A Note on Archaeology

From the archaeologists Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, in their 1992 volume Re-Constructing Archeology: Theory and Practice.

Archaeology, we contend, is an interpretative practice, an active intervention engaging in a critical process of theoretical labor relating the past and present. It is entirely misleading to pose the problem of understanding and explaining the past in terms of either a purely factual representation tied to the past and purged of subjective ‘bias,’ or a presentist quest for liberation from the dogmatic burden of the archaeological record through unrestrained fictionalization and mythologizing. Interpretation is an act that cannot be reduced to merely subjective. Any archaeological account involves the creation of a past in a present and its understanding. Archaeology in this sense is a performative and transformative endeavor, a transformation of the past in terms of the present. This process is not free or creative in a fictional sense but involves the translation of the past in a delimited and specific manner. The facts of the case become facts only in relation to convictions, ideas and values. However, archaeology would amount to an exercise in narcissistic infatuation if it only amounted to a deliberate projection of present concerns onto the past. The archaeological record itself may challenge what we say as being inadequate in one manner or another. In other words, data represents a network of resistances to theoretical appropriation. We are involved in a discourse mediating past and present and this is a two-way affair.

(Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, Re-Constructing Archeology: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. [London: Routledge, 1992], 103–104.)

Shanks and Tilley conclude their study thusly:

Archaeology is primarily a critical contemporary discussion on the past (or the present) which has no logical end. Archaeology is historical and history has no end. A unitary and monolithic past is an illusion. What is required is a radical pluralism, a pluralism which recognizes that there are multiple pasts produced actively in accordance with ethnic, cultural, social and political views, orientations and beliefs. Asserting a crude scientism in the discipline merely fragments concerns and will never be productive. (245)

There is an important caveat to consider, however. “We do not mean to suggest that all pasts are equal,” they write. “Clearly, some pasts are inferior to others, especially those which are a non-reflective mirror of the present” (245–246). Nevertheless:

We cannot stand outside of history and arrest the past and present. What is important is that archaeology recognizes its temporality and fragility, recognizes itself as a contemporary practice in which men and women engage in discussions and debates and establish positions which need to be criticized and transcended. (246)

With this in mind, one should be skeptical about the uninformed dogmatism of such authors as Phillip Jenkins.