The Beginning of Wisdom

By Pearson, M. Parker | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Beginning of Wisdom


Pearson, M. Parker, Antiquity


It is the best of times and it is the worst of times. On one hand, there are more resources and people involved in archaeology than ever before; there is considerable public and media interest in the subject; and there have been exciting developments in archaeologists' uses of social theory. On the other, competition is intense for locally scarce funding; most field research is constrained by non-archaeological considerations; and fragmentation, insecurity and disenchantment are rife. The split between theory and practice has certainly widened since David Clarke's day, whilst theory has become not so much Clarke's unifier within the morass of empirical detail but its own basis for division and often bitter disagreement within the profession.(1)

In 1973 Clarke set out the notion that archaeology had attained a state of critical self-consciousness, passing through consciousness (the naming and definition of the subject) and self-consciousness (the largely technical revolution in procedures, classifications, principles and rules). Critical self-consciousness is characterized by a metaphysical, philosophical and theoretical revolution, concerned with explanation and interpretation, which ushers in an accepted body of general theory whilst, at the same time, accelerating changes bring uncertainty, insecurity and general unrest. Some of my colleagues who knew David Clarke consider that he would never have gone down the relativistic road of some 'post-processual' archaeological theory, had he survived. Yet some of his statements in 1973 would seem to foresee and predict its arrival; that observations and explanations are all metaphysics-dependent, that 'origins' studies might emerge as semantic snares and metaphysical mirages, that 'colonial' concepts would be severely challenged, that differences in metaphysical 'schools' could not be judged as right or wrong, and that meanings of time and space are relative to observed phenomena. There has been much theoretical water under the bridge since then: structuralist and symbolic archaeology, post-structuralism, phenomenology, postpositivist philosophies of science, feminist and gender theory, postmodernism and calls for archaeology's loss of political innocence. This explosion of interest in social theory, just a small and restricted part of Clarke's idea of general theory, appears not to have been predicted by him. However, in many ways, we can identify more closely with 1970s archaeology than that era could with the thinking of the 1950s. In retrospect, that earlier epistemological break which saw the emergence of theoretically aware 'New' disciplines appears to have been more profound, not just for archaeology but for the social sciences generally.

Clarke's dead wood

Despite Clarke's extraordinary intellectual vision, we may identify several areas where the approach that he endorsed can be considered to have failed. There is no unifying general theory but a battleground of contested approaches. Indeed, archaeology has no theory of its own, a point made some years ago (Flannery 1982), borrowing from and tapping into a broad field of social theory. Although archaeology's disciplinary boundaries have encroached into subjects such as anthropology, history and material-culture studies, the theoretical writings of archaeologists are ignored or lambasted by theoreticians in other social sciences. David Clarke's own attempts to bring theoretical insights to archaeological analysis were glorious failures. His social models for the Glastonbury Iron Age lake village (Clarke 1972; Coles & Minnitt 1995) and for Beaker sequences and interaction (Clarke 1970; 1976; Kinnes et al. 1991; Boast 1995; Case 1995) may have been influential at the time, but they can be considered as profoundly erroneous today. Clarke's cavalier and misleading treatment of the Glastonbury data, based on very poor factual foundations, is revealed by Coles & Minnitt's careful study (1995: 180-90) and seems to have prefigured the Zeitgeist of theoretical archaeology in the 1980s and 1990s, with the primacy of theory over detailed knowledge of, and skilful attention to, archaeological material. …

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