Student Blog — Plato, Plotinus and Archaeology

Here’s an interesting interweaving of philosopy and archaeology contributed by Bjorn. Making connections is definitely a most essential part of the practice of archaeology. Thinking about why and how we make those connections in reconstructing the past is a vital part of the process. — Kate
Over the past two weeks I had been ruminating over what I could write my blog post about. So I decided to combine archaeology with another academic interest of mine and that is ancient philosophy. One of the things that drew me to archaeology in the first place is its room for cross disciplinary inquiry and creative thinking. Aside from the hours of field work, cleaning, and cataloguing, what I have observed about archaeology especially after taking this field course, is that archaeology is about making connections. Making sense of things with an often sparse and incomplete picture of the past requires resourcefulness and deep thinking on the part of archaeologists. In a sense, archaeology attempts to reconstruct past realities through the merging of the material and the intelligible.
The philosophers of ancient Greece obsessively thought about the concept of reality and how matter and ideas were related. The most famous and my own favourite philosopher, Plato, put forth the influential concept of the forms. Which, if we recall our intro to philosophy courses in High School or University, puts forth the notion that the physical realm before us is not truly reality. Rather the physical world with which we interact with our bodies is a shadow, or image being projected by the real, realm of forms, also known as the realm of ideas. in dialogues like ‘The Republic’, Plato describes the forms as perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space. In this dialogue, Plato uses the famous allegory of the cave to describe how things we see in the physical world are not real, but projections of ideals from the realm of the forms. Which in his allegory he compares to light from a fire, projecting shadows of objects onto a cave wall in which the observer sees the shadow but is unaware of the actual object beyond his or her grasp that is being projected onto the wall. I feel I should keep this summary of Platonism, brief and simple for the sake of blog space and interest, so I will cut to the chase with how I believe this relates to archaeology.
In everyday life we interact with material objects, and generally we understand their uses. When I show the word “Cellphone”, an image may appear in your mind of what a cellphone looks like and what it is meant to do, you have an idea of this physical thing. In archaeology, we are removed from the world of the past as we are living in the present. Thus the marriage of idea and matter does not occur as naturally to the uninitiated observer, especially the farther back into the past you go. So I’ve been toying with the notion that as archaeologists, we are often purposefully reversing the roles of Platonic reality. Instead of the ideal, intelligible realm projecting the material, we work in reverse, using matter to project a reality with which we have no natural, waking connection to. By understanding the physical properties of an artifact, archaeologists can infer much about its use, when it was created, and its role in a time long past. An example in our own lab experience would be our cataloguing of ceramics. Compiled resources on the history and use of certain ceramic techniques give clues to their age and use. Especially in historical archaeology like this, we also use small material fragments to restore and reconstruct these materials back into one complete artifact, turning the physically formless back towards a faithful representation of its ideal reality.  We use our own intellect to reconnect the material (artifacts) to the realm of ideas, making the past more real.
 To get another perspective on this notion, we can look to another great ancient philosopher. The later Neo-platonic philosopher of the third century AD, Plotinus, expands further on Plato’s concept of the forms and presents a cosmology in which “The One” (like the realm of forms) emanates outwards to project things like the universe and matter.
To Plotinus, this is how reality operates, however, due to us being bound in a physical body, we see an inverted perspective of this cosmology.
Instead, we naturally see matter as the central underpinning of reality, and all else emanates outwards from it. Now Plotinus sees this perspective as a negative one and associates it with the “fall of the soul”. However when removed from his cosmology and applied to the science of archaeology, the inverted perspective is perfect for making sense of the past. Material culture emanates a past world which emanates past lives and past intelligence.  Whether you agree with Plotinus’ mystical, and confusing metaphysics or not, I believe his inverted cosmology provides a great diagram as to how the process of archaeology brings the past to reality, working from matter towards the intelligible.
I have no conclusion or grand insight as to how this philosophical connection can be applied to the work of archaeologists. However I found it to be an intriguing exercise in understanding for myself the purpose and intrigue of archaeology, and what it means to reconstruct the past. I tried to make this as concise and brief as possible so I apologize if I glossed over some concepts, but I will provide a link below if you are interested in learning more about Plotinus. I hope this provides any who may read this with some interesting ideas to think about and have us draw more connections between archaeology and other fields! After all, that’s largely what this is about, making connections.
For a great intro into the cosmology of Plotinus, see this video from Dr. Eric Steinhart:
— Bjorn Bols

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