Profiling an era


– the concept of empathic archaeology


To come straight to the point: anyone who thinks that multi-coloured history posters in schools are passé or ‘retro’, is mistaken. These posters are still the best way to create an image of the past. Since the golden age of historical painting and school history posters (1850-1950), historical art has changed a lot. It is no longer confined to schools or universities and there is far greater diversity in the way historical pictures are used and presented. These days we no longer talk about history posters but “historical tableaux.”1 Tableaux are more comprehensive than the ancient school posters: you get more of a story through text, films, photo’s and imaginative presentation.

There may be a world of difference between the two terms but we should not ignore the similarities. In principle there is not a great deal of difference between the collection of 253 illustrations of Dutch history published by Jacob de Vos (Amsterdam, 1801-1870), and the 2010 initiative by the Dutch National Historic Museum to provide a sort of vending machine, from which the public could ‘snack’ on historic objects and events. Both initiatives stemmed from a fear that Dutch people’s knowledge of history was declining; and both were based on the idea that the past can be imagined without seeing the actual objects.

Obviously there are differences between the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Jacob de Vos would not have known the words ‘vending machine’ or ‘snack’. But through the centuries the same question remains – how can we profile an era? How can we colour in the daily life of a time which we cannot experience at first hand? We still use the term ‘local colour’ in that context, even if the definition has altered. Colours continue to play an important role in portrayals of a historic event or a past era. And in any case, the colours used in prehistoric tableaux reflect the personal and subjective view of the illustrator. He mixes and blends the many colours on his palette in his own way.

Similarly in the world of historians, there is much discussion about moral values in describing historic events and people. Sometimes it seems as if we only have three colours at our disposal, particularly when looking at periods characterised by atrocities, such as the Dutch in Indonesia; the Nazi’s in concentration camps; the Holocaust. White stands for the good, black for the bad and grey for ‘not all good but not completely bad’. When using white and black we lay it on too thickly, and with grey we tone everything down so far that even crimes can be glossed over: “The picture should not be black and white, nor grey, but chequered”.2

The palettes of the historian and the archaeologist also contain many colours which they mix to create their own story. Should we portray the time of the Dutch hunebed builders as a springtime scene – the dawn of civilisation – or should we cloak the picture in autumn colours? In the same way, the image of prehistory that we evoke today is not totally idyllic, totally uncivilised or totally brutal, but as richly diverse and multi-coloured as our own time.

schoolplaat isings
Figure 1. J.H. Isings, Drawing of the hunebed builders (1959).

In constructing new historic tableaux we must take account not only of a fairly detailed theoretical concept and a respect for the tradition in which these new tableaux can be set, but also of the new, modern and diverse applications to be found in a museum or an educational environment.

Theoretical thinking about archaeology has not stood still during the last two centuries. Although the material remains of prehistoric cultures continue to be the most important source of our knowledge, there is a growing demand to investigate further in order to get more out of the finds than used to be the case in past decades. How can we fill in the colours of the cultural-mental elements of bygone ages? What information can we use as a basis? How can we penetrate more deeply into the thoughts and deeds of the hunebed builders? And even if we can do that, how do we portray that information in a museum context?

This paper presents a theoretical model which breaks new ground both in the sphere of research and in the area of museum presentation. Although not intended as a blueprint, the integral and multi-disciplinary principles are set out and centred on the concept of ‘empathic archaeology’.

It must be said that empathic archaeology has not yet reached full maturity. ‘Profiling an era’ is no more than a half-way point on the journey towards a greater understanding and a better presentation of that understanding: a doubly attractive prospect. As the historian Wessel Krul has said: “An image of the past is not the same as a portrait of the past”3

Empathic archaeology

These days we are used to making worldwide contact with each other by telephone. We use lists of telephone numbers, telephone books and satellites to help us. Even when we do not want to be found – because we are on the run, for example – if we use our gsm, people can pinpoint our position to within a square metre. That’s how keying in numbers works. Even getting a wrong number does not shake our belief in our ability to contact someone else. That is the best proof that our reality is not based exclusively on ideas but on facts. It is also the best proof that culturally pessimistic post-modernists are wrong when they assert that there is no past reality, only an infinite number of interpretations of an infinite number of realities and an infinite number of truths. In this vision, reality is basically unrecognisable. The basic notion of the concept of ‘empathic archaeology’, on the other hand, begins with the idea that past reality is fundamentally perfectly knowable, in spite of an inadequate set of instruments. Through ‘empathic archaeology’ we can attain a plausible reality based on facts.

There has long been a belief in the existence – among all the many different types of human behaviour which history presents to us – of the concept of a universal human trait linked to values which are the same for all people and in all ages. This belief began with the humanists and can also be seen in the works of enlightened philosophers and of the existentialist Sartre. Empathic archaeology begins from the same premise but looks for this universality not in the Bible, Greco-Roman Antiquity or the Middle Ages, but through neuro-scientific research into our brains.

Empathic archaeology is an all-embracing concept which can briefly be described as the idea that we can both know the past and also present it to others by adding empathy to a set of instruments which combines the knowledge and skills of a range of diverse scientific disciplines. Added to this is the belief that – far more than is currently accepted in the archaeological world – it is possible to compile a profile of a prehistoric period which includes those cultural-mental elements which cannot generally be deduced from material remains alone.

The actual research, and the presentation of that research to a large museum-going public, cannot both be handled by one person. The present state of science is at once so extensive and at the same time so fragmented that we are a long way from the Renaissance ideal of omniscient man, the ‘homo universalis’. The alternative is to bring together the knowledge and skills of different scientists in order to devise and answer new and daring questions (Did the hunebed builders trust each other? Did they feel compassion, fear, grief and love, and how did that express itself in their society? What did they think about their natural environment? What role did religion play in their lives? etc).

Despite all our efforts, it is by no means certain that answering these questions will bring us any closer to the hunebed builders. There can still be poor communication – ‘wrong numbers’ – between the researchers and the presenter. Then all our attempts at empathy, at identifying with a distant past, will fail. But, just as most attempts to contact people over long distances with gsm are successful, so we should be optimistic that the same will apply when making contact with our distant past.

Empathic archaeology is a multi-disciplinary scientific concept, and adding empathy to the mix could well lead to the profiling of an era. In this case we are looking at the era of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the time of the hunebed builders. In profiling this period of Dutch prehistory, we particularly lack an understanding of the cultural-mental aspects of their daily life which goes beyond well-intentioned speculation and unbridled fantasy. To identify yourself successfully with a hunebed builder, you need more than objects from their daily life and their graves – more even than information about the landscape and the climate. If you really want to penetrate to the heart of a hunebed builder, you can appeal to something universal. Something which links people from different cultures and different times. Therein lies the key to increasing our knowledge of the distant past.

Prehistoric sensation 

In 1920 the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga introduced the concept of ‘historic sensation’; the feeling that you sometimes get that you are actually standing in the footprints of someone from the distant past. Huizinga called this tingling sensation a direct, almost sensory contact with the past. The Belgian historian Tollebeek speaks of a surprise, a shock: “Through touching remains from the past one can get closer to vanished peoples”. There is still debate about whether this sensory encounter with the past happens by accident and cannot therefore be reproduced or whether it can be consciously activated15. It does seem that such experiences can be reproduced through films, music, text, tableaux, drawings, photos, smells – in short, by exciting the senses.

Stories in a museum, when combined with objects, life-sized reconstructions of houses, huts, granaries, or monuments like hunebeds, can be repeated, can be sensed, can be reproduced. In that way the past is perhaps brought a step closer, made more accessible and easier to understand.

Empathy and altruism

Empathy makes it possible to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to identify with people (and animals) outside ourselves. Frans de Waal points out that this ability is in our genes. Even so, it is not easy to empathise. “We can more easily identify with people like ourselves, people with the same cultural background and ethnic features, of the same age, sex, profession and so forth. And it is even easier with those nearest to us, like our partners, children and friends.”4 There is biological and neuro-scientific evidence for that. In human brains the so-called von Economo Neurons (VEN-cells or spindle neurons) are especially large and present in great numbers. They are found in a part of the brain that is crucially important for qualities which we regard as ‘human’. This includes the ability – just like apes, dolphins and elephants – to recognise ourselves in a mirror. So the mirror is a metaphor for empathy: recognising yourself is to be aware of others.

Figure 2. Empathy puts a face to the past: a hunebed builder in the Hunebedcentrum, Borger, The Netherlands.

Empathy may then be anchored in our brains as the ‘human gene’, but that does not mean that appealing to our power of empathy allows us to twist the truth in order to justify a crime, or to excuse the holocaust. Empathy can put a face to the past5, but it should not lead us to portray the past in a rose-tinted cloud of compassion, love and atonement. Our human genes also recognise less attractive ideas like fear, cynicism, aggressive behaviour, hate, revenge and grief. The hunebed builder also knew anxiety and depression. What did that mean to him? How can we represent that? Philosopher Peter Bieri believes that he would have achieved far less if he had not known such anxiety and depression. “I can very easily put myself in the place of someone who kills another person in a fit of passion. I am familiar with fear, aggression, hate, resentment, all those things which each one of us carries within ourselves”6.

Maigret, the world-famous detective in the novels of George Simenon, did what the author had himself so often done: sat on a terrace watching people and thinking “What might have happened to them to cause them to commit a crime?” Maigret embodies a combination of thorough police work and a successful empathic feeling for the profile of the criminal, and that type of story is enormously popular. What stories stimulate a universal feeling of empathy? In other words, can we empathise with people living in far-distant times?

Were the hunebed builders always happy and did they trust each other? Or did anxiety and depression play a greater role? Which ‘strategy’ worked best for them? These interesting questions are also important for our own times. Research shows that Dutch people are among the happiest in the world, but do we also trust each other? When asked whether, in general, most people could be trusted, 60% of Dutch people answered yes.7 For the hunebed builders, trust was an absolute necessity for survival in terms of efficient group-forming and the exchange of ideas and skills. However contradictory it might sound, having a high level of basic trust is the best way to be on your guard against dishonesty. Basic trust in others increases the chance of survival, it is more pleasant, it promotes a feeling of happiness and it is above all more economically efficient.

For the sake of convenience, let us assume for a moment that there must have been a high level of trust among the hunebed builders, because on the one hand it contributed to basic survival and on the other hand it was the most economically efficient. In our own time – and it cannot have been any different in the time of the hunebed builders – a higher level of trust stimulates the release of phytoestrogens, which are found for instance in soya, hops, sesame seeds, fruit and vegetables. So we must ask whether the hunebed builders had access to these products. And apart possibly from soya and sesame seeds, there is indeed evidence that they did. Caution must always be observed because availability of a product does not necessarily imply its consumption. Take bees, for example – just because they have been found preserved in amber does not mean that hunebed builders ate honey. There is no actual evidence for that. Archaeology has a well-known saying in that respect: the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.

We can suppose that trust declined relatively as the circle around an individual grew more anonymous. Mutual trust probably only existed among the hunebed builders within the circle of family, friends and clansmen. This must have had a marked effect on their feeling of happiness. There is a proven hormonal, or chemical, relationship between the use of a trust strategy and a feeling of happiness.

In a business context, the hormone oxytocine, also called the ‘love hormone’, is very important for feelings of trust and security. An increase in the level of oxytocine causes the release of dopamine, which produces feelings of happiness. Roos Vonk reminds us that trust is a fertile strategy for society. “Trust is beneficial in many senses: It leads to economic growth, more profitable business transactions, better relationships with more ‘social capital’, and it is self-perpetuating because it creates trust in others and makes people happier.”8 Applying our available knowledge about the Neolithic hunebed builders, we can design the best imaginable strategies to represent the development of the Funnel Beaker People. What level of basic trust, large or small, was necessary at that time for successful survival?

Profiling and scenarios 

What we now call the past, people in earlier times called the future. These people knew no more about what the future would bring than we do. That creates a link. That is why it is good – and also perfectly possible – for historians and archaeologists to identify with the past, not only arguing from verifiable results (e.g. the hunebed builders successfully built a hunebed) but also bearing in mind the possible alternatives. Putting yourself into a situation can provide a real insight, can lead to drawing useful lessons from the past, according to the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper: “Only if we live for a moment, as the men of the time lived, in its still fluid context, and among its still unresolved problems, if we see these problems coming upon us (…) we can draw useful lessons from history”17. What did the hunebed builders think about and consider before they built a hunebed? Did they consider an alternative? Was the final building process as they had imagined it? Did they later consider improvements or extensions? What motives can they have had to want to begin the task and to complete it?

The answers to these questions are like throwing dice, random and unpredictable. Historians and archaeologists have to deal with real people, not dice, and people have memories and awareness. For instance, if an accident had happened while building a hunebed, this would have made a difference to the hunebed builder when he came to build another hunebed or extend an existing one. The sympathetic historian or archaeologist should not just regard the hunebed builder in a mathematical and rational way but also take his senses into account (emotion, intuition, compassion, empathy). Only through these universal qualities can he really connect with people from the past and hear, for instance, a crying baby being soothed by its mother. While honouring scientifically plausible boundaries we can develop scenarios which provide us with an insight into the concerns of the hunebed builders. From a finite number of such scenarios each age selects the most likely, based on new insights and information.

In the case of the Funnel Beaker People, this kind of imagined strategy can best be applied to the building of a hunebed. What we know for sure is that piling up the stones required a collective, rather than an individual, effort. The social capital required depended more on a basis of trust than of mistrust. You could say that the larger the hunebed, the more successful was the appeal to the available social capital. To build a hunebed you need among other things a plan of action, sufficient materials and adequate manpower. That already presupposes interaction between individuals, consultation and leadership, organisation of the work, and language. All these would result in a successful construction. Moreover it was important to know what the objectives were in building a hunebed: as a tomb for the important dead; a place where ancestors could remain a part of the living community; to claim an area against outsiders; to mark out a territory?

Figure 3. A new schoolposter by the Dutch illustrator Jouke Nijman: building a passage grave (2009).

Sociologists and psychologists like Erikson, Comte and Goudsbloem tell us that, just as an individual goes through different stages of development – infancy, childhood, puberty, adulthood and old age – a society also goes through different stages. So how do we define the profile of an agricultural community which knew how to build hunebeds? To do that we need at least to know about the altruistic behaviour of the community: the hunebed was built for the collective use of some of the people in the community (not everyone could expect to be buried in the hunebed). There was sufficient food and shelter in the community, as well as adequate protection and security (after all, the work took a long time). A community which fulfils these basic needs creates new needs, for example autonomy, to distinguish oneself from others and demarcate one’s territory. In short: a need arises for one’s own identity. A hunebed satisfied that need. Looked at in that way, archaeological and universal human aspects combine to produce a profile of a bygone community. Ongoing multidisciplinary research can provide more clues and evidence in this area9.

As your surroundings change – as for instance the farming communities in the province of Drenthe changed radically in the twentieth century (from 80% farming-related work to less than 5%) – then tools and activities also change. And that also causes a change in the brain. In such circumstances the brain makes new connections and leaves the old connections undisturbed. How did that apply to the hunebed builders? Did their brains change because of changes in their farming life (the discovery of the fertilising properties of manure; the use of carts, the use of beasts of burden, a new type of plough)? Did these and other radical changes in their society influence the development of their brains?

What sort of diseases did they have? How did they cope with pain? Did they have compassion for people (and animals) suffering pain? Did they behave differently with cattle (cows, pigs, sheep) and domestic pets like dogs? There are still innumerable questions we could ask on a cultural-mental level but they are likely to remain unanswered. Through these and similar research into universal human traits, we can transplant ourselves with the (also universal) empathy-gene into people in another place and – more important for our quest into the cultural-mental aspects of daily life in prehistory – in another time. As early as 1976 Richard Dawkins concluded that the strategy of collaboration based on trust is the most rewarding in the long run10. Altruism is a genetically-anchored concept which works best in a community. The ‘love hormone’ oxytocine stimulates altruistic behaviour and an urge to seek to collaborate, but moreover – through the production of dopamine – it makes people happier. You could say that people have hidden within themselves a classic win-win situation.

Evolutionary biology also provides us with data which helps us to empathise with the hunebed builders. Sugars and fats are essential foodstuffs for man, especially in a prehistoric context. The ability to see the difference in colour between red and green led him directly to differentiate between ripe and unripe fruit to satisfy his need for sugar11. Tasting taught him about poisonous and non-poisonous fruits. So we can imagine that the quest for energy-giving sugars in prehistory was often successful but sometimes also went wrong.

Neuro-scientists, biologists and chemists present us with universal qualities of being human which connect us with our ancient ancestors. That, combined with actual archaeological evidence, provides us with a profile of the life of individual hunebed builders and their collaborative methods of working with each other. It is precisely that combination of diverse scientific insights which makes the image more reliable. And that brings us to prehistoric biographies and the prehistoric sensation of standing in the footsteps of the distant past and actually experiencing it12.

Prehistoric biography

A historical biography has undeniable advantages over a prehistoric biography. It is the story of an actual person with a life documented from birth to death. In a prehistoric reconstruction these things are usually missing. There is no actual life, nor any documents, and the distance in time between the biographer and his subject is far greater than with historic biography. But by using known facts, general and collective, we can build a fictional picture of a prehistoric individual. With the help of data about climate, landscape, domesticated and wild animals, whether they had fire, the objects they used, offerings, finds etc, together with universal ideas about sex, emotion, remorse, mistrust, compassion etc – and using empathy as a tool – it is possible to gain a picture of one person’s prehistoric life.

And we should not try to distance ourselves from fiction, that reality which is conjured up in stories, films and novels, but rather look more closely at its universal appeal.

Universal narrative structures

Everbody knows the story of Robinson Crusoe who was stranded on an uninhabited island. Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719 tells how he was stranded in 1651 and lived there for 28 years. The best-known modern-day version is perhaps the 2000 film ‘Castaway’ starring Tom Hanks. The character of Crusoe stands as a metaphor for the basic urge to survive, to remain upright in the face of difficult circumstances, where the essential needs of food and shelter are crucial. But the book is also regarded as a model for an economy without money, trade and rewards. Since its first publication, the story has been retold in many versions in books, strip cartoons, TV series and films. In TV and newspaper interviews people are often asked what they would take with them to a desert island. Answers differ, but it is not difficult to imagine what is really important on an uninhabited island, far removed from the wealth and the rat race of our own present-day world. The story confronts us with the question of what is essential in our own lives. It reminds us of prehistoric man, who was able to survive in circumstances that seem primitive to us. Crusoe had an urge to survive which socio-biologists tell us has been present in man since the Early Stone Age.

The popularity of the Crusoe story through the centuries seems to connect people of all cultures to each other, and to their distant ancestors, because it has an ancient story structure. Robinson Crusoe (or Indiana Jones, as another example) is a character in a story who is both fictional and at the same time represents something both unique and universal. Reading the book or watching the film in the 21st century, we find it easy to put ourselves in the shoes of these characters because the story appeals to our genes. Richard Kearney uses the concept of ‘narrative exchange’13 to describe why, through a film or a book, we can actually experience being in another time and another place. A good story should contain not just the unique, the individual and the personal, but also the universal, the collective, that which is latent in all of us.

At the heart of the Crusoe story lies a narrative structure with a socio-biological basis which, directly or indirectly, automatically or with a little practice, appeals to the human gene which we call empathy. These story forms have a worldwide and universal appeal because we can all identify with the main characters. According to the German Professors of Literature Martinez and Scheffel, there are actually very few basic story forms14. Here is one good example, which is also relevant to our theme: put simply – 1. leaving the community/home; 2. completing a task in some foreign land; and 3. returning home. This format goes back to the search for food as a biological need in the Early Stone Age – 1. first becoming aware of the need; 2. setting out to look for food, discovering a rich source, encountering rivals and potentially dangerous enemies; and 3. finally, the difficult journey home and the ‘salvation’ of the community and oneself, the so-called self-fulfillment. This story form – told many times, written down and repeated and then constantly retold in new variations – is still popular all over the world in our own time because it connects us with our earlier ancestors.

Figure 4. The fictional six-year old child of the hunebed builders, called Oek, gives an image of prehistoric times. “Oek” was sketched in in children’s books, a musical and a movie (2009).

During the age of Romanticism in the early 19th century, the Brothers Grimm went in search of orally-transmitted stories, not primarily because they wanted to tell fairy tales but because these stories concealed at their heart a real event. Just like peeling an onion, if you take away the layers created and added over the centuries you will be left with the real event, what actually happened. The story hid the history. However much the skin was peeled away over the centuries, the suspected historical core always remained hidden, vague or it could be interpreted in many different ways. It also helps to approach this idea from the other direction, to ask which basic story forms, still recognisable and popular across the world today, connect us with our distant prehistory. Those forms can show us how to use our inbuilt power of empathy to learn more about our distant prehistory. “It is obvious that we should presume these universal stories to have an anthropological origin”16 the German Professors of Literature cautiously conclude.

Empathy offers one way out of the supposed impossibility of learning more, in a cultural-mental sense, about our prehistoric past. By searching for the colours of an era we can hold up a mirror to the past. But just drawing on an emotion is not enough. If it is to provide more information about the daily life and the minds of prehistoric groups and individuals, empathy must be linked to a diverse range of scientifically-verified data gained from archaeology, cultural anthropology, literary theory, socio-biology, neurosciences, forensic science etc. It is only through an integrated multi-disciplinary approach that we can get really close to the hunebed builders – get under their skin, as you might say.

Profiling an era

If we want to develop an image of a prehistoric period we obviously need archaeology, but we can also make good use of knowledge from other sciences. A rewarding metaphor is that of ‘the archaeologist as detective’. A meticulous search for clues at the crime scene, or at a prehistoric excavation site, provides the basis for further and more multi-disciplinary research. And the ultimate aim – to reconstruct the spirit of an era in all its diversity – can be defined by using another police metaphor, that of ‘criminal profiling’.

We find this idea of ‘criminal profiling’ not only in detective novels, films and TV-series but also in real-life everyday police work. When the identity of the wrong-doer is still unknown, a profile of the person can be sketched from available information and data such as traits, psychological background, social environment etc. This takes into account not only individual but also collective characteristics.

The passing of time often plays a crucial role. The quicker we can establish a profile, the greater the chance of catching the criminal. Obviously this principle cannot be applied too dogmatically when profiling a complete era from the distant past. Sometimes it is only much later that we arrive at an unmistakable profile of the guilty person and the subsequent unmasking of the criminal. The original suspect is then found, on closer inspection, to be innocent. The detective is not perfect and, in the same way, neither are the theories put forward by the archaeologists, geophysicists, historians, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and other scientists engaged in studying the past.

Time and the hunebed builders 

Space and time undoubtedly also played an important role in the Neolithic. Landscape, climate, the changing seasons, the weather, day and night, all had an influence on hunebed society. The French historian Fernand Braudel differentiated between three simultaneous ‘layers of time’ which form an important framework both for research into prehistory and also for its presentation.

In terms of the landscape and the climate, the passing of time was almost imperceptible for the hunebed builders. They would have been far more aware of the metamorphosis of flora and fauna and the recurring changing seasons. This was very important for the harvest in a community based on arable farming and raising cattle. Their houses lasted about ten years or so, their fields were worked out after a few years; sometimes the harvests were abundant, sometimes they failed. These all belong to a concept of time which today we call cyclical. And lastly, there was the inconstancy of the weather, the alternating of day and night, the sun rising and setting. We call that event-based time.

These three interlinked experiences of time must undoubtedly have had a cultural-mental significance for the hunebed builders’ community. If we look closely, we can see all three time dimensions in historic tableaux.

Individual hunebed builders are unknown to us today but by collecting a multitude of data, and combining the information in the right way, we can create profiles to enhance our image of the hunebed builders as individuals or as a group. Profiling an era leads us as it were to an ‘identikit’ drawing of the hunebed builder, similar to the pictures used by the police on Wanted posters. In exactly the same way, profiling leads us to an image of everyday life in a particular place, or in police terms a reconstruction of the crime scene.

It is important to differentiate between ‘construction’ and ‘reconstruction’. We must recognize that – even if the aim is reconstruction i.e a reproduction of actual events which is as truthful as possible – the result may be a construction: the researcher has taken his theories too far and got it wrong. The ‘true’ reconstruction does exist of course, it is just a question of whether the researcher has got it right. Murderers and victims are both present at a crime scene at the fatal moment, and one of them at least can report what actually happened. In principle the researcher can discover the real facts of the case, but he can of course also make a mistake if he wrongly interprets the clues.

Group profiles often provide the key to the individual. In modern criminology the ‘criminal profile’ is considered the third stage of detection. The first stage is the study of the evidence at the crime scene, as exemplified by the most famous of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes and his inseparable companion Dr Watson. The second stage puts the emphasis on the crime itself, studying comparative data: how often do similar crimes occur etc. The third stage, putting together a criminal profile, is based mainly on a study of the psyche of the criminal. What motivates him, in what social environment did he grow up, does he exhibit repetitive behaviour and similar questions.

In archaeology we see – in very general terms – a similar three-stage process. The first stage is to collect as many artefacts as possible at the crime scene (a hunebed for example). Next we compare the data from the finds with those from other similar sites. What similarities do we see, and what differences? The third stage, how we can then arrive at a profile of a particular prehistoric culture, is on-going and seems to be developing in a multi-disciplinary direction. Even if the comparison between developments in criminology and archaeology might be viewed as arbitrary, it is true in both cases that the separate stages do not follow one after the other but are used together in a cohesive way.

The ultimate goal is to identify the criminal or – in our case – the reconstruction of an era. Success is not guaranteed in advance, but one famous example of profiling gives reason for a certain degree of optimism. In 1943 the psychoanalyst Walter C Langer drew up a profile of a person who was still alive at the time, Adolf Hitler. An analysis of his state of mind, environmental factors and psyche led Langer to the conclusion that, if Hitler lost the war, he would not escape to a neutral country nor allow himself to fall into the hands of the Allies. It was most likely, according to Langer, that he would commit suicide18. This was an accurate prediction based on the available combination of information. And this leads us to the conclusion that, even in the case of a far-distant past and with relatively little information, it is still possible to sketch a rich and varied picture of an age.

From a scientific point of view, cultural-mental aspects of the daily life of, for example, the hunebed builders can be taken into account. Of course it must be remembered that a successful – if you like a true or realistic – portrait is not a foregone conclusion. Just as in our own time there are sometimes miscarriages of justice, so the description of the spirit of an age can also be wrong. But by using as much data and information as possible, from as many different scientific disciplines as possible, we can significantly reduce the chances of that happening.

Figure 5. A new schoolposter by Jouke Nijman: Hunebed builders (2009).

Text: Hein Klompmaker.

Translation: Alun Harvey.


  1. Getuige: F. van Oostrom, Historisch Tableau, Amsterdam 1998
  1. M. Eickhoff, B. Henkes, F. van Vree, De verleiding van een grijze geschiedschrijving. Morele waarden in historische voorstellingen, in: Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, jrg 123 (2010). Nummer 3, p. 339
  1. Krul, De kleur van het verleden. Geschiedenis en Couleur Locale in de Franse Romantiek, in: J. Tollebeek, F. Ankersmit  en W.  Krul (red.). Romantiek en historische cultuur, Groningen 1996, p. 162
  1. de Waal, Een tijd voor empathie. Wat de natuur ons leert over een betere samenleving, Schiedam 2009 (derde druk}, p. 9
  1. ibidem, p. 99
  1. Interview Peter Bieri, de Volkskra nt, 27 maart 2010
  1. R. Vonk, Vertrouw elkaa r eens. Terug naar korte lijnen en kleinschaligheid, in: de Volkskrant, 4 december 2010, Het Vervolg, pagina 9
  1. ibidem, p. 9
  1. This could be done by the excavation of a hunebed or a settlement of the Beaker Funnel Culture by an interdisciplinary team. There has been discussion about carrying out another excavation of a hunebed, this discussion is on-going at
  1. R. Dawkins, De zelfzuchtige genen. Over evolutie, eigenbelang en altrulsme, Olympus uitgeverij, 2006 (zesde druk). See particularly the description of the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma.
  1. H. Reichholf, Warum die Menschen sesshaft wurden, p. 172 – 186
  1. H. Klompmaker, De zoektocht van de moderne ontdekkingsreiziger, p.
  1. Kearney, Vertellingen, londen 2003, p. 155
  1. Martinez/M. Scheffel, Einfuhrung in die Erzahltheorie, Munchen 2009, p. 153 e.v.
  1. Ankersmidt, De sublieme historische ervaring, Groningen 2007
  1. ibidem, p. 154
  1. H. R. Trevor-Roper, History and lmagination, in: V. Pearl, B. Warden and H. Lloyd-Jones (eds}, History and lmagination: essays in honour of H. Trevor-Roper, London 1981, p. 363).
  1. W.C. Langer, The mind of Adolf Hitler, Boston 1972


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