Trendy 90s Archaeological Theory Lives On In India

The Indian Express reports that according to Dr. Gautam Sengupta, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, “it is time for us to rethink our own ideas and concepts of archaeological analysis in order to combat the worldwide crisis in the discipline”. Disturbing words from a very powerful archaeologist! What’s going on!?

Though woefully ignorant of Indian archaeology, I have a reasonable grasp of Western European and US archaeology, and I believe I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in Scandinavia. And I have seen no sign of any worldwide crisis. Particularly not one that might be effectively mitigated by practitioners “rethinking their ideas and concepts of analysis”. What has Dr. Sengupta discovered?

The Indian Express quotes from a speech given yesterday by Sengupta at a graduation ceremony at the Deccan College in Pune. But though we are told that there is a problem, we do not learn specifically what the problem is, only a little about what Sengupta believes should be done to solve it.

“…archeology needs to reinvent itself. This is just the beginning and there is still a long way to go. This is the beginning to a more critical, interpretive, self-reflexive and holistic archaeology which wishes to understand the various dimensions of human behaviour in the past and the present.”

Critical, interpretive, self-reflexive and holistic. This, Dear Reader, is a clutch of outdated buzzwords from UK theoretical archaeology. The words are badges that used to identify the theoretically hip in about 1997, when Ian Hodder used them to market a new kind of fieldwork methodology that turned out not to be so new after all.

So, unless there was a lot more to Dr. Sengupta’s speech, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure any worried recent archaeology graduates of the Deccan College. There is no worldwide crisis in archaeology. The discipline does not need to reinvent itself. This is not the beginning and there is not a longer way to go than there was before. You need not strive for a more critical, interpretive, self-reflexive or holistic archaeology, as this has been tried and did not lead anywhere. As for understanding the various dimensions of human behaviour in the past and the present, that is just business as usual. Surely most of the graduates listening to the director general’s speech were completely aware of this.

Via History Hunters.

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20 thoughts on “Trendy 90s Archaeological Theory Lives On In India

  1. I’m not the only one thinks that extolling the virtues of self reflexive archaeology is up there with discovering you’re talking in prose! mind you for a movement dedicated to ‘democratic’ excavation (i.e. people who’ve taken time to study and specialise) the author credits on the ‘towards a reflexive archaeology’ publication spoke volumes…


  2. Anytime I hear/see the word ‘holistic’, I get the overwhelming urge to check my pockets, and make sure that I know where my purse is.


  3. Does anybody take anything said in a commencement or graduation speech seriously? From what I’ve seen, they’re mostly just vague hand-waving about how we should all Work Hard and Be Good. When I saw “Critical, interpretive, self-reflexive and holistic” I thought they were general-purpose buzzwords (like “paradigm shift” or “dialogue”) without real meanings, and could be applied to any discipline for equally limited effect. UK-based archaeology actually institutionalized these terms for a little while?


  4. Certain Swedish archaeologists were sufficiently impressed to publish an anthology in 2002 under the title (and I translate) “Reflexive field archaeology? Reflections of a paper session”. One of them was actually instrumental in denying me an academic scout badge just recently. He’s invested pretty heavily in various buzz words for the past quarter century.


  5. I assume that archaeologists in countries like India, China, and those in SE Asia are beginning to questionize the nationalist/culture historical archaeology that has dominated for quite some time. But there is, of course, no crisis anywhere.


  6. This is still pretty surprising to me. So, if I understand correctly, buried in the archaeological / anthropological literature of the last 15 years, are a set of clear definitions for these terms. Somebody can consistently say “this is a reflexive study” and “this is not an holistic study”, and so forth?


  7. Well, I have NO idea what he is worried about, but I am aware that Indian archeology is WAY subject to the machinations of ethnic/identity politics. Perhaps he is looking for a way out of that trap. Speaking to redundant descriptors, the one that always made me cringe: explicitly, as in “An explicitly scientific approach.” How about just “A scientific approach” or whatever kind of approach you please, without the baseball-bat-word in front of it, you know, just for emphasis. In case we might not notice how scientific we are.


  8. Critical means “wary of colonialist and sexist preconceptions”. Reflexive means “while questioning and discussing your fieldwork habits”. Holistic and interpretive mean nothing.


  9. So you read the Indian express account of our convocation ceremony! You are right, no one worried about what Sengupta meant. He was comparatively less verbose than many. We were enjoying our new convocation hall with semi decent seats (adequate for the few hrs of the ceremony). Ceremonial lamp had been lit and the new rangoli designs had been made by the women in the Sanskrit dictionary department. A years worth of the Sanksrit dictionary was released. Sengupta being there was good enough for us.
    The students were all dressed up. No gowns or hats, never has been.
    The function finished on time…Wow so wonderful.
    Then we all has a meal together. Some students had returned after years to get their degrees.


  10. Sheila, I’m glad you guys aren’t worried. I learn from Wikipedia that rangoli is sort of subcontinental sand painting, only with rice and spices. The article is a little difficult to understand though. “Their purpose is decoration and Sumngl.” Anybody care to whip it into shape? For the purpose of sumngl maybe?


  11. I seem to remember the Indian anthropologist Mohammad Talib introducing himself at Oxford and mentioning that he was a bit shocked to arrive in Oxford and find out that what was actually being taught there in the late 20th century wasn’t the Radcliffe-Brown inspired soc anth they were using in India. How Radcliffe-Brown was still considered the peak of anthropology in New Delhi until quite recently is a mystery. I guess that in terms of archaeology and the anthro disciplines, India is just behind the times. Lamentably.

    It’s nice to hear that our archaeological brethren aren’t in crisis. Social anthropology is still unfortunately divided, and most of those buzzwords are still popular in some circles. Not mine, I hasten to add.


  12. Some trends are still percolating through my part of the world. Thus the following sentance from a 2007 edition of Southeastern Archaeology:

    ” . . . the sense of alterity embodied in bannerstones at this point was likely contested and perhaps polysemic but nevertheless emphatic.”


  13. (OT) -Since progress requires discarding popular ideas of the past, in science as well as society…I include this link to show it is possible to do well without empire-building, wars or militant nationalism.

    “Sweden world’s most respected country: study”

    (having outlawed torture 250 years ago, the death sentence one century ago and spending two centuries ar peace might have something to do with positive sides of the local culture, my comment)
    -In the self-image survey, Sweden ranked 12th, an indication that Swedes are not as comfortable demonstrating national pride in public. “Generally, Swedes, when it comes to surveys and such, especially when talking to others, are very humble, but Swedes know this and are proud of their country. They are just not as comfortable talking about it. It might be part of the Swedish mental character to be a bit low-key and not boast too much about themselves,” [not exactly Tea Party style].

    Yes, I AM aware of the contradiction of boasting about humility, but I am not “Swedish”, but North Swedish, and I can write about the southerners all I want (“bragging” would require me to say that the Southerners got their good qualities from us, but I prefer to just hint at cause and effect). 🙂


  14. Hi, i am a undergraduate student of archaeology from MSU Baroda in India, i accept what you have said, Dr Sengupta seem to be misunderstanding the current trends in archaeology.But taking note of second remark,the Archaeology in India really needs to reinvent itself because of the un professionalism among the ASI.I would explain you this with a example,a site in Punjab[India] named Rupar was excavated in 1950s but the detailed report of this site hasn’t been written until now and the Archaeologist who excavated the site is on death bed so the report i think wouldn’t be written ever.This is the story of all the major sites,the lethargy of ASI has been the reason for backwardness of Indian archaeology.


  15. I attended two days of classes in Deccan College before shifting to another university in New Delhi, the capital, for precisely this and other reasons. There is in fact this archaic sense of traditional archaeology in India and the institutes here are only just starting to realize how outdated some of their methods are, nevermind the Archaeological survey of India, which takes the cake. Thankfully, there are professors and archaeologists (few and far between) in this country and elsewhere doing research in this country who are willing to use new methodology and bring more exciting ideas to the field (because if it wasn’t for them I don’t think I’d be pursuing this field at all)


  16. Sho, I’m a little confused now. Do you mean that Dr. Sengupta represents an “archaic sense of traditional archaeology” or that he is “willing to use new methodology and bring more exciting ideas to the field”? 90s theoretical jargon hardly fits either description, does it?


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