Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part twelve ― active imagination

"A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books,
crowded into his imagination"
Gustave Doré, Don Quixote
Active Imagination is (among other definitions) a Jungian therapeutic technique that can access the upper levels of the unconscious in a directed way. Experimentation should reveal if this could also be a useful tool in archaeological interpretation.

After noticing that one archaeologist's interpretation of a site seemed to unknowingly reference elements of lore, I wondered if active imagination could be utilized in archaeological interpretation to determine how much the personal and collective unconscious figures in such interpretation. Meaning resides only within minds, and the minds addressed in archaeology are supposed to be the minds that were involved in an archaeological site or object at the time it was built, used or abandoned.

However, without being aware of the nature of the problem, ideas might be attributed to the original people involved could be ideas coming from the archaeologist's own unconscious mind that are not directly relevant to what is being observed. These could include half forgotten content from an academic lecture or book, stories and legends heard in childhood, archetypes from the collective unconscious or something to do with the current life of the archaeologist that might be forgotten or repressed.

A number of people should be the subjects for such an experiment and their responses should be kept private until they are interpreted.  The first question should be something like "What is this ... telling you about itself?" and not "What do you think about..." as you want to avoid, as much as possible, a personal reaction to anything. If all of the responses are very similar, it will not necessarily be a correct interpretation as what is being looked at might stimulate archetypes in the observer that would not have been in the minds of the people who had contact with the original material in its time. If the responses are different from each other, then further analysis might eliminate the very subjective by discovering its source.

Bit by bit, the experiment can be refined to help eliminate confusions. At the very least, it will reveal the commonest sorts of misinterpretation. Some of the subjects could be classmates, others could be people from different backgrounds. You want to see how similar and different psychologies deal with the same material. This should also include people with very different personality types. Of course, the experiment will not be much good unless it is directed by a psychologist familiar with the technique for therapy, and who can interpret its results and adjust the experiment to help eliminate problems that might emerge in running such an experiment.

Jungian analysts explain the active imagination technique in the following video:

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