Somebody once said to me, “You archaeologists don’t really know anything, do you? I mean, it’s just guesses, right?”. Well, sometimes I do despair about archaeology as a science. Can we actually know anything about what life was like for people in the deep past? Are we doing science at all or just deluding ourselves? But I always pick myself up pretty quickly.
First, I remind myself that all science is a muddled process where we grope laboriously toward solid knowledge and often have to make detours. If archaeology isn’t always very good science, then at least it’s not alone in this.
Then there’s the issue of timeless science, such as physics, versus retrospective science, such as palaeontology and geology and archaeology. It’s true, we can’t observe the people we want to get to know — only a highly incomplete set of traces and remains with an uncertain relationship to the original situation. But that’s the same with retrospective natural sciences. Nobody alive has actually ever seen a trilobite or an Ice Age. And physicists do ponder the Big Bang. Science is equally about what the world is like and what it has been like.
But the thought that really cheers me is that although archaeology may not always understand societies of the past very well, it wouldn’t actually be much easier if we had time machines. Because who really understands today’s societies in all their multifaceted kaleidoscopism? Social anthropology and sociology have huge problems in getting any perspective on what’s going on. Sure, they can talk to the people whose lives they want to learn about. But they can never be sure whether their informants are telling the truth, whether they actually have the knowledge necessary to answer the questions of social scientists, or if the sample of people they talk to is really representative of the group they aim at.
Look at the artefact in the pic above. I found it on top of a roadside snow drift the other day. Its date of deposition is thus clear: days ago. This is a common object type in the culture of which I am a native. I know its purpose and uses, and I have a fairly good handle on its semiotics and social context. But still there are so many questions I can’t answer about it. If my find had been buried in situ by stratification and unearthed 1000 years from now by an archaeologist, it would not have become much harder over time to establish
- Who owned this lighter?
- Why did they deposit it right there?
- What is the significance of the fact that it’s still got plenty of lighter fluid inside it?
But it’s sure going to make a neat find one day: mass-produced from foreign materials, and carrying inscriptions: “made in Spain”, “BIC”, “G 7”, “3 9”, “58 B4”, and repeatedly a tiny picture of a man with a spherical head.
Why isn’t the “made in” inscription in Spanish? What is the relationship between the lighter and ballpoint pens with the same logotype? What do the figures mean? Why is it orange?
Material culture. It’s enough to drive you nuts.