An interesting post by Emily Jackson at on why are archaeologists afraid to use their imaginations?

I wish more archaeologists would read Collingwood and Wheeler. Both had a lot to say about the use of imagination, in a recursive relationship with evidence. Archaeology without imagination is just another form of stamp collecting or admiration of antiques. To be fair, the post-processualists in academia did advocate using the imagination – but to my mind, in a way too removed from evidence and in a too post-modern framework. Many field professionals also try to get beyond the excavation report to something more meaningful. But too many archaeologists are still hopelessly in love with the artefacts and sites in and of themselves. I say this as a former flint tool specialist who can still get misty-eyed over a Neolithic flint arrowhead!

The best archaeology fires the imagination through help people make contact across the ages with previous generations. The physical remains of the past are not only categories and types, they are the witness to past lives. This lives can only live again if we try to imagine lived experiences in the past. Remains divorced from people are so much clutter to be hidden away unused in store. Real archaeology should fire up the child inside us whose eyes go wide when we handle a Roman leather shoe, not because it is rare or Roman, but because it was once on a real person’s foot – a 2,000 year old person.

About donhenson

I am freelance consultant archaeologist specialising in public archaeology, interpretation, education and the media.
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4 Responses to Imagination

  1. Hi! Thanks so much for the mention, although I feel I should point out my second name is Johnson, not Jackson!

    Glad I could provide food for thought though. And I agree, so many of even the earliest archaeologists were advocating the use of the imagination. However a lot of the time I find people quite happy to wax lyrical about how we need more reflexive and emotive ways of communicating archaeological theory, but never quite manage to avoid actually attempting to do so themselves.

    • donhenson says:

      Hi Emily – sorry I got your name wrong! I would add that academic training inherently makes people avoid subjectivity and imagination. Being ‘academic’ in approach becomes ingrained and so therefore makes using the imagination hard to do in practice.

      • Absolutely! I think so many academics are reluctant to engage in an emotional or creative way because they think it’ll make their observations about the past less credible or valid. SO WRONG. Somewhere in that one observation about the world of academia lies my PhD proposal, I just know it!

        (p.s. don’t worry about the name thing, I can barely remember my own name most of the time!)

  2. since when can’t you edit replies on wordpress?! Goodness me! Anyway, apologies – that sentence came out completely muddled. I meant to say ‘a lot of the time I find people quite happy to wax lyrical about how we need more reflexive and emotive ways of communicating archaeological theory, but they never quite manage to actually do so themselves.’

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