A review of the Cambridge conference on 'Consciousness and Creativity at the Dawn of Settled Life' to appear in Aktuel Arkeoloji:
'Consciousness and creativity at the dawn of settled life' conference review
Consciousness is a hot topic today yet a great mystery for most. Biologists and neuroscientists pair up with psychologists and philosophers to understand how the brain functions and how a physical brain creates our experience of the world. Given the complexity of the argument, trying to understand the Neolithic mind looking at the archeological evidences of material culture with the help of cognitive scientists may sound like a crazy prospect, yet a truly interesting one.
A four-day conference titled Consciousness and creativity at the dawn of settled life attempted to achieve this inter-disciplinary goal. Organised by Ian Hodder in collaboration with Çatalhöyük Research Project team member Scott R. Haddow and funded by Templeton Foundation the conference took place on 27-30 July at the McDonald Institute for Archeological Research, University of Cambridge. It set out to test recent scholarly claims made for cognitive change in the Neolithic Near East at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and enquire the dense material culture of the site as a way to scrutinise the widespread topics of consciousness and creativity today. Bringing members of the Çatalhöyük Research Project and other Neolithic Near Eastern researchers together with experts in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, cognition and material culture, the conference provided a prolific occasion for debate.
In their project description Hodder and Haddow state that the claim for cognitive change in the Neolithic Middle East brought about by a number of scholars including Levi-Strauss, de Chardin and Cauvin is acceptable considering the proliferation of new techniques and ways of life in the Neolithic Near East. They criticise, however, the lack of the testing of the claims made: "Scholars have assumed that the cognitive changes they describe are loosely linked to sedentism, changes in technology, trade and exchange, increases in amounts of material culture in the Neolithic as a whole, without exploring or testing any specific correlations". They identified one cause of this lack in the imprecision of the dating of archeological sites and events in the Neolithic Middle East, which comes as an interesting statement even for a non-specialist in terms of understanding how deeply rooted the failures of historical identification in the region are -in this 'hot' portion of the globe that is being more and more traced and acknowledged, but often overlooked in terms of specific cultural and social formations. Hodder and Haddow identify a second cause of the lack of the testing of the claims made in the 'poly-centricity' of the Neolithicisation process: "Many of the processes involved took place over millennia (eg sedentism, cultivation and domestication) and varied in nature and speed in different parts of the Middle East." Consequently most literature confines itself to broad-brush terms and fails to test specific hypotheses against the data from the Middle East as a whole.
The clever strategy of this conference instead focused on one of the component parts against the whole: Çatalhöyük, an early agricultural society featuring large amounts of data that cover part of the Neolithic sequence. In fact, as a well documented large-size long-term cultural trajectory, Çatalhöyük, turned out to be a highly adequate case for scrutiny on the topic. Researchers took on to measure various changes in consciousness in various specific archeological material. Higher levels of consciousness were identified in abstract symbols, greater creativity identified in the diversification of ceramics, and a sense of distributed self identified in partible body parts in burials and figurines.
The introductory talk on Çatalhöyük by Hodder was followed by presentations by members from the Çatalhöyük project including Lucy Bennison-Chapman on sphere-shaped clay objects as tokens of consciousness and creativity; Sean Doyle on obsidian tools and craftmanship as indicators of ownership and innovation; Marek Baranski on brick size and architectural regularities; Christopher Knüsel and Scott Haddow on the meaning of human remains; and Milena Vasić on adorning the self. Comparisons with other sites were provided by Hans Gebel on the Ba‘ja/Basta region and Colin Renfrew on early urban and pre-urban societies. More theoretical presentations included a wide range of topics from the correlation between material culture and the self by Fiona Coward; the perception of time by Marion Benz; to home-making and community in the Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic by Lisa Maher; and vitality by Anna Fagan. While Trevor Watkins argued for the transformation of 'the human cultural niche' in the Neolithic, and Olivier Nieuwenhuijse drew comparisons with the Upper Mesopotamian Late Neolithic.
The final part of the conference was reserved to the cognitive scientists. Paul Howard-Jones, John Sutton, Michael Wheeler and Chris Thornton presented different approaches to cognition function and formation, and participated in the testing of hypotheses in archeological material.
The conference as a whole provided mind-expanding discussion though it was difficult to pin down the discussion at times. One realises how complex the task posed by Hodder was when it came to generate inter-disciplinary debate within the discipline itself, a task likely to exceed a single conference. The conference made evident that in such inter-disciplinary context experts and researchers are expected to take a critical and self-reflexive look at their own disciplines as well as reflect upon the importance of inter-disciplinary thought today.
A second unease seemed to result from the lack of focus on the artistic and symbolic language at Çatalhöyük throughout the conference apart from a short discussion by Hodder himself in his introductory talk. The site is well known for its large size (32 acres and 3,500-8,000 people) that features a dense concentration of ‘art’ in the form of wall paintings, wall reliefs, sculptures and installations. This entire symbolic production holds great cognitive complexity and abstraction reflecting the complexity of the social world in which the inhabitants lived. Yet every single piece of symbolism is a material example of the inherent appeal of art’s ability to present something else to the imagination.
Therefore, in the precise context of this conference the lack of attention to the site's symbolic production was a missed chance to reach the core of the argument -and this is a task that exceeds science and seeks the collaboration of artists and art historians.
After all, it can be no coincidence that this inter-disciplinary conference on the topic of consciousness and creativity in the context of a Neolithic site was organised at this precise time in history. Consciousness is not a hot topic today in a globally entangled world for no reason and it is no less than common knowledge that we need to be highly creative and imaginative in this precise moment in history in order to build a future for ourselves in this world. It is also obvious that we need to understand the past in order to create a future for ourselves.
Perhaps the question this conference made most evident is, are we ready to see this?