Nationalism, Local Histories and the Making of Data in Archaeology

By Tomaskova, Silvia | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Nationalism, Local Histories and the Making of Data in Archaeology


Tomaskova, Silvia, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Resume

La question d'une influence du contexte sur la production de connaissances archeologiques fait l'objet de vives controverses depuis vingt ans. L'auteur affirme que le contexte social et historique influe sur l'archeologie, au niveau non seulement de l'interpretation mais aussi de la pratique. Elle illustre cette affirmation sur la nature historique des donnees par la comparaison de deux sites paleolithiques d'Europe Centrale, Willendorf et Dolni Vestonice, en analysant la maniere dont les specificites du contexte ont influence dans chaque cas la collecte, l'analyse et la diffusion des collections lithiques dans les reconstitutions regionales. Au-dela de la defiance envers les formes ideologiques plus affirmees de nationalisme, elle conclut que l'histoire locale de l'archeologie et son influence sur la transformation de faits en donnees devraient faire l'objet d'une plus grande attention.

Introduction

Unlike laboratories, natural sites can never be exclusively scientific domains. They are public spaces, and their borders cannot be rigorously guarded ... cultural translation remains a persistent and pervasive possibility in the field sciences, far more than in the laboratory disciplines.

(Kuklick & Kohler 1996: 4)

Archaeology is defined around fieldwork, that is, the recovery and analysis of material remains. It is therefore crucial that in any discussion of method and theory we pay close attention to practices in the field, as well as to interpretations of recovered remains. By addressing the method of-comparison of archaeological materials, I seek to show in this article that the manner in which materials come to be data sets should lead us to take a more cautious approach to assumptions about what they may have been in the past, particularly the more distant prehistoric past.

It has been noted that the development of archaeology as a discipline was closely intertwined with the needs and strategies of colonial rulers and anti-colonial nationalists. (1) This aspect of archaeology's history has been recognized in theoretical debates within the field, but has had comparatively little impact on the everyday practices of archaeologists.

My aim in this article is twofold. I seek to highlight the importance of historical knowledge about archaeological research, showing how particular historical contexts can situate studies in dramatically different domains. In a discussion of twentieth-century research in the central European Palaeolithic, I explore the ways in which local and global historical forces affect the pursuit of archaeology, not only in extreme cases of political influence (exemplified by Nazi involvement in prehistoric research), but also in less dramatic, ideologically charged contexts. By focusing on research at two Palaeolithic sites in central Europe better known for solid work than for controversy (Willendorf and Dolni Vestonice/Pavlov), I seek to highlight the ways in which archaeological data is constructed from artefacts. Thus, I also wish to focus attention on basic archaeological methods as producers of data. My interest here is not to offer a definitive new interpretation of the collections from these sites, but rather to show how the larger context surrounding them has shaped the basic methodology employed in their research, as well as the resulting data and its comparison. If different scientific traditions and practices produce different patterns of data, then that difference itself can be read back into the past, appearing to be the result of diverse prehistoric activities. Yet the comparison of data produced in varied national or regional contexts is not the same as an unmediated comparison of prehistoric facts. Thus attention must be paid to the context of discovery and scientific practices of the local archaeological traditions, not only when seeking the relationship between facts and data in moments of theoretical discussion, but also when actively engaging in comparison between data collections. …

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