Interpretive approaches in archaeology

Interpretive approaches consider 'interpretation' to be the most appropriate term for describing what archaeologists do, and always have done, when making claims about the past.

"All archaeologies are interpretative. It is just that some texts appear to claim otherwise" (Tilley 1993: 4; similarly Shanks and Hodder 1995: 8, 28).

Archaeological evidence cannot be dug up, ordered and analysed without interpretation. Archaeology necessarily involves the translation of meaning into the present; this is done by archaeologists and others who act as interpreters. Interpretation is seen as a means of creative expression, not merely a necessary tool.

"In the process of interpreting we, in effect, remake the world of material culture, reinscribe it in a new frame of reference" (Tilley 1993: 6).

The evidence underdetermines interpretations and therefore does not prevent, but allow such creativity (Shanks and Hodder 1995: 10; Tilley 1993: 6f.). It is impossible to separate past and present in archaeological interpretations. Archaeology becomes a craft in the present (Shanks 1992).

The aim of archaeological interpretation is not to produce 'true' statements about the past, but to evoke intelligibility of the past and its remains in the present. Archaeologists and others make sense of the past by establishing connections. Such an approach can overcome long-established worries of epistemology in archaeology, by positively accepting historical interpretations as constructions of the present. A similar, but more general argument has been put forward by the philosophers Günter Abel and Hans Lenk discussing Interpretationismus (Abel 1988) and Interpretationskonstrukte (Lenk 1993).

In this e-monograph I have accepted the invitation of interpretive theory to be creative and take interpretation seriously as the art of understanding. I am not so much trying to reconstruct what once was, but to make sense of certain phenomena from my own perspective in the present.


Abel, Günter (1988) Realismus, Pragmatismus, Interpretationismus. Zu neueren Entwicklungen in der Analytischen Philosophie. Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 13 (3), 51-67. (Followed by a response from Hans Lenk and a reply.)

Lenk, Hans (1993) Interpretationskonstrukte: zur Kritik der interpretatorischen Vernunft. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Shanks, Michael and Ian Hodder (1995) Processual, postprocessual and interpretive archaeologies. In: I.Hodder, M.Shanks, A.Alexandri, V.Buchli, J.Carman, J.Last and G.Lucas (eds) Interpreting Archaeology. Finding meaning in the past, pp. 3-29. London: Routledge.

Tilley, Christopher (1993) Introduction: Interpretation and a Poetics of the Past. In: C.Tilley (ed.) Interpretative Archaeology, pp. 1-27. Oxford: Berg.

© Cornelius Holtorf