There can be few more contentious subjects in the study of archaeology than the proper contribution of aesthetics. Many early excavators were little more than art historians who saw the recovery of works of art as their main objective. But much has changed since Alcubierre's treasure-hunting at Herculaneum or Layard's tunnelling for Assyrian reliefs at Nineveh. Professional archaeology in the twentieth century has largely eschewed its treasure-hunting origins and now seeks to understand the material of the past in terms of the societies who created it rather than through any preconceived notions of taste and value.
The dilemma, however, remains. Few people gazing at the ceiling of Altamira, or at the death-mask of Tutankhamun, can fail to feel some emotion or sense of awe. Yet we cannot enter the minds of the original creators, and in most cases we cannot know why (or even if) they found the product pleasing or beautiful. Should archaeologists therefore ignore aesthetics, as a subject too difficult to handle? Or should they endeavour to understand the aesthetic component and integrate it more effectively, by development of a more rigorous approach, into an understanding of the early human past?
In this Viewpoint, five specialists concerned with the study of art in early or nonwestern societies have been asked to consider just how they approach the aesthetic dilemma. Two of them (Smith and Vickers) write about Classical art, perhaps the leading area where artistic appreciation and aesthetics have been used in an archaeological context. Two more (Renfrew and Taylor) focus on the still more intractable problem of prehistoric art, where even textual information about ancient ideas and attitudes is unavailable. Finally, no discussion of archaeological approaches to art and aesthetics can ignore the parallel concern of anthropology (Morphy). No single solution emerges; such could hardly have been expected; but the question cannot be avoided, and remains at the heart of our concern to understand how former societies thought about themselves and their world.