Archaeological Theory in France and Britain

By Scarre, Chris | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Archaeological Theory in France and Britain


Scarre, Chris, Antiquity


British archaeologists have long been puzzled by the contrast between the way in which the theoretical underpinnings of the discipline are discussed and explored on the French side of the Channel. Theory might be considered one of the most significant issues in British archaeology over the last 30 years, since the work of David Clarke in the late 1960s. There has sprung up a healthy tradition of debate, of polemic and counter-polemic, inspired by a desire to understand the epistemological and methodological underpinnings of our subject. In France, by contrast, theory has been a much less prominent part of the archaeological scene. This is all the more surprising given that France is the homeland of some of the key figures who have been espoused by British post-processualists: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Althusser to name but a few. Why should this be?

My purpose here is not so much to attempt a definitive answer as to throw further light on the question by considering the development of archaeological theory in France over the last 30 years, and in particular the French response to the Anglo-American New Archaeology and subsequent British and North American theoretical approaches.

The relatively slight interest shown by French archaeologists in the New Archaeology has certainly been one of the key differences which has set the two traditions apart. This is not to say, however, that it has been the only factor. Another key difference is the much greater importance in French prehistoric archaeology of the Palaeolithic period, a natural consequence of the richness of the French material, which of course includes the spectacular decorated caves of the southwest. Studies of later prehistory, notably the Neolithic and Bronze Age, have very naturally played a less significant role. In Britain, by contrast, the first major monuments belong to the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, and it is these which have drawn the attention of prehistoric archaeologists at the expense of the less prominent British Palaeolithic record. There is little question that the great emphasis of British processual and post-processual interpretation has been on these later periods; whereas in many regions of France the Neolithic and Bronze Age have been the poor relations sandwiched between the much more active fields of Palaeolithic archaeology on the one hand, and Iron Age and Roman archaeology on the other.

This difference in chronological emphasis has in itself led to different kinds of interpretations and approaches. Yet the differences go much deeper than this, to the philosophical underpinnings of the discipline in Britain and France. For example, in his review of Jean-Claude Gardin's Archaeological constructs, Ian Hodder wrote (1981: 60-61):

This book is very French. What I mean by this statement is that the enterprise in which Gardin . . . and his colleagues Lagrange and Borillo are engaged has certain characteristics which recall Descartes' 'Discours de la methode', Levi-Strauss and a common concern among French social scientists with abstract formulations, definitions and logical analyses of methods. . . . To say that the book is French is not meant to be pejorative. It is probably inevitable that archaeologists become increasingly concerned with how they come to their conclusions about the past, and international flows of information between different schools of thought are to be encouraged.

This quotation is notable for the way in which it seeks to promote 'international flows of information between different schools of thought' and at the same time casts these schools of thought in national terms, suggesting that there is a particularly French way of looking at and understanding the past, just as it implies there must be a particularly British school of thought on the subject. The theme is a very apposite one, given the current interest in national identities and ethnicity, past and present. But it should also make us aware of the trap which, all too easily, we can fall into: that by seeing things exclusively from the standpoint of our own tradition, we can fail to appreciate the standpoint taken by other traditions. …

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