Creating the Prehistoric and Historical Past and the Formation of Modern Identity

Valter Lang (University of Tartu)

This paper discusses the role of social order (or the public’s desire) for the “right” interpretation of the past and its impact on both academic research and the creation of modern identities.  Social order with respect to the past comes from dominant societal groups and must correspond to the possibilities of scholarly interpretation of past events.  Changes in general treatments of both history and prehistory are caused by changes in social order, which in turn are caused either by alteration in the social context (e.g. state formations) or new discoveries in archaeology and history.

There have been four stages in the historiography of Estonian prehistory and early history: the so-called Baltic German School and pre-Estonian interpretations (late nineteenth century- early twentieth century), Estonian interpretations I (the 1920s-1930s), Soviet interpretations (the 1940s-1980s), and Estonian interpretations II (since the 1990s).  This paper demonstrates that there are two equally important parts in the formation of our understandings of the past: 1) society with its general ideology; and 2) archaeology and history with their scientific tools for the scholarly investigation of the past.  When one of these components changes, the interpretation of the past changes as well.  It should be remembered, however, that the social order provides only a general framework for interpretation, whereas thousands of details are left for specialists to study.

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