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The archaeological record has its own reality and exists only in the here and now. The archaeological record exists alienated from its original meaning. How do archaeologists give meaning to it? What constitutes its essential relation to its originators? Scientific archaeology and hermeneutics do not approach these questions in the same way. In either case ideology conditions what one studies in the archaeological record, perceives as relevant evidence, and the meaning of that evidence.

In hermeneutics, e.g., contextual archaeology, the first proposition of exegesis consists of the acceptance of the archaeological record as a text. While nature remains neutral, the archaeological record has no neutrality as it results from the interaction of culture and natural processes. The archaeological record exists as one of context representing an interaction between nature and culture. The archaeological record offers no self-declaration of meaning. In hermeneutics archaeologists attempt to make clear where it came from and why. The exegete gives meaning to the archaeological record through hermeneutical interpretation.

Can the archaeological record exist as a text exist to be read? The answer depends upon who you ask. If by "text" one means the "context" of an artifact or other pertinent find then there exists text in a hermeneutical sense. This would not satisfy the scientific archaeologist. If text means a form of record then perhaps it can be "read" but this consists of no more than playing with words. The word "record" comes from the Latin recordari meaning "to call to mind." Among the postmodern meanings ascribed to the word "record" as a noun includes its evidentiary purpose "to serve as evidence of." Within its scope comes anything that serves as evidence of an event. Often "record" implies a text or a writing. For hermeneutics, the archaeological record, must be understood like any other text that requires understanding, and this kind of understanding requires acquisition.

A goal of archaeological endeavor consists of the recovery, classification, and description of the durable remnant of human activities of antiquity to expand the knowledge of the present about the past. Stuart Piggott suggested a moderate hermeneutic approach when he submitted that archaeologists seek to:

...discover the latent or hidden content of such things from the point of view of recovering or reconstructing the past from them (Piggott 1959:24.)

In hermeneutic terms the archaeological record projects a "world" which shapes the judgment of the researcher who enters it. The incomplete nature of the evidence available to the archaeologist may frustrate his or her work, but the reality of the archaeological record transcends the content of the consciousness of the researcher. Its structure, form, and composition determine what counts as appropriate knowledge and action for the researcher. As Fuller said, one’s mind can be so delighted with all the "evidence" and "coherency" its construction draws from the data at hand that anger is easily generated against different constructions (Fuller 1982:864).

Ian Hodder, in his contextual archaeology, advocated that the archaeological record be "read" as a text using hermeneutical analysis (Hodder 1986). Robert W. Preucel, who discussed this textual metaphor, concluded that Hodder:

...puts forth the idea that material culture can be read in ways analogous to the reading of literary texts. This "reading," however, is not direct since material culture is a "less logical, more ambiguous language" than speech. Consequently, the act of reading the past involves a continuous dialogue of moving between sense and referent. Stated another way, this reading involves the transfer of meaning from one context to another through an interpretative exercise in which each individual actor must decide upon appropriate signification. (Preucel 1991:23.)

The ideas advanced by Hodder appear to closely resemble the same moderate approach advocated by Piggott who held:

The view of the past which one can form is conditioned by the evidence from which this view is constructed, especially as meaningful arrangements of the phenomena observed can only be made within the framework of some sort of conceptual model which will permit their interpretation. The models used when dealing with archaeological evidence have to be largely technological, evolutionary and economic, because it is these aspects of history which are reflected in the material culture which forms the archaeologist’s subject-matter, and in the absence of historical documents archaeological evidence on its own will necessarily tend to produce a materialist view of the past, simply owing to the nature of the evidence available within this particular discipline. (Piggott 1959:126.)


Page last edited: 01/25/06 05:06 PM


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