Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Archaeology: will this be the last turn?

In Arkeologi on desember 13, 2010 at 12:57 am

Within the field of archaeology there have been at least since the early 1980’s important, and sometimes fierce theoretical debates. Even though the following concepts are now passé, the discussions have revolved around two theoretical camps: the processualists and the post-processualists, with a historical dividing line somewhere around 1980. According to Bjørnar Olsen (2007), looking at this in retrospect, the battlefield of the 1980- and 90’s was actually a war between the two ontological ends of the modernist metaphysics: nature and society (or subjectivity and objectivity). (You know there will be blood when you throw Hempelian positivism and Barthesian semiotics together in the ring!)

Northern European (perhaps especially north-western) archaeology made its definite ‘social turn’ during the early 80’s, and the ‘textual turn’ in the late 80’s. And during the 90’s phenomenology became increasingly important, for instance to landscape archaeology. And one should not forget the rise of feminist and post-colonial perspectives. Actually, this happened at the same time phenomenology again received focus within other sciences, psychology being one of them (Gallagher & Zahavi 2008). Scholars stigmatizing archaeology as being theoretically reluctant should realize that from the 1990’s and onwards, the field has been increasingly updated on its theory. The post-processualists aligned themselves with, well, the whole humanistic tradition, from the early hermeneutic tradition of Dilthey and Schleiermacher to (then) contemporaries such as Derrida and Baudrillard. The processualists, on the other hand, cultivated their objectivist and scientific flirts into a hard cognitivism.

It would be no exaggeration to point at the upcoming ‘symmetrical archaeology’ as the latest addition to the list of contemporary theoretical engagements, even though its propagates refuses to call it a theory as such. (I get it, it is an attitude!) There is, however, one aspect of theoretical discussion within archaeology that has not gotten enough attention. In a commentary on one of the very first volumes put together by the theoretical hotshots of the early 80’s, Mark Leone sums it up:

“There is a simple, accurate but superficial way to resolve this book’s rejection of the New Archaeology by pointing out that the types of societies treated by the two schools of thought are different. Binford and his colleagues dealt with hunter-gatherers and early farmers; few dealt with peasants and early states. The New Archaeologists dealt with the deepest past, most primitive technologically, and some eras not fully human. (..) However, archaeologists dealing with fully developed Neolithic societies, with towns, large populations, enormous monuments, metal working and specializations of all sorts were dealing with societies whose economies were secure enough that their complexity alone could not be fully accounted for by systemic analyses… (..) More was needed in terms of theory…” (Leone 1982:180)

Of course a lot has happened since Leone wrote these passages, though not on the side of pragmatics. It is true what Olsen says, that the controversy has focused on incommensurability and rhetoric, and not on practicability. The fact that the archaeological material extends across several thousands of years, should not be forgotten when discussing theory today. Some theories might be more suitable than others. Creating research goals to be solved for future projects which depend on a relatively secured and detailed context is senseless when the material available does not meet the basic contextual requirements. To make an example, landscape phenomenology along the south-eastern coastal strip of Norway is more suited for an Iron Age study than a Mesolithic one (because of the rise of land). On the other hand, in the context of snow patch research in the mountain areas; the objective difference in topography is (in comparison) nonexistent.

Marching under the banner of ‘symmetry’ a new generation of archaeologists has called out for yet another paradigmatic ‘turn’ in theoretical thinking (Webmoor 2007). In the name of ontology they request a change of attitude away from the internal theoretical divisions of today – the fractural remains of two quite depressing decades – onto to a praxis founded on a common phenomenology of archaeology itself. Let us hope that the first monograph on the subject (Olsen 2010) meets the expectations of the masses. Archaeologists prefer their battlefields to be ancient; yet another archaeological ‘science war’ is not what we need right now.


Gallagher, S. & D. Zahavi 2008: The Phenomenological Mind. Routledge.

Leone, M. 1982: Childe’s offspring. In: Hodder, I (ed.) 1982: Symbolic and Structural Archaeology. Cambridge University Press.

Olsen, B. 2007: Keeping things at arm’s length: a genealogy of asymmetry. In: World Archaeology. Volume 39, Issue 4 December 2007 , pages 579 – 588

Olsen, B. 2010: In Defense of Things. AltaMira Press.

Webmoor, T. 2007: What about ‘one more turn after the social’ in archaeological reasoning? Taking things seriously. In: World Archaeology. Volume 39, Issue 4 December 2007 , pages 563 – 578

  1. The call for a symmetrical attitude towards objects is a commendable effort to create new understanding and perception in archaeology without inviting to a “war over theory” since it is presented as an attitude. However, I see most of this as a set of rhetoric by a group of post-modernist archaeologists to solidify their views without exposing themselves to critical scrutiny that would surely ensue if they called it a theory or a paradigm. Perhaps Olsen will address this in his In Defense of Things (2010), though only time will tell. As already pointed out, Mark Leone (1980) saw some of the differences between processualists and post-processualists revolving around the different types of societies being studied, studying these societies required different methods of inferring meaning. Symmetrical archaeology as elegantly avoided this issue so far by focusing on ontology, rather than telling us how we can infer meaning from artefacts. In the examples given by symmetrical archaeologists they have not addressed the archaeological record, instead they have to discussed concepts such as heritage and its meaning (Webmoor 2007). Drawing this argument further I would like to propose that different archaeological theories are suited for different archaeological contexts, whilst symmetrical archaeology has through rhetoric placed themselves above such mundane situations by not referring to specific situations. A phenomenological approach to the landscape (for example Tilley 1994) would be more fruitful than a behavioral approach, but phenomenology becomes severely insufficient when trying to understand the correlates between social actions and the archaeological record as presented by Lamota & Schiffer (2001). In this situation between studying the landscape and the archaeological record a symmetrical archaeologist would say that we must give the things primacy, we must study things as part of society and not as a source for knowledge about society (Olsen 2006: 16). Now, where on earth does that leave us?

    Additional sources:
    Lamota & Schiffer 2001. Behavioral Archaeology: Toward a New Synthesis. In Hodder 2001: Archaeological Theory Today.
    Olsen 2006. Ting-mennesker-samfunn. In Arkaeologisk Forum 14
    Tilley 1994. A phenomnology of landscape.

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