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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

The Return of Aesthetics to Archaeology

A workshop held at the University of London’s Senate House
Thursday 28th and Friday 29th November 2013

The Return of Aesthetics to Archaeology

This AHRC-funded workshop, generously sponsored by the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy, was centred on the theme of ‘The Return of Aesthetics to Archaeology’.

During the workshop, we thought about the following questions:

  • To what extent can our understanding of the aesthetic value of archaeological objects underpin our obligations to preserve such objects for future generations?
  • Can the aesthetic value of an archaeological object be affected by any moral purpose the object in question may have had historically, and if so, can that feed back into what we owe that object now?
  • Is the claim that examining an object's aesthetic character might detract from the archaeologist's scientific goals well-founded?
  • Do museum curators commit a moral error with regard to the treatment of an archaeological object if they don't respect what we know about the maker's intentions?
  • Can aesthetic evaluation lead us to reinterpret the meanings and value of archaeological objects, and if so, should that affect the appropriate mode of care?

The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archaeology

The workshop was organised within the framework of an AHRC-funded Research Network Group project focused on ‘The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archaeology’

This wider project brings together philosophers, archaeologists and museum and heritage practitioners in order to focus on the relation between ethics and aesthetics, and explore how this relation shapes the understanding and practice of archaeological stewardship. The main premise underlying our multidisciplinary project is the idea that research into the ethics of stewardship (including moral obligations, duties and respect) will be enhanced significantly by an increased understanding of the role played by the aesthetic character of historical objects in influencing the moral relations we have with them and their makers.

The project is directed by two members of staff from Durham University: Dr Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann (Department of Philosophy) and Dr Robin Skeates (Department of Archaeology). They are assisted by Dr. Andreas Pantazatos (Co-Director of the Centre for the Ethics of Cultural Heritage).

Workshop programme

Our intention was to give the Institute of Philosophy workshop an informal ‘work-in-progress’ feel, with short presentations from invited presenters and plenty of time for questions and discussion. Our first afternoon session, on the Thursday 28th November, was centred around two key-note presentations. Our following sessions, on Friday 29th November, involved discussion of presentations from three archaeologists and three philosophers. Unfortunately, one of our presenters, Anna Bergqvist, was unable to attend due to illness.

Thursday 28th November 2013

14.00-14.10 Welcome Dr. Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann (Dept. of Philosophy, Durham University) and Dr. Robin Skeates (Dept. of Archaeology, Durham University).
14.10-15.10 Archaeology key-note presentation:
‘Ancient Art and Aesthetics: Varying Traditions and Effects’
Prof. Chris Gosden (School of Archaeology, University of Oxford)
15.10-15.40 Discussion
15.40-16.00  Tea/coffee
16.00-17.00 Philosophy key-note presentation:
‘The Role of the Aesthetic in Archaeological Explanation’
Prof. Gregory Currie (Dept. of Philosophy, University of York)
17.00-17.30 Discussion

Friday 29th November 2013

10.00-10.10 Welcome & summary of Thursday’s discussions Dr. Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann and Dr. Robin Skeates
10.10-10.30 The Return of Aesthetics to Archaeology:
A Brief Introduction
Dr. Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann and Dr. Robin Skeates
10.30-11.15 Archaeology presentation:
‘Beautiful Burials, Beautiful Skulls: The Aesthetics of the Egyptian Mummy’
Dr. Christina Riggs (School of World Art Studies, University of East Anglia)
11.15-11.30 Tea/coffee
11.30-12.15 Philosophy presentation:
‘Archaeological Facts, Value and Perspective’
Dr. Anna Bergqvist (Department of Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University)
12.15-12.45 Discussion
12.45-13.30 Lunch

Archaeology presentation:
'The Intention of the Artist: Lost Contexts Matter'

Prof. David Gill (School of Arts and Humanities, University Campus Suffolk)
14.15-15.00 Philosophy presentation:
‘Archaeology, Landscape and Aesthetics’
Prof. Em. David Cooper (Department of Philosophy, Durham University)
15.00-15.30 Discussion
15.30-15.45 Tea/coffee
15.45-16.30 Archaeology presentation:
‘Aesthetics in Balkan Prehistory: A Materials-Based Perspective’
Prof. John Chapman (Department of Archaeology, Durham University)
16.30-17.15 Philosophy presentation:
‘Greek Pots, Deception, and Beauty’
Prof. Derek Matravers (Dept. Philosophy, The Open University)
17.15-17.45 Discussion