Monday, August 19, 2013

Archaeology: Art or Science?

An underlying theme at both CPAC hearings and in the archaeological blogosphere is that archaeology is a "science" as to which all other interests must bow.   But is archaeology really a "science" as archaeologists who demand restrictions on collectors often contend?

Here is an part of an an interesting comment to a recent post that addresses this question:

I would now like to respond to Barford's call for the "METHODOLOGY of this discipline." Of what value is the methodology or methodologies employed in archaeology? What results have been obtained by these, what breakthroughs achieved? Having taken classes with numerous archaeologists over the past several years including three who were dig directors at the time, I am now of the opinion that archaeology is not a science at all. Archaeological digs yield certain assemblages of material objects in context. What any of this data means is open to wildly varying interpretation as one can clearly see from reading the publications of the archaeologists themselves. While I have the utmost respect for all of the archaeologists with whom I have studied, and value them both as people and erudite scholars, I find the discipline of archaeology itself to be of very limited value in telling us anything concrete about the past. Archaeological data is a useful tool at the historian's disposal in conjunction with documentary evidence (like coins, papyri, inscriptions) and ancient narrative accounts. By itself, however, a material assemblage in context tells you almost nothing and is open to almost any interpretation one can dream up. When dealing with prehistoric periods where the only evidence is a material assemblage and its context, the "science" of archaeology is less akin to the science of...well, SCIENCE than it is to the "science" employed by L. Ron Hubbard in crafting DIANETICS or Joseph Smith in creating the BOOK OF MORMON. The consensus among my fellow graduate students was that one could make up just about any story one wished and as long as it accounted for the material assemblage it was no more or less likely to be the truth than any other story including all of those published in the flatly contradictory and wildly varying interpretations of nearly every specialist in the field.

Perhaps then "archaeology over all" is an even more hollow ideology than it seems.

1 comment:

stoutstandards said...

Thank you. Archaeology is not an exact science and almost always involves a lot of wild ass guesses. Nothing wrong with that but just don't pretend otherwise or tell me it's your way or the highway.