To Separate a Centaur: On the Relationship of Archaeology and History in Soviet Tradition

By Klejn, Leo S. | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview
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To Separate a Centaur: On the Relationship of Archaeology and History in Soviet Tradition


Klejn, Leo S., Antiquity


'A combination, my lady, often cancels the best of its elements.'

... 'That would be true, brother, if your head and shoulders were those of a horse, and the rest human.'

JOHN UPDIKE The Centaur chapter 1

The argument on the subject matter of archaeology

It is already some decades since serious argument began in Soviet scholarship about the subject matter of archaeology, or, more simply, of the field of archaeology: what does archaeology study? (Grigoryev 1973; Predmet 1975; Gening 1975; 1976; 1983; Borjaz 1976; Zakharuk 1978; Rogacev 1978). There is nothing like that in any other country (only in formerly socialist Poland does something similar seem to be occurring). Outside the former Soviet Union archaeologists naturally are busy with the question of the subject matter of their discipline -- they ironically point out its seeming simplicity in definitions like 'Archaeology is what archaeologists do' (Koepp 1939: 11); 'There is no archaeology, there are only archaeologists' (Braidwood 1960: 1). They compare this problem with the difficulty of defining some other well-known and generally recognized disciplines -- such as mathematics, geography, history, sociology, philosophy -- and then they stop. In reality nobody cares much: people know what these disciplines, including archaeology, mean in practice -- what they study. And that will do.

It is quite the reverse in my country. The sharpness of the issue here may evidently be explained by the specific relations of archaeology to history in the Marxist system of knowledge, though some aspects of these relations appear in the West as well, and in non-Marxist scholarship.

One side of the debate insists that archaeology is a servant of history, and that the two disciplines have different subject matters, different fields. So the subject matter of archaeology is the material record of the past, of course, as the source of information on extinct cultures and on historical events and processes, i.e. on the subject matter of history.

The other side says that archaeology and history have one and the same subject matter, one field -- past events, past social processes. So archaeology (according to this point of view) is parallel with history, it has the same rights, is able to solve the same problems: in brief, it is simply 'history armed with the spade', as Arcikhovskij once said (1941: 3). So we have two parallel histories -- one with the spade, the other without it, or armed instead with a pen (or more specifically, with written sources).

In a series of articles and a book I have criticized the second view, analysing its dangers (Klejn 1977; 1978; 1986; 1991). In no case was (and is) this a scholastic debate. The consequences of these both formulas ('servant of history' and 'history armed with the spade') are multiple, tangible and very important. In our country the second conception conquered long ago. Archaeology as a full-rights history (or rather as a slice of history) appears nevertheless not to be genuine history -- it lacks many kinds of information and necessary operations, it draws a one-sided picture. More than that, from the premise that archaeology is nothing other than another kind of history, people conclude that in its interpretation it can only manage with the set of methods which are used in history. By that in our country they mean methods of sociological interpretation based in historical materialism: that is, methods of imposing sociological philosophy on archaeological material. And it had a consequence that the publishing houses wanted to publish only the ready-made historical conclusions -- the reconstructed history of tribes and peoples, not the boring descriptions and typologies and chronologies of artefacts and assemblages.

It is not that I am in the middle between the arguing sides (frankly I take one of the sides, and the other is fighting with ardour disputing my views: Zakharuk 1983; 1989; Gening 1989); but this time, here, I am trying to find a balanced position in order to avoid unnecessary aspects of the debate.

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