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A Companion to Archaeology

Edited by John Bintliff

Copyright 2004, 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Archaeological Perspectives on
Local Communities
Fokke Gerritsen

Introduction longer shelf-life in archaeological practice?

I have little doubt that it will keep a place in
The study of small social formations, while analysis and interpretation, and believe that
by no means a new area of archaeological this is a positive thing. But I equally feel that
interest, has been embraced with renewed in order for the field to retain its current
enthusiasm in the last decade. In particular, vigor it is necessary to look critically at the
household archaeology is acknowledged as a directions that have been taken recently and
certified field of research, both in proces- identify areas that are neglected or remain
sual and postprocessual archaeology (see under-theorized.
Hendon 1996 for a review of household This chapter is intended as a partial con-
archaeology debates up to the mid-1990s; tribution to such an evaluation. It is partial
Allison 1999). The archaeology of commu- because it is based mostly on literature con-
nities has not had the same recognition and cerning prehistoric agricultural societies in
the field is presently amorphous and little Western Europe. To a lesser extent the chap-
theorized. A recent edited volume is a rare ter takes an outsiders look at developments
attempt to date to address the topic through in North American archaeology. Moreover,
theoretically informed case studies (Canuto I do not claim to be in any way exhaustive in
and Yaeger 2000). my treatment of the theory and empirical
In this chapter I want to take a closer look potential of communities. By and large,
at the archaeology of communities (not to be I will not deal with matters of methodology.
confused with community archaeology, While the chapter touches on developments
which normally refers to the area of public before the 1990s, it is not meant as a histor-
archaeology that aims to engage contempor- ical overview of the archaeology of settle-
ary communities with their archaeological ments or communities.
heritage). Are we dealing with one of the A general trend in the social sciences of
numerous themes that have been presented perhaps the last thirty years or so is to critic-
in recent years as new and important, have ally rethink and often deconstruct conceptu-
made a brief appearance on the catwalk, alizations of social groups, be they nation,
only to fall out of fashion even before their ethnic group, society, kin group, community,
empirical potential was thoroughly ex- or even household. Generalizing greatly,
plored? Or does it have the ingredients for a one could say that this involves viewing

Fokke Gerritsen

social groups no longer as bounded units

characterized by shared cultural norms. Recent Trends in Household
Instead, notions of overlapping, cross- Archaeology as a Comparison
cutting, and non-discrete networks of social
relations are considered more pertinent Why do archaeologists feel that it is neces-
(e.g., Anderson 1991; Kuper 1992; Hannerz sary to theorize small social formations? This
1992; Hutchinson and Smith 1996). Identity, may appear a superfluous question: is there
both of individuals and collectives, has any topic that would not benefit from being
become a key concept. Groups mark them- thought and written about at a theoretical
selves through the construction of symbolic level? But the question is relevant in another
boundaries, but these are highly permeable sense. The motivations to investigate, not
and temporal. That is to say that boundaries only empirically, but also theoretically,
are felt to exist as they are constructed or small social formations provide insights
maintained, but can be ignored in other situ- into why some themes are currently ad-
ations (Cohen 1985). Boundaries can serve dressed, as well as why others are not being
to hide internal contradictions and conflict, addressed. For the reasons mentioned, it is
emphasizing differences between insiders easier to characterize ongoing developments
and outsiders rather than between group in household archaeology than in the archae-
members. Also common is the notion that ology of the community. It is instructive to
social relationships within groups, down to look briefly at the motivations that have led
those within the household, are political in archaeologists in recent years to study house-
nature. holds, as there are parallels and contrasts
Archaeology has picked up on this re- with debates on communities.
thinking of social groups, but to different Household archaeology as it arose within
extents regarding different social collectives. processual traditions in the 1970s and 1980s
Many archaeologists have abandoned the was prompted largely by interest in socio-
normative understanding of archaeological economic and ecological issues, leading to
cultures as bounded, cohesive entities based the development of themes such as house-
on shared material culture, customs, and hold composition and organization, subsist-
beliefs. Recent approaches to ethnicity in ence and ecological relationships, and
archaeology emphasize its situational mean- household-level specialization (e.g., Flan-
ing and the importance of origin myths. nery 1976; Wilk and Rathje 1982; Wilk and
The concept of ethnogenesis is used to study Ashmore 1988; cf. Allison 1999: 12, 89).
ethnicity as a historical process (Jones 1997; One of the attractions of the household for
Derks and Roymans, in press). When it issues such as these is that it can relatively
comes to smaller social formations (i.e., easily be modeled as a building block of
households and local communities), there larger social and economic systems. As
is a remarkable divergence in the way in Wilk and Rathje (1982: 61718) state,
which archaeologists have incorporated households are social groups that articulate
ideas from the social sciences. Household directly with economic and ecological
archaeology has developed new ways of processes and therefore provide a level of
thinking about the constitution and social analysis between individual artefacts and
relationships of the domestic group. Archae- grand narratives. Their behavior can be
ologists studying local communities and archaeologically delineated and monitored
the settlement spaces they inhabit are just as a result of the domestic, architectural set-
now beginning to engage in debates ting of many of the households activities of
regarding the theoretical underpinnings of production and consumption. Many studies
their field. of settlements and village communities start

Perspectives on Local Communities

(albeit often implicitly) from the same prin- women on the one hand and to expose and
ciples. At a larger scale, the settlement is also redress androcentric views of the past on the
thought about as a socioeconomic unit other. It contains the minimum unit of social
within a regional or supraregional system of reproduction, and as such the presence of
interaction. The local community is also en- women is guaranteed (Tringham 1991:
visaged as a unit that can be equated with an 101). Ethnographic cases almost invariably
archaeologically definable spatial correlate, bring out the significance of women in many
in this case usually the site or settlement of the domestic activities of production, con-
territory (e.g., Kolb and Snead 1997). sumption, and socialization. Moreover, con-
More recently, alternative approaches to trary to views that emphasize the social and
the study of small social formations have economic unity of the household, gender
been developed. The household is felt to be studies have stressed the political nature of
a salient context of analysis because it offers domestic relationships (Yanagisako 1979;
possibilities to provide a theoretically Hendon 1996: 467).
informed counterweight against an archae- Finally, one can distinguish reasons to turn
ology focusing on processes, systems, and to households based on the theoretical argu-
social evolution. Big stories about social ment that archaeology needs to develop ways
and cultural change almost by definition to deal with human agency. Practice or struc-
refer to temporal and spatial scales that turation theory now informs many forms of
would have been meaningless to the people archaeology and, for better or worse, it has
involved in those changes. An archaeology of been claimed to be the main source of theor-
everyday life allows the archaeologist to nar- etical inspiration since the general demise of
rate smaller stories. The household provides systemic models (Dobres and Robb 2000).
an obvious context of research from this At least at a theoretical level, agency is
point of view, since the majority of a (prehis- generally ascribed by archaeologists to all
toric agricultural) societys population socialized human beings in a society. This
would have spent most of their time being promotes a bottom-up perspective, main-
part of a household. Such narratives are thus taining that relationships between agency
presumably closer to the experiences of life and structure need to be studied at very
of people in the past than an archaeologists basic social levels, before larger processes of
reconstruction of long-term change can ever social and cultural change can be under-
be. Expressed differently, the professed aim stood. Given that most peoples agency
of much current household archaeology is to primarily and most directly relates to the
be able to write about a peopled past (Hod- conditions of their daily life, the domestic
der and Preucel 1996: 426), or to do away group and its dwelling spaces are again obvi-
with Ruth Tringhams (1991) by-now ous contexts of archaeological study.
famous faceless blobs. All combined, these motivations to do
For researchers of complex societies, an household archaeology have stimulated a
additional motivation to look at regular diversity of questions and themes of re-
people and everyday life is to provide a coun- search. More so than before, households
terweight to the heavy emphasis traditionally are viewed as socially rather than biologic-
put on elite contexts, great monuments, ally or economically constituted. They are
chiefly or royal ceremonial centers, art, or viewed as dynamic nodes of social relations
prestige goods exchange (e.g., Pollock 1999). and practices. Intra-household social rela-
Closely related are concerns emanating tionships are now often the object of study,
from current theoretical interests in gender rather than taken for granted. Next to house-
issues (e.g., Tringham 1991; Nevett 1994; hold production, consumption within the
Lawrence 1999). The household is a logical domestic context is being studied (e.g., Al-
place to begin increasing the visibility of lison 1999: 89; Meadows 1999), shifting

Fokke Gerritsen

the focus away from the household as a therefore, to have been more explicit in
building block of larger entities. The house- their use of the concept of community. But
holds social and economic behavior is still an with few exceptions, this is not the case. The
object of study (for example, craft specializa- main uses of the concept can be found in
tion: Wright 1991), but so are issues of New World archaeology, which has focused
gender and identity, symbolic representation, on the community now and again (Hill 1970;
ritual, temporality, and materiality (e.g., Flannery 1976; Wilk and Ashmore 1988;
Hendon 1996; Bruck 1999; Gerritsen 1999). Kolb and Snead 1997), and it is therefore
Partly, a desire can be recognized in these perhaps not surprising that a recent collec-
recent approaches to broaden the range of tion of essays on the archaeology of the com-
research themes. But a stronger element is munity was also given the subtitle A New
the wish to steer archaeology away from World Perspective (Canuto and Yaeger
the systems thinking and behavioral under- 2000). In Western European archaeology,
tones of earlier approaches. The unfortunate community discourses have only haphaz-
side-effect of this, however, is that some lines ardly entered settlement studies.
of research that in themselves are worth- Settlement archaeology has long worked
while are no longer in vogue. with a notion of the group of inhabitants of a
One area of research can be identified settlement as a co-residential community.
that despite the current popularity of house- Major topics have traditionally been envir-
hold archaeology is receiving less, rather onmental adaptation, subsistence produc-
than more, attention than fifteen years ago. tion, the use of space, and territoriality (cf.
This is the question of the position of house- Bruck and Goodman 1999 for a critique).
holds and small communities in social and The local group tends to be envisaged as an
cultural change. The focus on practices of entity whose members share not only a
daily life stimulates detailed, small-scale, common settlement or territory but also
and synchronic studies, but at the same values, understanding of the world, interests,
time appears to stand in the way of a per- and goals. This conceptualization of the
spective combining the small social scale local group has been described as the nat-
with broader diachronic developments. ural community notion (Isbell 2000).
While fully acknowledging the validity of The natural community idea can be
archaeological interpretations that attempt observed in many themes of settlement
to provide an alternative to dehumanized archaeology, but those relating to territorial-
processes and structures, I would argue that ity may be briefly mentioned as an example,
the archaeological contexts of households because of the relationship between com-
are important and potentially rich sources munity and landscape that I will return
for understanding long-term change. I will to below. Territorial marker models have
return to this topic at the end of this chapter, been applied to numerous prehistoric agricul-
as it is equally an issue for the archaeology of tural societies, often in conjunction with the
communities. use of analytical concepts such as site catch-
ment analysis (Vita-Finzi and Higgs 1970)
and Saxes (1970) postulation regarding
Concepts of Community in the establishment of formal cemeteries in
Archaeology situations whereby land or other critical re-
sources become scarce. For example,
Debates about the community have been a Renfrew (1973, 1976) and Chapman (1981;
feature of anthropology and sociology for a but see also Chapman 1995) studied the
century or more (Bell and Newby 1971; cf. appearance of megalithic monuments in
Cohen 1985: 2138, for a brief overview). the context of the spread of agriculture
One would have expected archaeologists, throughout Europe. According to their

Perspectives on Local Communities

models, communities faced with a shortage

of prime agricultural land erected megalithic New Perspectives for the
(burial) monuments to demonstrate to out- Archaeology of Communities
siders the communitys legitimate claim to a
territory. The notion that land tenure is about A group of authors that clearly also believe in
relationships between social groups as much the value of theorized community concepts
as between people and land was thus recog- are the contributors to the volume The
nized by the authors. But the nature of the Archaeology of Communities: A New
social group itself was not called into ques- World Perspective (Canuto and Yaeger
tion. The fact that there was a social group 2000). Being a rare substantial treatment of
was taken as a pre-given, and territoriality the archaeology of communities, it deserves
was studied as the means by which that to be looked at in some detail in this chapter.
group staked out and maintained control In their introduction the editors argue for a
over land at the expense of other groups. study of communities that avoids reifying
This represents a form of the natural com- and essentializing the community, but in-
munity concept. stead investigates how communities are con-
There are several problems with the way structed through social interaction and
that the notion of community has been ap- agency (Canuto and Yaeger 2000: 59).
plied in archaeology. One is the fact that a One of the strong points of such a perspec-
natural community concept is difficult to tive is that it can recognize historically and
combine with an emphasis on human agency culturally specific forms of communities;
as a factor in shaping social relationships and groups that form, perpetuate, or dissolve as
identities. I am not overly concerned about indigenous definitions of collective and indi-
this, and can accept the fact that the reso- vidual identity change. Moreover, it acknow-
lution of most archaeological data means ledges that common residence or at least
that, irrespective of hopes raised by theoret- frequent interaction can be an important
ical trends, it will be easier to distinguish element of community construction, but
collective rather than factional or individual holds that the forms of social interaction
representations of social reality. To me a that foster community identities also take
bigger problem is the matter that social col- place in other spheres of social life.
lectives and collective identities are consti- Many of the contributors to the volume
tuted in historically and culturally specific share these ideas. Their thinking about com-
ways. Natural community concepts often munities betrays the same concerns that were
fail to take this into account. There is a identified in recent approaches to household
justifiable need for etic definitions of archaeology above. Practices of everyday
local communities based on archaeological life, agency, gender, and micropolitics figure
criteria, especially for comparative studies. prominently. Key questions that the authors
But the question of the specific constitution try to resolve consider the ways in which
of local communities needs to be addressed. communities and community identity are
This is crucial to be able to build any under- constituted. Most of the authors use categor-
standing of such issues as social change as ies of data that have traditionally been inves-
it takes place in local settings, interactions tigated within the realm of settlement
between local groups, and between local archaeology; that is, architecture and the
groups and larger social networks. This built environment (Preucel 2000; Mehrer
means that we need to come to grips with 2000), spatial patterning of houses, public
problems of recognizing indigenous buildings and areas, and access routes within
notions of social relationships and the and between settlements (Yaeger 2000; Joyce
ways in which those contributed to senses of and Hendon 2000; Pauketat 2000). The
community. main differences with the studies of local

Fokke Gerritsen

communities that the authors criticize are sive manner. At the same time, the members
therefore not so much in the use of empirical of the community share bonds of solidarity
materials or even the forms of analysis, but and understanding that are based on largely
with the questions asked and the concepts non-discursive practices that form a local
used. This raises the question whether the habitus. Yaeger identifies house orientation
contributions demonstrate that earlier theor- and spatial proximity, similarities in food
ies actually lead to empirically inferior production and processing equipment, and
images of the past or whether they (do no the shared use of a nearby quarry site as the
more than) offer additional perspectives. main elements fostering a local sense of
Not being familiar with the archaeological community. His perspective appears more
data that the contributors use, it is not up to balanced than Isbells imagined community
me to answer this question. concept, as it offers a departure from assum-
In a review of the articles at the end of the ing a reified, natural community without
volume, William Isbell (2000) characterizes embracing a postmodern conceptualization
the approaches of the contributors by setting of identity as fleeting strategy. To my mind,
up a dichotomy between natural and im- the dichotomy set up by Isbell is clarifying
agined community notions. The latter term but ultimately not helpful for understanding
he borrows from the anthropologist Benedict premodern communities.
Anderson (1991), who used it to denote the Several useful new directions of research
ideologically constructed nature of nations, are developed in the volume, but many of the
in which people that are often not even case studies suffer from the fact that the in-
aware of each others existence still share a terpretation is based on a single site, a single
feeling of solidarity and collective identity. category of material, or a single phase in the
This emotion is open to political manipula- histories of the respective communities stud-
tion by self-interested factions and individ- ied. This is perhaps not a fair criticism, as one
uals. Isbell maintains that similar social and cannot expect authors to present a substan-
political principles operate in much smaller tial treatment of a theme in the pages allotted
social collectives. Local communities are in an edited volume of this kind. However,
equally fluid, cross-cut by other allegiances I bring it up because it seems to me to be
and competing identities. Its members symptomatic of much of the current litera-
should be seen as agents involved in promot- ture dealing with small social formations,
ing their own agendas and opposing those of inter-human relations, or agency.
others (Isbell 2000: 24952). Are the questions of the social constitution
Although Isbell divides the contributors of the community and the construction of
into those that embrace the imagined com- identity the main or even the only issues to
munity notion and those that have retained be investigated when it comes to commu-
the natural community idea, not all imagined nities? What about more traditional fields
community authors envisage the individual- of interest, such as the ecological and eco-
istic, strategically operating agents that Isbell nomic basis of domestic practices or settle-
assumes to have populated past commu- ment patterns, the relationships of the
nities. Yaeger, for example, distinguishes community to larger social units and insti-
three categories of practices in the construc- tutions, or the influence of outside historical
tion of community identity at the Maya site forces on the development of communities?
of San Lorenzo (Yaeger 2000: 12936). The danger in steering a field of research
Local and supra-local practices of affiliation, towards new perspectives is always that
including feasting, and the construction of a existing perspectives are problematized to a
large house as well as a ritual complex, form point where even asking the questions associ-
two categories of practices that constitute ated with an old perspective is condemned.
and maintain collective identities in a discur- But this is not necessary; in fact, it can be

Perspectives on Local Communities

quite detrimental. I would argue that even here for a fruitful perspective on local com-
though the conceptualization of commu- munities. I use the term local purposively
nities may have lacked sophistication in the here, to refer not only to the small scale of
past, the questions that were asked have lost the group, but also to the fact that these are
none of their value. communities whose constitution is in some
A case can be made that the most promis- way affected by localities. It is important to
ing direction for an archaeology of commu- keep in mind that local communities will
nities incorporates a perspective of the group always be cross-cut by identities not directly
as a symbolic construct of identity and related to localities or localized social
hence puts questions regarding the constitu- practices.
tion of the community into questions con- A basic tenet for such a perspective is that
sidered more traditional. In order to be able there is a reciprocal and dynamic relation-
to develop such a direction, it is useful to link ship between humans and the landscape. By
the field of communities with current themes dwelling (sensu, Ingold 1993, 2000; Gerrit-
in landscape and settlement archaeology sen 2003), humans order a landscape, both
(e.g., Barrett 1994, 1999; Bruck and Good- physically and mentally. In return, by being
man 1999; Bruck 2000; Gerritsen 1999, inhabited and inscribed with memory and
2003; Kealhofer 1999). cosmology, a landscape also creates and
acts as an instrument in creating identities
and social collectives. A crucial difference
Landscape, Locality, and the Study of with a natural community concept is that
Communities these identities do not come about automat-
ically through co-residence, but that they are
Suggestions about relationships between a constructed through social practices taking
groups identity and the landscape it inhabits place in shared localities. The nature of these
commonly evoke a certain amount of suspi- practices can vary greatly, and needs to be
cion, and in some cases it should. But I am investigated.
not concerned here with stereotypes of the The concept of dwelling is important be-
kind: people from around the Mediterra- cause it privileges emic understandings of the
nean are temperamental because they live in world by the groups that are the object of
a warm climate, or northerners are study, without disregarding the insights that
guarded and unforthcoming because where can be gained from studies of that world
they live it rains most of the year, or worse. from the outside, for example through eco-
At a much more local scale, the inhabited logical research. Moreover, dwelling is an
landscape can be one of the elements consti- all-inclusive process, incorporating both the
tuting ones identity. Ethnographic studies habitual, routinized actions of daily life and
indicate that feelings of belonging to a the discursive practices of ritual, ceremony,
place, of having roots somewhere, and a monument building, and the like. This forces
sense that such localities are part of ones the archaeologist to apply a broad perspec-
identity, are not unique to modern Western tive in the study of the construction of local
culture (Lovell 1998; Hirsch and OHanlon communities. It is necessary to investigate all
1995). Senses of belonging can be highly activities that ordered the landscape (in an
individual, but they are equally powerful at archaeologically traceable way) and that
a collective level. This is also recognized in may have contributed to a sense of commu-
some of the articles mentioned above (e.g., nity or equally, how it may have been used
Bartlett and McAnany 2000; Joyce and Hen- to contest the community. This incorporates
don 2000), but the implications of this for subsistence practices, the establishment of
the constitution of communities are not fur- field boundaries, cattle drove-ways, resource
ther pursued. There is considerable potential procurement, house building and domestic

Fokke Gerritsen

activities, but also burial practices, rituals, or Middle Iron Age, but this figure should be
the construction and use of monumental taken as an absolute minimum. Even though
structures. In the sense that all involve social the group that used a cemetery typically
interaction, they can all construct, maintain, numbered around 2040 people (which can
or contest collective identities. be established in a number of cases of cemet-
Perhaps the value of this perspective for an eries that were (almost) completely excav-
archaeology of communities can best be ated), many cemeteries must have contained
demonstrated with a brief case study drawn well over a hundred or some hundreds of
from my own research concerning the Iron graves. Most urnfields were the collective
Age (8001 bc) in the southern Netherlands cemeteries of a local group for the duration
(Gerritsen 1999, 2003, with references to the of several centuries (often beginning in the
relevant literature). Admittedly, this case is Late Bronze Age), suggesting that they
methodologically more straightforward than formed foci of community identity in which
many others. There is some evidence for the the groups ancestors played a major role.
presence of elites, some of whom were in- Moreover, the long-standing bond between
volved in long-distance exchange networks the community and its territory may have
bringing them objects such as (rare) bronze been represented symbolically through the
drinking vessels manufactured in the Alpine urnfield.
regions (Roymans 1991). But until perhaps This interpretation of the role of urnfield
the very end of the Late Iron Age, there is cemeteries can be reinforced by taking con-
nothing to suggest that these were land- temporary settlement practices into account.
holding elites or that their authority enabled Farmsteads consisting of a farmhouse, in
them to influence the ways in which local which both humans and animals dwelt, and
communities organized their landscape. several small outbuildings lay dispersed over
Archaeologically, this means that patterns the settlement territory. There is some evi-
of landscape organization give us a relatively dence to suggest that farmsteads lay within
direct insight into the ways in which those extensive field systems, so-called Celtic
landscapes were perceived at a local level, fields. Typically, Early Iron Age farmsteads
and this in turn can suggest how identities contain only a single farmhouse. This may
were created through the interaction with show signs of repair and alteration, but once
the lived-in landscape. the timber-built farmhouse was evacuated,
During the Early Iron Age and the begin- the whole farmstead was given up for habi-
ning of the Middle Iron Age (ca. 800400 tation. This dispersion and lack of perman-
bc), burial practices involved cremation and ence in the settlement patterns at the level of
the interment of the remains under an indi- individual farmsteads suggest that individual
vidual barrow, regularly in a ceramic urn. households did not establish long-standing
These mounds are usually round, of varying bonds with localities within the settlement
diameters but rarely exceeding 1215 territory. I would suggest, therefore, that in
meters. Long barrows occur as well, in a this period local community identity was
few cases well over 100 meters long. In largely constructed through the shared use
terms of gravegoods, the burial rituals seem of a burial place, perhaps expressed in an
to have been rather uniform, as gravegoods idiom of shared ancestors. Collective rather
are rare and not very distinctive. More re- than household-level tenurial practices may
markable is the concentrated distribution of also have been an element in the constitution
these barrows in dense urnfield cemeteries. of identity.
About 260 urnfields have been located to Shortly after the end of the Early Iron Age
date in the southern Netherlands. For 165 (ca. 500 bc), urnfields ceased to be used for
of these there are indications for use during burying the dead. Cremation remained
the Early Iron Age or beginning of the the normal form of body treatment, and the

Perspectives on Local Communities

cremated remains were buried in a small pit, more stable agricultural practices, but it
mostly without an urn. The erection of would also have made farmsteads more per-
barrows over graves was much less common manent features of the landscape in which
than before. Graves of this period tend to be local groups dwelt.
dispersed, occurring singly or in small clus- Given the absence of collective cemeteries
ters of (at the very most) some tens of graves. (I do not consider the earlier urnfields that
While dating evidence from these clusters is were still part of the landscape but no longer
often scarce, their small size makes it un- in use, to have continued to function in the
likely that they were in use for significant same way in the constitution of commu-
periods of time. This suggests that the nities, as that is something that occurs
group of people sharing a location for bury- through social interaction), I would interpret
ing the dead became smaller, and that more the evidence as showing two processes. The
frequently than in the Early Iron Age, burial first is a change in the way in which local
locations were given up in favor of a new communities defined themselves. Even
place. though size, structure, or place of these com-
If my interpretation of the urnfields as munities in larger social networks may not
central localities in the construction of local have changed all that much, this alteration in
communities and shared identities holds any community constitution does raise questions
water for the Early Iron Age, then it follows about how and why social practices were
that a significant change took place in the transformed during this period. The second
ways in which communities defined them- is a greater emphasis on the household or
selves when the urnfields were given up. family group within local social networks.
This could have involved the dissolution of The long-standing farmstead would have
local communities as an element of the social been a highly appropriate symbol to express
order altogether, but the archaeological evi- the identity or permanence of a family group,
dence suggests that this was not the case. as well as its long-established relationship
Instead, communities of the Middle and with the land surrounding the farmstead. If
Late Iron Age appear to have used other the urnfields were the territorial markers of
social practices and symbols in the constitu- local communities during the Early Iron Age,
tion of communities. then during the Middle and Late Iron
Small ditched enclosures that are generally Age the farmstead may have become a
interpreted as local cult places comprise one symbol expressing the tenurial claims of
type of locality that may have functioned as individual families.
such. They date to the Middle and Late Iron The transition taking place shortly after
Age and continue into the Early Roman the middle of the first millennium bc in the
period, but do not occur in large enough southern Netherlands can be understood as a
numbers to allow us to ascertain their signifi- transformation of locally significant iden-
cance in the constitution of local commu- tities. Given that social life in this period
nities throughout the southern Netherlands. and region took place to a large extent within
Another change in the organization of the local contexts, it must have been a funda-
landscape occurring after about 300 bc mental transformation. It is very much a
takes place in the settlement patterns. Farm- social and cultural change, the combined
steads gradually become more fixed elements result of the intended and unintended out-
in the landscape, the farmhouse being rebuilt comes of actions by human agents. But is this
at the same location several times. When a the full picture? Does this interpretation give
farmstead moves, the distance over which us sufficient insight into why this transform-
this takes place is smaller than before. This ation may have come about? Or should we
change in settlement patterns may well have look further and attempt to identify outside
been accompanied by the development of factors that acted as incentives towards

Fokke Gerritsen

change? In this particular case study, such a need not be so troubling, and certainly that
search suggests that this transformation it is no reason to return to models of social
took place during the same period as a change in which humans are passively
region-wide concentration of settlement ter- reacting to outside forces.
ritories into the more fertile parts of the But the difficulties in relating the effects of
landscape and an abandonment of many the actions by human agents to archaeologic-
parts of the landscape that were previously ally inferred social and cultural change
inhabited. This suggests that the observed appear to steer many archaeologists studying
social and cultural changes need to be linked small social formations away from consider-
in some way to (long-term) processes of soil ations of structural change. For example, of
degradation and demographic change (Roy- the ten case studies in The Archaeology of
mans and Gerritsen 2002). These are pre- Communities, only three explicitly try to
cisely the kinds of factors that are come to grips with the role of human agency
frequently ignored in many current, agency- in social change (Pauketat 2000; Mehrer
theory inspired studies. 2000; Preucel 2000). It is quite ironic that a
theoretical perspective of which the value is
supposed to derive from its potential to give
Issues of Social and Cultural Change better accounts of social and cultural change,
leads in current archaeological practice to a
Taking a comparative (i.e., different types of paucity of substantial studies of change. It
data) but more importantly a diachronic per- should be noted, however, that agency is
spective can strengthen interpretive studies being brought into models of social and cul-
such as the one described above. But there tural change in some other fields of archae-
are also other reasons why I think the archae- ology related to the study of increasing social
ology of communities and other small social complexity (e.g., Joyce 2000; Clark 2000).
formations should concern itself with issues I have no ready suggestions to solve this
of social and cultural change. paradox, other than say that archaeologies
Human agency, operating within struc- of households and communities should not
tures and with the inherent potential to shy away from questions currently con-
change those structures, has come to be sidered out of fashion. This includes ques-
seen as a crucial dynamic of social and cul- tions about factors behind social change
tural change. It is a principle that is straight- that are not internal to the community or
forward enough as a theoretical position, but the outcome of bottom-up, agency-driven
extremely difficult to put into practice ar- human actions. It is possible to accept that
chaeologically outside situations in which social and cultural change involves human
the actions of historical figures are known agency, while simultaneously accepting that
(e.g., Johnson 2000). Prehistoric archae- agency is partly used to react to new situ-
ology is reliant on an application of practice ations that humans are confronted with but
theory, whereby the role of human agency which have come about outside of their
in archaeologically observed changes is as- control. Here one has to include quite trad-
sumed rather than demonstrated. It means itional factors: demographic growth,
leaving room in our accounts for self- climate change, or changes in the availability
awareness, for internal contradiction and of natural resources. Furthermore, one can
conflict, and especially for historical contin- think of outside political authority, con-
gency, without being able to pinpoint the role quest, or long-distance trade. These occur
and effects of human agency. The longer the in history, and can forcefully demand
time-frame over which changes are studied, human reaction. Accounts of history that
the more generalized the incorporation of only identify root causes and assume that
agency becomes. I would argue that this human reactions to them are predictable are

Perspectives on Local Communities

clearly falling short of what archaeology social formations may be small. They may
should attempt to do. Equally, accounts of be relatively autonomous in their self-defin-
history that assign centrality to human ition, the organization of domestic space, or
agency but fail to identify where and how the internal division of labor. But they cannot
that agency was used to deal with forces be studied in a vacuum.
from outside the agents community, class, More generally, a question that archae-
or society are not going to bring us any ology needs to deal with in this respect is
further. how views of domestic life as lived by know-
This is true for archaeology in general, but ledgeable agents can be integrated with
it certainly pertains to the archaeology of models of (long-term) structural change.
households and communities. The point re- Or, if integration proves impossible epi-
ferred to above by Wilk and Rathje (1982: stemologically, how we can write narratives
61718) that households (and local commu- or reconstructions of the past that accept
nities) articulate directly with economic and plurality in explanatory models. These are
ecological processes and therefore provide a surely questions without easy answers, but
level of analysis between individual artefacts the endeavor should be worth the effort.
and grand narratives, may have been ex- I believe that a theoretically informed
pressed in an idiom of processual archae- archaeology of communities can offer fruit-
ology, but it is valid nonetheless. Small ful ways to make a beginning.


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