The real magic of archaeology

This afternoon I went to hear a panel discussion about artifacts without borders. The topic was ylirajaisuus, which I don’t have a very good translation for. Transboundary artifact or transboundary object comes close, I think. It was organized by Artefacta, a Finnish artifact studies network, which is doing a good job in bringing different disciplines like consumer studies, design studies, archaeology, ethnology, and art history together. What struck me most today was that for most discussants it was not at all about the things themselves, but about how things mediate social phenomena like personal (human) identities or nationalities. One speaker even made the claim that narratives or stories about things are totally independent of the artifacts’ existence; a story about an artifact can be told without the artifact. To me such dualisms seem inherently fallacious.

I therefore became aware in a very concrete way that there is still a strong tendency to treat artifacts or things as something that meaning(s) is (are) given to, whereas the very notion of meaning in this framework is incorrect. Meaning is not a one-way street. Meaning is not something that humans give or, even worse, make (meaning making is still a stock phrase in archaeology and anthropology). Meaning is what happens, or, better yet, becomes in material practices, like Karen Barad (2007, 148) puts it in Meeting the Universe Halfway. Or, as Peirce put it almost 150 years ago in How to Make Our Ideas Clear, “what a thing means is simply what habits it involves”. Habits for Peirce were nothing but practical, habits of action.

With the material turn in archaeology some people must feel threatened by the possibility of the disappearance of interpretation, narratives, and meaning altogether. In the post-humanist world the structuralist understanding of meaning should be replaced with a less anthropocentric definition. Meaning is not only a trait of the human realm (again, see Barad 2007). So don’t worry, meaning is not going anywhere!

Bjørnar Olsen (2012, 22) has astutely noted that in recent books and articles on Scandinavian rock art, things (pictures of things) are never taken as what they are, but are always interpreted as something else, “a reindeer is never a reindeer; a river is always a cosmic river”. Olsen (2012, 22) is not abolishing interpretation in its “modest and inevitable form”, but rather objecting overtly flashy interpretations, where certain traits in the material are usually thought to be cosmological, liminal, or transcendental. I must agree with Olsen. It is part of the archaeological ethos (at least here in Finland) to avoid interpretation (except in its “modest and inevitable form”), yet such “lovely hypotheses” are often chosen instead of more “likely” ones (pace Lipton 1991). Is it for fear that likely hypotheses would not be as interesting or stimulating as the lovely ones?

In his seminal Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things, Olsen wrote that “[i]f there is one history running all the way down from Olduwai Gorge to Post-Modernia, it must be one of increasing materiality – that more and more tasks are delegated to non-human actors; more and more actions mediated by things” (Olsen 2003, 88). Considering that even Ian Hodder, the father of interpretative archaeology, now shares this view (Hodder 2012), there is nothing to be nervous about. Archaeology is and will remain just as interesting even after we stop placing so much emphasis on narratives and identities and other interpretative superstructures.

The reason lies in the very fact that we have become so intimately entangled with things that we don’t know where one ends and another begins. It’s not even clear anymore what constitutes the human. Archaeologists will always have their hands full with the study of the “infinite connections and infinitesimal differences” (Morton 2010, 30) that make up all this mess (Bogost 2012, 19–21). Archaeology, the discipline of things par excellence (Olsen et al. 2012), should be all about things. Or, rather, about the things that things (including identities and narratives) are made of. Isn’t that where the real fascination of archaeology lies? Aren’t things in themselves magical enough? I think Timothy Morton (2013) nails it when he writes that “[e]very object is a marvelous archaeological record of everything that ever happened to it”.

  • Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, Durham.
  • Bogost, I. 2012. Alien Phenomenology: Or What It’s Like To Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden.
  • Lipton, P. 1991. Inference to the Best Explanation. Routledge, London.
  • Morton, T. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
  • Morton, T. 2013. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causation. Open Humanities Press.
  • Olsen, B. 2003. Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2), 87–104.
  • Olsen, B. 2012. After Interpretation: Remembering Archaeology. Current Swedish Archaeology 20, 11–34.
  • Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T. and Witmore, C. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. University of California Press, Berkeley.
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