I’m supposed to be writing an essay on the role of the individual in processual and post-processual archaeologies, but instead I’m sitting here musing on the point of archaeology at all. I’ve enthused before that for me it’s the one true multi-disciplinary study as you are required to dip a toe into all sorts of intellectual waters, but that idea is really starting to hit home. Why do we study archaeology, what do we think we can know? It seems to me that what we think we can know is expanding all the time, based on what we think we can know about what it’s like to be a human NOW.
Technically, these advances in knowing are happening in disciplines that are studying what it’s like to be a human in the recent past, but the insights gained there are applied by archaeologists engaged in thinking about the deep past. There is an underlying assumption there that because we are human, both now and in the past, the ways of knowing about humanity are applied universally.
I’m currently reading about semiotics and structuralism, and yes, I can see the point of thinking about such things, BUT, do people really think about these things all the time? Surely the point is that most of this symbolic stuff happens below the level of consciousness. Therefore is it appropriate to imbue these meanings to the conscious level of prehistoric people? Granted, not having iPhones, they probably had a lot more time for sitting and thinking, and yes, the past was probably a lot more present to them than it is to my peers, but at the same time, I doubt looking at a toothpick and thinking of all the possible symbolic meanings that the toothpick might have to them, was a daily occurrence. These symbolic meanings need ‘pointing out’ to bring them to the attention of the conscious thought. That’s me airing my ignorance again, but there’s just this nagging feeling with all the ‘interpretative archaeology’ I’m reading, that we’re putting thoughts into people’s heads, and thinking a bit too much about this ourselves. Because we can.
This brings me back to the idea of the point of studying archaeology: are we really doing this to learn more about what people in the past might have thought and experienced, or are we doing this as a kind of applied sociology/philosophy – testing out these ideas on our ancestors? I’m writing about the role of the individual in this essay, but it seems to me that the individual most involved in the archaeology, is the archaeologist.