Dan at Archaeopop has an interesting post on the recent discovery in Rome of a round room alleged to be Nero’s rotating dining room. Dan is skeptical, and points out that this illustrates one of the problems with classical archaeology: “the frantic desire for ancient texts to be physically true,” stemming from “its roots as a discipline that started as the study of literature and took centuries to turn its attention toward excavation.” This can certainly be a problem, and my understanding is that it’s considerably worse in biblical archaeology (which is hardly a surprise). On the other hand, I do think that in some ways this isn’t that bad a problem to have. Knowledge of the texts can distort interpretations of the physical record, but it can also illuminate it. I have no idea if this room is Nero’s rotating dining room, but if it isn’t, what is it? Without the text no one would have any clue, since it seems so bizarre that no amount of ethnographic analogy is going to shed any light on its possible function. Suetonius may not be a reliable source, but he’s a source nonetheless.
In southwestern archaeology, which started with excavation and has basically never moved in any other direction (and in which, by the way, round rooms fifty feet in diameter are not unusual things to find), the problems are different. Anything and everything gets interpreted in terms of ethnographic analogy: to the modern Pueblos if possible, and if not, to whatever else looks reasonably similar anywhere else. When it comes to places like Chaco, which despite being obviously part of the Pueblo cultural tradition are difficult to interpret by comparison to the modern Pueblos, interpretations become very tricky indeed, which is one reason Chacoan archaeology is so contentious. Some texts would be nice, and I’ve actually thought at times that classical archaeology might provide a good model for trying to integrate the traditions of the modern tribes into archaeological interpretation. There has been a little bit of this, but since the traditions are known only from a significantly later period and not always completely, archaeologists in the southwest have generally either ignored them entirely or used them only to confirm interpretations arrived at through other means. If classical archaeology is too dependent on its texts, though, it may not be the best model. Perhaps something like Assyriology or Egyptology, where the texts are for the most part derived from the excavations and are thus not prior sources of bias in interpretation, would provide a better place to look.