Beyond the Surface: Comments on Hodder's 'Reflexive Excavation Methodology.' (Reply to I. Hodder, Antiquity, Vol. 71, Pp. 691-700, 1997)

By Hassan, Fekri A. | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Surface: Comments on Hodder's 'Reflexive Excavation Methodology.' (Reply to I. Hodder, Antiquity, Vol. 71, Pp. 691-700, 1997)


Hassan, Fekri A., Antiquity


Comment is offered on the 'post-processual' approach to excavation in the field advocated in the September ANTIQUITY.

It is with anticipation that one approaches Hodder's (1997) appeal for a 'reflexive' excavation methodology. Anticipation soon gives way to apprehension because all that Hodder offers is either already commonplace or currently being developed by a broad spectrum of archaeologists. The polemical context of his methodology is both vacuous and unfounded, his appeal to 'ethics' misplaced (cf. Kuznar 1997).

Let me start by applauding Hodder's zeal in nudging archaeologists to consider themes ignored in the heyday of the 'New Archaeology'. His exploration of long-term historical lineaments (secondo Braudel), and drawing attention to the role of symbolism and (cognitive) structures are laudable contributions to contemporary archaeology. I am also convinced, as Hodder contends, that politics and ethics permeate science and its applications, and that archaeologists cannot ignore the ethical and political dimensions of their work. Nevertheless, I do not think that it follows that we should evaluate the validity of data in the light of political or moral agendas, instead of epistemological canons of veracity, plausibility and accuracy.

Hodder misses the main point of politically and morally committed archaeology, which is that our research ought to address issues relevant to the prosperity and well-being of humankind. By embracing particularism and an ethos that celebrates capricious diversity, Hodder unwittingly undermines the basis for any ethical system that aims to bring unity and harmony to a world afflicted by ethnic, sectarian and nationalist conflicts. What is ethical is to uphold the mandate of reason when we are overwhelmed by prejudicial emotions and engulfed by dogmatic beliefs, to abide by canons of knowledge that allow us to discern subjective errors, to evaluate the accuracy of our statements, and to assess the confidence we can assign to our judgement. We may wish to heed Gunnar Myrdal's (1969:74-5) advice in his Objectivity in social research by bringing valuations into the open so that they may be challenged instead of concealing value premises in order to rectify people's distorted beliefs.

Archaeology and the users of the past

A key problem in Hodder's proposal resides in predicating a change in archaeological methodology on the basis of goddess-worshippers, nationalists, ecofeminists or any such 'fringe' group, as Hodder calls them. A dialogue with those users of archaeological data may require forms of communication and modes of presenting archaeological results that acknowledge their voices but stand by the methods of science against dogmatism, chauvinism, demagoguery and idiosyncratic beliefs and revelations that cannot be cross-examined or openly and freely debated in order to arrive at a consensus.

Archaeology, as a scientific discipline within the academy, cannot be driven by a priori beliefs about a universal mother goddess, Aryan ancestry or extraterrestrial origins of civilizations. Science, positivist or otherwise, does not begin with a dogmatic belief in certain substantive truths, but instead freely acknowledges and encourages competing and diverse interpretations and hypotheses in a democratic process where each proponent marshals evidence and argument to sustain his/her position. Contrary to what Hodder claims, science is not against multiple interpretations (multivocality). What science guards against is the wanton abandonment of reason for ideas and beliefs based on fear, self-importance, authority, prejudices, superstitions and mental disturbances (see Russell 1969: 65-111). Hodder conveniently forgets that science has been instrumental in combating popular ideas that included not only that the earth was fiat, but that women had fewer teeth than men, that their blood is blacker than that of men and that Nordics are superior to Latinos (not to mention Blacks).

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Beyond the Surface: Comments on Hodder's 'Reflexive Excavation Methodology.' (Reply to I. Hodder, Antiquity, Vol. 71, Pp. 691-700, 1997)
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