Centres and Peripheries Amongst Archaeologists-Archaeological Theory after Communism. (Debate)

By Gheorghiu, Dragos | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Centres and Peripheries Amongst Archaeologists-Archaeological Theory after Communism. (Debate)


Gheorghiu, Dragos, Antiquity


I would like to invite Antiquity to help generate a new theoretical agenda in the wake of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe--but not by imposing current western archaeological theory on us. Eastern European archaeologists need the chance to develop a post-communist archaeology which still has a scientific basis.

Seen from a distance, the history of western archaeology looks like a chronicle of intellectual borrowings. It started within the art paradigm, then shifted to science, but never succeeded in becoming its own science; it was a sort of parasitical science because it lived upon borrowed theories. Doubts that material processes could explain human nature led to doubts about the archaeological version of science. As the paradigm of science started to fade, attention returned gradually to art. Not to the history of art but to the business of producing works of art, the result of the archaeological "imagination". If in 1973, David Clark had denounced the transformation of archaeology into an "irresponsible art form", in the nineties (after deconstructing supra-individual concepts such as "culture", "holism" or "system") archaeological artistry was a common-place. The hidden use of rhetoric (as Middle Range Theory or ethnoarchaeology) had become, in post-processualism, an open use of rhetoric, i.e. subjective creation similar to that used to produce a work of art. Seen in a temporal perspective, modern archaeological theory has rejected syntheses. From the sixties, archaeological theory has been a-historical, because processes and ethnology were a-historical.

Every theory adopted by the west has been fundamentalist, i.e. tries all by itself to win the competition to explain the complexity of reality. But the utility of an all-embracing explanation is counteracted by its relatively short life. Even if a theory was not completely buried, it was replaced by a new one, a process that would not be acceptable in other sciences. So human cognition has become a product of which consumers quickly tire. As contemporary archaeology is a mimetic science, and as recycling is in fashion now, it would be good if some old theories, such as holism and systems theory could be revived. One way a theoretical framework can both dominate and endure is through political coercion, for example Marxism (in fact a popular Marxism) as applied in eastern Europe. The equivalent in the Western World is "political correctness"--a type of moral self-censorship similar to that imposed by totalitarian societies. …

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