Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes


Marco De Pietri – June 2015

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The excavation process is not only a mechanical technique

The analysis of the stratigraphy and of the objects kept in the ground is the main goal of archaeological investigation: the archaeologist’s main endeavor should be the reconstruction of ancient history and society, focusing on the people who once lived in the excavated sites. But this achievement is not so easy: the excavation of ancient entities is always a process that inevitably involves the loss and destruction of the original context; in this respect the recording of all the data related to the context plays an important role in the work of an archaeologist.

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“Data or not ‘data’: that is the question” – a problem of interpretation

Data are not a neutral matter: they are actually “not data”, because all archaeological entities are subjected to the excavator’s interpretation, who is the unique person capable of retracing the full excavation process. Quoting Buccellati we can say that: “The process of stratigraphic excavation entails that data are not in fact given (paradoxically, the data are not “data”!). They are the construct of the excavator’s observational itinerary. […] The archaeological paradox is that the data are not given as such (15.10.2); they are rather made into data at the moment they are first observed” [CAR, 1.2].

Hodder and Hutson note that the interpretation of an archaeological context is also related to other parameters such as agency, culture and history: all these things inevitably affect our own interpretations and must be kept in mind during the process of giving sense to each ancient find. In this regard the importance of a correct and perspicuous documentation is clear to everyone.

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The need of an archaeological inference

The next problem is about the nature of the documentary method: when archaeologists record an excavated entity they are also interpreting it. They are more properly making an archaeological inference about the analyzed thing. But what precisely is inference? A dictionary definition runs as follows: “a guess that you make or an opinion that you form based on the information that you have (Cambridge Dictionary); “a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning” (Oxford Dictionary). A very interesting definition of inference is also given by Hodder and Hutson, who make a comparison between the archaeological and literature studies: “Archaeology is part of history. Yet archaeology is about material culture not documents. The writing of ink on paper is itself one type of material culture, and the inference of meaning from such evidence is equivalent to that for material objects in general. In this sense, history is part of archaeology” [Hodder & Hutson 2003, p. 15].

The problem of inference has been recently underlined by Buccellati: “Perceived as an “undisciplined discipline” (Clarke 1968), archaeology was easily susceptible to a frontal attack whose aim it was to introduce in the field the “discipline” of a clear and explicit method. […] An unintended result of this new intellectual posture, which was pitch- ing the new against the old, was, it seems to me, an ever increasing reliance on inference (see Fogelin 2007). Theory was to serve more and more as a method, almost a technique, for validating inference” [CAR, 2.8.2]. The author’s aim is to stress the key role of inference during all the steps of the archaeological process. While digging, and thinking about the materials and the structures excavated, the archaeologist has to think out an inference; this is not only a concept, a theoretical speculation: it is a method, a technique that allows the archeologists’ theories to be validated and better understood.

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Two different kinds of inference

Hodder and Hutson proposed to see the existence of two different approaches to inference: the first is empiricist/materialist (as C. Hoare has already said: “Let the pots speak”), while the second is more idealist: “Materialism ‘accords greater causal weight to a society’s behaviour than to its thoughts, reflections, or justifications for its behaviour’ (Kohl, P. L., 1981, Materialist Approaches in Prehistory, “Annual Review of Anthropology” 10, 89). […] By idealist we mean any approach which accepts that there is some component of human action which is not predictable from a material base, but which comes from the human mind or from culture in some sense” [Hodder & Hutson 2003, p. 20].

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The validity of inference

But how can we know whether our inference is correct and well done? Each inference has to be held against the actual emplacement: “Obviously, the depositional inference is not created in a vacuum: it rests on initial clues, which of their very nature relate to emplacement. On the basis of these clues, one develops an excavation strategy - the first moment of the stratigraphic argument. The second moment is a careful check as to whether the depositional inference holds up: does the emplacement record unveiled confirm the initial inference? […]. “The primary responsibility of the excavator, the moment a tool touches the ground, is to provide the emplacement record in all its totality. Depositional analysis is the inference based on emplacement, and together they define the stratigraphic complex. This is the primary and proper task of the archaeologist” [CAR, 4.4, Part II introduction]. In order to give more concrete and clear evidence about the application of inference we would also like to quote an example taken from CAR: “That a cut is understood as a foundation, or a pile of bricks as brick fall, is essentially an inference: for neither the foundation nor the brick fall are observed as such. That it may be intuitively obvious for them to be so, and that this may correspond to reality, does not alter the fact that observation pertains only to the elements in contact. The process of deposition as such, in particular, cannot be observed. What can be observed is only how things are in contact in the ground (emplacement), not how they have gotten there” [CAR, 15.9].

Moreover, Hodder and Hutson point out the main importance of inference, posing a precise question: “If each historical context is unique and particular, how can we interpret it? […] As soon as one admits some cultural relativity in this way an insuperable contradiction emerges. It is no longer possible to have a universal natural science theory and method which will allow secure inference and prediction from one historical context to another” [Hodder & Hutson 2003, pp. 145, 39]. Summing up: what is the condicio sine qua non that allows us to confirm a given inference?

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The topic point: archaeological hermeneutics

Both Hodder & Hutson and Buccellati agree that the only effective solution lies in the concept of archaeological hermeneutics: “Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, traditionally applied to the discovery of the real but hidden meanings of sacred texts, specifically the gospels […]. Hermeneutics involves understanding the world not as a physical system, but as an object of human thought and action. Thus the primary hermeneutic rule, as in contextual archaeology, is that we must understand any detail such as an object or word in terms of the whole, and the whole in terms of the detail” [Hodder & Hutson 2003, p. 195].

A similar hermeneutical method has been proposed by Buccellati in his CAR: “The critical approach that I am proposing is one that aims on the one hand at dealing very concretely, as I have done so far, with the nuts and bolts of the discipline: it is a specific hermeneutics of those historical cultures that we want to reinsert in our historical stream of consciousness. It is also, on the other hand, a study of its broader hermeneutic canon, where the implications for a deeper understanding of critical thinking loom very large”. […] “The role of a hermeneutics of archaeology is, in part, to bring out these hidden theoretical underpinnings. Acting as a hermeneutics of the archaeologists’ mental framework, it will seek to identify the presuppositions that condition and shape the concrete and specific results of the research engaged with archaeological data, however ill defined the understanding of the ultimate nature of these data may remain” [CAR, Part V introduction, 15.12.4].

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Hermeneutics of broken traditions

More in detail, this kind of hermeneutics always refers to a broken tradition: “The distance from a past tradition has been amply recognized in hermeneutical thought. What archaeology contributes is the realization that there can be much more than distance, but a total break. Historical data have been handed down through a tradition that has been adding its own interpretive overlay just as it was preserving the original out of its intended context. Not so for archaeological ‘data’: these are re-proposed as wholly and permanently extruded” [CAR, 16.6.3].

This hermeneutical process is further divided into two consequent hermeneutics: the first one is the “invention” (literally, the “finding out”) of the ancient mental environment. At this starting point the focus is on the way in which ancient people imagined and figured out the world where they lived: “What happens in a properly understood archaeological context is that this entire frame is lost the moment the flow of tradition stops, i.e., the moment when a human habitat disappears under its own collapse. This is the moment of breakage, which becomes significant when it affects not just a single site, but all the sites that share in the same tradition” [CAR, 16.6.1].

The second step is the “hermeneutics as a critical theory”: in this case, after the “invention” of the first hermeneutics, we should try to regain the values of the broken tradition, achieving a better understanding of ancient thought, by a sort of identification which allows us to recover the previous broken tradition, reconnecting our own present with the past [for more information about this second kind of hermeneutics, see CAR, 16.6.1].

The main role of the inferential hermeneutics here proposed has also been stressed in an article written by Buccellati on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Cotsen Institute (UCLA, Los Angeles): “The technical term is ‘hermeneutics’, which means that we interpret the past not on the basis of a fantastic whim, but rather through a reasoned discourse that holds itself to well-defined and arguable standards. A reasoned discourse that sees the fossil as it once was, a carrier of life. And as it still is: a carrier of meaning” [Buccellati 2013, “Research Paradigm,” p. 20].

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The peculiarity of the inferential archaeology

This inferential process is indeed the main peculiarity of archaeology itself: only archaeology can reconstruct a broken tradition, by linking it again to ancient history and to the lives of past people. In this respect archaeology could help us in tracing their thought, following a precise and effective method based on the inferential analysis of the depositional context, trying to give meaning to all the data related to a specific emplacement. Here we see the importance of the stratigraphy and its interpretation that is always the first challenging aim of each archaeologist: “Stratigraphy is, then, the icon of the broken past. If emplacement is the pristine moment that documents the ‘breakage’ of a lost human tradition, stratigraphy is the pristine moment when the breakage calls for healing. The pieces are reinserted in the human experience of the excavators, and through them they are reintegrated into the modern library of memory” [Buccellati 2012, “Linguistic Model,” p. 40].

But the work of the archaeologist does not finish with the excavation itself: the second step is a kind of decipherment of ancient realities: “The cultural remains that we extricate from their own collapse exhibit no direct line of continuity with our current experience; there are no living carriers of the culture from which they originate. They bear within themselves a cipher, as it were, that we must discover, so as to ‘de-cipher’ their meaning. And so we must recompose a cultural whole within which they may make sense once more” [Buccellati 2006, “An Archaeologist on Mars,” p. 17].

This is ultimately the main peculiarity of archaeology: the chance to regain the past, starting from the analysis of emplacement (in terms of a predetermined grammar), pulling out the structure of the physical relationships of things in the ground. A second further moment is the interpretation of the data (through semiotic and hermeneutics) in order to reach a complete and organic (as soon as possible) understanding of the past; thanks to this further analysis, we can also achieve an empathic relationship with ancient people, men and women who (also so far in time) could become closer to our present experience, reminding us that “nihil sub sole novum” [Qohelet 1: 9].

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