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The honor of being the primary proponent of applying hermeneutic theory to archaeology goes to Ian Hodder. His arguments refer to the "textual" character of the archaeological record meaning "context" as generally understood by archaeologists. He advocates contextual archaeology involving "the study of contextual data, using contextual methods of analysis, in order to arrive at two types of contextual meaning" consisting of "the environmental, technological and behavioral context of action" and "with-text" (Hodder 1986:153-154). As in scientific archaeology, context serves as a critical factor in hermeneutic analysis. According to Kelley:

The point is that the "hermeneutical field" must accommodate not only the thinking subject and his medium but also the objects of his attention, which indeed serve to establish and to define his subjectivity. The world of "things," however remote and impenetrable in an ontological sense, needs to be accommodated as sphere of potential experience beyond the horizons of perception—an extension of the hermeneutical field to be explored and analyzed, perhaps civilized and socialized. A common failing of both philological and philosophical hermeneutics has been the general neglect of social and historical context. (Kelley 1983:649.)

For Hodder material culture preserves the contextual data necessary for coming to know its meanings. He wrote:

The meaning of material culture often depends on the context of use rather than solely on the context of production or on the ‘author’. Even more than a written text, material culture meanings embody pragmatic and functional concerns. Text, rather than language, is thus an appropriate metaphor for the dual nature of material culture (as technological and functional object and as a sign).... (Hodder 1986:154.)

Hodder holds that he "would argue for a critical hermeneutics... in which interpretations are situated historically in the past and present" (Hodder 1986:152). By this he references the "Moderate Hermeneutics" of Gadamere and Ricoeur and not the philosophical "Critical Hermeneutics" of Haberman and Karl Otto. This distinction has import as Hodder takes a very "middle of the road" approach in his suggestions for applying hermeneutics to archaeology in his contextual archaeology. Significant points he makes about his contextual archaeology and its parallel in hermeneutics come from the moderates. The following points from Hodder constitute nothing more than key points in Moderate Hermeneutics (Hodder 1986:150-153.)

  1. We must understand any detail such as an object or word in terms of the whole, and the whole in terms of the detail (after Gadamer).

  2. As an interpreter one plays back and forth between part and whole until one achieves the harmony of all the details with the whole; and an understanding of the meaning of a situation is thereby achieved.

  3. Interpretation involves the logic of question and answer which continue in an endless spiral since every question expects an answer and every answer frames and creates new questions.

  4. Every question is determined by an interest that underlies it, and every question ‘prefigures’ a certain answer; thus interpretation of the past is therefore bound into a question and answer procedure which is rooted in the present leading to the ‘hermeneutic circle’ in which no interpretation is possible until interpretation has begun.

  5. This is not a vicious circle in that different answers can be given, some of which can be demonstrated to relate to the evidence better than others.

  6. The cycle of question and answer leads to new questions and a new understanding of self in relation to other (the past).

  7. Hermeneutic circles, past and present may be linked since the two context are continually moving in relation to each other since the answer to a question about the ‘other’ leads to new self-awareness and new questions (after Gadamer).

While Hodder did not press the matter in his section entitled "Towards a critical hermeneutics" in Reading the Past his adoption of the moderate approach does raise some issues. Consider briefly the following:

  1. The material culture disclosed in an excavation exists as "unconscious evidence" that only becomes significant when the right questions are posed. These questions arise from the paradigm of the researcher structuring his or her view or "understanding" of the past—a problem noted by Ricoeur (Ricoeur 1974:3-4). In this world archaeologists employ a number of paradigms—evolutionary, mythological, theological, technological, ecological, and economic among others. No evidence suggests that by Moderate Hermeneutic analysis the right questions would ever come to mind let alone be posed. Can hermeneutic analysis by question and answer, arguments for inductive analysis, against the archaeological record ever lead to even a preliminary knowledge of origin? Such analysis leads to a perception of fact which, in fact, consists only of a pattern which the researchers falsely read into the archaeological record with their own human minds.

  2. In scientific archaeology modeling attempts are made to devise some hypothesis or theory to account for the observed phenomena in the archaeological record in the most satisfactory manner—a model consistent with the evidence at hand accounting for all the phenomena observed. This model is carefully tested in controlled excavation. Explanation, in the scientific sense, has its derivation in careful analysis of the data. However, in hermeneutics the form interpretation takes to some extent has its basis in the conceptual model of the past being used and the "knowledge" available from often questionable written sources.

  3. Existing material remains of ancient beings may comprise a durable remnant of their activities but they do not provide a representative sample. Less durable material remains have not survived meaning that the archaeologist has to deal with a fundamental incompleteness of available data. The incomplete character of the data available to the archaeologist creates difficulty with validity even with the best of data gathering techniques and controlled excavation. Hermeneutic analysis bypasses any validity issues raised by permitting elaborate interpretations without having any accountability for addressing validity concerns. For certainty or credence to attach to these "interpretations" archaeologists cannot depend upon highly debatable arguments for them.

    Page last edited: 01/24/06 09:10 PM

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