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Memory: An Archaeological Reading


My memory of Tibet is mainly configurated through ‘smell’ instead of mere visibility. Here is a photo of Yerpa, one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet, Lhasa, taken in 2019 by the author during a fieldtrip towards the Everest basecamp.

As a further essay on my previous article about cognitive archaeology , it is worth emphasizing again that the discipline is an emerging one transgressing anthropology, history, archaeology, psychology, philosophy, and many subjects beyond the social sciences. This week, I seek to critically analyze the relation between memory and material culture.

As a student with the intention to understand this rising field, I am at first intrigued by the proposition that cognitive archaeology exceeds the evolution of mere brain structures and that the fragmented traces of how human thinks, in particular the formation and transmission of memory, could be detected through material culture.

The Position of Cognitive Archaeology

Before we delve into the critical discussion of the relation between memory and material culture, let us indulge into the issues of how we could position cognitive archaeology, an emerging sub-discipline categorically under the discipline of archaeology. It is important to emphasize, firstly, that this essay takes on a cognitive archaeology point of view, where core questions, particularly on human’s capacities for anticipation, abstraction, and symbolization, and even more so in the development of human’s cognitive skills in relation to the materials they engage with across time and space, are being posed. This orientation (and arguably an obsession) towards the human minds and its capacity for various cognitive extensions and mental processes, therefore, makes cognitive archaeology a sub-discipline upholding a viewpoint that materials in the past could shed lights on how human think and remember in retrospect (and arguably, at present, due to the possibility of cumulative culture, see Bender, 2020).

Wynn, de Beaune and Coolidge and other evolutionary cognitive archaeologists tend to emphasize cognitive archaeology as an approach to the portals of connecting prehistoric objects with prehistoric minds, such as the ability to preview and design the making of stone tools in relation to the development of hominins’ brain. However, the essay’s intention is to refrain from limiting the potentials of cognitive archaeology to mere investigation of the composition of prehistoric minds and evolutionary concerns – there are plentiful writings existed on this neurological and corporeal interpretation of human memory, and the essay argues, through the critical evaluation of the nature of relations between human memory and material culture, more insights could be gathered on how objects and people interplay alongside memory and what this could signal to cognitive archaeologists. It goes without saying, at last, that cognitive archaeologists refer to, and occasionally reorganize and even revitalize, theories and ideas from other social sciences and arts’ subjects, which makes cognitive archaeology a cross-disciplinary subject by nature.

Vastness of Memory

Depending on the disciplines, scholars come up with definitions that fit into the framework laid within their fields and disciplines of studies. There is no one single definition that caters to all aspects of ‘memory’, so the essay now offers some tentative interpretations as reference to potential future discussion between human memory and artefacts.

According to Bloch (2012), a psychologist tends to view memory as ‘internal individual processes of the nervous system’, but for an anthropologist, or a social scientist, memory extends beyond the human mind and could be reflected in actions, materials, and trans-human interactions. Memory is commonly regarded as a form of storage of human experiences, just as Jones (2007) describes in the first chapter of his book, that we tend to believe that we mentally store our experiences as memories. He mentions how human memories are corruptible since ‘memories are easily forgotten, and the retrieval of memories, through the act of remembering, is inexact and faulty.’ 

Forgetting

This mentioning of the forgetting of memories by Mines and Weiss back in 1993 deserves further justification: that it could happen ‘easily’ if it is unintentionally forgotten, but arguably harder if it is intentionally, such as the deliberate omission of family histories in normal conversation within some fishing communities in Malaysia, or the ‘benevolent colonizer’ transforming Hong Kong from ‘nothingness’ to a financial hub and the deliberate lack of reference to old economic networks and values prior to the colonization.

Meanwhile, this deliberate forgetting might signal manoeuvrability of memory – Duffy, in his archaeological essay on the Ayshire’s standing stones within the two burial sites, talks about the invoking of past and present through memories of the burial rituals, conventions of the placement of tomb covers as well as the orientation of the tombs in relation to their memories over ancestral linkages. This implies two possibilities on the notion of memory in the context of archaeology: one, memory could be invoked and retrieved from the material remains; two, human could manoeuvre, either partially or fully, the curation of memory through material culture. This emphasis on the curatorial of memory is also closely affiliated with the idea that memory is a social construct, even if they are not explicitly expressed. It is also a field of study to psychologist, termed ‘memory implantation’ in research done to show how a ‘false’ memory, or memories that never happened or experienced, could be inserted to the human brain.

Types of Memory

Another layer to memory could be related to the kinds of memory – there exists more than one kind of memory, as most social scientists would agree. It could be working memory, synonymous with ‘short term memory’ and ‘procedural memory’; and long term memory, episodic memory and autobiographical memory; and even collective memory, or ‘social’ memory. It is essential to know, firstly, that these identified memory types are by no means segregated from each other – they are most likely fragments of knowledge, which can be the experience itself or the unexpressed ideas, that are all interwoven and connected like a web of networks. Secondly, being connected does not equates to linear storage as well. This is, in other words, a theory of ‘connectionism’, where it is important than anthropologists are aware of the connectivity of different kinds of memory due to plasticity of human brains. This also led to the proposal that it is very unlikely for different kinds of human memory to be stored in a linear or even ‘organized’ manner; but rather as a complex networks of senses, intentionality, moods, and mode of transmissions.

Why archaeologists need to be aware of the configuration of memories?

Essays that are as short as this will not be able to answer this question in the fullest extent. But the essay agrees to the preposition that the study of human memory shed lights on an alternative method in the interpretation of current archaeological remains. Most are sceptical about how this complex web of networks between material culture and human memory aid archaeological discovery. I reckon that although at present this awareness of the material-memory intricacy might not yield any immediate and materialized outcome in traditional archaeological endeavours, but with this emphasis of seeing material culture as an active and fluid modes of ideas that are not necessarily a reflex or carrier of mere human ideas, material objects are no longer a passive ‘thing’ and they could potentially possess their own meanings in their materiality and physicality (such as their natural colour, influenced by the atmospheric circumstance and nature, as well as their status of survival, etc) that are then fragmentedly being impressed and reconfigured within the human minds – this is critical in the revelation of the role of human, intentionality and interpretation of the material world. How things shape our memory also influence how we make things through memory. 


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