Thursday, 10 April 2014

On the Circularity of Arguments, or Why History and Archaeology Should Just Get it Together Already

I'm taking a break from my thesis (which is going rather well I think, thank you for asking) to post a short blog here about something that just about pushed me over the edge into apoplectic rage with my two chosen subjects, though I love them dearly.

Do you remember the burn about Barry Cunliffe? Don't worry, I'll wait. That, basically, is what I'm angry about, in a nutshell.

First some brief history: You may have occasionally found yourself wondering how "Classics" as a discipline actually happened. It's not particularly logical. What's so special about the Greeks and the Romans? Why aren't they studied in the same bracket as, say, Han Dynasty China? They're around at the same time. And then, why do we study Latin, Greek, Coptic, philosophy, plays, linguistics, poetry, wars, history, rhetoric, empire building, papyri, epigraphy and sculpture (and everything else!) all under the same banner? You can't possibly be a specialist in all those things, and many of them don't make much sense together. Nor is Classics united under a similar methodology as, arguably, archaeology is.

The spark notes version is this: these (via the world wars and some Fascist ideology) are what interested posh people in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. That's it. At some point they crystallised into a single department. It's rather as if a typical Liberal Arts degree or Woman's Studies degree suddenly became fixed as a discipline. There's be a common thread, but it'd be pretty bloody weird. This description almost certainly pisses people off, but if you find that's you, why not take a good hard look at why you're so invested in Classics being cohesive. If you're still angry, come leave me a comment.

Is there a problem with this? Well, no, not really. If you go deep enough, archaeology isn't a united discipline. Nor is English and nor, really, are any of the natural sciences. Are astrophysics and quantum physics really that similar in terms of time, scope, size, method? (Are they? I've no real clue. Physicists: Answers on a postcard!) Unfortunately, some Classicists are pretty touchy about it. So touchy that they boundary police like no-body's business. Apparently at Cambridge they sometimes hold meetings about how to keep Classics relevant and prevent their department from being broken up in the next 100 years.

This is where archaeologists come in. Classicists don't like archaeologists. Archaeologists don't like classicists. (I paraphrase, many like each other and are lovely.) Remember the Barry Cunliffe quote? Well, someone else once called archaeology "The handmaiden of history", and that kinda stuck for a long time. Now, classicists often insist archaeological data is useless or impenetrable or both, while archaeologists say classicists are smug and also texts are obviously misleading and not objective (even though the material record isn't objective either).

A prime example of this is the book I just read: An Archaeology of Identity: Soldiers and Society in Late Roman Britain by A. Gardner. It concluded with an incredibly irritating circular argument: There are no military artefacts because we can only define them by military assemblages- which in turn we define by the fact that they contain military artefacts. He offers the obvious solution- that we know what some of the military things were because we have depictions on tombstones and on sculpture and in descriptions- but then says it's less than perfect because we have to rely on texts, ugh! (I wish I were kidding. I think his exact phrase is "not ideal" ...Burn.)

But seriously, archaeologists? You'll just throw that away because it's from a text? And classicists, yes, the archaeological method is difficult and sometimes non-intuitive. So are many of your theories and methods! So are all serious academic methods! Oxford asks all its Masters students to learn Latin or Greek, and to take a modern language if we have those already, but not a single scrap of archaeology? The closest we came was a lecture about Papryology, which was entirely about transcription and translation. We sat through methodology lectures about how to study Roman religion, ancient genders, Roman law, historiography (how history is constructed as a discipline) and nothing, not one word about archaeology.

/Disorganised ramble over, because otherwise I'll just tell unfair anecdotes about people I know not knowing about archaeology, when I myself am terrible at languages and know very little about large swathes of the ancient world. In conclusion: we should give our undergrads a basic, basic grounding in archaeological method as well as historical, and then if they should choose to specialise in something that would be helped by it, they know what they need to do and where to go to find out about it.


  1. On the other hand, the results when archaeologists uncritically accept the written sources and the structures silly scholars have built upon them are often horrifying (and vice versa). Perhaps archaeology as a discipline just feels that it has been burnt.

    1. This post is addressed mostly to historians, I guess. I should mention that in my archaeology theory module from undergrad we did not at any point mention how to deal with texts. In fact, it came a month after history theory and there was no overlap whatsoever (besides things like "structuralism (in archaeology)"). In final year, in a module about Iron Age Europe someone did a presentation about "Celtic Warfare" (shudder) and pretty much everything they said was drawn from Caesar. When I asked "So.. maybe Caesar has misunderstood/ deliberately exaggerated his enemies so that he looks better?" I was firmly told (by her, with no trace of irony) "Actually, I think you can be /too/ cynical with the ancient sources"

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