Last week I didn’t go to Istanbul. Obviously, I haven’t been to Istanbul on many previous occasions too, but last week the European Association of Archaeologists conference was taking place there. The EAA is one of the major academic conferences for archaeologists in Europe (there’s a clue in the name). When the venue was announced about a year and a half ago the glamour of the East enticed us all to such an extent that we spent many coffee breaks planning a mass UCLan presence at the conference.
If you want to speak at an academic conference like this then a certain degree of advance organisation is needed. First of all you need to propose an outline version of the paper you want to give to the organising committee. It also has to fit into one of the themed sessions that are part of the conference (unless you are so organised as to be able to propose a whole session’s worth of papers). Once the papers are proposed they are accepted by the organising committee and you can get on with making sure you register for the conference on time.
Given all these hurdles it’s not really surprising that by the time registration closed for the EAA the proposed mass UCLan presence had reduced down to two of us giving two papers. By the time the conference actually started it was just me and, because of the previously mentioned work/life balance thing, I didn’t actually go. Lindsey, who was one of the session organisers for ‘Caves as Ritual Spaces in Later Prehistoric Europe’, very kindly agreed to read my paper for me.
‘Do caves have agency?’ was the title of my paper. ‘Agency’ is a concept we have loaned from sociology and cultural anthropology. It describes the ability that people and things have to influence other people. In its original formulation, by the sociologist Anthony Giddens, agency is the contribution of active, thinking individuals which helps create the structures of society. Agency has also been used in anthropology, particularly by Tim Ingold, who would see it as something that animals and landscapes can also have.
In my cave research I have been very interested in the idea of environments and natural places have the power to influence people in quite profound ways. The idea I had when I agreed to do the EAA paper was that I would be able to explore the theoretical background to all the different kinds of agency theory. I hoped this would both let me come to a conclusion about how plausible it was to say that caves had agency but also think about some of the practicalities of what that might mean for archaeological evidence from caves.
I came to the conclusion, heavily influenced by Bruno Latour’s book Reassembling the Social, that, provided we carefully sidestep the thorny question of whether something needs to have intentions in order to act (geological formations not generally being known for having opinions), then it is useful to think of caves as acting on people. In particular, the physical properties of the cave, the associations between all the different finds in the cave and how these thing change over time, can help us understand the way that caves structured people’s actions in the past.