Essay: Interpretation in Archaeology

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Archaeology is one of the academic disciplines that have undergone major changes in its history. Like many disciplines, it is an evolution of paradigm, by means of which the study of the past is both facilitated and complicated. While some hold that Archaeology should divorce itself from the current understanding of life and philosophy, the archaeologist is nonetheless human, and subject to interpretation on the basis of both his or her own belief systems as well as those of others. The difference in interpretation however lies in the recognition of this factor. One might say that archaeology is much like spirituality: each individual will regard different interpretations as important or correct. It is in recognizing that one's own interpretation might not be the only one that the potential to grow begins. In the same way, the post-processualist paradigm of archaeology recognizes that there are not only different paradigms of interpretation, but also different paradigms of sociological ideals in the very past that is being investigated. A focus on the "politics of the past" as advocated by post-processualism is therefore particularly useful in studying the past by means of archaeology.

Gamble (2001:20) holds that archaeology has many opportunities for fresh discovery. The tragedy lies not in the fact that there is no means by which we can discover the "true" past. Rather, according to the author, it is the fact that some archaeologists believe that there is indeed such a past to be discovered. Such professionals leave nothing to be reinterpreted according to new data. Instead, they cling steadfastly to the framework that may indeed no longer be relevant in the light of new discoveries.

In this light, Gamble (2001:20) identifies two main paradigms by means of which archaeology might be studied; Culture History and Culture Process. The first tends to see the culture being studied as a static field of study, where the historical framework informs discovery. Data, facts and classification are emphasized. While this is a useful approach to contextualize archaeological findings, Gamble holds that it is a somewhat limiting one. The culture process recognizes inherent and fluent social paradigms as influencing the cultures being studied. The paradigms of power, gender, and class have for example been studied by the Feminist and Marxist orientations. What Gamble terms "interpretive" archaeology, is synonymous with post-processualism, as discussed. This is a culmination of the recognition encouraged by Feminism and Marxism: besides external factors, societies are also influenced by inherent paradigms in terms of social values and ideology.

According to Gamble (2001:35), the post-processualist movement in archaeology began to appear during the 1980s. He specifies a number of elements associated with this paradigm. Firstly, symbolism is the element by which a culture is studied in terms of its ethnicity, boundaries, and individual power. All these had an effect upon the values and norms held by this society, and also on how these found expression in the arts, crafts, and architecture of the societies involved.

The second element is material culture. This entails the integral components of personality, which is linked to the social life, as well as to the collective personality of the culture involved. Material culture refers to what can be seen and touched at an archaeological excavation site. Artifacts, arts, crafts, and architecture are all an indication of the personalities and societies that created them. With the wider paradigm of post-processualism, this then provides a much richer history than was previously the case. A pot is no longer simply a cooking implement; it is an extension of the personality that made it. Each piece of artifact and building has a "biography," as Gamble puts it.

The third, and possibly most important element, if regarded in the context of archaeological investigation, is Hermeneutics. This refers to interpretation, and the recognition that any interpretation of history, meanings, and texts can be questioned and challenged. Gamble notes that scientific interpretation is being challenged by means of a "double hermeneutic," meaning the separation between different cultures, groups, and paradigms - an "us and them" type of paradigm. This indicates the political undertones of recognizing different types of interpretations in terms of archaeology. In this way, post-processualism focuses on a politics of the past.

As such, some archaeologists have found considerable conflicts on both the social and political platform when recognizing the various ways of interpretation in the past. Indeed, this conflict could be cited as a reason for maintaining a primary focus on data and classification, rather than considering the deeper-lying influences of culture and politics during the time in question. According to Trigger (1989:445), however, social conflict and archaeological investigation cannot truly be separated from each other. Trigger notes that neo-Marxist anthropologists placed emphasis on the importance f human consciousness in change resulting from clashes between genders, ages, classes, and so on. In this way, ideology influences all modes of production and hence all archaeological findings.

In the same paradigm, Ian Hodder (in Meskell, 1989: 124) recognizes that specific regions, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, also incorporates a specific construction, intellectualization, and appropriation that relates to its specific socio-politics. Bender (1998) recognizes this by investigating the socio-politics behind Stonehenge. Specifically interesting is the relationship between the new Christianity of the medieval period and the paganism that was still very much prevalent in the lower classes. The disdain of the former for the latter is specifically important in terms of how this created two distinct classes. It also influenced the way in which the Stonehenge site was used at the time.

Bender (1998:98) notes that the word "landscape" in the general literature is often used as if it belongs to a certain class or group of people. This is a paradigm that has predominated Western literature and consciousness since the beginning of colonialism. Travelling Europeans simply assumed the right to buy or take the land upon which they arrived. This is a theme throughout the European colonization of the continents. This uncomfortable conflict often stands in the way of post-processual investigation.

Indeed, the very social and political paradigms that many are unwilling to recognize in the past is the barrier to a more accurate and unbiased investigation of the past. Stonehenge during the medieval period serves as a good example of this. The culture during this time, according to Bender (1998), consisted of a clear division between the Christianity of the upper classes and the paganism of the lower classes.

Bender (1998:101) notes that there is a relationship between the physical location of Stonehenge during the time and the way in which it was regarded by Christians and pagans of the time. The physical location of the stones as it were signified the division between the familiar - or civilization - and the "wilderness." The common classes, only just beginning to be converted to Christianity, believed in the magical powers of the stones. They were believed to be able to cure diseases and increase fertility. As such, they were the link between the divine and the human, or between magic and everyday life.

The Church, on the other hand, promoted the belief of the "natural" order of feudalism (Bender, 1998:102). This belief was also applied to the material representations of the spiritual world. As such, heavenly hierarchies were represented in the social relationships of the time, and also in artifacts and physical structures such as Stonehenge.

The "us and them" concept can then be applied to the differentiated classes of medieval times. Those who worshiped the stones were seen as "the other" by the higher classes. They were the common people, used for labor, and regarded as the lowest in the natural hierarchy of feudalism.

There are therefore many issues surrounding the archaeological study of social and political relations. Indeed, it greatly complicates the issues and worlds being investigated. Both conflict and complication can then be sited as reasons not to engage in post-processual investigation. However, if one once again returns to the issue of realistically investigating the past, it remains vital to recognize even the uncomfortable, the politics, and the society of the time being investigated.

Myth is another important aspect of material culture that tends to be overlooked. When the cultural paradigm in archaeology is taken into account, the text is as important as the artifact in providing insight into the time and people investigated. In the Stonehenge example, the Church aimed to impose its value system upon the common people by increasingly harsh and invasive means. In this way, as in many other colonial locations, many mythical inheritances were simply destroyed in favor of the single Christian myth. This however does not provide an accurate or indeed even near-accurate picture of the past.

If the archaeologist is to interpret the past thoroughly, all its cultural and social aspects need to be taken into account. Myths played an important cultural role in the cultures of the past. Indeed, these also serve as a fertile source of interpretation, as noted by Tilley (1991:139). According to the author, myth served to unite humanity, the world… [END OF PREVIEW]

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