On History, Culture and Change

It’s a few weeks into the new Uni semester, and I’m loving it. In particular I’ve found some very interesting issues being raised in my Roman Art and Australasian Archaeology lectures, about ideas of complex cultures and culture change. In particular, the way that these ideas are shaped by discourses of invasion and colonisation.

As such I’ve been thinking about how narratives of invasion inevitably mean culture change to more “complex” and thus more “valuable” societies. And how it is assumed that native populations always have long term cultural continuity, and are not able to change until new culture is forced upon them, most often by invasion.

The example from early Roman history which really pointed this out to me is the shift between the Villanovan and Etruscan cultures. Traditionally, ancient historians (predominantly of the white, European male kind) have seen these cultures as two distinct peoples: The Villanovans, from c. 1000 BC to c. 750 BC, are seen as a simple, bronze age society, which was replaced by invading Etruscan peoples from c. 750 BC onwards, who brought with them superior skills in iron and metalwork and other markers of more “complex” culture such as writing. There is no question that this narrative, where the simple original inhabitants are replaced by their culturally superior invaders, has its roots deep in the ideological and socio-cultural viewpoints of those ancient historians.

To an extent, the archaeological record for this time period supports this hypothesis. There is significant change in the material culture that remains from the 1000 BC period to the 750 BC period. However, more recent scholarship is now suggesting that the Etruscan people are in fact the Villanovan people, whose culture simply evolved in conversation with the Greek colonisers who were beginning to settle to the south of Etruria, bringing with them the Greek alphabet, a literary tradition and a range of art forms. This new interpretation directly challenges the discourse of cultural continuity unless invaded.

Similar examples can be drawn from Australian prehistory. As an archaeology lecture last week showed that for a long time, Australian prehistory was assumed to be based on long term cultural and technological continuity as well as being generally primitive. Again, I can see how this view of Australia’s past as a cultural deficit would have directly reinforced those colonial narratives that sought to justify the white invasion and white superiority. And again, more recent archaeology has shown that this was not the case: Australian prehistory was much more diverse, complex and changeable than thought.

These two examples show in particular how history has been written to suit discourses of cultural (and often colonial) superiority, whether it is intentional or not. It’s one of the reasons I find it so important when interpreting historical texts and archaeological data to closely examine what perspectives and assumptions I am bringing to the table as well as looking at what biases and ideologies the sources may contain.

One final example pertinent to this discussion is that of the Gympie “Pyramid,” a pseudoarchaeological hoax that a few people nonetheless take seriously. It’s a classic example of what happens when you let your own (racist) ideologies get in the way of history. According to the Pyramid’s website (which I am not linking because it’s just too ridiculous), a race of fair-skinned people arrived at Gympie in inland Queensland thousands of years ago and taught the Aborigines to construct monumental architecture and follow deities reminiscent of Egyptian gods. There is no “evidence” to speak of, just a few dodgy photos and a tiered structure since bulldozed. But you can see the thinking that’s behind this, the way that white culture in positioned as superior to Aboriginal culture, the way that monumental architecture is seen as a marker of cultural complexity and worth.

I’m finding it extremely interesting that my lectures so far are provoking such different interpretations of historical and prehistorical societies, especially the way that my Roman Art course recognises how power shapes culture (and the writing of history!). It’s a very postmodern way of looking at history, which is particularly refreshing. I’ve often felt that Ancient History in particular is a little suspicious of any attempts to move beyond empiricism and a little backwards concerning postmodern historiography. Most of all I think it’s fascinating to see how discourses of colonialism, invasion and complex culture are constantly at play in history, even history that’s thousands of years old.


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