Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes

Critique and archaeological theory

Giorgio Buccellati – February 2016

Back to top: Critique and archaeological theory


Given the great interest that archaeology as a discipline has developed for theory; and given the clearly theoretical dimension of the notion of critique, the question arises as to the relationship between the two. Is the critique a theory parallel to the other theories?

It is not. The critique is indeed theoretical, but it is upstream of the various theories of archaeology. Its aim is to define what is exclusive to archaeology, and to articulate the implications that derive from it for other fields of thought. It is, in other words, a commitment to foregrounding archaeology in a systematic way and with a thoroughgoing theoretical method.

In this sense, the critique moves in the opposite directions of the other theories. While these apply established interpretive principles to data that are taken for granted, I see the initial theoretical question to reside with the data, and wish to go from there to the heart of what interpretation is. It is, in this sense, a trajectory that goes from grammar to hermeneutics.

There are especially two theories that implicitly work in this direction, but without articulating fully the problem and without bringing to their logical conclusion their own presuppositions: the theory of agency and the theory of classification. It is worth looking more closely into this aspect of both theories.

Back to top: Critique and archaeological theory


The question of materiality is central to the theory of agency, especially as developed by archaeologists. Central to their concerns is the extent to which material items impact on individual and social life: it is in this impact that agency resides. Thus the often repeated goal is to distance oneself from an anthropocentric posture (see especially Knappett and Malafouris 2008 Material Agency), and to foreground the material dimension as the spur of development.

What is stressed by these approaches is the materiality of the items. What I stress in the critique is the materiality of the association. Indeed, emplacement is the primordial materiality. And it is the materiality that only archaeologist can control at the very moment it is first observed, and then lost. Contact association in the ground is the hallmark of the whole effort.

Agency in this case refers to the depositional process which represents the first degree of inference beyond the grammatical record of the observation. And this, too, is an exquisitely archaeological argument.

Back to top: Critique and archaeological theory


Interest in agency is relatively recent, whereas studies about classification go back a long time. And, if agency is particularly close to the notion of grammar as presented in the critique, classification is particularly close to the notion of hermeneutics. Working on the material traces of clusters of items, now disengaged from the earth and present only in their typological identity, classification asks the question about the degree of intentionality behind such clustering. Clustering is not in fact a given. It proposes an assemblage, which may or may not reflect a conscious choice on the part of the makers.

We may say that classification, having -etically established grammatical patterns, wonders whether there is an -emic justification for it. Here, too, there is an unfocused awareness of the problem of the critique. There is awareness because the transition from the material traces to the factors that made them possibile is in the foreground of the research. But it is unfocused because it does not see this as the very heart of the problem of a categorial reason that no longer speaks with its own voice. This, again, is the archaeological reason.

Back to top: Critique and archaeological theory