Context vs Convention

Cornelius Holtorf states that objects are not old or authentic as such, but are made authentic “through particular, contextual conditions and processes taking place in the present” (2005: 119-121). One frustrating point about Holtorf’s reasoning is that he never mentions the word convention in relation to his point about authenticity as contextual – a problem he should have issued! The one time he uses the word is in reference to Thomas Yarrow when he writes that genuineness of an object is created in social circumstances, such as conversations, i.e. corresponding to current conventions (!) (Holtorf 2005: 117).  Ok, this could go to show that context and convention are hard to separate, which they sometimes are.

There are, however, situations where the context (as a set of salient elements) is shared and the experience of authenticity is very different between two or more individuals. One such situation would be an archaeological excavation. The professional archaeologists conducting the excavation have seen thousands of authentic archaeological artifacts and have very different standards when it comes to experiencing their authenticity or “aura”. Students of archaeology enter the business with a desire for authenticity, desire in the sense Shanks wrote about it. This desire is quickly replaced by professional and analytic attitude towards the archaeological material. The students conform to certain rules of the game (Lewis 1986: 107-118). Some, or perhaps most, of this conformation is done through imitating the more experienced archaeologists, who have learned these rules of conduct from their teachers (Lewis 1986: 118-121).

When non-archaeologists enter the site, they often marvel even the most abundant and everyday material that is being dug up. They experience authenticity in a totally different way. They conform to the particular conventions of a visitor on an archaeological excavation site and are supposed to stand in awe. This is of course unless they are hoping to become professional archaeologists, in which case they conform to the conventions of the archaeologists and agree with them in that this and that material is pretty everyday and not that big of a deal – i.e. abundant and well known.

This serves as a good example of a situation where the authenticity (aura, distance, pastness) of an object is perceived in many different ways in one context. Holtorf is correct in his notion of objects being made authentic. The process, however, is different from what he proposed. The context of an object does not make it authentic, but the conventions different groups of people have agreed to act according to.

  • Holtorf, Cornelius 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as popular culture. AltaMira Press.
  • Lewis, David K. 1986. Convention: a philosophical study. Blackwell. Oxford.
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