Critique of Archaeological Reason
6. Critical reviews

Gavin Lucas

Writing the Past
Knowledge and Literary Production in Archaeology

Alexandra Ion – October 2020

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I could not have imagined a better venue for talking about professor Gavin Lucas’s latest book Writing the past. Knowledge and literary production in archaeology than this online project which challenges conventional modes of archiving archaeological knowledge. The volume also touches upon several themes which are discussed in “Buccellati G 2017 C A R, such as critical archaeology, texts and hermeneutics, or the digital record. However, the two authors chose different strategies when approaching the topics.

In essence, Gavin Lucas’s volume is an exercise in ‘writing culture’ to paraphrase the title of James Clifford and George Marcus’s landmark book. The author sets himself a challenging goal: to understand how archaeologists think about, represent (in literary form), and argue about archaeological traces. At the same time, Lucas explores some of the epistemic virtues we value, and how knowledge travels from one text to another. To achieve this, the author takes the reader through the five chapters from modes of reasoning to inscriptions and mobile knowledge. The volume appears as a logical follow-up to his previous books, which have looked in a critical way to the constitution of fieldwork (2001, 2012) and The Archaeology of Time (2005). In terms of an overarching theme, Lucas aims to understand the place of texts and narratives for our profession, by doing an epistemology of archaeology. This goes against the recent trends which have focused mainly on ontological debates - like the new materialism, or object-oriented ontology. But by doing so he shows why we need epistemological discussions: because the knowledge about the world out there is mediated and shaped by our texts, actions, and paradigms.

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As expected, the author takes a constructivist approach to reading archaeological texts. However, he chooses to depart from what Latour and other science and technology studies researchers have done; instead, Lucas states that he plans on studying what texts do for us. Like the author, I think this latter approach has much more potential for bringing into view original and useful observations for archaeologists. It also allows the author to open the discussion both towards the ethical domain and to notions of value. This is something important in the context of a contemporary pluralistic archaeology, where various narratives compete in the academic arena. What I am less convinced by is that the text linguistics studies are the most helpful source of inspiration to achieve the desired goal. And I think this is where a problem insinuates itself. While the premise of the book seems to open us towards a better understanding of the value of written inscriptions in the production of knowledge in archaeology -which is a full of potential premise-, in actuality the book shifts between multiple points of view. In terms of methodology, the text moves from philosophy of science and philosophy of knowledge to literary studies, hermeneutics and text linguistics, with no explicit link between them. But let us see first how the arguments are structured, and continue from there.

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Overview of the chapters

The first chapter, which also stands for the introduction of the volume, ‘The production of archaeological knowledge’ briefly touches on all the major directions covered in the book. It does this though without making any overarching statement. Rather it feels like several threads of wool are being laid in front of the reader, and as the book progresses a pattern will slowly emerge. This style of narration continues throughout the volume. Some of the key questions that Lucas raises in this chapter are: ‘what does it mean to say archaeologists know things’? (p. 3), ‘what is it that texts do’ (p. 12), ‘how do I judge whether what I or others are claiming has any value?’ (p.12), but also ‘how tests stabilize/mobilize knowledge and how texts constitute specific epistemic virtues’ (p. 17). Thus, we can see from the start that this is an ambitious and complicated task, which requires going through a wide range of references which link the production of knowledge with its representation, normative aspects with an evaluation of a pluralism of epistemic approaches, the history of the discipline with critical epistemological reflection. It is admirable the attempt of the author to breach these divides which are themselves nothing but analytic constructs, but interlinked in practice. Even so, it might have helped the reader if the themes were limited in number. This would have helped both in terms of clarity, but it would have also left enough room to develop more some of them. For example, of particular interest I found the mention of value of archaeological knowledge in relation to a pluralistic science. Most of the recent theoretical debates have stemmed from different perspectives on what the goal of archaeology is and of the value and ethics of research, so it is a worthwhile exploration to discuss them. It would have also been interesting to see the author elaborate on the point about interdisciplinarity and cross-fertilisation (p.5), especially as I have reservations that it is something easily achieved.

In Chapter 2, ‘Models of reasoning in Anglo-American archaeology’, Lucas offers a thorough exploration of our interpretative models, from 19th century debates to the latest trends in archaeological reasoning. Some of the themes he discusses are: modes of reasoning (from induction, to deduction, conjecture to hypothetic-deductive reasoning), archaeology between history and natural sciences, matters of value, or facts versus interpretation. Lucas takes a comparative approach between the British and American model, showing how different epistemic preferences led to different trajectories in the two traditions, but he also puts various theoretical standpoints in dialogue with each other. His terminology and point of view are infused with terms derived from the sociology of scientific knowledge area and debates in philosophy of science, so it would help the reader if they have a familiarity with these discussions. Even someone with an interest and knowledge in the history of archaeological theory can learn a lot due to the detailed observations and fine comments that the author makes. However, what is less clear throughout this chapter is its relation with the main title of the book. Instead, it is better to say that it falls under the first part of the subtitle- knowledge production. This chapter reads like a historical overview of modes of reasoning in archaeology, reminding one of Robert Chapman & Alison Wylie’s volume Evidential reasoning in archaeology. I do not think the chapter was essential for the arguments which follow in the following chapters. Or, instead of such extended overview, maybe it would have been interesting to see a more in-depth analysis of contemporary writings and trends.

In the next chapter, ‘Text types and archaeology’, we finally reach a discussion of textual sources. This time, the chapter seems to take inspiration from research in text linguistics, as the author employs a model which breaks down texts based on modes of discourse: descriptive, narrative, expositive, argumentative, instructive (p. 77). Each type is then illustrated through the analysis of journal articles, books, and digital texts.

Chapter 4 looks at ‘Textual composition and knowledge production’ and it focuses on rhetoric. The author brings together ‘modes of comprehension’ with ‘modes of discourse’ and talks about narratives, description, argument, exposition and conclusion. Each case is illustrated with examples of texts where we can find these strategies employed and the goals to which they are subsumed. I found this to be the most interesting chapter of the book and the most thought provoking for archaeologists. I have to admit that this is what I was expecting when I had started the book. This is an original chapter for several reasons. On the one hand, in these pages epistemic strategies are linked with some very important questions relating to time, narrator’s viewpoint, what it takes to establish meaningful connections between datapoints, historical distance, what is the point of an argument etc. On the other hand, it brings forth how in our act of writing history are embedded our ideas about what history is, what time is, what we want to convey and why.

"What is it that makes a narrative successful- or not? I would suggest that within any narrative the challenge is fundamentally about mediating between time as an open, endless succession of almost random events (cosmological time) and time as a closed, finite chain or network of causation and meaningful connection between events (phenomenological time). Narratives that fail do so because they succumb too much to one or the other of these temporal modes. Thus a narrative that cleaves too closely to succession ends up being what historians have typically classified as annals or chronicles rather than proper, full-blown narratives (e.g. see White 1980). Arguably, excavation reports arranged by phasing are more chronicle than narrative. On the other hand, narratives where the relation between events is too closely stitched together result in a form of determinism where everything almost seems inevitable and predetermined from the very start." (p. 106)

It might be that my enthusiasm for this chapter is also influenced by having the opportunity to meet a cast of some of my favourite authors, among whom are Paul Ricoeur, Carlo Ginzburg or Charles Sanders Peirce. Regardless, I think that many archaeologists would benefit from reading this chapter. Table 4 (p. 133) which accompanies the text resumes the argument in an informative manner, and it brings together text type, epistemic function, epistemic strategy, epistemic register and epistemic virtue.

Given that the analyses presented in Chapters 3 and 4 are not very common in archaeology, as a reader I would have liked to see more examples. This would have enriched the theoretical discussion. And linked to this observation I have in mind the volume by Catalin Pavel, Describing and Interpreting the Past: European and American Approaches to the Written Record of the Excavation (2010). Its 148 pages are solely dedicated to describing and interpreting in comparative perspective site reports and site recording systems.

The last chapter, which also stands for conclusions, talks about what makes possible the mobilisation of knowledge and its transfer from one place to another - “resituating knowledge” (p. 137). Starting from observations made by philosophers of science like Mary Morgan or Sabina Leonelli, Lucas discusses in turn paradigms, analogies and metaphors, concepts and generalizations. I find the discussion on analogies and metaphors of particular interest to archaeologists, given their dual nature - they have extreme potential, but also limitations. In the archaeological literature we seem to be trapped between two poles: of suspicion as no analogy will ever be good enough, while at the same time in their absence we are very limited in what we can say about the past. Lucas helps us navigate this dilemma by looking at the generative potential of analogies and metaphors.

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Tying the threads together

There have been previous works in archaeology attempting to understand how we talk and write about the past (e.g. Shanks 2012; Bonde & Houston 2013; Chapman & Wylie 2016). This volume is different, as it ties together apparently disparate threads: knowledge production and scientific writing. In this, it is an important volume for its aim and critical standpoint. Gavin Lucas evaluates several key concepts for the archaeological imagination - inscriptions, witnesses, value, contingency. I also agree with the author, that doing an epistemology of archaeology is important.

In this volume, Lucas shows his breadth of knowledge in terms of philosophical and critical studies. At the same time, at times it can be more difficult to follow the passages or the connections between ideas. Maybe narrowing the methodological toolbox, editing out some themes, or making explicit the connections between the many points would have helped the arguments throughout. In any case, it is important to see these reflections brought into the light, and the decision of what to do next with this accumulated knowledge is left to the reader.

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