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Forum Kritische Archäologie

Interest in the political dimensions of archaeology has grown dramatically around the world. One of the outcomes has been a questioning of archaeological truth claims, which in turn has led to demands for the return of cultural property, questioning who may research, speak and write about the past of Others, and considerations of what kinds of relations we can and should develop to past Others. Today it is scarcely possible to speak about an ethically based, socially responsible archaeology without engaging with these themes.

Forum Kritische Archäologie has as its goal to further discussions of these and related issues, especially within the framework of the German-speaking archaeological community. [read more]



Call for Contributions:
The Production of Knowledge in Archaeology

This issue is the first in a series of contributions that will examine the production of archaeological knowledge. In the natural sciences, the field of science studies has existed since the 1970s. At first, the ethnographic view of laboratory work stood in the center, as exemplified in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1986). From this approach as well as other research within the framework of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and the Science, Technology and Society (STS) paradigm came longterm efforts to research the production of knowledge in archaeology. Today's growing interest in the reciprocal relationship between archaeological practice and research results has emerged from the convergence of two distinct disciplinary strands.

The first of these approaches investigates the archaeological production of knowledge in terms of networks of objects, information, and people. It involves an analytical detachment from motivations, interests, or intentions of different actors (e.g. Webmoor 2013). Neutral descriptions replace relations that were traditionally conceptualized as the result of human action and motivation. This shift amounts to a new perspective that analyzes interactions of things, institutions, people, and ideas from an external position. History, including discipline-specific history, plays at best a minor role, while direct observations of activities in the archaeological arena often lead to surprising insights, due to the detailed analysis of the role of things.

A second approach, archaeoethnography, is also concerned with the production of knowledge, but pursues it in a different way. Archaeoethnography includes the well-known "participant observation" of ethnography, but research "objects" are not "others", but rather archaeologists themselves. Matt Edgeworth (2006) as well as Yannis Hamilakis (Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos 2009) and Ian Hodder (2002) have examined the generation of archaeological knowledge in this sense. Here, in addition to the means used to conduct research, the historical background and ambitions of the persons involved as well as financial and political differences among project participants are also of interest.

The two approaches address both banal and highly complex relationships in the daily practice of archaeology. How are decisions made about where to locate excavation units? Which tacit preconceptions act as preconditions for approaches to research and for concrete projects? What influence do specific tools, devices, and documentation methods have on the practice of excavation, including subsequent interpretations? How do mechanisms of exclusion work in terms of the (non-) participation in archaeological knowledge production? How do measuring instruments determine the classification of archaeological materials and the graphic representation of sites and non-sites?

These questions illustrate only some facets of the extremely diverse realm of archaeological knowledge production: This complex field is virtually inexhaustible, and our list could be endlessly extended. The history of archaeology is not simply an accumulation of knowledge about the past, nor is it an accumulation of ever more accurate knowledge acquired via the use of innovative methods. Rather, the methods for acquiring new knowledge and the idea of which knowledge is judged useful or legitimate stand in a dialectical relationship to one another.To give just one example, large-scale, regional and supra-regional syntheses are still seen as the main objectives of archaeological research. This understanding leads to the ever increasing use of specific analytical means such as satellite photos and the software needed to evaluate them. On the other hand, small-scale household analyses, an archaeology of daily life, or the question of intentionality in the past have had their heyday but are nowadays pushed into the background (see Robb and Pauketat 2013). What are the reasons for these changes?

The goal of the contributions under this rubric is to examine in detail the relationship between procedures involved in the production of knowledge and the types of knowledge that emerge from them. The contributions to this series will be marked with the signet "Knowledge Production in Archaeology" and a consecutive number, so that over time the threads of the theme can be easily tracked through the journal.

We open this series with a contribution from the pen of Susanne Grunwald on the subject of cartography and its history in the field of European prehistoric archaeology. Interested readers are invited to contribute to the ongoing dialogue. Please send your suggestions to:

We mourn the death of Khaled al-Asa'ad, the retired director of antiquities at Palmyra, who was killed on 18 August 2015.

His brutal murder highlights a new dimension of violent politicization of archaeology in the conflicts currently raging in many parts of Western Asia. The killing of a person because of his engagement with archaeological remains and knowledge must compel us as archaeologists to reflect on the way in which our profession is practiced and perceived by publics at large. A bridge has been crossed – from the destruction of material remains of the past to the murder of a person because of his archaeological work.

Already before this particular tragic event, workers and guards who were employed by foreign excavations - often for significant portions of their lives – suffered from repression and violence by IS and perhaps other Islamist groups that was directed against themselves, their families and their homes because of their relationship with foreign teams and loyalty towards archaeological remains.

As foreigners whose projects have been hosted and made welcome by local communities, ranging from archaeological colleagues to the workers employed by us in the field and families who hosted us in their homes, we have the obligation to reflect critically on whether and how our actions – or non-actions – may endanger them. It is not enough to condemn the murder of Khaled al-Asa'ad. The current situation in Western Asia emerges out of a history of colonial brutality and carving up of territories without consulting the wishes of those living there. It is common knowledge that many archaeologists have been complicit in this colonial history. In more recent times our work has often been conducted under the umbrella of authoritarian regimes, contributing to histories that support them.

The time is long overdue for us - especially those of us who work in foreign countries - to address the ways in which our research and our profession contribute, even if unintentionally, to the perpetuation of injustice toward others. Have we paid attention to the interests of local communities where we conduct our research? How do we handle ideological prescriptions from authorities: opportunistically "for the sake of knowledge production" or critically in terms of the effects, direct or indirect, on the local populations?

We need to develop working ethics for an archaeology that takes local communities seriously. One major element is the necessity to engage on an equal level with the local communities where we intend to carry out our work prior to the start of field research. We must also rethink the boundaries between science and civil society as well as reassess a dangerous parallel between religion and academic knowledge in terms of their respective claims to a privileged access to truth. Such ethics must accompany us during times of fieldwork but also once our immediate working relations have ended or been interrupted - in the extreme case by war as in Western Asia at the moment.


ISSN: 2194-346X