Beyond the Great Divide: Why Do We Have History and Archaeology? in the Light of Our Understanding of 'Deep Time' Daniel Lord Smail Argues That It Is High Time That the Two Disciplines Were Reunited

By Smail, Daniel Lord | History Today, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Great Divide: Why Do We Have History and Archaeology? in the Light of Our Understanding of 'Deep Time' Daniel Lord Smail Argues That It Is High Time That the Two Disciplines Were Reunited


Smail, Daniel Lord, History Today


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Though obscure in other respects, 1936 was an important year for the philosophy of the human past. This was the year in which the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe published Man Makes Himself, a book that became one of the most widely read works of archaeology ever published. In the same year, R.G. Collingwood, the Oxford don, sat down to pen 36 lectures later published as The Idea of History, a landmark in historiography.

There is nothing to suggest that Collingwood read Man Makes Himself while writing his lectures, though we know that Childe, in later years, read Collingwood. The books themselves could not be more different in form, in substance and in their intended audience. Yet both authors, in their very different ways, had things to say about the curious fragmentation that afflicts the science of the human past. For, when you come to think of it, why do we have history and archaeology? This was not a question that motivated either Childe or Collingwood. But today, more than 70 years on, it is a question that is causing more and more people to scratch their heads. With enough scratching the answer becomes clear: there is no logical way to defend any division of human history. It is high time to reunite archaeology and history.

Yet such a project faces enormous institutional hurdles. Teaching mandates exclude archaeology from the history curriculum and departmental divisions prevent the easy flow of ideas. Visions of a unified history falter in the face of misguided insistence on methodological purity. The division of the human past was set in place more than a century ago, when the logic of 'deep history' was not yet apparent. Overcoming the institutional inertia involved will be the great challenge of the next decade.

So, as we work towards the reunion of history and archaeology, it is helpful to know that the growing desire for historical interdisciplinarity is not near. Since 1936, or thereabouts, history and archaeology have been on converging paths. There is a history to be written here, a history, of how history and archaeology fell apart in the 19th century and then, with the help of figures such as Childe and Collingwood, came back together.

The discovery of 'deep time' during the middle of the 19th century has long been understood as a transforming moment in the histories of biology, archaeology and geology. We are only just beginning to realise, however, that the time revolution also shaped the practice of history itself. For several centuries western history had been written in the certainty that the human past could be no older than the chronology allowed by the book of Genesis. The publication between 1859 and 1865 of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Charles Lyell's Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man and John Lubbock's Pre-Historic Times put an end to that. In the wake of the excitement spawned by the time revolution, historians confronted a question they never really had to ask before: when does history begin? If history cannot begin at the beginning, then historians must draw a line across the march of time and claim that this is the point at which historical time commences. All else, necessarily, is prehistory.

As Doris Goldstein has shown, historians like Edward Freeman and J.R. Green, writing in the aftermath of the time revolution, were intrigued by the idea that the terrain of history could stretch to embrace the primitive past. For others, however, the trauma of deep time generated resistance which took shape in arguments we now find scattered across the general histories and textbooks published in the decades before 1900. If some of the resistance was explicitly Christian, designed to preserve the integrity of holy scripture, most was not. There were serious concerns, raised by J.B. Bury and others, about whether history could properly deal with humans before the advent of society. Historians fretted about the absence of tangible dates. …

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