Classical archaeology probably enjoys a wider appeal than any other branch of classical or archaeological studies. As an intellectual and academic discipline, however, its esteem has not matched its popularity. Here, Anthony Snodgrass argues that classical archaeology has a rare potential in the whole field of the study of the past to make innovative discoveries and apply modern approaches by widening the aims of the discipline.
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Anthony M. Snodgrass is Lawrence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge University.
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An Archaeology of GreeceThe Present State and Future Scope of a Discipline
By Anthony M. Snodgrass
University of California PressCopyright © 1987 Anthony M. Snodgrass
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Health of a Discipline DIE ARCHÄOLOGIE IST IM GRUNDE EINE NAIVE WISSENSCHAFT. W.-H. Schuchhardt, Adolf Furtwängler (1956)
Many of the more thoughtful professional exponents of archaeology in the present generation have been troubled by the suggestion that they practice a "naive science." A good number have joined in the active search for changes to raise the intellectual standing of their discipline. Few of this number, however, have been classical archaeologists; and this is merely a recent and relatively conspicuous sign of a long-standing, and long-accepted, state of affairs.
Elementary grammar might suggest that "classical archaeology" is a subdiscipline that forms an integral part of one subject-archaeology-and has especially close links with another-classics. But elementary grammar, here as in some other instances, is profoundly misleading. In the first place, it obscures the fact that, operationally speaking, classical archaeology is more closely linked to a third discipline, art history, than it is to either archaeology or classics. That is to say, research and teaching connected with the history of Greek and Roman art have accounted for a very large proportion of the activities, over the past two hundred years, of those called classical archaeologists. Even now, more than half of the sum of their work must be of this kind.
But, secondly, when we turn from the operational to the institutional aspect, the realities again give the lie to grammar: for we find that classical archaeologists, if they work in universities, are much more often grouped formally with classicists than with archaeologists, or for that matter with art historians, though there are exceptions.
It is not difficult to discern the accidental historical factors-the extraordinary artistic attainments of the Greeks and Romans in the first case, the educational background of the individual classical archaeologist in the second-that explain these apparent discrepancies. If it were merely a question of nomenclature, one could point to many other academic subjects that, at least in older universities, sometimes retain names-from "Physic" and "Natural History" to "Rhetoric"-that once corresponded both to real activities and to contemporary linguistic practice for describing those activities; but that have been rendered misleading by subsequent developments in one or both respects. But I do not believe that classical archaeology is in quite the same position as these other subjects, or that the issue is, in its case, purely one of nomenclature. Rather, I would argue, many classical archaeologists are to this day consciously or unconsciously pursuing, albeit in a more organized way, the same objectives as the founding father of their discipline, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, dead now for more than two hundred years. Likewise, the normal institutional arrangement within universities reflects the hard fact that the published results of the activity of classical archaeologists, where their interest extends beyond the confines of the subject itself, are more likely to be read and used by classicists than by the practitioners of archaeology, art history, or any other subject.
But from these preliminaries, we come now to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion. Grammar and nomenclature, operational and institutional practice may all unite in implying that classical archaeology is a dependent subsidiary of some other subject; yet in a way that implication is false. The fact is that the traditional activities of classical archaeologists do not today conform at all closely to those of any other discipline. To this extent-and herein lies the paradox-classical archaeology is an independent subject.
The reasons for this qualified independence, as so far considered, are negative ones: the subject is tradition-bound and it lacks wide academic appeal. Of the three adjacent disciplines that have come under discussion, two at least have passed through a period of change, or at least of ferment: there are today both a new archaeology and a new art history. Both these new movements have gained considerable ground within their subjects; but in so doing, they have had the effect of carrying those subjects further away from any contact with classical archaeology.
This has not been an encouraging introduction, and it is time to say something more positive. If one of the messages of this book is that even the present degree of qualified independence retained by classical archaeology should be given up, this will not, I think, prove to be a major sacrifice; certainly not in proportion to the potential gains. What I believe is that the present dignified remoteness of the subject on the academic plane could give way to the kind of acknowledged intellectual vitality that attracts attention across a range of other disciplines. If this happens, I believe that classical archaeology will still be found to be an exceptional discipline; but exceptional in its capacity to contribute to the fulfillment of new aims rather than in its fidelity to old ones. I think that classical archaeology can answer some of the more pressing needs of the new movement in archaeology, and that its capacity to integrate ancient art history into the study of the total material culture of the classical civilizations opens the way to a kind of art-historical approach that is often impossible in the case of other epochs. This broadening of range would undoubtedly also increase the potential participation of classical archaeology in the work of the other branches of classical studies.
Since classical archaeology's closest relationship is with classics, it is worth taking a slightly closer look at the present nature of this relationship. Some classical archaeologists would accept their traditional grouping within classics without question, and under pressure many more would on balance settle for a continuation of that arrangement. But it is harder to elicit true candor as to how classicists regard classical archaeology, and I want to try to consider this topic without relapsing into anecdotalism. There are certain considerations that are more obviously relevant to the British university system than to any other, but that may nevertheless deserve mention. First, it is not only possible but relatively common in Britain to achieve a degree in classics, even an outstanding degree, without having devoted one hour's study to classical archaeology. Second, to broach more delicate matters, it is also quite common for a very moderate undergraduate performance in classics to be the prelude to a specialized career in classical archaeology. This second observation loses much of its significance if, as many would maintain, classical archaeology requires quite different skills from pure classics; and both points depend for their importance on the degree to which the British pattern is matched in other countries.
At this point, however, objective criteria begin to run out, and I fall back on my subjective impressions, formed by experience of three very different British universities, and refined by briefer encounters with a number of institutions in other countries. I hazard the generalization that the repute of classical archaeology as a discipline has, in the past, been a fairly modest one among other classicists; but that the situation is today slowly improving. Scholars in other branches of classical studies seem increasingly to be acknowledging the relevance of material and physical evidence to their own researches: this happens occasionally among ancient philosophers, sporadically among philologists, more frequently among literary scholars, and most prominently among ancient historians. The realization leads to increasingly frequent consultation of classical archaeologists, either through the medium of the latter's writings or directly and orally. The first often precedes the second, a sign perhaps of some discrepancy in objectives, or else in linguistic codes. The results are seen when the classicist in question handles such matters in print. Though one can still find examples of the absolute disclaimer-a declaration of total abstention from archaeology-even in connection with topics where archaeological evidence could obviously be applied, the mere inclusion of such a statement (as opposed to complete silence) may be taken as a sign of advance. More often nowadays one finds the classicist bringing at least a bold pair of tongs to a topic for which there is relevant archaeological material, and a polite note of acknowledgment to an archaeologist will be included. To tell the truth, the archaeologist in question is sometimes the one whose office is just along the corridor, who is charitably assumed to have a mastery of his whole subject. But there has been a detectable move away from the tone of lofty disdain once in order for such citations: the tone of, say, the judge proudly disowning all knowledge of vaudeville has given place to that of the father excusing himself to his children for his ignorance of pop music. Sometimes the degree of commitment expressed is much greater than this, however; and, best of all, some classicists today are prepared to familiarize themselves at first hand with archaeological material, and with what has been written about it.
The severest test undoubtedly comes when issues arise where the archaeological and the literary or documentary evidence are in conflict. In these contexts, one can still hear (if not read) unabashed statements as to the virtual worthlessness of the former class of evidence. Surprising though it may seem, my own treatment of a few such issues in the second chapter of this book might be read as giving a measure of support to such attitudes, though not to their expression in this form. But all the reactions that we have been surveying are alike in that they at least imply recognition of some kind. They may not, most of them, be compatible with a view of classical archaeology as a central and indispensable adjunct of classical learning; but they show an acknowledgment that this allied subject exists, and that its practitioners are people who can understand one's own language and can on occasion be consulted with advantage. Furthermore, as I have suggested, the relationship between pure classics and classical archaeology is improving today, at least in some superficial ways.
Even if accepted in full, these statements may not appear to add up to much-even when one adds to them the observation, made in my Foreword, that the appointment of archaeologists to the Sather Professorship of Classical Literature has apparently come to seem progressively less incongruous in recent decades. But all this appears in a different light once one turns, by way of comparison, to the relationship between classical and nonclassical archaeology.
The intellectual revolution within nonclassical archaeology has gone a long way towards transforming the nature of that discipline. Most nonclassical archaeologists in America and Britain, a good many in France, Italy, and Scandinavia, and a few in Germany and Eastern Europe may be reckoned among its supporters. The revolutionary movement cannot keep forever the title it has adopted, but "new archaeology" is still a recognizable and perhaps an acceptable appellation in the 1980s. The impact of the new archaeology has had many beneficial effects, and even if it had not, its great following would make it a force to be reckoned with. Some of the approaches and methods of the new movement seem to cry out for application in the classical context; classical archaeology for its part stands in some need of the stimulus this would bring; but so far, from the point of view of the narrow interests of classical archaeology sensu stricto, the advent of the new movement in archaeology has been something of a disaster. To be criticized, even attacked, is one thing; to have the very existence of one's subject ignored is another.
There are reasons for this silence, both obvious and underlying. In America, for one thing, much of the literature of the new archaeology, whether prehistoric or historical in content, is North American not only in authorship but in subject matter. Of course, this explanation can hardly be applied to Europe. There, the most influential single figure has without doubt been David Clarke (1937-76). I may be prejudiced in favor of a fellow archaeologist whom I knew and liked, but with Clarke I always felt that a door to classical archaeology was kept slightly ajar. In his best-known work, Analytical Archaeology, he admitted evidence from two areas that, though they lie respectively on the edge of, and within, classical archaeology, have always been "privileged fields" among British new archaeologists: the Aegean Bronze Age and Roman Britain. It is true that in the thirteen-page index to the second (posthumous) edition of that book, all mention of key terms such as "Aegean," "Roman," "obsidian," "spondylus," and "Dressel type 1 amphorae" has been extirpated, as if somehow impure; but the discussions are still there, and can be found by those who know enough to look instead for key concepts such as "distance decay models," or key names such as "Hodder, I." and "Renfrew, C." On the other hand, Clarke's next major work, the essays he edited under the title Models in Archaeology, offered twenty-five contributions of which not a single one dealt with the Mediterranean world in any period later than the pre-historic. Less often noted is the olive branch he held out in a short, but important, article to archaeologists working on the better-documented cultures: their studies would, he wrote, "provide vital experiments" in using the control of documentary sources over inferences based on purely material evidence. This procedure is, as we shall find in the next chapter, roughly the converse of what traditional classical archaeology has spent part of its time doing. But in any case David Clarke's tragically early death not long after had a dampening effect on whatever initiatives he had in mind here, as indeed on archaeological endeavor of many kinds. His successors have shown little interest either in taking up those initiatives themselves or in monitoring the activities of those already working in these other branches of archaeology. This absence of communication was certainly not characteristic of the work of the previous generation of nonclassical archaeologists: read the writings of Gordon Childe, Christopher Hawkes, or Stuart Piggott and you will find, not only rich evidence of communication with classical (and other "historical") archaeologists, but also learned and firsthand familiarity with their subject matter. This is why I said earlier that, in this direction, the outward relationships of classical archaeology actually appear to be weakening.
One can find explanations for the change at several deeper levels.
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