Sunday, December 21, 2014

Archaeology in France and Germany

Roman amphitheater in Paris
I just returned from a trip to Paris and Bonn. In Paris I sat on the dissertation defense committee of Marion Forest. Marion passed with highest honors. Her dissertation is a social-spatial analysis of sites on the Malpais de Zacapu in Michoacan, Mexico. This is a lava flow with several large, densely-packed settlements with extraordinary architectural preservation. Her dissertation is quite good, with lots of good spatial and architectural data, and some information on artifacts:

Forest, Marion
2014    L'organisation sociospatiale des agglomérations urbaines du Malpaís de Zacapu, Michoacán, Mexique (1250-1450 après J.-C.). Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology, Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Bonn Cathedral
Marion spent a semester at Arizona State University a couple of years ago, working with me and other members of our comparative urban project. After several days in Paris, including some time looking at medieval remains (see my post on these in Wide Urban World), I took the train to Germany to give a lecture at the University of Bonn. This was part of an interesting program called The Archaeology of Pre-Modern Economies, organized jointly by the Universities of Bonn and Cologne. I got to hang out with Nikolai Grube for a while, and I met some interesting people, working on a variety of topics, from the Roman economy to tree-ring dating medieval sites in Germany to fieldwork at the city founded by Genghis Khan for his capital (Karakorum).

This experience brought home to me some of the differences between archaeology in Europe and the U.S. Much of the research done by European archaeologists is far more empirical and detailed than is common among U.S. scholars. More data are presented, and analyzed in more detail, by European archaeologists. I know this in intimately, after reading more than 500 pages of Marion's dissertation in French! On the other hand, there is less of a concern with theory and comparison. This difference is well known, and I have heard various discussions of it over the years. Those discussions often bemoan the lack of concern with theory by European archaeologists. What good are all those data if they aren't being used to make some broader point? Too bad those Europeans aren't up on the latest theory.

While I agree partially with this sentiment, I think the data-heavy approach in Europe has some advantages over the more theory-obsessed archaeology in North American anthropological archaeology. Archaeological argumentation in anthropological archaeology has gotten sloppy, and theory now substitutes for empirical content in too many cases. Young scholars often seem more interested in using fashionable theory than in presenting rigorous data. I recall a discussion with an (unnamed) colleague a few years ago. She was expressing concern that a published paper had too much data and not enough theory (by the way, I once had a paper rejected from a geography journal for that reason!). I replied that in 50 years no one would care about her theory, but if her data were good (obtained by rigorous methods and well presented), it would continue to be useful long into the future. She was horrified. My economist friend Jose Lobo recently pointed out one thing that unites the two of us is that we both "worship at the altar of data." Amen.

So while a dose of theory and comparative perspectives would benefit many archaeological studies by European scholars, I think a good dose of empirical data presentation would equally benefit research by my North American colleagues. Theory is too easy; obtaining and presenting good data is much more difficult.

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