13. Juni 2018 – 15. Juni 2018

The Critique of Archaeological Economy

A Symposium

This symposium intends to bring scholars of different disciplines and theoretical orientations together in the city of Karl Polanyi to discuss recent developments in the reconstruction of past economies through anthropological, archaeological, historical, sociological, and economistic perspectives.

A single and isolated individual driven by his or her economic agency has emerged in modernity in an imaginary free market and accordingly defined archaeological theory and interpretative praxis. Social anthropological research has been showing since the 19th century that such “Robinsonades” lack foundations in well-documented pre-capitalist societies. Instead, they represent projections of contemporary economic role models into the remotest past. Furthermore, certain current perceptions of the singular individual and eternal market forces are more or less unconsciously inspired by the hegemonic neoliberal economic discourse of our time.

We may now acknowledge that any study of past economic systems by means of archaeology requires a revised theoretical approach, which can be conceptualized through the application of anthropological theory in a critical study of historical data and testing of the results in the field. The quality of a model is evaluated against its ability to explain a concrete historical situation, the residue of which is archaeological evidence in context. The evidence, in turn, offers the tools for verifying, rejecting, or adjusting the model.

Archaeological theory in the western world seems to have overwhelmingly favored a neoliberal positivism in the interpretation of past economic relations. In the first half of the 20th century, cultural historical approaches projected modern economic models into the past through a rather formalist perspective; processual archaeology attempted to quantify these relations; finally, post-processual critique emphasized the role of the individual in shaping ancient economic patterns. Archaeological theorizing is contingent on contemporary political and philosophical contexts making, therefore, interpretation of the past vulnerable to manipulation, especially when economic relations are at stake. Economic studies of the past have been defined by several different theoretical approaches not only in accordance with the respective socio-political background, but also depending on the Zeitgeist. There are only a few academic fields, where interpretation depends so heavily on the theoretical methods and approaches engaged, as economic studies of the past.

Therefore, in our minds, a current challenge in archaeological interpretation is to become aware of several points of critique and reassert them in analytical praxis. One of these points is the social conditioning of property in past economic relations, which have been historically shaped through continuous transformations. Accordingly, relations among cultural phenomena can reflect, or more often, conceal relations among social groups with distinct interests. Human agency is socio-historically restricted, which means that individuals can become active social performers, yet under the restriction of certain conditions. These conditions may emerge independently of human will, but they are always subject to transformation by means of conscious human (re)action.

One of the main objectives of this symposium is a critical discussion of the dominant economic models that have been applied to the study of the past economic relations during the last two centuries and consideration of alternative theoretical trajectories. These may be conceived against the background of recent developments in the capitalist world system such as the enduring crisis. They may be tested on the grounds of well-documented archaeological and historical contexts. We conceptualize economic behavior as the diachronically changing relations of production, distribution, and consumption and welcome the application of economic theory to archaeological contexts. Our intention is not to test the theoretical models under scrutiny, but rather to present evidence against the rationalization of past economic behavior according to the rules of modern markets.