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Dossier: Jean-Claude Gardin (1925-2015)

On Being Mentored by Jean-Claude Gardin: A Letter to Young Archaeologists

Vanda Vitali
p. 24-26

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1I feel fortunate to have had Jean-Claude as one of my mentors and when I, in turn, mentored my younger colleagues, I often thought of him, of what I learned from him. Here is what I would write or say to them.

2Most university students, and I am thinking of those in their graduate years of study, may go further into research and associated philosophies, and develop admiration for the work of one or more of their predecessors. It is likely work that opens their eyes to the discipline they are pursuing. It is likely work that inspires them by innovation and insights, work that gives them the direction and strength to endure the less interesting parts of any study. This may all be done in the hope that they too, one day, will be able to contribute in a significant manner. And, if by chance, they manage to meet and get to know that person, there is an added dimension of individual and moral qualities that will likely become significant.

3In my multidisciplinary research and career, I was lucky to have three such mentors, and Jean-Claude Gardin as one of them.

4I met Jean-Claude Gardin in Canada in 1985, when I was finishing my doctoral studies and work. He came to give a lecture on epistemology at the University of Toronto. My science instructor, guide, and also a major mentor, was Professor Ursula Franklin, known for her work in science, archaeometry and archaeology. She suggested that we go and hear him - she knew of his archeological work and of my regard for France.

5The auditorium was full when we arrived. Professor Paul Perron, the master of University College introduced Jean-Claude, who stood in the corner. From a distance of the last rows of the auditorium, he appeared a man of average size, with gray, unruly, curly hair that encircled his face. While listening to the long and lauditory introduction, he twisted the curls on the top of his head with a forefinger, which became one of the gestures he would often repeat when he was either uncomfortable or surprised. The most striking feature were his blue piercing eyes, eyes that sparkled. I remembered thinking that he reminded me of Classical sculpture of Julius Caesar that had come alive. The lecture was fascinating, and the audience most impressed. Quickly, after the lecture, he was whisked off to an official dinner with university dignitaries, including Ursula Franklin and his colleague, archaeologist Maxine Kleindienst, head of the U. of T. archaeology department at the time. I went back to my SLOWPOKE nuclear reactor to continue my research on Godin Tepe archeological ceramics and to think how extraordinary it was that this person, in one hour, synthesized, brilliantly, so many ideas and linkages among various disciplines. I remember wondering how it was that I did not see those linkages before.

6Two days later, invited by Professor Franklin, he came to our Materials Science Department to meet with science and archaeology colleagues. Professor Franklin invited me as well. At the end of that meeting, during which they discussed possible venues of collaboration, Professor Franklin suggested that I might want to consider doing my postdoctoral studies with Jean-Claude in France. A new world had just opened to me.

7A few months later, I arrived in Paris and was welcomed by Jean-Claude at his Ura (Unite de recherche archéologique) 215 of the Centre national de recherche scientifique, on rue du Maroc. The Ura had several streams of study, the archeology of central Asia, work in China, work on artificial intelligence, etc. My work was to focus on archaeological reasoning and in particular on the use of artificial intelligence and expert systems as a tool in making archaeological reasoning transparent in the determination of the provenance of archaeological ceramics.

8The persons with whom I was to work more closely in the use of expert systems included Marie-Salome Lagrange, along with Monique Renauld from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. That was the place where Jean Claude thought doctoral and post-doctoral students who were at work on this type of research. Later on, I went to the Ecole to continue the work with Jean-Claude.

9My input was to build upon the theory that had been presented in Jean-Claude’s book Archaeological Constructs, An Aspect of Theoretical Archaeology (1980), written originally in English. The book had had an ambitious task: to explain how archeological statements are generated, and to render transparent the nature of relationships between archaeological conclusions and the observations upon which they were based. Jean-Claude’s analysis in this book included a concept became termed “logicism”, an endeavor to apply rigor and logic in order to clarify the field. The book is not an easy read – it is a book that spans archaeological as well as philosophical and epistemological fields. But, it is a book that opens one’s mind to the nature of archaeology as a social science. Coming from physics, I felt particularly drawn to ideas he presented, especially as the “New Archaeology” in the English-speaking world, at the time in the 1980s, was far less clear and rigorous to me.

10According to Jean-Claude, logical constructs in archaeology run from “compilations” to “explanations” in a graded continuum that relates materials objects in archaeological discoveries to the lives of ancient people. He argues that the process of scientific reasoning is a constant interplay between an inductive recognition of patterns and the construction of deductive arguments that put together the inductive generalizations in a coherent structure of arguments. The absolute requirement at all levels of construction - from descriptions to explanations - is clarity, explicitness, coherence, consistency, and logic. The work that I was then to do was to use information obtained from scientific data on the provenance of Mesopotamian ceramics that I obtained during my work at the University of Toronto, and relate those data to explicate archeological interpretations through the use of an expert system named Vandal (Lagrange and Vitali 1992; Vitali 1991) which we developed. To do this, was to render clear the logico-semantic organization of knowledge.

11The work was fascinating to me. But, so was the world of scientists, artists, philosophers, etc., of all nationalities, that Jean-Claude gathered and invited frequently to his home for discussions that were accompanied by culinary feasts that he prepared, often with delicacies from his beloved Jura area. Jean-Claude was a very private person, but his “salon” was an extraordinary place for meeting colleagues, and learning about research in various fields that was going on in Europe and around the world, a place of cross-pollination of ideas. It is thanks to Jean-Claude and his hospitality that I met many professionals, including one of my closest colleague-friends, Bertille Lyonnet, with whom, over the years, I exchanged ideas.

12My work with Jean-Claude also continued over many years, as I was able to come to Paris several times, thanks to various fellowships. Discussions with him about archaeology, the physical sciences, the interplay between them, and the place of each in archaeological thinking, became richer and richer. It also became clear to me that certain aspects of his theoretical archaeology encompassed a wide range of paradigms, and in that respect was broader in scope than the English world’s New Archaeology. Jean-Claude taught and lectured on the subject around the world - North America, Europe, North Africa, the Near East, Central Asia - creating cells of reflection upon the subject of theoretical archaeology. Several publications came out of that work.

13For me, the exploration of the nature of scientific reasoning in archaeology, as well as in other social sciences, was of immense value. The requirements of scientific rigueur, clarity and logic that Jean-Claude instilled, followed me in my future work, be that in science or museology which I think greatly contributed to the merit of my work. I also continued to see him whenever I was in Paris. He remained cerebral, intellectually demanding, and personally private.

14As a mentor, Jean-Claude was demanding, inviting discussion and encouraging debate. However, he maintained a distance, giving me the freedom to develop my ideas, although never probing too far and thus leaving me with the responsibility for my own work and thought. His private personality also reflected on his mentorship – I do not recall ever having a personal conversation with him.  And yet, he was highly sensitive to others. I will never forget one incident when several years into our work, he came to give another talk at the University of Toronto. At that time, I was working at the Royal Ontario Museum and he was invited by the then-director of the Royal Ontario Museum, also a central Asia archaeologist, to lunch. The director chose a prestigious club nearby where he was a member. I too was invited but when I learned about the venue, I called the director’s secretary to say that I would not be going as women were not allowed to enter the club by the main door but had to use a side-entrance, which was not acceptable to me. The director of the museum found that insignificant. But, Jean-Claude, when he learned about it, decided not to go there in solidarity with me.  

15Archaeology, as with many other disciplines today, is richer for having had Jean-Claude’s thinking and his work. Archaeology, as with many social sciences, still struggles now with rigor, clarity and logic. But, young researches (like me at the time) who build on the work of Jean-Claude, will find in his work determination, ethic and reasoning as a source of inspiration and strength to continue efforts in making this important discipline even more significant and insightful.

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Vanda Vitali, « On Being Mentored by Jean-Claude Gardin: A Letter to Young Archaeologists », Les nouvelles de l'archéologie, 144 | 2016, 24-26.

Référence électronique

Vanda Vitali, « On Being Mentored by Jean-Claude Gardin: A Letter to Young Archaeologists », Les nouvelles de l'archéologie [En ligne], 144 | 2016, mis en ligne le 25 août 2016, consulté le 28 février 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nda.3470

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Vanda Vitali

Museum consultant & projet leader

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