‘AS LONG AS EVER I’VE KNOWN IT…’ II

Friday, August 20, 2010


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

Farmer Anders Axel Petersson (1870–1930) shows an offering kettle to an antiquarian surveyor in 1927 in Sorunda parish, Södermanland, Sweden. The kettle is a socalled ‘giant’s kettle’. In folk tradition this geological phenomenon was supposed to be a kettle used by the giants that originally inhabited the land Source: The Antiquarian-Topographical Archive, Stockholm
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
Both archaeologists and folklorists trace the origins of their disciplines to the works of antiquarians in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, but they view antiquarians through different lenses (for detailed accounts of the history of archaeology and of folklore studies respectively, see Bahn 1996; Daniel 1980, 1981; Dorson 1968b; Newall 1980; Trigger 1989). Archaeologists focus on antiquarian recording of archaeological monuments—Stukeley’s detailed drawings of Avebury, or Inigo Jones’ and Stukeley’s plans of Stonehenge before some of the stones had fallen—as examples of antiquarian concern with material culture and monuments of prehistoric Britain. They see this concern prefiguring archaeological interests in these same aspects of the past (Ucko et al. 1991).

Folklorists, on the other hand, are more likely to note the same antiquarians’ descriptions of ‘popular antiquities’, which included traditions, legends, tales, sayings, proverbs, songs and activities. Antiquarians themselves rarely distinguished between observing ancient material relics and recording ‘relics’ of ancient practices or beliefs in the form of folk rituals and tales. They viewed the latter as ‘sharing with material remains the same character of misshapen fragments surviving from a bygone day’ (Fenton 1993:7).

These fragments, both material and oral, are viewed by antiquarians, folklorists and archaeologists alike as fast disappearing relics of the past (see, for example, Bruford and Macdonald 1994; A.Carmichael 1928; Henderson [1879] 1967; Macpherson 1768; Thoms [1846] 1965; preservation legislation). This tradition of the threat to heritage materials follows on antiquarians’ convictions that they were preserving information about the nature of the ‘vulgar’ people, reflecting the original cultures, character and histories of their nations (Wright [1846] 1968:41). Whenever relics of the past have been recorded, they have been thought to be in imminent danger of being lost for all time. With regard to folklore, however, we agree with those who have argued that this concern is largely based on a misunderstanding of its character:

Folklore is not a phenomenon that is dying out or decaying or showing any signs of being in a decline… Certainly it ages, and one part of it and then another may die off. But it is also capable of breeding; it grows, it spreads, it feeds on other matter, and it has the greatest ability to adapt to changing circumstances. (Opie and Opie 1980:68)

Archaeological sites, too, were threatened by destruction, through development and agricultural intensification. Antiquarians, and later archaeologists, therefore recorded them as comprehensively as they could, in some cases knowing that their records were likely to be all that future generations of archaeologists would have. For example, on the island of Rügen in Germany only 54 megalithic monuments are preserved today; archaeological research makes the most of Friedrich von Hagenow’s map and description from 1829, when 236 megaliths were still known (Schuldt 1972:10, 16–18). Archaeological concern with preservation and recording continues today, through the practices of cultural resource (heritage) management (CRM) and through other surveys like those conducted by the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists on the island of Raasay, Scotland (see for example Macdonald and Wood 1997).

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