Performative practice: agency and identity at the causewayed enclosures of Windmill Hill and Etton


Agency has been a major theme in archaeology over the last ten years (e.g. Barrett 1994; Dobres and Robb, 2000a). It has focused on returning people to the centre stage of archaeological research, and moved away from the empty systems theory popular in processual theory (e.g. Clarke 1968). It has been especially effective when employed within an archaeology of practice (Barrett 2001). This draws on the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (1984) and the habitus of Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1990). Agency theory has been criticised in recent years however for being essentialist and thus making the past just like the present. The people agency theory places at the centre of archaeology have been cast as knowledgeable agents, free willed and empowered. The identity of these agents has often been sidelined or ignored in such discussions. Thus the people of the past are made just like those of the present, and modern notions of power, gender and age are thrust unwarranted back in time and thereby legitimated today (Brück 2001).

In contrast to this, some recent approaches have focused on the identity and personhood of people in the past (e.g. Fowler 2000). These have drawn on traditions of philosophy going back through Judith Butler (1993) to Michel Foucault (1978 inter alia), and lean heavily on the anthropological writings of authors such as Marilyn Strathern (1988). All these writers have emphasised how modern western notions of identity are culturally and temporally unique; that they are not historical absolutes or indisputable truths. Judith Butler drawing on Michel Foucault has described modern categories of gender, age and sex as regulatory ideals (1993, 1). That is to say that they are categories set up by society that we fulfil to a greater or lesser extent. Chris Fowler, among others, has begun to examine identity in the past from this point of view (2000). Often these approaches have examined how identity may have been reflected in the deposits archaeologists recover.

In this dissertation I wish to combine these two approaches to see how identity was created through the practice and performances of people in the past, particularly at the Neolithic causewayed enclosures of Windmill Hill and Etton. These sites were constructed and used in the 4th millennium BC, during the Early and Middle Neolithic (Whittle et al. 1999; Pryor 1998). They are thus contemporary with other causewayed enclosures now realised to be fairly prevalent in the Neolithic of Southern England (Oswald et al. 2000). The deposits placed in the ditches and pits at these sites were intimately connected with the people of the Neolithic, with their identity, with their understandings of gender, personhood and age. Rather than solely examining only how these deposits reflected identity, I also wish to examine how identity was created through the placing of these deposits and how they sustained, or undermined older understandings (cf. Fowler 2001). This will draw explicitly on an archaeology of practice. The essentialist nature of this understanding will be overcome not only through emphasis on the diverse nature of identity but also upon different notions of emotion, memory, relationships and thought (Overing and Passes 2000; M. Harris 2000; Bloch 1998; Bradley 2002).

The dissertation will begin with a review, in chapter one, of the theoretical background, focusing on the arrival of agency in archaeology and its principal sources, the work of Anthony Giddens (1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1977). It will also deal in more detail with the difficulties with such an approach. This will lead to an examination in chapter 2 of the modern philosophical, anthropological and archaeological studies of identity and how this allows us to counteract the essentialist nature of agency theory (e.g. M. Strathern 1988; Butler 1993; Grosz 1995; Gilchrist 1999; du Gay et al. 2000). This will focus principally on the work of Judith Butler (1993). In chapter 3 the dissertation will move onto an examination of the relevant period; the Neolithic. This will examine the background situation in which causewayed enclosures were constructed.

We will then turn to the meat of the study, the creation of identity at Windmill Hill and Etton. Rather than deal with each one independently however, chapter 4 will instead offer a thematical study of identity across both sites. The themes dealt with will be the metaphor of inclusion and exclusion, age, the relationship between humans and animals and gender. There will inevitably be a great deal of overlap between these areas; indeed the separation is a falsehood and the breakdown is purely for heuristic reasons. The justification for this is that the principal aim of this study is the creation of identity in the Neolithic in general, not just at these two sites. The aim is thus to demonstrate how identity can be accessed through the close study of deposition at these sites, rather than to give a full description of either. This approach will allow me to tack between different deposits and compare them with relevant anthropological examples, which may enlighten our thinking. Following this the dissertation will offer a more general discussion of the creation of identity at these sites and then move onto conclude, offering some suggestions for future research.