A Trondheim colleague has kindly invited me to head a session at the Nordic TAG conference next May. T.A.G. means “Theoretical Archaeology Group”, and denotes a series of annual conferences rather than a defined group of people. The invitation hinted that I might perhaps want to contribute something provocative. After a moment’s thought, I realised that my attitude to TAG (Nordic or otherwise) goes beyond provocative: I am simply hostile to it. Archaeological theory, in my opinion, belongs within the context of real specific archaeological research and is useless in an abstract form, which goes against TAG’s basic premise. So I declined the invitation, explaining that my message to the conference-goers would be a brief deal-killer: “Go home everybody and do archaeology”.
Outsiders often find the term “theoretical archaeology” humorous, evoking an image of scholars building ancient castles in the air, without contact with the gritty grimy reality of the archaeological record. The truth is that theoretical archaeology is indeed pretty risible, but not in that exact sense. The whole endeavour started in the 1960s with attempts to formalise a body of abstract interpretive theory for the discipline. This coincided with a brief spell in the history of archaeology when scholars dreamed of finding out general cultural constants, “Laws of Culture” as it were. In this perspective, theoretical archaeology would be a lot like theoretical physics, striving to formulate universal laws and ultimately achieve a Theory of Everything.
These attempts fizzled. Most archaeologists abandoned all hope of finding cultural constants around 1980 and returned to our standard business of finding out the unique kaleidoscopic non-generalisable details of individual (pre-) historical situations. But theoretical archaeology somehow survived, it even thrived, as an end unto itself. (Thus TAG, whose first conference took place in 1979.) No longer did it in the main aim at making archaeology better: it splintered into a myriad philosophical sects, abandoned the concept of “better”, and set out on a trend-driven random walk, existing to produce not better, but more new theory, mainly in the form of buzzwords. The 1980s reaction against the technocratic natural determinism of the 60s and 70s also opened the door wide to all manner of post-modernist philosophisering from the weird fringe of lit-crit and sociology. And thus, today, we have a few Swedish university archaeologists writing about Heidegger and fake ruins in theme parks.
Instead of going to TAG, I’ll just set out a few brief points on what I think archaeology should be and do. (These points are controversial only among the minority of archaeologists who work in academe. About 95% of everybody in the world who makes a living from archaeology are diggers at contract archaeology units and have very little reason, time or funding to pay any attention to theoretical archaeology.)
- Archaeology is part of the hugely successful, rationalist, empirical, scientific Enlightenment project to find out what the world really is and has been like.
- Archaeology is one of the disciplines within this project responsible (in close interdisciplinary cooperation) for finding out what life was like for people in the past.
- Archaeology alone takes care of the study of material remains of past societies.
- All enquiry that does not concern the life-ways of people in the past and/or does not study material remains is non-archaeology.
- All non-rationalist enquiry is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
- All impressionist-aesthetic commentary is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
- Politics are about values and thus non-science. Archaeology should therefore resist all attempts from inside and outside the discipline to ascribe political relevance to it.
Finally, lest someone accuse me of being inconsistent here, dissing archaeological theory yet writing about it, let me just point out that I wrote this brief blog entry on vacation between two fieldwork campaigns. This is not my job, it’s what I do after dinner instead of watching TV.