Monday, September 25, 2006

La bataille aurignacienne continue... encore et toujours!

The Palanth Forum has a post that presents the contents of the 45th volume of the Trabalhos de Arqueologia monograph series of the Instituto Português de Arqueologia. The reason I bring this up in this blog is that the title of the volume (edited by O. Bar-Yosef [Harvard] and J. Zilhão [Bristol]) is Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian. It's based on a small conference that was held in Lisbon in 2002, organized by the editors of the volume, one assumes to clarify what is meant by the term "Aurignacian," a cultural label/period/technocomplex/what-have-you. This is an important issue because the Aurignacian has, perhaps aptly, been described as the "promiscuous handmaiden of Paleolithic archaeology" by one prominent researcher, because of the tendency of many people to make the Aurignacian be whatever the hell they want to support their view of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition.

I've read some of the papers in this volume, and most are quite interesting. However, one can well wonder whether this book will, in the end, really end the bataille aurignacienne that started in the early years of the 20th Century with the work of the Abbé Breuil, among others. One of the reasons behind this question is that most of the authors who contribute chapters to the effort already have well-known stances on what the Aurignacian is, how and where it originated, and what its relation to previous European industries was. Then, there's also those researchers who seem to consider that the Aurignacian is unproblematic to identify anyway and who just talk about it without even addressing the issue that is central to the volume. I think that it's emblematic that some of the most thought-provoking papers in the lot that I've had the chance to read so far come from the youngest researchers. There's also a heavy emphasis on continental European perspectives, with only two papers coming from researchers espousing an explicitly anthropological archaeological perspective. That's not necessarily a bad thing, to be sure, but given that many of the interpretive divergences concerning the Aurignacian appear to get somehow amplified over the Atlantic, a more even balance of viewpoints might have yielded different insights into the question.

In the end, I think that this volume will be very useful in highlighting what, in 2006, different people think the Aurignacian is, but perhaps not so much in terms of coming up with a widely shared definition of that phenomenon. Regardless, it should be very useful reading for anyone interested in the topic of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition and/or the emergence of behavioral modernity outside Africa.

Incidentally, the Palanth Forum is an interesting discussion board where a lot of interesting material gets posted or publicized. Well worth checking out, although the action there has unfortunately been kind of slow lately.

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