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The Science of Archaeology

by Ken Dark

The philosophy of history is a long established field, but the philosophy of archaeology (the study of the past through its material rather than written remains) is largely a product of the ‘new archaeology’ revolution in archaeological thought in the 1960s. It was central tenet of the ‘new archaeology’ that the subject is a science, in the same sense as physics or biology.

Archaeology is undeniably multi-faceted. Scholars in this field employ laboratory-based physical, chemical, and biological analyses, alongside those derived from art-history, and other arts subjects. To some scholars, such as Lewis Binford, a leading American archaeologist, this discipline is certainly a science, despite the overlap with arts techniques. To others, such as the British academic David Clarke, archaeology is neither an art nor a science, but a distinct type of subject in itself – “archaeology is archaeology” he claimed. Yet another view is that archaeology is unclassifiable, a position taken in a recent New Scientist article by Sue Anderson. She suggests this is because of the wide range of techniques employed within it.

This debate has raged long, and has been hard fought, in twentieth century archaeology. That it has continued for such a long time, with such vigour, seems to show that this is an important issue to archaeologists. The reasons for its importance are complex, but include questions of research direction, methodology, disciplinary identity, prestige and, of course, as Anderson points out, funding.

Why does it matter whether archaeology is classified as an art, a science, or something different? A simple answer is that the procedure of archaeology, upon which its findings depend, is a product of its self-image. This is because what is considered admissible as evidence, method, and reasoning and the scope and purpose of archaeology that lead to specific questions being examined is a reflection of what archaeologists believe that they are doing. The sort of picture of the past which would be produced by what one scholar recently called an ‘archaeological poetics’ would be very different to that produced if archaeology adopted a specifically scientific selfdefinition.

It is this aspect of the long-standing debate about the character of archaeology that has recently become one of the subject’s greatest controversies. This derives from the emergence of a school of thought proposing that the subject can only proceed in an entirely subjective way, its interpretations untestable. This is in drastic contrast to the mainstream of modern archaeological thought, as it has developed since the 1960s, stressing its scientific character.

So there has come to be a division between those who consider archaeology an explanatory science, capable of producing testable hypotheses (processualists), and those who believe it to be capable only of ‘artistic’, highly subjective, evaluations, or even to be incapable of differentiating between competing hypotheses (the so called post- (or anti-) processualists). Just as processualism is rooted in the scientific aspirations of the ‘new archaeology’ movement, so the post-processualist movement may be seen as a swing away from a scientific identity for archaeology to one as an art, even, as some have claimed, as literature – hence the ‘archaeological poetics’ mentioned above.

Consequently, not only is the character of this discipline an interesting philosophical question, but it is an important current issue in both the philosophy and practice of contemporary archaeology. This question is capable of being approached in two principal ways : by theoretical or philosophical questioning, or comparison between ‘what archaeologists do’ and the practice of ‘certain’ arts, social science and natural science subjects, such as literature, sociology, and physics.

The dividing line between arts and sciences in philosophical terms has been a matter of much debate. It is obviously inappropriate to reiterate or add to this here. A broad and, I hope, generally acceptable view of the contrast between arts and sciences is that sciences are those subjects in which the relative plausibility of rival hypotheses is capable of evaluation by some form of testing, and arts those in which subjective assessments are made. One might go further and claim that all science must be based upon mathematical principles, whereas in arts subjects this is not so.

By such broad definitions, archaeology is, of necessity, a scientific discipline. Data are compared numerically, or in terms of numbers of shared traits, or patterns, all methods ultimately reducible to mathematical terms. Modern archaeological excavation itself constantly uses such methods to evaluate the date and meaning of both artifacts and structures. In this definition archaeology lies separate from literature, in that no mathematical evaluations are commonly used in the assessment of importance or meaning in this subject, except, perhaps, in poetical metrics and grammar.

Using the comparative approach one may observe that archaeological practice, like that of all science, but not that of all arts subjects, involves the systematic collection of information in as objective (or, at least, as comparable) a way as possible. This is usually followed by analysis according to the logical frameworks outlined above. These data, and the results of analysis, are then, properly, disseminated for others to employ.

In terms of location, research in archaeology is usually based in the field, laboratory, or library/study room. The latter characteristic is shared with all academic disciplines; the former two principally belong to the sciences. In terms of ‘hardware’ there is overlap with both arts, even fine art, and laboratory sciences, so this is not particularly useful as a way of deciding whether archaeology is either an art or a science.

Archaeological practice defined in this way thus indicates far greater correlation with the sciences (especially perhaps with ecology and geology) than with the arts. Even archaeological drawing is primarily conducted as part of systematic recording, seeking objectivity, or as part of the analysis of shared traits, or patterns, as mentioned above.

Archaeology then, shares both a theoretical base, and much of its practice, with science but does contain arts elements within that practice. This is not unique among scientific disciplines: take for example botanical illustration as an instance of ‘arts’ methods within a scientific context. Nor is archaeology’s concern with humanity ‘unscientific’, for biology and psychology, let alone medicine, are also so concerned. Archaeology is on these grounds a science, and even if its conclusions are often incapable of mathematical proof, then this is not unique among the sciences. How many of the conclusions of social psychology or ecology have been categorically proved in mathematical terms?

If archaeology is a science, is it a social science? This is a harder question, not least because there seems some dissent over what in theory, rather than in practice, a social science is. Again, discussion of this point is inappropriate here but I would favour a simple ‘science of society’ definition. That is, a science which has as its main goal the understanding of human society; this would include, for example, politics and sociology. Archaeology would not by this definition be a social science, because, although much of archaeology does aim to understand past human society, there are many archaeologists, such as environmental archaeologists, specialists on ancient technology, and on survey techniques (for example, geophysical survey), whose work is both in theory and practice not always primarily aimed at examining human society. That is not to say that specialists in these areas are uninterested in social questions, but that social issues do not form the central theme of all research in these fields. Again archaeology is in a similar position to ecology, which can include studies of society, but need not do so.

Consequently, there would seem a strong case for the classification of archaeology as a science in the same sense as ecology. Although archaeology may include arts or social science aspects it is not unique in this among the sciences. Therefore, a scientific procedure seems not only more appropriate to research in this subject, but more concordant with how that research is in practice conducted. In a sense, however, ‘archaeology is archaeology’, but it is in its database, those techniques specific to it, and in its unique combination of methods deriving from other fields (of whatever character) that archaeology is a discrete discipline, with an independent existence, as much as any other science.

© Kenneth Rainsbury Dark 1991

Ken Dark teaches at Cambridge, has directed a number of archaeological digs and is editor of the Journal of Theoretical Archaeology.

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