Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Revealing... Archaeology!

Reviewing the historical development of archaeology, as Bruce Trigger does in A History of Archaeological Thought, the exploitation of the past for the use by a present is apparent. The inhabitants of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe seemed to have little interest in defining an objective past to look back upon. As Trigger notes, Roman writers neglected to mention ruins often times, and medieval Europeans plundered them for new constructions (30-31). Most delving into a past had the purposes for ideological justification, arguably as it does in any period. However, in these earlier periods that past was used to justify the religiosity of those times. Objects of the past may have been used as offerings to the gods of polytheistic systems (30), or exploited as holy objects in the form of relics (35).

During the Renaissance, people similarly looked toward the past as an exploitative measure to emulate itself upon and improve on the former: "The aim of renaissance scholars was to understand and try to emulate as best they could the glorious achievements of antiquity.... Only in its possession of a religion based on divine revelation could the modern age be viewed as unambiguously superior to ancient times" (35-6). This primordial archaeology took the form of a particular view of the past on which to base and improve the present. This propaganda of sorts took the form of archaeological revelation--a carving out of a past to be structured and used by the present. This takes place almost literally so in the depiction of the early excavations at Herculaneum in which the ruins seem to be carved out of the dirt (37). Thus, in the revelation of archaeology as a western discipline, it took the form of a revelation of foreseen pasts, pasts structured in the present for the use and discrimination of present politics. 

This is not unlike the critiques made of Orientalism by Edward Said. He considers the field to be a political discourse of the present by controlling the discourse of an other, and thereby defining a widely held view of the other through this discourse. This power play is no different than what transpired in the early developments in archaeology, in which a discourse of a different other took place--that of the past the past. As Said describes, it is the definition of the other than determines the character of the subject. As archaeology begins to reveal a past by the eighteenth century, it is a past that very much is used to substantiate a present politics. In terms of revelation, not only is it through archaeology that the present subject reveals a past, but too does that interpreted past reveal the subject. Archaeology is every way as much about the present as it is about the past. 

These revelations are quite evident in the writing of V Gordon Childe on Racism and Marxism, in which he implicitly shows how archaeology is used as a tool to substantiate racial or marxist viewpoints. He uses archaeological research to discredit the racial archaeology and to support his marxist archaeology. Engaging with the us-and-them rhetoric, Childe displays a reversal of the western historical narrative in which is is the East transforming the Europeans ("Races, Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe," 203). In similarly using archaeology to bolster the poignancy of a marxist standpoint, he describes its ability to 'write prehistory' ("Prehistory and Marxism," 95). This logical paradox once again proves the point that archaeology is here being used as a tool to support a contemporary political standpoint. In doing so he marks the potential efforts that a Marxist archaeologist can make to write prehistory by means of gathering an assemblage of artifacts. This is nevertheless an act of the archaeologist revealing the past. Of course, the past does not reside behind a curtain that the archaeologist pulls back, but rather he does an act of re-presencing an other in the contemporary land of us. The revelation is a mere bridge connecting past and present, us and them, subject and object; but in an effort to reveal such an other, archaeology matter-of-factly reveals ourself instead. 

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