Saturday 22 March 2014

An Interview with Thomas A. Dowson

This month at Albion Calling I am honoured to present archaeologist and rock art studies specialist Thomas A. Dowson, who has formerly lectured at the universities of Manchester, Southampton, and the Witwatersrand. Many will know Dowson for his pioneering work with David Lewis-Williams arguing that the cave art of Palaeolithic Western Europe was the product of a shamanistic belief system, while others will be aware of their important research into the pictographs of southern Africa, where he grew up. Others may instead know Dowson for his equally pioneering work in launching the field of queer archaeology, offering us a radical way of reassessing the discipline. He has since retired from academic archaeology to provide heritage tours of France and now runs the excellent Archaeology Travel website. Here he has taken a little time out of his busy schedule to offer us a fascinating insight into his career and research.

EDW: Growing up on a farm in (what is now) Zimbabwe, you took an early interest in the rock art produced by members of the San hunter-gatherer populations across southern Africa. Did you have direct access to these wonderful pictographs at the time, or was this an interest that was stemmed through school or some other such outlet?

TD: The farm we lived on was about seven miles south of what was then Salisbury, now the Zimbabwean capital Harare. The farm house had been built about fifty or so metres from a granite outcrop typical of that area. And it was in the sometimes very slight shelters of those “kopjes” as they are called that hunters and gatherers painted on the rock surfaces. The kopje behind our house had quite a large shelter with rock paintings in it. As it was north facing it was a great place to hangout. That must have been when I was six or seven. 

Although I can not recall what the paintings in that shelter looked like, they definitely stayed with me. At school, as part of an art project, we were required to find a rock and paint something on it. Although I forget the context of the project (it may very well have had something to do with learning about prehistory), I distinctly remember deciding to try and reproduce what I had seen on the rock back at the farm - or rather what I thought I had seen. I can still see the image I painted. The painful irony is that I painted a man with a spear chasing a zebra. A popular misconception of prehistoric rock art that I would go onto spend many years trying to dispel. I went on to become more interested in rock art while studying archaeology at university.

EDW: What made you decide to study archaeology at an academic level, and at university did you focus your attention on the rock art that had captivated your interest since childhood?

TD: For as long as I can remember I have been interested in evolution and science. And two historical figures, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, fascinated me from an early age. As a child I almost certainly had a romanticised image of both of these people, which partly derived from a book I read at school about “great lives.” I greatly enjoyed playing with chemistry sets, and anything to do with Charles Darwin. One night I had to get permission from my parents to stay up late one ‘school night’ to watch a documentary about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. I was as excited about staying up late as I was about watching Charles Darwin. By the time I went to university then I wanted to be a scientist, more specifically to study past climates.

I enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, with majors in Botany and Geology. Rock art did not feature in my career plans. Geology turned out to be a big disappointment for me. Only because being in the mining capital of South Africa, the geology department was in effect a mining school. Two weeks of Palaeontology was tacked on to the end of the course, and that was all dinosaurs - which have never interested me!

At that time I was working in the campus bookshop with an archaeology student, and he suggested I should consider switching from geology to archaeology. Which I did. One day during my first year of archaeology, I was in the student reading room of the archaeology department and David Lewis-Williams came in looking for help to load up his vehicle for a field trip he was going on to the Drakensberg. The Drakensberg was somewhere I had longed to go to for years. And so I asked Lewis-Williams if he ever took students on field trips. He said I should leave my name and phone number of a piece of paper in his mailbox. It was months before he ever contacted me to join a field trip, and three years before I got to go to the Drakensberg.

EDW: In his recent lectures here in London, a colleague of yours, David Lewis-Williams, commented on his personal experiences with San communities learning about how their ancestors produced rock art and why; did you yourself get to spend much time with these communities?

TD: In December 1989, I visited the large and well known rock engraving site of Twyfelontein in Namibia for my book Rock Engravings of Southern Africa. Megan Biesele, the anthropologist who had taken David Lewis-Williams to meet a San community, was working in Namibia at the time. I had asked her if I could meet her. Megan suggested she come to Twyfelontein. During her brief visit to the site we discussed the rock art with the members of the San community who had come with her. Later Megan invited me to visit her in the Nyae Nyae region in northern Namibia, and to climb the Brandburg. I visited the San in Nyae Nyae for two weeks in 1990, but because I contracted malaria we never got to climb the Brandberg mountain.

Although the people I met through Megan were not direct descendants of the San peoples who made the rock art, the two weeks in Nyae Nyae still had a profound effect on me as a scholar. This was a time when the various misconceptions about San history were still quite prevalent, even amongst South Africa’s historians. After getting off the plane from Windhoek, David Lewis-Williams showed me the proofs of a photography book he had been asked to write the text for. The book was to be called The Bushman, A Vanished Way of Life. I was shocked. This title was the product of just one of the many misconceptions of the San communities in South Africa, that their way of life had long since disappeared and been relegated to study by prehistoric archaeologists. And in fact it was simply not true. It took a few days, but I eventually convinced Lewis-Williams that the title had to be changed. Not only was the title changed (the book was eventually called The Bushmen: A Changed Way of Life), but the publishers had to reprint the cover.

Dowson with David Lewis-Williams

EDW: Given the white supremacist socio-political domination of much of southern Africa at the time, and the effect that this had on archaeological interpretation (the case of Great Zimbabwe being perhaps the best known), did you feel that your interest in indigenous African archaeologies was in any way constrained or threatened by the authorities?

TD: There were always rumours about how the authorities were supposedly spying on us. Apparently, they were watching those archaeologists who were interested in, what was fashionable then, Marxist archaeology. Being at the University of the Witwatersrand during the 1980s this was nothing new, the campus was frequently raided by the security police. Looking back, however, I think I felt more intimidated and disturbed by some of the farmers whose land we had to access to get to rock art sites. Together with colleagues we heard and witnessed some horrific bigotry. That I will never forget.

EDW: You proceeded to work for ten years at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where your research focused on San rock art. While based there, you co-wrote Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art (1989), Rock Paintings of the Natal Drakensberg (1992), and People, Politics, and Power: The Bushman People of Southern Africa (1995) with David Lewis-Williams, also co-editing the volume on Contested Images: Diversity in Southern African Rock Art Research (1994) with him. With Janette Deacon you produced Voices from the Past: !Xam Bushmen and the Bleek and Lloyd Collection (1995), and you are also responsible for Rock Engravings of Southern Africa (1992). As you must be aware, this was really pioneering, important stuff, exploring shamanistic explanations for these images and bringing in ideas from neuropsychology; looking back at this research now, it seems that it revolutionised the field of rock art studies. What was it like to be at the forefront of research in this area at the time, and how did your research begin to explore this enigmatic realm of shamanism?

TD: Yes, it was an exciting period in the study of rock art to have been a part of. When I read rock art research today, I am still amazed at how some aspects of what is said about what the images might have meant are now taken for granted. Back in the 1990s discussions about these issues, even amongst rock art scholars, were all but pitched battles. I still chuckle to myself when I see certain scholars use the term shamanism in a positive context! As important and pioneering as the work we were doing then was, there is still a long way to go. Our understanding of shamanism and its association with rock art is not without error and Eurocentric misconceptions.

Shamanism aside, I am more proud of the papers I published in the mid-1990s that sought to bring Bushman communities back into the history of South Africa, and not as people who simply made stone tools and hunted. Research that received very hostile receptions at history and archaeology conference in the early 1990s. Even from archaeologists. The idea that rock art is as important to South Africa’s history and any early colonial document might be is now taken for granted. In fact it would be absurd to think otherwise.

One of the popular misconceptions of the time, reproduced by all the leading South African historians in both popular and academic literature, was that the San people had either been pushed out of South Africa by the Black farming communities when they arrived about 2,000 years ago, or they played little role in the unfolding story of the subcontinent. Archaeologists did a lot of work to challenge this view: the San did not get pushed out of South Africa by the farmers, rather they stayed and enjoyed positive social and economic relations with the farmers. I took this idea a step further and showed we could use the rock art as a “historical document” to show that the San communities were as implicated in the various political events that have unfolded over the last two thousand or so years, following the arrival of pastoralists and farmers, up until and after the arrival of the whites in South Africa in the 1700s.

EDW: From there you turned your attention to look at the rock art of Western Europe. In particular you’ve looked at some of the Upper Palaeolithic cave art from modern France, and argued that the origins of these images might well be explained through the shamanism hypothesis. What inspired you to move from Southern Africa and into Upper Palaeolithic Europe?

TD: The Ice Age cave art of Europe was a project I started working on with David Lewis-Williams in the mid-1980s. Then as now, the Palaeolithic cave art of Europe was something of a holy grail for rock art scholars and archaeologists. An obvious reflection of the Eurocentricism that still pervades much of rock art research.

Given our approach to the rock art of southern Africa, what other rock art researchers were saying elsewhere, particularly in North America - notably Ken Hedges, Polly Schaafsma, Solveig Turpin, David Whitley - we thought there was a strong possibility that the rock art in Europe was also shamanistic. And so we set about to establish that - using the neuropsychology of altered states of consciousness. Something else that was received with a fair degree of hostility and derision. Now it’s a given.

EDW: Following your decade at Witwatersrand, you then moved to England, taking up a position at the University of Southampton, where you set up the world's first postgraduate course on prehistoric art. How did this scenario come about, and did you find it an easy experience? What was it like suddenly being transposed from the South African academic environment and being immersed in its British counterpart?

TD: For various reasons I was thinking about leaving Wits University. When the late Peter Ucko, then Dean of Arts at the University of Southampton, got in touch with me and suggested I visit him and Tim Champion, the then head of the Archaeology Department, I stopped over in Southampton on my way to a conference in the US. The idea of starting the World’s first dedicated rock art postgraduate degree programme was seductive and I was seduced. The experience was not as easy as I thought it would be. And I found the move to England to be very unsettling, personally and academically.

EDW: It was in 2000 that the World Archaeology journal published a volume edited by yourself that was devoted to “Queer Archaeologies.” Many of my readers will probably be unfamiliar with the term “queer archaeology”, so for their benefit, could you explain what exactly the term means to you? Did you have a background in queer theory, and how did you come to the decision to bring it into archaeology?

TD: I find it easier to say what queer theory is not, rather than what it is. Queer Archaeology, for me anyway - how I intended it, is not as so many think and use the term, about looking for “sexual deviants” in the past. It is not a gay agenda for exploring homosexuality in the past (not that that is not important - but that is another issue entirely). Because the word “queer” is often used as a short hand for gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and I am sure I left someone out, “queer archaeology” is thought to be about looking for these sexual identities in the past. In one sense it can be. But I argue it is so much more than that.

Queer archaeology is about challenging an established norm that is somehow based in sexual politics. Although academics (myself included) were quick to appropriate it, the notion of “queer” did not start in academia, but rather in the politics of 1980s sexual liberation in the US. Certain activists were becoming aware of the normalising effect which labels such as “gay” and “lesbian” were having. And this is still powerfully observable in debates about “gay marriage.” Gays and lesbians in the West are now more “normal” than the heterosexuals who once shunned them! What has happened is gay is now to straight as women were/still are to men - subjugated and dominated. In their desire to go running up the aisle in a chiffon white dress, gay men and women have confused recognition with liberation. One only has to consider what the West is doing, or rather not doing, about gay men being burned alive in Uganda to find proof of this.

The queer activists challenged this by arguing that there was no such thing as a stable sexual identity. Queer theorists, and queer archaeology, went on to suggest that not only should we be challenging all that is accepted as the norm, but also to question the sexual politics that often lies at the heart of why something is considered the norm. A good controversial example I liked to use, is the chronocentric nature of archaeological endeavours.

In the 1990s many people, historians and archaeologists alike, said to me that I could not use rock art to construct South African history because I lacked a “firm chronological framework.” This is true, dating rock art is an incredibly difficult enterprise (I would say impossible). But just because we do not have Gregorian Calendar style dates attached to each image, it does not mean the imagery is useless for historical interests (and I demonstrated the possibilities). What interests me is why archaeology is so desperately hung up on having firm chronological frameworks. And I believe chronocentricism in archaeology is a symptom of phallocentricism - just as the lack of a penis renders you weak and of little use, so the lack of a firm chronological framework renders your interpretations useless.

Queer archaeology is about challenging the norm, and in some cases that is about challenging the idea of stable sexual identities in the past, but it is not (as I hope that I have demonstrated) restricted to that.

EDW: Did you feel that there was much opposition to your moves in this direction from within the academic archaeological community?

TD: You know, like most gay men of my age I have experienced homophobia - and of course there has been opposition. But I have also experienced support. I remember being incredibly nervous when I went to the World Archaeology editorial meeting at which I was to make my pitch for the “Queer Archaeologies” volume. I was so nervous I could barely speak, and my colleague and friend Yvonne Marshall had to take over the pitch for me. The idea was immediately accepted, there was not even the slightest murmur of doubt that it would be a topic worth including.

I was even more nervous when the volume was published. But, I received one email that made me think that I had done the right thing. An archaeologist from a Latin American country wrote to me and said “You have balls.” He added that he did not think he could ever come out where he worked, but it was good to know that there were other archaeologists like him. And I had other emails like that. They made it worthwhile because when I came out, I was told by a very prominent South African archaeologist that I could not be an archaeologist if I was going to be “openly that way.”

So the opposition has not really been an issue. I am more concerned, however, at how “Queer Theory” is misused in archaeology. It has become, as many predicted in the early 1990s, something of a bandwagon. But, in true “queer” fashion, that is not for me to try and control. I have had my say.

EDW: I’d be very interested to hear what role you think queer archaeology will have to play in the discipline over the coming decades? Talking from personal experience here in London, there is certainly a great interest in heritage and archaeology among LGBT and Queer communities, and so I’d also be intrigued to know if you feel that queer archaeology could potentially act as a tool to encourage greater LGBT participation in archaeology; a more relateable face if you will?

TD: As I am out of academia, I do not really feel I can comment on this. But I will recount a rather disturbing anecdote. In November 2012 I received an email out of the blue from a mature student who had started a postgraduate archaeology degree at University College London (UCL) in September 2012. This person was openly gay, and hoped to pursue research on some aspect of homosexuality in the past. Although I never met the person, from the email discussions we had, it seemed that they had their head screwed on. S/he had been involved in LGBT politics and counselling, and I was convinced s/he would do well. I was disappointed when in January 2013 I received an email to say s/he had packed it in. One of the reasons cited was the “lack of a LGBT support in archaeology.” For 2013, that is disgraceful, and I find it quite upsetting. That person has gone on to do a PhD in LGBT mental health issues. Archaeology’s loss is another discipline's gain.

I will say, as long as “Queer Archaeology” is seen as a manifesto for looking for homosexuality in the past, it will not be the force for change it could be.

EDW: In recent years you’ve ceased your life as a full time university lecturer and moved to Normandy, managing a B&B and organising archaeological tours of local sites associated with the Impressionist movement. You also run the excellent Archaeology Travel website, through which you provide information for tourists who have a particular interest in archaeological heritage; it’s a great resource and I encourage my readers to make use of it. What brought about this decision to make such a seemingly huge career change, and what do you see as the role of archaeological and art historical tourism in the 21st century?

TD: As a student I had my fair share of awful lecturers. When I started teaching archaeology, I always said that when I no longer enjoyed it on a day-to-day level, I would pack it in. For various reasons, some personal and some to do with the politics of higher education in the UK at the beginning of the 2000s, I no longer enjoyed being an academic archaeologist.

My last lecture was a general lecture on rock art in a first year course on World Prehistory. The lecture was good, not my best but I was happy with it. Walking back to my office I was behind two young guys who were discussing the lecture. One said, “That was the best lecture we have had all year.” The other replied, “Definitely.” Because I no longer enjoyed being in an academic environment, I packed it in - but I went out on a high.

And I look back on my time teaching and researching rock art and archaeology with very fond memories. I had some excellent students, many of whom have gone on to do wonderful things. It would be mean to single out a few, and far too long to enthuse about them all.

Now, I greatly enjoy pursuing my passion for the past by exploring sites and periods of prehistory I never did while I was researching rock art. I love the Romans. Cultural Heritage is becoming big business, as everyone wants to travel the World and see the famous sites for themselves. I think guardians of this heritage have the challenges they have always had, namely conservation and preservation, but on a scale never experienced before. People are still removing bricks from the Colosseum, taking frescoes from Pompeii, spraying graffiti on the amazing blocks of stone at Machu Picchu. And the physical effects of many more tourists climbing around the same sites continues to take its toll, and more so. Archaeology is going to have to play a much more active role in the growing movement of responsible tourism. I hope ‘Archaeology Travel’ will contribute to that, by encouraging people to look beyond the bucket list approach to the past.

EDW: Thank you Thomas for talking with us today!