Archaeology provided Freud with one of his favourite metaphors.

“Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins.Sigmund Freud

He used it to describe his model of the mind, and the practice of psychoanalysis itself.

Freud himself was a passionate collector, amassing over 2,500 objects from ancient civilisations.

An archaeologist of the mind

In clinical work, Freud was engaged in an archaeology of his own, digging into minds to uncover hidden experiences, fragments of the past that he tried to put again into a living context.

Like the archaeologist, the psychoanalyst has to work slowly, with great care, gradually uncovering buried ‘objects’ and reconstructing the relations between them.

In both professions, there are long periods of frustration followed by periods of elation and excitement.

What is preserved in the mind from childhood?

This question is fundamental to Freud. The archaeological metaphor provided him with a shorthand way to think about issues like:

  • Surface and depth
  • Past and present
  • Manifest and latent
  • Adult and infantile
  • Hidden and revealed

Archaeology was a trending topic in 19th century Europe.

It was a common point of cultural reference which the readers of his work could easily grasp.

Freud’s theories about the history of civilisation and the development of the human psyche over time were also deeply informed by his classical education and lifelong study of the ancient world.

This resource explores Freud’s use of the ‘archaeological metaphor’.