Contemplating approaches to History

I am currently off work. Two weeks ago i twisted my knee moving some boxes (of books) and have been sat at home.

During that last 14 days i have done the following: i have read, i have played Fallout 4 and i have watched a lot of Time Team the Channel 4 archaeology programme from yesteryear. Aside from my reflections on how Tony Robinson is clearly a synth (he never seems to age) i have been struck by the relationship between the discussions/arguments in my texts and some of the arguments in the programme and others i have watched.

Before i go on, i appreciate that Time Team isn’t necessarily an expression of best practice and in some ways is either dull or repetitive. My own love for the programme came from a time when all History documentaries where either the brilliance of monarchs or battles. Time Team gave me as a youngster an insight into how people lived, and whilst i always appreciated Phil Harding playing with a cannon, knowing where people came from even within the confines of an hour-long programme edited appealed to me.

As part of my general preparations for Keele i am currently reading a few texts which i feel will be useful ahead of my general historical studies i will have to do. As much as i would like to keep focused on reading Tudor Economic Documents, the MRes is an opportunity for a formal historical grounding which i lack.

So this is my current reading list:

  • History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova
  • In Defence of History by Richard J Evans
  • Rome by Michel Serres
  • Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam
  • Historical Economics by Charles P Kindleberger

this is an entirely subjective collection of books that i have kept out of storage before i move house so i make no claims or judgements about them other than they interested me at the exact moment i had to make a selection, but they are important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they represent my reading around the subject of History. Serres is a French Philosopher and somewhat off the wall, and Hilary Putnam is a (recently Deceased) philosopher from America. Secondly, Jordanova and Evans represent a view of History as it is in practice and praxis. Finally, with all of them i have varying ways of writing which interest me enormously.

As i have stated previously i am tend to look at History as both a discipline and as a subject. These texts help with this process and assist with the reflective practice which i get the feeling is central to my studies.

However, watching re-runs of Time Team has given me the chance to ‘apply’ some of the issues which seems to repeatedly arise from the reading. All of it stems from the epistemological, the ‘knowing’ of what the evidence is telling us as researchers. Often in the programme we will have some sort of disagreement which is either:

  • Archaeologists v archaeologists
  • Archaeologists v historians
  • Geo-Physical archaeologists v everyone
  • Archaeologist surveyor v everyone

And as it is a programme these disagreements are concentrated for the viewing public, but they also reflect the very obvious fact that it is possible to present the same evidence to differing groups and arrive at differing understandings. The debates and discussions, from the voracity of the evidence available through to the conclusions of what the dig means generally reflect the debates i am reading about in Jordanova in terms of the practical ‘doing’ of history.

But more subtly, the philosophical work is also being reflected. For example, Serres book ‘Rome’ is the first of his ‘Foundations’ trilogy and its broadly defined as a work of History looking at the foundation of Rome. Personally, i view Serres work as being a work with History, an almost literature based approach to explore the origins of structures and systems.

Crucially, Serres claims to have ‘no method’ as such he simply follows sources and resources and see what they tell him. Such an approach is perhaps difficult to understand but a version of it can be seen in how in certain circumstances on Time Team, when the evidence is different from expectation forces a change in approach either to open another trench or to review the assumptions held. Because of its condensed time scales, a process that would take place over a longer timeframe, is in fact condensed and that process itself relies upon what the evidence states rather than having the time to prove your point.

But i have also been struck at the question ‘why did they do that?’ Putnam, in his works used the example of an Ant which had drawn on sand a perfect portrait of Winston Churchill. Putnam’s work in part focuses on the intention of participants, the Ant didn’t intend to portray Churchill, it just did.

Whilst excusing the Mathematical improbability of that happening, the idea of intention behind someone’s existence is also interesting to see reflected in how i approach History. Looking at the evidence i assume a certain amount of intent on the part of the people i am studying and observing. The reality is however, i cannot be sure ‘what’ that intent is.

A recent re-run of Time Team looked at a cave where bones had been discovered. The debate focused on whether the bones were involved in a ritual process or if they had been dumped. On the last day, evidence was found for a causeway that lead up to the Cave, and based in part on the evidence of some of the people found in the pit being sick or even murdered, the suggestion was made that the cave was in part ritual because those people where ‘victims’ of social pressures and outcasts.

To me, the intention in that theory is separate from the evidence, but i found it fascinating to watch the episode when reading in Jordanova and Evans talking, in essence, about historians and their facts. Taken together, it presents a neat contradiction, between looking at what the evidence states and what we want it to. In fact, as Jordanova highlights, the complexities of causes and impacts across a wide variety of issues from economic and political have affected how we try to decipher the intent of the people we have collected evidence for.

Reading and watching at the same time, it seems that the methodological faults of Time Team are simply a neatly packaged version of the ones we already have in History. In fact they give a visual representation of how History has evolved in recent years, even if the debates can’t be resolved. Unpicking this will be fun.

 

 

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