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A Brief Talk on Cognitive Archaeology


Image (1): Metal-making as a case studied by cognitive archaeologist, Kuijpers (2019). The image here also displays a sense of connectivism and brain plasticity.

This is not an article that offers a fixed answer to ‘What is cognitive archaeology?’. Rather, this is an attempt to bring the theories of Cognitive Archaeology to those who are like me – a complete beginner to cognitive archaeology. Have you, as a reader, ever encountered the term ‘cognitive archaeology’? How should we approach this emerging discipline as a modern citizen? Before we venture to that slippery realm of little-known knowledge, it is important to plan the stage for a ‘confession’ by an inattentive student.

An Optional Class

Out of curiosity, I have signed up to take an optional module taught by a Cambridge-trained cognitive archaeologist. This was, like my two other classmates, the first time where I have come across the discipline of cognitive archaeology. Before the class began, all three of us were very excited about what to expect in class – we got the expectation that we will by the end of the class get a firm grip of what’s cognitive archaeology. Here comes the confession: after enduring the entire Hilary term, I still do not know much about cognitive archaeology. Nevertheless, the ideas are still looping in my brain and I did try to interrogate certain topics as a newb during leisure time, such as the investigation of the potentials of tracing human cognition through the traits in material remains, or the dichotomies between tangible and intangible archaeological data. Indeed, a quote from my instructor will exemplify the on-going status of cognitive archaeology, ‘it is normal to be confused, and it is good that all of you are finding the materials slightly uncomfortable to present on since we, the cognitive archaeologists, are actively challenging the formerly laid theoretical framework. We do not reject mainstream theories, but we do challenge their lenses and try to retrieve things that are not obvious.’

‘Where is my Brain?’

Miss G and Miss A are two intelligent young scholars who happened to be my classmate in the cognitive archaeology classes. Every week, we did an individual presentation on the assigned readings, and the instructor will either comment ‘Very Good’, ‘Good’, or ‘Thank you’ to the quality of our presentation. Apparently, Miss G and Miss A both did quite well and received the most ‘Very Good’, whereas I was by far the top record-keeper of getting the least ‘Good’ comment from the instructor. Anyhow, the trio started a Facebook private group titled ‘Where is my Brain?’- since the discussion of the readings about cognitive archaeology orients greatly to the interrogation of the originality of the human brain and thoughts. One of the most popular topics amongst cognitive archaeologists is the detection of human cognition, in particular on the relationship of the brain with the material world.

Locating human mind through archaeology

One of the many relevant questions that fascinates the author is the ability to pinpoint precisely the location of the human mind. Cognitive archaeologists of the evolutionary stream tend to approach the question through the studying of the size of the human skull, or the neurological communications between various nerves and, in general, the physiological description that are heavily inclined towards biology, science and psychology. But can we, as social scientists, relegate the complexity of human minds into mere neurological activities? And the more important question to archaeologists is: are we missing something in the understanding of the human minds in the current archaeological framework given it is a materially-based one? Could the size of the skull inform us more about what our ancestors think and reason their lives other than their probable physiological development?

Source of Knowledge

Therefore, to locate human mind is not the same as locating the human brain. The brain is often regarded as the physical manifestation of human cognition, but the things that influence how we (and our ancestors) think are, in my opinion, environmentally oriented. There are some classical theories about the human way of reasoning, where our knowledge of the world is, for example, in Platonic term, the ‘Forms’ that existed innately in the human mind and that we are always in the process of retrieving the pre-existed conception of forms, rather than theorizing them through external, physical engagements. In Cartesian term, too, knowledge is derived from the human mind and they are separated from the body (see body-mind dualism in Descartes’ Meditations). However, the critical flaw in such theorizing of the human mind is that human is in essence social animal, and that we are living in a relational world which could be linked in a casual manner. In other words, we experience the world not entirely through preconditioned forms, but also through our senses and our ever-changing plasticity in the brain/cognition. More importantly, these environmentally-influenced negotiations between human thoughts and archaeological remains signal that we, the humans, do not necessarily determine the entire ‘making’ of the world through preconceived ideas in our brain, hence archaeological objects are not always human-made, but existed as part of the cumulative culture of trans-human, trans-nature and all that existed within the ecological world (note: perhaps in later writing I shall speak more of Tim Ingold, which I have just submitted an assignment about the scholar’s theory on a relational ecology).

Why should I care about cognitive archaeology? Tell me the beef

At this point, some of you might be complaining: ‘I am just a citizen with no intention to dive into the arena of theoretical debates’ or that you find this still ‘too theoretical’, and ‘see no practical usage in the application of the theories in the archaeological context’. All are valid critiques – these were also some of the many criticisms the author has for cognitive archaeology during class (how dare you, Jay), but there could be some examples that help in realizing the potential value of cognitive archaeology.

Image (2): This is a to-do list of the author. It exemplifies the purpose of writing from a cognitive archaeological perspective: do we write down things to remember, or to forget? Do you write things down because you could remember better, or do you write it down so you can forget it and refer to it later? Similarly, is an inscription on a tomb a display of their willingness to remember things as collective memory, or as mere ‘notepad’ mnemonic tool marking down histories that are otherwise not intended to remember by the people living in those times?

(1) Writing to remember?

Imagine, you are making a shopping list now, listing out all the grocery items you will be purchasing. Do you do it because you will then be able to remember them? Or do you do it so that you can forget it and later refer to the note that you created? Applying this same principle to archaeology suggests that some of the written descriptions in monumental sites could be a strategy for our ancestors to forget history, rather than to remember them. This then links back to the interrogation of the human brain – whether archaeological remains possess mnemonic values and then consistently interact with our thoughts. We are, in the traditional framework, so obsessed with the idea that the inscriptions in the tomb or on a piece of archaeological remains might shed light on the thoughts and cultures of ancient civilizations. We always assume that the value of inscription is to let people in future generations to read them, and then to tell us plainly about the previous lives of humans. But what about things that are deliberately omitted from the description? What are the reasons that govern the craftsmen in writing more about the prosperity of their kingdom (or to smear their rulers, in some cases)? More intriguingly, it is worth debating whether we write to remember or write to forget. Apart from commemorating the event, do they inscribe the event for alternative purposes as well?

(2) The speaking object?

Another layer to apply the theories of cognitive archaeology is somewhat more straight forwarded, citing Gosden’s question, ‘what do object want?’, in his infamous essay published in 2005 on the repositing of object biographies over human biographies. It posits objects, or archaeological remains, as not static but constantly evolving, ‘thinking’ things. This could be simplified into the Kafkaish story of the Travelling Doll, where the doll was said to have left the little girl to venture around the world and, when the girl grew up, the doll ‘returned’ in a ‘different form’. If we apply this ‘travelling doll’ to the context of cognitive archaeology, archaeological objects or materials are seen as having the potential of determining their form and style, as well as their interaction with the world. For example, a ceramic sherd found in the Majiayao period in Northwest China, over time it will ‘move’ alongside its environment, which included human activities but not essentially just human who determines its entire movement. It is also valid to consider the oxidized layer of the ceramic as a process of transformation over time given its exposure to carbon dioxide and various temperatures, which again is beyond the control of humans. The ceramic sherds, which was formerly intact, is another layer to the interactions it has with its environment and human might not always be the presumed contributor or ‘maker’ of the current state of these objects. More crucially, these negotiations between humans, living organisms, and the cosmic elements that are not necessarily tangibly detectable are always in constant dialogues – no one object is the same object over time and space.

Wrapping Up

This is worth mentioning that this is by no means all aspect to the emerging discipline of cognitive archaeology. Going back to the confession mentioned at the beginning – I might be a confused student, but like many others who are new to cognitive archaeology, being confused is always better than being reluctant to accept alternative interpretative layers. In a sense, being confused is also how we are, as inquisitive individuals, getting our motivation to venture to new pathway towards the pursual of knowledge. Let’s hope I will be able to return with another piece about the ecological approach or the material engagement theory celebrated by cognitive archaeologists.

Some further read:

The Travelling Doll – a good read to those who love stories

‘What do object wants’ – on repositing Object

‘What did Mary Know?’ – on Knowledge Argument


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