On the International Roots of Prehistory

By Kaeser, Marc-Antoine | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

On the International Roots of Prehistory


Kaeser, Marc-Antoine, Antiquity


Introduction

In recent years, considerable attention has been dedicated to the involvement of archaeology (and most notably prehistory) with nationalism. The probable causes of this recent fashion (1) need not concern us here, but the movement itself is certainly welcome, testifying to the reflection of archaeologists on their own practices and those of their predecessors. For historians, this trend is quite welcome insofar as it contributes to a general renaissance of interest in the past of the discipline. However, a more careful examination of this historiography leads us to some caution about its significance.

Firstly, the majority of these historical studies adopt an internalist perspective which, combined with their self-declared reflexiveness, confers on them a rather presentist character. The result belongs to some sort of `history of ideas' which has been embellished with a few sociological insights of varying subtlety. In line with the old sociology of science, social factors are only invoked to explain the `errors' of archaeology. Such errors, therefore, always seem to be accounted for by external and, by definition, pernicious influences. As a consequence, our discipline always escapes unscathed: its `purity' is not at stake, simply because these are always `society' and `politics' that abuse it.

Moreover, most attention is given to the interpretations of the past, not to archaeological research as such. It is not the historical practice of the discipline that is then under consideration, but rather its thematic scope -- which is quite a different matter. However, conceptions of identity based on the past are by no means the exclusive preserve of archaeology. No one has been waiting for the birth of our discipline in order to gloat over the `heroic deeds of our glorious ancestors'. As a matter of fact, in terms of nationalism, archaeology has entered quite late into the fray, on a terrain that was by then already demarcated. (2)

Is archaeology intrinsically nationalist?

The wealth of historical case-studies suggest that from its origins, archaeology, and more specifically prehistoric archaeology, has been strictly dependent on the emergence of national ideologies. The general impression is clear: were it not for the dynamics of modern nationalism, the argument goes, our discipline would never have emerged. This inference is mostly implicit but becomes at times quite explicit, e.g. when Diaz-Andreu & Champion (1996: 3) state that `nationalism ... is deeply embedded in the very concept of archaeology, in its institutionalisation and its development'. Certainly, this sort of statement allows the authors to develop entirely respectable deontological considerations, but it seems to me that, leaving ethics behind and turning to epistemology, such statements may lead the scientific community into an unwarranted feeling of absolved responsibility. If archaeology were really linked by its essence to nationalism, archaeologists could simply oversee their own formal actions, without questioning their epistemological choices. True, the involvement of archaeology with nationalism is unmistakable: our discipline has paid considerable lip-service to politics, and has received many of its institutional structures in return. However, this compromise is not an intrinsic one; rather, it results from specific epistemological options which remain the entire responsibility of their authors, today as well as in the past.

In the history of archaeology, the inevitability of the relation between science and politics may be nothing more than an artefact of the reconstruction. As scholars adopt almost exclusively the national scale as an a priori framework for research, they are all too often led to overestimate the importance and breadth of nationalist components. What is more, this overestimation also results from the reductionist nature of their internalist perspective, which gives only a partial image of the development of archaeology. …

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