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Becoming Human: The Archaeology of John C. Barrett Archaeology and Its Discontents: Why Archaeology Matters, by John C. Barrett. Themes in Archaeology. London: Routledge 2021. Pp. x + 169. $36. ISBN 978-0-367-55645-7 (paper). Far from Equilibrium: An Archaeology of Energy, Life and Humanity. A Response to the Archaeology of John C. Barrett, edited by Michael J. Boyd and Roger C.P. Doonan. Oxford: Oxbow 2021. Pp. xiii + 337. $67.50. ISBN 978-1-78925-603-1 (cloth).

I hope I can communicate here some of the enthusiasm with which I first learned about the publication of—and eventually read through—these two fine volumes. In the first one, John C. Barrett offers a distinctive exploration of what archaeology should be about, while in the second, Barrett’s colleagues and former students respond to his work, which extends over more than 30 years.

Anyone who has encountered Barrett’s work will not have been surprised by the publication of Archaeology and Its Discontents; indeed, it is a book we have long awaited. It brings together, with much clarity, an approach that Barrett has consistently and over many years been arguing for and one that I find offers a way to do archaeology differently. The basic premise is spelled out right from the start: our objective is to understand “the historical conditions under which human diversity has been created” (1). This is offered as an alternative to the usual approach that posits humans as the autonomous creators of the world. It is important that the creative process postulated by Barrett is driven by the desire to understand the world and to place oneself within it, a desire that continues to propel our lives and indeed prompts us to do archaeology as a way of understanding our world, which includes whatever we subsume under “the past.” Barrett argues convincingly that to achieve this goal we need to rethink the way we do archaeology.

A great part of the book is dedicated to revisiting discussions that have shaped and continue to shape archaeology. It might seem that revisiting the discussions since the 1950s is redundant: in a recent conference I attended, when a relevant issue emerged, a fellow attendee commented exasperatedly that he thought the whole “processual-postprocessual” discussion was over and done with. It must wait for another venue than here to discuss the strategic and performative use of the two terms, especially in policing and regulating the field, but discussions concerning what archaeology is, and ought to be, about are definitely not over and never will be. Barrett is adamant that earlier practices “continue to structure the working practices of archaeology” (50), and he is right to insist that we must address this baggage. His criticism toward these earlier approaches, mostly developed in chapters 1 through 5, is articulated around issues that have characterized his earlier work as well, such as the character of the archaeological record, the concept of culture, and structure and agency. This discussion builds up into an alternative approach that is based on biological lives that evolve along with their surroundings, using resources available to them in specific historical conditions, which is a truly inspiring rethinking of life, focusing on how life develops in its ecosystem rather than how it is reproduced.

Barrett clearly considers humans to be a construct of their practices. He insists on talking about different forms of humanness that “created themselves by interpreting the different worlds in which they developed” (89). These creations are ongoing; they are part of “a ‘becoming’ that comprises various forms of humanness” (91), thus a “becoming” of humanity. Although consistent with his earlier views, this choice of words can be seen as an engagement with other strands of thought that focus on becoming as a basic—or perhaps the basic—tenet of existence and have recently become influential in archaeology as part of a call for posthumanism. At the same time, he remains critical of related calls, often issued under the same umbrella term, to recognize a radical alterity between our world and the one we occasionally study, or to acknowledge a “flat” ontology, whereby “those assemblages that matter archaeologically do so without any priority granted to them by the human presence” (Barrett 2021, 91). Nevertheless, I wonder: why is humanity described here as singular, if there are different kinds of humanness (Barrett 2021, 91)? In an earlier paper, he specified his use of “the term humanness as describing the historical manifestations of humanity” (“The Material Constitution of Humanness,” Archaeological Dialogues 21.1, 2014, 72, emphasis original). Is one to think then that humanity is defined externally and manifests itself in different forms, albeit keeping an essential core? I sense a tension here with Barrett’s major argument, which I would love to see addressed further.

In a few dense pages (91–95), Barrett introduces his understanding of what is life, prioritizing the making, the “mattering,” of life as a process that is based on interpretation from within. Following biosemiotics, he argues that the sign, the referent, and the interpretant are all within the world that is becoming. This interpretive process amounts to a form of life that is “far from equilibrium” (94). Understanding a form of life, an organism, as an ongoing process is crucial (100), as is understanding that life as a process depends on the ability of “biological systems [to] identify and interpret available sources of information and exploit the available sources of energy” (101). This means that organisms, and not only human ones (99), are not a priori determined: their very boundaries, their independence from and dependence on their world and other forms of life, are open to interpretation—an interpretation always performed from within the world.

The case Barrett selects to explore is not unexpected: he has been writing on the Neolithic for many years, and it is thus unsurprising that he focuses on the process that made (some) humans into farmers. Here he argues for a commonality of practice, a way of life that can be associated with the Neolithic, and he focuses on agricultural practices as the main node around which such a life was built (118). These practices would have made a different kind of humanness from the one associated with hunter-gatherers. It is again not surprising that at this point Barrett (ch. 8) turns to the problem of archaeological cultures and archaeological constructs. He enters a discussion of what a definition of culture might be, so that we can use it meaningfully, and how we can account for similarities and differences among practices employed across the areas we study. The purpose is again to highlight the different kinds of Neolithic and he turns to the different kinds of humanness that would have been built in central Europe and Atlantic Europe, even though there were certain practices that people in these areas indeed shared. I would have preferred that he refer to Neolithics in the plural (S. Nanoglou, “Representing People, Constituting Worlds: Multiple ‘Neolithics’ in the Southern Balkans,” Documenta Praehistorica 36, 2009, 292), but that is not immensely consequential to his main point. Another tension in the book, regarding an issue I am admittedly invested in, concerns the way the household is invoked in this chapter. Barrett identifies timber longhouses as a dominant feature in the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) world and wants to ask “how the things that once existed might have guided the embodied practices that made the history of the LBK possible” (130). Although he navigates superbly through a number of “ifs,” the longhouse is rather hurriedly equated with “the household, its land and its produce” (130), alluding to a regime of ownership that, for me, remains ill-defined and preconceived, much like the concept of the household itself. Interestingly enough, at Vaihingen an der Enz, the example presented by Barrett, the excavators suggest that different sets of practices (e.g., herding different animals, cultivating different plants, or using pottery with different decoration) are associated with different groups of houses, rather than single houses, which are presumably identified with households (A. Bogaard et al., “The Bandkeramik Settlement of Vaihingen an der Enz, Kreis Ludwigsburg (Baden-Württemberg): An Integrated Perspective on Land Use, Economy and Diet,” Germania 94, 2016, 30, 47–49; the authors talk of “supra-household groups”). In short, it seems that the things that existed at the time guided certain embodied practices to converge around groups of houses, rather than single houses, and both the household and a regime of ownership based on the household do not necessarily emerge as formed within the envisaged conditions (see my view on the matter in S. Nanoglou, “Building Biographies and Households: Aspects of Community Life in Neolithic Northern Greece,” Journal of Social Archaeology 8.1, 2008, 139–60). I would add that the suggested equation with the Lévi-Straussian “house societies” model (C. Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, trans. S. Modelski, University of Washington Press 1982) is even more perplexing, given Barrett’s stance toward models (131).

In the epilogue, but also throughout the book, the author returns to the distinction between humans and the world, along with the distinction between living and nonliving things. Barrett is clearly on one side of this quarrel, accepting the latter difference a priori and insisting that understanding human histories is constitutive of archaeology (88). Also clearly, he attempts to circumvent this binary quarrel, for he allows for some impure borders and unstable categories (140). Nevertheless, I still wonder: is this distinction between living and nonliving beings not made within the world, and within a certain setting, too? Consequently, is this distinction not an object of inquiry as well? I think focusing on the articulation of the distinction between living and nonliving matter as a historically specific practice within a historically specific world would go a long way toward thinking differently about the issue of living matter.

Notwithstanding these questions, Archaeology and Its Discontents is a book that I cannot praise enough; it should be required reading for all archaeologists, and not just for those who are interested in prehistory. I would argue that it needs to be engaged with, read and reread, commented on, ripped apart metaphorically and perhaps literally, so that we develop the discipline of archaeology and develop ourselves as archaeologists in a more reflexive and productive way. It is in this vein that I offer the few aforementioned thoughts on Barrett’s arguments, which obviously touch on a very small portion of the discussion this rich book will generate.

Far from Equilibrium, the second book under review here, is an important constellation of papers by Barrett’s colleagues and former students that continues the debate on many of these important issues. It consists of an introduction, 18 papers, and an epilogue, along with a list of Barrett’s publications. The editors explicitly state that the book was meant to be more than a celebratory volume. Indeed, many contributors engage with Barrett’s work in substantive ways; others seem to me to present offerings, so as to honor Barrett in a more traditional sense, without detriment to their significance. One or two flirt with being more about self-promotion rather than assessing Barrett’s work, but I suppose this is to be expected. It should be said that the authors do not respond directly to Archaeology and Its Discontents, as both of the books considered in this review article were published at the same time.

Far from Equilibrium raises several important issues. The first section is rather loosely assembled, with papers on “Prehistory in Transition.” The largest number of papers are in the next section, “Fields of Discourse and an Archaeology of Inhabitation,” which engages with concepts used widely in Barrett’s earlier work, but that resonate deeply with his latest book. Most contributions in this section do a wonderful job of showing the continuing importance of these concepts (especially the small gem offered by Zoë Crossland in ch. 7) and possible future developments (e.g., Despina Catapoti and Maria Relaki in ch. 13). One might want to be aware of Yannis Hamilakis’ paper (ch. 16) from the next section here, as he attempts to spiral from fields of discourse into a philosophically more expanded universe. “Practice and Record,” a section on Barrett’s contribution to the practice of archaeology follows, and these papers confirm that the distinction between theory and practice is unsustainable. The last section before the epilogue, “Material Ecologies and Forms of Humanness,” engages with Barrett’s more recent work. Ian Hodder (ch. 18), for example, comments on the relation between archaeology and evolution, a theme extensively explored in Archaeology and Its Discontents. A less conspicuous thread that crosscuts several of the papers relates to new materialism and posthumanism: Chris Gosden and Mark Pollard (ch. 20) ask whether the universe is sentient and Jane Downes and Colin Richards (ch. 3) explore whether a midden is living. My earlier question on the distinction between living and nonliving matter certainly applies here as well: Is this not a distinction that makes sense and therefore can be asked only within certain historical conditions? Andrew Meirion Jones (ch. 21), in a luminous “Perspective” that succinctly wraps up the volume, comments on precisely this issue of new materialism and posthumanism and on Barrett’s relation to them. Aptly, the introduction to the volume “(Re)placing Humanity?” (Boyd and Doonan, ch. 1) properly highlights the issue here: Where do humans stand in the world? Should we replace humanity with something else as the focus of our endeavor? I would think that the point is neither to expel humans from, nor to retain them at the center of our studies, if we are to keep humanity unchallenged. That is, we need to account for the constitution of humanity vis-à-vis the nonhuman as a historically specific process that happens within a historically specific world and acknowledge the ever-present hierarchies that this entails, which precludes any turning back to some blank and flat lost paradise. It is paramount that this account includes the constitution of the human as a species, too, for the biological is a discourse articulated within the world as well. Notwithstanding this, my point is not to step out of this messy world, as if that were possible, but rather to engage critically with our position in it. Accordingly, there is an enormous list of possible questions waiting to be formed and asked here that I cannot possibly pack in this review, but I am confident that these two books and the engagement with Barrett’s work will help many to think productively through the relevant issues.

I would like to end with a final note. The Far from Equilibrium book arrived at my doorstep the very day that news broke regarding the permanent closing of the archaeology department at Sheffield University, the department at which John Barrett taught from 1995 to 2014 and through which most of the contributors to the volume at least passed, as did I as well, albeit rather briefly and during one of Barrett’s sabbaticals. This context is significant. Something one can take from Barrett’s work is that the conditions we inhabit contribute profoundly to the beings we become. Archaeologists are formed within specific settings as well, and to lose such a spectacular asset will certainly take its toll on the discipline.