chapter  8
34 Pages

Studying structures

WithMatthew Johnson

When a foraging band of the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert halt for an overnight stop, one of their number plants two sticks in the ground. These two sticks stand for the door-posts of the more substantial structures the !Kung build in other contexts. The planting of the sticks allows the !Kung to orient themselves in a ring around the central hearth, the men on one side, the women on the other. Outside the ring, as the sky darkens and the fire brightens, is a wilderness the !Kung consider as hostile, full of dangers and evil spirits. Thus, the placing of two sticks constitutes not just the dwelling, but the whole !Kung universe: it divides up the women and men, the families in the band, and the social and natural world beyond (Whitelaw 1994:224). This story is one taken from the gallery of ethnographic examples habitually used by archaeologists to help interpret their findings. It illustrates in microcosm some of the common problems and possibilities raised by the archaeological study of structures.