Scientific Archaeology What Is It?


In the following paper, I will analyze differing views of what archaeology is or should be and draw a conclusion as to what the proper goals and methods of archaeology should be. What archaeology is, or should be, is a topic that has received much attention in the past three decades. Whether one aligns oneself within the culture-history school of thought, the processualist school of thought, or one of the many post-processual schools of thought, it comes down to a question of philosophy.

When one muddles through all the rhetoric of the various philosophical standpoints, one finds that the basis of all the arguing and posturing is the different views of archaeologists as to what the goals of archaeology are, and the methods by which those goals may be achieved. In the following paper, these differing views will be analyzed and a conclusion will be drawn as to what the proper goals and methods of archaeology should be. The paper will be divided into four sections: a discussion of the goals of archaeology (why we are doing archaeology), the methods of archaeology (how we collect archaeological data), the theory of archaeological constructions (how we interpret the data), and a conclusion.

The Goals of Archaeology

When looking at the various goals of archaeology (the reasons for the actual “doing” of archaeology), one must wade through the plethora of theoretical stances to come to the basics of what is driving archaeology. In general, three views as to what the goals of archaeology are as a field of study dominate the literature: archaeology as a historical pursuit, as a political pursuit, and as an anthropological pursuit.

Those who favour archaeology as a historical pursuit see archaeology as a discipline that uses material remains from the archaeological record to extend written history back into prehistoric times (Hawkes 1968), (Hogarth 1972), (Schrire et al. 1986). Into this category of historical pursuit are placed archaeological that is overtly linked to historical aims, those who merely seek to collect data in order to explain a particular problem, and government and privately funded “rescue” archaeology, since their main purpose is to save historical data from destruction.

Those who favour the use of archaeology as political pursuit see archaeology as a way in which oppressed peoples can further their minority interests within an oppressive power majority politic (Leone et al. 1987), (Kehoe 1990). This approach subsumes various types of archaeology, ranging from developing cultural pride among a particular group, the critical evaluation of society through the analysis of how a particular archaeologist does archaeology, and the focusing of archaeology on aspects that have been neglected or ignored in the past (e.g., women as more than a peripheral part of history, the study of the common people rather than rulers and elites, etc.).

Finally, those who see archaeology as an anthropological pursuit view the field as a subdiscipline of the study of human culture, and the processes that affect them (Binford 1965), (Plog 1975), (Watson et al. 1971). This approach encompasses studies whose goal is a better understanding of humanity in general, rather than in specific (e.g., how agriculture develops in societies at X stage of development, how social ranking originates in tribal societies, etc.).

By no means are all archaeologists firmly within one category of thinking. These are artificial categories that separate some similar approaches and associate some that are much further apart. These categories are used to facilitate the analysis of archaeology in this paper.

Most archaeologists take more than one approach to their work and may modify their goals with respect to the material remains they recover. Also, archaeologists are closer together in practice than in theoretical motivations. Gibbon states in Explanation in Archaeology, that “Archaeologists have always debated the most appropriate methods for dealing with their subject matter. When stripped to their bare essentials, these debates have been and are debates over assumptions, interests, and purposes” (1989: 3). These “debates over assumptions, interests, and purposes” are the differences that will be discussed in this portion of the paper.

Archaeology as a historical discipline is the first goal scrutinized. This idea has its strongest support among European archaeologists who view “…their discipline as an extension of European history into prehistoric times” (trigger 1978: 3). The idea has relatively little support among American practitioners who “…have little contact with historians and do not view their work as being relevant to archaeology” (Trigger 1978: 3). The view that history is not relevant to archaeology is difficult to understand, seeing that the two disciplines are two different sides of the same coin.

The main difference between what historians do and what archaeologists do is that the nature of the data they use is different. History uses data that can be considered a primary source, in many cases, since its data are based on contemporary observation, while archaeology must extract information from ephemeral material remains (van der Leeuw 1982: 432). The sources of information for the two disciplines overlap in some cases (such as Egyptian hieroglyphics or modern cemetery excavations).

This overlap is a symptom of the two disciplines’ close de facto relationship. What the two do with the information is the same, and many of the types of information used are the same. History is the study of the past, which would make archaeology simply a part of history. However, the distinction between history and archaeology is more complicated than such a simple statement, in the same way, mathematics is not simply a part of physics, even though it is used in physics the same way archaeology is used in history, as a means to collect and/or analyze data.

The heart of the debate over archaeology as a historical discipline is based on two different perceptions over what history is. One view, held by those who see history as irrelevant to archaeology, is that history is merely explication, a chronological ordering of events, which lacks an explanation of those events. This view is held by processual archaeologists, whose view is summed up nicely by Lewis Binford. “Specific ‘historical’ explanations, if they can be demonstrated, simply explicate mechanisms of cultural process. They add nothing to the explanation of the processes of cultural change and evolution” (1962: 218). The opposing view is that history involves both “…the explanation of change by reference to antecedent events…” (Hodder 1991: 80), and “…explaining the move from phase n – 1 to n…” (Hodder 1991: 80).

Thus, the question is, which view is correct? It is this paper’s position that history is more accurately reflected in the latter view. Historian E. H. Carr stated, “Every historical argument revolves around the question of the priority of causes” (1967: 117). Carr’s statement means that history involves both explication and explanation. This linking of both explication and explanation is seen when one takes a history course in any high school or college. One does not simply learn that Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election by 472 to 59 electoral votes, one learns that the economic troubles of the Great Depression, and Hoover’s ineffectiveness in combating those economic troubles, led to Roosevelt’s election. Just like an archaeological construction, this reason for Hoover’s defeat may or may not be true, but it is a historical construct that explains Hoover’s defeat. To take the explanation out of history is to trivialize it into a mere compilation of data, which it is obviously not.

The use of archaeology as a political pursuit is espoused by several different theoretical standpoints, most notably, post-processualists of the “Marxist” and “feminist” varieties. The term “Marxist” is used in this paper as the sum of views that advocate the changing of current political perceptions, laws, and/or systems of government, with the help of the archaeologist and/or his/her work. While this is a rather imprecise definition of the term “Marxism”, it is a good explanation of what the term will be used for in this paper: to place a wide variance of views within one convenient category (that includes traditional Marxism as well as others).

The term “feminist” will be used to denote those views that have the same general goals as “Marxism”, but whose specific goals are formed with respect to women. This category of “feminist” goals includes archaeology whose goal is to change political and/or social perceptions of women in the archaeological record, and of women within the field of archaeology. This includes anything that calls attention to gender inequality in archaeological research constructs (e.g., women’s role in pottery making, in the development of agriculture, etc.) and in the ability to do archaeology (e.g., funding of projects, the publication of papers and site reports, etc.). Also subsumed under the category of archaeology as a “political” pursuit is the use of archaeology to analyze our own society (or the society of the archaeologists) through the examination of the biases inherent in the approach to “doing” archaeology.

The goals termed “Marxist” in this paper involves “…the realization that the power relations and structure of the modern, capitalist-dominated world is unjust and destructive of people. All advocate some form of socialism as the alternative to this system” (McGuire 1993: 131). McGuire’s statement will be reduced implicitly to mean that “unjust and destructive” power relations (relations of political power between majority and minority groups) should be replaced by an “alternative” to the system that is less “unjust and destructive” of people.

As a tenet of an archaeological theory, “Marxism” comes to mean that the archaeology being done must in some way help bring about a less “unjust and destructive” system (Wobst 1989). The archaeology, in effect espouses a political “revolution”. Examples of archaeology used in such ways can be found in Latin America, where “…archaeologists took up marxism as an extension of political struggle against the established order” (McGuire 1993: 101), and in Africa where the remnants of indigenous civilization became “…a symbol of their cultural heritage to local Africans struggling for majority rule” (Trigger 1989: 134).

This type of archaeology is, in particular, a reaction against the use of archaeology in the opposite manner, in order to reaffirm an existing “unjust” ideology. Archaeology done in order to reaffirm an existing ideology is at least as prevalent as archaeology done in order to bring about positive social change, especially in older literature. The same ruins in Africa that were used as a symbol of cultural heritage to indigenous populations were used by colonial Whites in order to de-emphasize the creativity and intelligence of the natives, by espousing the view that Whites had colonized Africa in ancient times (Trigger 1989: 130-135). By fostering this idea, the archaeology had two consequences: it legitimized the colonization of Africa by establishing prior occupation and belittled the intelligence of the natives by attributing the prehistoric civilizations in Africa to Whites. This practice was also used in Hitler Germany to establish the right of Germany to lands where “archaeology” had “established” prior Germanic occupation. Any occupation by prior or later groups was trivialized (Arnold 1990: 465-467).

Thus, this form of “Marxist” archaeology is well established in both “positively” and “negatively” perceived uses, with the “correct” interpretation of the archaeology dependent upon whether one’s perspective is from the power majority of a powerful minority. Also, it must be noted that it seems likely that it is much easier to use something such as archaeology against a minority interest, rather than for it. If an oppressive power majority learns that an indigenous group that still exists once occupied a particular region, it is not likely that the land will be given back to that indigenous group.

However, if a power majority learns that a particular region of land was once occupied by its own ancestors, then it is much more likely that it will use that as an excuse to take that land. Those with power do and those without power do without in most of the world (the U.S. is definitely not an exception). The problem with the “Marxist” approach to archaeology is that it is not an archaeological approach. It is a political one. It is the use of archaeology as a means to an end, both the doing of the archaeology and the interpretation of it, but it is not a goal of archaeology (or should not be, if it is so to any particular archaeologist). Watson et al. write that “Most archaeologists would probably agree that one of their major goals or purposes is to explain some portion of the past” (1984: 13).

Whether this explanation is an answer to a particularized question or problem or an explanation of a generalization or “law”, the statement stands. The goal of effecting “Marxist” change in society is not an archaeological goal, it is a political one. Having “Marxist” change as the goal of archaeological research also has the danger to the researcher of losing one’s functional objectivity. While it may be impossible to be purely objective in a positivistic sense, the “scientific method” requires the researcher to look for prejudices and preconceived notions within himself/herself and to attempt to counter these prejudices from his/her work. Even though there may be some unconscious prejudices that the researcher is not aware of, the researcher gains functional objectivity. However, when a researcher has the goal of effecting “Marxist” change within a society, he/she loses his/her functional objectivity by becoming polarized to one answer before research into a question is begun. This leads to a loss of “scientific” credibility.

The goal of “feminist” archaeology falls into basically two realms, that of effecting social change in a similar manner to that of “Marxist” archaeology, but aimed towards gender inequalities, referred to as critical feminism (Preucel 1995: 156) and that of “putting women back into prehistory”, referred to as analytical feminism (Preucel 1995: 155). Critical feminism “…seeks to expose the pervasive character of androcentrism in all areas of society” (Preucel 1995, 156), and consists of issues such as inequality in employment, pay, publication, and funding of archaeological research. While this goal of effecting social change toward gender inequality, like many “Marxist” goals, is admirable and worthwhile subjects, they are not archaeology. These goals are simply the use of archaeology as a political tool.

While issues such as these are explicitly tied to archaeology, they are not issues of study within the realm of archaeology and will be resolved independent of archaeological research. Research on inequality in pay among archaeologists is not an archaeological study, it is a political or a sociological study, and should be studied independently of archaeological research. Thus, critical feminism must be rejected as a worthwhile goal of archaeology (not rejected as a worthwhile goal in and of itself, but as irrelevant to the actual archaeology), much in the same vein as “Marxist” goals were rejected earlier in this paper.

Analytical feminism takes a different direction than critical feminism in that it looks to put women back into prehistory that has left women out due to androcentrism within the discipline. Whereas critical feminism was irrelevant to the actual process of “doing” archaeology, analytical feminism is explicitly tied into the “doing” of archaeology. “This position regards past male scholarship as producing a partial view of the world, consistently ignoring the roles and contributions of women in actively effecting social change” (Preucel 1995: 155).

Papers in, Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory, edited by Gero and Conkey (1991) call attention to examples where women have been left out of prehistory, ranging from women’s role in lithic tool production (Gero: 163-193) to women’s role in pottery production and development (Wright: 194-223). In an American Antiquity article, Alison Wylie draws attention to the displacement of women of a role in the development of agriculture (1992: 22-23). These are examples of how “engendered archaeology” can be a useful and attainable goal for archaeological research. Analytical feminism is simply the advocating of something that had been explicitly missing from previous archaeological research, putting women into meaningful roles in prehistory.

If approximately fifty per cent of all humans who have ever lived were women, then approximately half of all material remains (whether pyramids, stone tools, pottery, or biological remains) must originate from women in prehistory. One may argue that most artefacts were the products of men, but even with this androcentric view, women must then be responsible for many other types of material remains. Men did not do everything while women sat around doing nothing but produce children. Women must have produced a large amount of the material remains studied by archaeologists. Therefore, it is the view of this paper that analytical feminism is a worthwhile goal for archaeological research, as long as it does not attempt to replace one gender monopoly of interpretation with another.

The third subset of the goal of archaeology as a political pursuit is those uses whose aim is to critically evaluate our own society by examining how we view past ones. Critical theory, as this approach is called, tries to enable people to determine where their true interests lie (Leone et al. 1987: 283-284). Essentially, the critical theory attempts to allow one to see his or her own biases and become “emancipated” from those biases, whether those biases were imposed, or are self-imposed. Leone et al. use an excavation of historic Annapolis in order to elucidate an application of critical theory. While the study seems to support the use of critical theory, it is lacking in any real substantiation of the validity of critical theory (Comments: Richard Bradley in Leone et al. 1987: 293).

The statement that we should be aware of our own prejudices and assumptions is simply a statement of common sense. It cannot be taken as a goal of archaeology, or as some enlightened archaeological theory. The “emancipation” Leone et al. speak of is merely an illusion, because there is no way to tell if one has actually freed oneself from one’s biases, if there are other biases one does not know about, or if the critical theory itself imposes its own biases (Comments: Richard Bradley in Leone et al. 1987: 293). Assumptions and prejudices will be present in any interpretation of archaeological data, and it is true that any overt biases that can be found in one’s own work should be deleted from one’s interpretation, but that is all one can do. Hence, critical theory can be seen as a useful cautionary statement, but its uses as an archaeological theory or as a goal of archaeology are severely limited.

The third broad category of goals that will be defined in this paper is the goal of archaeology as anthropology. While the term “anthropology” can be made to refer to any study of any aspect of past or present human culture, it will be used here to categorize any approach to the “doing” of archaeology with the explicit purpose of coming to some sort of knowledge about humanity in general. Thus, this approach leads to asking questions like “How does a shift from a hunter-gatherer society to agricultural society take place?” rather than “How did agriculture originate in the South American Andes?”

The questions that are most important to an anthropologically minded archaeologist are of the general type rather than of the specific. It must be noted, of course, that the two types of questions are intricately related, but for convenience sake, it is easier to separate the two. While archaeology has been associated as a historical discipline in Europe, archaeology as anthropology is a dominant theme within the United States (Taylor 1983: 25-26). “This belief that archaeology must be part of anthropology has resulted from the various anthropological disciplines developing in America as different aspects of a holistic study of the American Indian” (Trigger 1978: 3). Since much of American archaeology originated within the study of anthropology, the teaching of archaeology has developed within anthropology departments at universities (Taylor 1983: 26), and as a result, American archaeologists have come to view their field as social science (Watson et al. 1984: 1).

This de facto relationship would seem to indicate that archaeology is an anthropological subdiscipline, but “…when the objectives of Americanist archaeology are explicitly stated, it is found that they are consistently said to be historical, specifically the ‘reconstruction of history’ ” (Taylor 1983, 26). This dichotomy is the consequence of archaeology emerging as a tool of anthropologists at a time when both disciplines were beginning to become consolidated as academic areas of study in United States universities.

Thus, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists are trained in the same department and tend to approach their work in a similar manner. This teaching arrangement explains why the New Archaeology of the 1960s drew such a wide following. This particular generation of archaeologists was reacting against the methods of “traditional” archaeologists who had not been trained in integrated anthropology departments. These “new” or “processual” archaeologists saw archaeology as a social science that should have for its “…ultimate purpose the discovery of regularities that are in a sense spaceless and timeless” (Willey and Phillips 1958: 2), rather than a historical purpose of extending the border between history and prehistory further into the past.

Archaeology should not be a part of anthropology but should stand on its own as an independent discipline. Relatively few American archaeologists share this opinion (Trigger 1978: 3). The idea that archaeology should not be subordinated to anthropology does not mean the goal of constructing generalizations is rejected for archaeology, but that it is rejected as the sole goal of archaeology. Why does this paper disagree with the dictum that “American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing” (Willey and Phillips 1958: 2)? This paper disagrees with this “dictum” because it is an asinine comment with no real meaning. The mere fact that the various subdisciplines of anthropology (linguistics, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology) are subsumed under the title “Anthropology” does not justify that categorization.

Nor does the fact that archaeology is used much of the time as a tool of cultural anthropology make it a part of anthropology, or vice versa. Mathematics is not a part of physics just because physics makes use of mathematics, and similarly, archaeology is not a part of anthropology. The fact that archaeology was lumped together with anthropology because both fields were consolidated in America at about the same time use some of the same subject matter is not an excuse for a continued departmental association between the two. Taylor finds it significant that no attempt has been made to resolve the discrepancies between the goals of cultural anthropology and archaeology (1983: 27), and this paper agrees.

A forwarded e-mail I received recently may provide clarification as to why it is important to study the reasons as to why the two disciplines are lumped together in American institutions:

An experiment is conducted where five apes are placed within a cage. Also placed within the cage is a set of stairs, which leads towards the top of the cage. A banana is lowered on a string down through the top of the cage until it is just within the reach of the apes if one climbs the stairs. Eventually, one of the apes figures out the problem and climbs the stairs. When the ape climbs the stairs, the other apes are sprayed with cold water, severely agitating them. Another banana is lowered, eventually, another ape braves the stairs, and the other apes are again sprayed with the cold water.

Another banana is lowered, and again, an ape eventually heads toward the stairs. This time though, the other apes rush forward and restrain that ape from going up the stairs, because they have associated the stairs with being sprayed with cold water. So now, none of the apes will go towards the stairs and the banana. Later, one of the apes is removed and a new ape is introduced. This new ape sees the banana and goes to the stairs. To its horror, it is attacked by the other apes and prevented from getting the banana. Another one of the original apes is removed and a new ape introduced. This new ape also goes for the banana and is attacked. This time the first new ape attacks right along with the original apes without knowing why. The original apes are replaced with new apes one by one until all the original apes are gone. However, whenever a new ape goes for the banana, the others attack it, although none of them know why. They do this because THAT IS THE WAY IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE (Anonymous 1998).

This e-mail was formulated to explain the reason behind some of the idiocies of government bureaucracies, but it is also apt at explaining the reason behind some of the idiocies in academic bureaucracies. Archaeology and anthropology are now sufficiently different to be independent academic departments, much as computer science and engineering have diverged enough to be considered sufficiently different. An archaeologist should ask himself/herself how often they use oral linguistics or primate research in their work. Of course, for funding and other reasons, the two disciplines will probably have to diverge much more to actually become different departments within the university setting but they are different enough that their goals and methods do not have to be the same.

Having said that, it is important to state that the anthropological goal of formulating generalizations of human behaviour is a viable goal for archaeology. The only problem with those (such as the New Archaeologists) who espouse this goal is that they conclude that it is the only viable goal for archaeology. While the generalizations formulated are useful tools for archaeologists to use when constructing an archaeological interpretation, they are really only a refinement of cross-cultural ethnographic evidence.

For example, if it can be established that in X state of development, societies have characteristics of A, B, C, and D in 90% of cases, then an archaeologist can use this information to conclude that a particular society he/she was studying (that was also in X state of development), probably had characteristics A, B, C, and D. This construction of generalizations is no different from the use of cross-cultural ethnographic evidence by an archaeologist, except that the researcher who formulates generalizations (universal, statistical, etc.) saves the archaeologist from having to take the time to do the research himself/herself. However, it will save someone time and effort, and advanced anthropological archaeology studies (generalization forming) could find relationships that the average archaeologist would not find in his/her search for ethnographic supporting evidence.

To conclude the discussion of archaeology as an anthropological discipline, it is accepted that the construction of generalizations of human behaviour and/or societal development is a viable goal for archaeology, but it is by no means the only acceptable goal.

The Goals of Archaeology: Conclusion

The broad headings of the historical approach, political approach, and anthropological approach were studied in varying detail. Upon the completion of this examination, it is this paper’s position that historical approaches, anthropological approaches, and certain feminist approaches to the goals of archaeology are viable goals for archaeology. The goal of archaeology as a political tool for the advancement (or oppression) of one group in relation to the power balance of that group with respect to another group is rejected as a viable goal for doing archaeology. While these goals may be worthwhile in certain instances, they are not goals of archaeology, but rather uses of archaeology for the advancement of non-archaeological goals. Now that the reasons for doing archaeology have been discussed, the way in which archaeology is done must be discussed.

Archaeological Methods

It must be noted from the start that this paper takes the position that the method of doing archaeology is separate and distinct from the method of interpreting the results of that archaeology. Hence, most archaeological theory will not be discussed in this section of this paper. This overview of the archaeological method will not deal with many specific procedures of excavation, but with a discussion on the need for a standardized system of recording the data that results from those excavations. This section will also deal with the question of “science” in and of archaeology.

The question of archaeology as a science or as being “scientific” is a question of epistemology rather than theory. Science is not a discipline; it is a method of studying something. The popular view of “science” in the literature discussing the philosophical debate between those who see archaeology as “scientific” and those who do not is, in part, based on a fallacious assumption of what “science” is. The view that “The ultimate goal of any science is the construction of an axiomatized theory such that observed regularities can be derived from a few basic laws of premises” (Watson et al. 1984: 14) is a misinterpretation of goals with method.

That is like saying that the goal of education is taking classes, reading books and articles, writing papers, and taking exams. A student does those things in order to learn; thus the goal of education is to educate. A “science” formulates laws in order to facilitate the growth of knowledge within its particular academic area. An astronomer’s ultimate goal is not the formulation of laws about how astronomical bodies’ gravitational fields affect each other, his/her goal is to find new starts, new planets, find out more about known space bodies, etc. An axiomatic theory is created because it is necessary for the advancement of a “science”, not because it is the goal of that “science”.

The term “scientific” is simply the subsumption of any practice whose procedure is well stated and whose derivation of conclusions is explicitly, rather than implicitly, shown, so that others can evaluate these steps, in order to check that the research was done with valid method. This simply means that some action is “scientific” if the procedure used in that action is clearly stated, and the data used in that procedure clearly stated, so that it is not a “because-I-said-so” explanation. If the procedure is acceptable, and the data used in that procedure is acceptable, then the conclusion drawn by that procedure cannot be rejected. It may not be accepted by all, but it is a scientifically viable option. For example, if it could be construed (because of the evidence, or the lack thereof) that a particular ancient monument was created by aliens, and it could not be refuted “scientifically”, then it must be accepted as a viable option according to the current evidence.

That does not mean that it is true, or even accepted, but rather that the particular theory is “scientifically” as acceptable as any other and cannot be rejected because it is ridiculous or outlandish. If a “scientist” starts to claim that a theory is crap with no “scientific” basis, then what is to stop the scientific community form accepting a particular theory that is true, simply because it is not well-liked. Thus, the scientific validity of a construct works in much the same way foreign diplomats receive immunity. The “scientific” procedure is used to protect a construct from unfair dismissal on scientific bases. A “ridiculous” theory may not be very popular, but it is professional courtesy to accept its right to be.

The question of archaeology as a “science” rather than as history was brought up as a concern by processual archaeologists (Trigger 1989: 302). Whether this concern came about as a result of wanting the acceptance of their work as credible by specialists – who were performing some of the techniques which began to be used regularly in archaeology (e.g., radiocarbon-dating, etc.) – with whom archaeologists began to work in close contact, or as a concern of the validity of then-current methods of archaeology, the question is a sound one. Archaeology did need to be more “scientific”; the only problem was that these processual archaeologists had a flawed idea of what “science” is.

“At the very core of the debates between new and old archaeologists – that is between those who see archaeology as a science and those who regard it as a humanistic discipline – is a question about what constitutes satisfactory explanation” (Salmon 1982: 6). This statement gets to the heart of the matter. Processual archaeologists felt that the traditional archaeology being practised at the time did not satisfactorily explain from where their conclusions from their data came and that some of the procedures used to interpret evidence were not valid.

They were, in essence, stating that the discipline needed to become more scientific. They were on the right track, but they took a wrong turn: they entered the realm of the philosophy of science. Rather than trying to come up with a more appropriate method, they began to argue philosophical theory. Rather than realizing that all explanations are subjective constructions constrained by evidential data, they began to debate over which one of the sundry proposed models was most precisely “correct”. “It should perhaps be stressed that most practising scientists never consider these issues: philosophy of science is a subject in its own right, and one which rarely finds a place in the training of a scientist” (Yorston 1987: 18). Basically, processual archaeologists became so obsessed by the need for an axiomatized archaeological theory, that they did not realize that they only needed to make their line of reasoning in drawing conclusions from data explicit in order to be considered “scientific”.

This misrepresentation of science led to disenchantment with processual archaeology. This disenchantment led to the rise of post-processualism, in which the modelling of archaeology on the natural sciences is rejected (Shanks and Tilly 1992: 243), and to the rise of postmodernism, in which science is rejected as “…an irretrievably flawed project” (Preucel 1995: 156). As for criticisms of the New Archaeology, these reactions are valid and to be expected; however, as criticisms of science, they are not. They are philosophical criticisms that do not really affect how something is done “scientifically”, whether that something is archaeology or physics.

To sum up the arguments of this discussion, it is this paper’s opinion that to be “scientific” is to proceed scientifically, rather than to be a “science”. A mechanic can be “scientific” when determining what is wrong with a motor, but that does not make what is being done a “science”, otherwise, anything can be a science and the word used to categorize particular disciplines becomes meaningless. Therefore, to be “scientific” archaeology must proceed within a scientific methodology and interpretive theory. Data compilation and processing must proceed scientifically, and the interpretations that are formulated from that data must be formulated scientifically.

To conform to this definition of “science” requires several things: the standardization of data recording, a set of standard traits or remains that are universally collected, access to these data made available with minimal effort on the part of the user, and the formalization of interpretations of data in such a way that those interpretations may be challenged by others later. The part which requires the formalizations of interpretations of data will be discussed in the next section, since, in this paper, it is taken that archaeology is split into two main spheres of study: compilation and interpretation. The compilation is the “…acquisition and manipulation of material objects…excavation practices, survey methods, sampling techniques, conservation methods in situ or in the laboratory, etc.” (Gardin 1980: 5) where “the primary goal is to disclose materials hitherto unpublished, or not easily accessible” (Gardin 1980: 22).

While interpretation is “the mental operations by which the archaeologist moves from the perception of the collected data to the formulation of verbal statements concerning them, on various levels” (Gardin 1980: 5) with the goal of diffusing “new ideas on various aspects of life in ancient times (technology, symbolic functions, social organizations, etc.), grounded in the study of the material remains” (Gardin 1980: 22-23). This comes down to compilation being the actual “doing” of archaeology, and interpretation being what one does with the data collected from the compilation.

The standardization of data and data collection is necessary to facilitate archaeological progress. The reason this standardization is needed is that the replicative ability that is required for work to be “scientific” is a problem in archaeology. “It is not possible to study past cultures in the same way that one can study the dynamics of particles” (Yorston 1987: 25), and since “no settlement or excavation is the same as any other, it is difficult to sustain demands for multiple, independent experimental tests of theories” (Yorston 1987: 20).

One can only dig a site once, so the excavation of that site should follow some set of standards that will allow for the recording of important data that is not relevant to the researcher’s specific question. This begs the question, “What are important data?” Some researcher in some fashion could use every piece of material and contextual evidence, so a compromise with scientific need and archaeological reality must be reached. A referendum among qualified researchers is one possibility that should be looked into. Whether institutional guidelines or common sense decision controls what is “important” evidence, there must be “a minimum corpus of data that must be recorded for every excavation” (Trigger 1978: 15). While most researchers may already follow this ideal, there should be academic standards that all researchers are required to follow; otherwise, anyone can do whatever he/she wants with important data that could be lost.

In addition to standard categories of archaeological evidence that should be recorded, the archaeological evidence relevant to the research design question being asked by the archaeologist should be recorded. The research design is essential with regards to this data. An archaeologist should not simply go dig up some site and record everything that is interesting. “Some set of assumptions is required which defines just what data are worth collecting” (Gibbon 1989: 4), and the research design supplies those assumptions as to relevant data. “Relevant archaeological data consist of anything observable that pertains to the solving of a particular problem” (Watson et al. 1984: 160).

The research design which decides which data are relevant to solving the problem posed by the researcher, and the collection of important data that does not necessarily have anything to do with that question are important “Because it is impossible to collect all potential data in any archaeological situation, [and] archaeologists must constantly decide whether the information they are collecting justifies the necessary destruction of materials from which other information could be extracted” (Watson et al. 1984: 54). The standardization of data collection is necessary because “if we are to place our faith in observations we must have some confidence in the methods used to obtain those observations” (Yorston 1987: 19). Since a site can be excavated only once, it is important that we can have faith in the data published from the site. Otherwise, the data is useless.

Another aspect of the standardization of data is the standardization of the recording of the data. Recording that seven femurs were found at a particular site, even if the femurs are kept in an archaeological collection, is worthless because it “lacks several categories of information that are not observable in the collection, even though they certainly should be present in all forms of archaeological compilations” (Gardin 1980: 32). This information includes, but is not limited to:

(a) The extrinsic data are the most obviously wanting, namely data that are not observable on the objects or their reproductions and that must therefore be ‘worded’ in some way: origin, archaeological context (stratigraphy, associated finds, etc.), environment, etc.; (b) then come certain intrinsic data which are not conveyed by reproductions, such as the metal in which the money is made, its weight, etc.; (c) lastly, we have data of both kinds that are products of more sophisticated analysis than either a or b, in a physical sense (e.g. identification of chemical constituents), or in a symbolic sense (e.g. reading of inscriptions, iconographical interpretation), and which the compiler certainly has to mention, if available, in order to provide a full description of the collection” (Gardin 1980: 32).

Also included should be measurements of length, width, diameter, weight, etc. This information should be compiled in a coherent manner and made available to other researchers.

It was nearly impossible to record all this information in previous times, but in today’s computer and digital age, there is no excuse for recording less than the maximum amount of information possible or making it difficult to be accessed by other researchers. As a requirement of the “scientific method”, archaeological data collected should be made available with a minimum of effort on the part of the user. The compilations’ “basic practical quality should be to provide users – rather than readers – with convenient channels of access to any information items singled out in the compilation, for a broad but specified range of applications (e.g., comparative studies, storage and retrieval of excavation data, searches in museum collections, etc.)” (Gardin 1980: 149). Computer filing and digital recording are the keys to this.

With a digital camcorder, an archaeologist can slowly rotate the camcorder around the artefact and record the object exactly. This image is downloaded into a computer file that can be read in a CAD program. The CAD program has the three-dimensional image, and if a few measurements of the object have been taken and are uploaded into the CAD file, the program can calculate full measurements of dimension. This presents a visual image of the object, so other data such as weight and archaeological context must still be recorded, but the object itself is no longer necessary, saving storage space, time, money, and the paperwork needed to get the material out of the country.

Since all the data (the digital images as well as the text data) are on computer files, they may be put on the Internet, published cheaply on disks, and sent from one researcher to another easily. This digitalization greatly facilitates the diffusion of archaeological data. The material remains is not totally deleted from the equation, samples should be kept based on the number of artefacts found. For instance, if parts of two Neanderthal skeletons are found, all the skeletal evidence should be kept, but if a cemetery of 300 bodies is excavated, then a small sample that is large enough for statistic purposes should be kept, but all the data should be recorded.

Another issue that has to do with the method of data collection is the concept of error. The recording of possible error is one of the most important aspects of scientific research. Any type of conceivable error should be recorded. This is used so that in the second phase of archaeology – interpretation – if strange or unexpected results occur, a possible error can be consulted to try to account for the results. Strange and unexpected interpretations are not always wrong or accountable, but if a researcher records that lava tuft from which a sample was taken for dating was exposed to air, and strange results come back for the dates, the possible error caused by the exposed nature of the lava tuft can be blamed. If that fact was not recorded, and that data was used later by another researcher, the interpretation that that researcher formulates may be skewed.

Conclusion: Archaeological Method

To be the source of valid archaeological constructions, the data collected in archaeological contexts must be collected “scientifically”. This means that the methods in which the data is collected must be laid out beforehand in an archaeological research design, the collection of the data should follow some set guidelines, and the data should be recorded in an accessible way which facilitates use by other researchers. If the data are collected in this manner, any archaeological construct that is based on the data, and that is constructed through a “scientifically” sound interpretation, must be accepted as a plausible, if not accepted, explanation of the data.

Archaeological Theory

While archaeological theory means many things to many people, in this paper, the archaeological theory will be that which has to do with the second phase of archaeological research, interpretation. This section will discuss what constitutes an archaeological interpretation and the theoretical backgrounds from which many of the theoretical models created by archaeologists and philosophers have come from. The specific theoretical models (hypothetico-deuctive, etc.) will not be discussed since the position taken in this paper is that all theoretical models are incomplete. Every theoretical model can work in some circumstances, but none work in all. “Diagrams and models have the happy faculty of proving whatever they are designed to prove” (Willey and Phillips 1958: 7).

The main component of all archaeological theoretical models is the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity, and the “primary contention in the philosophical debate concerns the question of whether an objective reconstruction of the past can occur” (Whitley 1998: 7). The two extreme views are that all data is objective and thus all knowledge is objective (positivism) and that all data is influenced by the observer and thus all knowledge is also subjective (relativism).

Positivism’s main points include “an interest in explaining empirical observations about human behaviour through cross-cultural generalizations or laws, a belief that these empirical observations (our archaeological data) are independent of our theories, that these data can be used to test theories, and that the result will be an objective knowledge about the past” (Whitley 1998: 3). This belief that objective knowledge is possible is the most important aspect of positivism.

The problem that critics have with that idea is that they believe that the researcher’s preconceived values and notions bias the research and therefore, all the data obtained is subjective. Most archaeologists would agree with that statement, even though they follow a positivistic approach. This is because positivism is an extreme philosophical position and most researchers do not fall into philosophical extremes. “Values, preconceptions, and other bias factors are, in theory, precluded from influencing the outcome of experiment” (Clark 1993: 213), but they are not dismissed as possible factors of error by the open-minded researcher. If an objective research form is not accepted, then all knowledge is unacceptable and archaeology becomes a worthless pursuit.

“The extreme philosophical position, known as relativism, is that fact and theory are fully equivalent. All knowledge is then based on the knower, and there is no independent way of verifying anything. Everything is subjective, including the past, and since there can be no objective past, there can be no objective reconstruction of it” (Whitley 1998: 10). This position is taken by many of the archaeologists who espouse the “Marxist” purpose for the archaeology of effecting political change. “Where nothing is fixed, there can be no ground for a definite account of the past” (Thomas 1995: 352). Therefore, since all knowledge is subjective, and all archaeological constructs are subjective, “the practice of deciding between a plurality of meanings then seems to become a matter of power” (Engelstadt 1991: 505). “Marxist” archaeologists believe that decision – which of many archaeological constructs is correct – should be made based on the effects that decision may possibly have on a particular political situation.

In this view, science is a kind of political and moral action. The role of the aware and critical scientist is to fight these structures of dominance. This is done by creating knowledge in the form of critical interpretations that expose social injustice. This position is a rejection of science, as such (Whitley 1998: 10).

The idea that everything is subjective is a dangerous position to take. The problem with this position is that it creates “the danger of disruption of any stable historical identity” (Thomas 1995: 352). Should an archaeologist hide information that may give credence to an “injustice”, or create false information that can help end one? I hope that type of effort would stay out of the realm of valid archaeological research and stay in the realm of propaganda. Also, the pendulum swings both ways. That type of archaeology can be used just as easily to prolong an “injustice” as it can be used to destroy one, and whether something is an “injustice” or is not is a matter of opinion and perspective.

“As scientists, archaeologists do not seek certain, perfect, or total descriptions and explanations. All descriptions and models are inadequate and incomplete, and archaeologists, in particular, should not make the mistake of thinking…that the past cannot be described or explained at all” (Watson 1992: 255). This view is rationalized in a middle ground between positivism and relativism called post-positivism. “Postpositivism is a reaction against positivism, including its theory-free view of facts.

Like post-processualism, it represents a range of views, but as a general rule post-positivist philosophies of science claim that facts and theory are inherently related” (Whitley 1998: 8). Like relativists, “postpositivists move to a position of critical realism, which means that although a real-world governed by natural laws is held to exist, it is impossible to perceive directly, owing to imperfections in our sensory and intellectual capacities” (Clark 1993: 214) as well as our preconceived notions and biases. The difference between relativists and post-positivists is that post-positivists believe that archaeologists can come to close approximations of the past through good research techniques and good post-excavation interpretation.

“Although ‘truth’ in an absolute sense is held to be unattainable, the objective of postpositivist investigation is to arrive at better and better approximations of it” (Clark 1993: 214). This is the position that most researchers take. They accept the strict empiricist notion that there is an absolute “Truth” out there but believe that it may not be attainable due to our innate imperfections or the imperfections of our research, but the accepted “truth” can become closer and closer to the “Truth”, by refining the individual “truths” (archaeological constructs) that make up the accepted “truth” through more and better research.

Now that the nature of data, and hence knowledge, has been discussed, the ways in which that data can be used in order to construct an archaeological interpretation will be discussed. This involves the use of the research techniques of deduction and induction. Deduction is the use of data by restructuring the data such that any implicit truths that are inherent in the data can be concluded. For example: if all As are Bs, and all Bs are Cs; then all As are Cs. Deduction is largely a puzzle-solving method. It is a reflexive method with which the researcher can work through data and find answers in much the same way a math student works through a trigonometric proof looking for basic equations. It is the first step that needs to be taken when trying to analyze data.

Through the use of deduction, all the knowledge that is directly attributable and provable through the data can be found. “The validity of deductive arguments is a formal matter depending only on the structure, that is, the logical relations between the terms or statements” (Salmon 1982: 33). The only problem with deduction is in the holistic uses some researchers wish to give it. Deduction is only a partial step and should be the final step where all other researchers accept the conclusions if the preceding procedure has been valid.

If the method by which the data is collected (site excavation) is accepted as valid, the method by which the data is analyzed and categorized is accepted, and the logic behind the deductive arguments is accepted, there can be no argument over the validity of the archaeological interpretation to this point. However, “insight gained through deductive methods is insufficient, however, for most of the interesting archaeological hypotheses are not connected by deductive relations of logical consequence or incompatibility to statements whose truth is known” (Salmon 1982: 33).

If all evidence of everything that has ever existed was available in the archaeological record, and there was a method of obtaining all that evidence, then deduction could be used to investigate hypotheses and approximate the “Truth”. However, archaeological remains are “so limited, altered, or sparse (and many may even have been destroyed) that a comprehensive description of the past cannot be derived from them, not just because our general knowledge, techniques, or intelligence is limited, but because the material that is left simply does not reflect the complete past” (Watson et al. 1984: 43).

Since it is impossible to formulate a close approximation of the past through purely deductive methods, inductive methods must also be used. Induction involves the leap from verifiable observations to probable conclusions. If a deductive analysis of a duck cannot define what it is due to lack of information, and inductive analysis might say, “Well, it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, so it is probably a duck.” Induction is an important method for archaeology since “the conclusion of an inductive argument contains more information than its premise” (Salmon 1982: 33).

Induction is the method by which archaeologists construct their archaeological interpretations, whether they believe so or not. The way prehistoric constructions looked, the way prehistoric peoples looked, the way in which agriculture developed, etc. is all based on inductive reasoning. The problem many researchers have with induction is that they believe it validates any interpretation without any testing of its validity (Trigger 1978: 24). This is one of the bases on which processual archaeology was founded. Processual archaeologists favour deductive methods, since,

“deductive arguments, unlike inductive arguments are “truth” preserving…for if the conclusion of a deductive argument can contain only what is implicit in the premises, and if the premises are true, then the conclusion will also be true. In contrast, because ‘new’ information can occur in the conclusion of an inductive argument, it may be false even though the premises are true and do lend support to the conclusion” (Salmon 1982: 33).

However, due to the paucity of the archaeological record, induction is a required step on the path to a closer approximation of the “truth”. The validity of an inductive argument can be ascertained by checking its logical foundations (the validity of the data, of the categorization of the data, etc.) and by checking its statistical predictability. When one constructing hypotheses through induction, “one does not expect to attain certainty, but those hypotheses that are most adequately confirmed in the sense that they fit best with what is already known and lead to accurate predictions about what is not well known at any given time are regarded as provisionally true” (Watson et al. 1984: 43). Therefore, “in the conduct of research inductive and deductive procedures always are interrelated” (Trigger 1978: 7).

Conclusion: Archaeological Theory

Archaeological theory is used in this paper to describe the procedure by which a researcher takes the data he/she has collected and uses that data to formulate archaeological constructions. A positivist outlook is essential for conducting research, but a conscientious researcher will take relativistic concerns into account as possible sources of error. This is described in the post-positivist outlook. Once the data has been collected and analyzed, the formulation of archaeological constructs should begin with the deductive analysis of the data in order to extract any implicit knowledge available through the data. Then, an inductive approach should be used to jump beyond the limitations of the data to complete the archaeological construct. The finalized construct should be tested for validity, with the best hypothesis accepted as the closest current approximation of the “Truth”.

A Pragmatic Archaeology

The preceding analysis of the formulation of archaeological constructions raises the question of what a “scientifically” valid (as science was defined above) is. In this section of the paper, I will attempt to form a “bare-bones” outline of the intellectual and research processes that should occur in archaeological research.

The process should begin with an interest in a particular site, group, region, or problem. This interest can be for nearly any reason: available funds for that particular type of research, personal interests, need for archaeological excavation (CRM), etc. Once interest is established, the researcher(s) should conduct a documented survey in order to find any and all information available that pertains directly to the area of interest. There is no reason to attempt to answer a question that has already been satisfactorily answered. Also, this allows the researcher(s) to narrow the focus of the excavation to relevant data and gives him/her the benefit of data from previous excavations (if any).

Next, the researcher(s) should formulate a research design that will specifically state the methods that will be employed in the excavation. This includes listing the data that will be categorized as “relevant” to the overarching research problem(s), and the data that will be collected as “important” data that is not necessarily relevant to that particular problem, but that will be useful for subsequent research and must be saved from permanent loss.
After the research design has been completed, the researcher(s) should see collecting the supplies and/or technical machinery that is needed to carry out the research design.

The actual excavation is carried out in as “scientifically” as possible, and the data collected with as much contextual and incidental evidence recorded as is reasonable. Once the actual data has been collected, the researcher(s) should categorize the data in a manner appropriate to the specific research question. The data should then be put through a rigorous application of deductive logic. The researcher(s) should attempt to find any inherent relationships among the data, as well as any conclusion that may be drawn from the data without supplying any conjecture.

The deductive reasoning is followed by the application of inductive reasoning in order to form an interpretive archaeological construction from the data. The conclusions inferred from the data should follow a “scientific” pattern of reasoning that can be followed by subsequent researchers. The specific interpretive constructions may have varying levels of confidence, depending on the size of the intuitive leap from the data, and the credulousness of critics.

This theoretical outline accepts that there is a level of objectivity, as well as subjectivity, in research.

An analyst’s subjective view of the significance of data will condition the way that the individual observes and records the data. However, although data are conditioned by ideas, data are also independent of the mind of the researcher in that they exist in the real world. If a researcher is self-critical he/she/ may permit data to constrain his/her own ideas. Furthermore, if this is not the case other critically-minded individuals may fit the same data into a different model and thus challenge the initial theory (Hingley 1987: 89).

This is dependent on the idea that data are fundamentally objective in that they actually exist and are not figments of our collective imagination. A philosopher may argue that reality is an illusion and what we see is not actual existence, but rather a construction of our subjective view of the world. However, “as fallibilist as reality maybe, when a pragmatist is confronted with an object such as a pen, then he or she will acknowledge the existence of the object” (Gaffney 1987: 12). Thus, it is taken that there is objectivity in the data portion of the research. The interpretation of the data is another thing entirely. While a pragmatist will acknowledge the existence of the object, “how that object is interpreted and what it actually means to a pragmatist is dependent upon experience and context” (Gaffney 1987: 12). This leads to the question of valid criticism.

A valid criticism of an archaeological construction must be based on more than a dislike for a particular theory, or lack of probability. Since the archaeological construction is based upon inductive inference, as well as the preconceptions of the particular researcher(s), the interpretation cannot be criticized as unscientific (or a load of crap) unless there is a procedural or logic mistake on the part of the researcher. Valid criticism includes:

A lack of use of relevant archaeological data is grounds for criticism. All previous research on a subject that has not been shown to contain error or problematic procedure must be considered when formulating archaeological constructions. For example, a researcher digs three 2 meters by 2-meter test pits over a site that is 10 km2, finds no evidence of high-level social ranking, and constructs an archaeological interpretation positing a tribal community. If the researcher(s) neglected to include data from a large study that found monumental construction and differential grave-good distribution, the researcher’s construction can be criticized. While this is an exaggerated example, it shows the need for archival research on the part of the researcher.

If there were categories of data that needed to be collected to enable the researcher to answer the research question, then the archaeological construction can be criticized due to the fact that it is based on inadequate data. For instance, a study that seeks to explore the possibility of gender differences in social ranking that neglects to record the type and amount of grave-goods associated with particular burials can be criticized as inadequate.
Problems with the logic in the deductive steps of the researcher during data analysis are also grounds for valid criticism. If a researcher states that all objects of type A are also type B, and all objects of type B are also type C, but states that therefore all objects of type C must also be type A, then any subsequent deductive or inductive arguments are based upon a fallacious premise.

Problematic inductive leaps are also grounds for valid criticism of archaeological constructions. All inductive inferences from data that are used in the formulation of an archaeological construction must be “scientifically” logical. If a researcher comes to the conclusion that there never were females of a particular group because all the burials excavated belonged to men is obviously a logically flawed inductive leap. Whereas inferring that only men were formally buried in that society, and bodies not formally buried were more easily lost over time to natural forces (as well as harder to find still in one piece, if found at all), is a more reasonable inductive inference.

Other forms of criticism cannot be accepted as valid criticisms of the archaeological construct, because a construct is a closed system that is dependent upon the information it has and the procedures the data are put through. Criticizing an interpretation based upon subjectivity (a researcher did not find a particular data set because he/she is “Marxist”, “feminist”, etc.) is totally unacceptable. Due to the fact that archaeological excavations destroy data that is not specifically saved, and always destroys the context that data set was in, there must be a professional acceptance of the quality of the data collection. Otherwise, one could say, “Well, you did not find evidence that shows aliens moved those huge stone monuments because you were not looking for it.” It is more likely, in most, cases that the data was not there if it was not collected, and on an academic, professional level, it must be accepted as such. If the adequacy of archaeological work is challenged without a materialistic or logic basis, the credibility of all archaeological work becomes subject to the same types of challenges.

Conclusion: A Pragmatic Archaeology

A description of pragmatic archaeology was put forth in the preceding section of this paper. This procedural method is a result of the analyses and criticisms of current or past theories and ideas that were scrutinized earlier in this paper. This is not a closed system of procedure, it is a common-sense analysis that covers ideas that may or may not be accepted in theory or in practice by the majority of archaeologists who currently conduct research. It is hoped that this section made clear many of my positions or ideas that pertain to archaeological method and theory that may have been unclear or convoluted when discussed in the earlier sections of this paper. I believe that by following this outline in a more or less consistent manner, archaeological constructs can become more solidly based upon relevant data and “scientific” logic.

Final Conclusions

This paper has attempted to delineate a clear view of why archaeology should be scientific, and how that goal should be carried out. I did not attempt to adhere to any formal definition (hence this paper’s use of “marxism” and “scientific”) because in archaeological work no researcher strictly adheres to any philosophical or methodological model, and my use of those terms was used to facilitate the organization of many different viewpoints, and to facilitate the relation of my views on the subject.

There is a real and knowable world and there is a real and knowable past. The only way a reliable approximation of the past can be formulated is by the use of explicitly “scientific archaeology” so that the validity of archaeological constructions may be examined and criticized. Hopefully, as more and more “scientific” archaeological research is carried out, our knowledge of the archaeological past, and therefore the human past, will continuously increase and become more and more refined.


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