I have observed many times on this blog that the term “University Professor,” applying as it does to biologists, sociologists, mathematicians, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, conceals the extraordinary differences in the activities and bodies of professional knowledge that these people engage in and acquire. Let me give you just one example that crossed my mind as I was reading Graber and Wengrow. Here they are talking about settlements in what came to be called the Fertile Crescent, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The period in question is many thousands of years ago. “At the site of Jerf el-Ahmar, on the banks of the Syrian Euphrates–… the storage and processing of grain was associated less with ordinary dwellings than with subterranean lodges, entered from an opening in the roof and suffused with ritual associations.”
As I read that sentence, one of hundreds that go by as I turn the pages, I thought to myself, “how on earth do they know that the lodges were entered from an opening in the roof?” The answer is obvious, but when one reflects upon it, astonishing. They know because dozens of archaeologists and their graduate students have spent months or years painstakingly excavating this site, carefully digging away the dirt and accumulated detritus that covers the remains of the 6000 or 8000 year old buildings, ascertaining by the excavation that they were originally subterranean, that they did not have doors and windows like so many other excavated buildings, and that the only way into them was through openings revealed by careful, precise digging, digging that involved little by little brushing away dirt that had long since covered up the constructions.
There is nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this. It is what archaeologists do – hundreds of archaeologists, year after year after year, at sites all around the world, carefully making notes and taking pictures of what they dig up and then publishing the results in journals so that other archaeologists can add the little bit of knowledge they have acquired to the enormous accumulated body that generations of archaeologists have discovered and memorialized.
This sort of activity is absolutely nothing like what a philosopher does. It is not really very much like what an historian or political scientist or sociologist or mathematician or literary critic does. It is simply astonishing to reflect on the accumulated systematic human effort that lies behind the delightful reports and speculations with which Graber and Wengrow fill their pages.
The authors, needless to say, are not merely summarizing what they have read in the thousands of books and journal articles listed in their bibliography. They are engaged in an exuberant argument against the standard story that what we call civilization began with domestic agriculture which then led inevitably to class hierarchies, structural inequalities, the state, and the other glories of the modern world. That, after all, is the point of reading the book. But it is worth pausing from time to time to think about the vast systematic undertaking of archaeology on which their argument rests