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Archaeological Theory: Who Sets the Agenda?

Blucher's Prussians were no less splendid for being a little late at Waterloo. Much the same is true of the glittering forces arrayed by NORMAN YOFFEE & ANDREW SHERRATT in Archaeological theory: who sets the agenda? (New Directions in Archaeology. x+139 pages, 14 figures. 1993. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-44014-9 hardback |pounds~30; ISBN 0-521-44958-8 paperback |pounds~10.95). Although originating in a response to post-processualism at the 1988 TAG meeting, the editors' main intention is neither to dismiss the p-p movement nor to defend processualism ('an episode . . . whose wretched excesses were as clear as its accomplishments'), but instead to examine 'the claims of various archaeological theories against a wider historical and geographical perspective'. The result is a set of compact and powerful papers written with infectious urgency and a manifest impatience with the arcane knots that archaeology has managed to tie itself in. Most are optimistic, a few are gloomy, but all are agreed that archaeology is simply too important to be left to drift agendaless or, worse, mal-agendaed over the dangerous seas of current academe, society and government. YOFFEE & SHERRATT see the central problem as the continuing tendency of archaeologists of all persuasions to lift their theory from neighbouring (or not so obviously adjacent) disciplines, instead of creating their own. This practice is likened to a mining-and-bridging exercise: dig out (and thereby decontextualize) a seam of Christaller/Giddens/Derrida/What You Will and redeploy it to span an archaeological problem. As such theory has rarely been designed to address archaeological issues, let alone archaeological data, the inevitable result is that our intellectual landscape has filled with unsightly holes and the ruins of Ozymandian bridges, interspersed with the slag heaps of incinerated reputations. Until some more explicitly archaeological theory is developed, the past is doomed to resemble the present, and archaeology cannot hope to export its unique perspectives on human societies on anything approaching equal terms. After this key-note opening, PHILIP L. KOHL, ALlSON WYLIE and CHRISTOPHER CHIPPINDALE place theorizing in sociological and intellectual context. Wylie, in a spot-on simile, likens the process of archaeological inference less to the links in a chain than to the braiding of the strands in a cable, in which each strand constrains as much as it reinforces. CLIVE GAMBLE, STEPHEN SHENNAN and NORMAN YOFFEE explore the relations between agendas and archaeologies. Here we also get Yoffee's invaluable Rule: 'if you can argue whether a society is a state or isn't, then it isn't'. KELLEY ANN HAYS, MIRIAM T. STARK and TIM MURRAY address three of the issues raised by post-processualism's relativist leanings -- the archaeological significance of symbols that we cannot hope to penetrate, the role of ethnoarchaeology, and the contest over ownership of the past as exemplified by the Australian experience. SHERRATT rides again in 'The relativity of theory', chastising us for our narrow cone of vision, reinforced as it is by the structure of universities and museums ('"archaeology" in practice means a set of isolated discursive communities deployed over a fraction of their potential evidence'), and arguing for the replacement of traditional disciplines by 'problem domains' defined more by the scope of the question than the nature of the evidence. And RICHARD BRADLEY in full-throated Cassandra mode sounds a parting warning so dire and true in 'Archaeology: the loss of nerve' that it must serve as the epilogue to this review:

'CAUGHT BETWEEN |SCIENCE AND CRITICAL THEORY~, IMAGINATION AND TALENT CAN BE CRUSHED . . . WE ARE FORGETTING ABOUT CREATIVITY, BUT WITHOUT IT ARCHAEOLOGISTS WILL BE LEFT WITH NOTHING NEW TO SAY. UNLESS WE NURTURE THE CREATIVE IMAGINATION, THERE IS NO POINT IN TEACHING ARCHAEOLOGY AT ANY LEVEL, AND LITTLE PLEASURE IN PRACTISING IT AT ALL . . . THE FUTURE LIES WITH . . . THOSE WHO HAVE KEPT THEIR IMAGINATIONS ALIVE AND STILL ASPIRE TO WRITE HUMAN HISTORY. THEY MAY BE PROCESSUALISTS OR POST-PROCESSUALISTS; THE BRAND NAMES ARE ENTIRELY UNIMPORTANT.' Amen.
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Author:Broodbank, Cyprian
Publication:Antiquity
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:644
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