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THE CLEARING: Heidegger and Excavation

Posted by Matt Edgeworth

text by Matt Edgeworth
images by permission of Fotis Ifantidis

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting... Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.
Martin Heidegger 1971 (1935): 53

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‘Plan Générique’ by Fotis Ifantidis. Visit his visualizing_neolithic photoblog

In this short piece I sketch out why it is useful to think of excavation as a kind of clearing.

At the heart of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of being was his notion of the “clearing”. The clearing is much more than just a space where something has been cleared away. It is an opening through which entities other than ourselves can emerge out of hiddenness, or are made visible by a bringing into the light. In one sense the clearing is the place or site where such unconcealment occurs, in the presence of the human form of being that Heidegger calls Dasein. In another sense Dasein is the clearing.

On the face of it, the idea of the clearing is based on the metaphor of a clearing in a forest - the image of a pleasant glade, where the sun shines, encircled by dark and forbidding trees. Human perception and experience, we might say, is a bit like such a clearing. Into the clearing, and into the light of human consciousness, emerge all those things that are discovered or encountered in the world.

This is a compelling image. It constitutes the world at a basic ontological level to be already a mixture of the material and the personal, the natural and the cultural. The clearing is at once a material space and a field of consciousness. It stands not only for the world of experience that we all share (more than one person can enter the clearing) but also for that of the individual (the clearing that is opened up by a human being with a unique stance, way of being, and slant upon the world), the two being intermeshed and inseparable in practice. As a social and cultural field, the clearing contains other people. As a field of action, it also contains the tools and instruments and technologies that human beings use, the practical relations and affordances that bind us to the world of things.

In the sense that Dasein is the clearing, however, the metaphor only takes us so far. What is special about human experience, after all, is that it is not a static field in quite the same way that a forest clearing is. It is experience-in movement. Human beings not only discover; they also explore, investigate. The horizons of their shifting fields of awareness expand and contract rather than remain constant. They bring ever more entities into the light, while inevitably sending other entities back into the darkness again.

Another drawback with the metaphor is that a forest clearing is just ‘there’, while human beings create their own clearings to a certain extent. Although a glade may originally have been cleared by woodsmen with axes (or chainsaws), it quickly becomes almost a natural part of the forest - a part of the scenery. It is a scene where entities may come and go and various things may happen, but the clearing as such has no agency or volition of its own. Human beings, on the other hand have agency and intention as well as mere perception. While they inhabit clearings that are already made - cultural spaces and ways of seeing and doing that are centuries old - they also open up their own fields of awareness and experience out of the world that is already acting upon them. They transform – and are transformed by – the fields that they themselves have ‘cleared’.

Heidegger was well aware of the drawbacks of the metaphor of the forest clearing. Much of the language he uses stretches the metaphor to its limits. He speaks of entities in the clearing being ‘torn out of concealment’ or ‘struck by openness’. There is a kind of disclosure on the part of the clearing – something more than mere discovery on the part of someone entering the clearing. The clearing is active and transformative rather than passive and unchanging. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though Heidegger, consciously or subconsciously, has a very different kind of clearing in mind. There is an underlying - more practical - metaphor at work in his writing.

One of the principal influences on Heidegger was Edmund Husserl. Husserl’s phenomenology was itself based in part upon an archaeological metaphor – the idea that the structure of the life-world could be discovered by excavating away, so to speak, the layers of knowledge and beliefs that accumulated within and upon it.

As Merleau-Ponty later articulated it, "we must rediscover the structure of the perceived world through a process similar to that of an archaeologist. For the structure of the perceived world is buried under the sedimentations of later knowledge. Digging down to the perceived world, we see that sensory qualities are not opaque, indivisible 'givens'...We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective - our body" (Merleau-Ponty 1964:5).

Or again, "Scientific thinking ... must return to the 'there is' which underlies it: to the site, the soil of the sensible and opened world such as it is in our life and for our body" (Merleau-Ponty1964:160)

Even Husserl's central phenomenological slogan 'Back to the things themselves!' has deep archaeological resonances, like the sound of spade on stone. Where did his metaphor of the ‘sedimentation of knowledge’ come from? In the late 19th century, Husserl would have been aware of archaeological discoveries both at home and abroad. He would certainly have heard of Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (Hissarlik) - where many cities were found one on top of each other. Here the upper levels had to be peeled away to get to the underlying buried truth about the mythological city. The emergence of the so-called ‘Priam’s Treasure’ at Troy, or the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ at Mycenae, were important images of discovery at the time, well publicised in Germany. Such artifacts and works of art were awe-inspiring not just because of their incredible workmanship and design; it was their emergence from a state of hiddenness, buried in the earth for thousands of years, and their association with their charismatic discoverers, that lent them added pathos and power in the popular imagination.

It seems highly probable that the emergence of such objects into public consciousness contributed to the general background knowledge and imagery that informed the thinking of Husserl, and led in part to the formulation of his archaeological metaphor. And in reading Husserl’s work, Heidegger could hardy avoid the half-explicit, half-tacit metaphor that was embedded there. In absorbing the ideas of phenomenology, he inevitably absorbed the metaphor of excavation too. He may not have been fully aware of it. He may never have experienced excavation himself. But the metaphor was there nevertheless, buried in the language and ideas in which he was immersed - embedded also therefore in the formulation of his own philosophy.

What happens when we apply the concept of the clearing of being to excavation – when we think of excavation as a kind of clearing in the Heideggerian sense? It is like the click of a long lost key into its original lock. This is bringing the metaphor – the one that Husserl used and Heidegger more or less tacitly assimilated, burying it under the notion of the forest clearing - back to bear upon its original source. Arguably, excavation is a much more appropriate metaphor even than a forest glade for the kind of existential clearing that Heidegger had in mind.

Heidegger probably favoured the metaphor of the forest glade because of the sheer power of the image of a pool of light in the midst of darkness. He is making a play here on the German word for clearing – lichtung – which means lighting. There is a poetic force, too, to the dark and foreboding primeval forest which surrounds, encloses and gives shape to the clearing of light. The diffuse boundary between light and dark conveys a sense of an edge or boundary to our field of experience – the idea that there is a kind of circumference or horizon to being, situated at the point where the clearing meets the encircling trees. Here light shades into dark, visible becomes hidden, open becomes closed. And here, conversely, things can emerge from darkness into light, from a state of hiddenness to a state of visibility, from a state of closure to a state of openness.

In most arenas of human life the edges of our ‘clearing of being’ are even more diffuse. There appear to be no clear boundaries to our fields of action and perception. Everything shades off into peripheral vision, background sounds, etc. Technology extends our perception and agency into distant realms, even outer space, far removed from the body. We know there are limits to our senses, but these are difficult to apprehend in practice. The forest glade is a useful metaphor because it has clear edges to it. These enable us to imagine not only what is inside the clearing but also what is outside of it – the invisible as well as the visible domain - and the commerce that takes place between them.

Archaeological excavation is like the forest clearing in this sense. It also has well-defined edges. In this case, however, these are artificial rather than natural or semi-natural edges. They tend to be crisp and cleanly-cut rather than rough and unkempt, straight rather than circular - imposed upon the material field through the actions of human beings upon it. I do not just mean the edges of the deep trenches and shafts excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Troy or Mycenae. In modern open excavations too the material fields opened up tend to have set limits. These are sometimes defined by machine-cuts, sometimes by incised trowel-marks, sometimes by grid-lines or pieces of string – or perhaps they are marked only by the fact that the area inside has been worked while the area outside has not. What are these boundaries if not the edges of a clearing? What is excavation if not the clearing of a material space where objects and patterns that were previously hidden or buried can emerge into the light?

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‘Our new sector had nothing but soil’ by Fotis Ifantidis. Visit his visualizing_neolithic photoblog

It is of course the case that patterns of deposition, sequences of layers, cuts of features, and other configurations of archaeological evidence do not necessarily end at the somewhat arbitrary limits of excavation. All these kinds of evidence shade away or shelve off into an invisible domain, that is comprised of everything unknown or yet to be discovered. Most of an archaeological site exists beyond the edges of trenches or trowelled areas – a vast yet unseen presence that shelves downwards and extends outwards in all directions beyond the edges of clearing of the excavation trench itself. Limits of excavation, like the edge of the forest clearing, mark the boundary between the unknown and the known.

Limits of excavation can of course be changed. Trowelled areas can be enlarged. Trenches can be widened or lengthened. Sections can be extended. By pushing back limits of excavation, existing cuts and patterns can be followed or previously unknown features and artifacts brought to light, even if such extension inevitably involves the destruction or covering over of evidence that was previously visible. Here, as at the edge of the forest clearing in Heidegger’s overt metaphor, there is commerce between the visible and invisible domains. The clearing can be enlarged. The edges of the visible can be extended to bring the edges of the formerly invisible into the field of human perception.

How can Dasein be the clearing and at the same time be situated within the clearing? This is a difficult conundrum only when thinking in terms of the metaphor of a forest clearing: that is, in imagining a human being or beings situated within a forest glade. It ceases to be a problem, however, when conceiving of a digger opening up a clearing through his or her own embodied actions within and upon the material field. He or she is both embodied within the clearing, as defined by the edges of excavation (the edges of the trench, the limits of the trowelled area within the trench, etc), while simultaneously opening it up, through the use of trowels and other tools to work the ground surface.

Another way of putting it is that on an excavation there are clearings within clearings within clearings. For example, the area being cleared by a digger might be situated within a trench being cleared by several diggers which in turn might be situated within a larger site being cleared by an excavation team as a whole.

In excavation, the most important frontier between the known and the unknown is situated, not so much at the edges or limits of the clearings already described, but rather at the very point where the moving blade of the trowel is at work opening up the material field - in that practical space where the hands operate immediately in front of the body. Each scraping action with the trowel or spade is a kind of miniature act of discovery, a materializing moment of excavation - see Gavin Lucas on excavation as a materializing practice (Lucas 2001). Here there is an emergence of formerly invisible and unknown entities. There is an unfolding of material, not only of the already known and the half-expected but also of surprising and contradictory evidence – even sometimes the completely unknown. Objects and patterns from other cultural worlds break into our social and political space.

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‘meremeti III’ by Fotis Ifantidis. Visit his visualizing_neolithic photoblog

When archaeologists are actively engaged in manipulating material evidence, the material field being worked itself has an intentional structure - which derives in part from the actions of archaeologists upon it. For an ethnographic account of the intentional structure of the material field, beneath the moving blade of the trowel, click here

It is just like Heidegger says: things are literally ‘torn out of hiddenness’ or ‘struck by openness’. They really do emerge out of darkness into light. And it is through encountering such emergent and unfolding entities - with all the resistance, recaltritance and sheer otherness that they sometimes present - that we truly encounter and transform ourselves.

But Heidegger was also right to point out that any uncovering always involves the covering over of other things, other aspects. As well as an un-folding there is also an in-folding - a collapsing of material possibilities. In taking a particular form, the many other forms that the emerging evidence could have taken – if it had been excavated at a different time or by different people or in a different way – will never now materialize.

Excavation is a crucial moment in the archaeological process. It is where theory is grounded in practice and conversely where practice is enmeshed in theory. It is an encounter in which the applied force of archaeological knowledge meets the resistance of material evidence. Against that resistance practical skills can be honed and theoretical ideas tested. If we didn’t have this and other clearings as a kind of touchstone, or footing in reality, archaeological theory would be largely free-floating or groundless. This is where we ‘touch base' - in our embodied perception of material evidence. And when we do, something emerges into the domain of culture and knowledge and everyday practicalities (what Heidegger calls ‘the world’) from the domain of everything which, at least up to that moment, existed independently of our cultural universe (what Heidegger calls ‘the earth’). Something that was previously buried comes crashing into the light.

The fact that Husserl and Heidegger - and later Merleau-Ponty - all employed archaeological metaphors to help elucidate the existential structure of human experience testifies to the unique and extraordinary character of archaeological excavation - taken for granted and undervalued though it may be by archaeologists themselves.


Heidegger, M, 1962 (1927) Being and Time. Trans., Macquarrie, J, and Robinson, E. New York: Harper & Row.

Heidegger, M, 1971 (1935) "The Origin of the Work of Art," in Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans., Hofstadter, A. New York: Harper & Row

Lucas, G, 2001. Destruction and the rhetoric of excavation IN Norwegian Archaeology Review 34(1).

Merleau-Ponty, M, 1964. The Primacy of Perception Evanston: Northwestern University Press


Thanks to Fotis Ifantidis for generously placing into the public domain his stunning artwork from the Neolithic site of Dispilio in Greece. Visit his visualizing_neolithic photoblog or click here for further information on the three images reproduced in this article.


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