On January 28, I was fortunate to attend the London Society of Antiquaries Tercentenary lecture No. 3, The Dawn of Civilization, by Professor Lord Renfrew at the Royal Museum of Scotland. The lecture was followed by a reception at Old College, the University of Edinburgh. It was extremely well attended (which was no surprise, given the speaker!) and there were over 250 people in the audience.
Lord Renfrew has recently published a book on the same subject entitled: Prehistory: the making of the human mind (see Books in CA 216 for a full review), and he articulated many of the central themes of the book in his lecture. How can we understand the minds of our ancestors through archaeology? Renfrew also explored new thinking on the whys and wherefores of the move to settled, agricultural societies (sedentism) and how this stimulated the development of luxury goods as status markers. If we accept that the ‘out of Africa’ dispersal happened 60,000 years ago, why did it take relatively modern behaviours so long to develop (the Sapient Paradox), including material engagement/new relationships with material culture, as evidenced by the sedentary revolution?
Touching on many of the dates that revolutionised archaeological practice and theory, Renfrew’s push for the future is towards a more comprehensive, comparative archaeological framework. He is adamant that the way ahead is more coherent strategies for comparing the massive amounts of information we are compiling on ancient civilisations. He also strongly believes in cognitive archaeology, and thinks that it is clear that we are entering a phase in the discipline where we have to work harder at the archaeology of human thought. In this model, the brain and the body should not be viewed separately; aspects of philosophy, sociology and even neurophysiology will be essential to archaeological work in the future.
Quite encouragingly for those of us in the room in thick of our careers, Professor Lord Renfrew closed with the statement that ‘…the era of great discoveries is not over…’ and thus, sent us all back out in the world determined to be a part of whatever great discoveries are yet to come.
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