Archaeology Beyond Scientific Credibility

Post-modernist hyper-relativism unexpectedly rears its ugly dying head in the form of a call for papers from one Tera Pruitt for the otherwise respectable Archaeological Review from Cambridge. Note the scare quotes around the words truth and valid claims.

Call for Papers (April 2009 Issue)
Beyond the Facts: Invention and Reinvention in Archaeological Practice

The Archaeological Review from Cambridge invites papers on the theme of invention and re-invention in archaeology. The past quarter century has seen a rich academic debate about the nature of archaeological interpretation. Post-modern theories such as constructivism and relativism have encouraged archaeologists to debate the nature of ‘truth’ and to re-evaluate the influence of their own biases and judgments on the past. The topic of invention and reinvention in archaeological methodology has also proved insightful. Experimental archaeological methodologies give a great deal of room for imagination and invention. In archaeological theory and practice, it appears that many 20th century archaeological epistemologies might be ‘reinventions’ of earlier methods used by professionals in the past: archaeologists like Matthew Johnson, for example, have claimed that ‘phenomenology’ may be a ‘reinvented’ tradition from the British Romantic landscape studies. The discipline of archaeology has also promoted better awareness of alternative perspectives on the past, such as the recognition of indigenous values or notions of the sacred; however, lines are still uncertainly drawn between ‘valid’ claims of the past and other, ‘less valid’ fringe theories. In many cases of post-colonial archaeology, post-conflict heritage, or identity studies, the past is a debated realm. Meanings are often constructed, manipulated, invented or re-invented through the use of material culture. Professionals have also been more attentive to the role of the public in propagating myths and folklore, and the relationship between media and pop-culture to professional archaeology.

I trust we’ll never see themed volumes about “Chemistry: Beyond the Facts”, “Botany: Beyond the Facts” or “Musicology: Beyond the Facts”.

In my opinion, archaeology should leave the beyond-the-facts bit to historical novelists. Because if the public gets the impression that archaeologists are just uncommonly boring fiction writers, then our funding will dry up real fast.

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Comments

  1. #1 The Worst of Perth
    February 11, 2008

    Have you dug up any fragments of the True Cross yet? St Paul’s willie?

  2. #2 Abbie
    February 12, 2008

    Woo, we can play the pomo drinking game.

    “epistemologies”
    *drinks*

    “post-colonial”
    *drinks*

  3. #3 Martin R
    February 12, 2008

    WoP. certainly! And two skulls of John the Baptist, one at age 12 and one at age 30.

    Abbie, haha, yeah! And don’t forget “subvert”, “deconstruct” and pointless plurals such as “archaeologies”.

  4. #4 Mattias
    February 12, 2008

    Well, we have largely been spared from ‘Musicology-beyond the facts’, but that is only because many pomo scholars are blissfully ignorant of the interrelation of acoustics, consonance, voice-leading and tonal/modal harmony. In stead they spend their grants finding new “readings”, “takes” and “discourses” in music (I use quotation marks in order to quote, not to question the concepts, as these people otherwise tend to do with “truth” and “data”). The most extreme relativism I have come across is a Swiss scholar using such relativistic quotes around “Quelle” (source), insisting that this very tangible entity is a social construction in the head of the scholar.

    By the way, the most politically correct title for that conference should be: “Beyond the “Facts”: Readings of Invention, Re-invention and Re-re-invention in “Archeological” practice”.

    / Mattias

  5. #5 Martin R
    February 12, 2008

    I wish I could be a hyper-relativist. Then I could just disregard these people as social constructions. Unfortunately, I have to accept that they actually exist.

  6. #6 The Worst of Perth
    February 12, 2008

    I saw a show on tv the other day that had a guy with a leaf blower and a child’s swimming pool showing how a strong wind could have parted the Red Sea for the Jewish people fleeing Egypt, despite no evidence for the parting, or even for the fleeing itself. Is this the sort of thing you mean?

  7. #7 Mattias
    February 13, 2008

    Worst of Perth, I think that is a different issue, since he was merely trying to assess a hypothesis with experiment (the evidence would then be the results of that experiment). Relativism, on the other hand, would be to say that for you the sea may have been parted but for me it may not have been.

    / Mattias

  8. #8 Martin R
    February 13, 2008

    WoP, one way in which hyper-relativism is evil is that it leaves us no way to discount that sort of airy speculation.

  9. #9 Mattias
    February 13, 2008

    What WoP describes is antithetical to relativism – a relativist would allow for “airy speculation”, whereas this is a typical modernist validation of a hypothesis. The construction of a hypothesis can never in itself be relativist, especially not in a situation where the very aim is to have it falsified or verified. One might argue that neither the hypothesis tested nor the circumstances of the experiment has any consequence to normal weather conditions (whereby the experiment would be a waste of time and money), but there is nothing relativist about it.

    You are the modernist, Martin – now it seems that it is I (normally not a friend of enlightenment thought) who find myself defending a modernist epistemological ideal. Or have I misunderstood you completely?

    / Mattias

  10. #10 Martin R
    February 13, 2008

    I meant that WoP:s humorous pool + leaf blower argument would be idle speculation in itself. Also, that any attempt to verify or explain a supernatural story would be mistaken. In order to voice that critique, I have to believe that there are good and bad arguments in science.

  11. #11 Mattias
    February 13, 2008

    There I disagree, Martin – I would sooner describe the situation as a case of right and false (or being and non-being) conditions, rather than good or bad arguments. Arguments belong instead to the method of verification (“arguere”), which certainly can be good or bad.

    Pre-enlightenment science relied, as does most research of today, on speculation for its hypotheses (and often also for its final conclusions). Without these, the validation of facts would of course be static. As an archeologist you decide to dig where you suspect there will be something to find. Whether or not you find something is a validation of that hypothesis. The humourous (if it was) pool experiment validated another such assumption. Both are ‘idle’ in the sense that they are perhaps insufficently informed, but the only way to increase our knowledge (in order to possibly construct less ‘idle’ hypotheses in the future) is to validate the claim. You rely on a certain nexus of sources for experiments (location and excavation) with the second temple quarry, why should not the person WoP mentions rely on it for other experiments. From what WoP has related I seriously question the practical application of that experiment, but not the method itself (even though I am much less an empiricist than you are). Your hypothesis in this case is, may I say it, a shaky one: that there are some things (supernatural) that could not, or should not, be verified. This is a more drastically metaphysical view than that demonstrated in the experiment mentioned by WoP.

    I agree that such falsification/verification is not particularly useful as regards the concept summa of science, but still regard them as good entertainment, as in the cases of James Randi million $ price tests and other experiments in skeptical tradition.

    / Mattias

  12. #12 simple z
    February 13, 2008

    …if only she had given any examples or references of what she means: her point.

    For instincts:
    “Meanings are often constructed, manipulated, invented or re-invented through the use of material culture. Professionals have also been more attentive to the role of the public in propagating myths and folklore, and the relationship between media and pop-culture to professional archaeology.”

    Here i would like a historical example or two.

  13. #13 Karl E. Taylor
    February 14, 2008

    Correct me if I’m wrong here. But since Archeology is a science, I thought it was not looking for truth, but facts.

    Since when has science ever been concerned with ‘truth’?

  14. #14 Martin R
    February 14, 2008

    I don’t understand the distinction. According to a common definition in philosophy, knowledge is a belief that is well-supported and true. Science is about finding good empirical support for beliefs about the real world. It’s always open to re-testing, but solidly supported long-standign scientific knowledge is rarely overturned.

  15. #15 The Worst of Perth
    February 15, 2008

    Well you will have to humour me as a comedian, not a scientist, but I find the blog and the arguments very interesting. I’m still not entirely sure of the distinction. made by Mattias. I thought that the putting up of a hypothesis (leaf blower)with a foundation of zero facts was part of the “alternative perspectives” referred to in the post. I’ll read it all again.

  16. #16 Mattias
    February 15, 2008

    WoP: sorry if I was unclear regarding the relationship of fact and truth.

    Factuality equals established data (a cat crossed the road while I was observing) but not counterfactuality (a dog could have crossed the street before I arrived).

    Truth (a quality of being) is what actually happened, regardless which facts and data were available to me.

    / Mattias

  17. #17 Mattias
    February 15, 2008

    Karl. E. Taylor: your question should rather be put: ‘Since when was science NOT concerned with truth’. Then the answer should be from around the late eighteenth century onwards.

    / Mattias