The Innocents and the Sceptics: Antiquity and Classical Archaeology. (Special Section)

By Terrenato, Nicola | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Innocents and the Sceptics: Antiquity and Classical Archaeology. (Special Section)


Terrenato, Nicola, Antiquity


When I was invited to discuss ANTIQUITY and Classical archaeology, I felt I only had some general impressions to contribute, and they were also largely limited to the last 15 years of the journal, which I had encountered as an undergraduate on the shelves of the British School at Rome. Upon closer examination, these impressions turned out to consist mainly of the disturbing feeling that ANTIQUITY was an archaeological Parnassus that only a handful of us Greek and Roman archaeologists had been able to ascend. Senior Classicists may have thought more highly of other journals specializing in the sub-discipline, but for a lot of young Turks like myself ANTIQUITY had always been for archaeology what Nature was for the hard sciences. We thus concluded that if papers dealing with the Greek and Roman world were rather infrequent in the journal, this was simply another reflection of the systemic shortcomings of our sub-discipline. It seemed Classical archaeologists simply did not make the cut very often, and rightly so, since they seldom had anything to say that might interest the wider field of practitioners. We polemically maintained that this was due to the narrow-focused, idiosyncratic and uninspired research agendas that prevailed in the Classics. We had the painful feeling of being theoretically and methodologically impaired, compared to the stuff we were reading in the journal.

As I started gathering my thoughts to put them on paper, I realized that I had not changed my mind much, even after having had a peek at the editorial process behind the journal. Allowing for the wisdom and mellowing that age brings, I still seldom came across papers that I thought suitable for the journal. But in addition to that, having become infected with deconstructionism, I now wondered why things were the way they were and decided for a fresh data collection. While dutifully browsing through the bound volumes of ANTIQUITY, I realized that some key issues in our intellectual history were involved in the matter. Now there is no question that, generally speaking, the history of Antiquity is the history of 20thcentury archaeology. Leafing through the issues, you can still hear the hopes and the concerns, the clashes and the put-downs, the boos and the cheers, as in a congressional record. And really, the mark of a good journal is precisely the ability to move with the evolution of the discourse, wherever it may happen to go or drift. ANTIQUITY had been the preferred medium for many really significant exchanges of ideas.

On the specific matter of Classical archaeology, ANTIQUITY's witness is of particular value. Not only is the peculiar parable of this sub-discipline all there, but nowhere are the complex interrelations and paradigm shifts illustrated as clearly. One can clearly see how the relationship between archaeologists and Classicists deteriorated over time, with the result that those who were once at the core of the discipline became a self-exiled and eventually dramatically down-sized minority. Although not frequently emphasized, this is one of the major phenomena of 20th-century archaeology (cf. Trigger 1989). A discipline that had been spawned, at least in part, by a collector's interest in Greek and Roman artefacts (Schnapp 1993), in time developed (or perhaps revealed) a deep rift separating precisely those cultural contexts from all the rest of the human past. Of course Classical studies had always had a peculiar position in the broader field of the `sciences of the past', but as long as this was a clearly defined and somewhat dominant one, a measure of dialogue was kept alive. When, on the other hand, Classical archaeology entirely lost its preeminence, and became regarded as just another area of specialization, its practitioners went into an intellectual purdah from which most of them have not yet returned.

There is now a tendency to consider this a natural, or at least unavoidable, turn of events on both sides of the split. …

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