What is meant by the subtitle breaking down the boundaries
Archaeology and Ancient History would seem to the untrained eye to be very convenient bedfellows. Both involve the study of antiquarian periods by different means; ancient history via textual sources and archaeology through the study of material remains. That said, the relationship between the two departments have been fraught with difficulty since the days of Schliemann (Rotroff 2005). Eberhard Sauer’s book from 2004, Archaeology and Ancient History: Breaking down the Boundaries, was an important work attempting to bridge the gap between these two disciplines.
Sauer’s own viewpoint essentially calls for the abolition of the boundary between the respective disciplines; but what are these so-called boundaries that are meant to be broken down and do they apply internationally? So what is meant by the phrase ‘breaking down the boundaries’? Well, the problem comes from the very definitions of ancient history and archaeology used above: archaeologists study material remains whilst ancient historians study written texts.
For example, classical archaeologists have had access to textual sources which pre-historic archaeologists have not, hence classical archaeologists developed their own ways of questioning via classical texts- much to the chagrin of pre-historic archaeologists, who have seen material culture being used to illustrate text (Alcock and Osborne 2007: 11). Indeed, some Classical archaeologists determine their discipline to be a special case (Millet 2007: 30)! Further to this, sub-disciplines (like numismatics and archaeology) are defined by their material of study (Sauer 2004: 129).
This is how it remained only up until quite recently, hence the term ‘boundaries’. This division between the two disciplines has shaped our approach to the past, prevented unified thought and become ‘enshrined’ in academic organisation (Morgan 2004: 85, 93). Post-processual classical archaeologists like Sauer want to break down these divides. Sauer seems to follow the view of Giddens in that there is no real difference in studying historical texts from cultural objects and hence archaeology and (ancient) history are one and the same (Sauer 2004: 26, citing Giddens 1984: 357).
This being so, then the sort of questions that archaeologists and ancient historians want to answer are the same but the evidence used in each subject does not allow either to discuss certain things (Sauer 2004: 25). By extension, does being selective and denying a type of evidence for research produce better answers? Even if it did, it would be wholly unjustifiable – one should not ignore evidence, no matter what the discipline dictates. Historical sources can be easily disproved by valid archaeological date, such as survey data (Snodgrass 2007: 24-5).
Naturally, this leads Sauer to wonder what the point of having disciplinary boundaries is if we examine all the evidence (2004: 30)? Where do you draw the line? Archaeologists and historians should either have to cooperate more closely or include research methods of other disciplines (Sauer 2004: 31). So are boundaries being broken? One thing many archaeologists and ancient historians agree on is the need for closer cohesion between the disciplines.
Lin Foxhall maintains that despite the differences over the years, most archaeologists and historians who specialise in ancient Greece accept that they need to combine information from different subjects to truly understand the ancient Greek world (Foxhall 2004: 76). Martin Millet calls for integration between the two disciplines to create a ‘contextual classical archaeology’ (Millet 2007: 31), with archaeology not just being used to justify text, but to develop ideas that are relevant to other periods/places.
Millet’s co-contributor in the book, Anthony Snodgrass, was one of the first of the classical archaeologists to integrate it into the larger archaeological discipline in the 190’s (Millet 2007: 40). Since then, classical archaeologists have employed new techniques from the traditional discipline (for example, archaeobotany) as well as approaches from social sciences (Millet 2007: 40). Allison states that it would seem that in the last decade, scholars in Britain are particularly keen on ‘breaking down the boundaries’ (Allison 2008: 37).
Sauer calls for (when not arguing for a complete abolishment of boundaries) disciplines to use a variety of different approaches rather than doing what classical historians have done in the past (and still do) by defending their disciplinary approach (2004: 5). Archaeologists and historians can learn from each other. This is also excellently presented in Rankov’s chapter about the reconstruction of a trireme, the Olympias. No trireme wrecks have been discovered in the ancient world (Rankov 2004: 49), so it was necessary for Rankov to employ various professionals in order to make an accurate guess as to what a trireme would have looked like.
Alongside archaeological, literary, iconographical and epigraphical evidence, historians, archaeologists, rowers, naval architects, ship-builders, sailors, physicists and physiologists were also employed, making the project truly multi-disciplinary (Rankov 2004: 49). The project necessitated contact and continual conversation between all members of the project, as well as making the scholars look at other forms of evidence, where they might not have before, in order to interpret and sometimes even reject evidence (Rankov 2004: 50-1).
The ‘mindset’ within the project persuaded some scholars that their evidence might not be ‘right’ and that other forms of evidence were beneficial (Rankov 2004: 52-3). Scholars expanding their own knowledge with knowledge from other disciplines can only be a good thing. The development of research centres where many academics of different disciplinary persuasions can discuss new insights into the past is also helpful (Morgan 2004: 93-4). There also appears to be a change in the way in which we teach potential scholars about the past at University level.
Many British universities are now offering joint honour courses in Ancient History and Archaeology; back in 2004, the number of students applying for joint honours almost outnumbered those opting for single honour courses in Archaeology or Ancient History (Laurence 2004: 99). The benefit of this will teach aspirants that it is better to utilise all the evidence from both disciplines. This has come at the expense of topics like Classical architecture, which has been on the wane in teaching ancient history and/or archaeology since 2007 (Snodgrass 2007: 23).
What has seemed to have evolved from this post-processual era is a blurring of the lines between (ancient) history and archaeology (Millet 2007: 40-1), but it doesn’t appear to be the case that boundaries have broken, far from it in some cases. Whilst some scholars might be selective or just plain ignorant of other disciplines that aren’t their own, some are too proud (Foxhall 2004: 76); for example, a scholar who may be prepared to let other forms of knowledge fill the blanks in his own, but believes in the wisdom of his own subject (Rankov 2004: 53).
Rankov experienced this in criticism of the Olympias project by nautical archaeologists, who refused to believe the validity of the reconstruction since it was not based on wreck remains at sea (Rankov 2004: 55, citing Ward 2001), as well as picking holes in their rowing system, totally ignoring the fact that they weren’t all professional oarsmen and therefore could only get better with time (Rankov 2004: 56, citing Smith 2001: 150)! Rankov therefore suggests that to really ‘break down the boundaries’, scholars need the humility to accept that their opinion might not always be right and seek answers from other disciplines (2004: 56).
Similarly, Ray Laurence criticised Penelope Allison for apparently not tolerating ‘interests of ancient historians in her subject area of archaeology’ (Laurence 2004: 105). Laurence’s main criticism is that the two disciplines don’t talk to each other enough (Laurence 2004: 106). That said, Laurence is generally hopeful that archaeologists and ancient historians can cross the boundaries, as he points to the contributions by the two at Pompeii (Laurence 2004: 107).
However, Allison disputes this, saying that scholars from different backgrounds deliberately select their evidence for the questions that concern them (Allison 2008: 46). While there are more universities offering joint honours degrees in archaeology and ancient history, there are still some who do no and place an emphasis on one method of interpretation. While this is so, the boundaries between the two disciplines will always be kept alive (Morgan 2004: 93). There are also problems with the multi-disciplinary approach.
While the combination of disciplines allows scholars to gain new insights and approaches, it is unable to convince the ‘single-discipline expert’ (Rankov 2004: 56). Most, if not all of these British based scholars (though some originate from different countries, they have studied or at least taught at British universities (Sauer 2004: 4)) agree that closer cooperation between the two disciplines would be absolutely beneficial but they also believe that more needs to be done (Rankov 2004: 57; Foxhall 2004: 83-4; Laurence 2004: 111).
Even the very name of Sauer’s book suggests that the boundaries have not been broken down (Allison 2008: 37-8)! In addition, Sauer seems to be a lone voice amongst the many calling for even greater break down of boundaries with a minute degree of specialisation (2004: 31-2), something to which other scholars disagree with (Rankov 2004: 52; Rotroff 2005); this which suggest the boundaries are not broken down and will stay that way for some time.
Many scholars also believe that it is not a disciplinary divide that is the problem, but rather the skills and knowledge of the archaeologists and historians (Allison 2008: 37-8). Whilst we have explored a ‘British’ opinion on whether disciplinary boundaries are being broken down, can we say the same for other countries? It is clear that these boundaries are not consistent globally (Allison 2008: 37-8).
For example, the U. S. ecame a ‘centre of academic power’ after World War 2, as refugees from war-torn Europe emigrated there (Millet 2007: 39). Despite this influx of new people and their subsequent education in academia, classical archaeology in America was relatively insulated up until the 1980s. At the same time that classical archaeology in Britain was undergoing disciplinary change, there was change in methodology in the U. S. too, where scholars turned to large scale field survey and environmental archaeology (Millett 2007: 39-40).
Boston University, the University of Minnesota and Indian University had introduced an interdisciplinary archaeology programme in the 1970s (Dyson 2006: 251, citing Dyson 1998: 247-54). However, in the U. S. , classical archaeology developed independently from the study of American prehistory and American Post-Medieval, or colonial, archaeology (Allison 2008: 44), which would explain why the approaches of the relationship between artefacts and text are so conservative (Allison 2008: 44, citing Dyson 1987)
Thus the divide between ancient historians and archaeologists in the U. S. is very real; although, independently, though text based scholars might not deal with archaeological practice, they do take a more critical approach to texts that are related to material remains (Allison 2008: 44-5, citing Leach 1988 and 2004). The very real problem is that ‘Classics’ departments in the U. S. are dominated by classical archaeologists who are educated in art history and philology, much to the detriment of archaeologists (Dyson 2006: 251), who are poorly trained compared to European archaeologists.
They are focused on ‘big digs’ (the Americans copied this tradition from the Germans (Reid 2007)) and limited in expertise (Dyson 2006: 251). German scholarly tradition in ancient history arose out of teaching in theological and philological institutes and retains a strong art-historical tradition (Allison 2008: 42; Porter 2006: 20), but disciplinary boundaries in Germany are varied to say the least and can depend on Universities (Allison 2008: 42-3).
Before 1996, Classical archaeology and ‘Classics’ had their own institutes whilst archaeology was either a department within the ancient history institute (University of Freiburg) or separated and put into Prehistory and Early History departments (University of Munich (Allison 2008: 42-3)). Indeed, an example of the varied nature of German study is that Christian archaeology is studied in the departments of Theology (Allison 2008: 42-3).
So the disciplines in Germany appear quite fragmented, though the study of written sources is studied by both ancient historians and archaeologists, which would indicate a strong textual tradition (Allison 2008: 43). This has changed slightly recently; though most ‘established’ scholars outright refuse to progress towards a inter-disciplinary approach, younger German scholars have travelled abroad to Britain in increasing numbers to pursue a more inter-disciplinary learning (Whitley and Stoddart 2009: 23).
German scholars who have thus tried to be more theoretical and inter-disciplinary have found no success at home, painting a somewhat similar situation to the U. K. , where the divided remains between archaeology and (ancient) history (Whitley and Stoddart 2009: 23-4). The situation is the same in other German-speaking countries like Switzerland (Allison 2008: 42-3) and Austria (Whitley and Stoddart 2009: 22).
Italian archaeology is strongly text based, often political and non-theoretical in nature (Allison 2008: 43-4, citing Terrenato 1988: 178). However, in the 1970s, Antonio Carandini, a student of Moses Finely at Cambridge, worked in an Italian team excavating at Carthage where they came across archaeologists from other countries. Carandini was particularly influenced by British archaeologists there (Dyson 2006: 246), as well as theories from American new Archaeologists which he taught to students at the University of Rome La Sapienza (Allison 2008: 43-4).
Roman archaeology has become more engaged with ‘post-processual frameworks of British archaeologists’ (Allison 2008: 44). French archaeology and history appears to be very art-historical however; at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, archaeology is taught in the same history department that runs a course on the history of European art (Allison 2008: 43). Disciplinary divides in Dutch archaeology and history are dependent on the University.
The University of Amsterdam teaches archaeology, history and ancient history in a ‘History, Archaeology and Area Studies’ department whereas the University of Nijmegen teaches Classical and Roman archaeology in a department of ‘Languages and Culture’. The University of Leiden, however, has its own department of Archaeology. So the approach to disciplinary boundaries for a Dutch student is determined by the University he or she attends. Spanish and Polish archaeology appear to have been influenced by British theory and German scholarship (Whitely and Stoddart 2009: 23).
The study of ancient history and archaeology at Australian and New Zealand universities is incorporated into humanities departments, thus making it isolated study of the subject impossible (Allison 2008: 45). Students there have to combine archaeology and/or Classics with other humanities and sciences which makes the scholar less concerned with disciplinary divides but lacking in specialisation (Allison 2008: 45). Many archaeological projects in Australia are inter-disciplinary, such as the Southern Whaling Project (Stuart 2007: 51, citing Lawrence and Staniforth 1998).
The small amounts of Japanese archaeologists that specialise in the Classical world are like their Australian counterparts and open to methods from other disciplines (Allison 2008: 45). It was famously Moses Finley who said that the dialogue between archaeologists and ancient historians read like a ‘trades demarcation dispute’ (1985: pp. 7, 18-26). A quarter of a century onwards and it doesn’t appear to have changed too much. It feels closer to Lin Foxhall’s analogy of two feuding children, who, despite the disputes, ‘do love each other’ really (2004: 76).
The disciplines want to ask the same questions but more often than not, answer differently (Rotroff 2005). The overwhelming majority of scholars would agree that more dialogue needs to take place between the two disciplines in order to benefit the other, but it seems to be held back by bickering and antiquated academic institutions. The good news is that new generations of scholars are seeking to engage with other disciplines in Britain and Germany and are already doing so in Australasia. Progress is slow, but it is improving.
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