In Defence of Archaeology


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.

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  1. #1 Hans Persson
    March 9, 2007

    What is the relationship between the lighter and ballpoint pens with the same logotype?

    They must belong to the same cult, surely?

  2. #2 katherine sharpe
    March 9, 2007

    “Material culture. It’s enough to drive you nuts.”


    It’s hard enough to figure out what things signify when they’re still, you know, actively in use.

  3. #3 Henrik
    March 10, 2007

    “Not only does the lighter pose questions about our notions of “nationality” and “ethnicity” (made in spain, written in english!), but also this find forces us to question the very process of assigning meaning and significance to archaeological finds. What where the religious beliefs of the Ball-Pen Culture? From the different pattern of distribution of ball-pens and lighters, can we readily assume that they were associated with (or perhaps opposed to) the gas-lighter culture? Why do some “penners” and “lighterers” seem to share the same religious beliefs (This is not the place to discuss the meaning of the name BIC, otherwise believed to be an anagram or abbreviation of some kind), while others clearly are not compatible – for this example just consider the famous late 21st cent. “No Smoking” ball pens…”

    (Excerpt from the introduction to “Fire & Ink. Rise and fall of the Ball Pen and Lighter Cultures in 20th century Europe” , Published in New London, 2707 AD).

  4. #4 Martin R
    March 10, 2007

    Haha, yeah! But my point is that you won’t have to wait until AD 2707 to get that kind if writing about cigarette lighters. Nobody understands them very well even now!

  5. #5 Henrik
    March 10, 2007

    Are you implying that a deeper understanding of cigarette lighters is in fact possible?

  6. #6 Martin R
    March 10, 2007

    Why certainly, once you have used one to light a sizeable joint.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    March 10, 2007

    It all depends on the questions that are asked…

  8. #8 Martin R
    March 10, 2007

    True! Without questions, no science. (At the most, you get commentary — such as “deconstruction”.) And when you do search for anwers, they can never get any better than the questions you’ve asked.

  9. #9 RedMolly
    March 13, 2007

    Why certainly, once you have used one to light a sizeable joint.

    *chai snort–ow*

    Is there anything else lighters are good for, really? On the rare (3x/year?) occasions I smoke cigarettes, I light them with matches… but I always seem to keep a lighter or two around.

  10. #10 Hawkeyegirl
    March 14, 2007

    Great post, I’m going to use it as an explaintion every time a family member asks, “What is that you do again? The thing with the dinosaurs?” Or any time someone asks to borrow a lighter, whichever.

  11. #11 Martin R
    March 14, 2007

    Thank ye kindly, miss!

  12. #12 Shoeguyster
    March 14, 2007


    The one and true Bic is Bic The Razur, peace be upon him. He is known by his truncated cruciform blue polymer twin bladed talisman. The apostate “penners” and heathen “lighters” shall surly burn in hell forever.
    There can be no doubt that Bic the Razur, peace be upon him, is the true Bic, and all others are the work of Scripto the dark.

    Pope Stubble IV

  13. #13 Alvaro
    March 14, 2007

    Muy interesante: la escasez de datos empiricos hace que los arquelogos reflexionen y refinen sus hipotesis a menudo. Debe ser bueno para sus cabezas! Pero me sorprende tanto interes en nuestros mecheros…por que no disfruta simplemente el feliz descubrimiento para encender un pitillo y fumar un rato? en fin…

    TRANSLATED. Very interesting: the scarcity of empirical data must make archaeologists very good at reflecting on and refining their hypotheses. Must be good for their brains! But I am a bit surprised on so much interest in our lighters…why don’t they just enjoy the finding and smoke a nice cigarrette? anyways…

    Primitive Spaniard :-)

  14. #14 Martin R
    March 15, 2007

    Shoeguyster: stone him, he said “BIC”!

    Alvaro: I’m afraid that the scarcity of good data make many (butfar from all) archaeologists very good at speculating wildly. Humanities people, no understanding of science.

  15. #15 Alvaro
    March 15, 2007

    “speculating wildly” is part of the scientific process, you mean they don’t then look to falsify their Ho as much as possible? I always assumed archaeologists were scientists at core and by training-having dreamed on becoming one when I was a kid :-)

  16. #16 Martin R
    March 15, 2007

    Since post-modernism came along, many people in the humanities believe that hypothesis testing is just self-delusion, and that the objective of “research” in the humanities is simply to “enrich the source material with new interpretations”. I, for my part, call this an utter pretentious waste of time, and wish that those responsible would all get full-time jobs selling tickets in the subway.

  17. #17 eef
    November 8, 2007

    Thank you for presenting your thought process here — this is the type of information that the public needs to see much more: that is, how archaeologists “do archaeology” (versus what they think archaeologists do: digging up treasures and selling them to museums).

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