Interview: David Wengrow, archaeologist and author - “All writing is a form of activism” - Hindustan Times

Interview: David Wengrow, archaeologist and author - “All writing is a form of activism”

ByChintan Girish Modi
Apr 07, 2023 06:14 PM IST

On George Orwell, the British education system, on how archaeology and anthropology are implicated in colonialism and being aware of bias and context

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, the book that you co-authored with the late David Graeber, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2022. How did it feel to be recognized by a prize named after author George Orwell?

David Wengrow a the Kolkata Literary Meet (Courtesy the Kolkata Literary Meet)
David Wengrow a the Kolkata Literary Meet (Courtesy the Kolkata Literary Meet)

Frankly, I was not expecting it at all. My publisher informed me about the announcement. Of all the prizes that are given for non-fiction published in the UK, I think that my co-author David Graeber would have appreciated the Orwell Prize the most. His father was part of the International Brigades in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Since George Orwell was closely associated with the International Brigades, his name would come up frequently in conversation. Although Orwell is not mentioned in The Dawn of Everything, there are certainly a lot of concerns that we share with Orwell. I am happy about this recognition.

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Did you grow up reading Orwell?

Yes, I did. In fact, generations of children in the UK have had to read George Orwell’s books – Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in particular – as part of their school education. Later in life, I also read Homage to Catalonia (1938) and other books written by Orwell. It is a real mystery to me how British children who read Orwell grew up and voted for a person like Boris Johnson. There must be something very strange about the British education system. When you read books that are supposed to make you highly sceptical of propaganda and populism, of the manipulation of truth, you should not be tolerating these things or considering them normal. They have become so run of the mill in British politics.

Along with what is taught, it is crucial to think about how it is taught. Do you think teachers are teaching these books in ways that are not having the desired impact?

I think you have a point here. These books are part of the curriculum as compulsory reading. They are primarily taught as literature. Unfortunately, in the UK, literature is often taught in a manner that keeps it separate from history and politics. Because of this approach, students do not learn much about the context in which Orwell was writing these books or his own life.

David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, co authors, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Kalpesh Lathigra.)
David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, co authors, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Kalpesh Lathigra.)

The Orwell Foundation’s description of the prize mentions that author George Orwell’s ambition was “to make political writing into an art”. When you and David Graeber were working on The Dawn of Everything, did you approach it as a work of art?

Well, not in any clearly formulated sort of way, but I certainly benefited a lot from David’s experience because he had already published a number of successful books before this one. He developed a style of writing that is accessible to readers without dumbing down the subject. It appealed to me then, and it still does. One of the things I am thrilled about is that a 700-page book like ours, with 70 pages of bibliography and copious footnotes, can be up there in the New York Times best seller list with American actor Will Smith’s autobiography. This goes to prove that ordinary people, including many people without higher education, are interested in the history of humanity and are not afraid to pick up serious books like ours.

And what would you tell people who are afraid of reading this book?

This is what I would say to them: Try and picture in your mind whatever image you hold of human history on the broadest possible scale in terms of 1) Who we are, 2) Where we came from, and 3) The key transitions that made us what we are today. Then imagine that everything you have just pictured is wrong. This is the basic premise of our book.

You are an archaeologist, and Graeber was an anthropologist. Both these disciplines are deeply implicated in the history of colonialism. How did you reckon with this history?

What an interesting question! Well, there aren’t many academics from these two disciplines – archaeology and anthropology – who would deny that colonialism is baked into the systems of knowledge that we are trained in. But academics usually fall into two kinds of camps when it comes to addressing a question like this. One camp believes that we simply should not engage with literature from the colonial period because it is irretrievably biased and prejudiced; and it often tends to ignore the lives and histories of women. There is another camp – one that David Graeber belonged to – which believes that colonial records must not be tidied up; these sources should be used carefully and highly critically to expose the dirty little secrets of colonial ethnographers who documented societies through their colonial gaze.

With archaeology, things get even more complicated than anthropology. The origins of the Archaeological Survey of India, for example, are tied up with the legacy of British colonialism. Post-colonial states like India and others are deeply invested in thinking about who owns the past, not only in legal terms but also cultural terms, and whether permissions to conduct archaeological fieldwork should be given or not. As a result, the methods used to excavate and record do not operate in isolation from the bureaucratic infrastructure of the state. How archaeology is done on the ground influences the research questions scholars ask.

In the book, we have a chapter titled Why the State Has No Origin, where we argue that archaeology has been complicit in fabricating a history of humanity that does not stand up to scrutiny. We read archaeology against the grain. Using evidence from Pharaonic Egypt, Shang China, the Inca Empire and other places, we try to show that highly organized powerful polities in various historical periods were not embryonic versions of modern nation states. We really must resist projecting our contemporary ideas onto older civilizations.

720pp, ₹699; Penguin
720pp, ₹699; Penguin

When you were speaking at the Kolkata Literary Meet recently, you mentioned that orality is a significant part of how Indians understand their past whereas Europeans tend to prioritize written records so their approach to orality is different. Tell us more.

I think there is still a genuine ignorance on the part of people of people like me who grew up in societies where literacy is endemic, where we are taught that pretty much every progressive social value originated within the sphere of European civilization. We are talking here about many generations of people whose education inculcates these kinds of assumptions. To this day, it is surprising for many Europeans to even contemplate the possibility that some of our most treasured and progressive social values may have originated – at least partly – elsewhere. There is an aura of glory associated with the Age of Enlightenment that coincides with what is sometimes called the Age of Discovery.

It would be dishonest to not acknowledge the huge impact that Native American, South Asian and East African societies have had on the parochial intellectual world inhabited by Europeans. Any attempt to weed out different strands of thought, and to present an image of a neat, closed, and internally coherent intellectual tradition, is based on some false notion of purity that stands on shaky ground. When you unpack threads, the links are absolutely clear.

One comes across academics who use the words “oral” and “pre-literate” interchangeably. What kind of value judgements are implicit in this way of thinking?

I think that the distinction between the oral and the literate, and all associated notions of superiority, must be examined critically. I agree with anthropologist Carlo Severi’s argument that what we call oral societies are actually image-based societies. There is a high degree of complexity and sophistication in non-literate forms of representation. He has contributed a chapter titled On complex picture-writings for a volume that I have edited -- Image, Thought, and the Making of Social Worlds (2022). It is published by Propylaeum, and includes contributions from archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians. I hope this volume will convince readers that cultures without writing have other ways of committing to memory highly complex information about legal obligations, family histories, religion, and more.

The idea of a linear progression from the oral to the literal is at best a fantasy or a myth that is often presented with enormous confidence as a scientific fact by people who seem absolutely out of touch with any scientific information. Many of these people see themselves as rational centrists but their work shows an obvious disjuncture from reality. This is one of the reasons that made me and my co-author want to make a critical intervention from within our fields.

Have you both been seen as activists within your fields?

Well, I think that all writing is a form of activism. One can deny this and pretend that one exists in some parallel universe but that is simply not true. There is a remarkable commentary on this in a slim volume called History (1947) written by archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe. He says that we have to drop the silly idea of objectivity. There are bound to be significant differences based on whether we are writing from England or from China. We have to be aware of our biases and our context. We have to be self-critical. This is basic common sense.

How can archaeological data help humanity cope with the challenges of climate change?

I have been reflecting quite a bit on the concept of the Anthropocene, which alerts people to the catastrophic proportions of the climate crisis and our responsibility as human beings. Many of the soils that have been previously considered naturally occurring have turned out to be anthropogenic soils created out of thousands of years of human interaction with the land.

Archaeologists bring depth to conversations about major human impacts on global earth systems. They draw attention to the knowledge systems cultivated by indigenous populations that are often leading the way – though they are not listened to much as they should be – in sustainability. One can show concretely with archaeological data that the history of humanity is not one of unfettered and relentless resource extraction; there have been successful ways of sustainably managing tropical forests and fragile coastal environments. We must ask questions about the social systems that make this possible.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am doing my day job as a Professor of Comparative Archaeology at the University College of London. In the little time that I have when I am not teaching or talking about my published work, I am collaborating on my first art project with a group called Forensic Architecture that is based at Goldsmiths College in London. They work mostly on cases of human rights, so it is not an obvious sort of collaboration, but I found many overlaps between their work and mine over a series of conversations that we had with each other. We will be putting up an installation about submerged cities in what we now call Ukraine. These are completely forgotten cities that go back 6000 years. They had no writing system. They were as large as the first cities of the Indus Valley and ancient Mesopotamia. They challenge our understanding of what a city is, and the genealogy of cities. We want to present this visually. We are working with soil scientists and archaeologists, including colleagues in Ukraine who still manage to keep themselves occupied with cultural pursuits even in the middle of a war.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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