I’ve been reading an interesting book recently on Archaeological Theory, by Matthew Johnson. Interesting in its own right – I’d thought that archaeology was just about digging up things and saying, “It’s a brooch” (or whatever), and how wrong I was – but also as a case study in the philosophy of science and developments in epistemology over the past century.
One illuminating point Johnson makes concerns the gulf that exists between the “static” data we have in the present (ruins, stones, sherds, artifacts, etc.) and the “dynamic” processes that gave rise to them in the past (“what really happened”). The difficulties in practising archaeology as a science arise from the difficulty – some would say impossibility – of crossing that gulf.
A similar challenge faces us when we interpret a literary text from the past, and indeed Johnson points out that recent archaeology has taken a more “interpretative” or “postprocessual” approach which takes literary interpretation rather than a “positivist” (or “processual“) conception of science as its model.
I hope to draw out a couple of the points Johnson makes on this subject in future posts, applying them to the interpretation of one literary text in particular: namely, the Bible. But in the meantime, if you read only one book on archaeological theory this year ;-), then make it this one: Johnson is a clear, balanced and witty writer, and he is particularly strong on helping the reader understand why particular theoretical positions have emerged: the problems they sought to remedy, the errors or overstatements they sought to correct.