Past and Present

The problem of how to make valid statements about the past while living and working in the present is often considered to be the most important challenge for archaeological and indeed historical interpretation, because a fundamental split is perceived between past and present (see Le Goff 1992). Many, perhaps most, archaeologists believe that valid statements about the past are only those which represent the past 'accurately'. Their problem is epistemology.

The desire to produce 'accurate' statements about the past is often associated with an empiricist or positivistic methodology that limits itself to making statements about issues which can be verified/falsified or tested against material evidence found in the ground (e.g. Piggott 1966; Clark 1968). In this view, the only legitimate statements about the past are those that are either directly inferred from (or at least not contradicted by) the evidence, or able to make testable predictions about future finds. This approach does not allow the study of later prehistoric cultural memory, because all claims what people may have thought would merely be 'speculations' that cannot be validated or tested by archaeological means (see e.g. Veit 1993: 40, note 133). Statements about the meanings of the past and ancient monuments in later prehistory would only be accepted under the condition that they were based directly on archaeological evidence or could be tested in the future. This remains the same, if interpretations derive from ethnographic analogies, which are often seen as the most important epistemological tool for identifying things as what they were, and for getting ideas of how to interpret the archaeological evidence. Analogies are usually still expected to be verified/not-falsified by archaeological finds or testable against the evidence.

In this work, I make no attempts at impressing archaeologists of this school. My interpretations are neither directly verifiable (or not-falsifiable) from the evidence, nor testable. My discussion is not built on very elaborate analyses or completely water-tight arguments. I do not think that I have to prove either my hypotheses or my skills, in order to make 'valid' statements about the past. It is obvious that after studying the same evidence, different conclusions could have been reached equally well. The above-mentioned archaeologists may well consider such a statement as admitting failure. But I do not agree with them. I have never felt the wish to preclude alternative interpretations, thus denying to other people what I find desirable myself: knowing the past in my own terms. I cannot even say whether my own approach is 'better', in any way, than other approaches are, or could be. I am quite happy with what I have achieved in this dissertation, but your opinion about my work, which I would be delighted to hear, will obviously depend on what is important to you. It would make me curious, not concerned, if you preferred a different approach or interpretation.

All I set out to do was to interpret and make sense today of a phenomenon of the past. My interest was in exploring the later prehistoric meanings of ancient monuments. I have aimed at constructing viable interpretations of what megaliths meant a long time after they were built, with reference to archaeological material. Adopting a Radical Constructivist philosophy, epistemology was never my concern.

To me, past and present are not divided but firmly connected and united (cf. Kohli-Kunz 1973; Hodder 1992: 176-9). We all already understand and know at least parts of the past (without necessarily investing much effort in gaining this knowledge), and the same applies to people who lived in later prehistoric societies. The past is, in my understanding always has been and only can be, a part of the present. In fact it is difficult to divide the two, and perhaps impossible to separate different periods of the past as they are all part of today. The past exists nowhere but in the history culture and cultural memory of a society and in contemporaneous understanding. The past as it exists in a given society, is necessarily relevant to that society—or this society would have a different past. Archaeologists (and others) therefore always represent the past: as it is. George Herbert Mead once stated (1929: 240):

"we can say that the only pasts and futures of which we are cognizant arise in human experience. They have the extreme variability which attaches to human undertakings. Every generation rewrites its history—and its history is the only history it has of the world. While scientific data maintain a certain uniformity within these histories, so that we can identify them as data, their meaning is dependent upon the structure of the history as each generation writes it."

In history culture, the past is messy; different periods and regions overlap with each other. In this thesis, I create connections between monuments built in the Neolithic, their later prehistoric receptions, their historical and present receptions, and related sites and topics elsewhere or of other times, without claiming that all these are analogous entities.

In my approach I aim to take 'contextuality' beyond Hodder's original understanding of the term (Hodder 1986: chapter 7; but see now Shanks and Hodder 1995: 15-6; Hodder 1997: 193-4). Hodder's contextual archaeology of the 1980s maintains the above-mentioned split between past and present; it is particularly careful regarding getting statements about the past right (Hodder 1986: 118; Olsen 1990: 198; Johnsen and Olsen 1992; Tilley 1993: 8-9). But as discussed above, my own ambitions are different. The contexts in which meanings of monuments are studied and interpreted in this work are predominantly not the 'synchronic' contexts of particular later prehistoric and historic periods (for that, see Sopp 1999), but

Underlying all four contexts of my argument is the basic assumption that the past is firmly linked with, and a part of, every present rather than something lost that has to be painfully regained from the evidence preserved.

There is thus a symmetry between my role in the present and the role of those later prehistoric people which I study: both interpret the distant past in their own terms. But this is not a problem or difficulty for my work. To me [and to my friend Kathryn who is really enjoying this proof-reading], it is its beauty.


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Hodder, Ian (1992) Theory and Practice in Archaeology. London and New York: Routledge.

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

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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 10 July 2002