Jonathan M. Hall’s Artifact and Artifice

January 16, 2014
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photoIn Artifact and Artifice: Classic Archaeology and the Ancient HistorianJonathan M. Hall considers the case for archaeological history as a form of living forensics, in which the relationship between text and material—dirt and words—allows us to understand the possibilities (and limits) of using archaeological evidence to write about the past. By focusing on methodology—and its relationship to pedagogy, the construction of the archaeological imaginary, and how it determines historical approaches to antiquity—Hall helps to cast the present and future of the field. At the same time, he makes use of nine case studies, or “cautionary tales,” which explore how previous scholars, themselves knowledgeable agents, correlated textual and physical evidence, “artfully” creating both material objects and written discourse as products that need to be interpreted with art and skill.

From the book’s opening pages:

Can the geology and geochemistry of the Delphi region offer clues to why the oracle of Apollo was so highly regarded in the ancient world? Should the proposed redating of a single temple cause us to revise the chronology we assign to Classical art? Why did the Athenians wait so long before repairing their temples after the Persian invasion of 480–479 BCE? Can we trace the footprints of the historical Sokrates in the Athenian agora? Are the human remains discovered in a Macedonian tomb at Vergina those of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great? Was there a historical individual named Romulus and did he found Rome in 753 BCE? Are the literary accounts of the fall of the Roman monarchy and the establishment of the Republic reflected in the construction of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus? Have we discovered the Palatine residence of the emperor Augustus? And is the tomb beneath the High Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that of the apostle Peter?. . .  Above all else, however, the choice of these specific case studies has been guided by the fact that they should be relatively familiar to the reader because, ultimately, this is a book about historical method—that is, how the practitioner evaluates archaeological evidence against the textual documents that have traditionally dominated the field of ancient history. It thus subscribes to the view that history is not simply a matter of memorizing and synthesizing an immense amount of disparate, but seemingly self-evident, data—a consequence, perhaps, of the fact that we often us the word “history” as a synonym for “the past.” Rather, history is an active, forensic practice, which involves engaging with, testing and interrogating the fragmentary clues that have survived from the past. There are no hard and fast “rules” for how one undertakes this practice—which is why I generally avoid offering definitive resolutions to the cautionary tales that follow, preferring to leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But there are, I believe, “more” and “less” methodologically sound ways to proceed, and this ultimately depends on the degree of self-critical awareness we bring to the project. In this sense, the route that we take is just as important and rewarding as the destination to which we are headed, since, in confronting our own assumptions and value judgements, we inevitably have to engage in a profoundly humanistic project of self-knowledge.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Philological Association and the Archaeological Institute of America, Hall presented ideas surrounding the book in the panel discussion titled Humanistic versus Social Scientific Approaches to Ancient History; above is a snapshot from editor Susan M. Bielstein capturing Hall in action.

To read more about Artifact and Artifice, click here.

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