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Gutorm Gjessing, Dialectics, and the New archaeology

’The faculty clearly respected him as an iconoclast, as a critical thinker, and as a rebel like themselves. They liked his early (…) research, but they could not embrace him as an ally because they did not know what to make of the theoretical brew he had cooked up. On the one hand, his concerns with history, diffusion, and archaeological cultures seemed old-fashioned and perhaps even normative. On the other, he was clearly a materialist who took a systemic view of society, studied evolutionary change, and searched for patterning in the archaeological record. But he was a materialist who did not discount ideology or relegate it to epiphenomena. He explicitly rejected both the New Archaeology and culture history, but his theory seemed to us like some strange amalgam between the two.’

This could easily have been a description of Gutorm Gjessing and his relationship to the archaeological academia in the 1960s and 70s, but it isn’t. In fact, the words belong to Randall H. McGuire, and the person being described is Bruce G. Trigger (McGuire 2006:62). Gjessing, like Trigger, has been difficult to categorize as a researcher. To artifact-oriented cultural historians he was suspiciously concerned with processes and structures. To positivists he stood out as a traditionalist harking back to the bad old days of cultural history and diffusion. He was an outsider also because of leave of absence from archaeology – his refuge in social anthropology, that is, although there is reason to de-dramatize the importance of this: after all, he continued to publish archaeological studies and act in the capacity of a prehistorian throughout the whole period (witness for instance his works on prehistoric social groups in Northern Norway, 1955a, 1959, his little study on petroglyphs in British Colombia, 1952, his contributions to the collaborative popular volumes on Nordisk kultur, 1953, 1955b, his 1963 article on Socio-archaeology or his seminal paper on nationalism and archaeology from 1969, cf 1974). It’s probably more correct to say that Gjessing’s contributions to archaeology during the 50s and 60s were published in what appeared to most Norwegian archaeologists as rather obscure journals, and the distance between the archaeological establishment and Gjessing was further underlined by the latter now being a professor of ethnography.

To add to this strange brew, Gjessing was also a political activist, associated with, and indeed one of the founding fathers of, the left-socialist Socialist People’s Party (SF), which came to embody the New Left in Norway. He was a staunch supporter of Saami aboriginal rights, a founder of the Saami association in Oslo, and at one point chairman of the radical anti-war organisation Folkereisning mot krig (FMK).

The archaeologist-cum-social anthropologist Gjessing’s scientific career spans a large part of the 20th century. His early typological and chronological works were published in the late 1920s and early 30s (Gjessing 1928, 1929a, 1929b, 1934), while his last major archaeological contribution, Ideas about Prehistoric Societies, didn’t surface until 1977 (Gjessing 1977). Gjessing started out as a traditional scholar (see also Johnsen 1997) and as a pupil of the politically conservative but in archaeological respects innovative A. W. Brøgger. Anders Hagen recalled having tried as a student to sell Gjessing an illegal left-wing newspaper during WW2, and was firmly turned down by him. Gjessing’s archaeological works in the 1930s and 40s are to a large extent inspired by Brøgger, cf his Norges steinalder (The Stone Age in Norway, 1945), Fangstfolk (Hunters, 1941), Ophavet til Hålogaland rike (The Origin of Hálogaland, 1929c, 1930), and Hesten i forhistorisk kunst og kultus (The Horse in Prehistoric Art and Cult, 1943).

Gjessing was, however, radicalised by the war and by social struggle and world politics in the immediate post-war era. As a Rockefeller scholar in the US in 1946-47, Gjessing became conscious politically. A year later, he wrote the following in Mennesket er ett (Humankind is One, 1948):

‘Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that European-American civilization is seriously ill. There must be some kind of cure that can put the balance back in our culture’ (1948:16).


‘He who has seen the New York Broadway at night, he who has seen the almost incomprehendable amount of money being used for commercials to see off the competition, he who has witnessed the competition between the railroad companies with several sets of expensive stations in each and every city, several sets of railroads and bridges, because the companies cannot cooperate – he is bound to, willingly or with a grudge, admit that ‘private enterprice’ is a system that comes with a price’ (1948:18-19).

This was also the period when the Norwegian labour movement turned from being officially pacifist and anti-war to supporting NATO and nuclear bases. Starting from a cultural critique of late-modern society, Gjessing came to play a rather important part on the left of social democracy, and he was one of the founders of the Socialist People’s Party (SF) in 1961. As a political activist, as well as in his anthropological studies in the 50s and 60s, Gjessing embodied many of the concerns of the New Left in Scandinavia: pacifism and social reformism, as well as support for aboriginal struggles and rights and for freedom struggles in the Third and Fourth worlds. Like many others from the same political background, i.e. the anti-nuclear and anti-colonial struggles of the 50s and 60s, Gjessing remained ambivalent towards marxist theory. He was highly critical of the legitimizing role of the state ideology that passed as marxism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

He was, however, willing to engage with marxist ideas. This is most pronounced in his two latest main works, Socio-archaeology from 1975 and Idéer omkring førhistoriske samfunn (Ideas about Prehistoric Societies) from 1977. The latter is basically a translation of the former into Norwegian, but with some relatively minor adjustments. Uncontroversially, the 1975 study on Socio-archaeology presents itself as an attempt to combine archaeology and social anthropology in order to investigate the possibility of reconstructing some major features of prehistoric social systems. Gjessing stresses that we need to look at archaeology as one of a number of sciences in a broad pattern of disciplines that all are needed to reconstruct a society. Analysis must start from the whole, or from the complex which is comparable with the ethnic group, and must explain and reconstruct the ways in which prehistoric peoples arranged their lives. He pays tribute to V. G. Childe as the pioneer of socio-archaeology (cf. Faulkner 2007; Patterson & Orser 2004), and states that archaeologists must realize that they deal with the concrete evidence of not only ancient peoples’ existence, but also their beliefs, institutions, and behavior, however fragmented.

These remarkable works are rich in ideas, heavily influenced by trends within anthropology, not excluding marxism, for the time unfashionably sceptical of New Archaeology and realist in their outlook. Both the Socio-archaeology paper and the Ideas about Prehistoric Societies caused some debate, in the pages of Current Anthropology and Norwegian Archaeological Review, respectively. But 30 years later the debate seems somewhat confused. Surely, the reason for the partly harsh reactions cannot be simply the provocative claims Gjessing make (‘Archaeologists are in risk of turning into deaf men answering questions nobody asked them’, 1977:13; ‘archaeology’s one hundred years of sleep’, 1977:23; ‘in science as in love, too much concentration on technique often leads to impotence’, 1975a:323; ‘archaeology is suffering from the eye disease glaucoma and needs an operation to get a wider view’, 1975b, quoted after Myhre 1991:163)?

Although critical of both traditional culture historical archaeology and the New Archaeology,’(h)is theory seemed to us like some strange amalgam between the two,’ writes McGuire regarding Trigger. The reason, finds McGuire, was Trigger’s use of dialectics. While I feel that McGuire perhaps to some extent overstates Trigger’s commitment to marxism and dialectics, he does furnish us with a very important clue for understanding the double nature of the latter’s works. I would like to suggest that this is the case with Gjessing, as well. It is mainly his use of the dialectic that accounts for the relative confusion caused by his two major theoretical works in the mid-70s. In Gjessing’s case, his reliance on dialectics is explicit.

Consider statements like these:

‘The weight put by neo-positivism on things that are directly observable, is obvious by it also being called logical empiricism. But the paradox is that with this narrow view of reality, logical empiricism is in fact not empirical enough, because it disregards forces of very great importance. They are forces which are incomparably strong when it comes to initiating action, and which shapes our experience to a great degree. But these forces are impossible to deal with for the neo-positivists with their one-dimensional logic’ (1977:17).

‘A dialectical or complementary way of thinking also makes possible the balanced combination of science and art that is necessary to attain a truly holistic view and to avoid scientism. Art and science are interdependent’ (1975:324).

‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’ (1977:18).

Dialectics have a much older history, of course, but is in Gjessing – as in Trigger – intimately linked to a critical marxism as a way to know the world, as a critique of the world, and as a means to change the world (cf. Patterson 2003, see also Saitta 1989). What, then, is the dialectic?

Dialectics aims to understand things concretely in their living movement, change and interconnection, with their opposite and contradictory sides in unity. Few would deny that everything in the world is changing and interacting at some pace, or that history and systemic connections belong to the real world. The difficulty is rather how to think adequately about them, how not to distort them and how to give them the attention and weight that they deserve. Dialectics is an attempt to resolve this difficulty by expanding our notion of anything to include, as aspects of what it is, both the process by which it has become that and the broader interactive context in which it is found. Only then does the study of anything involve one immediately with the study of its history and encompassing system. Trotsky once wrote that a dialectical concept is a loop, not a closed circle, one end of which moves into the past, the other – into the future (Trotsky 1986:78). The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. The dialectic method looks for ways to transcend the opposites presented by formal dualism – be it mind versus matter, culture versus biology, materialism versus idealism etc. – and form synthesis. In dialectics both have something in common, and understanding of the parts requires understanding their relationship with the whole system. ‘The truth is in the whole,’ as Hegel put it (after Ollman 2003).

Let us look at some of the reception Gjessing got. In the discussion in Current Anthropology, some of the commentators described a feeling of confusion after reading Gjessing’s article, while one critic was outright hostile. Donn Bayard stated that ‘this article leaves me somewhat confused’ (Bayard 1975), while Richard Pearson found parts of the paper ‘confusing’, and suggested that ‘the ‘new archaeology’ is in part a response to mindless collections of data, which are all too obvious in this article’ (Pearson 1975). It is interesting that both of the marxists among the commentators, Bruce Trigger (1975) and Leo Klejn (1975), commented favourably, but that both of them partly defended the New archaeology against Gjessing’s criticism, and criticised him for lack of stringency. Another marxist, Jurgen K. Brueggemann, in a later issue of Current Anthropology put Gjessing to task for writing an ‘archaeographical report’, instead of pointing to ‘the theoretical bases and relevant premises for the postulation of a scientific discipline of socio-archaeology’ (Brueggemann 1976:147). These marxists were obviously closer to official ‘dialectical materialism’ than Gjessing was.

The reception in Norwegian Archaeological Review was friendly, but open. It is, however, typical for the time and for the theoretical approach that Gjessing was critising, that the editor of the journal asked several scholars to comment on particular aspects of the book. Thus, we have Arne B. Johansen commenting on the relationship between positivism and dialectics, Stig Welinder discussing Gjessing’s ecological approach, and Synnøve Vinsrygg his use of analogies (Johansen 1980; Vinsrygg 1980; Welinder 1980). William Fitzhugh (1980) in his comment mainly focused on Gjessing’s discussion of circumpolar aspects. Although all four commentators are broadly sympathetic to Gjessing’s critique of positivism, none of them really relates to the text as a whole, only to certain aspects of it. The discussion as a whole failed to appreciate Gjessing’s holistic and synthetic approach. This approach was anti-empiricist, but yet he criticised the positivism of New Archaeology. Some of his critics, among them Arne B. Johansen, tried to label him a positivist in disguise, but he clearly was not one (Johansen 1979, 1980). Gjessing’s philosophy of science can best be described as realist – a posititon which holds that there is an objective reality existing independent of our senses, and that it is possible to gain empirical knowledge of this world. But the knowledge thus gained is not a reflexion or a ‘picture’ of the objective reality – rather it is ‘a complex social product that entails both reality and consciousness’ (McGuire 2002:x).

Gjessing’s works from the 70s were never appreciated as a totality within Norwegian archaeology. Although some aspects of it were commented on approvingly, he did not succeed in convincing the archaeologists that this was the embryo of a whole different way of doing archaeology than the one being taught within the positivist paradigm. Perhaps some of his views were too avantguardist to really hit a nerve within Scandinavian archaeology in the late 70s, and his 1975 and 1977 studies were unfortunately disregarded or forgotten when the theoretical tide turned ten years later and mainstream archaeology started to ask the same questions that had occupied Gjessing in the 60s and 70s. By then, many of the answers Gjessing gave, just did not seem relevant any longer. The faith of Gjessing’s socio-archaeology was sealed when the optimism of the social movements of that decade gave way to the economic and political neoliberalism in the 1980s. Gjessing’s methodological and theoretical contributions to archaeology are largely forgotten, while his works from the 1930s and 1940s are still studied. Today, a search on Google for the terms ‘Gjessing’ and ‘socio-archaeology’ yields no more than 18 hits (October 1, 2008).

In my opinion, Gjessing’s works from the 1970s charts a route between the positivism of processual archaeology and the idealism and empiricism of the trends that came to dominate archaeology in the late 1980s. Perhaps the waning popularity of the political and economic regimes that were established in the West as well as in the East in the 1980s and 90s, will make him relevant again. I like to think so, and I like to think that this conference is a small sign that Gutorm Gjessing and his ideas about prehistoric societies is once again in ascendance.

Bayard, D. 1975. Comment on Socio-archaeology by G. Gjessing. Current Anthropology January 1975, vol 16 (3), pp 332-333.
Brueggemann, J. K. 1976. More on Socio-archaeology. Current Anthropology March 1976, vol 17 (1), pp 147-148.
Faulkner, N. 2007. Gordon Childe and Marxist archaeology. International Socialism Journal, vol 116.
Fitzhugh, W. Gutorm Gjessing and Arctic Archaeology. Norwegian Archaeological Review vol 13 (2), pp 120-122.
Gjessing, G. 1928. Finsk-ugriske vikingetidssmykker i Norge. Universitetets oldsaksamlings årbok 1927, pp 23-41.
Gjessing, G. 1929a. De norske gullbrakteatene. Universitetets oldsaksamlings skrifter 2, 127-175.
Gjessing, G. 1929b. Norske ryggknappspenner fra vendeltiden. Skrifter fra Det Kgl. norske videnskabers selskap 8. Trondheim.
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Vinsrygg, S. 1980. An interpretative view on Gjessing’s use of Analogy. Norwegian Archaeological Review vol 13 (2), pp 123-127.
Welinder, S. 1980. Gutorm Gjessing on Ecology. Norwegian Archaeological Review vol 13 (2), pp 130-131.


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