Browsing through the reviews section of the current issue of Antiquity, I came across a confusing and irritating piece (behind a paywall) by one Dr. Charlotte Whiting. She works for the Council for British research in the Levant and is based in Amman in Jordan. Her review article treats three recent books on the Iron Age of the southern Levant, in other words, what is commonly known as Biblical archaeology. Though I entered archaeology as a shovel grunt on Tel Hazor in the Galilee, I know very little of this subject. I have read none of the books Whiting discusses; my complaint isn’t about that. What raises my hackles is a series of snarky hyper-relativistic phrases that mark Whiting out as the kind of lingering 1990s post-modernist that is all too common in my discipline. What confused me was that those distasteful soundbites are interleaved with sensible rationalistic arguments that are quite at odds with hyper-relativism.
Many Sb readers, perhaps mainly being interested in the natural sciences and looking at them from a U.S. perspective, may be blissfully ignorant of what “post-modernist hyper-relativism” means. Put briefly, post-modernist sociology of science observed that all science takes place under its own social circumstances, and documented that these circumstances may bias the results, which are thus to some extent relative to the situation where they were produced. I say “may bias” and “to some extent”. The hyper-relativistic wing of this school of thought holds that the results are in fact constructed in and by the situation, and that no objective knowledge whatsoever is attainable. This, if true, would in my opinion be a strong argument for closing down all universities and research institutions. Luckily it is false, as shown for instance by the fact that the computer screen you’re looking at right now actually works.
“Kletter provides an essential volume for allowing historiographical studies of the archaeology of the southern Levant to be undertaken — a crucial step to developing self-reflexive and critical archaeological practice.”
What this means is that Whiting feels that before anyone can do any useful work in the archaeology of an area, there must be comprehensive research into the history of archaeological research there, which has constructed the current consensus in the field. This attitude is typical of post-modernists, who often prefer to study researchers rather than do actual research in a discipline. Of course, such metastudies would be subject to the same relativity as the primary studies the post-modernist aims to deconstruct, which leads to an infinite regression and makes it all a big waste of time.
In my opinion, historiographical studies of archaeological research may offer some value to students of those recent decades under study — but little to help actual archaeology. And I cannot but notice that real historians of science rarely pay any attention to such histories of archaeology: they’re written and read by people trained in archaeology itself as an act of collective in-house navel gazing.
“The importance of the sequences of absolute dates provided by these studies cannot be underestimated. Indeed, they are the crucial first step towards providing a platform from which future scholarship can begin to develop new and alternative interpretations of the south Levantine Iron Age.”
I hardly know where to begin. Dr Whiting, I am confident that south Levantine archaeology knows a lot about the area’s Iron Age. I mean, intelligent scholars have been working there for ages. There can be no need to wipe the slate clean and “begin to develop new and alternative interpretations”. Because, you see, the main task of a scholar is to find out what the world is or has been like. I don’t care if an interpretation is new or alternative: all I want to know is if it is well supported by good data and likely to be correct. There is no value in heaping conflicting interpretations upon the data without weeding out false ones. We are not art critics.
A structural engineer who cannot say if a bridge is likely to survive the weight of a train should not be paid. An ichtyologist who cannot say if a certain fish species likes high salinity should not be paid. An archaeologist who cannot say what life was like a long time ago should not be paid. Because archaeology is not art criticism. It is about a real material record left behind by real people who lived in a single real past.
“Rather than grapple with
the complex methodological and theoretical problems concerning chronology and the way chronological information is used to interpret the archaeological record … many of the articles in this section still uncritically attempt to tie the archaeological record to spot events in recorded history. … Despite new chronological data, many contributions in this volume seem unable to move beyond traditional interpretative methods, resulting in a fruitless quest for the ‘correct’ chronology …”
Good Biblical archaeology, like all historical archaeology, can only be done with the aid of good source criticism. But why on Earth would an archaeologist want to put scare quotes around the word “correct” in relationship to chronology? Every single object we handle has been made, used, modified, deposited, re-deposited and excavated at certain dates. Chronological research aims at finding these dates out — correctly. Without correct chronology, we cannot learn about the actual past. Such research is no more fruitless than any other scientific endeavour where models are gradually improved as new data and methodology become available. We keep learning.
Then suddenly Dr. Whiting snaps out of her po-mo Ms Hyde mode for a while and starts saying eminently sensible things like
“[H]ow can future researchers assess the reliability of the dated samples if their context is not adequately presented to allow an assessment of contextual integrity?”
“The geo-archaeological and chronological investigations of the so-called ‘Negev fortresses’ provide new perspectives on Iron Age activity in this area and offer exciting opportunities for comparison with arid areas in southern Jordan.”
But she descends into buzzwords again, ending with this gem:
“Since the past as presented by archaeologists is created, they present their own versions of the past.”
Since the stars as presented by astronomers are created, they present their own versions of the stars. Since zebra fish as presented by ichtyologists are created, they present their own versions of zebra fish. Since corn as presented by plant geneticists is created, they present their own versions of corn. That, Dr. Whiting, is a platitude and a silly one.
Still, I have hope for Dr. Whiting. She’s a seasoned fieldworker with many apparently quite solid publications to her name. I’m sure she could learn to drop the pretentious anything-goes vocabulary yet retain her solid good sense. Because that other stuff is, like, so 1992. And it’s nonsense.
Update 21 April: Dear Reader Christina suggested that I add a link to a paper on these issues (Eng/Swe versions available) that I published in 1995. Readers with some grasp of Scandinavian may also want to have a look at this other paper of mine from 2005.