Archaeology & Memory

“I can see that an artisitic cycle, as the glyphs on a Maya stele, or the painting in an Eyptian tomb, may be read as a text. I can even concede that a building, the worl of a single architect or designer, may be seen in this light… as the product of a single human mind, the analogue of the “writer” of the text. Even here, the analogue is not a strong one, for it is a feature of written text that they are in essence linear: the words need to be in th right order. One of the distinguishing features of the visual arts is that the lineal order need not matter… When we turn to an archaeological site consisiting of a palimpsest of structures and rubbish pits, constructed and deposited at different periods, the analogy breaks down altogether.”

Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, Cambridge University Press 1987

Dale Dunning, Palimpsest II, detail

To a greater or lesser extent, in our everydayness we are constantly facing such fundamental problems, like the nature of our being, the nature and scope of our knowledge, the relationships between truth, belief, perception. More or less consciously we constantly ask metaphysical and ontological questions about the most general features of reality, such as: existence, time and space, the relationship between mind and body, objects and their properties, wholes and their parts, events, processes, and causation. Therefore, Philosophy seems to be something immanent and inherent to the human beings.

Scholars are struggling with the concepts of Time, Space, Continuance and Memory from the very beginning. Aristotle perceives Time as cumulative and Memory as a process going from an affectation in the past to a perception in the present. He doesn’t see a clear distinction between past and present. The subject of the memory belongs to the past while the perception of it belongs to the immediate present.

“… the present is the object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past.”                                                                                                                

Aristotle, On Memory and Reminiscence, originally in Ross, W. D. (Ed.) (1930) The works of Aristotle (vol. 3). Oxford: Clarendon Press

Archaeology, considered as an academic discipline, is engaged in the study of human activity in the past, through the analysis of artifacts, ecofacts, architecture, landscape, and any other evidences of human activity in the world over the centuries. Nowadays some researchers depart from the above mentioned definition of archaeology and emphasise the study of material culture (i.a. biography of things), regardless of the time of their creation.

By the glossary of psychological terms, Memory is the ability to encode, store and retrieve information, associations, emotions, sensory sensations, based on the mental processes of learning, retention, recall, and recognition and maintained over periods of time. We know that there is a memory in humans, to some extent in some animals and in a form of data storage in computers. This is all what is scientifically defined, for now.

Perhaps artifactsartworks, architecture and landscapes are materialized memories – our reaction to being in the world and its habitation? According to Marzena Żylińska, a Polish researcher dealing with neuropedagogy, our way of thinking, understanding phenomena and processing of information depend on how the life story carves our brain. The structure of the neural network may have a big impact on the way we perceive the world and react to it (Żylińska 2013).

In addition to the brain, the human body itself is a memory medium. On the body, as in a diary or in a chronicle, the history of a person’s life experiences, the subsequent social roles, initiations and rituals, another phases of life and illness can be saved, until the death and the stage of fossilization. Archaeology of the body has proceeded from two theoretical positions: the body as the scene of display and the body as artifact. Today, the body as a site of lived experience, a social body, and site of embodied agency, is replacing prior static conceptions of an archaeology of the body as a public, legible surface (Rosemary A. Joyce 2005).

And what about the other non-human beings? Biological and physical properties of the trees (e.g. Maximilian Frąckowiak, Kornelia Kajda, Dawid Kobiałka 2014) and rocks (e.g. Andrzej Rozwadowski 2009), such as their longevity, durability, resistance to various external factors, texture, shape, plasticity, availability and place in the landscape, have been noticed and were creatively used by man. Nowadays also these forms of human activity can be treated as memory mediums, hence the new directions of studies on memory of things, memory of landscape and the like.

It is hard to imagine that one day humanity was able to cope so well without most of the modern items. A piece of rock, leather, wood or bone, and a few other natural ingredients, was enough to give vent to the emotions and create a beautiful cave paintings or a simple instrument. Perhaps in the darkness of the damp cave or in spontaneous dance in the light of the fire, people truly experienced their fragile existence on this unique and beautiful planet, if only for a while.

Dąbrówka Stępniewska

Dąbrówka Stępniewska –  archaeologist and teacher of Polish as a Foreign Language, as well as lecturer in Polish Culture for Foreigners. A great enthusiast of cultural anthropology, linguistics, philosophy and art, who tries to keep up with the changing world and at least understand it a little.

Special thanks to Dale Dunning for his support at the very beginning of this project and permission to use the digital copies of his two artworks – Palimpsest I and Palimpsest II.


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