The past and the personal

A discussion about how studying the past is essentially subjective leads to a discussion based on a book by Michael Shanks.

Josho Brouwers

When I first started using Twitter, I was re-reading some of the works of archaeologist Michael Shanks. He was a leading figure in the postprocessual movement in archaeology of the nineties, and remains an important force in archaeological thought.

More in particular, I commented on the importance of personal experience in how people (re)construct the past, and that authors of nonfiction books and articles should strive to make their own biases as clear as possible. After all, why study, for example, ancient Greece instead of e.g. ancient Sumer?

Some theory

Let’s get back to Michael Shanks for a bit and talk a little about archaeological theory. Postprocessualists such as Michael Shanks went against the so-called processual archaeology (also referred to as the “New Archaeology”) that rose to prominence in the 1960s and spearheaded by notable researchers such as Lewis Binford.

Briefly, the processual archaeology held that archaeology should be more similar to a natural science (where study of the past lead to the creation of laws that covered generalities), while the postprocessualists argued in favour of a more humanistic approach to the past. Michael Shanks, who worked closely with Christopher Tilley, called their vision of how archaeology should be practiced the “interpretive” approach. Their argument was that archaeologists don’t simply uncover the past, but actively construct it through interpretation.

Their main point is that someone’s interpretation of the remains of the past cannot be divorced from that person’s own experiences and viewpoints. The key publication is their revealingly titled Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice (second edition, 1992). Archaeologists – and anyone else who studies the past for that matter – don’t simply reconstruct an objective reality that once existed; instead, they actively construct a particular interpretation of the past, out of various bits and pieces, and their interpretation is coloured by their own expectations and experiences.

Critics of the interpretive archaeology, of which there have been many, suggested that the logical extreme of this approach to the past was a form of relativism in which every interpretation of the past could be argued to be essentially correct depending on the aims of the person doing the interpretation. Ian Hodder – whose postprocessual “contextual archaeology” was not as extreme as Shanks and Tilley’s interpretive archaeology – argued that while the past as such could never be fully understood, it was nevertheless the task of archaeologists (et al.) to try and approach those realities as closely as possible, thus defusing the earlier criticism.

Ian Hodder himself frequently changed his ideas about how to best practice archaeology, which is refreshing in a discipline where most people tend to stick to their guns throughout their entire career, for better or (more often) for worse. Back when I was working on my PhD at the VU University, I sometimes referred to something that Hodder said, to which some of my colleagues would ask, “Which version of Hodder was that?”

In any event, if you’re interested, you could start with Hodder’s book, Theory and Practice in Archaeology (1995), a volume of previously published papers, which despite being twenty years old now, offers a good introduction to his ideas. (He is also the current project director at Çatalhöyük.)

Experiences of the discipline

One of Michael Shanks’s most interesting books, I think, is his Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline (1996). John Papadopoulos once referred to it ironically as “My Summer Travels through Greece” (as per this review), which gives an idea of the personal aspects that come to the fore in the text. In this book, Shanks gives an overview of Classical archaeology that seeks to explore why Classical archaeologists go about their business in a particular way.

Chapter 2, “Cities and sanctuaries, art and archaeology: roots in the past”, is a good example of Shanks’s approach in this book. Particularly useful is his review of the work of John Beazley, an ancient Greek vase-painting connoisseur, whose work is still referenced when it comes to Attic black- and ref-figure pottery. Beazley believed that through careful examination of countless Greek vases, he could distinguish individual painters by looking at particular stylistic details, such as the way fingers or ears were painted.

As Shanks writes, “Beazley’s work is a story of tremendous success; it seems complete: there is nothing more to be done with Attic vases, simply fill in a few gaps” (p. 30). Of course, Shanks is being facetious, and he proceeds to carefully tear down all ideas regarding “connoisseurship” in Classical archaeology by turning to another example: namely attribution in the study of Corinthian pottery. Out of 164 pots, Shanks notes that “Between the three main listings (…), there is agreement on hardly more than one in four pots” (p. 35).

An Attic red-figure kylix in the Allard Pierson Museum, attributed to the “Agora Charias Painter”.

Shanks thus exposes connoisseurship as, essentially, a great deal of smoke and mirrors: “the concepts of style and artists, at the root of such practices, can be criticised as idealist” (p. 36). Indeed, Shanks’s conclusion to his discussion of Beazley is damning: “Beazley’s catalogues are not to be read; they are boring, and, at the same time, fascinating monuments to a legend” (p. 41). Harsh, but true.

In chapter 3, Shanks expands on the pots. While Beazley and others considered fine pottery to be works of art (a result of the efforts of collectors and explorers from the eighteenth century onwards), Vickers and Gill have shown that they were perhaps just poor imitations of gold and silver vessels that were beyond the reach of most people.

Shanks’s approach to ancient Greece, and the study of ancient Greece, is perhaps best summarized on page 118, in the conclusion to his fourth chapter:

The Classical past does not reveal itself in its essential character but has to be worked for. This leads to the question: what sort of Classical past do we want? One that is consoling, nostalgic, bolstering up notions of cultural excellence? Or different Classical pasts which question and edify? Classical archaeologists need to take responsibility for their choices and not hide behind notions of the past the way it was and is for all time.

Shanks demands that archaeologists – but really anyone who studies the past – make clear why they offer a particular construction of the past. Unfortunately, few writers actually make this explicit, claiming instead, as Shanks makes clear, that they merely “uncover” the past. But that is incorrect. We all bring our own preconceived notions into play when we look at and seek to interpret the remains of the past.

Closing thoughts

So, here’s my task for you, if you want to accept it.

Next time you read something about the ancient world, try to imagine – since it probably won’t have been made explicit – what reasons the author may have had to write about that subject in that particular way. In other words, try to critically examine the text that you are presented with and compare it with what you already know about the subject and what others have written about it.

Only in this way can you hone your mind and discover, along the way, what kind of past you want for yourself. And that may reveal something about yourself, too.