Archaeology [Greek: archaiologia = ancient history] is a relatively new science concerned with the excavation and analysis of artifacts, texts, structures and organic material (such as skeletons) from past civilizations.
The birth of archaeology is often associated with J. J. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of Ancient Art), published in 1764.
When it first appeared, carbon dating was sometimes upheld as the miracle tool that would pinpoint precise dates for discovered objects. But the accuracy of carbon dating is now debated. Almost all agree that carbon dating becomes less precise as we go further back in time.
Others maintain that carbon dating results sometimes can be misleading due to the hoarding and biased interpretation of artifacts and, in some cases, an overzealous desire to advance a career by “proving” a pet theory.
International politics and profit incentives may also come into play with archaeology as ancient remnants are often found in poor, politically sensitive, volatile and even war-torn nations. Local politicians are usually required to authorize certificates for archaeological materials requested for investigation or release from a site, which sometimes slows things down.
The term archaeology was also used by the psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud employed the image of ruins within an ancient city to portray the relation between the unconscious and the ego (i.e. consciousness).
More recently, the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault used the metaphor of archaeology quite loosely to suggest the possibility of ideologically “buried” forms of knowledge. Foucault’s use of archaeology does not refer to questions like: “Did aliens build the pyramids?” or “What was the location of ancient Atlantis?”¹ Rather, Foucault’s work deals with reconstructing a network of connections, assumptions, expectations, techniques, values and beliefs assumed to exist in a given historical place and time.
Foucault’s archaeological metaphor is directly applied to a historical text, which he calls an “open site.” The notion of an open site suggests that the task of reconstructing historical meaning from texts is necessarily incomplete.
¹ Foucault did not ask these questions, but contemporary postmoderns might. Postmodernism and critical theory are slowly moving toward a greater appreciation of mysticism and esoterica. A good example of this integrative shift can be found in the work of G. E. Gallas.
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