It’s ok she’s a commie, not a member of the public. Photo © Warner Bros I’d guess.
There’s an odd debate piece in Antiquity this month between Kristian Kristiansen and Cornelius Holtorf. On the surface it’s about the archaeology as popular culture idea which Holtorf has been developing over the past few years. Unfortunately I’m not sure the debate makes much sense in those terms, but I’m not entirely clear what it is about. I’m going to ramble on for a while and see if I start making sense anywhere. If I do I may tidy it up for a paper.
In his piece Should archaeology be in the service of “popular culture”? A theoretical and political critique of Cornelius Holtorf’s vision of archaeology Kristian Kristiansen argues against what he describes as an ultra-liberal and deeply conservative ideology. I like that. I think a lot of post-processualists who have claimed to be left-wing are, when you actually examine their work, stridently right wing. Many ‘left-wing’ archaeologists in the UK reacted to Thatcherism by promoting archaeologies which looked at the power of the individual.* Unfortunately for Kristiansen I wouldn’t say that Holtorf was one of them.
Kristiansen takes issue with Holtorf’s cojecture that archaeological facts do not, from the perspective of popular culture, matter. From this Kristiansen derives a hyper-relativist viewpoint for Holtorf where truth is decided by market forces. In light of this the whole ‘working out what happened in the past’ thing that archaeologists have been doing for a hundred years is thrown out in favour of an archaeology for a self-obsessed public.
Holtorf replies with Academic critique and the need for an open mind. It’s an uncharactistically spiky rejoinder to Kristiansen who’s article is, according to Holtorf, verging on the defamatory. Holtorf argues that his position is in opposition to Kristiansen’s characterisation and that far from ignoring the consequences of his arguments, he’s keenly aware of the political dimension to his statements, and supplies citations from his books. He then goes on the attack, ‘I cannot account for Kristiansen’s behaviour, but I suspect some academics, as they get older, find it frustrating to see familiar positions being challenged and discourses changing in unforeseen ways.’
That surprised me. I know one or two people who’ve said they’ll be appearing in a BBC documentary ‘Talking with Dinosaurs’, after disagreements with senior academics at Another University. Paul Bahn also referred in his Bluffers Guide to an elderly professor known as ‘Thrombosis’ (the clot who blocks up the system) but explicit references to age in academic papers are rare. Or maybe I just read the wrong papers. It also surprised me that Holtorf didn’t press on Kristiansen’s quotation of his work, because I think Kristiansen does misunderstand Holtorf’s position and that his quotations show where he is mistaken.
The key lines are from page six of From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, which Kristiansen quotes as:
As far as I am concerned the practices of archaeology in the present are more important and also more interesting that what currently accepted scientific methods can teach us about a time long past. Much of what actually happened hundreds or thousands of years ago is either scientifically inaccessible in its most significant dimensions, inconclusive in its relevance, or simply irrelevant to the world in which we are living now … Importantly I am not denying the relevance of the past to the present categorically; I merely question the significance of accurately knowing the past in the present.
Me, I’d embolden the line can teach us about a time long past in the quote above to make it clear he’s comparing archaeological facts with archaeological process. I think that interpretation would be justified on two grounds. First there’s the ellipsis, as Kristiansen skips some of the text.
Professional archaeology consists of various present day practices, including advancing academic discourse, teaching students, managing tourist sites, archives or museum collections, and administering or investigating archaeological sites in the landscape. These practices are governed entirely by the rules, conventions and ambitions of our present society and relate to its established values, norms, procedures and genres. For example, research is valued in the form of completed publications and persuasive arguments, investigations inthe form of comprehensive and informative reports, teaching in the form of cognitive — and social — learning outcomes, and management in the form of apparent care, efficiency and accountability. Although all these practices depict the past in some form, a time-traveller’s observations about the degree to which these depictions relate to what it was actually like in the past remains largely irrelevant. Importantly I am not denying…
That’s all about how the archaeological position is justified. Secondly in his book he has little boxes with sound-bites of his idea and Thesis six (p74) is: ‘The process of doing archaeology is more important than the results.’ Reading that with the section Kristiansen quotes I get two ideas that I think Holtorf is trying to communicate.
In archaeological practice coherence with ontological reality is desirable but not a necessity.
Coherence with reality is important in something like Physics. The universe doesn’t care how Marxist you’re feeling today. Grab two wires of mains electricity and you’ll feel a world of pain regardless of your theoretical perspective. In contrast let’s take an archaeological problem. Did archaic Homo Sapiens interbreed or replace Neanderthals? It’s a major question about the very origin of our species and opinions vary. Yet if we got a conclusive answer what use would it be? What difference would knowing that fact about our past make? The fact itself Holtorf argues would make little difference. However, Kristiansen is wrong in concluding that Holtorf believes the search for that fact is a waste of time. He spells it out in the section Kristiansen quotes: “…the practices of archaeology in the present are more important and also more interesting…” What does that mean for our Neanderthal question? That’s his second point
Meaning in archaeology comes from the process of how we find things out.
We don’t have the luxury of tripping back in time to check we have the right answer, so instead we would have to decide what makes an answer satisfying. My guess is that answer would involve DNA analysis combined with archaeological examination sites with contemporaneous occupation Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. The DNA analysis would not exist in a vacuum, it would be based upon an awful lot of Genetic theory and experiment which would have to give many justifications about how out own bodies work, how those of other primates work and why analogies are justified when examining palaeo-DNA. In doing so it relies not just on our view of ourselves but also of our place within Earth’s ecology. The archaeological justification will probably have to be more thought out than ‘My goodness all the bones look just a muddy, they must be the same age’. Instead there’ll be justifications of age based on chemistry and stratigraphy and the social relationships described between individuals who may have left little trace of themselves.
If this explanation were presented today, how would it appear? It would not be published in Glik, a language spoken across Australasia in the 45th century AD, nor would it be likely to appear in classical Latin. It would not contain references to the god Jupiter or Slood Chemistry. It would be identifiably a product of the 21st century. It would be recognisable through references to popular culture. Popular culture is not the same as ‘low culture’ and Holtorf (p7) also distinguishes it from ‘mass culture’ instead preferring a definition from Raymond Williams as ‘the culture people produce for themselves’. Perhaps another way of seeing it would be not so much as language, but as the cultural context of language. Therefore just as as archaeology is embedded in language so too it is embedded in popular culture. Equally I would also say this highlights a problem with one of Holtorf’s claims, that archaeology is mainly about the present.
I disagree. I can see it is necessarily embedded in the present as archaeology is a means of understanding the past in the present. However British Archaeology is more or less exclusively Anglophonic, despite this I would not say that British Archaeology is mainly about the use of English language and for the same reasons I would not say it was about popular culture, rather it is immersed in it.
I think argue Holtorf is mainly arguing first that this is a state of affairs, what archaeology is as opposed to what it ought to be in From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. In his later book Archaeology is Brand in contrast he is much stronger advocate for engaging with popular culture, though there is cross-over between the two. It is interesting to note that Kristiansen seems to find the latter book less objectionable. Yet it is in the second book he analyses various tropes in popular consciousness and argues for working with these ideals to express archaeology.
So what does an archaeology working with popular culture look like?
As I write the annual idiot marathon is underway. Hate it or loathe it, it’s popular culture with the antics of the inmates being the subject of gossip amongst viewers across the country. The same goes for the tremendously optimistically titled Britain’s Got Talent. The apotheosis of popular culture in archaeology might therefore be thought of as the BBC’s Restoration, a show where the public are asked which one of thirty buildings should be restored. This is the same public which voted Diana ahead of Darwin and Shakespeare in a Greatest Britons poll.
In light of this it could be extremely easy to be disturbed by Holtorf’s calls for democratisation. In particular he wrote a paper, whose name I forget and can’t look up right now as the book is in the attic,** in the book Philosophy and Archaeological Practice which called for universities to be opened up to all sorts of subjects so they could fairly compete. If I remember correctly Håkan Karlsson wrote in a reply that for many alternative ideas, the whole point was that they were outside the academic system. Personally it’s not a view I could agree with. I read today an eleven year-old girl was reported as suffering sexual abuse, as a psychic gave that information to a teaching assistant. Since this, the mother has been investigated due to the allegations and has given up her job. The child has been withdrawn from school because the mother cannot simply view this as ‘another way of knowing’. Alternative ‘ways of knowing’ can injure or kill, so can scientific ways, but at least these are trackable. You cannot get mortality data from any Homeopathic organisation in the UK. I’ve tried.
However archaeology is not a life-critical subject. Unlike medicine it’s also surprisingly unrelativist in popular culture. While a herbal remedy might ‘work for you’, people are curiously unwilling to accept that while their York was occupied by Vikings, their neighbour’s York was a Saxon collective which lived without all the slaughter, thank you very much. The reason, when put like that, is fairly obvious. Your dropping dead isn’t really my problem. In contrast your claims about Viking occupation directly stake a claim on my past. You cannot have an archaeology for one.
This is reflected in the public opinion of archaeology. Recently the Huddersfield Daily Examiner ran a story ‘Call in Time Team to discover Grimescar Wood’s Roman secret’ which is about finding the past of an archaeological site rather than a past. It’s shared by alternative archaeologists. In the Swedish paper Skånskan, Bob Lind takes issue with Martin Rundkvist’s dismissal of his astronomical claims. For Lind archaeoastronomy may be a different methodology, but it does not reveal a different truth, instead he believes it shows archaeology to be false. It’s also a view shared by academic archaeologists. A recent blog post at Archaeolog by Christopher Witmore Load up the pantry? Or, load up the landfill? only makes sense in the light of one shared past. If he was merely applying analogies from a personal past rather than the past to argue against hoarding then his argument would be nonsensical as the solution would be to stop believing in pasts where hoarding failed.
Note this is not a philosophical argument against relativist approaches, simply an observation of the use of the past when archaeologists interact with non-archaeologists. However one of the other definitions of popular culture Holtorf quotes (p8) is by Richard Maltby ‘popular culture is a form a dialogue society has with itself’. This is interesting when you look at how archaeologists can talk to each other.
There is a quiet revolution unfolding in Easter Island Archaeology. The colonisation of the island which was previously thought to have dated to AD 800 has been pushed back to around AD 1200. This change has profound implications for interpreting the archaeology of the island. It doesn’t compress the relative timescales — it entirely eliminates Easter Island’s earliest period. It was thought there was a massive social change around AD 1200, and that is now only true insofar as that’s when society started. This correlates neatly with colonisation dates for elsewhere in the Pacific. The colonisation of Rapa is now dated to the same period, and it looks like New Zealand will be re-dated in a similar way. The re-dating of Easter Island rests in part on the re-analysis of radiocarbon dates for coral. Because it’s marine, carbon-14 does not enter coral the way it enters terrestrial environments. The result is that marine dates can give results older than their true age. The debate about the colonisation of Easter Island could be a series of earnest and specialist debates about dating techniques and archaeozoological finds. The latter coming from the evidence of rat colonisation of the island. This happens, but allied to this are allegations of Euro-phobia (Bahn 2007) and a discussion of the politics of environmentalism and global warming denial (Hunt and Lipo 2007).
It’s important to note that the winner of the Easter Island debate won’t simply be the person who is most pop-cultured any more than it the person who writes the best English. However it will help communication. While Holtorf may take a relativist view of the past, this does not appear to be inherent archaeology as popular culture. Contrary to Holtorf’s Thesis 8, the many meanings given to ancient sites are equally important, does not seem to be a view shared by many of the public. The public believe in a single past which can be known through careful investigation.
This is where I disagree most with both Kristiansen and perhaps Holtorf. Both seem to postulate to a greater or lesser degree a polarity where the popular is at one end and the scholarly at the other. Kristiansen (2008:490) is quite explicit in his attack:
It seems as if Holtorf maintains by an ever increasing group of archaeological entertainers. However, it seems that these entertainers need make no references to the academic discourse of scientific authenticity and knowledge about a real past from which they originate, even though they are rooted in a century-old tradition of museum presentations and popular books, television programmes.
To be fair Holtorf gives him the of ammunition. Kristiansen quotes Holtorf (2005:14)
I suggest an alternative categorization of archaeology: from archaeology as science and scholarship to archaeology as popular culture.
This would seem to agree with difference between the popular and the scholarly.
This polarity has been written about by Alan Campbell in Tricky Tropes: styles of the popular and the pompous.
‘Scholarly’ against ‘popular’ is nothing more than a prim vigiance about etiquette. And the main reason why ‘scholars’ don’t write popular work is not that they have some sort of conscientious objection to it. It’s that they can’t do it. Campbell (1996:80)
Taken to its logical conclusion I could make this piece far more scholarly by making this far harder to read an littering it with obscure references and untranslated phrases which are de rigeur for the aspiring scholar. Somehow that seems a bit mad as ideas go.
Not only is scholarship not in opposition to popular culture, it’s what is demanded by popular culture. Holtorf mentions this in his rebuttal (2008:492) and his book (2005:12). This gets mentions elsewhere mainly as the process of discovery, but it’s possible that Holtorf’s willingness to bundle scholarship with other epistemologies hides the point that the public want rigourous process. The two most common questions on an archaeological dig from the public are “What have you found?” and “How can you tell?” and its extremely rare to get the first without the second, because for most of the public the answer isn’t enough.
The question is something happening is very different to ought something be happening? Kristiansen presents the question of whether or not archaeology part of popular culture as a matter of choice. I’m don’t believe this is the case, but there is the option of deciding how to work with popular culture or whether to ignore it. A recently published chapter on how a change in approach can benefit both scholars and the public was recently published by Rob Young and Jane Webster ‘Love Letters, Love Stories and Landscape Archaeology: Reflections on Working in the North Pennines’. They argue that an enforced break due to an outbreak Foot and Mouth disease gave them the time to explore local reactions to their work on Bollihope Common. Recognising and responding to local interest gave them the benefit of extra workers, but also qualitatively changed their approach to the landscape and their research questions. They now see their work as part of a dialogue between scholars and local inhabitants.
This, for me is one of the attractions of Holtorf’s approach. It suggests an abandonment of self-conscious searches for absolute truths by using archaeology as a proxy for lightweight philosophy. Instead it values archaeology as an act of communication. I can’t see it as a panacea, indeed like Kristiansen and Holtorf, I think it highlights dangers in the use of archaeology. However it remains better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
* For people outside the UK, one of Margaret Thatcher’s most famous quotes was ‘There is no such thing as society.‘
** It’s up in the attic deliberately to stop me getting distracted by things like this.