Online Review: Book

Archives, Ancestors, Practices: Archaeology in the Light of Its History

Alicia J.M. Colson


Edited by Nathan Schlanger and Jan Nordbladh. Pp. 376, figs. 75. Berghahn Books, New York 2008. $95. ISBN 978-1-84545-06603.

Schlanger and Nordbladh assert that the size of this volume indicates the seriousness of both the interest and the commitment that "characterizes current enquiries into the history of archaeology" (xvii). Published two years after the second edition and updated version of Trigger's classic The History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge 2006), their remark is timely. The shared dedication to Trigger and to Karl Axel Moberg is also apt. In their introduction, Schlanger and Nordbladh argue that the word "histories" rather than "history" ought to be used, since it not only indicates the existence of various perspectives and aims but also embraces disparate "subject matters and investigative standpoints" (xvii). This tightly organized volume represents an impressive mastery of diverse data.

The 25 chapters are the consequence of a conference entitled "Histories of Archaeology: Archives, Ancestors, Practices," held in June 2004 in Sweden, which represented the "culmination of an important phase of activity" of AERA (Archives of European Archaeology), the European-wide research network funded by the European Community. This network is "specifically dedicated to research and documentation on the history of archaeology, with a strong emphasis on the archives of the discipline" (xvii). The chapters are organized into distinct thematic groups.

The contributions in part 1, "Sources and Methods in the History of Archaeology," discuss the manner in which different types of sources may be used to write histories of archaeology. Kaeser and Halbertsma undertake biographies of single individuals. Hinsley and Wilcox consider not only the manner in which the accounts of relationships among those involved in the Hemenway southwestern archaeological expedition between 1886 and 1889 affected Cushing's reputation but also the way in which the context and motivation of the other individuals affected the development of archaeology and science in general. Platonova grapples with the thorny issue of official stereotypes about archaeology from 1917 to 1934, promulgated by Stalinist adherents writing in the aftermath of the purges. Such adherents stressed the importance of the theoretical and methodological over the empirical. In a separate essay, also based on institutional sources, Murray grounds his discussion of the personal and ideological conflicts that emerged between the 1860s and 1870s regarding the "science of man" among the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on its annual meetings, publications, and correspondence.

The contributions in part 2, "Archaeological Practice," discuss the development and practice of field methods, which are often neglected in favor of showy conceptual debates and theoretical discussions. Ceserani posits that Wilamowitz's report, which discusses the stratigraphy of the archaeological site of Capua, near Naples, was connected to the explosion of new archaeological methods and practices during the 1870s and the "great divide" that exists between classical and world archaeology. Wilamowitz's specialty was classics rather than archaeology. Eberhardt acknowledges that field techniques are naturally connected to interpretation and ideologies. Eberhardt debates the aim of writing a history of excavation techniques and the factors and conditions that dictate the choice of interpretation and ideologies. Bentz discusses the emergence of medieval archaeology using case studies drawn from Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia. Price considers the pivotal role of a grocer and antiquarian from Oxford during the emergence of the British prehistory where the reading public's fascination with the subject enabled individuals to bridge the worlds of the professional and amateur during the late 19th century. Diaz-Andreu borrows the concept of the "invisible college" from the history of science as a means of understanding the career of José Ramón Mélida y Alinari (1856–1933), whose activities lay at the heart of innumerable academic networks and relationships in early 20th-century Spain. Bergman examines the field practices of Folke Bergman, a Swedish archaeologist, in Uppland, Sweden, and the western provinces of China. Evans considers the way three-dimensional models of archaeological sites and monuments influenced the interpretation of site data and the field methodologies used during the 19th century.

The contributions in part 3, "Visualizing Information," argue that visual information is often left out of the picture despite the fact that images and visual information are inherent to archaeological discourse. Barbenera argues that displays and installations were always heavily influenced by political ideology as well as the culture and society in which they were created. He examines the exhibitions of Etruscan objects organized by the Campanari brothers in London in 1837, in Paris in 1855, and in Rome in 1911. Walter argues that the development of the techniques by which Greek vases were recorded was influenced by the interplay between a quest for style and artistry as well as the concern for scientific objectivity and accuracy. Micale argues that Walter Andreae and Robert Kolderway's discussions of Babylon and Asher during the early 20th century influenced subsequent discussions of Mesopotamian architecture. González Reyero discusses how Juan Cabré Aguilo used photography as a documentary tool during the first part of the 20th century. These photographs not only recorded the discovery of what became "Iberian" culture—and, as documents, affected the theories of archaeology in Spain—but also recorded its tortured evolution in the period from the Civil War to the 1950s, the height of the Cold War. Assessment of the 4,000 glass negatives held by the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands enables Verhart to not only discuss but also to identify the perspective of the archaeologists, since the archive captured their excavation practices and methods as well as their personal activities.

The contributions in part 4, "Questions of Identity," are valuable because identity is a topic of interest among archaeologists. Sommer discusses the first systematic attempts by scholars living in the German states, resuscitated by the Vienna Congress in 1815, to ascertain the ethnic ascription of archaeological finds to identify the roots of the "German Nation." The tenor of the political climate of the Enlightenment favored both the quest for "roots" and the transformation of archaeology from a localized antiquarian pastime to an autonomous scientific discipline. In their quest for a "science of man," German scholars traveled the world, especially those areas of Iberian settlement at that time newly opened to northern Europeans. Farrujia de La Rosa establishes that the theoretical perspectives employed by the German, French, and Canarian archaeologists and anthropologists influenced the discussions of the prehistoric and anthropological origins of the first peoples of the Canary Islands during the 19th century. Martínez, Toboada, and Auat discuss the roles of Emilio and Duncan Wagner, sons of a French diplomat, who, during the 1920s and 1930s, created a mythical past for the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, a remote and impoverished province in Argentina. Their origin myth, however fanciful, had purpose, since it indicated a division between the indigenous past and the present and provided the region with a secure status.

Immonen and Taavitsainen observe that Rinne's use of the Swedish language unexpectedly caused the elimination of the chair in medieval archaeology at the University of Turku, Finland. The identification of an "exogenous" Swedish-speaking background became the center of vivid debates regarding language, historical studies, and national identity as the national state of Finland, itself a successor to rule from Stockholm, fought to emerge from the clutches of the Soviet successors to Russian imperial rule. The ethnolinguistic conflict revealed the extent to which archaeology was connected with a nascent nationalist project that naturally became embroiled with university politics at a time when the university and nation were coeval.

Martins analyzes the debates involving Francisco Martins Sarmento, a leading member of the Association of Portuguese Archaeologists during the late 19th century, regarding the ethnic origins of those who built the Iron Age hill forts known as "castors" or "citânias." Ruiz and Sánchez discuss the attempts by Manual Gómez-Moreno Mártinez Bellón in the archaeological record of Spain. Brather compares the political and the professional trajectories for Virchow and Kossinna in Germany. Eickhoff assesses the impact of national socialist ideas on Dutch pre- and protohistory of the 1930s and 1940s. He discusses the difficulties faced by archaeologists pursuing research while attempting to avoid the political and social implications of their own work—the dilemma of imagining either a Dutch "national character" or pursuing "objective scientific ideals."

The sheer breadth, depth, and richness of the contributions make this reviewer wish that she had attended the conference. It is a model contribution to discussion of the current state of archaeology. This edited collection of articles indicates that in many parts of Europe, scholars are deeply skeptical of that "evocation of a genuine nostalgia for the fake past" so tellingly discussed by Judt (Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 [New York and London 2005] 773). Let us hope that the activities of AERA demonstrate that there is much more to come from that network. While this volume was being put together, Bruce Trigger urged me to squeeze the data "orange" dry. Schlanger and Nordbladh have truly begun to squeeze. The work is a classic of its kind.

Alicia J.M. Colson
4243 Rue Garnier, Apt. 21
Montreal H2J 3R7


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