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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Epithets for Megaliths: Three Key Phrases

In their discussions of megalithic monuments in the context of conceptions of performativity, three different authors present distinct but inter-related key descriptive phrases that can be read as encapsulations of these authors’ theorization of space, performance, and memory. These three examples also demonstrate a range of possibilities for the attribution of agency to material objects, as well as ideas concerning the ability of architecture to control bodies and memory.

First, in his analysis of the Maltese Megaliths, David Turnbull describes these structures as “theatres of knowledge” (Turnbull 127). For Turnbull, the monuments are “sites in which contemporary anthropologists and archeologists perform their spatial narratives and they are also structured spaces that served to mark, perform and represent knowledge for their builders” (127). In other words, he views these structures as examples of how people, objects, knowledge and space co-produce one another. The monuments, on the one hand, control movement and the production of knowledge; on the other hand, the spaces themselves are created by the people’s movement through them. Their capacity as “theatres” is realized through the performance of knowledge traditions within them. Thus, much like a theatre, the monuments both restrict the movement of the audience and performers within them, as well as create a space for the production of knowledge.

Trevor Watkins offers an alternative interpretation of the sites as “theaters of memory” (Watkins 97). For Watkins, the early Neolithic period in Southwest Asia evidences an innovative use of architecture as a “frame of symbolic reference.” As he states, “they had devised means of embodying abstract concepts, beliefs and ideas about themselves and their world in externalized, permanent forms” (97). According to this view, monuments such as the Maltese megaliths served as receptacles of symbolic meaning, or storage places for memory, in much the same way that later, literate societies used written records. In this case, however, the appropriateness of the term theater is less clear: one envisions the monuments according to Watkins’s analysis as more like museums, built to store the visual representations of cultural memory, or warehouses full of history books. The active agency of Turnbull’s conception of the monuments is lost in this representation of the megaliths as storage facilities.

A third description of megalithic architecture can be found in Julian Thomas’s claim that they were “‘carriers’ of certain symbolic media” (Thomas 83). He explains this conception as follows: “these early monuments were engaged in the creation of dominant locales, which would influence patterns of human movement and interaction in the future” (83). Thus, according to Thomas, the increasing complexity of the architecture displayed in megaliths is a result of an increased attempt to ensure “correct” readings of the space by the people who enter it. Yet simultaneously, this increased complexity would also have insured the potential for a greater multiplicity of possible meanings. Thomas, like Turnbull, attributes agency to the monuments as he underscores their potential to enact control over the people who experience them; however, he also incorporates a Watkins-like sense of the architecture as 1) a receptacle (for bones, etc.), and 2) akin to writing, as the space can be “read” like a book.

Works Cited:

Turnbull, David; 2002. “Performance and narrative, bodies and movement in the construction of places and objects, spaces and knowledges,” Theory, Culture & Society 19 (5/6): 125-143.

Thomas, Julian; 1993. “The hermeunetics of megalithic space,” in Interpretative archaeology. C. Tilley (ed.). Berg: Providence/Oxford, 73-98.

Watkins, Trevor; 2004. “Architecture and theaters of memory in the Neolithic of Southwest Asia,” in Rethinking materiality: the engagement of mind with the material world. E. Demarrais et al. (eds.). University of Cambridge: Cambridge UK, 97-106.

Posted at Oct 19/2006 03:26PM:
omur: Marvellous piece Jennifer!

Concerning your first case study: "Movement through space" is a paradigm used quite a bit among scholars who study ancient architectural spaces, and I find it a bit troubling. It assumes that there is always a directionality in our use of spaces and that the experience of space would be limited to such axial bodily action. I think Ian Hodder and his colleagues' work at Catalhoyuk intends to overcome just that: to explore the complexities of the use of spaces in everyday life and the spaces' perpetual condition of being constructed. While I agree wholeheartedly with the recursivity of space-body-performance relations as you have maintained in the comment, I would hesitate to limit spatial practices to "movement".

Your discussion of Watkins's paradigm is also intriguing. It would be interesting to see this again after having read Alexander's contextualization of performance in non-complex and complex societies. He might actually disagree with Watkins's use of the word theater in this Neolithic context, precisely for the reasons you have questioned it in the response. Are we really seeing staged performances?

We do need to develop framework like you have outlined to question these often superficial readings of space (space as receptacle, space that controls movement, etc.) and I think your response is a great contribution.