Archeology, The Metaphor of

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Archeology, the study of artifacts from the past, is relevant to psychoanalysis in the sense that an analogy can be established between the search for a collective past and the search for an individual past. Freud himself uses the metaphor of archeology in his Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva" (1907a). His description of the structure of hysteria as a building of several dimensions, containing at least three strata ("The Psychotherapy of Hysteria" in Studies on Hysteria, 1895d), even though it refers to an archival case, also evokes the work of the archeologist: The order of discovery is reversed, with the most primal matter being the most deeply buried ("Saxa loquuntur," 1896c).

Freud was very interested in archeological research (Schliemann's excavation of Troy, for example) and the collected artifacts, many of which decorated his office and which he frequently showed to his patients (The Rat Man, 1909d) as signs of the preservation of traces of a past that had become unconscious. More profoundly, we find that the methods of the archeological dig and those of psychoanalytical investigation have followed a similar evolution, consisting in shifting the focus of interest from a privileged object that will be excavated to a gradual discovery of the terrain (stratigraphic method), through which it is possible to trace the thread of history back to its origins step by step. Interest in these vestiges, which constitute "a history without a text" (André Leroi-Gourhan), intersects the work of reconstruction that takes place during analysis (Freud, 1937c). Similarly, the interest in a missing element (doubt in the dream, foreclosed elements in psychosis) evokes this preservation-through-absence that archeologists experience in what they call "ghost sites" (Mijolla-Mellor, 1993).

The archeological metaphor is present throughout Freud's work (1911f) and underlines the similarity with the work of therapy as well as the differences, especially since the working conditions of the psychoanalyst, and his or her ability to bring back old emotions through transference, are better than those of the archeologist.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Archaic; Archaic mother; Model; Memories.


Bernfeld-Cassirer, Suzanne. (1951, June). Freud and archaeology. American Imago, VIII, 107-128.

Flem, Lydia. (1982). L'archéologie chez Freud : destin d'une passion et d'une métaphore. Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse, 26, pp. 71-94

Freud, Sigmund. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221

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. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies in hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1993). Le "bon droit" du criminel. Topique, 52, 141-161.