Monthly Archives: July 2009

Is it ok for Archaeologist to Blame their Tools?

I was listening to episode 206 of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recently and guest Dr. Richard Prum who was interviewed in that episodes said this:

…I discovered a fantastic quote by Thomas Kuhn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and kuhn was trying to define science in a modern and also cultural context; how does science progres, how are hypotheses tested by groups of real flesh and blood people arguing over ideas, and in that he has this fantastic quote where he says, “The man who rejects one hypothesis without simultaneously proposing an alternative is rejecting science itself.” The quote goes on, “He will be known to his colleagues as the carpenter who blames his tools”…

He was speaking about the evolution of birds and the scientists who claim that the evolution of birds can’t be determined (listen to the interview if you want to understand better). Dr. Prum was saying that these scientist rejected the evidence that birds evolved from theropods (dinosaurs) without any other alternative possibility for how they evolved and thus had no evidence that the hypothesis was wrong. This got me thinking about archaeology.

It seems that I have at least on occasion rejected hypotheses and not had a hypothesis of my own to propose. though I’m not sure if I can name any particular time. The thing that comes to mind is from a discussion I had on the last day of excavation at Angle Mounds this summer. A few of us were sitting around a table discussing the feature we had been excavating. I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but we were discussing some peculiarity of the feature and throwing around ideas for why it was this way. One person suggested that perhaps the occupants of the structure (though as far as I know there is no evidence that it was a house) were high class and that is why there is this oddity. My immediate response was “then why didn’t they live on a mound?” I almost instantly rejected her hypothesis because I did not believe that the evidence corroborated with it. But did I present an alternative? I suppose it is a given if I think they were not high class then they must have been low or middle class, but this did not explain the anomaly. So I am not sure that I did give an alternative hypothesis, but I do feel that I was correct in rejecting her hypothesis. I think this may be a bad example, but it is the one I have.

Can Archaeologist blame their tools? Can we there is no way for Archaeology to provide the answers to this question? I am quite interested in archaeological theory and I love to think about these kind of questions. What do you think of this?

I meant to include a bit more, but forgot about it half way threw so I’m going to write it here now. This kind of questions interests me because I feel that archaeology is a science and should be treated as one. Archaeologist should try to adhere to the scientific method as much as possible and any stray from it increases the odds of producing bad archaeology. Of course due to the nature of archaeology it is hard to follow it exactly If only disciplines which stricktly ahdered to the scientific method could be called science then only the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, and chemistry, (and some would suggest biology). I think it is ok to bend the rules to fit what you are studying as long as you do it with the knowledge that you are bending and you try to keep the same mind set. . But how much is too much? where can we draw the line? how do we decide what is an acceptable stray from the normal scientific method and what brings archaeology to be a pseudo-science?

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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Archaeology


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Archaeology is an entertainment business

I was having a conversation with an econ major friend of mine (something I wouldn’t recommend one do too often ;)) about the purpose of archaeology a few weeks as of this posting; so my memory is a bit faulty so I can’t go into details of the conversation. However I do remember thinking that my friend did not seem to think that archaeology was something that really advance society like engineering (or I guess economics) does. This is not to say that he claimed that archaeology was pointless, just that it serves a different role than other sciences. particularly the role he seemed to ascribe to archaeology was a role of entertainment (I’m pretty sure he didn’t use the word entertainment, but I can’t really recall). At the time I took this to mean entertainment for the archaeologist, which of course I saw as a selfish act. Being an archaeology Major I felt a need to defend myself and my discipline. So I mentioned an article I had read in the July/August 2008 issue of Archaeology called “Amazonian Harvest” (link not the full article, unfortunately) which disused research a Mr. Clark Erickson had been doing in the Amazon. In the research Mr. Erickson discovered a farming method used by ancient people which was far superior to the one the current population of the area use. Here are some results of archaeology which have/may/could directly improve the lives of people all over the world. It is this that makes this article one of my favourite I have ever read and is why I always keep it in my memory. My friend indicated that this research was useful and the conversation ended, but I have been thinking about what he said since.

I have for some time pondered the purpose/social benefits of archaeology and generally came to the conclusion that it was beneficial for things like the aforementioned article and to add knowledge of the past which may help people of the present understand the world we live in and make more informed decisions. While I still think that this should be a key part of archaeology, after thinking about what my friend has said, and a few off hand comments a few professors have made, I have come to the conclusion that archaeology is really primarily an entertainment business. For the most part archaeology is done for other archaeologist. Research is published for the use of other archaeologist doing more research. However, this doesn’t really fund archaeologist. Archaeology is mostly funded by government, or local people who are proud of their local archaeology/history. So Archaeology is funded by people who are not consuming archaeological research and are not benefiting very much. When archaeologists do try to involve non-archaeologists it is normally as an attempt to educate them about their research. Under this model archaeology’s purpose is to produce more archaeology for the sake of archaeologists. I am proposing that this model is not correct; that archaeology should go further. Archaeology should see itself as an entertainment business. The same level of academics would have to be achieved or the result would be bad science of course, but the difference should be in the presentation to the public. Instead of educating the public archaeologists should be trying to entertain the public, which education as a by product.

I suppose you could argue that the history channel or the discovery channel are attempting to do this. but there is one major difference in what I am saying. I’m saying archaeologists should do good archaeology and then present it to the public, who pay for it, as a form of entertainment, as is the history channel or the discovery channel just play inaccurate crap that gets good ratings.

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Posted by on July 16, 2009 in Archaeology


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