Archaeological research is driven by the questions we ask ourselves in the present, for reasons that are in the present. To answer those questions, we study archaeological remains that exist in the present. The answers we find function in the present. They affect people’s lives, sometimes significantly. Control of the past is a powerful weapon.

There is an objectively true past. It may even be possible to approach some real knowledge of it. I believe it is useful to try to reconstruct it. While that past is the raw material of archaeology, archaeology itself cannot be said to be about the past, except in the most indirect way.

Archaeology and nationalism

Modern prehistoric archaeology is the child of nationalism, and it was born to serve its present. It was the indispensable tool of nationalist identity construction in 18th and 19th century northern Europe, along with historical linguistics, folkloristics, and a few other disciplinary siblings. It evolved mostly in northern Europe, in places such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany, the UK, France, and Belgium, where the written historical record was disappointingly short and indirect, but where emerging national consciousness demanded a long history.

In places with a longer historical record, mainly around the Mediterranean, classical archaeology was largely happy to continue the Renaissance tradition of supporting the composition of a rich and edifying story of early Western civilization. But in the north, clues of the past were few and far between in traditional written sources. They were that rare mention of the Fenni in Tacitus, or the fanciful descriptions of Hyperborea in Herodotus. These mentions were ambiguous at best in their characterization of ancient northwestern Europeans. When they weren’t outright condemnations, they were merely judgmental and condescending. They were someone else, a metropolitan imperialist from the Mediterranean, describing and defining the peoples of the North, and confining them to a peripheral, derivative, crepuscular existence that robbed them of history.

The alternative for northerners was to develop ways of reading other texts, revealed by bits of stone, bone, and pottery, and to extract from them the true history of the northern peoples as they defined themselves in the early nationalist explosion of the Enlightenment. In Finland, archaeology was one of the kansalliset tieteet, or national sciences. Archeologists like Gustav Kossinna in Germany looked for the development of ethnic and national groups in the archaeological record. The French focused on their ancestors the Gauls. Archaeology was nationalist, openly partisan, and resolutely romantic.

The idea of a dispassionate, scientific archaeology whose mission is to reconstruct the past emerged when European archeologists began studying the past of others, notably in North America and in colonial possessions overseas. It was a false conceit, of course. While they were openly nationalist in the study of their own people, archaeologists could claim clinical detachment and objectivity when studying the past of others. In the end the study of the other was motivated by the same questions as the study of the self, and the answers fueled the same narrative and justified the same national aspirations. Ironically, this was an important moment in the maturing of archaeology. The discipline of material culture that had been developed explicitly to emancipate northern history from Mediterranean textual hegemony, had begun in turn to impose its reading of the past on others. Full circle. Or perhaps, hopefully, a bit of an upward spiral. This circular movement did allow the development of an archaeology that sees itself as concerned with the history of all humans and that welcomes voices that have traditionally been peripheral or ignored.

The radical constructivist position in archaeology argues that we should embrace the fact that we invent the past to suit our purposes in the present. The hardcore positivist position tells us that we should go where the evidence takes us, with a willful disregard for the social and political implications of our work in the present.

Cases like Kennewick Man, or the current debate on Confederate monuments in the US, with all their incipient danger, remind us with stark clarity that what we say about the past is important in the present. They also remind us that what we wonder about the past is determined in the present. We can’t and shouldn’t try to invent the past. But we must let our ethics guide our choices when it comes to the questions we choose to ask about the past, and also when it comes to how and when we choose to communicate the answers we find.

2 thoughts on “Archaeology is not about the past

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