An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm

An Archaeological Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm by Brian Hayden, Simon Fraser University

(First printed in The Pomegranate, issue #6, November 1998. Reprinted by permission of the author, publisher's permission pending.)

As an archaeologist, I found Mara Keller's assessment of the discipline and Marija Gimbutas' contributions to it in the August 1998 issue of The Pomegranate both inaccurate and disturbing. Keller's portrayal of archaeologists is a parody of the discipline a half century ago, while she uncritically accepts Gimbutas' interpretations which are fraught with very real problems.

Archaeology While there undoubtedly still are a few narrow empirical archaeologists who hold positions such as Keller describes (uninterested in anything else beside the artifacts themselves), the vast majority of archaeologists today are keenly interested in cultural meaning, ritual, symbolism, myth, social structure, politics and issues of gender. In fact, archaeologists have always been interested in these topics. The discoveries of Middle and Upper Paleolithic burials at the beginning of this century immediately gave rise to involved discussions of Paleolithic notions of the afterlife, religion, and rituals by Bouyssonie and others. The documentation of incontestable Paleolithic cave art in 1895, and the recognition of Paleolithic sculptured art some decades before broadened and enriched the scope of inquiry into the realms of sociopolitics and the supernatural. Similarly, discoveries of Maya ruins, early Mesopotamian temples and palaces such as those at Ur, megalithic monuments, and the Minoan centers have engendered queries about political organization, religion, and women's roles in societies long before Gimbutas began studying archaeology. Even the "overly empiricist" New Archaeology had as its goal the reconstruction and underselling of all aspects of past cultures. As Lewis Binford the archdeacon of archaeological empiricists, stated it in 1962: "The formal structure of artifact assemblages together with the between element contextual relationships should and do present a systematic and understandable picture of the total extinct cultural system (the emphasis is his)." Walter Taylor made essentially the same arguments in 1948 and tried to show how this might be done for some parts of past cultures.

The problem in wrestling with such issues as religion, mythology, and gender, however, has always been how to evaluate the many conflicting ideas and claims on these subjects, claims that range from extraterrestrial origins, to creationist accounts, to lost tribes from Israel, to diffusing influences from Egypt, to cultural evolution. The best scientists in all disciplines are always willing to consider all the possibilities and to evaluate and reevaluate them on their relative merits.

In archaeology, the problem has never been a lack of interest in these topics, but rather the difficulty of using archaeological evidence in evaluating claims and counter claims pertaining to these areas of interest. For example, it has never been clear how gender-related activities or roles could be inferred from stone tools, bone refuse, or pot shards. Burials can offer some insights, but they are often ambiguous as Howard Winters discovered in his attempts in the 1960s to deal with this issue. While archaeologists have made great strides in developing new approaches for understanding gender roles, political organization, social structures, and reli ious behavior (see Renfrew and Balm 1996), the process is far from complete and there are still many contentious issues and problems. Nevertheless, some things can be, and have been, established as reliable and realistic.

Keller also misrepresents archaeologists' views on specific topics. Contrary to her claims, most archaeologists readily accept the close integration of economic, social, and ritual spheres of activity in traditional societies. Archaeologists were keenly interested in using myths to help locate sites and reconstruct past societies. In fact, Henrich Schliemann used myths to locate and excavate Troy in the midnineteenth century Since then, many archaeological projects have followed his example. Dumezil (1952, 1958), Littleton (1973), and others developed the study of comparative mythology to study the religious, social, and political organization of specific prehistoric cultures like the Proto Indo-Europeans. In his well-known studies in the 1960s, Andre Leroi-Gourhan also used cave art to elucidate prehistoric mythology and successfully demonstrated some of its basic components. For the past two decades, Jacques Cauvin has been continuing this tradition in his analysis of Near Eastern Neolithic ideologies as well. Thus the use and study of mythology is nothing new to archaeology. Keller's arguments that Gimbutas was a revolutionary that tried to introduce studies of mythology but was spurned by archaeologists because they were hostile to dealing with such topics is simply untrue.


Gerry Reinhart-Waller
Independent Scholar