Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Insight: Archaeology and History Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by James Wiseman


(Illustration by Ray Bartkus)

In a provocative essay published in the March/April 2000 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY (see "Archaeology's Perilous Pleasures"), the distinguished historian David Lowenthal admonishes archaeologists to acknowledge "the harm as well as the good" that has resulted from archaeology's alleged "devotion to priority, to tangibility, and to contemporary relevance," and "to face up more frankly to often justified public doubts about the rectitude of the discipline." As Christopher Chippindale comments in his response (see "Archaeology's Proper Place"), Lowenthal's ideas are mostly "misdirected," and have less to do with archaeologists and their practice than with the nature of time, contemporary society, and historians themselves. There is, however, some steel behind Lowenthal's gentle admonitions and expressions of concern, and he touches on some issues--the relation of archaeology to nationalism, politics, and preservation--that others deal with in harsher terms. In some cases, Lowenthal's complaints are not just "misdirected." He is operating under some delusions about archaeology and archaeologists. In his column, Wiseman takes up the three attributes of archaeology from which Lowenthal claims the discipline's current public popularity arises, and which are simultaneously attractive and troublesome to him: antiquity, tangibility, and contemporary social and political issues.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

* See also Always a Handmaiden--Never a Bride: A Historical Archaeologist Explores the Divide between Archaeologists and Historians.
* Read the debate helping to bridge the gap between archaeology and history.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America