‘AS LONG AS EVER I’VE KNOWN IT…’ I

Friday, August 20, 2010



On folklore and archaeology by AMY GAZIN-SCHWARTZ AND CORNELIUS HOLTORF

CONSTRUCTING THE PAST IN FOLKLORE AND ARCHAEOLOGY

Everyone concerned with the past—archaeologist, historian, politician, storyteller, priest, parent—constructs ideas and images of the past from materials available in the present. Through these ideas and images, we invest meaning in past events; but these meanings may differ according to our perspectives. We view the past through the lenses of the present; indeed, people have probably always done so. Archaeology and folklore are two of the many lenses through which the past is given meaning, and it is the aim of this article to explore and understand differences and similarities in how archaeology and folklore create, and are created through, ideas about the past. In the intersections between these similarities and differences, we hope to find new lenses, through which we can begin to create alternative images of people’s histories. The articles that follow will explore the meanings people attach to the past, or to artefacts associated with the past. They will demonstrate the value of developing a dialogue between different systems of meaning. What aspects of the past, time, material culture are remembered, retold in folklore, and made meaningful in popular culture? How may such memories, stories and practices inform archaeological interpretations?

We do not seek to define a new field, folklore and archaeology (comparable to zooarchaeology or ethnoarchaeology); rather, we have set out to explore the possibilities of developing an interdisciplinary dialogue, and making this dialogue fruitful to the future development of both disciplines. In contrast to a common archaeological practice of borrowing methods, models or data from another field, we want to open a discourse between the fields, believing that a conversation about the many methods, models and sets of data that already exist in the two disciplines will enrich both, by creating new approaches to thinking about common questions, and indeed by raising new questions. The wide range of authors and approaches in our volume gives an indication of the diverse realms this dialogue may address. The multiple ways in which the connections between archaeology and folklore may serve, stimulate or trouble archaeology reveal the potential for a dialogue at the interface of the two fields.

In our introduction, we will briefly review some of the historical background for a study of folklore and archaeology, outlining the origins of both fields of study in a common antiquarian background and tracing the divergence of the two fields over the past century. We will then outline several lines of inquiry through which a study of folklore can enrich and broaden archaeological constructions of the past. First, we will deal with questions about historical accuracy, which lie at the heart of archaeologists’ worries about the reliability of folklore as evidence or data for archaeological interpretation. We will argue that this concern is based on limited views of both folklore evidence and more conventional archaeological evidence. Next we will address the value of folklore for understanding the history of monuments and the multiple meanings those monuments carry throughout their histories. Finally, we will give a brief overview of other areas where attention to folklore can inform archaeological interpretation and practice: issues of time, of identity, of the politics and sociology of archaeology as a discipline, and of the relationships between academic archaeology and the public. These issues do not define the limits of the dialogue between archaeology and folklore; we merely set them out as first steps in demonstrating the value of these connections.

Our thinking is grounded in four key convictions about archaeology, folklore and the creation of history.

First, our arguments are not based in the belief that folklore contains accurate and reliable representations of past behaviour, beliefs or events. The reliability of folklore for historical information has been, as we will discuss further below, the subject of often contentious argument. Our approach seeks to move beyond this problem. Folklore is not the only field where a concern with historical accuracy is problematic; archaeology too gives us the past as perceived and interpreted by present people. Neither field can be relied upon to tell us about the actual past. Folklore does give us a broader understanding of the past as perceived, remembered, and made significant by both past and present people.

Second, we are interested in what monuments and other archaeological objects meant (and mean) to people in their respective lifeworlds and how they were (and are) used in the formation of collective identities. In this context, the antiquity of a particular element of folklore is less important than its significance for interpreting meaning. As interpretive archaeologies have come to understand, the past is a creation of everyone who interprets material remains or fragments of tradition from past people’s lives, whether in the form of folklore or archaeological study. This past can be crucial for people’s understanding of the cultural landscape and their identities therein. Where these identities and different approaches to the past conflict, it is important to develop ways of establishing a dialogue among them.

These problems of accuracy and meaning are fundamental to the history of archaeological uses of folklore. Previously, when archaeologists attempted to apply folklore to archaeological materials, they often found that folk tradition and archaeological remains did not match. Rather than simply rejecting folklore as unreliable and inaccurate, several authors deal with these problems and find that, when folklore is analysed (as archaeological materials have to be analysed), it sometimes does provide plausible interpretation for those materials, whether or not they can prove unbroken continuity of transmission.

Finally, archaeological approaches to sites and monuments most frequently focus on the time of their construction and intensive use. However, visible monuments have life histories as well, extending from their construction up until the present. Folklore reflects some of the later interpretations of prehistoric sites, and contemporary folklore constitutes one important part of present-day understandings of monuments. It thus supplements recent concerns about the role and interpretation of the past in the present, which have mainly focused on various aspects of ‘managed’ heritage.

It will be argued throughout that folklore is valuable to archaeologists because it offers us alternative ideas about the past that counter our tendency to portray everyone in all time as versions of ourselves, and because it provides knowledge about the continued importance and therefore the later history of archaeological monuments.

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