Bulliet’s maxims and Collingwood’s principles

Richard Bulliet, the retired Columbia history professor and author of The Camel and the Wheel (Harvard University Press, 1975), among many other classic books, just posted a list of ten maxims he has learned over the course of his professional career. I agree with all of them, and although Bulliet focuses on the medieval Middle East, I think they all apply equally well to the study of the ancient past. I will not repeat his maxims here; rather, as an archaeologist I would like to make three additions, all of which come from another great scholar, R. G. Collingwood.

In his autobiography (republished by Oxford University Press in 2013 as R. G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and Other Writings), Collingwood articulated three principles he had learned. They are as follows:

  1. Never dig “either a five-thousand-pound site or a five-shilling trench without being certain that you can satisfy an inquirer who asks ‘What are you doing this piece of work for?’”
  2. “Since history proper is the history of thought, there are no mere ‘events’ in history: what is miscalled an ‘event’ is really an action, and expresses some thought (intention, purpose) of its agent.”
  3. “No problem should be studied without studying what I call its second-order history; that is, the history of historical thought about it.”

Principles 1 and 3 are fairly straightforward: never lose track of your research question and always study the history of a problem before you try to address it. Principle 2 is trickier, but in many respects is the most profound. Collingwood is saying that every object is the result of a series of decisions about its production, form, purchase, use, reuse and deposition. We can reconstruct, albeit imperfectly, some of these decisions and use them to write history. This has been one of the guiding principles of my own scholarship.