Material Rhetoric: Spreading Stones and Showing Bones in the Study of Prehistory

David Van Reybrouck, Raf de Bont, Jan Rock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Argument Since the linguistic turn, the role of rhetoric in the circulation and the popular representation of knowledge has been widely accepted in science studies. This article aims to analyze not a textual form of scientific rhetoric, but the crucial role of materiality in scientific debates. It introduces the concept of material rhetoric to understand the promotional regimes in which material objects play an essential argumentative role. It analyzes the phenomenon by looking at two students of prehistory from nineteenth-century Belgium. In the study of human prehistory and evolution, material data are either fairly abundant stone tools or very scarce fossil bones. These two types of material data stand for two different strategies in material rhetoric. In this article, the first strategy is exemplified by Aim? Rutot, who gathered great masses of eoliths (crudely chipped stones which he believed to be prehistoric tools). The second strategy is typified by the example of Julien Fraipont, who based his scientific career on only two Neanderthal skeletons. Rutot sent his ?artifacts? to a very wide audience, while Fraipont showed his skeletons to only a few selected scholars. Unlike Rutot, however, Fraipont was able to monitor his audience's interpretation of the finds by means of personal contacts. What an archaeologist gains in reach, he or she apparently loses in control. In this article we argue that only those scholars who find the right balance between the extremes of reach and control will prove to be successful.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-216
JournalScience in Context
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes

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