Whither Archaeology?

Since the 1980s there has been a post-modernist movement in Western European archaeology where a strong influence from lit-crit, sociology and Continental philosophy has been felt. This has led, among other things, to radical relativism in some scholars, and to a tendency for archaeology departments to harbour and publish work that a) does not treat the archaeological record, b) does not aim at finding out what it was like living in the past.

I have criticised these tendencies at several occasions, as in this piece: “Archaeology is good fun but unimportant to most people“. Not long ago, the Gothenburg-published journal Arkeologen appeared with an exchange between myself and Claes Theliander on these issues. We have now put our pieces on-line (in Swedish).

Update 4 May: Claes has kindly permitted me to put the prologue of his thesis on-line with the rest of the writings. Now the whole debate can be read on-line.

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Comments

  1. #1 Leslie Spitz-Edson
    April 30, 2007

    Hej Martin,
    My son just started learning the basics of economics at school and they started by having to list their needs and wants in two columns. I have to agree with you that archaeology doesn’t exactly belong with water, air, food, shelter, clothing—it rather belongs with ice cream and video games (though perhaps not for third graders).

    On the other hand, things are feeling a bit apocalyptic here in the US. People are not taken care of (the care provided by the Swedish system is scarcely to be dreamed of here) and economic desperation coupled with the age-old American anti-intellectualism makes people easy targets for the modern-day equivalents of snake oil salesmen, who promise economic and spiritual reward for blind adherence to doctrines that are not only wrong (such as creationism) but also dangerous (like the belief that provoking disaster in the middle east is good because it will bring on the apocalypse).

    These people are not uninterested in archaeology (or what have you) because they chose something else instead, they’ve just never had much opportunity to become interested in anything involving critical thinking skills. And it’s easy to see where this has led us.

    Of course, archaeology isn’t necessary. Many disciplines and types of discourse are unnecessary, at least in the short term. All that really matters is water, food, and shelter. As they keep telling us here, “the economy is still strong” (this in spite of the fact that when I visit Sweden this summer I’ll be lucky to get a lousy 6 crowns for the dollar! Because who in their right mind would invest in American dollars these days?). It’s not that people are going to miraculously be inspired to save the world by learning some archaeology—that IS crazy. But we’ve got to keep some level of discourse going in society where there is some sort of common ground of knowledge and some ability to reason, even among people who prefer football. Maybe you’re taking that a bit for granted there in Sweden? I’m not sure; I don’t have the pleasure of spending much time there anymore.

    (Now please excuse me for sounding even older and school-marmy than I actually am): It’s probably too late for us here in the US. But before you go writing off disciplines that stand a chance of helping people learn to think, think about where you’ll be if thinking gives way entirely to a debate over whom Princess Victoria should marry. That type of thing happens here too, only we call it “the presidential election.”

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 1, 2007

    I’m not writing off archaeology, nor ice cream, nor video games! What I’m saying is that my over-earnest & preachy colleagues, who dream of huge political and cultural significance for our subject, should take a step back and see the bigger picture.

    I don’t know a good English word for this, but I’d like to see more självdistans in archaeology: “self-distance”. Our subject didn’t cause any of the various genocides so far, and it won’t prevent the next one.

  3. #3 Tobias
    May 1, 2007

    Fascinating to read a transcript of an actual archaeologists’ freestyle battle! Wonderful how snippets such as “blanka katten” and “arkeologer tittar p� gamla saker” clash with comments like “performativ mikrodiskursanalys” and “existentiellt och daseinanalytiskt perspektiv”. This goes to show that archaeology is not stuffy or uninteresting, but a no holds barred free-for-all. Go Archs!

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 1, 2007

    Glad you like it! But do please note that while Theliander said “an existential and dasein-analytical perspective” quite seriously, I said “performative micro-discourse analysis” as a parody of that kind of language.

  5. #5 Tobias
    May 2, 2007

    I did catch the irony in that comment and it was a mistake on my part to include it. My intention was to include two Theliander quotes. Other ones I liked include “post-processuella main-stream arkeologer” and “den mikroarkeologiska och postkoloniala strömmen”. Those are real mouthfuls…

  6. #6 Martin R
    May 2, 2007

    I first ran into the stuff in the spring semester of 1991, and I’ve pretty much been constantly angry and exasperated since. (-;

  7. #7 Alun
    May 7, 2007

    Great paper, but there is possibly one addition. I think that learning how to research, question and compose an argument is important. Studying subjects like archaeology establishes the principle in society that facts aren’t just opinions. It’s not unique to archaeology, but perhaps archaeology is a symptom of a healthy society.

  8. #8 Martin R
    May 7, 2007

    Errr… Maybe you use the word “archaeology” in a restricted sense, as “rationalistic, empirically founded archaeology”. But at universities in the UK, Norway and Sweden, certain archaeology courses have for almost 20 years in fact taught a lot of students that facts don’t exist, that opinions and perspective is everything, and that what you must do is read Derrida and Baudrillard. Not healthy IMNSHO.

    But even if all archaeology training was as good as the Danish, there would still be no argument for the societal benefits of archaeology specifically. If we want to teach students scientific method and respect for facts, then there are many, many other subjects that teach this and whose actual content is more useful than archaeology.

    Anyway, many thanks for kind words about the paper!

  9. #9 sohbet
    September 16, 2007

    We had managed to miss the stuff for the last couple of hundred years (glossing over the whole Eolith controversy) and then one storm and a fortuitous bit of dog walking and we suddenly have a human presence. Absence of evidence and all that. Obviously it’s an exciting find; however it has now led to me spending hours sieving through wet sand on an exposed beach. The pub afterwards makes up for it though.

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