Beyond Analogies

Analogy in Archaeology

Analogies, in particular ethnographic analogies, have often been held to be central for archaeological interpretation. Virtually all proponents of the use of analogies in archaeological interpretation share the conviction that (only) analogies can improve our knowledge about the past as it really was. Manfred Eggert, for instance, stated recently (1995: 36; my translation), "non-literary archaeological sources are neutral to interpretation and regarding their content they are thus only interpretable with the help of analogies." Analogy involves information being transferred from a well-known (historic or ethnographic) 'source of analogy' to a partly unknown (archaeological) 'subject of analogy'. In many of the discussions about analogy, the big question is only: under which conditions and for which exact purposes what sort of analogies should, or should not, be employed by archaeologists (e.g. Ascher 1961; Wobst 1978; Hodder 1982b; Orme 1981; Wylie 1985; Murray and Walker 1988).

Ethnographic parallels, as survivals from prehistory, were already important to many of the early antiquarians, much as experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology played key roles in the processual archaeology of the 1960s and 1970s (see Binford 1972: part I), and ethnographic research about material culture led to the development of post-processual archaeologies in the 1980s (Hodder 1982a; 1982b). While discussions about the use of analogy in archaeology have, however, somewhat faded away in anglo-american archaeology of the 1990s, they are very much alive in contemporary Germany, where the use of analogy has been one of the few theoretical issues that has always attracted interest and open discussion among archaeologists (see most recently Veit 1994; Gramsch and Reinhold 1996).

From analogy to metaphor...

Analogies are based on com-parisons, Ver-gleiche.

"Typically, when a constructive account is given of the 'logic' of analogy, it begins with the observation that ... analogical inference consists of the selective transposition of information from source to subject on the basis of a comparison that, fully developed, specifies how the 'terms' compared are similar, different, or of unknown likeness." (Wylie 1985: 93)

The quote underlines what archaeological arguments by analogy always do: to a larger or lesser extent, they equate a part of the distant past with a part of the present (or the recent past). I agree that past and present cannot be separated. But the equation of the two, if only partly, makes me suspicious, because attempts to re-present the past presuppose an original split between the two. Analogy becomes a way of discovering the past as it was; it does not only link source and subject of analogy with each other, but also both with an ontology of a dichotomous past and present and an epistemology of representation (Tilley 1996: 1; cf. Benhabib 1984; Tyler 1986). Such ambitions have been disputed by recent proponents of interpretive approaches in archaeology such as Christopher Tilley who stated (1993: 20):

"The key point is to give up the attempt to mimic the past in discourse but to produce texts that trace multiple connections between fragments of the past as constituted in the present."

Replacing the monopoly of analogy, Tilley (1996: esp. introduction and epilogue) has recently discussed metaphor and metonymy as helpful tools for archaeological interpretation:

"The great excitement of archaeology, and why it is worthwhile pursuing is no longer that of discovery. It is an intellectual networking of potential connections between things, in time and in space, to make sense of the past. Exploring these connections involves emplotment, metaphor and metonymy, creating a story and unravelling the potential meanings of artefacts by tracing their relationships to others." (Tilley 1996: 4)
"Understanding the vital role of metaphor and metonymy in discourse leads to the ... viewpoint: the hallmark of all archaeological writing is the imaginative faculty. Our relationship to the past is a metaphorical one, and can be no other. We are not transparently representing the real in our discourses: we are creating it." (Tilley 1996: 339)

Metaphors transfer meaning from one object or entity to another, thereby making sense of something in a different way. They prompt us see one thing as another, without saying it literally (cf. Davidson 1978). Metaphors translate. They are tools for the interpreter of the past. Metonymy transfers meaning from a part to the whole, thereby interpreting something as part of a larger context.

For Tilley, metaphor and metonymy are both forms of analogy (Tilley 1996: 338), but I do not find it useful to maintain the term and concept of analogy (as I have used it above) in the context of these alternative ways of making sense.

"Analogies seek to explain by stripping down, by making something simple, while metaphors, I think, tend to build up an image, add to and 'enrich'." (Chris Fowler 9.12.1996, e-mail comm.)

...and beyond

Besides metaphor and metonymy there are further alternatives to the method of analogy, according to which different entities, contexts and ideas are still being connected in a meaningful way with each other, but not equated with the past—note that not all are methods:

Famously, Hodder stated in 1982 that "all archaeology is based on analogy" (1982b: 9). But a case could certainly also be made that all archaeology is based on metaphors and metonymies, hermeneutical understanding, association, rhizomes, montage and collage, puzzles, actant-networks, or units of 'hypermedia'-type information.

Overcoming analogies

Analogy becomes questionable as a general basis of archaeology also by looking at how archaeologists and other scientists work in practice: with spontaneous intuitions and associations, metaphors, suggestions, chance, creativity and fiction (cf. Feyerabend 1975; Tilley 1996: 337f.). These practices of archaeological work can inform its methods. Rational analogies, however, tend to obscure what archaeologists actually do.

In this work, I am openly making connections between ancient monuments such as megaliths in later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the same monuments in later history and in the present, and various other monuments in other contexts and at other times. But these links are not meant to be taken as analogies through which we could gain a better knowledge of the prehistoric context of monuments, as discussed by Ulrich Veit (1994). Like in advertising, I want to stimulate the imagination, make sense and persuade by evocation and provocation, rather than try to convince by rational argument alone. Much is to be read between the pages (cf. Tyler 1986).

But I have not adopted this approach so that I can be ambiguous and vague enough in order to please everyone, nor do I try to avoid being held responsible for what I say. The reason is rather that I am dealing with a subject matter that is full of uncertainties and open questions. In this situation, I am provoking connections which are actively exploring new avenues for interpretation. They are stretching out our current understandings of monuments.

I am not interested in establishing certainties about the past by regaining knowledge that is lost, but in extending possibilities for making sense of the past in the present.


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Benhabib, Seyla (1984) Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to Jean-François Lyotard. New German Critique 33 (Fall 1984), 103-126.

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Davidson, Donald (1978) What Metaphors Mean. Critical Inquiry 5, 31-47.

Eggert, Manfred K.H. (1995) Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte: Zur Relativierung eines forschungsgeschichtlichen Mythologems. Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte 16, 33-38.

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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.

Tilley, Christopher (1996) An Ethnography of the Neolithic. Early Prehistoric Societies in Southern Scandinavia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tyler, Stephen A. (1986) Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document. In: J.Clifford and G.E.Marcus (eds) Writing Culture, pp. 122-140. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press.

Veit, Ulrich (1994) Von Mykene bis Madagaskar: Europäische Megalithik und ethnographische Vergleiche. Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 35, 353-381.

Wobst, Martin (1978) The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the ethnographic record in Archaeology. American Antiquity 43, 303-309.

Wylie, Alison (1985) The reaction against analogy. In: M.Schiffer (ed) Archaeological Method and Theory 8, pp. 63-112. London: Academic Press.

© Cornelius Holtorf