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Article: Profiling an era. – the concept of empathic archaeology

Wednesday, 1 July, 2015
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Hein Klompmaker
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Hein Klompmaker

Profiling an era.
– the concept of empathic archaeology


To come straight to the point: anyone who thinks that multi-coloured history posters in schools are passé or ‘retro’, is mistaken. These posters are still the best way to create an image of the past. Since the golden age of historical painting and school history posters (1850-1950), historical art has changed a lot. It is no longer confined to schools or universities and there is far greater diversity in the way historical pictures are used and presented. These days we no longer talk about history posters but “historical tableaux.”1 Tableaux are more comprehensive than the ancient school posters: you get more of a story through text, films, photo’s and imaginative presentation.

There may be a world of difference between the two terms but we should not ignore the similarities. In principle there is not a great deal of difference between the collection of 253 illustrations of Dutch history published by Jacob de Vos (Amsterdam, 1801-1870), and the 2010 initiative by the Dutch National Historic Museum to provide a sort of vending machine, from which the public could ‘snack’ on historic objects and events. Both initiatives stemmed from a fear that Dutch people’s knowledge of history was declining; and both were based on the idea that the past can be imagined without seeing the actual objects.

Obviously there are differences between the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Jacob de Vos would not have known the words ‘vending machine’ or ‘snack’. But through the centuries the same question remains – how can we profile an era? How can we colour in the daily life of a time which we cannot experience at first hand? We still use the term ‘local colour’ in that context, even if the definition has altered. Colours continue to play an important role in portrayals of a historic event or a past era. And in any case, the colours used in prehistoric tableaux reflect the personal and subjective view of the illustrator. He mixes and blends the many colours on his palette in his own way.

Similarly in the world of historians, there is much discussion about moral values in describing historic events and people. Sometimes it seems as if we only have three colours at our disposal, particularly when looking at periods characterised by atrocities, such as the Dutch in Indonesia; the Nazi’s in concentration camps; the Holocaust. White stands for the good, black for the bad and grey for ‘not all good but not completely bad’. When using white and black we lay it on too thickly, and with grey we tone everything down so far that even crimes can be glossed over: “The picture should not be black and white, nor grey, but chequered”.2

The palettes of the historian and the archaeologist also contain many colours which they mix to create their own story. Should we portray the time of the Dutch hunebed builders as a springtime scene - the dawn of civilisation - or should we cloak the picture in autumn colours? In the same way, the image of prehistory that we evoke today is not totally idyllic, totally uncivilised or totally brutal, but as richly diverse and multi-coloured as our own time.

In constructing new historic tableaux we must take account not only of a fairly detailed theoretical concept and a respect for the tradition in which these new tableaux can be set, but also of the new, modern and diverse applications to be found in a museum or an educational environment.

Theoretical thinking about archaeology has not stood still during the last two centuries. Although the material remains of prehistoric cultures continue to be the most important source of our knowledge, there is a growing demand to investigate further in order to get more out of the finds than used to be the case in past decades. How can we fill in the colours of the cultural-mental elements of bygone ages? What information can we use as a basis? How can we penetrate more deeply into the thoughts and deeds of the hunebed builders? And even if we can do that, how do we portray that information in a museum context?

This paper presents a theoretical model which breaks new ground both in the sphere of research and in the area of museum presentation. Although not intended as a blueprint, the integral and multi-disciplinary principles are set out and centred on the concept of ‘empathic archaeology’.

It must be said that empathic archaeology has not yet reached full maturity. ‘Profiling an era’ is no more than a half-way point on the journey towards a greater understanding and a better presentation of that understanding: a doubly attractive prospect. As the historian Wessel Krul has said: “An image of the past is not the same as a portrait of the past”3