Resource and Interpretation

By James, N. | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview
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Resource and Interpretation

James, N., Antiquity

What is archaeology? What is it for? How can archaeologists explain themselves in a country highly literate but little aware of their work; and what can be done about amateur collectors? How can a very small profession respond to the opportunities and challenges of economic development where statutory provision for archaeological mitigation often proves too blunt to explain how to proceed in particular circumstances? In Estonia, the profession's middle order, having witnessed the assertion of national independence from Russia in 1991 as youngsters, is now coming into its own with these issues.

Four exhibitions in Tallinn, the capital, have attested the vigour and radical creativity of these archaeologists and their colleagues. Distinguishing between finds as archaeological resources and our interpretations of those finds, they insist on the primacy of the former over the latter. At the same time, taken together, their exhibitions have illustrated issues about how interpretation relates to presentation.

The Estonian History Museum's new permanent exhibition in the Great Guildhall was opened in 2011. 'Watertight Sources', the temporary exhibition there from June 2011 to February 2012, was of a medieval chest and its contents. The other two were travelling exhibitions at the Museum's branch in the Maarjamae Palace last year: the first of them, 'The Beauty of Kukruse', about a late prehistoric cemetery; and the second on the cheery theme of catering and entertainment at inns.


The Great Guildhall is a fifteenth-century stone building amid Tallinn's captivating old town. Along the adjacent alley, a brass 'rime line' records dates from the end of the Pleistocene to the republic's quincentenary (2418!). The museum shows that, for Estonians, archaeology serves history, ajalugu, literally 'time story'.

The permanent exhibition opens with the motto, "spirit of survival", and remarks on "steadfastness and ... stubbornness", "one of the most unusual languages in Europe", "forests and freedom". The first gallery shows a selection of items from prehistoric to modern and has a touch screen with 27 maps. The main display then introduces eight questions ranging flora "is Estonia ... Nordic?" to "How many generations can live under the same roof?" The main cabinets are distinctive pods that catch the chamber's natural light. Two or three are devoted to each question with selections of artefacts ancient, medieval and modern, or with documents. The themes are also illustrated by touch screens offering ample sequences of images and text. The one on religion, for example, starts with ah archaeological typology of tombs, leads to churches and concludes with consumerism today ("the ... government has continued to implement a liberal economic model"). A video chronicles history from the Mesolithic to the Russian occupation; and a case beside it shows early stone implements, imported Roman brooches, medieval metalwork and skates. Since the rest of the presentation is thematic, not chronological, Neolithic axeheads, for instance, appear in more than one section; but, as though difficult to relate to the eight themes, the Mesolithic hardly features.

The hall's undercroft is given over to the history of the building itself and of Tallinn, with furniture, plate and models including specimens of traders' wares for us to handle. There is a display of medieval and modern arms. Items from the museum's founding collection of curiosities from around the world--collected by a burgher, 200 years ago, whose grand house stands by the square nearby--are presented with pithy epigrams about the primacy of 'things'. There is a booth in which visitors explore scenarios from Mesolithic to Soviet. An 'experimentarium' offers children objects to handle--one hidden so that they can only construe it by touch. "How should time be depicted?" they are asked (indeed-- Pearce 1990: 158-60). While "each historian strives for the truth when telling stories about the past", they learn, "no one can say they know the whole truth".

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Resource and Interpretation


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