Archives for category: archaeological theory

One of my views on the ‘living landscpaes’ section in the ‘Handbook of Landscape  Archaeology’

“The work on offer is not simply an engagement with or application of philosophy but instead, a creation and dissemination of the contributors own philosophy. In many ways a positive act for archaeology. A positive act because twelve years ago, as well as before and since, Thomas’ ‘Time, Culture and Identity’ was heralded by some authors in ‘Archaeological Dialogues’ as mis-appropriating Heidegger, or of creating an application for Heideggerian thought. The same has often been said of Tilley and Karlsson. The point I make here is that by offering chapters that reference only archaeologists, and present a mature thought structure for each approach, the move from applying philosophy to actively creating it has become more apparent.”


Perhaps one of the things that keeps the questions related to what archaeology is and how it goes about its business, is related to the fact that archaeologists have always examined the foundations of archaeology themselves (maybe they think as they are archaeologists they are experts in finding foundations and discussing them over a pint in the pub). Archaeology (and anthropology) have never been subjected to an onslaught of philosophers questioning every assumption and thought they have about their discipline (unlike science). Therefore they are asking questions while already being situated and thinking as an archaeologist.

Photos are about context. When you photograph an artefact, it is presented as an object from the past, an object which only exists with a ‘modern’ interpretation of it being an artefact from the past – in most archaeology it is an object and only this. The photo objectifies the artefact and dislocates it from its context and network of meaning.

If however we are presented with an artefact that is ‘clothed’ and put into a context, the scene around the artefact is seen as only existing in the photo or presentation to illustrate it’s use.  An example is that if the uniform of an English civil war soldier is presented on its own then it is only a collection of artefacts. Whereas if it is ‘clothed’ by being put on a body and put into a ‘world’ , then the scene is said to only illustrate the uniform.

But it is this very putting it into a ‘world’ that stops the uniform being only an artefact. Something happens and the objectification breaks down.

Below are some sections from a paper I wrote for an archaeological theory class I took last year, including the bibliographical details:

“The theoretical landscape of archaeology consists of a kaleidoscope of approaches” (Preucel and Hodder 1996: 6), and this is a wonderful thing. Nothing within this world is as simple as a child’s dot to dot. Rather, archaeological theory as well as fieldwork only resembles a paint by numbers, when more than one colour is used, that is to say when more than one approach is applied.
Levi-Strauss (Derrida 1977) reduced what he thought of as past theory and method into a toolset that he could use to a certain extent rather than just negate it and start from scratch. This is the line that a contemporary archaeology should follow and to an even further extent. Past theory and method should be relegated to a toolset, and not only the past frameworks. All frameworks including those self confessed post processual ones should be relegated to methodological frameworks within which archaeological knowledge becomes decentred and the fallacy of singular truths proposed by a singular approach-driven framework is removed finally. This is not to say that archaeologists should arrive at a site, open their tool kit, and choose which screwdriver type to use in order to open up the past. Instead, many archaeologists should turn up and decide how many differing approaches and insights into the past can be gained without prioritising one outcome or approach as the primary truth.

The first clarification that should be noted in this multi approach is that there is no separation between theory and method, and this has been said frequently (Bintliff 2000,Holtorf and Karlsson 2000, Shanks and Tilley 1987). “As Giles Deleuze once wrote ‘practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another’”(Thomas 1996 1). This is true, but there is more meaning surrounding that quote than Thomas seems to have realised. Firstly, Deleuze did not write this in relation to archaeology, but rather everything in general (Foucault and Deleuze1977 206). The reason Deleuze says this is that they are part of a larger discursive field that encompasses both and when viewed in this way become intrinsically linked (ibid). They become not just ‘relays from point to point’ but instead the same thing. In terms of archaeology they are primarily about investigating the past.

Frameworks and methodologies can influence and reference each other to strengthen the knowledge that is possible of the past, to offer differing perspectives each possible in different ways. Together they begin to form a ‘thick description’ (see Geertz 1993).

It can be seen that this approach is once again calling for a singular way to archaeology, through the proposing of multi perspectives to archaeology, but this opinion would be incorrect in that this is just one possible way of visualising the archaeological programme. Through a call for a multi format archaeology, it is also hoped that this and any singular routes before it can be understood and inducted into a future approach, in which these calls for the de-centring of Archaeology are successful in as far as they pull the rug from under traditional archaeology so to speak. The prospect of a deep map of archaeological knowledge is promising most when many approaches are proscribed.

Bintliff, J. 2000 Wittgenstein and Archaeology 153-171 in Holtorf, C. and Karlsson, H.  (eds) Philosophy and archaeological practice : perspectives for the 21st century Goteborg Bricoleur Press

Derrida, J. 1978 Writing and Difference London Routledge & Kegan Paul

Foucault, M. and Deleuze, G. 1977. Intellectuals and Power in D. Bouchard (ed) Language, counter-memory, practice : selected essays and interviews
Oxford Blackwell

Geertz, Clifford. 1993 The interpretation of cultures : selected essays
London Fontana

Holtorf, C. and Karlsson, H. 2000 Introduction in Holtorf, C. and Karlsson, H.  (eds) Philosophy and archaeological practice : perspectives for the 21st century Goteborg Bricoleur Press

Preucel, R. and Hodder, I. 1996 Introduction in Preucel, R. and Hodder, I. (eds) Contemporary archaeology in theory : A Reader Oxford Blackwell,

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. 1987 Social Theory and Archaeology, Cambridge Polity Press

Thomas, J. 1996. Time, culture, and identity : an interpretative archaeology London ; New York Routledge