Kultur, Zoologi og metafysisk spekulasjon

Keeping digging at arm’s length

In Arkeologi, Filosofi on mars 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Raknehaugen, 1939

In the 1970’s, who would have guessed that waking archaeology from its (theoretical) ‘sleeping beauty’ would develop the discipline into such a split field as it is today. Some would say that the theoretical debate has gone too far, that we should ‘go back to the things themselves’. Others use the exact same slogan, though referring to Husserl or Heidegger and not Worsaae.

These discussions have mainly focused on ontology and epistemology related to the production of the past within research. A somewhat lesser part of it has focused on contemporary archaeology and the role of the past within our own modern (or postmodern) culture(s). It could be true that the discussions have gone too far, but at the same time, one could argue that in the process it has failed to hit the target, or at least all the targets. One field which has been forgotten is part of what defines archaeology, namely the excavation.

Archaeology would be unthinkable without the excavation. At least since the first kjøkkenmøddingkommisjonen in Denmark, it has remained the legitimate method for the field. It is the art of the work. And as a method, the excavation has been the subject of wide discussions (Lucas 2000). But as Gavin Lucas has pointed out, the philosophy behind these discussions are so deeply rooted in our thought today, that it has gained the characteristics of pure rhetoric (Lucas 2001). What excavation is, what it does and what its consequences are, are even rooted in our laws. This holds for both Britain, where Lucas has his background, and Norway. Lucas cites from a government planning policy:

If physical preservation in situ is not feasible, an archaeological excavation for the purposes of ‘preservation by record’ may be an acceptable alternative . . . From the archaeological point of view this should be regarded as a second best option. The science of archaeology is developing rapidly. Excavation means total destruction of evidence (apart from removable artefacts) from which future techniques could almost certainly extract more information than is currently possible. . . . The preservation in situ of important archaeological remains is therefore nearly always to be preferred. (HBMC 1991a) (Lucas 2001:37)

A quite similar attitude can be found within the Norwegian policy:

A central question in heritage policy is to what extent one should release and excavate prehistoric sites. (..) If one performs an archaeological excavation in connection with an exemption from the law, the memory is lost. (..) In accordance with current practice, the Ministry will continue to have a restrictive attitude to exemptions of historical relics. (..) As previously emphasized, it is in line with current heritage policy, a national responsibility to protect cultural heritage. However, there is generally no national interest associated with removing them. For protection from the government and scientific interests, it is desirable that the source material remains intact in its natural context. (St.meld. nr.39 (1986-76), p.19)

When the concepts of preservation and destruction are contrasted in this manner, the Heritage policy saw it as necessary to focus on the middle ground. In this case on in situ preservation. It practically means that no cultural heritage memories will we excavated when the willingness comes from either the state or the scientific institutions. Only when a third party – an external actor – needs the memories to be removed from the landscape, then it is legitimate for the state to consider an archaeological excavation as an option. This happens a lot in Norway – perhaps about 98% of excavations are initiated by exploitation of the landscape.


Gravemound, Ryum, 2010

Gravemound, Ryum, 2010

But this was not the direction this discussion was supposed to take. In discussing the excavation it is easy to follow old footsteps. Lucas makes an effort to redefine what an excavation is, in moving from destruction to transformation. He argues, in contrast to the old definitions, that the excavation is an event of creation. When archaeologists start their work and their planning, the context is thus created. Usually it is created on the paper and in the computer:

In other words, it is more fruitful to see the paradox of fieldeldwork as a hermeneutic — rather than destroying that which we wish to understand, we alter it. (Lucas 2001:45)

Once we have opened up for such a new perspective on the art of excavation, a whole new world of questions arises, here concerning the archives:

While it is important to recognize that an archive is a metaphorical rather than representative process, as metaphor it still needs the external reference. But this reference is no more ‘real’ than its substitute; the drawing we make of a ditch section is referencing the fact that we have created an artifact in the soil, sculpted a void with a void at plane which in the drawing we denote through lines, shading and hachures. Moreover, one might almost say that we dug it in this way because of the way we were going to draw it — in which case, which is metaphor and which is the referent? The processes of excavation and archiving begin to blur. (Lucas 2001:45)

This leads Lucas to the question; is it a pit because we dug it like a pit? No matter what the answer might be, somehow Lucas saw it as a suitable time for posing it. And this is a type of question the world of theoretical archaeology has yet to assess. The themes concerns to what extent archaeology can be said to be iconoclasm or iconoclash, and what the consequences could be:

Iconoclasm is when we know what is happening in the act of breaking and what the motivations for what appears as a clear project of destruction are; iconoclash, on the other hand, is when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled by an action for which there is no way to know, without further enquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive. (Latour 2001:16)


Latour, B. 2001: What is iconoclash?

Lucas, G. 2000: Critical approaches to fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. Routledge

Lucas, G. 2001: Destruction and the Rhetoric of Excavation. In: Norwegian Archaeological Review, 34:1, p.35-46

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