To The Trowel's Edge:

An Interview with Ian Hodder

By Jennifer Schaffer, Gokce Bike Yazicioglu, and Maureen E. Marshall

Contributors: Andrew Bauer, Alan Greene, Hu Lin, Ali Scotten, Ian Straughn
University of Chicago

Ian Hodder, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, is an archaeologist known as a "pioneer" of post-processualist theory and reflexive methods in archaeology. Since 1993 he has worked to excavate, conserve, and present to the public the 9,000 year-old site of Çatalhöyük in central Anatolia, modern Turkey. Some of his books include: Symbols in Action (1982), Reading the Past (1986), The Domestication of Europe (1990), and The Archaeological Process (1999). While visiting Chicago, he spoke with Exchange about disciplinary tensions, the concept of "culture," and the responsibility of academics to communities locally and globally affected by their work.

I. The State of the Discipline

Schaffer: In 2002, you said in an interview with the Society for California Archaeology: "I believe strongly that anthropology can be a straightjacket for archaeology in the United States." What did you mean by this and what are your thoughts about the relationship between Anthropology and Archaeology?

Hodder: I think something is creaking at the seams in the United States. The attempt to incorporate Archaeology within Anthropology is showing all sorts of signs of not working terribly well. In many departments, it is clear that archaeologists and anthropologists effectively are not talking to each other. They are forming separate paths. I sense more and more the frustration in Anthropology departments that the archaeologists have to take anthropology or socio-cultural courses, but the socio-cultural people do not have to take archaeology courses. There is an imbalance.

Straughn:: You disagree, then, with the Boasian four-field anthropological approach?

Hodder: I am very, very supportive of archaeology talking to cultural anthropology. I get a lot out of talking to my socio-cultural colleagues in Stanford. But I think that it is wrong that Archaeology should be located within Anthropology because archaeologists have equally strong links to History and the natural sciences.

Schaffer: Do you think, then, that it is the placement of Archaeology within Anthropology that inhibits Archaeology's dialogue with the natural sciences?

The natural sciences are excluded from archaeology in the United States in a way that they are not in Europe. For example, many Archaeology departments in England have up to twenty-five or thirty faculty, at least half of whom work on some aspect of the natural sciences. That does not happen here because Anthropology departments are not going to support that type of research.

I want to build those links to the natural sciences. I would like to have people doing lipid analysis, ancient DNA work and so on. But it is very difficult for archaeologists to do that within an Anthropology department both because anthropology colleagues may not understand what it is about and why it is relevant, and because of funding.

The anthropology framework straightjackets archaeology in a whole series of ways, so that archaeology cannot embrace and integrate the natural sciences fully.

Scotten: Do you think that the broader anthropological community agrees that archaeology has the potential to make a significant theoretical contribution to the field as a whole?

Hodder: I think things are switching around now. At Stanford, I am finding that people in the Cultural and Social Anthropology department are interested in certain aspects of what archaeologists are doing, particularly in issues of materiality and global heritage. Archaeology is beginning to create an identity at the theoretical level. Anthropologists are perhaps fascinated, intrigued.

The anthropologists in my department also are interested in globalization and governmentality. These interests connect socio-cultural anthropologists to archaeologists who study global cultural heritage and the global heritage movement. So I sense that there is more of a balance now than there was in the days when archaeologists would ask their socio-cultural colleagues, "Can you give me some ethnographic parallels?"

II. Çatalhöyük and Beyond

Straughn:: One of the things that interests me about your work at Çatalhöyük is the way in which it brings together so many diverse specialists. What are the various concerns attendant on incorporating the work of various specialists into a coherent interpretive framework?

Hodder: I could talk a long time about this because I feel very strongly about it. I think the structure of independent research is wrong. In the natural sciences, collaboration is much more accepted. The natural sciences have a whole structure for collaborative research and I think that is what should be happening in archaeology.

At Çatal, we have been trying to bring people to work on a part of the project for their PhD dissertations. For example, we have two people working on bricks, but they are looking at them from different angles, and they are supporting and helping each other. You could say it is not good for their careers to be collaborating. But I much prefer that than going in, grasping what you want and doing something independently. Testing some hypothesis on your own in some big site is not terribly helpful.

Lin: Your work at Çatalhöyük has been designed as a long term project, which is not easy to do in the United States. What do you think about short term projects?

Hodder: Archaeology is an engagement between people and their past, and therefore something we should take responsibility for over the long term. I have been surprised, since I have come to the States, at the number of people who are sent off as graduate students to dig holes in places. I think there is a need for a greater sense of responsibility in terms of one's relationship with the community, never mind the worry that digging small holes in sites may be poor archaeology.

Whenever I can, I rail against the NSF [National Science Foundation] for not requiring applicants to actually state what their relationships are with the local community. This is a separate matter from asking applicants to talk about the general public value of a project. Archaeology has such a huge impact locally. Tourism may be affected and the state of the monument may change, and the lives of local people will be affected.

III. The Local

Schaffer: How should concerns about local communities influence the archaeological project? What is your role as an archaeologist in relation to the community around your fieldsite?

Hodder: I do worry a little bit about the focus on the local, as if the local is the only community that is important. Often there are special rights that local communities have: they are the ones most clearly, closely and immediately affected. But I do not think they have a natural right or natural privilege. Local communities can be just as fascist and racist as other people. One has to be careful not to privilege the local simply because of some sense that the local is always right.

I think the question of whose past it is, is absolutely open. If people want to make a claim to Çatalhöyük , and they have the right to do so, they should do it. Certainly, I think there are global communities that have a right of access, like the goddess community. Most people make fun of it. But at least a part of it is a real community, although global in nature. However, I think most people find this sort of community more difficult to recognize than the local community.

I see myself as involved in a wide range of stakeholder groups and I feel I have a responsibility to all of them. The issue of who is a valid stakeholder at a site is very difficult. For example, someone may come to Çatalhöyük and say they believe the site is an alien landing place. At the moment I have not given those people a stake and neither has the Turkish government.

Yazicioglu:: What specifically do you mean by a "claim" to the site? Is it a claim to interpretation or a claim to be involved with the archaeological project?

Hodder: We have involved the local community and other communities in the interpretative process at Çatalhöyük . There is an exhibit in the Visitor's Center that members of the local community have produced, which is their view of the project and the site.

One of the guards at Çatalhöyük , who is from the local community, has written a book called The Memoirs of a Çatalhöyük Guard, which is being published in the States this year. The book is his view of the site and project. Also, in the final publication volumes, there are quotes that are directly from the local community.

One of my many roles is to facilitate that type of involvement and engagement. I do not see a separation between the research questions and the global communities and their interests and involvement. I see it all as part of the same thing. For me it is wrong to say, "Okay, I'm digging the site, and I'm going to interpret it, and then I'm going to give the information over to other people to interpret." I think that is wrong, because it is clearly the case that we interpret data as we collect it.

When I tell the goddess communities, who are often extremely educated social scientists and social theorists, that "We'll dig up the site and then we'll give you the data so you can interpret it." They say, "We're not interested in that, because we know the data is already biased by your androcentric interpretations. So we want to be involved more primarily."

The great challenge at Çatal has been how to bring the stakeholders to the trowel's edge, as I call it. We run a very scientific excavation at Çatal so I cannot have lots of unskilled goddess people and so on digging in the trench. That is not going to work because I see archaeology, or digging, as a highly skilled, professional project. We do not even have many students excavating. So I cannot have non-professionals in there digging. The challenge has been how to maintain that professional commitment to what we are doing, while at the same time bringing these communities to the edge of the trowel.

Straughn:: How have you achieved that balance? Surely the Turkish state has expressed reservations...

Hodder: Yes, in fact, the government has asked us not to allow the goddess community to the site. But I do think archaeologists have power. In this case, I said I wanted the goddess community to come to the site and insisted that they be able to.

We have seminars for the local communities and for the goddess communities at Çatal every year. There is a huge demand for them. People come and we go through what we are digging and what we have found. The same with the local community: we have a big feast that the community members attend and we discuss what we are going to be doing that year.

In the post-excavation process at the site, we have been paying four people from the community to sit and help the micromorphologist and other specialists understand their results. She has had to explain the scientific side to them, but then they can contribute information. Members of the community still build with mud brick, so they have all this information about mud brick - the very peculiar properties of mud brick housing, the types of plaster, where you can find that plaster in the landscape and so on. It really is a productive dialogue. So, they are not actually in the trench, but they are certainly around the trench. I try to bring the stakeholders there as best I can.

Greene: You have talked about the roles of different stakeholders and how they might look at data differently. At the same time, as an archaeologist, you make judgments about how the site and the data should be interpreted. How do you negotiate this role?

Hodder: It is very important to recognize that the role of an archaeologist is not simply facilitating or providing information for stakeholder groups. This type of public engagement involves ethical choices and ethical decisions. You have to take a stand, you have to take a position. Archaeology is a hermeneutic procedure, but one of the positions I find myself in a lot is saying to people, "I don't think the data supports that."

For example, some in the goddess group no longer talk about a mother goddess at the site, because we said that we do not see evidence at Çatalhöyük that women's roles in mothering were highlighted and we do not see that the figurines were seen as goddesses. They are shifting; but at the same time, I have also definitely shifted. The whole project has shifted. We put money into exploring gender relations at the site largely because of a larger public interest in the role of women at Çatalhöyük . And in terms of interpretations, I am definitely more aware of the possibilities of things I assumed were male-centered. As I mentioned before, the local community, too, has certainly influenced our interpretations of architecture and mud brick construction. So, the dialogue with different stakeholders is still very productive.

IV. The Impact of the Concept of Culture

Yazicioglu:: What is "culture" and do you think it is a viable term?

Hodder: One of the things I thought was very important during the 1980s was the idea that culture is meaningfully constituted. I still think that is right. But now, I put the emphasis on the "meaningful constitution"rather than the "cultural"bit. I have had arguments with my colleagues in Stanford about this. I take the view that culture is not a helpful term. It tends to be reifying and dangerous. I prefer to break it down and talk about the various processes that constitute it. In archaeology, it is a very, very negative term. There is baggage with culture, at least in the European context, because of the culture-historical tradition. Even today, the way people claim cultures as part of contemporary social processes is, I think, very frightening. I do not see a lot of advantages in keeping the term.

It is not that I do not believe there are meaningful worlds and symbolic systems. But I find myself saying to my colleagues in Stanford, "What is the term culture describing that you can't describe with any other term? What added value does it give?"They have never given me an adequate answer to that, which worries me. I think cultural politics are very important; I do not want to deny those very, very important processes. I am just worried about using that particular term.

Bauer: The difference may be in thinking about culture as a noun rather than an adjective. Might we say there are cultural logics or cultural practices, for instance?

Hodder: But if I were to ask you what you mean by "cultural,"you would probably say, "semiotic relationships"or "phenomenological relationships." Why do we need the word "cultural"as an adjective before "categories"?

Bauer: But if we say that culture is meaningfully constituted, what we are interested in is how it gets to be constituted in the first place. It seems like there has to be recursive process there. Culture is not just constituted but also constituting. So it seems like we have to talk about culture at some level.

Hodder: But the idea that culture is 'constituting' sounds reifying and that is what worries me.

Bauer: But we have sets of categories with which we engage the world. I think that these categories are specific to people in specific contexts; they are not universal. So we need a modifier.

Hodder: Well, they are historical.

Yazicioglu:: But then, archaeologically speaking, you would need to specify what you are calling a "set of practices," both spatially and temporally. Because what you call culture, at least how it is understood in the European archaeological literature, comes to specify a geographical area more than a temporal period. And then, it becomes a spatially bounded unit. It is not defined beyond the set of material assemblages. So, if I am calling an area "the X pottery culture," and what defines it is the existence of that particular kind of pottery, then do I not need to add the term "culture" into it?

Hodder: Well, obviously there are differences, but again, why do you have to put "cultural" in front of differences? The pottery variation that you see is a result of a whole range of different processes: social and economic and semiotic and all sorts of things. You really need to pull those processes apart and work them out. And, really, there is a continuum of variation there. The problem is when one tries to close that down and say I will look at it in a particular way, because as we know, any kind of categorical and typological structure is motivated from a particular perspective. So in the contemporary world, it is worrying trying to create cultural groups, because it is always motivated from an interest-position. Trying to define cultures in the past is always, as we know, part of a motivated attempt to find one's nostalgic origins or to create a sense of continuity.

V. The Future

Schaffer: Are there any recent books or trends in archaeology that you particularly find promising?

Hodder: I would say that there is a lot of exciting stuff from the new generation. I think the new work on materiality is fascinating. I also find very exciting the notion of archaeology as therapy, or archaeology as playing a role in post-conflict situations, like in Rwanda, South Africa, the Balkans or Iraq. Very often, as a result of that process, people have to deal with each other's heritage, what they have destroyed in the conflict.

In the Balkans, you have a massive destruction of Islamic and Christian heritage; in South Africa, the issue of what to do with images of the white apartheid regime. The idea is that, rather than destroying these monuments, their rebuilding, care and management can be a part of the healing process. It is remarkable that in South Africa, the white and Afrikaans monuments have not been destroyed; on the whole, they have been kept. So when we go into Iraq, do we destroy everything about Saddam Hussein?

Maybe it is good to keep a bit of the Berlin Wall, to keep part of these monuments and work through the question of healing around them through reconciliation. I think there could be more acceptance in Europe and the US of the ideas of restitution and reconciliation, of working through trauma in a dialogical manner.

I certainly think that the African model is an interesting one and it would be interesting to try to develop it for use in other parts of the world. Some indigenous groups, such as Native Americans, are being influenced by these notions. I think this whole issue of archaeology in post-conflict situations is an exciting one.