Session Abstract – R. G. Collingwood- An Early Theoretical Archaeologist?

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) had two intertwined careers as a philosopher and an archaeologist. Interest in Collingwood as a philosopher has grown steadily, and there have been many studies of his work and life, including a recently published biography. They are generally sympathetic to his philosophy, but responses to Collingwood’s achievements as an archaeologist have been mixed. His works of synthesis are sometimes regarded as too fixed in their views, giving no space to alternative narratives, and some of his archaeological reports have been thought to force the evidence to fit his preconceptions. Yet many of Collingwood’s ideas remain important, particularly his attempts to define the limits of historical thought and the place of archaeology within it. He never distilled his thoughts in a summary directed at archaeologists, though parts of his Autobiography (1939) went some way towards this, and some of his most important philosophical books were assembled by others after his early death from lecture notes and incomplete drafts. Although his philosophical writings are models of clarity, their presentation is far from straightforward, and subsequent analyses of his work are essential to understanding the development of his thought. His archaeological work is much easier to appreciate, being published in his life time, even if occasionally in obscure journals such as The Vasculum. It deserves the same close attention from archaeologists as from those studying his philosophy of history. Over the last forty years some philosophers have come to recognise that study of his archaeological work is essential to understanding his wider thought. Although Collingwood’s main historical interest was in Roman Britain, his fieldwork was confined to northern England, and the meeting of TRAC in the region which engaged so much of his attention is an opportunity to consider whether he could be described as an early theoretical archaeologist and whether his ideas are still important.


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