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Still waiting for Godot
on 11 November 2016
I have read the first edition of this book, and found it thought-provoking, though my main quarrel with it was that it raised questions and then failed to answer them. Of course, in any vital, growing field of knowledge there will be unresolved controversies. Any area where theoretical foundations are all settled, is probably undergoing fossilization itself. That said, I would have liked some attempt at resolution. By the final chapter, he seemed to be saying "we have all these different approaches, Marxist, feminist, interpretative, and they are all interesting, and they aren't listening to one another". All right, but where does this leave us?
One answer that occurred to me was, that the reason all these apparently contradictory approaches exist, is that they are all asking different questions. Perhaps all these questions need to be put. The theories may all at some point be seen to be leading to a common, higher-level appreciation of what past societies were about. They may all be telling the truth, but only parts of the truth, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. But no, we are left dangling.
Another point was that while unwilling to criticize Marxist, feminist and all the other etcs, Johnson was happy to condemn "new" (now old) archaeology, with the standard text by Renfrew and Bahn coming in for particular scorn, for its message that there was after all some concensus in how archaeology was carried out in practice. Well, as it happens I recently chatted to a working archaeologist and asked him about all this. According to him, when you read the actual field reports of stars like Ian Hodder, it seems that how they actually do archaeology is really not much different to how the much despised new archaeologists did it. His books tell you one thing, and his research reports tell you another. Now I am not well enough informed to say whether this is true or not, but it does suggest to me that possibly, all this sound and fury of controversy is more to do with ensuring that you are one of the silverback alpha males in the subject, than with casting light on the truth, whatever that means.
This applies to the first edition. I haven't read this second version. It may be better. But to judge from the very brief extract available via the Amazon website, I doubt it. We still await the Newton of archaeology, or the Freud, or whoever your favourite system builder might be: or perhaps after all it is Godot we are waiting for.