Some thoughts on Archaeology after Interpretation

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been pounding away on a review essay that brings together a few recent books on archaeological theory together. In late August, I blogged on Andrew Martin’s Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity, and today, I’m going to share the section of my review essay that deals with Benjamin Alberti’s, Andrew Meirion Jones’ and Joshua Pollard’s eds. Archaeology After Interpretation (Left Coast Press 2013). This little summary is rough around the edges and will likely make more sense (and gain more focus) in the context of the entire review essay, but it’s a start:

Whatever the limitations of Martin’s Latorean archaeology, there is no doubt that Bruno Latour is among a group of scholars who have pushed archaeologists to become more attentive to materiality and ontology in their understanding of archaeological assemblages and objects. Benjamin Alberti and colleagues recognize an archaeology after interpretation. With this provocative title, they urge archaeologists to move away from a view of objects as representing or symbolizing other things, like culture, and advocate a shift toward “ontological concerns” which focus way the properties of materials contribute to the interplay between materials and humans (24). This interplay expands the idea of assemblages to emphasize the role of relationality in the production of ontology (236). This explicitly undermines the notion of context in archaeology as the overarching framework that allows for the interpretation of archaeological objects, and, replaces it with the study of assemblages of objects that work with archaeologists to produce meaning (28). The dendritic relationships between objects, people, and places follow dendritic paths that shape new archaeologies that owe more to Deleuze and Guttari or even Foucault than what one encounters in traditional archaeological interpretation. 

The first and second section looks to “relational ontologies” and materialities as ways to offer new interpretative strategies for archaeology and offers a more conceptually daring approach to understanding archaeological assemblages than Martin. The contributions to this section range from critiques of the concept of the miniature in northwest Argentina to redefining the role of the archaeologist at the intersection of field work and activism among mining communities in Ecuador. Miniatures are only miniature versions of full sized pots if we assume a scale of measurement based on the human form, rather than the less corporeal body of spirits. At the the south-central California site of Chumash, appeals to the ambiguous concept of the shaman may do less to inform the rock art than a critical examination of this images in relation to their local environment, in comparison to other similar representations, and with a sensitivity toward the materials that the artists used. In the second section, Chantal Conneller presented a small taste of her pathbreaking work on the relationship between materials and forms in the upper Paleolithic with particular attention to skeuomorphs which use one material to depict another an object in another material. The other contributions to this volume likewise explore the relationship between the materiality of objects and the way in which theoretical models of change or practice have impaired archaeologists ability to sort our complicated and multiple transformations like the shift from the mesolithic to the Neolithic in England. The diversity in fourth millennium BC assemblages in England reveal multiple rates of technological change that vary over time in in different locations.

The third section of the work shifts the focus from understanding the relationship between the material and social change. The authors explore the various ways in which the relationship between human actors and object interact. This expansive view of assemblages which include both objects and human actors both echoes Latour’s view that objects can “object” to ill-fitting interpretative schema, and by extension that objects have agency in complex relational networks. Much of the work in this section focuses on the animist ontologies that structure the relationship between objects, landscapes, and practices and open up new ways to understand the production of objects and monuments. Joshua Pollard’s contribution considers the dense network of processes that emerged through the construction of stone and earthen monuments in Avebury in the U.K. and in Polynesia. Sarah E. Baires and colleagues explored the web of movement that shaped both the encounters with and the production of monuments among the Woodlands groups in North America. Chris Fowler’s important contribution emphasizes the role of time in how we understand the relationships throughout assemblages. Events are objects within assemblages that play a role in producing meaning. Fowler makes a key point: social change does not impact the assemblage but emerges from changing relationships between objects.

The final section of the book considers the role of representation in an archaeology that engages ontological questions in a serious way. These contributions share the previous section’s interest in production. For example, Ing Marie Back Danielsson considers the practices used to produce and then to discard Iron Age Scandinavia gold-foil images rather than simply considering their representation, and Frederik Fahlander’s careful reading of coastal rock art in Bronze Age Sweden demonstrates how various phases of inscription relate to one another bringing time, expression, and materiality into the production of an assemblage. Andrew Conchrane likewise demonstrates a sensitivity to time in his study of abstract imagery in the Neolithic passage times of Fourknocks, Ireland which endured both remodeling and archaeological interventions. Sara Perry’s narrative history of the building of models and dioramas by the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London and the role that these objects played in developing observational literacy among archaeologists as well as revenue for the Institute.

The final contribution to the book comes from Gavin Lucas whose work on time, materiality, and archaeological methods looms large in recent reconsiderations of the archaeological practice. Lucas approaches the “ontological turn” through a consideration of the “ontological purification” that has traditionally divided reality into “humans or things.” Returning to the main focus of the book, Lucas argues that for archaeology to do more than simply reify this division, and other dependent divisions like that between nature and culture, archaeologists must find new ways of understanding the dense relational network that include a diverse range of objects. This shift not only marks archaeology’s ongoing move toward the kind of Latourian natural science considered by Martin, but also reflects a growing awareness of our own networked world.

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