Archaeology: The Loss of Isolation

By Tilley, Christopher | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Archaeology: The Loss of Isolation


Tilley, Christopher, Antiquity


It is interesting to reflect that only nine years separate David Clarke's paper 'Archaeology: the loss of innocence' and the publication of Symbolic and structural archaeology (Hodder 1982), which may be taken to mark the beginning of a 'post-processual' archaeology. Many of the ideas put forward in that book were being discussed and developed at Cambridge from around 1978. David's paper, and its publication in ANTIQUITY, may be taken as representing the high-water mark of 'new' or processual archaeology in the academy. Almost as soon as the ideas had been presented, and not really very well developed in the practice of doing archaeology, they were under fire and being replaced. Yet David was still attacking 'traditional' archaeology, fighting for his own position in the 1973 paper, and putting forward an agenda for the future of archaeology. It was a manifesto for future work. New Archaeology was then 11 years old and had already achieved a certain hegemony in Anglo-American archaeology, at least among younger academics more interested in ideas than recovering and describing evidence. In 1998 what is labelled 'post-processual' archaeology differs fundamentally from many of the ideas presented in the Hodder volume and it is doubtful whether anyone would still wish to follow David's agenda or advocate early 'post-processual' ideas. The pace of thinking has inexorably heated up. Both David's paper and the Hodder book are now primarily of historical interest in the development of a disciplinary consciousness in which archaeology is becoming increasingly self-reflexive, critically interrogating its intellectual presuppositions, procedures and practices.

David Clarke's work was both visionary and constantly innovative. The ideas put forward in the 'loss of innocence' paper, and in his other publications, were subsequently adopted and adapted by many others. There can be no doubt that he was the most intellectually influential British archaeologist of his generation. One can now react positively or negatively to various aspects of his work but it remains fundamental to any consideration of the development of a disciplinary self-image.

His work was consistently felt as threatening by many 'traditional' archaeologists spawning numerous criticisms that he wrote dry jargon-ridden texts that could be deemed largely irrelevant because they were difficult to understand. He was complicating things too much. In principle archaeology ought to be a simple practice of recovering meaning from the past with the minimum of theory. David's abiding legacy has been to make theory and philosophy, and explication rather than description, the core of the discipline rather than being somehow optional extras. Henceforth archaeology had to be primarily an intellectual practice rather than a set of technologies and methodologies.

It is clear that the stimulation for the ideas that David advocated in the 'loss of innocence' paper, and elsewhere in his work, were not primarily derived from reading the works of other archaeologists, but drawn from outside, principally from his reading of work in the positivist philosophy of science and structural-functionalist anthropology, sociology and geography. It now seems somewhat ironic that he used these ideas to advocate strongly an 'archaeology is archaeology is archaeology' position in which the discipline should develop its own independent theoretical, conceptual and methodological structure tailored to the particularities and peculiarities of archaeological evidence. This theoretical structure was to be applied top-down to inform an understanding of the past. What he did not seem to recognize is that there could be nothing distinctive about archaeological theory when it went beyond a concern with appropriate methodologies excavation, fieldwork and conceptualization of factors affecting the physical survival of archaeological evidence, what he refers to as 'pre' and 'post' depositional and retrieval theory in the 'loss of innocence' paper. …

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