A Site in History: Archaeology at Dolni Vestonice/Unterwisternitz
Tomaskova, Silvia, Antiquity
Whatever the journalist's definition of eastern Europe might be, let us state, as introduction to this Special Section, that Czechoslovakia is a country in Central, not Eastern, Europe. It is somewhat controversial to speak about its 'return to Europe', as some politicians would have it, as it has been there all the time.
VENCLOVA 1991: 306
Despite archaeology's focus on space and time, it often ignores the exact location in space and time of its own research. This essay seeks to examine varying grounds on which archaeological knowledge-claims have been made over time in relation to the well known Palaeolithic site, Dolni Vestonice, in the former Czechoslovakia. While it is necessary to consider the physical context of the artefacts that validate a particular hypothesis, at the same time it is also essential to unravel the social, historical, political and personal contexts within which the site, the materials and the investigators themselves are submerged.(1)
Palaeolithic archaeology, rooted in geology and positioned directly on the fault line demarcating the furthest edge of the humanities, combines the methodological aspects of natural sciences and the interpretive aims of social sciences. Its heavy reliance on stone tools, soil samples and geological profiles gives Palaeolithic archaeology the image of 'hard', or by extension 'objective', science. The appearance of agriculture, architecture, and cities in subsequent time periods substantially increases the distance between natural sciences and archaeology, flaming other archaeologies with a more humanistic mind-set. Thus Palaeolithic archaeology offers a pivotal case-study on the border between the historical development of a natural science, and a humanistic pursuit of interpretation of factual evidence.
Archaeological research operates within two contexts: one archaeological - the physical circumstances of the finds - and one culture-historical - the socio-political climate of the country in which the site is located, together with that of the researcher's country. These two contexts are inseparably bound. Giving meticulous attention to the archaeological context is itself no guarantee of a value-free interpretation, for all interpretations claiming to be factually based, and scientifically tested, are constructed in relation to both material evidence and social reality (Gero et al. 1983; Pinsky & Wylie 1989; for a different approach to similar questions, see Patrick 1985).
What constitutes a location worthy of a survey, a site in a need of excavation, materials worth collecting, identifying and analysing varies over time: it is culturally determined, constructed and reconstructed. The 1853 drought in Switzerland exposed the 'Lake Dwellings', resulting - histories of archaeology tell us - in a large-scale excavation and the discovery of the Bronze Age settlements (Trigger 1989: 83). Without doubting that the drought in question occurred, and helped to reveal the wealth of finds, one still has to question why the Swiss scientists were searching for ancient settlements in such a meticulous way, in that particular geographical location, at that point in time.(2)
Archaeological excavations and research, it is often written, should be problem-oriented, addressing specific questions formulated to deal with issues pertaining to the past (Renfrew & Bahn 1991; Thomas 1989). Yet one has to pause and consider the meaning of such a bold, basic statement in introductory text-books. What constitutes, at a specific point in history, in a specific geographic location, a question that needs to be dealt with? Presumably, a question is posed so as to obtain an answer, and an answer that is seen as vital and interesting. The question itself is a lead toward an answer, that acquires interest and meaning in a particular context. The specific historical and social context gives meaning to that social construction called the past, be it local, regional, national, or universally human in scope. …