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Chapter 12

Ti me
Laurent Olivier

12.1 Introduction: Might Archaeology be


Nothing more than a Talent for Collecting
Stuff/Artefacts?

In the Western tradition, the idea of archaeology proceeds from the Greek notion of archai-
ologia. Archaiologia, or knowledge of ancient things: for the Greeks, archaeology is defined
first of all as the discovery of origins. Whereas the ambition of history is to tell what hap-
pened in the past, the purpose of archaeology is to show what the past was made of. These
are two very different perspectives, although both have the same object: to know the past.
Thus it is not so much in their objectives as in their materials that history and archaeology
diverge. Unlike history, which begins with the stories, archaeology begins with the objects,
or the material remains, from which it must construct knowledge. The Romans were right
in speaking of antiquities (antiquitates) instead of archaeology. Since its beginnings, archae-
ology has proceeded from collecting and collection.
What type of specialized knowledge, then, may claim to be archaeology? Long before
there was any question of an ‘archaeological discipline’, Plato gives us a very precise
idea in his Hippias Major, the dialogue in which Socrates, the wily philosopher, con-
fronts Hippias, whose profession is the trade in knowledge. Hippias has just returned
from Sparta, where the Lacedaemonians have engaged him so as to benefit from his
teaching.

‘About what did you speak to them’, Socrates then asks him: ‘about astronomy or mathematics?’
‘Not at all’, answers Hippias; ‘these people hardly know how to count. In fact, I harangued
them about archaeology; that is to say, about the genealogy of heroes and of great men, about
the origin of cities and how they were founded in the earliest times, and in general about
everything that has to do with the knowledge of the past [archaiologia].’
‘What labour!’/’What a pain!’, Socrates says to him. ‘If one had to do that for Athens, one
would have to cite the whole list of the men who have ruled the city from the time of Solon.’
‘You forget’, answers Hippias proudly, ‘that I can remember a list of fifty names after read-
ing it only once!’

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168 Laurent Olivier

Swollen with self-importance, Hippias does not see that Socrates is touching on a great
weakness of archaeology, accumulation. As a fundamentally descriptive discipline, archae-
ology can only amass details about the past, scraps of information that are self-sufficient
insofar as, being all that remains of the past, they are all that one can know of it. Under
these conditions, archaeology has no point of view on the past and takes from it no
particular knowledge. It is perfectly suited to Hippias, for whom knowledge is a matter
of accountancy. Even as he flatters him, Socrates says to him slyly: ‘I see then that the
Lacedaemonians are quite right to be pleased with your speeches—since you know so
many things—and to come to you, as children come to old women, to hear entertaining
stories.’
Here Socrates exposes the social function of archaeology, which is to keep the conscience
of men/people asleep by telling them old wives’ tales. From this point the matter is settled:
Hippias sells a knowledge that he does not possess, or rather offers, with this pseudo-science
of the past called archaeology, an appearance of knowledge that is nothing more than a
heaping up of factual data. Hippias mistakes his opinions for knowledge, or rather is guided
only by his prejudices in addressing this distant past of origins. Under the accumulation of
the apparently ‘objective’ data/evidence of archaeology, accepted ideas about the past are
sure to prosper, since archaeology has no role but constituting the illustration of a history
already known from other sources.
In these terms, everything had already been said, even before the extraordinary expan-
sion of archaeology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is striking to realize how
much the discipline of archaeology developed along the Graeco-Roman lines laid down
by this focus on antiquities. Archaeology was established on the basis of an accumula-
tion of objects. Yet the discovery of new remains of the past, not hitherto identified as
such, necessitated new regions in the history of origins. The irruption of these new objects
from the past accelerated in the nineteenth century, reaching a tremendous pace in the
years 1850–60, when the foundations of present-day archaeology were laid. First came the
discovery of a humanity ‘before history’, which required the recognition of a ‘Stone Age’
that far preceded classical antiquity. Very quickly the proliferation of finds revealed the
existence of a ‘proto-history’ located between prehistory and Roman civilization; while in
the Mediterranean world the succession of the great pre-classical civilizations was con-
structed. In the second half of the twentieth century, the extension of archaeology to new
chronological periods was effected in the same way: it is because excavations uncovered
a new mass of medieval and modern materials that the archaeology of those eras could
be established. The last dozen years have seen an analogous process under way for the
archaeology of the contemporary period, even of the very recent past of the twentieth
century.
Nonetheless, as the dialogue of Socrates and Hippias reminds us, stones and potsherds
do not make history. Is this to say that archaeology is forever condemned to inconsistency?
Yes, if we persist in wishing to make it the para-historical discipline that it has no calling to
be. But no, if we consider that the object of archaeology eludes history by its very nature,
that it resists all inclusion in history. For it is not the events of the past, or even the things
of the past as it once was, that constitute the material of archaeology; it is the memory of
material things.

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Time 169

12.2 The Past does not Die: it Lasts

In every age, human societies have confronted the permanence of the manifestations of their
past, which have always constituted the framework of their own present. From the earliest
times, it has been monuments and objects, but also landscapes and places, that have been
already there, produced by earlier cultures or civilizations. They have been the material from
which societies have constructed their identity. Therefore, present modifications of the remains
of the past—whether in the form of reconstructions, reworkings, or even of destructions—bear
directly on the work of remodelling the collective memory that nourishes societies’ identity.
As the British prehistorian Richard Bradley (2002) has brilliantly demonstrated, this particu-
lar relation with the material remains of the past is not the prerogative of historical societies
alone, for it is completely at home in the prehistoric European societies of the Neolithic, whose
monumental constructions tend to occur in particular places and forms, which they repro-
duce through the whole of a lengthy occupation, on the scale of a series of generations.
The relation with the past is thus an essential element in the construction of collective
identities (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Lowenthal 1985; Gosden 1994). It nourishes the
construction of a collective memory, whose functional mechanisms the sociologist Maurice
Halbwachs (1980 [1949]) has been among the first to describe. Nevertheless, these are ques-
tions that at bottom concern anthropology more than archaeology. On the other hand,
archaeology is directly concerned with the question of the status of material remains that
persist into periods after their creation, insofar as these physical remnants call into question
the identity of the past from which they have emerged and, in that very way, the possible
approach to them. Currently, something is changing in our vision of the past, which we now
perceive as more variable, less monolithic—something that affects our way of conceiving
of history, or more exactly the way in which we think of the transformation of past socie-
ties over time. What is the nature of this change? In the first place, it is becoming more and
more clear today that the material environment of human societies has always been com-
posite, in the sense that it has always been principally composed of elements coming from
their past while still continuing to exist in their present.
Every day we directly experience this situation, which is not as banal as one might think.
Our material universe, at the beginning of this third millennium, is not the one predicted
by the naïve images of twentieth-century science fiction. We still live in cities whose urban
infrastructure dates overwhelmingly from the nineteenth century; for the most part, our
houses are at least one hundred years old; not all of our furniture is new—far from it; as
for our automobiles, few of us can have a new one every year. Thus from the viewpoint of
archaeology, the materiality of the ‘current’ present seems essentially composed of things
from the past—a past more or less recent—while the creations of the present moment—
those of this very day—have only a tiny place in a material present really saturated with the
past(s). The present has always been multi-temporal, and above all it has never been young,
never completely current.
In regard to material things (which constitute all the material of archaeology), the present
is nothing but the joining of all the pasts that coexist physically in the present moment.

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170 Laurent Olivier

After all, though prehistoric cut-stone tools were originally produced some tens of thou-
sands of years ago, the fact remains that it is in the present that we find them: here, in our
present, now. Indeed, it is because of their condition of being covered over in this present
(Are they in situ? Or are they displaced, complete, or fragmentary?) that we will be able
to say anything about them. Material productions—of which archaeological remains are a
part—possess an essential quality of their own, which they do not share with the events of
history: they remain, they last as long as the material of which they are made. They insinu-
ate themselves into all the presents that come after them; long after they have ceased to be
used, they continue to be. Thus although the Roman Empire may have definitively collapsed
in long-bygone times, its material remains continue to occupy our present, as they will do
for the generations that come after us.

12.3 We (also) Construct Time

Nevertheless, the recognition of the existence of ancient or other remains in our mate-
rial universe is not self-evident, insofar as it involves our representation of time. As the
American prehistorian Lewis Binford has very justly said,

The archaeological record is here with us in the present. . . . it is very much part of our contem-
porary world and the observations we make about it are in the here and now, contemporary
with ourselves. (Binford 1983: 19)

This means, he goes on to say, that


archaeology is not a field that can study the past directly. . . . On the contrary, it is a field wholly
dependent upon inference to the past from things found in the contemporary world. (Binford
1983: 23)

Binford here reminds us that the perception of the past depends on the interpretation of
things recognized as ancient, which are observed in the material environment of the present.
But how do we recognize a thing as ancient, as belonging to a humanity different from our own?
Archaeology, or more generally the procedure of collecting and identifying the material
remains of the past, is possible only under certain conditions, which have not occurred
together except at very specific moments in history: during Graeco-Roman antiquity, at the
time of the great Chinese empires, in ancient Japan, and in Europe since the Renaissance.
In these different cases, these conditions are connected to the idea of a human history, that
is, to the awareness that people have not always lived and thought as we ourselves do. The
development of archaeology is therefore fundamentally linked with that of the discovery of
otherness, of the recognition of one’s difference from one’s fellows. Thus, in Europe, archae-
ology receives its impulse as a discipline from the moment when it is recognized that the
remains of the past are different and distinctive, and that this foreignness is the mark of their
antiquity (although see Graves-Brown 2011; Harrison 2011). In demonstrating that the
‘thunderstones’ found by peasants in their fields had not fallen from the sky, but that they
come from very ancient stone axes, the researchers of the Enlightenment provided not only
the proof of their antiquity: they showed at the same time that we ourselves have been pre-
ceded by ‘savage’ populations analogous to the ‘cannibals’ of the New World, who still used
stone tools similar to those buried in the soil of Europe.

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Time 171

Why hadn’t this presence of the ancient past been discovered sooner? Because the recog-
nition of the existence of ancient things is part of a larger movement, in Europe, that from
the sixteenth century involved voyages of discovery and the astronomical exploration of
the heavens. This movement concerns the representation of the world. In order to recog-
nize the difference and the singularity expressed by ancient remains, we must ourselves be
ready to accept the world as open, that is to say, largely unknown, unexplored, heterogene-
ous. Willingly or not, we must have accepted the element of strangeness and unsettledness
implicit in a world of which we are no longer the centre and sole point of reference. Above
all, time itself must have lost its apparent familiarity, to appear henceforth, as Buffon says,
as a ‘dark abyss’, a bottomless gulf capable of having swallowed whole worlds, whole series
of civilizations whose memory was later completely lost.
In the closed world of the medieval tradition, on the other hand, time is collapsed upon
itself. It is completely filled with a history in which everything has been said, where everything
that will happen has been foretold. Nonetheless, the remains of the past still continue to per-
sist in the ground, but they are seen as alien bodies in the premodern material universe. In the
countryside, one often sees megaliths and tumuli; everywhere one encounters Roman ruins,
some of them still standing. They cannot be explained except as prodigies; fifteenth-century
representations, such as those of the magnificent Livre des propriétés des choses of Barthélémy
de Glanville (Schnapp 1993: 144, figure), show us ceramic vessels that emerge spontaneously
from the earth, as wild animals emerge at night from their dens or burrows, or as fish secretly
populate the depths of the water. In the flat time inherited from the Middle Ages, there is
no place for imagining that the pots sometimes coming to the surface of the earth could
have been made by other men, in other times. At least until the beginning of the eighteenth
century, fossils posed exactly the same sort of problem (Rossi 1984). For most authors, the
remains of seashells found in rock could not be the manifestation of anything but an extraor-
dinary property of the stone—a virus lapidifera, a vis plastica—that produced petrified animal
forms within it, as the sea spontaneously produced live molluscs or fish.
In a world that was ignorant of the notion of deep time introduced in the nineteenth cen-
tury by Lyell and Darwin, prodigy was the only plausible explanation for the absolute singu-
larity of the remains of the past. Megaliths must be the tables of giants, tumuli the tombs of
fairies, ancient ruins castles of the Sleeping Beauty. To discover the past is, fundamentally,
to become aware of the heterogeneity of the present. In this sense, we may say that trying
to reconstruct the past, the project of archaeology, comes back basically to studying the
present. Time constructs us (it is time that ages us and transforms the world around us), but
on the other hand we also construct time; we make it, because the past has definitively van-
ished and because what remains of it—that which constitutes the past—is only a memory in
the present (see Chouquer 2007). This material memory of the present constitutes the only
object of archaeological study.

12.4 The Archaeology of the Present:


a Disruption of Time

The recognition of the ‘past in the present’ is part of a more general disruption of tradi-
tional conceptions about the identity of the past and the nature of time. This disruption,

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172 Laurent Olivier

which is still in its infancy, belongs especially to the extension of the conceptual revolution
begun just before the Second World War by the observations of the German philosopher
Walter Benjamin (1999 [1968]) on time and history. Long misunderstood, these reflections
find their direct application in archaeology—that is, as we have just seen, in the study of
the material remains that constitute the depth of the present. The first consequence of this
‘archaeology of the present’ is to explode the conventional time of history, that unilinear time
on which are based all the approaches to the archaeological past, including those that now
seem the most critical.
Indeed, in our conventional representation of historical times, we are in some sense
removed from time, like spectators who watch a passing procession of human history. As
we watch them unfold from our imaginary viewpoint of historian or archaeologist, each
of these periods has its own colours and is distinguished from the others by a particular
temporal identity, a specific temporality. In this sense, as the philosopher Henri Bergson
(1911 [1907]) stresses, our representation of time is fundamentally cinematographic: for
us, historical time goes in only one direction at once, and each evolution in time (like each
movement of the image) can be broken down into a series of successive moments (like the
succession of twenty-four frames per second that allows for the reconstitution of reality in
cinematographic projection). In other words, it is because (historical) time can be decom-
posed into a precise series of instants (or of homogeneous sequences) that the processes can
become visible to us. More precisely, it is because the series of sequences is subordinated to
an order of strict succession that we can read the phenomena taking place in time.
For us, historical time—the time that runs through the evolution of past societies—is
at once both fundamentally unilinear and intrinsically cumulative. But it is nothing else
than that: in reality, time is emptied of its substance, or more precisely of its capacity to
act, by this folkloric perception of the past, which assimilates history to a series of pictures/
scenes and contexts. This idea of time is found at the heart of the historicist approach to the
past, which is really an anti-historical conception of history. As Benjamin (1999 [1968]:
254) emphasizes, this conventional approach to the past ‘proceeds by addition: it mobilizes
the mass of facts to fill up homogenous and empty time’. But time cannot so easily be shut
away. As in dreams where a situation progressively takes on a different meaning as more
and more unexpected details are discovered, the figures of the conventional procession of
history seem to move with elements that do not belong to them: on close observation, the
procession of human history shows signs of survivals or, conversely, characteristics of antic-
ipation (see Focillon 1943; Kubler 1962). The recognition of the ‘past in the past’ destroys
the preconceived idea by which the moments of time carry particular temporalities because
they are situated in individual—and hence unique—moments of time.
To say that the fragments of the past are inscribed in the materiality of the present is to
open the possibility of a radical re-evaluation of the notion of history and, more precisely,
to question fundamentally our understanding of the mechanisms of historical evolution.
For if historical time is no longer what links, step by step, events strictly succeeding each
other—in short, if time is now loosened—then we may place in relation events located far
from each other. If the past remains inscribed in the present, we may reawaken and reacti-
vate in the present processes believed to have been definitely ended because they belonged
to a completely bygone past. We must never forget that archaeology is not an ordinary
historical discipline: it deals with the memory recorded in material and not with events or
moments of the past. The research of the British prehistorian Geoff Bailey allows us to show

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that in Epirus, in Greece, phenomena of current soil degradation are connected to the reac-
tivation by intensified agriculture of environmental problems originally set in motion in the
Palaeolithic, more than 20,000 years ago (Bailey 2007). If the past returns, it is because it has
never really left; it was hidden motionless in the folds of the present, forgotten but in fact
ready to spring forth. This lightning encounter of the past with the present is, according to
Benjamin’s (1999 [1968]: 253) famous expression, ‘the leap of the tiger into the past’, which
can cover millennia in a single bound. As Benjamin (1999 [1968]: 255) writes in his ‘Theses
on the Philosophy of History’:

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between different moments
of history. But no factual reality becomes a historical fact by virtue only of its quality of cause.
It becomes one, posthumously, under the influence of events that can be separated from it by
millennia. The historian who begins from this premise ceases to tell the sequence of events
like a rosary. He grasps the constellation that his own epoch forms with a previous epoch.
Thus he establishes a concept of the present as the ‘now’, in which are catalogued the frag-
ments of messianic time.

12.5 The Present in the Past

This notion of the present embedded in the past has the deepest implications for under-
standing archaeological materials, implications that can only be sketched here. In particu-
lar, it means that the present, the now, is not what is happening in this moment alone, but
rather what has always been repeated: it is the ageing of matter, the wearing down of places,
the growth and movements of bodies in space. In short, it is the effect of time expressed by
the life of beings and of things that expresses the present of today, like all the other presents,
past and future. As a consequence, the present, instead of bearing the mark of incessant
change—as we see it—bears much more that of the eternal return of Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, an uninterrupted rebirth of the world, always like itself in its diversity and
uniqueness. Like memory, archaeological material bears the mark of repetition, as shown
by the specifically archaeological forms that are palimpsests. In the superimpositions of
archaeological occupations found particularly in cemeteries and cities, it is essentially
the same site that is reproduced, each time similar and different, because unique at each
moment of time. In the same way, each time a new object is manufactured, it is either the
same form or the same type that is reproduced, but an absolutely unique artefact that is cre-
ated (see Finlayson, this volume).
Nevertheless, if the present, as Benjamin (1999 [1968]: 254) writes, is this ‘now’ that
keeps itself ‘immobile on the threshold of time’,1 something is continually being changed by
the effect of time. This is what archaeological materials systematically show us. Each time
a material thing is reproduced (such as an object, a structure, a landscape . . . ), there is the
opportunity for a small difference—Darwin would say a small variation—to be introduced.
As is well known, it is the accumulation of these small differences over time that creates
chronological trajectories, or what we call evolutionary trends. But what is less understood

1
More often translated into English as ‘in which time stands still and has come to a stop’.

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174 Laurent Olivier

is that this type of change, known henceforth by the name of evolution, is the specific effect
of processes of repetition. Why? Because in this case repetition does not function as a simple
reproduction of what already exists: it is also, in some sense, its putting back into play each
time something is created in the now. As Freud demonstrated, this particular mechanism
is that of memory. Thus it is not, properly speaking, a history that is created by the effect of
the phenomena of repetition, or of reproduction, manifested by archaeological materials; it
is a memory recorded in the material. This distinction is essential, since the time of memory
functions in a wholly different way from historical time.

12.6 ‘ They don’t Know that we are


Bringing them the Plague’

‘They don’t know that we are bringing them the plague’, Freud is supposed to have said
on the ship that carried him from Europe to the United States, where he was to attend
a series of conferences. This ‘plague’ of which Freud spoke was, of course, nothing other
than psychoanalysis, the new discipline that he had founded and that studied specifically
the psychic memory. To understand the mechanisms by which memory functions is, in
effect, to assimilate a seemingly abnormal functioning of time and, consequently, to expose
oneself to exclusion from the community of those who perceive the past in a conventional,
‘normal’ way. For them, the past occupies a defined place in time and possesses a specific
identity that it carries within itself. Therefore the past cannot ‘come back’ in the present, and
the present, conversely, cannot modify the content of the past. Those who conceive of time
differently, in the eyes of these traditional historians or archaeologists, are using a deviant,
not to say heretical, approach to the past.
And yet we have no choice but to conceive of the functioning of the material memory
precisely in these terms that are unacceptable to the traditional perception of the past. Here
the question of the present, in whatever form one takes it, occupies an absolutely essential
place. The present as a moment in time does not have the same sense for conventional his-
tory (or archaeology) as it does for archaeology as the study of material memory. In the
first place, the present as ‘now’ has no meaning for the memory of matter, since, for archae-
ological materials, the present has no temporal significance except insofar as something
is recorded in it. If nothing is registered in matter—in the form of transformations or of
archaeological constructions—the present does not exist as a moment in time. As Binford
noted, the archaeological record of the past is fundamentally discontinuous, essentially alea-
toric (Binford 1981). Hence if archaeological time—the time recorded in archaeological
materials—is interrupted, how can it function like the ‘true’ time of conventional history,
which on the contrary is perfectly continuous? And if it does not function like conventional
historical time, how then can it be articulated?
Archaeological time does not unfold like conventional time, because its future is not con-
structed in unilinear fashion from pure innovation introduced at each successive moment
of the present, as in the historicist understanding of the past, which subordinates the tra-
jectory of historical time to the action of progress. Things do not happen in that way, if
only because the present is filled with the past. In any case, the construction of the future

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is conditioned by the past of the present. It makes little difference, in reality, that this past
embedded in the present is or is not recognized as such; what matters is that it exists. It is
not important that we do or do not know that the line of a certain street was originally that
of the ancient city’s Roman decumanus; what matters is rather that the ancient urban plan
still functions, though faint and mutilated, in the contemporary urban plan.
This particular configuration of material memory has two principal consequences. The
first is that, since each period of time is highly heterogeneous (i.e. filled with fragments of
different pasts), it brings into relation material archaeological moments that may be far sep-
arated from each other. The history recorded in archaeological materials is neither unilinear
nor unidirectional. The second consequence is that the memory of the past is systematically
masked in its functioning, since, in slipping into the current moment, it takes the form of
the present: in the contemporary city, the Roman decumanus survives as a memory of the
ancient urban plan, in the guise of a street with no a priori difference from others.
The urgent question raised by consideration of the ‘past in the past’ is that of determin-
ing the implications of this particular situation of material memory for our approach to
the past. Once we have recognized this phenomenon, the unilinear history of events no
longer has any meaning: the work of the historian or archaeologist becomes the reveal-
ing of these correspondences across time. It is there that the specific sense of the archaeo-
logical approach resides, the approach that studies not the history of material things, but
their memory. As Benjamin insists, the traditional historicist approach works by addition:
it accumulates ‘facts’ or descriptive details in order to fill with narration the void opened
by the yawning of deep time. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, this task has been
specifically assigned to prehistory. Conversely, the approach attentive to the material mem-
ory constituted by archaeological materials must function by construction: putting material
facts themselves, and not what they are thought to represent, into relation with each other.
Therefore archaeological remains are no long the necessary links in a great chain of events,
but instead become (again) the site of all possibilities. Thus they offer to archaeologists, as
Benjamin (1999 [1968]: 254) writes, ‘this chance to make a defined epoch emerge by house-
breaking from the homogenous course of history’.

12.7 Nature Loves to Hide Herself

‘Nature loves to hide herself ’, says Heraclitus, adding, still mysteriously: ‘if one does not
expect the unexpected, one will not find it, for it is difficult to find’. Indeed, the past is hid-
den in archaeological remains, which as a consequence do not necessarily say what their
formal appearance suggests. We must seek those signs that constitute, par excellence, the
material of archaeology. An indication, a sign: in the language of medicine, we call this a
symptom. A symptom is not only a signal, but is above all a manifestation that stands vis-
ibly for something that acts invisibly, such as an illness or a pathology. From this it must be
understood that archaeological remains are not evidence of the history of the past, but are
instead evidence of the existence of an active memory of the past.
Archaeology must be rethought as a discipline specifically attuned to these symptoms of
material memory that we call archaeological remains (Olivier 2011). In this connection, it
is not out of place to observe that, in the field of the psychic memory, it is from the study

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of the symptoms of memory—as they are manifested especially in dreams—that Freud was
able to construct the particular approach called psychoanalysis. More precisely, once Freud
grasped the functioning of these symptoms of memory, he could deduce from them his
theory of the psychic unconscious. The task of archaeologists is, at bottom, very similar: to
explore the unconscious of time by means of archaeological remains themselves.
The crux in understanding the construction of this fugitive or hidden memory is to be
found in the grasping of the mechanisms of repetition or reiteration. Each time a form is
created in matter, it is in fact reproduced. Repetition in itself introduces transformation,
insofar as the act of creation is fundamentally an act of negotiation: that which is coming
must find its proper place among everything that surrounds it and that has been created
before it. This is why forms evolve: their morphology gradually changes, while the transfor-
mation of their structure may sometimes display spectacular changes in detail. This funda-
mental structure of forms is what we may call the typological or iconological structure of
material creations or representations. The study of the transformations of objects produced
over the course of time consists in elaborating this palaeontology of forms.
Is this to say that under these conditions we must abandon the historical perspective
that is the foundation of archaeology, which seeks to restore the material reality of the past?
Certainly not. In fact, the fundamental misconception of the functioning of the ‘memory
objects’ constituted by archaeological remains pushes the discipline of archaeology towards
a form of archaic history. Paradoxically, it is the historicist dimension of archaeology that
has always prevented it from establishing itself as a truly historical discipline. It cannot do
so because, as it assimilates the vestiges of the past to explicit evidences of the reality of
ancient times, it finds itself deprived of the possibility of making them into objects of his-
tory as such—that is to say, objects that question history or, more precisely, challenge it.
The answer to this problem is theoretical: archaeology must find its true object. This object
is not the past, but what we may call the subjects of the past: if history seeks to reconstruct
what happened, archaeology tells what happened to the ‘entities’/‘bodies’ of the past. By
‘entities’/‘bodies’ we must understand the beings and things that constitute the material
universe of human collectives. Archaeology examines, in the various scales of time and
space, how these entities/‘bodies’ have ‘taken’ the events of the past, that is, how, according
to the different states and legacies from which they proceed, they have received/incorpo-
rated these evolutions, and how, conversely, they have contributed to their construction.
In this configuration, archaeology is no longer the simple material illustration of history. It
becomes instead a privileged field of observation of the world, enriching history with all the
diversity of the individual trajectories followed by the subjects of the material universe. It is
the neglected nymph with the power to re-enchant time.
Translation by Jay Kardan

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