Assembling the cosmology of colour in the Neolithic

I invite you, reading this blog post, to come on a fractal journey with me, into the far depths of the origins of our society. That might sound a little intense for some light online reading, but really it’s just like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Well, maybe one of those complicated double-sided intensely patterned jigsaw that has a few pieces missing.

Thinking about the theoretical framework of my research, and about just how my results will fit into the wider archaeological understanding of the Neolithic, I found I was lacking a definitive way to present my work. Falling back upon some fondly-remembered philosophical discussions with co-workers in my Waterstones days, I went back over the work of Deleuze; in particular, his assemblage theory. Shortly after this, at the NEBARSS 2016 event, I saw a fellow researcher enthuse about the application of assemblage in archaeology, and it set the grey matter working.

To summarize the original work by Deleuze is a little like trying to distil a Monet masterpiece into a paint by numbers kit, but I will attempt it (for a slightly more in depth, but very accessible and well written description, I recommend this blog post). Briefly put, societies, cultures, and other complex social systems are vast entities that do not evolve in a set and predictable manner, but instead are an assemblage formed of almost innumerate processes that both influence and are influenced by each other in a vast fractal pattern. They area mosaic created of heterogeneous features, that interact with each other in ways both obvious and subtle, which has the effect of making them difficult to predict. Difficult, but not impossible.

I propose, then, to develop an idea of the assemblage of Neolithic cosmology, in particular, the components within it that are related to colour. If I can construct patterns based on observations – drawing together evidence for colour selection and its relation to a whole host of other features such as origin of stone, significant alignments, shape, relationship with local and regional topography, location within the monument – then I can begin to construct a rudimentary diagram of how the vast assemblage of Neolithic cosmology fits together.

To imagine how I would do this, I looked at my socks. Bear with me on this one.

Socks are daily wear in winter for a significant proportion of British adults, due mainly to the fact that the British weather making it somewhat uncomfortable to do otherwise. It is a near universal experience for the group of people I identify as being part of. Should a 26th century archaeologist recover some perfect condition socks from my (inevitably eclectic) grave goods selection, what would they infer from the fact that they are rainbow striped? Let us look at the assemblage of rainbow striped sock wearing in 21st century Britain:

  • Necessity – protection from the elements, and to avoid unpleasant feet. Not much clue here as to why rainbow stripes are necessary. Perhaps some idea of the totemic value of rainbow guarding against the rain (look, I’m assuming future archaeologists will come up with equally hilarious ideas for common place objects as current ones. I, for one, once argued that Stonehenge was an arena for primitive space hopper racing events using inflated pig bladders. Not entirely serious, but you never know).
  • Expression of a particular identity – a cultural historian should be able to enlighten the archaeologist on the adoption of the rainbow by particular groups, particularly LGBTQ individuals/groups and to some extent alternative lifestyle cultures commonly denoted under the generalising catch-all title of “hippies” by the establishment. (As I belong somewhat peripherally to both groups, they would be onto something there, though I don’t think it’s *why* I chose the socks)
  • Availability – what if the shop had nothing but rainbow socks?
  • Trends and popularity – black socks were so last century.
  • Material advances – cheapness of bright colour dyes in relation to earlier periods in time.
  • Family or friendship connections – perhaps they were a gift that were worn out of duty? Or a cherished present from a deceased family member, a kind of 21st century ancestral heirloom?
  • Political or social statements – perhaps they were worn as a deliberate act of social rebellion? Or social conformity to a particular group? Or solidarity with a certain cause?

If you know a few pieces of information for any of the above facets, you can make some inferences about others; and once you’ve done that, you can extrapolate your ideas out into having wider implications for society as a whole. I’d hope that an archaeologist recovering my fine technicolour socks would imagine me as a vaguely counter-cultural, age-defying, society-defying hippy with no aversion to having eye catching apparel. That this was the grave of someone moderately active in their political and activist circles, and they could make some kind of estimation of what sort of circles they were. They could hazard an idea of the political landscape I lived in, and where I fit in with it. Assemblage theory does not privilege the “higher” concepts above the “lower” – cognitive functions such as an individual’s social conciousness and ideals on the ritual significance of objects, even as seemingly mundane as a pair of socks, is equally as important as the basic drive to keep feet warm – they are all part of the great mosaic.

It is this mosaic I hope to fashion from my work on Neolithic monuments. If I can illuminate part of the system, I can work towards a model of how I believe this acted upon the fantastically complex system that was Neolithic cosmology.




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