What archaeologists Do

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

What archaeologists Do

Postby Forest_Dump on October 31st, 2008, 8:14 am 

There sometimes seems to be confusion regarding what it is the archaeologists do or can do. Quite frankly, aside from the fact that, like many in many fields there are many who are more "self-described" than anything else, there has been about 50 years of debate on this subject from some pretty sharp minds including philosophers of science and from people in various related fields. Within academic archaeology, opinions now vary from vary hard core positivists to absolute relativists and archaeology can be included in disciplines that are relatively hard science to pure humanities. In fact, students often have to make a decision fairly early in their careers as to how they might decide to proceed if they want to do archaeology because sometimes even entry into a specific Master's program can determine everything that follows.

Below I will write a string of a kind of "expert notes" on the subject as I have time. Since I don't have time to fully develope a complete text, I will have to go fairly slow but I want to retain a coherent flow as I go. Accordingly:

DO NOT ADD POSTS TO THIS STRING!

Comments, feedback. discussion and debate are definitely welcome but to retain coherence to this specific string, I will "sticky" a separate thread for this purpose. And maybe add more as and if required. But any additions here will be relocated as soon as I see them - the iron fist will be active here. I will respond to posts on the feedback thread, of course. Some may be good but out of order in which case I do not want to break the flow of this thread. Debate, discussion, requests for more, etc., will first be handled there. If there are solid contributions made there and they fit into the flow of what has been posted, I will transfer it over where I see fit. I fully expect and hope there will be some solid debate including tangents but this string will be tightly managed to prevent that.
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 1st, 2008, 10:27 am 

Archaeology, of course, has a lot of different definitions but usually revolves around the systematic study of things for the purpose of learning something about the past. This kind of practice goes back quite a bit into history and prehistory. I have, at times, found that sometimes in a well-defined prehistoric context, people had collected artifacts from earlier horizons and kept them. This can be most obvious in well dated burials that might have older artifacts or even fossils in them that, if excavated and documented well, can be argued to be deliberate inclusions and not just part of the fill.

I am being careful with my wording here because, based on our own history, we can't be sure just what kind of "past" these people had in mind. In many parts of Europe, for example, artifacts casually collected were described as having been made by fairies and other non-humans and even "thunder stones" which can literally mean the products of things like lightening strikes. I can say that there are people today who have ideas like this and, while these people may be "oddities" in themselves, it immediately brings into question whether, when people collect or collected these things, they recognised that these were the products of people or people like themselves. And, ultimately, as I hope to show, these kinds of questions influenced what kinds of questions, if any, were being addressed.

We do know that relatively early in historic times, some peoples did recognise connections to the past. Through recent excavations, etc., we now know that many modern cities were built in places that have considerable antiquity and had been occupied for very long periods of time. Whether London, England, or Jericho, some places with a long history also have a long prehistory of being specific places that people occupied. These might have been places with strategic resources like wells or they might have been places that became recognised for more symbolic reasons such as burial grounds that became special as centres of territories, etc. And of course, one could easily have changed into another and changes could continue as original meanings were lost or changed.

In some ways, the Romans include some of the earliest "archaeologists" because we know they deliberately went out and collected certain kinds of artifacts for a very specific set of purposes. In fact, we know that the Romans went out and collected statues, etc., from Greek sites and there are even cases of Roman sites that appear to have been the first antiquities dealers in that Greek artifacts were collected and sold. However, we know that the Romans had some very specific ideas in mind when they did this collecting. The Romans believed themselves to be the natural inheritors of the world from the Greeks and, in fact, appear to have modeled themselves on the Greeks in many ways. For the Romans, collecting Greek artifacts served a number of purposes. Certainly there was 'status' and aesthetic value in the objects collected. They did also learn from the stuff collected. But a very important point here is that the Romans did not collect stuff willy-nilly. They targeted specific kinds of artifacts whose specific aesthetic values they understood and agreed with and used these as a basis for continuing and advancing their own culture and values. Bringing home the finer statues, etc., served as a kind of legitimisation in that these trophies served as connections to the past and demonstrated that the Romans were the rightful inheritors of the world from the Greeks.

Here is where we find the first real kind of "archaeology" which is often called "classical" archaeology. This does go back to the Romans (at least) and, at its most benign, includes the study of statues, monuments, etc., for their aesthetic values. To this day, this kind of archaeology can be found within or associated with art and art appreciation, etc. Hence, the Roman's collecting of objects of relatively high aesthetic value from archaeological sites continues in many of the better museums where they can be appreciated and studied.

I want to make a couple of points here. First, not everybody in the world did or does this. While many people recognise connections to the past and objects created in the past, not everybody collects these objects. Sometimes, in prehistoric contexts, we see that objects from the past were collected and deliberately placed in burials, etc., but we can't always be sure why. On occasion we do see that older objects were collected and put to practical use such as reshaping a piece of flint or chert for use as a tool. But sometimes we can say these objects were put into things like medicine bundles where they would have had some other kind of value such as some kind of symbolic or magical power that could be manipulated in various ways by the owner. This, I would argue, is not that much different than what the Romans did and is not much different than the collection of high art from the past and storing and displaying of it in a museum, etc. In fact, the collection of objects like this and returning them to a central place for display, appreciation and study is, if you will, highly statistically correlated, and in fact specific to, societies that go out and conquer the world in some ways. Connections to the medicine bundles are perhaps subtle but there. The objects are seen to have some value that can be manipulated in some way for the benefit of those who possess them. Up into the early 20th century, these ideas in fact were expressed fairly obviously. Museums, scientific expositions, etc., came with labels, etc., that announced that what was to be seen were from all over the Empire and usually were described as being the "treasures" perhaps collected from around the empire. These treasures might demonstrate the legitimacy of the empire as having inherited the right to own their own past or the power of the empire in owning the past of the colonies. This idea even comes out in things like Orwell's "1984" where whoever owns and controls the past, controls the future.

It is, in fact, a common theme in politics, religion, philosophy and science. Whether claiming to hold the fundamentally correct interpretation of the Bible, Torah, etc., to know what the founding fathers had in mind, to offer the best interpretation of Plato or Nietzche, or name the most powerful explanatory theory in science after Darwin, links to the past are a means of legitimising the present and attempting to control the future.

The other point is that "context" is not that important. The objects of value and interest did not need to be seen in the context of their original settings and certainly there was minimal or no concern for what those people saw or thought. On the contrary, many of the places targeted were the palaces, public places, etc., where these great things were concentrated, often for some kinds of public display. So bringing the Elgin marbles to a British museum was not wrong in any way (despite what the locals thought). The British Museum conquered that area and had every right to bring those things back as part of their own heritage. They won and bringing back the spoils is simply part of the rights of the conquerer. What can possibly be more natural than that? The Parthenon was an area of public display that showed the triumph of Greece. But that was then. London triumphed in a seemingly clear cut evolutionary way so the rightful way to demonstrate this is to take those thing prized by the victors and move them to a new Parthenon - the British Museum (well with some other treasures in various palaces, etc.). Context doesn't matter because really the context has not changed, just the names and places of the empire. So the context has not changed. As the Greeks became the Romans, so did the Romans become the British. And on it goes. In fact, do we not continue this with slogans like "E pluribus union" and a (perhaps former) belief that a mastery of Greek or Latin connotes education when in reference to the languages of past empires? The context is actually created in this way. You don't go around wearing togas (except perhaps in a Yale kegger) but a mastery of Greek or Latin brings this connection along. You don't need to worry about context because there is never a question about whether or not you can see the world through their eyes. You are they by inheritance so, de facto, you see the world through their eyes. Therefore, your own judgement that everything else is unimportant is immediately justified.

Archaeology in Europe developed this way. There are some important differences with "Americanist" archaeology which I will get to but a key is that European archaeology was always seen as an adjunct to the study of history even when that history was not yet recorded (i.e., prehistory). So, even in France today, there is a belief that learning some of the peculiarities of Paleolithic blade technology in French cave sites can reveal the true mind of the French man (as in Leroi-Gourhan's quip about the slight twist to the left in blades and blade cores). European archaeology was always focused more on the march or progress towards whoever or whatever they were now. The study of the past was always in part about showing how "we" were always meant to be the masters of our domain, etc. (with apologies to the appropriate sit-com).

The development of archaeology certainly follows other themes in history as well. The raiding of tombs and barrows, etc., was certainly done, when possible, for the wealth in gold and jewels, etc., to be found within them. But through time, there was also some attention given to the "great men" (warriors, chiefs or kings) within them. History was first about "great men" whether this be in the legends of Gilgamesh, the writings of Homer or the early parts of the Bible. Even the diggings of Schliemann were more about the treasures of Priam than about mere gold and certainly not about the mere citizens of Troy. Egyptology was always about the Pharoahs although perhaps the more famous ones like Cleopatra or perhaps with a connection to Moses, not about the common Egyptians (and definitely not about the slaves). It was the "great men" that mattered because they were not ordinary but somehow imbued with the divine right to rule. By understanding the "great men" and what made them special, perhaps this key ingredient could be captured and used to justify actions of the day. It becomes a little odd, in some ways, that even with the rise of liberalism and the decline in the belief that this something special was inherited directly, there was (and still is) a belief that there are certain special people who are somehow a little more than the rest. Many do certainly still believe that there are certain special men (usually, and defined as the "alpha male") who have inherited something important that sets them apart from their times. It is not so much a question of accuracy as it is of emphasis that we still see the important things as being a product of "big or great men" rather than something that happened in the context of the times. The list of great men is very long and includes the kings, philosophers, industrialists, scientists, heros and villains who made history, not everything else that happened around them. But the past in European archaeology grew out of this concern for individuals and the achievements or mistakes they made and was always about making these connections to "us" in the present. And there was always a theme about legitimising the present through connections to the past whether showing how we came to be or showing how and why we should control the present and future.

In future installments, I will show how "Americanist" archaeology differs in some ways and in particular where the science begins to come in. European archaeology stills has an influence, of course, but Americanist archaeology has some differences in that there was a recognition that this kind of archaeology, while perhaps still colonial, was more about other people who were not as easily understood. Science came into this kind of archaeology because the direct historical connection was recognised to not be there so it was theoretically possible, and in fact to some degree required, to accept that we may not fully understand these other people. If they are not like us, then it becomes more difficult to say that we can see and understand the world through their eyes. But recognising this also makes it easier to step outside their world view and therefore be more objective because this historical connection cannot just be assumed. Of course, if "they" are not like "us", this also works to retain this idea of important differences which may (and did) include the belief that we can and should control them in some ways. They may have had great men and built great monuments, etc., but they were never really quite like us. In fact, well into the 19th (and to a lesser degree the 20th) century, many believed that the great monuments of North America simply could not have been the products of the natives. And, of course, similar "anti-canonical" ideas (and conspiracy theories) continue with places like Greater Zimbabwe.
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 9th, 2008, 10:01 am 

Okay, European archaeology was seen as being an extension of history and developed along a line that could be described as trying to learn "how we came to be". Techniques like following stratigraphy were developed but the focus of attention was primarily on big, splashy sites like big caves for the earliest times or monumental sites for later. The focus, in many ways, was on the "big men" of the times and looking at how they shaped history. Since it was always taken for granted that they could be understood on the basis of surviving historical documents (like Homer's books), theoretical concerns were mostly programatic. The observation of stratigraphy, of course, was important as with similar concerns for field work (e.g. Flinders-Petrie). Classification was developed, starting with the Three Age system (e.g., Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages). The intent here was to be able to extrapolate from areas or regions that were well known to those that were not. Since in almost all of these areas the full sweep of history was well known, the goals were being able to determine how events in "important" areas may have influenced other areas ruled by lesser men. In fact, given that history had revealed that Europe in particular had long experienced waves of conquering armies washing across it since history began, the idea of things like independent invention was not considered important. Instead, "hyper-diffusion" ruled the day with the idea that all important inventions occurred in one place, under the inspiration of one man, and was spread about, usually on the heels of a conquering army.

Of course, much of this was influenced by various "ethnocentric" ideas as well as religious beliefs. So, on the one hand you had this idea that Europe was the center of cultural evolution ever climbing higher towards some kind of perfection. The benefits of this higher form of civilization was spread by way of conquest and colonialism which was, if you will, part of the "white man's burden". However, while there was a belief in evolution and progress as exemplified by the expanding European empires and colonies, there was also somewhat of a trend of decline. The "great men" or culture heros of the past were greater men because they were closer to creation, etc., and thus stood out more from their times, were of greater stature, lived longer, etc. As we (should) know, these great men lived lives that spanned centuries and as individuals set the course of history. Even those who were more of "bad guys" were greater than the average person of the times and stood out more. In fact, explaining some aspects of the emerging archaeological record as being the product of fantastic monsters and demons was not only not problematic but to be expected.

Obviously, the development of American archaeology initially followed some of these main themes but with a couple of important provisions. First, there was this problem of the native peoples of the New World. Initially, there were questions about whether these could be considered fully human. This was a concern because even back in the day of expanding empires, there was some concern for how these people, if they were people, should be treated. Their lands were being taken and there was always some concern over the justification for that as well as their treatment as slaves/property, etc. The Catholic Church made an important, and controversial, decision to regard them as being human, at least in some areas. This was the rationalisation for attempts at conversion and establishing missions among the savages but the thrust, in hind sight, cannot be considered without some self-serving motivations. Converted natives, being Christians, could (and would, by force) tithe. Protestants, particularly those without a centralised church, were not so encumbered. Where native people were encountered they could be used without concern or simply slaughtered and/or driven away so as to make room for progress. There were questions about where these peoples came from, given the Biblical account of creation, etc., but these were fairly minor concerns at first and it was held possible that they were simply the products of separate creations, perhaps even Satan making a mockery of the true creation. Some, like the Mormons, thought these might be one of the lost tribes of Israel and/or pointed to the Tower of Babel, the lost continent of Atlantis, etc.

As colonisation spread from the eastern seaboard, however, stories of lost civilisations began to spread. Certainly great cities with wealth and gold, etc., were known from the times of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Incas but these were thought to be isolated. However, lost cities such as Cahokia were chanced upon (still occupied, in fact) and even more common were mounds and tumuli. Some were dug into initially with the hopes of finding treasure but also with the intent of finding out who built these things (one example being Thomas Jefferson). At the time, the American colonies were moving westward and native peoples were simply in the way. There were some moral concerns and these would not be eased by believing that native peoples would be capable of making the progress towards civilisation on their own. Instead, throughout North America, it was argued that these mounds, etc., had been constructed by a now extinct race, literally the Mound Builders, who had vanished, probably after being exterminated by the savages much like the Romans had fallen. Aiding these interpretations were stories of giants, etc., being found in these mounds which, in turn, seemed to support the idea that the extinct Mound Builders might be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, etc., which would explain their size and advanced civilisation. In some ways, the colonists could feel justification, then, for exacting revenge on the savages who had exterminated the Mound Builders.

By the early 19th century, enough of the US east of the Mississippi had been explored that mounds, many excavated and others removed to clear the land, were relatively well known but there was continued debate as to who built them. As part of the stock taking of the newly opening country, the government did sanction various surveys, etc., that included settling the Mound Builder question. In fact, by the late 18th century, some were even being developed as tourist attractions. By the mid 19th century, the distributions of these were documented throughout the eastern US and enough was known from deliberate and/or accidental exposure of the contents to start concluding that (in fact following Jefferson) these were the products of Native American Indians.

Oddly (?), however, many continue to believe in in some of the older stories of lost races, etc., or even contacts with the civilisations of the Old World. "Anti-canonical" types persist in looking for evidence of contacts with Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Vikings, Israelites, etc., to explain the development of more complex societies or metal working (e.g., the wide spread use of native copper, etc.). In part this can be explained as racism and justification for colonial advancement (i.e., the natives were not advanced enough to be on the road to progress and civilisation on their own), of course, but in part this is also the hyper-diffusion referred to above. In fact, it is still common to refer to the existence of "giants", etc., from burials as evidence of at least some natives being closer to the age of heroes, in a sense, stuck in a kind of back-water. This actually came about in a weird kind of way in that, at the time of early exploration, there was also, in some quarters, increasing discontent with Europe. Some of this discontent was expressed by critics of European culture through reference to the idea of the nobel savage (e.g., Voltaire and his "L'Ingenue" are a great example). As these people were closer to nature and living in something closer to a Garden of Eden, they were more free of the corruption that accompanied civilisation and were more pure of heart and mind, etc., and being less corrupt, were bigger, healthier, etc. In fact, these ideas were part of the boost to colonialism because this idea of expanding out into the frontiers, often creating utopian societies in the process, became part of the ethos. Expanding beyond the corruption of civilisation, which included the corruptions of politics and religion as well and the growing corruption of technologies that seemed to be enslaving many, were "character building". Frontiersmen, explorers and other "rugged individualists" were those who put civilisation behind them and went out to explore an unconquered and unclaimed land (ultimately, of course, for the growing empires - further colonists and ultimately railroads, etc., simply followed them out there, usually spurred by claims of wealth, etc., to be found for the daring few). This was and remains a large part of the ethos of the New World where heroes became larger than life and models for what the rugged individual could do with his own hands.

A key point to my account here is that, as far as archaeology goes, there developed a growing awareness that the archaeology of the New World was not the product of our own history. Initially, the people out there had to be placed in common trends and themes but as documentation, etc., continued, this became less possible. As the new nation expanded, furthermore, living peoples had to be taken into account and used or disposed of in some way. But not all the people encountered could be routinely dismissed as being inferior, etc. In fact, in some ways, as colonisation advanced, it was found that many had to be emulated in some ways if the colonials were to survive out in the wilds. New themes, often requiring some slight modifications of history, were developed to aid the spread of colonial powers. For example, frontier societies were relatively isolated and, if the pioneers, etc., were to survive and contribute to the growing country, they needed to get along and become somewhat independent. They quickly needed to become like the natives in order to survive on their own. Stories of frontiersmen living among and learning from the natives were augmented by historical revisions like the "first thanksgiving" to demonstrate that, to survive, sharing like the natives did, was necessary. But white men could do it better without giving up their individualism.

Of course, by the mid 19th century when the push west really began and particularly after the Civil War, science was also really starting to take off in Europe. Wars, while not gone from the scene, were in many ways on the decline as major local factors and were mostly in more distant places. The British Empire was in full bloom and the American Empire was growing quickly and much of the effort was now devoted to taking stock and consolidating. As part of this was Darwin's explorations and thinking as well as Marx and Spencer who argued for unilinear ideas of the evolution of society. In many ways, of course, this played on the accepted theme of Europe or European society rightfully controlling the world. Science was seen as beginning to make contributions in some ways but the real indicator was more in the realm of technology. Technology, most often ahead of science, was the result of geniuses tackling problems on their own to make the great advances necessary so it was only natural that marking the the progress of civilisation would best be done by looking at technology. So, by the late 19th century and into the 20th century, even in archaeology, the concern was in the technology. The archaeology of the times, particularly in North America, paid little attention to the concept of progress within native cultures and societies (in fact, there was considerable debate as to whether any kind of "progress" ever occurred there until the appearance of white men) and observed societies could be ranked by their technology according to where on the ladder of progress they had stopped. "They" were (and unfortunately often still are) considered in many ways to be like living fossils. In the early stages of colonialism, they were to be emulated but as the civilisation of these regions quickly progressed, white men could and would rapidly move on past those stages. Real science as anything of practical value did not really kick in until the 20th century.
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Postby Forest_Dump on November 10th, 2008, 12:05 pm 

Above I have tried to give a sense of how archaeology developed up to the end of the 19th century. In Europe, archaeology was an outgrowth of history and history can be considered ambiguous in orientation in that, at various times, it has been used implicitly or explicitly to serve various functions. There have been times when arguments were made that history is or should be objective in some way (and somehow). But we also, at least now, recognise certain cliches such as history is written by the winners or history is "his story", etc. We do know that history was largely written by a very few, because very few could read or write until recently. And history was written for very few because the costs of obtaining written histories as books, etc., was very high. And historians were a select few who could afford some education as well as generally being in the employ of someone (or a group) who might have a stake is what was written and why. Archaeology was a little different in that it looked at things other than written documents, primarily large monumental architecture but also some finer forms of art, etc., but these were often on display for specific purposes but these were again often for the purposes of displaying the glory of the empire including its own direct history or more like trophies from colonised lands.

In North America, things more or less followed the European ideas but with some differences. There was a slowly growing awareness that the peoples being studied were not part of the history of the people doing the studying and, in fact, may in some ways be very "alien" and difficult to understand. Archaeology, in other words, about other people, and therefore more closely related to anthropology, and not about history. And, in fact, some could describe it as being about people who were not believed to have a history, at least in the traditional recorded sense. Fairly early in the development of archaeology in North America there was some interest in trying to explain some archaeological remains in terms of European history (e.g., identifying groups from Europe or Asia, etc., in the New World) but, with some relatively insignificant exceptions, by the time the myths of the Mound Builders has been refuted, it was accepted that the New World was relatively independent of the Old World and had its own unique past.

Additionally, and this too is important, there were some significant differences in values. Europe still had a lot of aristocracy, etc., (.e., old money) with tastes in high art or culture, broadly defined. Up until the end of the 19th century, this "high culture" could be argued to include science as we now refer to it. On the other hand, in North America, there was more suspicion about "elitist" interests and values were more on the pragmatic development of technology, particularly for economic purposes. I bring this up because there was a huge and important change in archaeology, specifically North American archaeology, that happened in the 1960s. This was the explicit change brought about by trying to make archaeology a science. However, to understand this, we need to look at what science was or became in the first half of the 20th century. The important point to note here is that science did not always have to same value to society that it now has and, in North America, science really only became of value during the Cold War.

Science in Europe does have more history, of course, but for the most part, it was largely the pursuit of those who didn't really have to work for a living. In fact, most science really considered almost a lesser pursuit without the intellectual appeal of some of the higher arts and sometimes held in suspicion of being too much influenced by the more crass and commercial field of technology. But science didn't really influence technology all that much.

For this, I would recommend taking a look at George Basalla's "The Evolution of Technology" where I get a lot of the following. Basalla certainly notes that the evolution of technology in North America was at least on a par with European technology and in both places were of great economic (and therefore, political, etc.) importance. However, it is important to know that technology was rarely "theory" driven but was about tinkering with things to serve largely pragmatic ends. Some important examples are worth considering. For example, a very important technological innovation was Thomas Edison's electrical lighting system. However, when constructing this, Edison did not model it on a real development of electrical lighting at the time. Instead he modeled it on, and basically copied, the gas lighting system. More to the point, it is debatable whether Thomas Newcomen got much inspiration from experiments on vacuums in inventing his steam engine but certainly Denis Papin's experiments with pistons, etc., were not driven to solve any pragmatic problems and his pistons to create vacuums were very simplistic and were not that much help in creating an engine. The real innovations here were almost purely in the technological tinkering to solve pragmatic (economic) problems (i.e., draining water from mines). Perhaps more to the point, while James Maxwell's work was important in the development of radio communications, he was not impressed by Bell's work (and was actually disappointed when he saw it). Furthermore, while there was a lot of experimentation with electrical waves, wireless communication, as developed by Marconi, was the product of tinkering with antennas and transmitting over the curvature of the earth, far ahead of what science was even beginning to grapple with at any theoretical level. While technology certainly took from science to some degree, technology was definitely not dependent upon science in any appreciable way and it would be far more accurate to say that science was more commonly following technology. The "theory" was more along the lines of "I wonder why that happens?" It wasn't really until the late 19th century in the development of chemistry and, to a lesser degree physics, primarily in Germany, that theoretical or experimental science had much impact on technology in a systematic way.

Of course, the benefits of science began to be seen in the development of the chemical industry, etc., but still it was the pragmatic concerns that drove science. Even with the development of the atomic bomb, it was the weapons application that was of paramount importance, particularly during and after WW2. In fact, what launched North American concerns about science was the launch of Sputnik in 1957 which (politically) demonstrated that the US was behind in the development of science and technology. This led to a large political emphasis being given to science and education in the hopes of catching up. And following by only a couple of years, archaeology experienced its own "revolution" in bringing science into the theory.
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