Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Time, Literature, Archaeology

In Arkeologi, Filosofi, Vitenskap on mars 10, 2011 at 11:18 am

Being up to date in archaeology implies a lot of reading. And what is being read should necessarily be up to date. However, in order to write archaeology, one must also read (usually) piles of old literature. This practice challenges the usual (archaeological) conception of time – or at least ‘stirs it up’.

The literature that is usually treated as part of the legitimate scientific canon in Nordic archaeology goes back to the 19th century. One example of early synthesis could be Sven Nilsson’s Skandinaviska Nordens Urinvånare (1862-1866), but there are important others such as the works by Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, Hans Hildebrand, and their respectable successors.


Sven Nilsson

Sven Nilsson

Up till the 1970’s there were, perhaps for too obvious reasons to mention, quite few archaeologists in Scandinavia – and probably in the world. In the 50’s there were about 12-14 archaeologists at work in Norway (Hagen 2001). During the following years the topography changed considerably. More than half of the total amount of magistergrader (today the master’s degree) completed in Norway prior to the year 2000, were done during the 90’s (Glørstad 2005). And from 2005 and onwards nearly 100 new students graduate every year (Haaland 2011). So the archaeologists are growing in numbers, and as they grow the literature grows. But as I mentioned, we still have to take into account the old books.


J. J. A. Worsaae

J. J. A. Worsaae

Relating to the older archaeological literature can be a somewhat perplexing matter. Because the meaning of the text is ambiguous, the time span between writer and reader can reinforce this a priori condition. One could get suspicious, even awry. Luckily we are not alone in this situation. Most scientific disciplines face the same difficulty, philosophy being a good example. As Øyvind Pålshaugen comments on the philosophical dealings with old Greek writings:

It is also true that the vast majority of those who work seriously with Plato’s writings show a large portion of humility to the task of interpreting the texts (though this humbleness easily weakens when conclusions are drawn from their interpretations). Already the thought of the distance in time calls for such humility. A time span of more than 2000 years is more than one can imagine – we could just as well say that the distance in time is infinitely large. (p.156-157)

But having said this, Pålshaugen opposes this view. Perhaps our concept of time confuses the issue, and supposedly leads our experience of distance in time astray. He tries to shed some light on this thought:

The concept of distance in time is undoubtedly forged above the concept of vast distances in the spatial sense. Perhaps we have here an example of the type of transfer of analogous expressions from one type of language game (of the experience of spatial relations) to another language game (of the experience of time), a transfer which enables us to ascribe phenomena characteristics which occurs in the language, but which does not really apply to the phenomenon itself? (p.156)

In this passage Pålshaugen points to a specific distinction in the way we use language. And most importantly, he shows how language plays a major part in the process making our perceptions (here with distance) into experience that can be communicated. Specific conditions in our language, words and grammar, can confuse our experience. The distinction he draws is that between language games, a concept he gets from Wittgenstein. The notion of language games is supposed to designate the fact that language is performance, it is an activity. The word game is used because it points to the rules of language. These rules are fluid and always changing, though every language game is unique (Pålshaugen 2010:153). An important analytic consequence is that the meaning of words are not fixed, and so, exactly how language is possible (how it makes sense and meaning) must be investigated in concrete examples of language use. Pålshaugen suggested that there exists a dogmatic conception of distance in time within the philosophical tradition that deals with Greek philosophy, and that the language used can be shown to have transferred a rule from one language game to another. He then suggests:

It seems to be that though the distance in time ‘back to’ Plato occurs to us as unimaginably large, still the distance in life form is not occurring as equivalently long. Big differences in life form, yes, but not inconceivably different – from our own. So in a way, we are still on speaking terms with Plato and ‘the old Greeks’ after all? (p.156)

Yes, we are. But exactly why, is not so easily explained, and Pålshaugen makes a considerable effort in doing this. Why is it that we think that we can communicate with these old texts? What is praiseworthy about Pålshaugen’s book is that it presents an introduction as to how an answer to such a question can be performed. It opens up a new dimension in our readings of the old texts, one which has not yet been practiced in archaeology.  Though we have had, at least in the Nordic countries, a considerable theoretical debate during the last 30 years, this discourse has not focused on how an archaeological argument is made. And further, how prehistory is made in the act of writing.



Haaland, M. M. 2011: Arkeologiutdanning i Norge anno 2010. In: Riss. Et arkeologisk tidsskrift. Nr.1 2011.

Hagen, A. 2001: Et arkeologisk liv. Primitive Tider.

Glørstad, H. 2005: I kvantitetens tegn. In: Nikolai. Nr. 100, 2005.

Pålshaugen, Ø. 2010: Passasjer. Hos Derrida, Platon, Aristoteles. SAP.


  1. You’re so interesting! I don’t think I have read anything like this before. So wonderful to discover somebody with some unique thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This website is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality! badedebdgadd

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