chapter  6
64 Pages

Making sense of the past

Chapter 1 explored how archaeology (or antiquarianism, as its early manifestation is known) had

developed in Europe through the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, into a common and relatively harmless distraction for the educated. Following great advances in geology, some aspects of archaeology (notably the study of human origins and early prehistory) developed into a

‘respectable’ scientic pursuit in the nineteenth century. However, what was respectable then may now seem tainted by Victorian ideology about Empire and racial supremacy. Archaeology has grown rapidly since 1900, with the result that virtually every country in the world now operates some form of state-nanced protection of ancient monuments, as well as supporting the subject in universities and museums. e New Archaeology of the 1960s not only broadened interpretation, but also inspired advances in the study and recovery of archaeological evidence because it required more precise evidence about settlement patterns, site layouts and environmental conditions. Between 1950 and 2000 the ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment appeared to have been achieved: democracy; public institutions for education and art; economic prosperity and literacy for the masses (in the developed world, at least). is comfortable view was increasingly undermined towards the end of the century, however, as postmodernism revealed structures of power and ideology behind these supposedly benign developments. Archaeologists themselves came under suspicion when their role in helping to explain the great story of human progress was dismissed as nothing more than story-telling aimed at supporting current political ideologies (Kehoe 1998). Aware of this, postprocessual archaeologists of the 1980s drew upon a wide range of philosophies and anthropological theory that shied the focus from general social/ environmental processes towards individual human experience. Archaeology has become a popular subject in schools, universities and continuing education, perhaps because it involves a variety of practical and theoretical work and a mixture of approaches from the sciences and humanities. It is also concerned with everyday objects and structures, as well as with the social elites upon whom history has tended to concentrate. Museum displays are now aimed at general visitors rather than specialists, and ‘designer’ displays have displaced rows of pots with terse labels. Mobility and leisure have increased to the extent that mass tourism regularly includes ancient sites and museums. Archaeology receives extensive publicity

through popular writing and journalism; it even contributes to home entertainment through television programmes shown at peak viewing times, without causing any surprise. e extraordinary popularity of archaeology from academia to popular culture makes it even more important to keep on asking questions about exactly what archaeologists are trying to do – and for whom.