Uri A. Grunder Capstone – March 8th, 2013 Position Paper Science and Archaeology A hot topic brought up at least since the forming of Lewis Binford’s New Archaeology iswhether or not Archaeology can be considered a true science. The majority of contemporaryinformation that I have uncovered seems to be an analysis of the New Archaeology though Isubmit that similar points can be made of all of Archaeology and not just the latest and greatestframework. Three focal points of debate consistently crop up in the discussion of Archaeology asa science: the first is adamant resistance to endowing archaeology knighthood in the round tableof sciences, the second is the lack of interest in a debate over the labeling of archaeology, and thelast is devout belief that archaeology is a science. These perspectives permeate not only theminds of archaeological and non-archaeological debaters in the profession realm of science (ornon-science) but also the minds of the public. Generally this topic is debated amongst professionals through documented theoreticalresponses, publications, and presentations at various archaeological/anthropological/ or otherarchaeologically related venues – like hard science venues discussing the scientific validity ofarchaeology. In summary the process would start by a submission of a document or apresentation or a statement during the mingling between presentations about a person’s particularview on why archaeology is/is not a science which then becomes a published response backed bytheoretical and logical reasoning. A debate ensues as other parties respond to the initialsubmission with publishings of their own and so it goes until the issue is smashed into the realms
of ambiguity or collective agreement. An example would be the theoretical response to Watson,Le Blanc, and Redman (WLR) by Charels Morgan in his article titled Explanation and ScientificArchaeology where arguments published by WLRwere openly contested. While these areprofessional(ish) papers they are very much filled with heat, sarcasm, and even hostility. Public debate by contrast tends to be in a series of short blurbs of responses to a generalquestion posted on a public forum. The same magnitudes of treatment can be seen fromprofessional(ish) debate to hostile and aggressive assertions.However, statements are often madewithout thorough theoretical backing and tend to rely on more common sense deductions. Anexample to be later used was an article/ blurb that was posted, blog style, on a public server thatdescribed why Archaeology was not a science in about 5 paragraphs each paragraph explainingnew evidence. This was open to public response who responded often with fewer words but withmore individual responses. Both public forums and more theoretically/academically publisheddebate venues will be explored. The first focal point to be explored is the belief that Archaeology is not a science. On thepublic forum this was viewed in a simple checklist manner. Hirst in his/her article/blog Top FiveReasons Why Archaeology is Not a Science suggested five basic points that rule out archaeologyas a science. The number one reason being that archaeological excavations and methodsinherently cannot be repeated in a controlled and scientific manner ensuring that theories can betested by other interested parties. This was linked to the fact that no two excavated sites areexactly the same and that methodologies must be altered to account for differences intopography, soil types, or other environmental or research reasons. The second is thatarchaeological materials recovered from excavation retain an inherently diminished integritywhich is impacted by depositional, post-depositions (site-forming), excavation and processing,
and lab analysis influences which tarnish the ability to produce empirical results. The third wasthat archaeology focuses too much on data interpretation which skews the results to the biases ofthe researcher. The fourth is that archaeology is a sub-section of anthropology, a social scienceand therefore is not a science and the fifth is that archaeology is more artistic and interestingrather than dull and empirical like science. Public responses to this that fell amongst agreement suggested that although archaeologyemploys the use of the scientific method the actual interpretation of material data to reconstructcultural pasts is just too far of a leap to be considered a science. While these assertions thatarchaeology is not a science are short, sweet, and to the point they do lack a little logical ortheoretical foundation more relying on the obviousness of the statement. However, in a otherpublished documents contributing to the academic/professional debate the same matters arebeing brought up. For instance, Robert Dunnell agrees with Hirst’s statement of archaeology notbeing a science so long as it is associated with anthropology. However, Dunnell fleshes out hisargument by defining in particular the sense making framework of archaeology and how itcompares to other sciences. Dunnell discusses science as retaining two consistent aspects: empirical data andfundamental theory that can be tested. He states that in general, there are two different scienceframeworks: time-like and space-like (Dunnell page 8). Space-like is a mode of sciencedetermined to explain how a phenomenon works using units of measurement or definition thatare independent of time. This is what most sciences are framed as with physics being thepinnacle of the space-like framework. Time-like frameworks, by contrast, are framed moretowards explaining how things occur or why they occur. The units of measurement or definitionutilized with time-like frameworks are different from space-like units in that they are time reliant
rather than independent of time. This inconsistency is neither bad nor good but must beaccounted for by a different system of understanding that can create good empiricalgeneralizations that don’t get too patchy when taking a more localized or specific look at theoverall data. Dunnell claims that archaeology is a time-like discipline which is concernedwithidentifying cultural and behavioral alteration through time. Although archaeology is askingto answer why culture changes through time it is blindly borrowing space-like techniques thatanswer how things change through time. This muddling of techniques and frameworks cannotyield accurate or reliable scientific results. As long as archaeology therefore, according toDunnell, either create a new system of units of meaning which can compensate for its timedependency or analyze its internal goal and determine if that fundamental goal should bescrutinized and changed. Another point that Dunnell touched on was the prevalence of bias in archaeology and itspermeation into data interpretation. He suggests that Archaeology works by employing threeseparate systems of sense making: science, social science, and common sense. Science is utilizedby groping at space-like techniques – as mentioned earlier – this use of empirical data however isnot coupled with integral theory but is used to generate theory by logical deduction or at least areflection of it based in our common sense or biases. Dunnell points out that in science, theory istested and refined over time with the constant flux of empirical data however archaeology isgenerally scooping up data for analysis and inferring theories as a byproduct that exists with thatparticular data set and is not often representative of a more general outlook. Archaeology’s linkwith social science refers to its claim to explain human behavior in an empirical sense and thatwhile attempts in the past have been attempted to create a science based on the human subject ithas utterly failed to be authenticated as such may be the case for archaeology.
On the flip side, there are some who believe that archaeology is rightfully a science. On amore public forum responses supporting that archaeology was a science were seen as responsesto Hirst’s article/blog. Some of the reasons for it were that a discipline was a science if it utilizedthe scientific method. More specifically, any discipline that used the scientific method to extracttheoretical conclusions from material evidence was a science. This not only spills into the way inwhich conclusions are drawn from material remains but also the way in which archaeologicalmethods are developed to obtain those material remains. In a less public but not quite academicpublication/ article by an anonymous source titled What is Science in all of this and How isArchaeology a Science the author suggests that science itself is not as hard as it claims to be.He/she suggests that science operates as a human mechanism and is subject to the same biasesand impurity that is often augmented upon archaeology. They submit that principles such asOccam’s razor and the “doctrine of uniformity” make science more of a religion-like mechanismused to most effectively describe the world around us at the particular time of theoreticaldevelopment (paragraph 4). This author also promotes the idea that archaeology works on thesame fronts as science in the regard previously mentioned which conforms to critiques met in thenon-science believers while reflecting upon a more humane definition of how science works onthe ground. This author may also promote archaeology as being more than science in that goodarchaeological practice, practices cultural relativism which identifies and neutralizes human bias. In a publication by K. Feder as part of the Chronika Graduate Journal, archaeology waspromoted as a science by demystifying archaeology on television and bad archaeology aspseudo-science. I believe that this article was more geared towards shutting down unscientificand/or false venues or archaeological methods and interpretation though; I contend that theunconscious or conscious assumption was that archaeology was already rooted in science. This
trend that asserts archaeology as a science without actually providing theoretical backup for theoriginal assertion seems common in many publications. For instance, in D. Randall-MacIver’swork Archaeology as a Science the article never mentions how exactly archaeology is a scienceaside from having credible students that graduated from scientific institutions and are practicingscientific methods. Rather, the focus of the article was how the pure science of archaeology andits necessary publications are perverted by museums, organizations, and private fundersdemanding trinkets of social value rather than funding archaeological expeditions for the sake ofscientific knowledge. This perversion is what is causing people to believe archaeology beingnon-scientific not that archaeology may actually be non-scientific. The third main belief in this debate is one of no interest or at least interest in displayinghow one should be uninterested in how archaeology is labeled. As a response to Hirst, A. Brarsuggests that archaeology does not need to be labeled as a science to contribute to ourunderstanding of ourselves and our past. This is shared by C.G. Morgan in his more hostilepublication Explanation and Scientific Archaeology. Both contend that scientific method may bea means of improving the accuracy and detail of understanding in archaeological issues and thatborrowing from other sciences is beneficial. Morgan expresses that the analysis of archaeologyas a science and the hot debate, that he does not hold back from participating in, is a waste oftime because so much energy goes into debating with each other but no conclusion drawn infavor of either party will actually contribute to our current knowledge-base of our human past. My personal opinions regarding the view against archaeology as a science is that theargument is very well put together. While Hirst’s article I found less than satisfactory becausemany of its categories are too subjective, incomplete, or simply incoherent – such asdistinguishing archaeology from science because it is interesting where science is not –I
appreciated Dunnell professionalism in drawing out his points and I found his arguments totouch on many of what Hirst was attempting to get across. Not only are there by far more pointsof doubt that are brought up but these points are backed up by more solid theoretical foundationsthat shade the arguments into a much more comprehensive standpoint. In contrast to this, I felt as though the debaters advocating for archaeology as a sciencewere lacking to say the least. I was disappointed to find so few academic/professionalpublications taking this stand and even more so was the lack of actual argument. With Randall-MacIver, the anonymous writer, and Feder they all seem to be missing the theoretical foundationthat colors their stance and instead seem to take archaeology as a science for granted. While itwas not pointed out in a published document, the anonymous writer took an interesting stance bypointing out the fallacies and humanity of science and how it works as a human mechanism,which in my opinion does actually even out the playing field of the debate. However, the lack ofevidence and theoretical grounding made this good point stuck in still water and a little too weak.In reflection, it may be that my initial research was faulty and I simply missed the good,professionally published articles that charge at this issue with solid grounding. Another thoughtmay be that the reason why there are no significant rebuttals may be because those who believethat archaeology is a science are too busy employing scientific methods to contribute tofurthering our understanding of the human past rather than getting hot headed in a ridiculousdebate. As a student and practicing archaeologist myself, I’d like to think that I gravitate moretowards the party who is less concerned about whether archaeology is a science or not and moreconcerned with how to create and participate in a logical and scientific research proposal to helpfurther our knowledge-base. I agree with Morgan in that too much time is wasted in trying to
quantify that scientific-ness of archaeology and if this kind of effort was put into furtheringarchaeology maybe it could evolve into a framework that wouldn’t be debated so hotly.However, as it stands I agree with Dunnell in that archaeology is lacking in terms of necessaryscientific attributes. I think that there is too much interpretation and not enough scientificexploration. For example, during my visit to a field school in Oregon I learned that the groupwas attempting to prove that one lithic typology actually predated another lithic typology, whichwas contrary to contemporary belief. I feel as though this objective is already at fault becausegeneralizations by typologies alone constructed and labeled by our contemporary society cannotaccount for individual or localized group manufacturing preferences who initially depositedthose artifacts. Instead, I contend that a stronger generalization should be drawn from the matrix of soilsurrounding the artifact/typology in question. Integration of physical science, specificallyGeoarchaeology, could be utilized to understand how the site may have been affected by othernatural processes that may have displaced artifacts and altered the natural/anthropomorphiclandscape (Rapp). This effort could be coupled with dating materials found in association witheach artifact to create an actual temporal generalization and apply this method throughout theregion to then create a more empirical generalization rather than rely on the our constructedlabels to promote our ideas. While the scientific labelfor archaeology matters little to me, I dosee value in sticking to the scientific method. I see Archaeology as a type of Omni-ology inwhich all scientific and non-scientific principles should be examined and understood to startgetting real answers about our complex human past. In concluding thoughts, I cannot readily choose a distinct ground in this debate. I seecontemporary archaeology as not being an exact science, generally in consensus with Dennell.
However, I do believe that the employment of scientific strategies as being crucial to thediscipline of archaeology and necessary to its development. I contend that the employment ofprinciples and methods of other sciences – Geoarchaeology, zooarcaheology, ect. – count forsomething and I may agree that a solid definition of science may only exist in the minds of thescientific community and that it may be that science is not as empirical as it claims to be. In theend however, I believe that it doesn’t really matter whether archaeology is accepted as a scienceby which ever community because cultural labels for all things change so quickly and the realmof archaeology may be taken to a whole new place in a few short years to come.
ReferencesReaders Respond: Archaeology is (or is not) a Science because... (2013). Retrieved March 8, 2013, from About.comArchaeology: http://archaeology.about.com/u/ua/controversies/Is- Archaeology-a-Science.htmDunnell, R. (1982). The Harvey Lecture Series. Science, Social Science, and Common Sense: The Agonizing Dilemma of Modern Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Research, 1-25.Hirst, K. (2013). Top Five Reasons Archaeology is Not a Science. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from About.comArchaeology: http://archaeology.about.com/od/controversies/tp/Top- Five-Reasons-Archaeology-Is-Not-A-Science.htmMorgan, C. (1974). Explanation and Scientific Archaeology. World Archaeology, 133-137.Randall-MacIver, D. (1933). Archaeology as a Science. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 120- 124.Rapp, G. (1998). Geoarcaheology: The Earth Science Approach to Arcaheological Interpretation. Yale University.What is all of this and How is Archaeology a Science. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2013, from http://web.mesacc.edu/dept/d10/asb/archaeology/science.html