A seminar with Bjørnar Olsen and and Chris Witmore at Stanford Archaeology Center.
Innocence regained? Is there a new consensus in archaeology? An alternative case for bold thinking.
I wrote Social Theory in Archaeology and Reconstructing Archaeology back in the 1980s partly because I was so disenchanted with archaeological thinking – we wanted to raise the level of debate about archaeological accounts of the past – from our point of view then the discipline was so naive and woolly in its thinking. So we got into Marxism and post-structuralism, whatever helped us think through what it is that archaeologists do and how they think about the societies they dig up.
To Chris, Bjørnar and me, archaeology doesn’t look much different now. There are many new text books and readers that proclaim a mature discipline, but we judge their quality of thinking to be dire. We hear colleagues saying that the old vigorous debates (reconciling economic factors with ideological in the emergence of complex society, arguing over the case for values and commitment in scientific research, whatever) are resolved in a new consensus of pluralism. No – we see the consensus, if there is one, as spurious and based upon a lack of serious debate, little close reading, superficiality.
So tonight we made an argument for bold science rooted in a commitment to serious scholarship. And we tried to show how much archaeology is way wide of this mark.
Specifically it sounded quite conservative really – we want an archaeology based upon …
A visitor from our Humanities Center came up to me afterwards and, in a complete abrogation of responsibility for the working of our discipline, said she thought that archaeologists simply deal in what happened in the past – and why had we not talked about the past. I suppose most people take to archaeology because they like the adventure of what they see as discovering the past. They are not really after an intellectual experience – all this awkward questioning. And I do fear that maybe too many of our students at Stanford really just want to hang out in the Mediterranean on some romantic or adventurous field project.