Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology

Article excerpt

Alison Wylie, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 357 pages.

Reviewer: Erika Evasdottir

Columbia University

One of the most enduring--and endearing--consequences of the New Archaeology is that it continues to make people think long and hard about the nature of archaeology, the questions it can and cannot answer, and the goals it ought to have in a changing world. Alison Wylie has produced a marvelous catalogue of all the ways in which New Archaeology has made her think over the years. She thereby exemplifies the possibilities engendered by the combination of theory and practice and shows throughout the value of inquiry to the discipline. Students of anthropology as well as archaeology would do well to read this book not so much for the substance, but as an example of how to be a curious, well rounded, and--above all--a thinking archaeologist.

Wylie begins her tale in 1973, in the summer after her first year of undergraduate studies, at the excavations at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan. Archaeology was then a discipline deep in the throes of the revolutions begun in the late 1960s by the New Archaeologists. In reading her account it struck me how funny, almost quaint, the rhetoric of New Archaeology seems today, more than 30 years on, and how deeply misplaced the urgency of its posturing. Yet nevertheless, Wylie manages also to convey--and to remind those of us who have forgotten--the excitement of feeling like one was truly participating in a revolution. It was a time that made thinking acceptable, fun, and productive. The process of thinking itself became a site of competition and struggle. Archaeology had till then never been (or seen itself as) an oasis for the practical, taciturn, rugged outdoorsy type; perhaps we first needed a 1950s male-oriented "science" of archaeology in order to break down the contempt felt for the effete armchair thinker before we could move on to find creativity, diversity, and even room for the traditional male ego in more complex theories. For being the true proximate cause of the flowering of the many schools of archaeology that followed, Wylie reminds us to feel ungrudging gratitude for even the most acerbic of the New Archaeologists.

To anyone who prefers the polemical statement, Wylie's writing can be frustrating because it is, and has always been, marked by a calm, even tone that refuses the rhetorics of extremist posturing or the grandiose statement. She refuses to ally herself with any school in particular. She is fundamentally confident in the persistent resistance of the archaeological record to the play of theory, but she is no processualist. Her basic certainty does not stop her from reading newer and more complex theories and reaching to the feminists, the interpretivists, and the critical theorists, but she is certainly no post-processualist. Wylie's school is the middle road: the work of archaeologists may be more complex than heretofore expected, but it is both possible and worth doing and, most importantly, new knowledge about the past can indeed be accumulated. In Wylie's mind, everyone and every theory has something important to contribute to archaeology's common task. While each idea spurs her to consider the situation from a different angle, she never loses her own sense of where she stands on the basic issues.

That sense of certainty combined with the ability to see something important in every theory is a rare and laudable trait. …