Archaeology is a Science with a Little s

A saying of one of my professors at the University of Oklahoma was that archaeology was a science with a little s. What he meant with this statement was that archaeologists can never know for certain what happened in the past. We do not have a time machine. Instead archaeologists use science to better interpret the past.

Scientific methods in archaeology such as radiocarbon dating, sourcing materials, dendrochronology, etc. give archaeologist more accurate data to interpret the past. Science in archaeology also holds archaeologists accountable in their story telling by making sure the story is told from a perspective so that other researchers can judge the value of the story. This is the theoretical framework of archaeology.

There are many different theories used in archaeology such as cultural transmission, evolutionary ecology, agency theory, optimal foraging theory, etc. Each theory has its advantages and weaknesses in interpreting the archaeological record. However, in the development and use of theory – the manner in which the archaeological record is interpreted and used to tell a story – other researchers can examine the data to see if the information fits with the perspective of the theory or story teller.

A recent problem within the field of archaeology is the extreme use of post-modern theory. This has been labelled as post-processual theory to signify a change from the more scientific approach of processual archaeology. In post-processual theory, the individual perspective is the center and there are many different possible interpretations of the archaeological record. The problem with this perspective is that there is no accountability, and it does not progress our understanding of the past.

Many researchers now label themselves as processual+. This simply means archaeology should also study intangible aspects of the archaeological record such as identity while also holding onto a scientific perspective. In these types of studies often a science perspective is used as a yard stick to more objectively document intangible aspects of past culture. For example, I am using GIS to objectively measure prominent locations on the landscape, defined as differences in elevations over a given distance, to ascertain if rock art localities and campsites are more frequently associated with prominent places than would be expected. This allows me to get at an intangible aspect of past culture within a scientific framework.

Archaeology is best situated within a scientific framework, but also allowing for more subjective interpretations that can be actively debated due to well-defined perspectives. This is the essence of archaeology as a science with a little s.

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