How to Organize Oneself within History: Pehr Tham and His Relation to Antiquity at the End of the 18th Century

Article excerpt

Recently a doctoral dissertation was submitted to the Department of Archaeology at Uppsala University. The author, Michel Notelid, presented and defended a text, called Den omvanda diskursen (The Second Glance: A study of transitions in the history of archaeological discipline). This work (Notelid 2000; 2001) represents quite a new way of looking at the discipline's past, with the serious ambition to understand the romantic approach to prehistory in its own right, and not primarily as a fumbling, imaginative and pre-scientific start of a new discipline. The archaeological community was puzzled by this work, and very few scholars were able to read and appreciate this distinctive and unexpected perspective. There were obstacles, and possibly the most difficult one was the very language used. This language was in itself a sort of romantic reconstruction, which did not clearly indicate the difference between the plain text and passages of citations. The author seemed to merge with his references. The situation was even more complicated, however, and the difficulties probably demonstrated how we are trapped within our own ideology of education and social and intellectual position, which guarantees a certain understanding -- at the same time as it excludes other kinds of contact and understanding. This original and bold work deserves to be more widely spread. It touches on general issues far beyond the case of Sweden, (1) and it also confirms that, compared with the problematic era of romanticism, it is far easier for us to sympathize with the period which preceded it. Presumably this is a feature of modernist thinking, in which the 18th century has become a sort of favourite era for our present (mainly bourgeois) imagination and historical consumption. The Age of Enlightenment is still active in our basic approach, and when scientific archaeology began just before the middle of the 19th century it seemed as if the effects of romanticism could be put aside so that a steady course could be kept to the present (Frangsmyr 1981). Romantic archaeology, left on the margins, needs to be looked at again.

On romanticism and archaeology

In Swedish universities, unlike the Royal court, Enlightenment influences were in general rather limited. The ideology of usefulness that prevailed there brought together a worldly wish to discover and describe and prepare for use all the resources of nature, with a clerical wish to understand the depth and diversity in the creation of the Lord (Broberg 1999: 55). This resulted in the promotion of a reason-based faith, which soon gave birth to occultism, magneticism and such mystical currents difficult for the official state church to handle. At the turn of the 18th century the intellectual and scientific initiatives of the Royal court now became a vital part of the academic world, and the universities slowly begun to acquire an arrangement we can still recognize (Runeby 1988). The early romantic era was mainly an academic affair, inspired by German philosophers such as Schiller, Fichte and the von Schelling brothers. The faith of God as supplied by the Enlightenment was criticized on protestant grounds, and arguments were presented for a view of the world which included everything, as an existential and structural unity.

The Enlightenment's dependence on observations, which sometimes seemed to lead to pure arbitrariness, was opposed. Real knowledge could not be reached empirically. The concept of similarity was too undetermined and vague to be the ground for observations and classifications. The goal of all disciplines, including the natural sciences, was not aimed at securing better industry or better agriculture, but rather at making life as a whole understandable (Eriksson 1962; 1979; 1999). Through boldness, feeling, contemplation, intuition and vision, but also scepticism, a better, more truthful, united knowledge could be reached, so as to unveil the spirit of nature, man and history. …