Memo to Antiquity

Response to Robin Derricourt’s Review of my book Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the Diffusion of Culture in Antiquity 86 (2012):569-570

I thank Robin Derricourt for his flattering reference to me in his review of my book. However I would contend against some of his judgments on Elliot Smith. He claims that, with respect to his diffusionist approach and Egypt, Elliot Smith essentially announced a grand world view, and then selected data that fitted this view. After reading in detail his writings and correspondence, it became clear to me that Elliot Smith was in fact genuinely trying to apply the same scientific principles that he had been using in his medical and evolutionary research to the issue of cultural diffusion. This was certainly the view of the eminent zoologist Solly Zuckerman, who knew him well. As I say in my book: “The grotesque caricatures and stereotypes need to end. Elliot Smith was a serious scientist in all the fields he tackled. It is grossly unfair to excise his ethnological work as some sort of aberration. In this field he devoted enormous energy to collecting as much reliable data as was then available. And he applied his formidable intelligence to it. He put forward innovative hypotheses based on such observed evidence. As a scientist he was fully aware that such hypotheses would survive only until they were disproven… If he sometimes speculated beyond his data, he did so with the purpose of stimulating debate and more intensive research” (p.126). There was in fact, as documented in my book, considerable respect (not “nearly universal criticism”) for Elliot Smith’s diffusionist theory in his early years, even from Malinowski. Also shown is the way academic opposition mounted with time, partly of course for legitimate epistemic reasons, but also because of professional rivalries and territoriality, and nationalistic factors (especially from America). As new paradigms such as Functionalism became triumphant (helped enormously by Malinowski beating Elliot Smith in the fight for Rockefeller funding), many of the fertile issues raised by Elliot Smith and co-diffusionists such as W. H. R. Rivers and W. J. Perry were basically side-stepped and never seriously scrutinised. As I tried to indicate in my Afterword, some of these themes are now being seriously researched once more, although naturally from modern stances and not – as the reviewer rightly comments – from Elliot Smith’s total diffusionist paradigm (and often in ignorance of his work, as that was effectively excluded from curricula after World War 2).

As an historian, I would suggest that it might be salutary for archaeologists and anthropologists to read more about the history of their discipline and past debates, not least because the past illuminates themes such as cultural intrusion into epistemic issues, as well as the perils of exclusive inwardness.

Emeritus Professor of History
University of Queensland, Australia


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