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A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

As I shift the gear stick I can feel the muscles tensing and releasing in my left arm; I can also imagine the tendons moving smoothly under the flesh, like steel lift cables, as the contracting muscles react to the electric jolts shooting down the nervous pathways spread across the body.  Both of my legs work in tandem with my left arm to leverage the accelerator and clutch pedals in a fluid series of movements to change the engines gear, whilst the right arm keeps the steering wheel stable.  My eyes keep a steady lookout at the road ahead, alert to the changes around me and the weather before me as the grey clouds break and heavy raindrops start to splatter the windscreen.  A quick flick of my index finger switches the front wipers on.  My ears are primed to the sounds of passing engines or the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles.  Perceptibly, but just, I can feel my heart beat that much faster as my right foot presses down on the accelerator.  At a stretch I’d say it was beating in time to the song playing, but that may be poetic licence and an exaggeration…


Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

It has been just over  a year since I first started driving in a daily capacity after passing my driving test a few years ago.  It has been a long and somewhat patient journey to get to this stage.  I had passed the theory and practical tests almost two years beforehand, but a well-timed pathological fracture to the right tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg (as, when a tibia breaks, the fibula, acting as a supporting lateral strut to the larger and more robust tibia bone and connected to it by a tough fibrous tissue, also often fractures) kept me off the road for a good while after having just ordered a car for the first time.  After healing from this fracture, the third such transverse fracture for these two bones, I was again ready to hop in the car and onto the road but this time as a fully legit legal driver no longer in his training vehicle.  My body, however, had different ideas as I went on instead to fracture the right humerus bone of the upper arm in an accident shortly before receiving the said car, delaying once again my time to drive and the time on the tarmac.

As a direct result of these two separate fracture incidents I gained two new titanium plates as permanent (and palpable) bodily additions and welcomed, though somewhat initially delayed, doses of entinox and morphine to subdue the immediate pain from the fractures themselves.  After the initial throbbing pain of a fractured bone, which is enhanced by the muscle spasms and contractions that often accompany a break of a major limb bone, the pain starts to wear off to a gentle ache once the limb has been stabilized, protected and padded from any further movement or injury.  Where necessary the bone is reduced to the correct alignment.  The reduction of the bone can, without anesthetic, be as painful as initially fracturing the bone itself.  As indicated above my fractures were treated surgically to correct long-standing problems using metallic alloys fashioned into a sturdy plate screwed onto the bone, which help prevent stress shielding and allow the natural responsive dynamics of bone modelling to continue.  It should be stated here that fractures can also be treated conservatively with limb immobilization and pain relief given whilst the bone heals itself, if a good enough reduction and union can be carried out without the need for surgical intervention.

right humerus fracture 2014 july

Humerous triptych. Pre-surgical and post-surgical fixation with the use of a permanent titanium plate on the right humerus (upper arm) following the pathological fracture I sustained in an accident in July 2014. As a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome, and the associated Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia (PFD) disorder where bone tissue is replaced with a fibrous tissues, my skeletal system is weaker than normal with a higher bone cell turnover rate. Pathological lesions in the bone, which can already be naturally deformed in size and shape, can lead to fractures (so-called ‘ground glass’ visual which can be found on x-rays of PFD bone). If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate and inform the author of this blog.

I said it was a long and patient journey because the majority of the time spent waiting to drive was spent silently healing, my head often buried in an article or a book whilst devouring coffee.  It took a long time for the two pieces of the bone shafts to become one again as the callus formed and bridged the fracture site, the woven bone that is initially laid down changing over time to lamellar, or mature, bone.  So much so that in some cases bone fracture sites can be completely remodeled with little noticeable sign of a historic break ever having taken place.  During this time I was shuttled from appointment to appointment as a passenger in my assigned vehicle, wondering what it was like to dictate the journey and the destination, what it was like to take control.

On Starting

You may think that I would be wary of driving due to the above described frailties that my body imposed on my life, but I was ready to go and ready to face the roads of my country.  I was, and remain, eager to explore the freedom of the road alongside the exploration of the idea that that freedom represents in itself .  Many of my friends had started driving at 17 or 18 years old, had passed their tests and then drove aimlessly to gain experience on the roads around the regional towns, only to abandon their cars as they themselves started undergraduate courses at universities in other towns and other cities across the country.  Running a car, and having the money to fund the fuel bill, insurance, road tax and other associated costs, was an expense that many didn’t have and didn’t need at that time in their lives.

I too had started to learn to drive at that age but I soon gave it up, frustrated at the confusing methods used by the teacher and wary of the upcoming femoral fixation surgeries that I faced at that time to limit what appeared to be regular interruptions of forced stillness in my life.  I was happy to ignore the need to drive for another decade or so, not needing to do it for my undergraduate and postgraduate university courses and happy to use the trains and other methods of public transport for work and pleasure.  Indeed I came to love the numerous hours spent commuting to volunteer placements, work, and journeys to see friends and old companions.  It was time to relax, to speak to other passengers, to sit and to read or simply to sit and to stare at the countyside unfolding before me.

As every driver informs every non-driver, the convenience of the car is the epitome of freedom over the strict timetable of public transport.  As an ardent user and lover of the train (the misery of the delay is trumped by the friends made in the carriage and by the regulars who recognize you in turn), I remained somewhat skeptical of this claim.  What I had not counted on, however, was how it actually felt to have that freedom when I drove myself, both for my own pleasure and as a matter of commuting to and from my workplace.  There have been times when I am driving down an empty flyover at 1am with the twinkle of the industrial north to my right and the disappearance of the work office behind me and, as the song I’m listening to reaches its crescendo, I feel somewhat at peace with the world around me.  This is of course the thrill of riding an empty road listening to your favorite music and soaking in every last note sounded and vocal moaned.  But driving with a crowd is different, but it is different for me in particular.

To Drive, To Think

The car, for me, and the act of driving the car, means that I can merge in with the public body at large in a seemingly innocuous manner.  When I walk I use crutches for short distances and, for longer distances, I need and use a manual wheelchair.  As such it is an obvious difference that is noticed immediately on sight, one which signifies that I am different in some significant way from the majority.  I have had, and continue to have, people treat me differently in ways that they would not my friends or family, say by speaking to someone other than to me even when it is I who have raised the question or query, or by treating me in such a way which invokes past experiences of relatives or loved ones in states of profound impairment, despite the fact that my experiences and needs are different; that is in such cases my personal agency as an actor, or individual, with my own views, worries and questions, is abated.  I am viewed as a representative, therefore I am not an individual.  There is no such differentiation between specialized, or adapted, vehicles for the physically impaired, or disabled, individuals on the road compared with ‘normal’ cars – we all flow into the same lane or road.  (The caveat here is, of course, parking bays where disabled bays, alongside mother and child bays, are given proximity priority but I am strictly talking of when the car is in motion).

As such I am intrigued by the possibility of me in the car being treated in a similar manner as to everyone else who is present on the road.  That our actions speak for themselves, rather than the prejudices present on seeing the physical self as a first judgement.

I’ve briefly touched on my own experiences here and a few ideas above, but I want to move forward to acknowledge a few thoughts that have swirled around my mind over the past year or so on the open road.  I have become somewhat intrigued by the notion of driving, and the path of the road, as a cultural symbol and as a personal experience.  As such the following are thoughts, somewhat vague in nature, of driving.

A Marker By The Side

During the first six months of my experience as a driver I passed a personal marker on the road to work, a curve in the dual carriageway where a silent, single fluttering jersey indicated a geographical spot where a young life had been cut short, the car skidding from the road late at night killing one of its two occupants.  The jersey by the side of the road aptly demonstrated both the family’s singular pain and the danger of driving without due regard for the road conditions, a memento of the often tumult path of life.  It acted as a constant reminder for me then, when I saw it throughout the different seasons of the year, and I remember it clearly now in my mind’s eye.  It is easy to be self-contained in a car if you are driving alone, thinking only of yourself and not of the actions that you yourself have on others and those around you.  That the road is open and easy to see.  Yet drivers, especially of cars, can be subdued too easily by the sheltering in the cage of metal and glass.  Too easy it is to shut out both the weather and the sound of the road, too easy to become disconnected from what is in front, to the side, and behind.  Death is the ultimate outcome of driving dangerously or incorrectly, each person who drives should understand that they are both responsible for themselves, any passengers, and for the safety of those of who the car comes near, be it other vehicle drivers or pedestrians.

A friend who rides a motorcycle near year-round has spoken of their wish that each person who learns to drive does so first on a motorbike, where every second must be concerned, and concentrated with, the movement of your bike and your body, where the dangers in the driving blind spot become that much more pronounced as there is no clear boundary or distinction between the body and the tarmac.  It is an interesting idea, I think, and it shows that although the majority of the road users in most countries are car and truck drivers there are different experiences of using the road out there.  That even though we may be all drivers, we do not each experience the same sense of driving or the same sense of security from the vehicles we choose to use to get from A to B.  It is my suggestion that this is the experience of the other in this environment, the one that car and truck drivers must take extra special care for motorcyclists (as well as cyclists) due to the physical differences in the size of the vehicle and the position of the body on top of the vehicle, rather than the notion of what it feels like to be on the inside of it.

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

However, within the confines of my personal anthropology of driving, there is also a need to define the personal space within the interior of the car and the exterior public face of the vehicle, i.e. the personalization of the interior as a representation of the identity versus the need to drive responsibly and react accordingly to the changes in weather, traffic density and normal, or exceptional, road hazards.

We have all, for instance, seen the personalized number plates or stickers attached to the exterior surface of cars, or the use of rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror, possibly signifying a religious connection to Catholicism or perhaps simply a physical item in which to grab and to hold, to reassure and to connect.  These are markers of expressed individual and group identity through the modified material culture of the car, which could be symbolic of the beliefs of the individual and, possibly, an indicator of the nature of their personality, although there must also be a distinction between these leaps and not infer beyond the unreasonable.  These do of course differ dependent on the circumstances.  The cliché of a boy impressing a girl by driving fast is indicative of the use of the vehicle to express dominance or perceived masculinity and not the expression of the material culture of the individual within the car.  There are, as such, different signifiers at work when we consider the expression of identity with regards to vehicle ownership and use (see photograph below).


‘Warning: if you value your life as much as I value this truck don’t mess with it!’. Seen in San Francisco in April 2015. Photograph, taken with a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

So what is in my car?  You can expect to find the odd physio stretching band, placed in the car from before I started to drive so I could exercise the muscles of the right arm on the way to and from work, to regain the majority of the extension of the antebrachium back.  (I have permanently lost the ability to fully extend my arm due to the somewhat intimidating and unnerving bend of the right humerus – it isn’t immediately noticeable, the bend, but when I point it out in person you may be surprised and somewhat horrified at what once was and now what is).  Look into the main storage box and you’ll find a whole heap of CD’s covering a fairly wide range of genres and musical styles, from the cut and thrust of Fugazi‘s 13 Songs to the emotional tape loops of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains and Guitar Counterpoint.  You could probably tell that the CD medium is the one in which I invest the most in for music listening just via the car haul of discs themselves.  I’m forever rotating my classic selection of favoured CD’s with new albums I’ve purchased more recently, such as Joanna Newsom‘s Divers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, or Sufjan Steven‘s hauntingly beautiful Carrie and Lowell album.  The car, now, has become one of my prime personal music venues, enhanced by the visuals on the road and the acuity of speaker-to-body distance.  The drive to and from work allows for the almost total immersion of sound to radiate around me, to envelope the body and invigorate the mind as I drive.

The expression of music is carried on in the material contents of the car by three or four worn drumsticks perched precariously in the front chair’s backseat pocket.  The drum sticks head and necks are pretty worn away, indicative of their active life beating the various tom toms, snares, and high hats of drum kits across the rehearsal and practice rooms of my home town.  If you dig a bit deeper it is quite possible you may find a roll of film (now I’m really harking back to pre-digital technology!), indicative of the ownership of my beloved cheap Pentax camera, which sometimes finds a temporary home in the car for when I am out and about; it is sometimes paired with my cheaper-still digital camera.  Nestled in the front passenger seat is a battered copy of Will Self’s experimental novel Shark, a copy of which I convince myself I will finish one day.  (Regardless of the growing stack of novels and non-fiction books that mount beside my bed.  Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp circle of books has taken my recent fancy as well as Janine Di Giovanni‘s more somber documentation of Syria’s ongoing destruction in her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria).  It is, I think, also an expression of the need to read in down times, where I find myself waiting for one reason or another.

So these are the two big things you may notice in my car – music and books, but what does the car and the road say about us from a non-individual status?  What laws do we follow and why, what are the roads laid out before us and why do we subscribe to a set of nationally, and internationally, prescribed laws?

State Expression

As such it could be highlighted here that the need to observe the rules of the road are, essentially, laid in law by whichever, or whoever, is in control of the land itself.  That is, the road, and the population who drive on that road, are obeying the rules in a manner prescribed by the ruling power and as such act in that way.  This could be a potentially reductionist approach to understanding how countries or cultures approach driving and the road network, however it is also an intriguing area of interest.  Allow me to expound briefly on the above point.  The expression of the state is manifested by the obligation of the driver to obey the rule of the law on the road, whilst the interior environment of the car allows for a personal reflection of the identity via its material culture.  Aligned to this are group identities expressed in this way – they can be cultural, religious, personal, or idiosyncratic in nature.  We’ll take a very quick global tour to explore some of this expressions of individuality within group expression.  I’ll also highlight some of the cultural restrictions placed on car drivers in different countries as it can be easy to think that each country’s laws are similar to one another, but cultural restrictions play an important part in this as a projection of the country’s laws and beliefs.

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

Road space rationing is the term used to describe the strategy to limit road users using particular methods of restriction.  These can include methods such as no-drive days, alternate day travel, and general restrictions on road access.  The strategies are used globally as temporary or permanent measures to decrease vehicle use and environmental impact, largely in major cities but also with increasing use in major industrial countries such as China and India.  A similar method to this is the use of car-sharing lanes where privileged road, or lane, access is given to cars containing more than one person as an incentive to cut single person travelling.

In London, England, the permanent Congestion Charge Zone was introduced in 2003 to combat the growing number of vehicles entering the center of the capital city, as a means of cutting down environmental damage and of limiting the sheer volume of traffic.  Bikes, and notorious Boris Bikes, have been particularly targeted as the green and safe way to travel within the city center alongside the extensive public transportation routes.  Transport for London (TfL) have stated that there has been a 10% reduction in vehicle traffic in the decade since the introduction of the congestion charge, which has found favor with a number of residents of the city.  In the capital of France, Paris, a temporary scheme whereby owners of cars with odd or even number plates were not allowed into the city on that particular day or days was in place during a particularly polluted period in 2014.  Temporary measures such as this are largely aimed at immediately cutting smog that threatens, or has, blanketed the city in question.

Other methods include closing down particular routes or roads during particular days.  In São Paulo, Brasil’s biggest city, a normally packed 3.5 km section of the Minhocão highway (nicknamed ‘the Big Worm’) is returned for the use of pedestrians and cyclists only each weekday evening, Saturday afternoons and full Sundays during the summer period.  Whilst Minhocão has been partially closed to vehicles for 26 years, there has been a new movement to close down Avenida Paulista in the city on Sundays as well.  The schemes in São Paulo is used as an urban reclamation of roads, or transportation routes, as a matter to regain urban walkways and increase the use of public transportation and finds similarities with a number of schemes across the globe.  For instance in New York City, USA, the reclamation of the 1.45 km long High Line, an old railroad renovated as an elevated walkway festooned with shrubbery, has seen it become a major attraction within the city itself in its own right.


The car can become symbolic as in this case where it is the icon of a city forever on the move. The New York taxi is one such symbol and if encountered on its home turf is often accompanied by an incessant honking of the horn and the permanent background noise of a thousand ticking engines running over, forever stopping and starting. Photograph, on a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

New York City is both famous and infamous for its classic yellow cabs that litter the city.  To any driver from Europe, the roads of American cities can present a challenge as American cities are often built on the grid pattern, much like the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.  In such a busy and compacted city as New York this invariably means that the traffic never truly gets a chance to flow due to the traffic lights at each and every corner dictating who goes where when.  On a visit to the city that I was lucky enough to have last year I couldn’t help but notice the truly gigantic sounding board that the multi-storied buildings of Manhattan presented as the taxi drivers and drivers throughout the city incessantly honked their horn.  It surprised me, but also moved me in a way I had not expected – I was in the city of the movies, arguably the heart of the country itself in all of its architectural splendor and Freudian intimidation alongside the metaphorical American Dream representations.

As I come to the conclusion of this post I have presented a quick introduction to some of my thoughts, rounding down to international approaches to do with the increase in the number of the drivers and the damage wrought by diesel and petrol hungry engines in city centers, not to mention the natural environment.  Yet there is much more that I feel I ought to write, I haven’t touched on the interesting subculture of young male drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which steam is let off by drifting (or Tafheet) and other associated vehicular activities, not the mention the incredibly strict restrictions placed on females in the country (females are forbidden from driving, although this is not illegal per se, it is heavily policed with punishments handed out for females caught driving).  Nor have I mentioned the fascinating subculture of bōsōzoku in Japan, which centers around the customization of cars and motorcycles.

The post describing these subcultures can perhaps wait for another day as this post has reached a fairly substantial length already.

Disengaging the Engine

So those are my brief thoughts on a personal anthropology of driving with a few nods to international views and explorations.  Nothing substantial, just a brief overlay of ideas that percolate through my brain as I slip on my seat belt, engage the engine and accelerate away onto the tarmac before me and into the night ahead of me.

Influences & Further Reading

BBC & British Library Sound Archive. 2015. Noise: A Human History. An Ever Noisier World. Episode 29 of 30. BBC Radio 4.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014. Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains. New York: Springer.

Robb, P. 2005. A Death In Brazil: A Book of Omissions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Four of A Kind: Body Focused Books

7 Dec

There has been a recent spate of publications that will interest the wide variety of professions that study and work with the human body, and a few that will be of major interest to those in the bioarchaeological and anthropological fields who study both the physical remains of the body and the cultural context that these bodies lived, or live, in.  With the annual Christmas celebrations a matter of weeks away, I’d thought I’d highlight a few publications that could potentially be perfect presents for friends and family members who are interested in the human body, from anatomical inspection to the personal introspection of what my body, and yours, can inform us of ourselves and the world around us…


Cover shots of the four books discussed below.

Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis. London: Profile Books (in association with the Wellcome Collection). 

Having previously read Francis’s book on being a doctor in Antarctica and knowing that he has accrued a wealth of knowledge and experience of treating the body from a medical viewpoint in a wide variety of countries, I was intrigued to see this new publication by him, which focuses on different sections of the body as a jumping off point for the essays in this collection.  I’d recently read Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia from Anger to Wanderlust (which, coincidentally, is also published by Profile Books and the Wellcome Collection), which introduces over 150 different human emotions in an exciting combination of psychological, anthropological, historical and etymological mini essays on the human condition.  It was a thoughtful book and made me wonder about how we approach the body in bioarchaeology, whether our lexical terminology isolates and intimidates, frustrates and alienates those who we seek to engage and educate.  The Book of Human Emotions succinctly highlighted what we think is the universal, the standard charge sheet of emotions (anger, fear, joy, love, etc.) that can be found in cultures across the world, is actually not quite the case or clear-cut, and that they can be expressed and felt in different ways.  Francis’s book, I think, will also offer something as equally as thought-provoking.  Known not just for his medical expertise but also for the humanity of his writing, Francis’s exploration of the body, as a story we can each call our own, delves into the medical, philosophical and literature worlds to uncover the inner workings of the human body, in good health, in illness and in death.

Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practices of Nineteenth-Century Surgery by Richard Barnett. London: Thames & Hudson (in association with the Wellcome Collection).

I came across the above book purely by chance whilst out browsing bookstores in York recently and I have to say it is now on my festive wish list.  The medical historian Richard Barnett introduces a publication detailing the knowledge and variety of surgical practices available to the 19th century surgeon, focused largely on the presentation of the technical drawings produced in the era as a precise method for communicating the advancements made in a variety of treatments.  The publication introduces some of the earliest effective surgical techniques for dealing with devastating facial and limb injuries, either from disease processes, traumatic incidents or the outcomes of warfare, and documents the procedures used in re-configuring the body to alleviate the pain and the disfigurement suffered from such injuries and traumas.  It may not be for the faint of heart, but I could see that some modern-day surgeons may be interested to learn of past techniques, the tools and resources that they had, and the importance of always improving and building upon the innovations of the past.

Bioarchaeology: An integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod & Ventura R. Pérez. New York: Springer.

For any undergraduate or postgraduate student of archaeology that has a burgeoning interest in biarchaeology as a profession, I’d heavily encourage them (and the department) to get a copy of Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains by Martin, et al.  The volume concisely introduces the discipline and outlines the background to it, the theories and methodologies that have informed the theoretical and practical application of bioarchaeology, the current state of play with regards to legal and ethical frameworks, and, finally, the impact and the importance of bioarchaeology as a whole.  The volume also uses invigorating case studies to elucidate the methods of best practice and the impact of the points made throughout the volume.  It is an excellent guide to the discipline and well worth purchasing as a reference book.  Furthermore the volume is now out in paperback and it is very handy to have in your backpack, partly as a one stop reference for any theories or methodologies currently used in bioarchaeology but also as a pertinent remainder of the value of what we do as bioarchaeologists and why we do it.

Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care by Lorna Tilley. New York: Springer (Hardback only at the moment).

The post before this one has already detailed the aim and scope of this publication but I feel it is worth highlighting here again.  The bioarchaeology of care, and the associated online Index of Care application, aims to provide the bioarchaeologists with the tools for a case study framework for identifying the likelihood of care provision in the archaeological record by providing four stages of analysis in any individual skeleton exhibiting severe physical impairment, as a result of a disease process or acquired trauma.  The methodology takes in the importance of palaeopathology (the identification and diagnosis, where possible, of pathological disease processes in skeletal remains which has a firm basis in modern clinical data) but also the archaeological, cultural, geographic and economic contexts, to examine whether receipt of care is evidenced.  In the publication Tilley documents and investigates a number of prehistoric case studies, ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, and determines the likelihood of care and the type of care that was needed for the individuals under study to survive to their age at death.  The theoretical background and implications, alongside the ethical grounding of the methodology and the concerns in terminology, are also documented at length.  Perhaps most importantly, this is a methodology that is open to improvement and to the use within current and future research projects.  It is also a method that can be used first hand when examining skeletal remains or from the literature itself (where available to a good enough standard).


The above publications are, to me, some of the most interesting that I have seen recently, but I am always on the look out for more.  Please note that the average costs of the books above are within the £10.00-£20.00 range, but prices will vary significantly.  The hardback academic publications can be quite expensive (+ £70), however once the volume is out in paperback the price tends to fall steeply.  If you can recommend anything please let me know in the comments below.

And Finally a Stocking Filler…

The University of Durham is playing host to a one day conference entitled Little Lives, focusing on new perspectives on the bioarchaeology of children, both their life course and their health, for the very fair price of £10.00 on the 30th of January 2016.  The Facebook group for the conference can be found here.  Alternatively contact the conference organizers via the Durham University webpage here to secure a place (something I must do soon!).


Please note that the call for papers date has now passed and that the conference program has now been finalized.

Further Information

  • The Wellcome Trust, which helps operate the Wellcome Collection, is an independent global charity foundation dedicated to improving health by funding biomedical research and medical education.  The charity also has a keen focus on the medical humanities and social sciences, and it recognizes the importance of running educational workshops, programs and outreach events.  Find out more information on the charity here.

Guest Post: An Archaeologist, an Anthropologist and an Anarchist Walk into a Bar… by Stuart Rathbone

3 May

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to pursue an archaeology career in the United States.  His Academia profile, with links to Stuart’s published papers, can be found here.  A previous These Bones of Mine interview, on the nature of archaeological field work and the issues surrounding this, can be found here .  He also runs the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology group on Facebook and is also quite fond of hardcore jungle music.

There are many different ways of classifying societies based for instance on levels of technology, on economic organisation, on the size of their area of influence and so on.  A very fundamental scheme is to divide societies into those that are organised hierarchically and those which are organised anarchically, i.e. without a hierarchic class or power structure.  Anarchic organisation has long been recognised but it took a surprisingly long time for anthropologists and archaeologists to develop a convincing understanding of them.  The ‘segmented lineage systems’ that were the focus of research by the likes of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s and Meyer Fortes between the 1930’s and 1950’s represent early attempts to understand how complex societies could exist without obvious hierarchical power structures (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Fortes 1945).  Reading these accounts it becomes clear that a major problem was the frequent presence of defined leaders within societies that were not organised hierarchically.

A major breakthrough occurred when Harold Barclay developed his ‘limited leadership’ model which highlighted the widespread phenomenon of anarchic communities that utilised leaders with very defined levels of power and authority, whose rewards from claiming the leadership role are rather difficult to determine, and who are essentially beholden to the collective will of their community (Barclay 1982; 1986; 1989).  The existence of a chief in the limited leadership model is more akin to a spokesman than a ruler.  The leader must discuss with the group to gauge the collective feeling and then present what has essentially already been agreed to as the leaders decision.  With no equivalent to a police force or military guard to call on to enforce their will limited leaders have little individual power.  Attempts to take actions against the prevailing mood fail, and the leader ends up undermined and in danger of ridicule or dismissal, and, in extreme cases, in danger of being killed.  Similarly attempts by such a leader to consolidate their power or to exploit the power they have by claiming too many rewards will likely lead to their expulsion or death.  As William Geddes pointed out in regards to the Dayak tribes of Borneo, “the Dayaks are anarchists” who are led by the nominal headman “only when they agree to be led” (Geddes 1957).

A second very important model was developed by the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres (Clastres 1977; 2010).  Whilst Clastres covers some of the same ground as Barclay, in particular demonstrating eloquently the dangers of a limited leader in over extending their authority, the main thrust of his work is his notion of the ‘Society against the State’.  Clastres argues that the constant levels of warfare seen amongst many ‘simple’ societies should not be seen as an unfortunate social factor restricting the development of more complex social forms.  Rather Clastres proposes that it is a deliberate strategy that has developed specifically in order to stop societies adopting hierarchical forms that would ultimately lead to state formation.  In this model warfare is a vital process that is used specifically to maintain individual and community autonomy, at the cost of forfeiting whatever benefits hierarchical organisation might bring.  Interestingly this model interferes with the commonly used social evolutionary schemes, such as the influential model promoted by Elman Service that sees society progress from band to tribe to chiefdom to kingdom before arriving at the ‘goal’ of statehood.  Instead Clastres model divides all societies into States and Societies against the State which are not stages in a linear progression.  Instead societies switch between the two forms, with the switch to hierarchical organisation often triggered through outside influences.  A switch from hierarchic to anarchic forms can occur through various circumstances, either violent resistance, migration or through social collapse.


Typical ideas of social evolutionary progress as promoted by the likes of Elman Service and Colin Renfrew.

The work of both Clastres and Barclay remained somewhat peripheral until quite recently when a number of researchers began building on the foundations they established.  Recently David Graeber, Charles Macdonald and Brian Morris have all produced interesting work that explores different aspects of anarchic anthropology (Graeber 2004; Macdonald 2008 & 2009; Morris 2005).  In 2012 Bill Angelbeck and Colin Grier published a paper that represented the first time that archaeological data was explicitly examined from an anarchic perspective (Angelbeck & Grier 2012).  The paper reviews historical records of the Coast Salish Indian groups of the pacific coast of North America and identifies a complex limited leadership system that boarders on being a class structure.  The ‘inverted pear shaped model’ takes anarchic organisation to the very limit.  The majority of each group belonged to an ‘elite’ class that are supported by a tiny lower class stratum consisting of war captives held as slaves, and outcasts from other groups.  A clear leadership strata was present, but these positions were held by merit and the boundary between the ‘elite’ majority and the leadership group was permeable in both directions depending on performance.  The paper goes on to examine archaeological data from the Salish Coast area over a two thousand year time span.  The authors identify a repeating pattern of shifts between hierarchical organisation and anarchic organisation with periods of increased warfare apparently preceding each shift towards anarchic conditions.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

At the start of 2015 Robert Bettinger published a book length account of Californian societies based on a large review of archaeological evidence (Bettinger 2015).  The narrative describes a gradual reduction in social group size, linked to developments in technology and changes in the environment.  Bettinger argues that these changes led to the widespread and prolonged existence of small non-hierarchical social groups he characterises as ‘orderly anarchy’.  A symposium was organised at the 2015 Society for American Archaeologists conference to discuss the implications of Bettinger’s work and this suggests a widening interest in the archaeological use of anarchist theory.

Anarchic Archaeology in Britain and Ireland

Given the much greater separation between archaeology and anthropology that exists in Britain and Ireland than is found in America and Europe it is perhaps unsurprising that developments in anarchic anthropology have attracted little attention.  Earlier this year I published a short paper that might represent the first attempt to produce an anarchic archaeology in either Britain or Ireland, although there may well be earlier examples that I am not aware of (Rathbone 2015).  My ongoing research is attempting to fuse the developments in anarchic anthropology with ideas and theories culled directly from political anarchist literature.  Anarchism as a political movement developed in the mid-19th century and there is a vast body of anarchist literature, a substantial proportion of which deals with an anarchist reading of history and archaeology.  This material can be quite wayward and is often an unrealistic reading of the data.  Nevertheless anarchist history is interesting in that it offers different interpretations of well-known events, presents different motivations for why things may have occurred, offers sympathetic accounts of groups and individuals widely criticised in main stream history, and looks at topics that attract little interest elsewhere.  In addition to anarchist history I have been attempting to understand anarchist political theory with the aim of seeing if any of the numerous proposals (and the smaller number of real world examples) of how complex societies can operate in the absence of centralised government might have useful applications in archaeology.  Whilst this is all very much a work in progress, here I want to present four examples of how such a fusion of anarchism and archaeology might be usefully applied, two dealing with prehistoric subjects and two dealing with the post-Medieval world.

Identifying state formation

I suspect most archaeologists would be comfortable with the idea that anarchic groups were present throughout the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods when we suspect only small mobile hunter gather groups were present.  On the other hand it is clear that several centuries before the Roman invasion of Britain state formation had occurred across large areas and that a reasonably stratified society was in place.  What can be gleaned from the proto-historic accounts relating to the Late Irish Iron Age also indicate that the county was dominated by a number of small states with each community enmeshed in a complex network of obligations and responsibilities to their states rulers.  An important question is therefore whether we can identify the process of state formation somewhere between the onset of the Neolithic period and the end of the Early or Middle Iron Age.  It would seem likely that such a process would be complex and occur in different parts of Britain and Ireland at different times.  This may not have been a simple evolutionary process along the lines of Service’s model.  Instead we might find a repeated flipping between anarchic ‘anti-states’ and hierarchical states.  Such a process could explain the oddities in the settlement patterns where we can observe repeated failed attempts at introducing villages to areas dominated by dispersed settlements (Ginn & Rathbone 2012; Ginn 2013; Rathbone 2013a, Rathbone 2013b & 2015).  Each location where villages began to develop could mark the beginnings of a transition towards hierarchical organisation.  The abandonment of villages in a given area might mark a society rejecting the existence of the hierarchies and choosing to return to an anarchic state.  If so we might expect to find evidence of increased violence coinciding with the end of village life at a particular time and place.

Central to the ‘Society against the State’ model is the use of violence between neighbouring group as a method to stop the formation of hierarchical power structures.  Violence is also a common feature within non-hierarchical groups where consensus building and sanctions such as taboos, gossip and mockery have failed to resolve a problem.  Contrary to the utopian visions of political anarchists it seems that when no method to exert authority exists and an impasse in opinions has been reached violence may be the only solution.  Steven Pinker has explored the level of violence in societies across a great span of time and demonstrated rather convincingly that as hierarchical control expands the aggregate level of violence declines (Pinker 2011).  Pinker argues that as state authority has spread across the world and states have claimed ever increasing levels of control over their populations the effect is a drastic reduction in overall violence that he dubs ‘the civilising process’.  Despite the ability of modern states to kill tens of thousands of people in a matter of moments, the monopoly they have claimed over the application of lethal force has led to ever decreasing death rates.  It would seem therefore that decreasing levels of violence can be directly related to the development of hierarchical authority.  There have been numerous attempts to determine the level of violence present at different points in the archaeological record but it remains a difficult task given the incomplete nature of the burial record.  However it does seem that actual skeletal evidence of violence is most common in the European Early Neolithic period and declines after that point, although both the Late Bronze Age and Late Iron Age do seem to also be particularly violent periods (Heath 2009; Rathbone 2015).

This is clearly not the place to present a full interpretation of several millennia’s evidence.  Instead a few elements from a single time period, the Early Neolithic, are offered as an example of how such analysis might proceed.  Martin Smith and Megan Brickley’s study of the skeletal remains from Early Neolithic long barrows revealed a high level of violence that is certainly consistent with anarchic societies (Smith & Brickley 2009).  Similarly the number of Early Neolithic enclosures in Britain that seem to have been attacked by massed forces are exactly what we might expect among neighbouring anarchic societies.  Recent C14 analysis suggests that the use of large long houses in the Early Neolithic came to an abrupt end around 3600 BC.  Jessica Smyth has detailed the high proportion of Early Neolithic longhouses that were burnt down, but favours this as a ritual burning at the end of the occupation (Smyth 2010 & 2014).  However such burning is consistent with anarchic violence and the number of arrowheads and axes associated with these buildings may be more important in terms of their relationship with violence rather than ceremony.  This evidence would be consistent with a widespread implementation of ‘the Society against the State’ and the far less impressive settlement pattern that follows the Long House horizon may therefore mark a shift to smaller anarchic communities.

Anarcho-Federalist Henge Builders?

The monumental construction projects that form such a prominent part of Late Neolithic archaeology are often described as being the work of a specialised ‘ritual elite’ capable of designing and project managing such great undertakings.  In fact much of the language used in discussions of this phenomenon seems curiously anachronistic, with terms like engineers, architects and man hours appearing jarringly misplaced.  Whilst clearly large scale projects involving sizeable groups of people, the evidence to support the presence of these ‘ritual elites’ is curiously absent.  In general the monuments are not associated with either large settlements or large elite residences, and the designs of the monuments themselves seem ill-fitted to be used for the aggrandisement of particularly powerful individuals or groups.  If an elite was really present they seem remarkably restrained in terms of their desire to emphasise their personal power and authority.  There has been little discussion of the mechanisms through which an elite could coerce a large workforce into undertaking decades long construction projects without leaving any obvious traces of a military force or an economic system that would allow for suitable payment of a willing workforce.  The monumental complexes certainly provide ample evidence of an ability to co-ordinate a large number of people working on a significant task, and an ability to utilise resources drawn from a considerable area.  In the 1970’s there were important debates about the existence or absences of elites throughout the prehistoric periods of Britain.  This seems to have reached somewhat of an impasse and a default position of accepting the presence of elites was adopted in lieu of a better explanation (Parker Pearson 2012).

Two areas of anarchist theory seem to offer useful lines of research.  The first is the idea of the anarchist federation which was initially promoted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun and enthusiastically taken up by Petr Kropotkin amongst many others (Marshall 2008).  In the anarchist federation individual groups co-operate in order to undertake tasks that would be beyond their own abilities.  The federation is organised in such a way that the individual groups retain most of their autonomy and only grant the federation the authority to organise for the specific agreed tasks.  Whilst a fully developed federation might superficially resemble a hierarchical power structure the emphasis on consensus building and the limitations placed on the power of its members mean it operates quite differently.  A large number of autonomous groups living over a considerable area might form such a federation in order to accomplish specific tasks, such as the monumental religious building projects seen in the Late Neolithic.  Interestingly there is a significant decrease in the skeletal evidence for violence in the Late Neolithic (Heath 2009).  As explained above this could have resulted from a more authoritarian political structure, but it could potentially have derived from the presence of a non-hierarchical structure that allowed neighbouring groups to co-operate without surrendering their autonomy, thus reducing the need for constant aggression.

Nick Card has suggested that variations in the individual buildings within the oversized settlement at the Ness of Brodgar in the centre of Orkney might indicate that each building belonged to a particular group living in a particular part of the archipelago that came to gather at the site for seasonal gatherings (Card 2013).  The use of distinctive architectural differences between the buildings could have been used to signify the autonomy and independence of the different communities whilst residing in such close proximity.  The colossal construction projects undertaken in the area around the settlement would be a testimony to how successfully such a federation could operate.  Based on a series of early C14 dates it has been suggested that Orkney may have been the origin of the religious practices that came to dominate much of Britain and Ireland during the Late Neolithic.  If this is correct then perhaps the key to the successful spread of the ‘Orkney style’ was not the content of the ceremonies or the design of the monuments, but the development of social schemes that allowed larger scale communal projects to be undertaken without necessitating the surrender of individual and group autonomy to an elite strata that might trigger violent resistance.

The second part of anarchist theory that seems useful in this area is the idea of ‘zerowork’ as promoted by Bob Black in his highly influential essay “the abolition of work” (Black 1986).  This line of argument has considerable ancestry within left wing writing and elements of it can be found in Paul Lafargue’s “the right to be lazy”, in Bertrand Russels, “In praise of Idleness” and even George Orwell’s “Down and out in Paris and London” (Lafargue 1907; Russel 1935; Orwell 1933).  The central theme is that much work is essentially pointless, once you remove the need to generate an excess of wealth to be turned over to an exploitative elite.  If the need to generate surplus profit is removed the overall workload on a society would be vastly reduced.  With an overabundance of labour the remaining work could be evenly shared out between the whole group leading to a vastly reduced amount of work hours for each individual, and given that the work had an obvious utility and was not of an arduous length, work would be transferred into something far more enjoyable, akin to a form of play.  The principles of zerowork do seem to have some justification in the anthropological and archaeological record; it has been repeatedly suggested that the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering or horticulture can be identified with a large decline in the health of a population and a considerable increase in work hours (Diamond 1987).  Furthermore many accounts of traditional societies clearly demonstrate that many tasks were infused with a very un-work like sense of fun and play, and many societies that were not part of a developed economic system seem to have spent much of their effort creating surpluses in order to throw feasts and parties (Metcalf 2010).

The Late Neolithic monument complexes have produced extensive evidence for feasting at a quite excessive scale.  Traditionally these have been seen to be feasts that took place once the construction phase was completed.  A zerowork interpretation would turn this idea around and see the monuments as something that happened as a side effect of communities getting together to hold feasts.  Rather than attempting to calculate the number of ‘man-hours’ that it would take for a group to complete a construction project perhaps it would be better to try and estimate the number of parties that had been held.  Alex Gibson has argued that timber circles were seldom ‘completed’ and that the building process was what was more important than the finished product, which might conform better to zerowork rather than modern notions of a construction project (Gibson 1998).

The recent discoveries at Durrington Walls would certainly make an interesting example to review in terms of Anarchist Federations and Zerowork; not only was there evidence for co-operation of communities from a wide area, the settlement evidence does not so far support the presence of a defined elite, and the associated animal bones assemblage not only suggests feasting on a phenomenal scale, it is clear that the feasting at the site had begun long before the construction of the main bank and ditch (Parker Pearson 2012).

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

Island Paradises

Islands have special characteristics that have long made them the focus of Utopian thinkers, from Plato to Huxley.  During the development of travel writing and antiquarian investigations during the 18th and 19th century the accounts of the Atlantic Islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland often fall into two camps, those that are horrified by the primitive conditions and those that idealise the rugged isolation and the simple lifestyles of the islanders (O’Sullivan 2008).  Recent archaeological accounts of the Atlantic Islands have presented rigorous re-evaluation of the isolation of island life, contending that the islanders were neither peripheral people nor particularly isolated from the contemporary world (Flemming 2005; Dwyer 2009).  Flemming’s review of St Kilda seeks to reduce the isolation of the island and show that despite the distances involved St Kilda was part of an aristocratic territory, entangled in local politics and in particular subject to enthusiastic taxation and rent collection.

The political organisation of the St Kildans is particularly interesting.  The morning meeting, dubbed ‘the parliament’ by 19th century visitors, involved all the men on the island gathering to discuss any issues and make plans for the days activities.  The ‘parliament’ had no formal offices and each man had an equal right to speak an equal vote.  Apparently the woman of the island organised their affairs through a similar meeting, although this features far less prominently in the literature.  According to Tom Steel when there were no tasks that required urgent attention the meeting could last all day, breaking only for lunch, as the men essentially slacked off and gossiped (Steel 1975).  The resources of the island were shared out equally among the community and many aspects of life were subject to communal ownership. A nominal leader, the maor, was a non-hereditary title awarded through merit.  The maor had some ability to resolve disputes but the principle duty was to take the lead during climbing expeditions.  The maor also had the unenviable task of conducting negotiations with the Steward during the annual visit to collect tariffs.  The maor was expected to represent the islanders wishes to such an extent that the steward would strike him three times about the head with a cudgel in a ritualised act of violence.

Despite the predatory relationship with the adjacent state it seems very clear that St Kildan society was organised anarchically, complete with a limited leader.  The relationship with the neighbouring state was clearly exploitative but the St Kildans did receive goods and equipment from the state that they were not able to provide for themselves.  In addition they were able to actively resist the state to some degree. Flemming includes several brief description of such resistance; when a taxman attempted to apply a new tariff he was driven off by the men of the island, when a policeman arrived to arrest a suspected sheep thief the islanders formed a protective cordon around the man and the attempt was abandoned, when the islanders refused to renegotiate a measurement of corn being taken from an advantageously worn vessel, the way the islanders habitually disguised the quantities of various resources from state officials and, more sinisterly, several tales of suspected spies being murdered to protect the islanders privacy and secrets.

Other Atlantic islands also seem to have aspects of anarchic organisation, particularly the presence of limited leaders such as the Rí Thoraí (king) of Tory Island, County Donegal and the ‘Kings’ of the Blasket Islands, County Kerry and the Inishkeas, County Mayo, which seem to be perfect examples of rulers without power.  At present it is not clear how many of the small Atlantic Islands had anarchic political structures and when these individually came to an end.  Although technically owned by large landlords, it seems that many of the smaller island communities were largely left to organise themselves as long as they continued to pay their annual dues.  Had they offered strong resistance to the state authorities they would surely have been harshly sanctioned and the same sort of compromise was used that we see in place with the essentially anarchic Anabaptist communities in North America (Shuster 1983).  The small Atlantic islands might therefore be seen to lie somewhere in between what Hakim Bey has defined as Temporary Autonomous Zones and Permanent Autonomous Zones (Bey 1985 & 1993).

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo.  We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo. We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

Pirate Utopias

The anarchist idea of pirate utopias seems to have derived from the writing of William S Burroughs, who developed a whole pseudo mythology based on the account of Captain Misson found in “A general history of pirates” published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson (suspected to be a pseudonym of either Daniel Defoe or the publisher Nathaniel Mist).  The account details the apparently fictitious life of Captain James Misson, the ‘articles’ under which his ship sailed and the colony they founded on the coast of Madagascar, Libertaria.  Piracy is a complex subject that has many incarnations around the world, and was often a state sanctioned or sponsored activity.  The anarchist interest in pirate utopias principally focuses on the ‘golden age of piracy’ in the late 17th and early 18th century and centres on the possibility of pirate crews that rejected state authority, organised themselves in a manner consistent with anarchist principles and established communities where they were free to create their own ‘lawless’ anarchies.  Whilst this might seem a ridiculous fantasy, especially given the suspect nature of the original source material, there may be something to it.  Peter Lamborn Wilson has argued that the story of Captain Misson may indeed be fictitious but given how little critical commentary it attracted at the time it was presumably consistent with some common understanding of pirate enclaves (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  In fact the ‘articles’ under which Misson sailed and Libertaria functioned are a reflection of the wide spread codes of conduct used amongst pirates that were indeed referred to as articles.

In the Bay of Honduras these rules of conduct and obligations were eventually formalised by a British Naval officer in 1765 and this version is referred to as Burnaby’s Code.  Crucial to the anarchist reading of pirates, Burnaby’s code operated without empowering individuals with titles such as magistrate or judge, it was an example of a formalised collective justice (Finamore 2006).  The archaeology of piracy is in some regards a new subject, leaving to one side the hunt for the wrecks of known pirate vessels, few of which have been successful until very recently.  A limited amount of work has been undertaken on pirate settlements and the results of some of this work are rather surprising.  Lamborn Wilson has written at length about the history of the Pirate Republic of Salé, a large settlement located across the river from Rabat in Morocco (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  Whilst Salé may have been a pirate utopia of sorts, it is hard to see how it may have operated in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, particularly given the role it had in the slave trade.  It seems that Salé is best regarded as a curiously late example of a European city state which depended on piracy to support its economy.  Ultimately Salé may not pass muster, but historians and archaeologists have been able to locate more convincing examples of pirate settlements that fulfil the utopian requirement to a reasonable degree.

A large number of settlements were established by English pirates along the coast of Belize as the golden age of piracy came to its end.  These settlements relied on trading contraband logwood and the settlement of Bacarades, located along the Belize River, is unique in that it has been subject to detailed archaeological investigation (Finamore 2006).  The archaeological research agreed with historical accounts that describe these settlements as consisting of dwellings of only the most simple forms. Nonetheless the range of artefacts present, and in particular the misappropriation of fine goods, especially ceramics, seems to represent an enactment of Hakim Bey’s  notion of ‘radical aristocracy’ (Bey 1985).  Historical accounts suggest the life of cutting logs may have been tedious and dull in the extreme but the one of the main aims of the work seems to have been to provide alcohol for communal drinking, something entirely akin with traditional anarchic horticultural and hunter gathering groups.

If the port of Salé seems little different to a hierarchical city state and the logging camps along the coast of Belize ultimately seem a little dull, the settlement created by English pirates on St Mary’s Island off the east coast of Madagascar really does seem to meet every expectation of a pirate utopia (de Bry 2006).  In a secluded bay on the islands western coast numerous pirates were resident between the 1680’s and the 1720’s including the well-known Captain William Kidd.  The base was used for activities across the Indian Ocean, and during the monsoon season many pirates spent extended stays at the settlement.  As with the Belize pirates the dwellings were generally of the simplest kind, but the pirates apparently fulfilled every stereotype when it came to bedecking themselves in flamboyant clothes, gold and jewels, another enactment of the radical aristocrat theme.  Eventually a merchant based in the settlement, Adam Baldridge, made enough money to construct a sizeable dwelling on Ils des Forbans (Pirate Island), a small islet located in the centre of the bay, which apparently really was underlain by a mysterious system of tunnels that have yet to be explored!  The settlement on St Mary’s Island so closely resembles the anarchist idea of Libertaria it is difficult not to think that this may have been the real world source for the fictional Captain Misson.  One interesting element of the Misson story is the friendly relationship established with the native groups around Libertaria.  Remarkably St Mary’s even lives up to this and the pirates routinely married local Malagasy women, who they draped with “gold, diamonds, sapphires and rubies”.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island (Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar) which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

Moving away from exotic locations half way around the world, Connie Kelleher has examined the archaeological remains of pirate communities along the coast of County Cork (Kelleher 2009 & 2013).  These pirate settlements were initially occupied by English pirates and their families who had relocated from Devon and Cornwall after piracy was outlawed in England at the start of the seventeenth century.  The pirates operated with the tacit approval of the crown, and the pirate settlements were essentially an early stage in the Munster plantation.  Acting in a semi-official capacity and not beholden to the indigenous Gaelic Lordship whose authority had finally collapsed after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, these pirates enjoyed a rather privileged and secure position.

It could be argued that the close links to the crown removes them from the anarchist ideal, but on the other hand the lack of persecution can actually be seen as adding to the utopian nature of the occupation and they might therefore represent Permanent Autonomous Zones (PAZ).  This official sanction is quite different to the traditional forms of piracy previously operated by the Gaelic Lords around the Irish coast, and from similar forms operating around the Scottish coast.  Gaelic piracy was organised and controlled by hereditary aristocracies and does not therefore meet the anarchist ideal, despite the romanticism attached to characters such as Grace O’Malley, the so called Pirate Queen of Clew Bay.  Furthermore the West Cork pirates operated under the same sorts of codes of conduct utilised during the Golden Age of piracy.  Each crew operated individually but the codes provided a format through which they could combine forces for more ambitious projects, returning us again to the idea of anarchist federations.  The numerous remains of the pirate occupation that Kelleher has recorded may therefore represent the most extensive remains of a pirate utopia that have so far been the subject of archaeological examination.


Obviously what has been presented above are merely brief summaries of complicated arguments.  They were not intending to convince anyone that these anarchic interpretations were correct, rather the intent was to demonstrate how much potential anarchic approaches might have for a whole range of topics. Each of the examples discussed here is worth a much fuller examination, and as it happens I am currently working on a book that will explore many aspects of anarchic anthropology, anarchic archaeology and various aspects of political anarchism that might be usefully appropriated.  These examples will be explored in that book, alongside many others, although serious questions remain as to whether I can ever find a publisher for such an unruly tome.  In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to the subject and that some of you might also consider hoisting the black flag over your areas of interest.

Learn More


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Kelleher, C. 2013. Pirate Ports and Harbours of West Cork in the Early Seventeenth Century. Journal of Maritime Archaeology. 8(2): 347-366.

Lafargue, P. 1907. The Right to be Lazy and Other Studies. Chicago: Charles H Kerr Ltd.

Lamborn Wilson, P. 2003. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegades. New York: Autonomedia.

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Metcalf, P. 2010. The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Parker Pearson, M. 2012. Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stoneage Mystery. London: Simon & Shulster.

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Bits & Pieces: Open Archgaming Research, Buried, Sulawesi Art, & Desert Island Archaeologies

9 Oct

There have been a few things I’ve been meaning to highlight recently on the blog, but I thought I’d just highlight them in a single entry for your pleasure!

  • As readers of the blog may be aware I’ve never really covered archaeological gaming before.  I’ve been reading the fantastic Archaeology of Tomb Raider blog by Kelly M for a while though, and I understand that gaming is playing a fundamental role in how the general population are introduced to archaeology and cultural heritage at relatively early ages.  Gaming archaeology is fast becoming a unique way of conducting research at the intersection of gaming technology and archaeological research, often using multidisciplinary approaches.  I’ve recently discovered the delightful Archaeogaming blog, where the author has decided to be fully open about his research plans.  This includes posting copies of his original PhD research proposal and the revised edition that he has now submitted to the University of York, which has a recognised digital archaeology research cluster.  The department also offer a new MSc in Digital Archaeology, which looks pretty exciting.  The fact that Archaeogaming put up his research proposals is a great breakdown in the often secretive world of PhD applications (though of course many blogs are also breaking this down).  The posts were particularly informative for me in understanding how to structure a proposal – the content was interesting, invigorating and now I want to know what happens next!  I wish Archaogaming good luck.
  • The blog actually led me to me next port of call which is the fantastic free online text base game Buried, produced by University of York researcher Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham.  The game, produced for Tara’s MSc dissertation as a proof of concept and entered into the University of York’s 2014 Heritage Jam, offers the gamer an interactive opportunity to learn about archaeology by role-playing in a wide variety of opportunities.  As Tara states on her website: You play as a young archaeologist who has just returned from a field season and is grappling with the ups and downs of personal life, academia, archaeology, the past, the present and hopes for the future (Copplestone 2014).  The game itself is fairly short, but it is packed full of background on the process and meaning of archaeological investigation, covering a number of different theoretical underpinnings and approaches.  You can also change a wide variety of options so the game is instantly re-playable for any number of times.  I cannot recommend taking part in the game enough, it is a thoroughly rewarding and innovative experience which offers a stimulating environment  to learn both about archaeology and yourself.  Archaeogaming also a full great review of the game here, which is what initially alerted me to Buried’s existence.  Tara also has a number of different archaeology games at her main site here, it is well worth a look!

    buriedgame tara copplestone

    The opening shot of the fantastic ergodic literature style game Buried, by Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham. Not only does this game introduce to the public what post-excavation archaeology is like but it also interlays the information and choices that the player can make, making the game eminently re-playable. Click to play here. Image credit: Copplestone & Botham.

  • Meanwhile I recently had the great chance to participate in UCL researcher Lorna Richardson’s Desert Island Archaeologies project.  Lorna’s interesting project is aimed at highlighting the Top Ten archaeology books that you would take away with you if you were deserted on an island in the middle of a great vast ocean.  So far there have been 14 very interesting entries from around the world of archaeology, with people such as BAJR’s David Connolly and Microburin’s Spence Carter (Yorkshire central!) taking part in it.  As you’d probably expect by now my entry was fairly eclectic, mixing the core human osteology and bioarchaeology textbooks with some of my favourite literature (bit of García Márquez) and travel books (Can’t beat Cees Nooteboom!).  If you’re an archaeologist or at all involved in cultural heritage or history I recommend sending Lorna an email saying  you’d be interested in participating.  One of my personal favourite entries so far is the succinct archaeologist Tom Cromwell, who links to a beautiful article by Kent V. Flannery (1982) detailing the wonderful world of archaeology in a creative and eye-opening piece of writing.  The Flannery article is also the origin of the wonderful phrase that archaeology is the most fun you can have with your pants on!
  • Finally there has been some incredible news regarding the cave art (human hand stencils and animal paintings) in Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The extensive and beautiful hand and animal markings located on the Maros-Panpkep karst landscapes of Sulawesi, originally thought to date to under 10,000 years old or so,  has now been re-dated using new uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems to around 27,000 to 40,000 years old (Aubert et al. 2014).  This is amazing news as it makes it some of the oldest cave art in the world (that is parietal art), located far outside of Western Europe, which has long been thought to be the nexus of this crucial development of art by Homo sapiens (Roebroecks 2014: 170).  The research also just goes to show the value of re-investigating old archaeological sites using new technologies and calibrations.  Indonesia is fast becoming of the most interesting archaeological landscapes.  For further information the BBC have an article here with some great photographs of the site and the Guardian article can be found here.  Nature also have a video up here, which places the artwork into the context of human artwork globally.

One of the panels of rock art at the site of Leang Timpuseng highlighting the dated coralloid speleotherms (that formed and acculminated after the art work was completed) and associated paintings. The kartst limestone environment of Maros-Pangkep is rich in such rock art works (Aubert et al. 2014: 224).

10/09/14 Correction

Sulawesi was incorrectly spelled on the initial blog entry.  Further to this the latest scientific articles have been added to the bibliography and detailed in the entry about the site above.


Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T., Saptomo, E. W., Hakim, B., Morwood, M. J., van den Bergh, G. D., Kinsley, L. & Doesseto, A. 2014. Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi. Nature. 514: 223-227.

Flannery, K. V. The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archaeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist. 84 (2): 265-278. (Open Access).

Roebroeks, W. Art on the Move. Nature. 514 : 170-171.

Quick Mention: ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’ By Ann Oakley

1 Oct

I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time.  The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile.  Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley.  After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.

Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating.  Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).


Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’.  The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society.  This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period.  As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self.  The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.

This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America.  The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism.  The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).

The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32).  The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted.  Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008).  Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).

For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event.  It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.

This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes.  By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.


Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness5 (1): 83-94.

Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.