November 17, 2009

Archaeology & Interpretation

“There is always a tension between past and present in archaeological interpretation; between the past meanings and processes which we wish to reconstruct from the material remains, and the meanings which we wish those remains to reveal to us in the present. This tension is nowhere greater than in accounts of past cultural groups.”

-Sian Jones, in "Discourses of Identity in the Interpretation of the Past" (63).

How are archaeological interpretations political? Is there any way for them to be anything but political? How can the past be misinterpreted, if not outright co-opted, in the present? Is archaeology really about the past? Or are archaeological interpretations more reflective of present conditions and realities?

If archaeologists find and collect a set of material remains, how much do their interpretations have to do with the distant people whose fragmentary traces those are?

Are archaeological interpretations merely a series of extended extrapolations, assumptions, and abstractions?

What can we tell about past human societies from their material traces? What kinds of things are impossible to discover?

What are the limitations? What kinds of things can material remains tell us about real people? What do objects tell us about individuals and groups? Are groups of objects in any way related to groups of people? How do we tell the difference between collections of artifacts and cultures?

If I were to analyze your kitchen silverware, what could I know about you? What could I learn about your identity from a detailed study of every object in your house? Where could I go wrong in my interpretations?

Why do I ask so many questions?


Conor said...

"why do i ask so many questions?"

Because youre a professor...or soon to be

Ryan Anderson said...

Ha. Or maybe because I have no answers!!!