Review of ‘The Languages of Archaeology: Dialogue, Narrative and Writing’

20th November 2013

Darren Griffin

Languages of archaeology book cover‘The Languages of Archaeology: Dialogue, Narrative and Writing’, by Rosemary A. Joyce, 2002, Blackwell, Oxford, viii+176 pages. ISBN 0631221786 (hbk); 0631221794 (pbk).

Every archaeology student will be aware of the post- processualist argument that archaeologists themselves continually create and re-create interpretations and representations of the past. These representations have just as much to do with the archaeologist’s cultural, social and economic background as they do with an independent, objective interpretation of the past. But what exactly are the processes involved in this creation of representations of the past? Joyce explores this question in her book, The Languages of Archaeology, which examines how archaeological languages are created and how and why archaeologists give authority to one voice over others.

In order to explore this process Joyce uses the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his analyses of the construction of human language and dialogue. Bakhtin’s main theoretical point is that the construction of scientific knowledge and writing produces a singular form of knowledge. Bakhtin’s dialogic model is a complex model of communication and meaning, where a whole society of speakers and listeners create knowledge through evaluating, criticising, confirming, contesting and reflecting on dialogues. However when these multi-voiced dialogues are put on paper to create scientific texts, these processes are often reduced to one authoritative voice, and the dialogic construction of the knowledge is lost.

Central to Bakhtin’s dialogic model are the concepts of heteroglossia and polyphony or multivocality. Heteroglossia refers to the multiple speech types present in any single language such as dialects, the languages of generations, authorities, and sub-cultures, and scientific jargon. Multivocality refers to the attempt by speakers of one of these types to engage the speakers of the others across the stratification of language. Joyce states that the recognition of archaeology’s heteroglossia and the attempt to make it more multivocal has been discussed previously by post-processualist archaeologists. The reflexive process of including and privileging Indigenous voices in archaeological languages, which is also an important part of making archaeology more multivocal, has been explored recently by researchers here in Australia (see Roberts 2003). Joyce claims that her book is able to show archaeologists how to make archaeological language more multivocal and recover the multitude of stories which create archaeological knowledge, by using Bakhtin’s analysis of dialogues, narratives, and texts.

The book is divided in to seven chapters and includes the contributions of Robert W. Preucel, Jeanne Lopiparo, Carolyn Guyer and Michael Joyce. At the core of most of the chapters are papers previously presented at various conferences, a factor that contributes to the lack of flow between chapters. In an attempt to move away from a formal scientific text towards a multivocal archaeological language Joyce employs different narrative devices in some of the chapters, such as using a collection of email correspondence with Preucel in Chapter Two and an almost conversational story about the oral examination of her PhD student, Lopiparo in Chapter Three.

The most coherent chapter is Chapter Three, in which Joyce considers the writing of archaeology, which she argues has always been as integral to the production of archaeological knowledge as encounters in the field. Joyce explains that writing pervades archaeology from the creation of field notes, records and observations to informal and formal presentations. In the field, archaeology students make a decision on what types of evidence is meaningful and therefore should be recorded on the basis of not only what they have been taught at University, but all the previous dialogues about archaeological knowledge they have been involved in. If the archaeological writing process starts at this point, in the field, then the archaeologist has already been involved in a low level of interpretation and has begun to choose which voices about archaeological knowledge to use in their writing. The acts of recognition in which archaeologists identify which pieces of evidence should be recorded is bound up in the dialogic production of narrative. The main argument of Joyce is that each archaeological text is simply a material form for one segment of the ongoing narrative production of archaeological discourse.

In the final chapters Joyce attempts to suggest how archaeologists can recapture the dialogic process during the experience of constructing archaeological knowledge and make archaeological language more multivocal. It is interesting to note that the examples used are all web sites or hypertexts. There are less examples of how archaeologists can produce a multivocal archaeological language through the traditional forms of printed text. Joyce returns to Bakhtin’s belief that human relations are best exemplified through story telling and therefore the novel is the best form of text which can be employed in order to express human reality. Joyce argues that while a mix of stories, narratives, dialogues and traditional archaeological language can be linked together quite easily on a web site, it may be more difficult to achieve in printed text form. It seems that Joyce is suggesting that the future of archaeological reporting and discussion is through interactive web sites and CD Roms.

The Languages of Archaeology is an interesting and engaging text, although it employs a lot of the archaeological heteroglossia which it is criticising. The book presents and suggests ways in which archaeologists can critically examine the narratives they have produced before they attempt to write an authoritative text on their interpretation of the past. It will be an important addition to post-processualist references. Whether or not archaeologists will throw away their textbooks and journals and use hyper-linked web sites to present their findings from now on remains to be seen.


Roberts, A. 2003 Power, Knowledge and Voice: An Investigation of Indigenous South Australian Perspectives of Archaeology. Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Archaeology Flinders University, Adelaide.

Griffin, D.
Review of ‘The Languages of Archaeology: Dialogue, Narrative and Writing’
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