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Cornaline de l’Inde

Valentine Roux


Jean-Claude Gardin

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1Should this book eventually find its way to the booksellers stationed along the Seine, it would no doubt raise questions from more than one passerby, drawn by the dream-world behind such a title: Cornaline de l’Inde... Could it be the narrative of a long journey to India undertaken for some commercial orpolitical purpose, with tales of the dangers and pleasure that are the expected lot of traders or agents in that part of the world? Or perhaps a handbook of mineralogy written at the time of Dupleix, when the place-names of India were readily pronounced and written à la française? However, leafing through the pages of the book, our passer-by will be surprised to discover that it is filled with tables and numbers that suggest instead a modern book of science, as he or she might have gathered from the subtitle and date of the book, had he or she noticed them. Modern and scientific, the two words are not necessarily disparaging: after all, the book was published in 2000 and it deals with matters that are obviously related to science: microscopes, rugosimetry, mathematical analysis, models, and so forth. Yet, some disappointment may come from the fact that works of that sort are not usually sought in bookstalls along the Seine; and a touch of impatience could follow concerning the invasion of the modern world of science, especially when it extends to poetical objects such as the Indian carnelians.

2Why should I anticipate surprise or irritation of that sort à propos of a book whose goals are clearly stated in the introduction? The reason is that the approach followed by Valentine Roux and her colleagues is scientific and modern in terms that are likely to arouse similar reactions in a sizable portion of the archaeological community. My concern in this preface is to explain my sympathy with the terms in question despite such possible reservations.

3I wish first to dismiss objections of a more or less ideological sort, which might come from two major schools of thought: so-called traditional archaeology, on the one hand, supposed to be particularly alive in Europe, and post-modern or post processual archaeology, more popular in the Anglo-Saxon world. The former remains faithful to modes of reasoning forged long ago, expressed in the “natural” forms that have been taught us, more or less ornate according to our respective cultures or schools. The post-processual school, on the other hand, took shape only twenty years ago, in reaction to the ambition and ways of research labeled as scientific by the founders of the “new archaeology” of the 1950s, in their quest for the processes that underlie the evolution of past societies.

4The authors of the present book strive to avoid the rather loose interpretive practices that characterize both schools, each in its own way. Some readers will probably think that the price to pay in this case is rather high: the present book is admittedly not an easy one to read. They will then be faced with the following alternatives: either to put up with the production of “natural” interpretations that are easy to read but intellectually not very stimulating or to look for more sophisticated constructs bound by self-imposed empirical and logical constraints of a higher order. The epistemological looseness associated with the former course is not characteristic of traditional archaeology alone; the “readings of the past” produced in large numbers by postmodern archaeologists, reflecting hermeneutic stands or socio-political commitments, do not show more concern for their scientific basis. We may therefore set aside academic quarrels that are largely irrelevant in the perspective of the present book, which is focused on the construction of meaning in archaeology as a scientific process.

5The beads collected in archaeological excavations are taken to mean something; or rather, we mean to say a few things about them that should amplify or strengthen our knowledge of past societies. Our professional status gives us the right to say things that are not necessarily accessible to the common sense of laymen. After all, in the words of a distinguished colleague, “that’s what we’re paid for”. A more elegant way to recall our obligations is the demonstration recently given by a physicist of the necessarily “heretical” character of science, committed to a constant reassessment of the local and ephemeral views of common sense (A. Cromer, Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford University Press, 1993). For this reason, we should not be surprised that the interpretation of beads – or anything else in archaeology – should eventually follow some paths and display some concerns that are not required in the exercise of ordinary intelligence; it might otherwise blur our image as experts, or worse, the very concept of scientific reasoning in archaeology.

6Let us consider first our ways of reasoning; these ought to inspire some measure of confidence, in the present case. For one thing, most of the distinctive features used to describe the beads of Cambay would simply not occur to a layman... But this observation alone is meaningless; it would easily lead to highly ironical comments. We all know that archaeological analyses, for instance, involve variables that are for the most part inaccessible to our senses; it does not follow that the measures of such variables constitute a scientific language superior to any natural language when the goal is “to restore the cultural value of beads”, according to Valentine Roux’s formulation. The authors of the present book are aware of this, as shown by their effort to establish correlations between those internal variables and external observations, so as to transform the former into “diagnostic attributes”. We thus navigate between two kinds of pitfalls : a) either full-scale descriptions that are precise, objective, but ill-chosen to ground the hypotheses under study (thus, the morphological analysis of beads is left out here because it is of so little help in drawing the kind of techno-economic inferences that are aimed at);

7b) or masses of measurements that are held to be more scientific than the impressions of our senses by virtue of the fact that they are the product of instruments “upstream” (in the flowchart of the research process), despite the lack of empirical evidence that might alone justify that claim “downstream”.

8Needless to say, the sort of evidence required at this juncture does not necessarily come from archaeology, even if this discipline happens to play apart in its collection. Valentine Roux’s emphasis on the interdisciplinary character of her undertaking should be understood in this sense. The scientific status of archaeology can be grounded only on empirical tests carried out downstream, calling upon historical or ethnological evidence, and not on the procedures it puts to use upstream, borrowed from the hard sciences and technologies (mineralogy, chemistry, mechanics, etc.) in order to broaden its data base. This parenthesis may be deemed unnecessary insofar as everyone is held to share such views. I am not sure of this, however, judging from the number of archaeometrical projects that lead to little or no lasting historical findings. Some readers will probably find fault, in this connection, with the number of pages devoted to the description of the various techniques and measurements upon which the archaeological constructs of the book are based. I am not betraying a secret in saying that our authors are not far from sharing the same opinion; they have nevertheless chosen to comply with more or less established usage because neither our habits nor our institutions seem to encourage much change in this respect. I am referring here to the ongoing debate on an evolution to come in our modes of publication as a consequence of the new information technologies. The production of the present book is, for Valentine Roux, a reason to underline the relevance of that debate and the interest she takes in it. She plans to meet the challenge by a parallel project, which is to make the substance of this publication available in other forms than traditional discourse (data bases, schematizations, or others) and through other channels (CD-ROM, Internet or others). It will then be possible to appreciate, through a comparison of the two ways of communicating archaeological knowledge, the variety of problems underlying the editorial revolution that has been announced for many years.

9By stressing the distinction between exogenous processes borrowed from other disciplines and endogenous reasonings characteristic of the historical sciences, I have also sought an excuse for the obvious bias of this preface: my concern is essentially for the latter, since I have no competence to comment about the former, extraneous to my field. The authors of the chapters devoted to the manufacture of beads and to the measurement of the skills implied will therefore have to forgive me, or rather to praise me for this self-imposed discretion. As for the endogenous reasonings, I have found in Cornaline de l’Inde enough material to nourish the most thorough discussion of interpretive processes in archaeology, irrespective of the kinds of objects or monuments under consideration.

10The ambition expressed from the outset of the book goes well beyond the beads of Cambay: “to assess the cultural value of [beads or other things] in ways that attempt to be free of any anthropological prejudice”. This goal immediately raises an entire range of questions that have been abundantly discussed in the literature of the human sciences: what do we mean by the “cultural” meaning of a set of objects, phenomena or behavioral patterns in the human sphere? Is it not true that the same set may carry hundreds of different meanings in one and the same culture (however we define that term), according to the contexts or points of view selected for its interpretation? Given the fact that the variability from one culture to another includes, among other differences, the overworked distinction between the categories of the observer and the observed, is it not therefore impossible to assess the meaning or cultural value of anything human “free of any anthropological prejudice”? And so on. I would congratulate Valentine Roux for evading such questions, with which she is quite familiar, inasmuch as she knows the whole range of usual answers – the latter fact probably accounting for the former. The interesting point, to me, is not what our authors have to say about interpretation – everything having been said on the matter – but rather what they do, in a book that we must, for our purpose, consider globally as a single construct, given the logical interdependence of the chapters.

11Let us first note that the theoretical ambition recalled above boils down in practice to wisely limited goals. What is being proposed is not so much “the cultural value of the beads of Cambay” (or elsewhere) as a small number of inferences that archaeologists may draw from certain physical characteristics of beads in order to reconstruct the manufacturing techniques and the socio-economic modes of production of those objects. The argumentation has little to do with the “natural” or “non-Popperian” reasoning recommended by reputed scholars in the human disciplines; not much to do either with the “common sense” that others detect in the foundations of the sciences of man. On the contrary, the whole construct is such as to discourage most readers accustomed to skimming archaeological texts without much effort, especially when the objects under study are as natural and common as ancient beads, unevenly precious. The reason is not that our authors cultivate technical jargon as a warrant of scientificity; their position is that, in order to answer a few simple questions concerning the mode of production of beads in the Indus civilization (or others) – number of craftsmen, degrees of specialization, distribution of workshops, etc. –, one has to undertake carefully designed technical studies which bring out the relevance of several variables not easily measurable, to say the least. The beads of Cambay (or others) thus become alpha-numerical expressions of those properties, which bear little relation to the rich variety of colors and shapes that make their charm. In the same way, the know-how of craftsmen, their dexterity, which we are more or less able to convey in natural language, give way to series of numbers, the result of psycho-motor analyses which bring out the different orders of “skill” that will be distinguished in the reasoning to follow. This reasoning calls upon a model borrowed from economic analysis, the divorce from natural language then becoming complete: the tool used to answer the questions under study turns out to be “a powerful computational algorithm for the solution of linear inequations (...) acting as a kind of inference engine” (my italics).

12This analogy serves my purpose. Most archaeologists are ill-placed, as I am myself, to appreciate the potential merits and limitations of any inference engine in the formal perspective adopted by its designer. Archaeologists are, however, wholly responsible for the quality of the knowledge bases that have to be fed into such engines in order to conduct simulation studies. The division of labor is the same in the present case. Many readers will find it difficult to follow the logic of computation and the optimization procedures exposed by Pierre Matarasso; but all of them will understand without effort the nature of the “processes and entities” quantified for the purpose. Interesting issues arise at this stage concerning the generality of the inference rules suggested by the model on the basis of such quantifications. Can we transport them both – the model and the quantifications – in space and time without further ado? This fundamental question is raised in the introduction, where Valentine Roux exposes the reasons for her optimism; they lie essentially in the idea that some behavioral processes are “rooted in universals that transcend particularities”. Those universals are not self-evident; we have to look for them in the field, through ethnological observations and laboratory experiments carried out in several contexts, sufficiently numerous and different to bring out the invariant component of the processes under study. This is precisely the course taken by the authors of this book, apparently unable – as I am myself – to imagine any other way to provide archaeological constructs with a scientific status. The result is inevitably, as Valentine Roux points out in her introduction, “a series of ethno-archaeological studies conducted upstream, which can legitimately be regarded as complex and ponderous, followed by archaeological studies proper, downstream, calling upon comparatively simple and light operations that boil down to a plain transfer of meaning”. The point is very well taken, in few words. We might even go so far as to leave out the reference to ethnological observation in this characterization of an approach that I tend to regard as common to all empirical sciences, natural or cultural, Culture being Nature to us in the humanities. However, this merging of the “two cultures” being contrary to the present Zeitgeist, it is probably wiser to recall now and then in this way, through the prefix “ethno-that our scientific ambitions do not imply that we are impervious to cultural relativism.

13June 20st 1998

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2000

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