Archaeology in Current Society. A Central European Perspective

Article excerpt


In recent years, Central Europe has experienced an unprecedented acceleration in social development (especially due to the demise of the communist regimes), in streams of thought (for example the post-modern vision of truth and the relativity of scientific knowledge) and, above all, in the availability of new information and communication technologies. Like every discipline, archaeology has been obliged not only to react to the contemporary dynamic but also to adapt to it in a positive--i.e. creative--way. Among the resultant trends to be noted in the Czech Republic are a decreasing interest in a single general theoretical paradigm, coupled with an increasing demand for the conservation and mitigation of sites threatened by development and looting. As a possible consequence of these developments, the past two decades have seen a shift in the agenda of archaeological researchers towards landscape and a realignment of the discipline away from the humanities and towards environmental and geographical considerations.


In the past few decades, theoretical debate has had a considerable impact on the development of archaeology and its relationship to more established disciplines--even more so in the Anglo-American environment than in Central Europe. Re-evaluating the significance of the theoretical and empirical components of the discipline at the turn of the millennium, we may encounter a certain disappointment that the entry of theoretical discourse into archaeology since the 1960s has not had the impact that it might have done. One reason is perhaps that theory tends to be discussed in a 'theoretical forum', i.e. separate from practical research: the two components are treated as somewhat autonomous, operating independently of one another. As a result, theoretically-oriented archaeologists mainly communicate amongst themselves (cf. Barrett 1995: 3-5).

It is also said that the more time and effort the academic archaeological community has invested in theoretical topics, the further away they have pushed it from reality. It has been suggested that archaeology should be embedded in empirical field research and practiced by professionally established and generally recognised procedures, thus providing data for reconstructing the lives of human societies of the past, independent of any theoretical basis (Bintliff 2000: 6-7). It also seems that during archaeology's previous development, changes in paradigm came most frequently from inside the discipline. By contrast, current archaeology is, to a large extent, influenced by impulses coming from outside the scientific community (cf. contributions by Central European archaeologists in Kobylinski 2001). Pre-eminent among these outside pressures are those relating to the conservation and rescue of threatened sites (see below).

A certain slowdown in development of the theoretical component of present-day archaeology, however, also comes from a quite different source. In the Czech Republic, financial support for short to medium term research projects is allocated through a state funding system and the effective operation, and indeed existence, of most academic institutions relies largely on money from this source. The need to gain the necessary funding means that grant applications are aimed mostly at activities likely to attract support, usually those related to field research and its processing. The need for each institution to produce an adequate number of publications following this agenda each year, leads to a corresponding reduction in interest in conducting theoretical studies.

Three factors are today inducing a paradigm shift in archaeology, in the sense used by Kuhn (1962). First, is the need to respond to damage to the archaeological resource (as mentioned above); second, the development of new technology; and third, consequent on the other two, is the movement of the archaeological agenda closer to that of geography and the natural sciences, in some ways realigning with the previous post-war thinking of processual archaeology. …