Archaeology has to be central to our understanding of ourselves and our world—will help us to keep our feet literally and metaphorically on the ground, Jennifer Wallace argues in Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination. Well she would say that, you might respond—her background is in archaeology.
Yet she makes a persuasive cases that enmeshes the reader in accounts of post-modern theory, Romantic poetry, Victorian treasure-hunting, Freudian psychology and popular science. In the wrong hands this mix would be a half-baked mish-mash, hidden behind a palisade of incomprehensible jargon, but Wallace writes simply, directly, and with informative brevity, while often allowing her key figures to speak for themselves.
She is particularly taken with figures who operate in productive, even paradoxical, binaries, rather than the traditional definitive forms. So she introduces the poet Margaret Keogh, who immersed herself in the classical world of Pompeii from her English home. “Pompeii was impossibly distant for her and so it became a place of desire… She feels dead whereas Pompeii is paradoxically vivid and alive; she is grey and sad while Pompeii is sunny and happy… Men would travel to Pompeii and include it on their Grand Tour; women had to stay home and read about it.” (p. 86)
Wallace makes an argument for archaeology forcing a materialistic, practical view of the world, which she calls “scepticism” and compares to Hamlet’s experience in the graveyard scene, saying “the literalness of the dying process… runs counter to any possible religious interpretation … when faced with withered fragments of bone and tooth and hair… worse when those remains are mingled with the dust.” (p. 130) Yet she also asserts its importance as an indelible record, particularly in its modern use in forensic science: the undeniable witness at war crimes trials around the world.
These conflicting views of archaeology are at the heart of early Christianity, Wallace says, comparing Eusebius’s discrete refusal to acknowledge Helena’s rediscovery of the “True Cross” with the nun Egeria’s enthusiastic embrace of a physical religion of place, “that it was at these spots that the stories cohered and where they appeared to make most vivid sense”. Wallace admits the logic and reality of Walter Benjamin’s explanation of the “aura” of archaeological objects, and, implicitly place, yet also drily points out that “hills of the Golan, for a start, are not as they would have been in Jesus’ time, being studded with landmines.” (p. 169)
The study of archaeology and, in particular ancient history, frequently appears innately conservative, with its roots in that old standard, “The Classics,” but Wallace says that: “Stratified history is necessary for an effective, grounded, radical politics” (p. 20). She goes back to a National Assembly deputy who used it as proof that regimes could and did fall, grouping that view to Shelley’s Ozymandias.
Wallace accepts the view of Deleuze and Guattari, that: “Stratigraphy… enables knowledge, and it only through knowledge that we can organise political campaigns, establish communities, create a vibrant culture.” (p. 187) But these, she says, following these two authors, are in fact only useful fictions, a view also shared by post-modern archaeologists: “archaeology should move away from the hierarchical privileging of depth over surface and examine rather surface sites, delimited areas, nebulous spaces. It should be prepared to leave objects without a definitive explanation. And it should see archaeology as a form of rhetoric, rather than “reflection” upon this world.” (p. 189)
If you’re interested in history and archaeology, and particularly their place in the world of thought, this is a book you should read.
But don’t be put off by the theory. If you’re just interested in the history of archaeology and society’s interaction with it, there are also many great tales. I was particularly taken with the story of the plundering of Milton’s grave as an example of what might be called the “naive” archaeological imagination.
Another review here.
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