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
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?