Re: poststructuralism and archaeology

J.S.Thomas (J.S.Thomas@SOTON.AC.UK)
Tue, 12 Apr 1994 11:10:24 BST

I was fascinated to read Chris Pound's comments on Heidegger and archaeology -
mostly because I'm a 'sticks and bones' archaeologist trying to use Heidegger's
work in pretty much the way that he advocates. Not so much 'Being and Time'
(although I agree that the present-at-hand/ready-to-hand division is pretty
useful), but more the later essays like 'The Origin of the Work of Art' and
'Building, Dwelling, Thinking', which really do seem to open up a different way
of thinking about materiality.

It strikes me that archaeology sets up a distinction between the social (which
is metaphysical) and the material, which is always the *product* of human
action. Heidegger's critique of Cartesianism gets one beyond this by
stressing the embedded character of human existence, but also by showing how
material things can be the means through which we enter into the world's world-
ing. That is to say, it is our inconspicuous familiarity with the material
things that we use which is the ground of our understanding of worldly
existence. Put briefly, I think that this is a source of optimism about what
archaeology can achieve, since it moves us away from thinking about our
'evidence' as something exterior to past societies - the signifier referring
to an always absent signified, if you like. It still means that archaeology
is a fundamentally interpretive enterprise, but one which deals with how people
*lived through* their material conditions, rather than just leaving all this
stuff ('sticks and bones') lying around.

I'd be very interested to see your friend's paper, Chris. Is it being

Julian Thomas, Southampton