Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Therapy and Archaeology


I visited the Ashmolean museum in Oxford today. I spent about an hour looking at some of the exhibits. I’m not usually a lover of museums etc but I decided to give myself permission to visit and see what caught my attention. I found myself reading about currency, restoration, weaving and a host of other things. (Those who  have been there will know how much there is to see.) One tool that archaeologists use is Multispectral Imaging (MSI) Quoting from the blurb, this is “… a technique used to help read difficult texts. By shining different types of light onto an object, faded  or obscured writing can suddenly become clear.” As an analytically trained clinician I found this fascinating. Something hidden from view becomes clear in light. And from this, clarity, meaning and understanding can be found.  Not only does this technique make a small piece of knowledge comprehensible, it also allows this information to be given a context. Freud made a similar point in The interpretation of Dreams, when he commented

“[The] analytic work of construction, or, if it is preferred, of reconstruction [of the patients forgotten years], resembles to a great extent an archaeologist’s excavation of some dwelling place that has been destroyed and buried or of some ancient edifice… Just as the archaeologist builds up the walls of a building from the foundations that have remained standing, determines the number and position of the columns from depressions in the floor, and reconstructs the mural decorations and paintings from the remains found in the debris, so does the analyst proceed when he draws his inferences from fragments of memories, from the associations and from the behaviour of the subject of the analysis. Both of them have an undisputed right to reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains. Both of them, moreover, are subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error”.

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a long time in therapy and analysis, seeing someone four or five times a week for a number of years. One feature of this kind of work is that one does engage in psychic archaeology. I know my ruins; my different civilisations; my wars and famines. I know my victories and my defeats. And some of the reasons for both. I have a sense of the subterranean workings of my unconscious.  Depending on my mood I use this knowledge creatively to help myself. Other times I choose to ignore it because I do not want the burden of self-knowledge. The same is true of all civilisations and cultures.

I worry about the rise of short-term therapy. My fear is that it can become Blairite. The fantasy that a sound bite and a reassuring smile can solve complex problems when these problems have roots going down into aeons past. I know that much can be accomplished in ten sessions. A good deal can be achieved in two-as I know well. But thee is much to be said for steadily uncovering the different layers and , together, constructing the past. All one can do in ten sessions is to signpost possible artefacts and leave the patent to make of them what they can.

One story I read about in the Ashmolean concerned a painting.  On using light it became apparent that there was a hidden image. The painting was of a saint who in the original was holding up a communion wafer. At some time this was painted over. The restoration team had to decide tether to leave it  hidden or uncover it. Eventually they chose to leave it hidden but with a picture next for showing it. This seemed a good solution. It also stands for the work of therapy. (Or nursing. Or counselling. Or all forms of therapeutic work. Prayer and meditation are also useful tools!) Sometimes we choose to leave the hidden as hidden. But with the knowledge that there is another story. Which is just as important and fascinating.


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