What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Discussions unearthing human history including cultural anthropology, linguistics, etc.

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What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby Forest_Dump on October 31st, 2008, 8:09 am 

For any issues and questions raised in the accompanying string, here is the place to post them. I will respond (as time allows). I have a flow of thought in mind for the main thread and I plan for this to include concepts and ideas that will not be too specialised to some of the programatic nature of archaeology (i.e., the technical details) so as to appeal to a broader audience. If there are solid contributions made here and they fit into topics in the flow I have planned, I will transfer them over. If they are solid contributions on something I just haven't gotten to yet, I will wait until appropriate. So:

PLEASE POST ALL COMMENTS, ETC., HERE!
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Postby wolfhnd on October 31st, 2008, 9:20 pm 

Thanks for taking the time to share with us your experience and knowledge Forest. I'm sure that many of us are looking forward to your posts.
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Postby wolfhnd on November 10th, 2008, 10:36 pm 

Forest in reading your posts I get the impression that archeology based on rigorous objective observation is a product of the mid 20th century. Other disciplines were evolving objective standards much earlier. For example Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology" published in 1802 establishing the gradual nature of geological formation, and the use of fossils to distinguish between similar formations shows a rigorous pursuit of a scientific geology early in the 19th century. Surely this must have had some influence on archeology?
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 11th, 2008, 4:11 am 

(In my best Sean Connery voice) Now thats a soup question! And I have to think about it in a couple of ways because I am not sure I was going to give you that answer in future installments (at least directly) and I am not sure what the answer really would be. The answer could be yes, no or is that relevant?

"Rigorous objective observation" could be argued to be earlier in both fields. People were making these kinds of observations earlier in both geology and archaeology. In fact, in archaeology, Jefferson's work in the late 18th century included rigorous recording of stratigraphy including the observation of artifacts, bones, etc., in well measured contexts (with some beautiful surviving paintings). He was also testing a hypothesis regarding the mound builders. But we don't think of him as being an archaeologist or anthropologist, even in a formative kind of way. Relating it to one of my themes so far, we would recognise that he was a technician putting into practice a technological approach. And, in fact, people were certainly measuring, mapping, pulling up ideas, etc., long before. The Romans certainly appear to have followed stratigraphy and the idea of "index fossils" because they were after Greek artifacts and simply figured out what layers to dig in to get them. Does that make it scientific? I am not sure but lean towards no.

In geology, stratigraphy was being observed earlier than Lyell and, in fact, given that stratigraphy was a way of finding economic minerals like coal or gold, may go back very, very early. There were paradigms before (i.e., catastrophism) but, just because they were found to be wrong, does that make them less scientific? If so, then how scientific was Lyell? After all, his first publishing of that book (by the way, I didn't check but that had to be later than 1802 since he wasn't much older, if at all, than Darwin) was before many of the things that were important were known such as Darwin's ideas on coral, which is important in geology (i.e., the formation of limestone), not to mention why index fossils are important (i.e., evolution results in change which is why some fossils are index fossils - because of patterned change), continental drift, etc.

Its a great question, IMHO, because I do think Lyell was a "scientist" but not necessarily because of the use of "rigorous objective observation". In fact, relative to geology, I might be inclined to say that "rigorous objective observation" could be extended back to Australopithecines (or maybe Homo erectus) trying to figure out where to get good rocks to make some of the earliest stone tools. Objective standards, in fact, would count more as good technique or technology long before there was anything we might call science. So, what I think is really in question here is what makes for good science? That, I think becomes the question here.
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 11th, 2008, 11:10 am 

I want to re-emphasise that I think this is an important topic and why. The next segment of my "narrative" actually deals with the scientific revolution in Americanist archaeology but it is one I am stalling a little on because I literally have multiple shelves of books on the topic in my own library, not to mention countless journal articles. The introduction of science was really very dramatic in its impacts at the time as well as in the critiques which in many ways were early post-modernist. However, part of it (the "revolution") was based on extreme positivism with a lot of politics and there are even papers from the 60s and 70s that read like witch hunts out to purge anyone daring to use induction. 50 years later, some of this stuff is almost entertaining. But delving into a lot of this stuff really does require reading broader philosophy of science including Kuhn and Feyerabend and always brings out the question of "just what is science?"

I jumped on the idea of rigorous and objective methods and/or standards as well because, yes, this seems to be part of positivism (i.e., the scientific method as an almost ritualised or religious practice), and therefore integral to science. However, I would say that philosophers of science now would say that that is more of a heuristic in very literal meaning, and should not be rigidly adhered to. I hope it might be sufficient to note that rigorous and objective methods and standards is often considered to be just good business or good technology. That, I hope, should make it clear that even if you agree rigorous and objective standards or methods are an essential component of science, they are not sufficient to define science. Ditto for math or for that matter even experimentation (since I personally have done that in spheres that are definitely not science).

I have to admit that, due to a number of coincidences, this topic has sprung up for me in a lot of different areas. 1) A departmental issue that sprung up on bad past practices. I can't go into details but someone did ask me yesterday if I had something against science to which I had to respond that whatever, had led to "this" was, in my opinion, not science in any way I had ever heard of. 2) I actually have been tinkering with a syllabus on a theory course that explicitly includes looking at science from a cross-cultural and historical perspective. 3) I happened to start reading a very interesting journal article (latest edition of American Antiquity) that deals with this topic although I am not sure that was intended by the author. While I agree with most of it (so far), I recognise that in part this is because the paper follows some of my own biases and prejudices about what science and scholarship should be but that means I also recognise some of the problems in the paper.
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Postby wolfhnd on November 11th, 2008, 6:33 pm 

Thanks for the reply Forest. I now have a better idea of what you meant as far as when archeology as a science may have begun. The what is science discussion has been well covered but never finds a good definition but I can at least see what you mean now.
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 11th, 2008, 7:08 pm 

Yeah, as I said, around 1960 there was a big change in how archaeology was theorised, primarily in the Us but to a lesser degree in Britain. This set of decades of debates, etc., often joined in by philosophers. Part of the "problem" was that this was led by a lot of "alpha" types, there were a lot of jobs that opened in universities plus an expansion in the business of consulting. Among other things, the money flowed because this caught of big wave of science while at the same time the money went more into labour than big expensive machines so there were more people caught up in the wave. But the other real problem was that they had picked up the wrong model of science (positivism) from the hard sciences when they should have looked more at biological sciences. I know a lot of those old guys have finally admitted this mistake but it took decades for them to do so and they all had pretty big egos. Key to this all from the beginning was defining what science was so that archaeology could be argued or made to fit in, whatever it took. But, since there were very few really solid definitions of what science is (and I am not sure if things have actually improved that much), there was (and still is) a lot of debate on the topic. To be honest I am not sure how much of this kind of scrutiny happened in other fields. I had read some interesting stuff about geography because that field had to change in many ways but some of that happened earlier (didn't Harvard actually drop that department in the early 20th century?). I hear bits about evolutionary vs. developmental biology, but not much and it may not be quite the same.
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby jimmy123 on June 11th, 2009, 3:00 am 

Some people perfer collecting facts while others perfer abstract principles that gives structure to the facts. Why do you prefer the former?
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby Forest_Dump on June 11th, 2009, 9:25 am 

Now that is actually an interesting question. First, I would say that this is not necessarily true and I don't think it is true for me. However, maybe some context might help.

100 years ago, anthropology more broadly accepted the idea that there were laws of human nature, etc., and set the goal of identifying those laws. This, of course, was "positivism" and part of the nomothetic kind of thinking. The main theoretical themes of the time were defined in terms of "functionalism" or structural functionalism where all parts of a society from language to the shape of houses were assumed to reflect some central, under-lying thing. The real question was whether the object of study should be the society, which is the people on the ground as it were, or the "culture" which here would be something almost above and outside the people and their actions. The problem was (and is since this debate actually continues) the question of whether something like "culture" really exists because this sets "culture" up as a kind of metaphysical thing that exists independently of people and what they do. Archaeology was a part of anthropology at the time, more completely in some ways, but considered kind of subservient or lesser because it didn't deal directly with people and what they thought and did. Part of this was certainly methodological. Related here was an old bias where archaeologists collected tons of stuff and had to deal with all of that to find the things that might be most informative. And, well people seem to be more fascinated with big flashy things like gold, idols or big buildings, etc. (Again, rhetorically, what interests people more, Egyptian mummies and pyramids or the life of the average Joe in ancient Egypt?) Part was a more theoretical problem (i.e., rhetorically, why would houses or pots be any less of a reflection of society or culture than language or kinship?) And of course, there was certainly plenty of disciplinary bias (still around of course).

To cut to the chase, first I would be very cautious about even suggesting that there are "facts" here or anywhere. "Facts" imply certain things have potentially dangerous implications. I would say that we collect data of certain kinds but exactly what that data tells us and what it can be used for is never really fixed but is very dependent upon the kinds of questions being asked and the kinds of inferences to be generated.

However, the real crux of the matter here is in the question of "abstract principles". If by this you mean something along the lines of "laws of human (or other) nature", then the question really, IMHO, is whether these really exist. Since I am relatively open minded and liberal, I acknowledge that there may be some value to hypothesizing certain potential "abstract principles" and looking for ways of testing that kind of hypothesis.

For myself, however, I believe in a different approach. For me, the question is one of collecting "data" and then trying to figure out what this is data of, i.e., what exactly this data tells us. We do have plenty of cautionary tales, including what post-modernists talk about, that indicate or at least suggest that we don't really know what the "abstract principles" are or should be if they exist (and they may not). In other words, assuming that "abstract principles" exist or that we know what they are (as valid, scientific hypotheses) may be assuming that which should be under investigation. I certainly believe in looking for regularities across time and space and I believe in using multiple kinds of data (i.e., not just archaeological data). However, what I have found is that by taking a closer look at the "data" I can learn different things.

Just by way of example, many people who examine animal bones on an archaeological site use this "data" to talk about diet or perhaps the domestication of animals. Some of these debates are interesting and have their place in addressing some questions. While I do not interfere in these kinds of questions (research agendas), personally I am more interested in the distribution of animal bones across a site because from that I may be able to infer patterns of food sharing form which I might be able to infer social interaction patterns. Or sometimes I am more interested in ritualistic patterns which can include non-food animal remains. Same data, different uses. Thus, I do not really start out trying to look for or test specific "abstract principles"; I prefer to see where the data leads me and look for the unexpected, not just try to confirm or refute my a priori assumptions.
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby jimmy123 on June 11th, 2009, 4:43 pm 

How can data lead you anywhere? There is always interpretations, and theory laddenness. Popper say that observation means very little. It is conjecture that is prior to data. Is it not more important to ask why things are the way they are?
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby Forest_Dump on June 12th, 2009, 5:02 am 

In a sense you are correct. An argument that has been around for quite some time now is that "in theory" one could make an infinite number of observations about something like an artifact (or an animal or plant, etc.) but we can only select certain ones. So the task becomes choosing to select certain specific observations and linking them to some problem we are interested in. Obviously, we need to be careful about how we link observations to whatever it is we are interested in and we need to be looking for independent ways of testing the inferences and analogies we generate. Every bit of the process, however, is questioning why we ask certain questions in the first place because links between the questions we ask and the data or observations we try to make may not be apparent. In my above example, I mentioned animal bone. In an archaeological site it would seem reasonable to examine animal bone because (through analogy) it is usually safe to infer that people eat and ate animals. We might note that we have found tools that, through analogy, we know could have been used to procure (hunt) animals. We can look at the context and condition of the animal bone - is it articulated like an animal that just happened to die there or is there evidence of butchering and cooking? Were the bones recovered from a refuse pit with other garbage or were they in some unusual place (a question from sampling strategy) that could indicate that those specific ones were somehow ritually treated and disposed of without contributing to diet (in which case, we may be able to explore other issues such as ritual and therefore religion, etc.)? Can we find coprolites or trace elements in the human bone to independently support our inferences about diet, etc?
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby SkinWalker on March 27th, 2011, 4:12 pm 

Great story experiences Forest_Dump. I have many experiences also as the one you have just written on the other thread.
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby cantab1956 on August 27th, 2011, 1:05 pm 

I hope they don't do anything...Surely they unearth?
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby Zuice sddiyd on November 17th, 2013, 9:29 am 

would archaeologists have charts of all known ice age seaports/villages or submerged megalith construction (Bimini road, etc)?
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Re: What archaeologists Do: Feedback

Postby Forest_Dump on November 18th, 2013, 12:18 am 

Zuice sddiyd wrote:would archaeologists have charts of all known ice age seaports/villages or submerged megalith construction (Bimini road, etc)?


Well, I try to keep track of late Pleistocene sites in areas of interest to me because I have an interest in those times. But not all are reported for any number of reasons so obviously no one will have records of all the known ones even in areas of interest. "Seaports" are more tricky because as far as I know, during the ice age (Pleistocene), any sea or ocean going vessels were pretty crude and could be launched from a beach. It is possible there were some simple wharves, etc., but these would be wood and wood tends not to last that long except in extremely lucky cases. But it is hypothetical, of course, because most would be submerged and/or probably destroyed by later dredging or construction of later docks, etc. I can't say I have ever heard of any real megalithic constructions that old although I suppose that depends on your definition. Would that include Gobleki Tepi? I might recommend a book called "After the Ice" by S. Mithin for the time periods you are interested in. Can't say off the top of my head I know what this Bimini Road is.
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