Between Antiquarians and Archaeologists -- Continuities and Ruptures

By Schnapp, Alain | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Between Antiquarians and Archaeologists -- Continuities and Ruptures


Schnapp, Alain, Antiquity


The current renewal of interest in the history of archaeology can be explained in several ways, and notably in view of the extraordinary extension of the discipline's objects and methods. In the last decades, the most far-flung regions of the earth have been subjected to systematic exploration, radiometric dating techniques have continually improved, DNA studies have contributed to the transformations of biological anthropology, and indeed the very process of human evolution has been cast in new light by the changing boundaries between humanity and animality. A natural science for many founding fathers of prehistory, a social science for those who emphasize its anthropological dimensions, archaeology has remained for others a historical discipline by virtue of its proximity to ancient languages and inscriptions. At one end of the spectrum, some archaeologists see themselves as specialists in material culture, able to deal with objects, both ancient and modern, as simultaneously technical and semiotic systems. At the other end, there are those who will only put their faith in the detailed approach of singular, particular cultures. To put the matter in extreme terms; it seems as if there existed a universalist archaeology standing in opposition to a plethora of incompatible and irreducible vernacular archaeologies.

In this context, appeals to the history of archaeology can be understood as a recourse to the multiplicity of approaches and traditions characteristic of the discipline. The pioneering work of B. Trigger (1989) and L. Klejn (1973; 1977) has contributed much in this respect to our understanding of the development of archaeological thought. Until then, in effect, the history of archaeology was mainly conceived of as a history of discoveries, without taking much account of the ideas and institutions surrounding them. It is ironic to recall that the first syntheses of archaeology in the 19th century were rather conceived as phenomenologies of art (Muller 1830), or as histories of oeuvres and their interpretation (Starck 1880). It appears that the critique of the archaeology of art, during the second half of the 19th century, had as a side-effect the rejection of an history of idea in favour of one centred on discoveries. The archaeologist became then a kind of grand surveyor of time, encountering on his path the caves of Lascaux, the pyramids, the Minoan palaces or the ruins of Troy, as so many milestones in a world-wide geography of civilizations.

Until the 1980s, an intellectual history of archaeology of the kind called for by Momigliano (1950) met with little interest among archaeologists. The situation has changed considerably since then, as notably testified by such recent thematic works as Larsen (1996), Marchand (1996) or Stoczkowski (1994; 2002), and indeed the recent comprehensive Encyclopedia of Archaeology edited by T. Murray (1999; 2001). No longer understood as the fruitful exploration of some terra incognita, the history of archaeology is rather seen as a complex succession of ideas and observations, of disappointments and unexpected turns and achievements, the whole integrated within local and national traditions, set in motion by often contradictory models, and crossed through by paradigms originating from other disciplines.

Upon this historical appreciation, we should be able to free ourselves of the notion that archaeologists, in the disciplinary sense of the term, have exclusive monopoly over archaeology. Far from reflecting modern practices, interest in the study of the soil and the succession of historical periods deposited within it was present among both Egyptian pharaohs and Mesopotamian rulers. What is more, the history of archaeology records numerous individuals who fleetingly entered the annals of the discipline, following their own concerns with the historical components of the earth. However, much as we can recognize archaeological approaches among ancient and modern authors alike, force is to acknowledge that archaeology as a fully fiedged discipline made its appearance at a very precise period, the mid 19th century, in the context of the emergence of positivist sciences in Europe. …

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