The Joy of Typology

Typology is about as crucial to archaeology as taxonomy is to zoology, and it plays the same role.  It’s actually typology that defines who was an Anglo-Saxon, because in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, we do not know how the people of post-Roman Britain referred to themselves.  In this early period “Anglo-Saxon” is simply a label applied to a related group of artefacts, architecture and burial practices found in the southeast portion of our island.  In our terminology, the people that lived in this region weren’t necessary “Anglo-Saxon”, but the things they made and used certainly were.  Typology informs our understanding of the past at the most elementary level.

Yet, should your conversation ever turn to typology (I’ll admit, you have to be among a pretty specific group of people for this to occur), the most positive reaction you can expect is for your unfortunate audience to feign interest before politely, if firmly, changing the subject.  I don’t blame them – there are few subjects that have become quite so esoteric and of less inherent interest to anyone but the specialist.  However, there are few subjects that are quite so fundamental to archaeological knowledge, and that also encapsulate most of the big theoretical debates in archaeology.  Culture history, functionalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, actor network theory – the ordering of objects by their style and function is embedded in all of them.

So what happened, why is typology so tedious for most archaeologists? I think the main reason is that theoretical debates about typology have been so interminably based on the banal flip-flop between subjectivity and objectivity, that most of us, at some point, lose patience, and also lose sight of our purpose.  It isn’t, dare I say it, very interesting.

There are exactly 58 beans in this picture.

There are exactly 58 beans of 6 different varities in this picture. Lentils do not count.

However, the actual practice of classifiying objects certainly is. My not-so-guilty admission is that when I am actually ‘doing’ typology, I rather enjoy it.  Maybe I’m just one of those people who loves putting things in labelled boxes, but when you’re dealing with ancient objects that define whole units of the human past, what you’re doing, bit by bit and piece by piece, is actually quite important.  You are bringing order to a world that would otherwise be chaotic and ill-understood.  There is also a feeling that you are finally sharing something with the people who made and used this material, rather than blindly accepting the categories handed down by past authorities. There is some communication across the gulf concerning aesthetic taste, or the merits of constructing a tool in a particular manner.

Ultimately, of course, typology is frustrating, because there is no such thing as a perfect way of ordering material culture.  The classification systems we create today will be rewritten tomorrow.  But that’s where the beauty lies: typology is a creative, imaginative exercise more than it is about deduction or finding answers.

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One Comment on “The Joy of Typology”

  1. gamarchcambs says:

    Typology does need some love, nice post:)


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