Symmetrical archaeology and past meaning-making practices

Today there is a new field of archaeology emerging, called symmetrical archaeology (Olsen 2003: 88), which can be seen as a pragmatistic archaeology, where the material is again taken into account and the emphasis of study is not that much on the human but equally on both. The human is an integral part of its surroundings and should be treated as such when studying it. In his book Archaeological semiotics, Robert Preucel notes that ”[o]ne of the most exciting developments in contemporary anthropology is the revival of interest in material culture studies” (Preucel 2006: 14).

The material culture – including the archaeological record – has to regain its reputation as an active participator in the everyday life. The cartesian dualism of mind and body has lead to a strong tradition in dichotomies. This tradition has been evident also in archaeology where the material and the ideal, along with pairs like living—dead, individual—society, cultural—natural, and most eminently, past—present have been seen as duals (Shanks 2007; Olsen 2007). Symmetrical archaeology tends toward the realization of the problems this kind of divisioning is capable of arising. Symmetrical archaeology is about acknowledging that the past is an inseparable part of the present. The past can only be experienced and studied through the present in the present, as present.

Keeping this in mind, are material meanings historical (do material objects, or things, as they are mind-dependent, carry meaning) or is meaning always arbitrary and contemporary? Can the past meanings (materiality) be reached in the way that is usually referred to as getting behind the material in archaeology? To me, this would require being able to reach the past symbolic (conventional) meanings of things.

The whole conception of the meaning of an object can only be attained in the present by studying its past and present meanings. The meaning is, therefore, not entirely confined to the present. Meaning can be seen as a historical continuity. In the archaeological record, however, there are gaps that need to be filled by reconstructing the infinite, unending semiotic process, semiosis.

  • Olsen, Bjørnar 2003. Material culture after text: re-membering things. Norwegian archaeological review 36: 87-104.
  • Olsen, Bjørnar 2007. Keeping things at arm’s length: a genealogy of asymmetry. World Archaeology 39: 579-588.
  • Preucel, Robert 2006. Archaeological semiotics. Blackwell publishing.
  • Shanks, Michael 2007. Symmetrical archaeology. World Archaeology 39: 589-596.
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