Wednesday, 4 June 2014

An Interview with Dr. Robert J. Wallis

Today here at Albion Calling I am privileged to have Dr. Robert J. Wallis, Professor of Visual Culture at Richmond, the American International University in London, here with me. Like myself, Wallis is an archaeologist, and over the past two decades he has worked extensively on the subjects of rock art and the interaction between archaeology and the contemporary Pagan and Neo-Shamanic religious movements. Here, we talk about his research and career, covering such issues as the "shamanic" interpretation of visual imagery, the relationship between mainstream academia and "alternative archaeologies", and the archaeology of falconry. Read on...
[Ethan]: An archaeologist by training, you are currently Professor of Visual Culture and Associate Dean of MA Programmes in the School of Communications, Arts and Social Sciences at Richmond University, the American International University in London, having joined the faculty there in 2002. In previous years you have also worked for the University of Southampton, the University of Winchester, and the Open University. Can you tell us a little bit more about your academic trajectory and how you reached the point that you are at today?

Dr. Wallis. Image copyright Dr. Wallis.
[Robert]: I didn’t start out with an ambition to be an academic. I was passionate about nature photography and wanted to go to art school but just didn’t cut it. So I had a necessary rethink. Alongside my interest in wildlife, I was reading about ancient art, literature, mythology, religion and archaeology, with a particular interest in the pagan religions of ancient Britain. So I decided to apply for an archaeology degree and was offered a place at Southampton University where I started in 1992. Only in my second year did I really find subjects that interested me – prehistoric art, rock art specifically and indigenous religion, shamanism in particular. Peter Ucko (co-author of Palaeolithic Cave Art, 1967) initially took me on as a dissertation student and suggested I talk to a new lecturer who had just arrived from South Africa, Thomas A. Dowson. Thomas encouraged my interest and pointed me to his work on Southern African rock art and the neuropsychological model he co-authored with David Lewis-Williams for interpreting Upper Palaeolithic cave art, all of which I read with great interest.

I went on to write my undergraduate dissertation under Thomas’ supervision, focussing on megalithic art, specifically the shamanistic interpretation of Irish passage tomb art, and also benefited from the advice of Julian Thomas, one of the few later prehistorians to have examined megalithic art at that time. I then completed the MA Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art (1995-1996), the first degree of its kind, and wrote a dissertation on rock art in Namibia where I had conducted fieldwork with a Southampton team in 1995. I examined ethnographic records on the Bushman (San), ranging from the Bleek and Lloyd transcripts to Katz’s Healing Energy (1982), and offered a shamanistic interpretation of the engravings at Twyfelfontein (in central Namibia) based on the landscape context of the art within a semi-arid river valley subject to flash floods. I made a link between the significance of rock art juxtaposed with sources of water informed by shamans’ metaphors for trance such as drowning and submergence. All of this might sound somewhat dated now but despite the vitriolic reaction against shamanism in rock art studies – Paul Bahn was almost libellous in his attack on our MA presentations at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG), in British Archaeology magazine (issue 31, Feb 1998) – this approach to certain rock art traditions (e.g. parts of Southern Africa and North America) is accepted by most scholars.

I tell my MA students that my MA was one of the best year’s of my life and that they should relish the experience of independent learning and research because, unless they have the opportunity to work on a PhD (which increasingly few do given funding cuts to the humanities and social sciences), they will never be so fortunate again – to engage in pure research, at such a formative time in their lives.
Dr. Wallis with the Hovgarten rune stone,
Sweden. Image copyright Dr. Wallis.
I started a PhD with Thomas as his first PhD student, during which time I taught his undergraduate courses ‘Art and Society’, ‘Art of Prehistoric Europe’ and modules on the MA including on ‘Cave Art’, and had a brief stint co-ordinating adult education in archaeology at Southampton’s New College (now part of the University). Teaching ‘mature students’ who’ve been out of education for a while but returned to it with enthusiasm was a real pleasure and I’ve since enjoyed teaching the 4000-level introductory course ‘The Arts Past and Present’ (2003-present) for the Open University because of the enrichment I’ve seen and been a part of.

I completed my doctorate in 1999. Thomas was an excellent supervisor and I would not have succeeded on the BA, MA or PhD without his advice, for which I am truly grateful. He moved to the University of Manchester so I was at the right place at the right time to be employed as a temporary lecturer in archaeology at Southampton, covering the undergraduate and post-graduate teaching, dissertation supervision plus some PhD advising. I also moonlighted at Winchester for the Department of Cultural Studies on their MA in Death, Religion and Culture. Knowing these positions were short-term though, during 2001-2002 I worked hard to find a full-time academic post and applied for over 80 lectureships, fellowships and research positions. I was short-listed for three interviews, one at the University of Sussex for a lecturer in the History of Art, one in archaeology at University College London (UCL), the other at Richmond. I took up the post of Assistant Professor of Visual Culture and Associate Director of the MA in Art History at Richmond in 2002. The MA was set up by Jos Hackforth-Jones, now Director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Jos’ vision – forward looking in art history at that time – was an MA in Art History with a distinctive intercultural outlook. This enabled me to teach the archaeology and anthropology of art, including rock art, on an Art History MA – still almost unheard off, sadly. Richmond is a small, independent, private liberal-arts institution, offering an American-style education in Britain. I have been there for 12 years and continue to convene the MA programme in its reconfigured form of ‘Art History and Visual Culture’ and as Associate Dean I also oversee four other MAs. The international student body and small class sizes make teaching there a pleasure and a privilege. 

[Ethan]: One of your main interests has been the archaeology of rock art, and the relation that such imagery has with religion and spirituality, and in particular with animism and shamanism. You recently contributed to a special volume of Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture devoted to rock art. Where do you see the role of rock art research within the discipline of archaeology? 

[Robert]: Until fairly recently, archaeologists tended to neglect art (including rock art) and religion in favour of such presumed safer topics as artefact analysis, subsistence patterns and social hierarchies, or they examined them in isolation from other social phenomena. We have tended to think about art as an add-on to society, based on modern traits of seeing the artist as an inspired genius living outside social norms and prehistoric religious practices have often been viewed as inaccessible without supporting historical or ethnographic records, even though ‘ritual’ has been a problematic dumping bag. But in indigenous communities (and probably in prehistory) artists and religion are usually active and entangled parts of the social fabric and people’s broader engagements with their world.

Ilkley Moor's Badger Stone, engraved with
late prehistoric rock art. Image copyright
Dr. Wallis.
Rock art scholars such as Dowson and Lewis-Williams demonstrated that ethnography could inform rock art interpretation and an etic term such as shamanism could offer a useful heuristic. But their interpretation of certain Upper Palaeolithic cave art imagery as shamanistic was controversial and scholars fell into two increasingly polarised camps, denying shamanism’s usefulness outside Siberia or seeing shamanism or altered states of consciousness at least, in almost any visual art. We have, thankfully, moved on from a simplistic entoptics=shamanism equation, uncritical application of ‘shamanism’, and sweeping dismissals of these lines of enquiry. 

I am concerned, though, by an increasingly essentialist and materialist emphasis on neuroscience and evolutionary biology in certain areas of rock art studies and archaeology more generally. Raymond Tallis calls this neuromania (2012), ‘we are our brains’, expressed in rock art research as neurotheology, the reductive notion of ‘god [i.e. religion] in the brain’. This is part of a ‘material turn’ which has included a backlash against theory, in some cases limiting enquiry to only the scientific examination of artefacts with grand claims for the scope offered by new technologies, as if research can be done in an atheoretical vacuum and that the accumulated data can speak for itself. Data collection is obviously important but should not be an end in itself; the recording of or attempts to date rock art do not in itself reveal meaning. 

More interesting research has looked beyond motifs and the rock art panel, to archaeological and landscape contexts, including excavations at rock art sites which have had interesting results. Richard Bradley and Andy Jones’ work have been significant in this respect (e.g. An Animate Landscape, 2011), and I like Andy’s approach to rock art as process rather than product, the sensory aspects of rock art and its locales, and the relationship of rock art to other aspects of material culture – rock art is part of archaeology. 

[Ethan]: Your first book was an anthology co-edited with Kenneth J. Lymer for the BAR International Series of publications, A Permeability of Boundaries: New Approaches to the Archaeology of Art, Religion and Folklore (British Archaeology Reports, 2001). This contained 15 papers –– contributed by a very impressive lineup including Richard Bradley, Miranda Aldhouse Green, Chas S. Clifton, Paul Devereux, and Thomas Dowson –– and had its origins in a conference that you had organised at the University of Southampton in 1999. A big part of the volume's significance was in bringing together mainstream academic archaeologists with "alternative archaeologists" in constructive dialogue, a theme that has subsequently reappeared throughout your research. How did this conference and publication come about, and did you feel that there was a lot of support for this pioneering endeavour; conversely, were you dogged by opposition from more conservative elements of the academy who wanted to keep "alternative" ideas out? 

Dr. Wallis. Image copyright Matthew Butterfield,
courtesy of
[Robert]: I worked on the Permeability conference and subsequent book with two other PhD candidates at Southampton, Kenneth Lymer and Simon Crook. We all felt that our interests in art, religion and folklore were largely ignored by mainstream archaeology – Ken working on shamanism and rock art in Kazakhstan, Simon on fairy folklore and rock art in Britain, myself on neo-shamanistic engagements with archaeology and anthropology. We also recognised that studies on art, religion and folklore, across disciplines, had a great deal to offer one another, particularly in archaeological interpretation. And we felt that these ‘fringe’ areas and thinking on them from outside the academy had an important contribution to make to ‘mainstream’ archaeology. This was around the time that such alternative archaeology journals as The Ley Hunter, Northern Earth and 3rd Stone established themselves as serious forums and published such university-based heavy-weights as Barbara Bender, Thomas Dowson and Julian Thomas.

The conference proposal was supported by the Department of Archaeology in principle, although on the day the lecture hall was mainly filled with delegates from outside the institution and outside the academy – independent scholars, folklorists, earth mystics, Druids, Pagans and artists. Post-processual archaeology claimed to approach all perspectives on the past as valid, if not equally sound, yet this seemed to us like lip service. The conference brought together a wide range of thinkers who were variously examining art, religion or folklore, and in many cases all of these, from inter-disciplinary points of view. We also brought mainstream and alternative communities together who talked and found common ground.

We had a conference debate on ‘alternative archaeology, has it happened?’ with presentations from a panel comprised of David Miles, Chief Archaeologist of English Heritage, Melanie Pomeroy, author of the Avebury World Heritage Site Management Plan (1998), Paul Devereux, an independent earth mysteries scholar, and Tim Sebastion, Chief of the Secular Order of Druids (SODs). The following discussions were genuinely productive. I remember very clearly the moment when David and Tim shook hands, agreeing that further dialogue was needed on public access to Stonehenge at summer solstice. Just a year later, the first solstice managed open access event happened – thanks to the ongoing work of the Stonehenge roundtable meetings rather than an outcome of our conference, but it was clearly the right time for such an event.

Druids at Avebury; image copyright Dr. Wallis.
There has been a great deal of collaboration between heritage managers and Pagans since then, but in recent years an increasing polarisation to do with the reburial issue. Some Pagans campaigning for respect for and the reburial of prehistoric human remains in Britain challenge the process of excavation and analysis of human remains, two key elements of archaeological practice, even though the resulting information is often used by Pagans in the construction of their Pagan identities. Of course not all Pagans are calling for reburial, but the issue has gained press coverage and contributed to a ‘crisis in British burial archaeology’, the theme of the Papers from the Institute of Archaeology in 2011 (volume 21).

I am currently co-editing a book with Jenny Blain in which archaeologists, heritage managers and pagans contribute their current thinking on ‘ancestors’ and the human remains debate particularly. But I want this to be more than a space for points of view. The Avebury reburial consultation may have been transparent (it was applauded by the Museums Association in this regard) but the outcome of retention of the remains was prefigured in the discussion. ‘Transparency’ actually counted for little in terms of reaching common ground. Our aim is to bring dialogue back to the table but in a way which leads to practical solutions including policy and practice. So despite finding common ground at the Permeability conference, 15 years later there is still a long way to go, requiring compromise on all sides.

[Ethan]: A book of yours that I thoroughly enjoyed reading was Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans (Routledge, 2003), in which you have looked at the historical development of Neo-Shamanism and the manner in which it has made use of indigenous shamanisms, championing it as a valid spiritual practice rather than as cultural thievery. The book would be shortlisted for that year's Katherine Briggs Folklore Award by The Folklore Society, so it clearly had a significant impact, and that being the case I wonder what led you to research and write it in the first place ? 

Wallis' Shamans/Neo-Shamans.
Copyright Routledge.
[Robert]: Shamans/neo-Shamans was the re-write of my PhD thesis. For the PhD I initially wanted to work on the shamanistic production of rock art in the present, but there was very little to go on (at that time). Thomas suggested that if my interest was in contemporary shamanism, then why not explore neo-shamanistic practices, specifically those westerners engaging with indigenous shamanisms and interpreting archaeological material as ‘shamanistic’. I had been involved with Pagans and neo-shamanistic practices for some years then, so had knowledge, experience and informants to draw upon. The area of ‘Pagan studies’ was also being formed at that time in the study of religion, but very few archaeologists had considered contemporary Paganism or related groups as being of serious interest (the trail blazers were Chris Chippindale [1986], Christine Finn [1997] and Kathy Denning [1999]).

I recognised, though, that neo-shamans, Pagans and others were engaging with the past and the concept of shamanism specifically in ways which had relevance to archaeologists and anthropologists, such as the interpretation of imagery on the Gundestrup cauldron as shamanistic and the appropriation of American Indian sweat lodge and medicine wheel ceremonies by ‘plastic medicine men’ or ‘white shamans’. I also found that archaeologists and anthropologists had themselves influenced those neo-shamans who based their readings of the past on out of date academic literature (e.g. O.G.S. Crawford’s eye goddess [1957]), or that which was on the fringes of academic acceptability (e.g. Marija Gimbutas’ great goddess [1974]). Rather than ignore this as eccentric or unimportant, I thought the current vanguard of archaeologists should be engaging with the topic and how misrepresentations of archaeology and anthropology filtered into popular culture.

In addition to discussing problematic aspects of neo-shamanism, I also recognised that some of their approaches to the past contributed in positive ways to archaeology and anthropology. Academics tend to limit their thinking to theory largely derived from Eurocentric philosophy, rational materialism and empirical method. Neo-shamans might think in these ways too, but they find particular value in more emotional, subjective and spiritual approaches, and gain understandings of the past as a result, some of which I thought had value for archaeologists. And I recognised that while some neo-shamans appropriate indigenous religions, others are more respectful and in some ways ‘give back’, ‘pay extra’ or contribute positively in the exchange. In writing Shamans/neo-Shamans, I hope to have achieved a more balanced appraisal with implications for all the interest groups. 

[Ethan]: In Shamans/Neo-Shamans, you are quite open about being a practitioner of Neo-Shamanism yourself, and so I'd be interested to learn more about how you came to be involved in this particular spiritual tradition, and how it influences your attitude and approach to past societies. Furthermore, how do you feel that your spiritual beliefs interact with your status as an academic, particularly considering the general mistrust of new religious movements that is present within the mainstream archaeological community ? 

[Robert]: I have identified as a Pagan since I was 16 and would now, if pressed, ‘label’ myself as a Heathen animist. When I came to write the PhD which was later published as Shamans/neo-Shamans, I immediately found myself challenged by the insider-outsider problem. I was a ‘neo-shaman’ of sorts (during this time I co-authored Galdrbok: Practical Heathen Runecraft, Shamanism and Magic 2000, 2005), and an academic, but anthropologists and scholars of religion are not supposed to compromise their objectivity by ‘going native’. As feminists had shown from the 1960s, though, absolute objectivity is impossible to achieve; the ‘objective’ research done largely by white, male Europeans was itself subject to the vagaries of the white, male European. As fallible beings humans are always subject to biases and prejudice. The key is to recognise one’s potential biases and upfront them.

Nathan J. Johnston and Wallis' Galdrbok.
Copyright Wakenham Press.
The post-modern ‘theoretical turn’ and importance of reflexivity in humanities and social sciences’ research impacted on archaeology as post-processualism, and on anthropology as ‘Writing Culture’ (Clifford & Marcus 1986) and ‘experiential’ and ‘auto-ethnographic’ methods (e.g. Young & Goulet 1994). Pagan studies has demonstrated that being an ‘insider’ brings its own value to the study of religion, alongside more established approaches. In the book I attempt to ‘queer’ archaeology (see also my 2000 World Archaeology article) in my examination of neo-shamanism by proposing an ‘autoarchaeology’, which allows me to take my own experiences as valid data, and to critically reflect on this in order to achieve some balance.

What this brought to my research, in the form of Shamans/neo-Shamans and publications since then, I think, is an attempt at an even-handed approach to the material. Unlike others (e.g. Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past, 1995), I have not dismissed neo-shamans, Pagans and others outright as dangerous ‘pseudo-archaeology’, nor have I let them get away with it. I point to people such as Gordon ‘the toad’ MacLellan, an environmental educator and storyteller who is changing the way children view their world through such simple things as mask-making and pond-dipping. I also considered the Heathen practice of seidr, which draws closely on literary sources in the Eddas and sagas, and archaeological data, to reconstruct a neo-shamanistic practice relevant today, and with interesting results for scholars of the period (as best demonstrated in Jenny Blain’s book Nine Worlds of Seidr-Magic 2002).

And yet I held other neo-shamanisms to account. Core-shamanism, invented by former anthropologist Michael Harner, for instance, now has a global reach by claiming to be the bare-bones of shamanism without cultural baggage; but this stripping away of indigenous culture decontextualises shamanism and imposes Euro-American values of individualism, personal growth and inner journeying – even if Harner has made important contributions to the reinvigoration of certain indigenous shamanisms with his method. I think emotional and spiritual engagements with the past have value not only in themselves or only to those claiming them, but also to scholars of past societies. Only fairly recently has an archaeology of the senses (Tarlow 2000; Harris & Sorensen 2010) and sensorial archaeology emerged (see Yannis HamilakisArchaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory and Affect 2014), so I think it is time for an archaeology of, not just about, spirituality (and towards this end see the papers in Archaeology of Spiritualities 2012 [Ethan: which I have reviewed for Papers from the Institute of Archaeology]).
Harvey and Wallis' Historical Dictionary
of Shamanism
, Copyright Scarecrow Press.
[Ethan]: With religious studies scholar Dr. Graham Harvey of the Open University you co-authored the Historical Dictionary of Shamanism (Scarecrow Press, 2007). How did this project come about, and what do you see as the potential for greater unity between scholars of religious studies and archaeologists of religion? 

[Robert]: Graham and I had worked together before (for example, the chapters I wrote for his edited volume Shamanism: A Reader (2002) and co-edited volume Researching Paganisms: Religious Experiences and Academic Methodologies (2004). With our mutual interest in shamanism, in all its variety, it made good sense for us to collaborate on the dictionary. It was fun to write, because each short entry was self-contained so we could work on the thing in bite-size chunks alongside other projects. And because it covered so much ground we learnt a great deal more about the subject. It had an impact too, perhaps more so than we expected, with favourable reviews and a diverse audience ranging from scholars and libraries to neo-shamanistic practitioners – precisely the broad readership we and the publisher had hoped for – leading to a paperback edition, the A-Z of Shamanism in 2010.

The project hopefully shows the positive contributions which collaborations across disciplines can offer. This is nothing new, but there is resistance to trans-disciplinary research, even given the increasing emphasis of funding bodies on collaborations. I suppose scholars of religion are most interested in what is happening now in the synchronic, anthropological sense, while archaeologists are more concerned with the ancient, material past. But there is overlap and dialogue, and I think the dictionary stands as a good example of that. We are currently revising and expanding it for a new 2015 edition. 

[Ethan]: With the anthropologist Dr. Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University you embarked on the Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights project ( in 2001, in which you examined how members of the contemporary Pagan community interpreted and interacted with archaeological monuments in Britain. This project resulted in a publication, Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments (Sussex Academic Press, 2007), which really is the first –– and so far only –– work dealing with the complex relationship between the contemporary Pagan and archaeological sites. How did this project get off the ground, what do you hope that it has achieved, and what is the project's future?
Blain and Wallis' Sacred Sites book.
Copyright Sussex Academic Press.
[Robert]: Jenny and I had both been working on neo-shamanisms and Pagan engagements with the past, in different ways, in the late 1990s. I was taking a broader look at neo-shamanistic engagements with archaeology and anthropology. Jenny’s work was more specifically focussed on reconstructionist Paganism in the form of the neo-shamanistic practice of seidr. And while I had considered Pagan engagements with archaeological monuments and their implications for archaeologists, her paper for our Permeability conference and subsequent book focused on Celtic neo-shamanisms in relation to prehistoric archaeology in Scotland. As we each moved into the next phase of research and funding applications, it made sense to collaborate rather than compete.

We founded the Sacred Sites project and worked together for over ten years, during which time we attracted small grants from the ESRC and Nuffield Foundation to conduct fieldwork at various archaeological monuments across Britain frequented by Pagans. We published our findings in a series of publications including journal articles in Folklore (2003), Journal of Material Culture (2004), The Pomegranate (2004, 2009) and Public Archaeology (2006, 2011) – and the book. We aim to have demonstrated that Pagan engagements with archaeology are diverse, with contributions and challenges which affect archaeologists, heritage managers and museum professionals.

Regarding site impact, Pagans are most often allies to archaeologists and heritage managers, volunteering in site clean-up after festival dates, keeping a watchful eye for many years over sites they live near, and protesting against such threats as quarrying (e.g. Stanton Moor, Derbyshire). Where there is antagonism, over the reburial of prehistoric human remains for instance, we have argued for closer dialogue and collaboration in order to reach situationally pragmatic outcomes. There is still work to do in this area, as I’ve noted above, and that is where the project is heading next. Our future research will also look more closely at Pagan materialities with a focus on Pagan visiting to museum collection displays and the implications of this often silent yet significant stakeholder group for museum professionals engaged with diversity and widening participation. 

[Ethan]: Your most recent book is Antiquaries and Archaists: The Past in the Past, the Past in the Present (Spire, 2009), co-edited with Megan Aldrich, in which you have brought together eight essays looking at how material culture has been interpreted in different ways. How past societies have in turn interpreted the past is something that has gained increasing attention from archaeologists in recent years, and I wondered if this was an area that you wish to look at in further depth?

Aldrich and Wallis' Antiquaries & Archaists.
Copyright Spire.
[Robert]: The project began as a pub conversation in The Blowing Stone Inn, a stone’s throw from the Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy (which I went on to introduce Megan to that day). Megan raised her interest in how artists and antiquaries approached, interpreted and reinterpreted the ancient past and I pointed to examples of ancient communities engaging with earlier archaeology, such as pagan Anglo-Saxon burials in prehistoric monuments. This led to our co-organising a conference on Antiquaries and Archaists at the Society of Antiquaries of London (of which we are both Fellows) in the year of the Society’s tercentenary, and the subsequent book.

There has now been a good deal of research on uses of the past in the past, particularly the re-use of later prehistoric monuments, but this has mainly been focussed on Britain (e.g. Sarah Semple’s paper in the book and her recent book, Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England 2013 [Ethan: and check out my review of Semple's book here]). Part of our aim with the conference and book was to take a more global approach, but there is clearly more work to be done here. Well-known antiquaries such as Stukeley and Aubrey in Britain, and how they imagined and re-imagined the past, are well-represented but research on the work of various lesser-known antiquaries and those outside Europe is lacking. And there has been interest in how artists engage with the ancient past (e.g. Sam SmilesThe Image of Antiquity 1994), but again this has tended to focus on modern artists in the West. My specific interest has been in how Pagans in Britain interpret the past, and my chapter in the book considered that with an update on my thinking at that time. 

[Ethan]: Your most recent publication, just out this month, is “Re-examining prehistoric stone wrist-guards as evidence for falconry equipment in later prehistoric Britain”, in the journal Antiquity (88[340]: 411-424). Please tell us a bit more about it ? 

[Robert]: From a young age I have been interested in birds of prey. My mother took me to the Hawk Conservancy in Hampshire (now not far from where I live) when I was about 8 years old and I felt exhilarated by the experience of having a raptor sit on my fist. Since then, I have wanted to be a falconer. I read Kes, of course, My Side of the Mountain, and The Goshawk. I finally made this dream a reality three years ago. I had read various falconry manuals but hands-on experience is essential. So I completed the excellent LANTRA Beginning Falconry course (which should be mandatory for novice falconers in my view), then trained a female Harris’ Hawk, and we have had three wonderful hunting seasons. There is something very special, difficult to describe, about working closely with a wild creature (birds of prey cannot be domesticated) in a hunting partnership.
Wallis the falconer.
Image copyright Richard Mansfield.
I have brought my passions for the archaeology of art and the ‘art’ of falconry together in some of my most recent work. I am interested in how little is known about the earliest evidence for falconry, beyond the much-recounted assumption of Central Asia as its ‘origin’. In fact, archaeological evidence in this region is only just emerging, with the earliest rock art image of a possible falconer dated to around 1000 BCE. But the oldest archaeological evidence is much earlier and from further west, from third millennium BCE Anatolia and Syria, in the form of imagery on pottery sherds, seal impressions and stele.

In An Examination of Prehistoric Stone Bracers from Britain (2011), Woodward and Hunter argue that these polished stone objects from the Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, often known as archers’ wrist-guards worn to protect against the recoil of the bowstring, were used as falconry equipment. Usually associated with high-status Beaker inhumations, the ‘wrist-guards’ may have been used to carry raptors or more plausibly mounted on falconers’ leather gloves to display wealth and status. This idea begins with the antiquary Lord Londesborough’s dramatic find during his excavation of a cist in a barrow at Driffield, Kelleythorpe, east Yorkshire, which contained a wrist-guard in close association with the remains of a hawk’s head. Other finds of raptors deposited in later prehistoric contexts might supoort a ‘falconry connection’ and this idea seems to have caught on since Woodward and Hunter’s publication. If persuasive it would extend the earliest archaeological evidence for falconry in Britain by some 2000 to 2500 years and compete with the earliest evidence from Anatolia.

My detailed consideration of the wrist-guards and associated objects from a falconer’s perspective, however, demonstrates that the argument is unconvincing. In brief, the stone would blunt the bird’s talons and beak, compromising its effectiveness in hunting; the bird’s talons would in turn damage the carefully manufactured – and clearly intentional – polish of the stone; and the position of the ‘wrist-guard’ anywhere on the glove would present a potential hazard to safe and practical falconry. As to what stone wrist-guards were actually for, well I think they may originate in archer’s functional leather wrist-guards but most were non-functional. The context of Beaker funerary rituals suggests stone wrist-guards were involved in performances of high-status identities (in funeral dramas at least; it is possible the objects were produced purely for the mortuary ceremony), and negotiating concepts of individuality and community—including human-raptor relations—at the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age transition, a period of significant social change. Having made the case against stone-wrist guards as falconry equipment I have now returned to the archaeological evidence for falconry in Anatolia and Syria, and extended the project eastwards, in order to more closely scrutinise the earliest evidence for falconry. 

[Ethan]: Have you got any projects on the horizon that we should look out for ? 

Entrance to the Early Neolithic tomb of Newgrange, Ireland,
showing the swirling rock art. Copyright Dr. Wallis, from his chapter
in Archaeological Imaginings of Religion.
[Robert]: In addition, to those I’ve mentioned above, I’m working on a number of projects which should see publication in the next couple of years. One of these is a series of articles and a book examining art and shamanism ‘from cave painting to the white cube’. I’m interested in how these two concepts have become entangled in western discourse since the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the point that today such a wide variety of artforms has been labelled as being ‘shamanistic’ and artists as ‘shamans’, from prehistoric rock art to the works shown in contemporary art galleries. In unpacking this history I hope to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes shamanistic art, within a broader social, relational setting. 

Relating to this, I am in the early stages of working with Max Carocci and Graham Harvey on an exhibition on animism. Finally, you might also be interested in checking out my review of Vikings: Life and Legend (The British Museum 6 March – 22 June 2014) in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, due out next month, and my forthcoming chapter on ‘Witchcraft and magic in the age of anthropology’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, due out later in the year.

[Ethan]: A question that I ask everyone in this interview series is where they think that their particular academic field is headed. This being the case, I'd like to ask you where you think both rock art studies and contemporary Pagan studies are headed, and in particular how do you think that they will continue to react with archaeology in the coming years and decades ? 

[Robert]: I’m excited by the way in which some archaeologists have re-engaged with art and religion over the last decade through the broader theorising of materiality across disciplines – how things constitute behaviour and structure people’s relational engagements with their world (e.g. Archaeology after Interpretation, 2013). The rethinking of animism in anthropology and the study of religion has had an important impact on archaeology in the last ten years, just as Melanesian anthropology did in the 1990s in reconsidering prehistoric personhood (e.g. Fowler, 2004) and the roles of ‘objects’ in the ongoing negotiation of identities. Irving Hallowell’s pioneering work with the Ojibwe in the mid-twentieth century has been revisited, and the Ojibwe’s animist approach to a world (to paraphrase Graham Harvey in Animism [2005]), ‘filled with persons, only some of whom are human’. Amazonian animism has also been re-evaluated by Viveiros de Castro as a relational ontology, pointing to a broad Amerindian pattern with localised expressions.

There has since been vigorous debate among anthropologists on indigenous ontologies and the application of relational animism outside the Americas (e.g. Animism in Rainforest and Tundra, 2012), and among archaeologists on the possibilities of this thinking for archaeological enquiry (e.g. the special issue of Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2009). As I set out in the Time and Mind articles (2009, 2013), I think this thinking has potential for the shamanistic interpretation of certain rock art traditions in moving interpretation beyond the individual shaman, their interior altered states and representation of visions in rock art, to rock art imagery as something more or other than representation, and shamans operating with a broader, more-than-human social context.
Dr. Wallis. Image copyright Dr. Wallis
But we still need to work harder to move out of our own ontological and epistemological comfort zones, and find theoretical and methodological ways to do so. The animals which prehistoric people hunted and domesticated are now often described as ‘persons’, granted with agency in human affairs, but archaeologists still tend to situate this within evolutionary and cognitive schemas in which these ‘persons’ and their ‘agency’ remain vertically below human consciousness, and humans ascendant above ‘nature’. Animals might have been perceived by prehistoric people as having cultures, but it is the humans having the conversation. Amazonian animists recognise by contrast that while all ‘persons’ share culture it is our natures, our bodies, that are different; a case of what Viveiros de Castro terms multinaturalism and uniculturalism, not uninaturalism and multiculturalism. Elsewhere, Aboriginal Australian totemism involves kinship, mutual responsibility and inclusivity across species boundaries (Harvey 2012: 88). If we are all related, all ‘persons’ share ‘culture’ and differ in our natures/bodies, then what is ‘materiality’ is not what it seems and humans are not so special. Daily encounters require relating, with respect, in order to sensually (not ‘objectively’) participate in and negotiate daily life within a more-than-human world. Harvey expresses it as ‘turtles all the way down’, ‘the turtles standing in for consciousness’, and ‘all the way down’, ‘referring to all levels of matter’, and adds ‘hedgehogs all the way around’, referring to those ‘emblematic species… with whom you have interesting encounters, whose interests should interest you’. Archaeologists still have a long way to go in levelling the field and recognising those turtles and hedgehogs. 

Pagan studies has matured as an inter-disciplinary field over the last decade, successfully incorporating theory and method from such disciplines as anthropology, religious studies, sociology, psychology and archaeology in the process. We now have a solid if far from complete range of histories and ethnographies of Paganism in the Western world, some of which has set the record straight (I’m thinking of Ronald Hutton here). We also have important theoretical and methodological contributions to the disciplines which Pagan studies draws upon, particularly in terms of insider research and the value of extraordinary experience to expanding our knowledge (e.g. Researching Paganisms, 2004). Criticism (e.g. of Hutton) from outside Pagan studies and within Paganism is an important sign of Pagan studies’ maturity and the health of the debate. Markus Altena Davidsen’s “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies” (in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 2012) and your response (in The Pomegranate, 2012) also mark good examples of this.

I agree with you that Davidsen’s approach reduces the scope of research to so-called objective method, which in itself is a problematic aim, and that a mix of approaches, insider and otherwise, is important to the growth of the field. I’m less concerned than you over Pagan studies agreeing on terms, though. Christian theologians, for instance, do not necessarily agree on a definition of Christianity, so I think ongoing discussions and disagreements about the remit of ‘Paganism/paganism’ is OK. I’m more interested in how Pagan studies is adopting and adapting emerging thinking from the disciplines surrounding it, anthropology, archaeology, and so on, particularly the work on new animism and relational ontologies, and perhaps make innovative contributions back as a result. I’m also interested in the impact of Pagan studies on Pagan thinking, for example how Pagans have responded to revisions of the history of paganism (beyond Margaret Murray) and taken up the notion of animism. And I’m especially interested in how academic thinking on ancient paganisms informs Pagans’ ongoing (re)negotiations of their understandings of the past and their own identities. I think there are really interesting studies to be done on how Pagans outside of Europe perceive and engage with British prehistory and religion (which has currency among many international Pagans), how they engage with prehistoric cultures ‘at home’ (e.g. megaliths in eastern Europe), and the role of social media in all of this as an increasingly important part of Pagans’ global-reaching identities (e.g. building on Douglas Cowan's Cyberhenge 2004, from an archaeological point of view). And returning to an ‘alternative archaeology’, in contrast to some other thinkers (e.g. Schadla-Hall 2004; Holtorf 2005; Fagan & Feder 2006; Cusack 2012), my take on this is that a genuine alternative archaeology is not only about recognising and examining unorthodox archaeologies, but about developing ways of negotiating respect, understanding and informed decision-making among the interest groups – archaeologists and Pagans included – regarding how archaeological material is treated. 

[Ethan]: Dr. Wallis, thank you so much for sharing your story and thoughts with me and my readers today. I wish you all the best with your future endeavours!

1 comment:

  1. Congrats Robert/Ethan. A very stimulating interview with many leads for interesting research trajectories for other scholars (like me).