographic display) their distributions—often composed of quite mundane material practices—supersede political frontiers in time and space. Yet, loosely integrated as they may be, civilisations nevertheless have their own coherence and modes of expansion. Examples might include styles of communication and depiction, technical traits (e.g. the use or non-use of pottery for cooking), but also forms of magic and ritual (e.g. cremation, pilgrimage). Civilisation, then, is like 'culture', but it emphasises the spread of culture. It is like 'society', but it is partial, forcing us to infer how elements of a culture carry with them habits of relating to others, practices and ways of making things, transformed with additions from elsewhere, from other civilisations. It is a grand, but not totalising, concept of social, cultural and material life, forcing us to analyse mixtures. Recent commentaries have done much to situate these theoretical agendas within the disciplinary politics of their time (Schlanger 2006, Marcel Mauss: Techniques, Technology and Civilisation). Our principal aim is to debate what role they might have in revitalising a contemporary dialogue between archaeology and anthropology, or whether they simply mark a return to old-fashioned notions of 'culture areas'?