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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Talking the talk

By Rachael Sparks, on 23 April 2012

Behind each dig and archaeological display is a dilemma. Just how do we translate a distant and unattainable past into a recognizable product for present consumption? When somebody sees an object, their first reaction is usually ‘what is it, and what is it for?’ It’s our job to try and answer those kinds of questions.

Giving something a name is easy enough; its the second part that provides the challenge. To be perfectly honest, we don’t really know why figurines of fat naked women were all the rage in prehistoric Europe. Is there any real reason to argue for their use as ancient fertility symbols over pornographic aides, other than the desire to seem professional rather than voyeuristic?

The Venus of Willendorf. Perhaps the most famous fat naked female figurine of them all. Mother-goddess or the first mother-in-law joke?

There are no guidebooks to the past –  just supposition, inference, and sometimes plain guesswork. OK, so it’s not completely random – we base our ideas on present day material culture, and our understanding of how groups and individuals seem to function. But then comes the leap of faith, when we try to transpose this back onto past societies. Were they really like us? How much of their behaviour was dictated by what we think of as basic human emotions and needs, how much decided by cultural or environmental context? Can we ever really know?

With so much determined by how we think in the here and now, it is hardly surprising that archaeological theories experience a periodic ebb and flow. Academic thought has its own fashions, and archaeologists are regularly swamped by scientific tsunamis, where a new approach upsets the old guard, leads to some lively conferences, and ultimately rewrites our interpretation of the past. This is of course a good thing, and stops everyone becoming insufferably smug. But it can leave the public behind, when museum displays fail to keep pace with changes at the pointy end of the discipline.

So put the ‘ritual object’ down on the floor, step away from it slowly, don’t make any sudden suppositions and keep your arguments where we can see them. You never know what trigger-happy new ideas might be waiting in the wings.

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