Thursday, January 24, 2008

Jan. 24: What is Archaeology? ...and what Archaeology is not

Jan. 24 Thursday
Readings for Today:
Ashmore and Sharer, Chapter 1: “Introduction,” pp. 1-24
Feder, Chapter 1: “Science and Pseudoscience,” pp. 1-16

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of the human past through its material remains.

The Archaeological Record is the material remains of the past (sites, artifacts, features, etc.)

Archaeology is not a focus on the collection of artifacts: An artifact out of context is like a word on a page of a book…torn out of the book and off of the page it can tell us very little. The unfortunate extreme of a focus on the artifact is looting (see the example of Slack Farm in the Ashmore text, or the destruction of the looting of the museums in Iraq in wartime).

Archaeology and looting both destroy sites; the difference is that archaeology recovers the story as well as the material remains so that we can all learn more about who we are and where we came from…and maybe a little about the purpose of life; looting is all about greed and money.

Archaeology is about the story of humankind, the story that the remains can tell us, not the stuff itself. The difference between archaeology and history is that history focuses on the important people and big events; archaeology focuses on what everybody did, the little guys too, how they lived, what they ate, to borrow from James Deetz, the “Small Things Forgotten.” History is what people tell us they did; archaeology reveals what they actually did.

In the Old World, Archaeology developed out of the disciplines of antiquarianism, classical studies, the humanities in general, history and art history, because of the proximity of the Roman and Greek Worlds, as well as those of Egypt and the Bible. There are lots of written resources to draw from.

In the New World, there is not this same depth of written history. Archaeology here developed as one of the four subdisciplines of anthropology, in its earlier years especially with the focus on the Moundbuilders of the Mississippi Valley, the Puebloan cultures of the southwest, and of course Mesoamerica’s spectacular Mayan and Aztec cultures, and the Inca of South America.

Archaeology is necessarily interdisciplinary in its practice, drawing from science, history, anthropology, and many other disciplines such as soil science, geology, biology, geography, and computer sciences (especially GPS and GIS related technologies).

Archaeology as Science

Archaeology is practiced as a science. That means archaeology relies on the scientific method. In the scienctific method, a model of what one is studying is proposed. Then a hypothesis that can be tested (a testable hypothesis) is formed, and fieldwork and/or laboratory work is done to test it. If the test fails, the hypothesis is rejected.
There is no proof in science, only the elimination or disproof of inadequate hypotheses.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when you have rejected all the alternative explanations, then whatever remains, no matter how unlikely, is what actually happened. This also relates to what is called Occam’s Razor: In almost cases, the simplest explanation is the best one. We will look at this a bit more later on.

Like many sciences, archaeology is not always done through laboratory and the experimental approach. Much must be done through simple observation, which is why archaeology has been described as a historical science.

Archaeology and History

Oral history and Documentary history
Historical archaeology: ex. Martin’s Hundred and Ivor Noel Hume
Prehistoric archaeology and Protohistoric archaeology

Archaeology and anthropology

Anthropology: the four field approach
Diachronic vs synchronic
Ethnography and ethnology
The definition of “Culture”

Archaeology as a profession

Education and training: There are opportunities for you participate in archaeology without the decrees (in Montana there is the Passport-In-Time (PIT) program, and other fieldwork opportunities, but to be a professional archaeologist, you need to go through the academic hoops). You need at least a Master’s degree with appropriate work experience to get a private level or government-level job, but Ph.D. is the expected degree, especially for the highest level jobs in government and universities.
Professional organizations – include Montana.

CRM Cultural Resources Management (sometimes called heritage resources management) is the most numerous kind of paid archaeological jobs, because of the need for compliance with federal environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and resulting regulations at the federal and state levels. University jobs are a lot fewer, and harder to get; you can often get temporary instructor positions (which is what I am doing) but tenure track careers are much harder to find and secure.

Two fairly new developments are: 1) Community-based archaeology and 2) Indigenous archaeologies. Community-based archaeology is run by and for the benefit of the community itself (such as in Alexandria, Virginia or Cochiti Pueblo). Indigenous archaeologies combine the endeavors of archaeology with the viewpoints and culture of the served indigenous group, such as the Navajo Nation archaeology program.

Four Goals of Archaeology
1. Description and classification of recovered physical evidence; outline the distribution of remains of ancient societies in both time and space. Constructing chronologies and describing the specifics of the culture. (Ashmore’s “Form”). Most archaeologists working today work in this level and the next…
2. Purposes of the objects found, determined from an analysis of the objects themselves and the interrelationships among different pieces of evidence; reconstruct past human activities (what Louis Binford has called “Middle Range Theory,” the reconstruction of past lifeways). (Ashmore’s “Function”)
3. Changes that occurred in past societies; determine how and why ancient cultures changed over time. The search for universal laws. (Ashmore’s “Process”). Limited success doing this so far.
4. Understanding past societies within their own cultural contexts; goal to determine the attitudes and beliefs of ancient peoples and to learn things form the past that may be of use to us in the present. (Ashmore’s “Meaning”). This fourth goal is very tricky and many archaeologists believe it cannot really be properly done.

Now...What Archaeology is NOT!

Archaeology is not the study of the nonhuman past—the study of dinosaurs is paleontology, not archaeology.

Archaeology is not simply the collection of artifacts— You read in Ashmore the tragic destruction of the site at Slack Farm in Kentucky. Looting, also termed “pothunting,” is not archaeology.

There are other ethical issues to consider that we get into as the course goes along, such as the misuse of archaeology to promote nationalism, bigotry, and devalue the past, including the intelligence and capabilities of our own ancestors.

Now we come to Pseudoscience and archaeology….the many hoaxes, scams, delusions of the past and present. Feder’s book is excellent in this, which is why I selected it as one of our textbooks. There is a lot of confusion about our past, that’s for sure, and what science is.

Feder’s book is really about looking at various extraordinary claims about archaeology, and the evidence of support (or lack thereof) in terms of science. Science by its nature and methods is necessarily skeptical. Remember, using the scientific method you cannot prove anything to be “true” in science, you can only reject explanations that are proven to be untrue or inadequate. Often things that seem plausible are only in those fields and areas you are not familiar with yourself.

Why do people come up with weird explanations rather than trying to find the real truth?? Feder lists 6 possible motivations:
1. Money- the big motivator of our culture and times!
2. Fame and notoriety
3. Nationalism and bigotry
4. Religion or trying to prove another belief system
5. Romance and escapism
6. Psychological instability/motivations or personal idiosyncracies

BUT also remember…aside from the scientific method itself, the community of scientists and skeptics are also a community of belief…often very antagonistic, hostile or dismissive of areas that are not amenable to the scientific method and empirical reality: theology (God and religion), the occult and psychic realms, etc. In fact remember, science is also not concerned with studying such things as philosophy, art, poetry, literature, etc.

When it comes to empirical, material, physical reality, nothing is as well-equipped as science to discover the facts and truth. But it can be and has been argued that there is much more to life than material reality. Just try to use hammers for nails and screwdrivers for screws! Use science to investigate material reality…use critical thinking and other tools for the rest!

Try to remember: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which is a corollary to Occam’s Razor!

When it comes to claims of our past...

...the Bottom line
1. Learn and use critical thinking.
2. Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is almost always the correct one; Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
3. If you want something to be verifiable as empirical reality, then understand and use the scientific method.
4. What are the motivations of the source? To sell a book or TV show? To make money or become famous? Real archaeology is most of the time not very exciting or glamorous!
5. Have fun reading and watching what you enjoy!… but be able to distinguish fantasy and romance, from reality…the truth can be as strange as any fiction, and even more enjoyable!


Ashmore and Sharer, Chapter 2: “Archaeology’s Past”, pp. 25-38 and Chapter 3: “Contemporary Approaches to Archaeology,” pp. 39-60.


shawn said...

Very helpful to have these lecture notes posted.

Ryan said...

Lance, I really enjoy this method of presenting your notes for student follow up. I'm looking forward to a very interesting and enlightening semester! Thanks, Ryan