Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It’s the fate of archaeologists to go through the trash that others leave behind. We look at the stuff - the junk, the treasure, the cast-offs – belonging to people that lived long ago. That’s our job. The historians in us concoct imaginary stories about the lives that surrounded those cast-off objects, sometimes based on a degree of factual evidence, sometimes not. Our 19th-century predecessors swooned over the smallest item, praising the objects as the materialized memory of some long-ago soul, a reminder of a real person that once existed, and most importantly, a physical connection linking the archaeologist and a life from ages passed. It was a very romantic notion and a topic upon which any scholar could wax quite eloquently, at length, if prompted.

Our recent archaeological ancestors, of course, took a step back and sought austere objectivity. Statistical accuracy and scientific methodology demanded that the little invisible link between the digger’s hand and the long-ago depositor’s finger poofed out of existence. It had become evident, after all, that ‘romance’ could too easily obscure facts and data. The clear separation between the subject (the scholar) and the object of study (the past) became the norm. It is a rare thing, nowadays, to hear an archaeologist talk aloud about feeling a deep connection with the things and people that they study. A certain enthusiasm is expected, of course, but real emotional involvement? Better not include that in your monograph for tenure, that’s for sure.

Why am I even talking about this, you ask? Because I’ve found it interesting that the emotional connection allowed to the historian is greater the more recent the object. As the object of study recedes further into the past, more objectivity is required (or so the trend seems to go). Thus, there is a real disparity in the way a historian is generally allowed to treat the Great Depression in contrast to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. When people write their local or recent histories, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for that invisible but acknowledged connection. It’s almost encouraged, as I discovered when exploring the history of the ASCSA on this very blog last year. But the further in the past we look, the less personal association we are permitted to find. That bond is discouraged, at least for academics. Why is it that links between the recent past are indulged but those from the more distant past are not? I wonder where the cut-off date is.

Except for these guys, of course. These prehistoric lovers had everyone in an antediluvian tizzy. Just seeing this picture makes me want to watch The Notebook and have a good cry.

But what about when you really do have a connection with an object and its past? How does the archaeologist’s objectivity maintain itself, or should it? How do we ignore it when feelings play a role in our interaction with things? These are all questions that I've been thinking a lot about lately, since it’s an issue that has plagued scholars of religion for some time. On the one side, researchers try to keep themselves entirely divorced from the thing that they’re studying. On the other, the connection between the scholar and their topic is acknowledged and even emphasized. Both camps tend to possess adamant and forceful opinions of the other - and that’s putting it nicely.

This dilemma hit home with some force pretty recently, when I was going through some items and documents that could be considered of historical importance. With all the efficiency we could muster, Dallas Deforest and I were cataloguing and recording a series of boxes acquired by OSU’s Museum of Classical Archaeology. We organized, we labeled, we data-entry’d. We moved stuff around. We stacked things. We did all those things that archaeologists in store-rooms become real good at.

The boxes made up an archive, the personal papers of a scholar who had recently passed away. It was the strangest thing. There I was going through someone else’s stuff, just like an archaeologist and historian is supposed to. But there was no objectivity involved AT ALL. Sure, I’d never met the person who created those boxes of stuff, but his files concerned an excavation that I recently worked on as well as other people that I actually know in real life. In fact, I’d heard many stories about the very man who’s papers I was there rifling through. It made the whole affair seem oddly voyeuristic. Part of me felt the treasure hunter’s glee at finding yet another box filled with super-cool historical info; the other part felt disturbed and uncomfortable. That barrier of time and distance that usually divides us from our objects of study just wasn’t there to protect me or protect him. There was no objectivity to keep us separate.

What do you do then?

A box of snuff found amongst the files, fresh as if used yesterday.

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