If the truth be told, the exponential growth undergone by the history of archaeology over the past thirty years can only in part be attributed to the influence of G. W. Stocking and the History of Anthropology Newsletter—the revival of which is of course both timely and full of promise. The erstwhile debate as to whether the history of a given field (in the social sciences and humanities, at least) is best undertaken by its practitioners or by professional historians—besides raising questions as to what this “best” might possibly imply—proves rather less pertinent for a discipline such as archaeology that is, after all, an intrinsically historical one.
Or is it? In North America, the placing of archaeology within the “four-field” configuration (on whose European sources, see Hicks 2013) has certainly led it to adopt a range of concerns and approaches, including historiographical ones, from anthropology writ-large. Issues of power and governance—often deriving from the “handmaiden of colonialism” argument—have featured prominently in this regard, especially upon the publication of Canadian archaeologist Bruce Trigger’s highly influential “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist” (Trigger 1984, see also Trigger 1989).
Indeed, from first encounters to post-colonial continuities, from the origins of nations to the European Union, researching the history of archaeology has amply confirmed the discipline’s broad appeal and utility. Notwithstanding its romantic allure and down-to-earth realities, archaeology is and has been implicated at both practical and ideological levels in the fashioning and positioning of identities, both at home and abroad. This is why, despite the relative scarcity of dedicated historiographical initiatives— such as the Bulletin for the History of Archaeology (BHA), based in St. Louis (USA), in Melbourne (AU), and now in London (UK), the European Commission-funded (1998-2008) Archives of European Archaeology research network (AREA) (see Schlanger & Nordbladh 2008), and the internet-based Histories of Archaeology Research Network (HARN)—the history of archaeology is nowadays an acknowledged component of teaching curricula across most archaeological research traditions.
This further confirms that archaeology’s historical sensibility has many roots and extensions. Concern with material vestiges of the past and their shaping into objects of knowledge can be traced across time and space to several traditions, many of which are rather pejoratively typecast as “antiquarian” (see Schnapp 1997, 2013). Understanding how the past is conceived in the present, and how its materiality and temporality have been variously addressed—in Ancient Mesopotamia, in Medieval Rome, in a Scandinavian Wunderkammer or in a museum of Antiquités nationales outside Paris—remain major historiographical challenges. The notion that archaeology emerged as a “proper science” only in the latter half of the nineteenth century, once it had emulated the positivist methodologies of the natural sciences, is self-serving and reductive; this notion urgently needs to be counterbalanced by greater attention to cultural history in addition to histories of arts, philology, and of erudition in general.
Much remains to be clarified about the processes by which, for example, age-old objects prised out of the ground, whether precious or mundane, have been transformed into full-fledged historical documents: indeed, into “material culture” (Miller 2017, Fowles 2016 ). A focus on histories of archaeological practices (see Lucas 2002, Jansen 2012) is all the more important because it goes to the very heart of the discipline’s multifaceted sources. It is not surprising that archaeology is so generative of archives, records, field notes, drawings and photographs, nor that it feels with particular acuity the “documentary imperative” of modernity. This is because archaeology is constantly torn between its constitutive sentiments of abundance and scarcity, durability and impermanence.
Pots may break, but they are condemned never to disappear, as economic historian Moses Finely once commiserated. Still, the context which confers to these shards their meaning can only be fleetingly accessed and recorded, let alone returned to. The very discovery of archaeological remains—whether fortuitously (e.g. during development projects) or through planned excavations—entails some destruction, and the onus is to compensate this loss as best as can be by secondary inscriptions. This is why the study of documentary and material archaeological archives, by historians and practitioners alike, is of such importance. While it serves to recover something of what is gone forever, such a critical inquiry can also illuminate that part of the past that we construct and valorize, in the present, for the future. It can be expected that the history of archaeology will focus in the coming years with even greater intensity on issues of heritage and its management, on decay and destruction, on salvage, restoration and conservation, on provenance, restitution and outreach: all historical questions bound to benefit from the comparative insights that the history of anthropology—and its Newsletter—can provide.
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Fowles, Severin. 2016. “The perfect subject (postcolonial object studies).” Journal of Material Culture 21: 9-27.
Hicks, Dan. 2013. “Four-Field Anthropology Charter Myths and Time Warps from St. Louis to Oxford.” Current Anthropology 54: 753-763.
Jensen, W. Ola, ed. 2012. Histories of Archaeological Practices: Reflections on Methods, Strategies, and Social Organisation in Past Fieldwork. Stockholm: National Historical Museum.
Lucas, Gavin. 2002. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. London: Taylor & Francis.
Miller, N. Peter. 2017. History and its Objects. Antiquarianism and Material Culture since 1500. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Schlanger, Nathan, and Jarl Nordbladh, eds. 2008. Archives, Ancestors, Practices. Archaeology in the Light of its History. Oxford / New York: Berghahn Books.
Schnapp, Alain. 1997. The Discovery of the Past. New York: Abrams. Originally published in French, 1993.
Schnapp, Alain et al. eds. 2013. World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives. Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute.
Trigger, G. Bruce. 1984. “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist.” Man 19: 355-370.
Trigger, G. Bruce. (1989) 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought. Second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.