The Origins of French Archaeology

By Olivier, Laurent | Antiquity, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Origins of French Archaeology


Olivier, Laurent, Antiquity


In contemporary scientific research, the most marked result of the last 30 years has been the development of a specifically American science and its emancipation from the old European intellectual heritage of the 19th century and the interwar period. This movement, marked in archaeology by the birth of the New Archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the anti-processual reaction of the 1980s and 1990s, has been accompanied by a process of globalization of the archaeological discipline, leading to the unification of methods and theory. The birth of a world market dominated by the United States, characterized by mass consumption and the hegemony of the economic over the political, has imposed new practices of archaeology, which post-processual scholars have been quick to exploit.

Europe seeks its role in this new international order. For many in continental Europe, the post-processualism of Britain (as at TAG) is seen as an intellectualized European version of American globalization imbued with political correctness. Many English-speaking researchers question the enigma of the lack of French archaeological theory in comparison with the flowering of post-modern sociology and philosophy. Several reasons explain the retreat of French archaeology. Above all, archaeology is little debated in France, since it does not have strong presence in university teaching outside Paris. French archaeology remains essentially a state enterprise, run by bureaucrats and not by researchers. Finally, archaeological practice has undergone an extraordinary upheaval in the last 20 years, with considerable expansion of rescue excavation, and this has not been fully assimilated.

Current French archaeology is a set of archaeologies. However, I would here like to examine and explain the origins of French archaeology, specifically from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, prolonging a movement which started a century earlier in England. Against all appearance, the roots of British and French archaeology are the same, drawing on an old common European heritage, part of a larger development following the discovery of the New World. Notions of collective identity, our modern points of reference, were fundamentally redefined. People aspired to a new type of society and social relations, founded on equality and respect for cultural differences. This new archaeology, born in the 18th century sought to understand the past and opened new questions which are current today: What society do we wish for ourselves? What is our relation to past societies?

In the history of the representation of European culture, two major events have played a fundamental defining role for collective relations and the individual: the discovery of 'Sauvages de l'Amerique' and pre-Roman antiquities, respectively a different contemporary humanity and a different ancient humanity. These two events, although not simultaneous, combined to change concepts of the identity and origins of man, in terms of both space and time. In the wake of the expansion of geographical understanding, new fields of knowledge - ethnography and anthropology - were developed to make sense of human cultural diversity. In the temporal dimension, the renewed history and the new archaeology were now exploited to explore the unknown past. In the light of these changes in the 18th and 19th centuries, I intend to present an 'archaeology of systems of thought', drawing on the work of Foucault dealing with the origins of contemporary concepts of power and social order (Foucault 1966; 1997).

The impact of space: from the 'Sauvages de l'Amerique' to 'primitive societies'

The effect of the discovery of the New World: savages and the Other

The 16th- and 17th-century discovery of the New World was not only the conquest of new territories, the exploitation of new riches and the assimilation of new populations. This event had much deeper repercussions on the problem of the identity of European societies, overturning definitions of European civilization.

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