Microhistory and Archaeology: Some Comments and Contributions

Artur Ribeiro


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Archaeology has always kept an inconsistent relationship with history. For decades, archaeology has either largely rejected what history could offer, such as among certain processual archaeologists, or it has cherry-picked certain elements of historical methods. The closest that archaeologists have ever come to establishing a complete historical method to be applied in archaeology was through the adoption of the idea of the Annales School of history.

Part of what made the Annales School so attractive to archaeologists of all backgrounds was that it tackled the past in a way that was very practical and useful for archaeology: it engaged with the past in the form of total histories, which could then be segmented in three separate durations and could be studied in an interdisciplinary manner. Additionally, the way the Annales School envisaged the past allowed for the study of the past in a very scientific way (e.g. quantitative, statistical), but also allowed the qualitative study of mentalities of the past people under analysis.  

However, one of the greatest problems of the Annales School is that it suppressed the human agent. Whether they were hidden behind structural economic forces or long-term symbolic structures, the individual remained always buried under the large-scale — history, according to annalistes, could not be the result of individual action. This, in turn, is what eventually led to the demise of the Annales School, in favour of the Italian microhistory. Does this mean that the AnnalesSchool of History must be complete scraped? No, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate that archaeology can in fact have a fruitful historical paradigm based on some ideas of the Annales School, and at the same time, some ideas of Italian microhistory. This would require understanding microhistory as the reconstruction of the life of agents, small-scale case-studies that serve as exemplars of large-scale phenomena.


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