Why do we have history and archaeology? In the light of our understanding of ‘deep time’ Daniel Lord Smail argues that it is high time that the two disciplines were reunited.
Though obscure in other respects, 1936 was an important year for the philosophy of the human past. This was the year in which the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe published Man Makes Himself, a book that became one of the most widely read works of archaeology ever published. In the same year, R.G. Collingwood, the Oxford don, sat down to pen 36 lectures later published as The Idea of History, a landmark in historiography.
There is nothing to suggest that Collingwood read Man Makes Himself while writing his lectures, though we know that Childe, in later years, read Collingwood. The books themselves could not be more different in form, in substance and in their intended audience. Yet both authors, in their very different ways, had things to say about the curious fragmentation that afflicts the science of the human past. For, when you come to think of it, why do we have history and archaeology? This was not a question that motivated either Childe or Collingwood. But today, more than 70 years on, it is a question that is causing more and more people to scratch their heads. With enough scratching the answer becomes clear: there is no logical way to defend any division of human history. It is high time to reunite archaeology and history.
Yet such a project faces enormous institutional hurdles. Teaching mandates exclude archaeology from the history curriculum and departmental divisions prevent the easy flow of ideas. Visions of a unified history falter in the face of misguided insistence on methodological purity. The division of the human past was set in place more than a century ago, when the logic of ‘deep history’ was not yet apparent. Overcoming the institutional inertia involved will be the great challenge of the next decade.
So, as we work towards the reunion of history and archaeology, it is helpful to know that the growing desire for historical interdisciplinarity is not new. Since 1936, or thereabouts, history and archaeology have been on converging paths. There is a history to be written here, a history of how history and archaeology fell apart in the 19th century and then, with the help of figures such as Childe and Collingwood, came back together.
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