Archaeology, it’s a science… honest!

I’ve just finished my second year of studying archaeology at the University of Glasgow and have been quite amused by the conflict between those that see archaeology purely as a science and those who see it as an entirely subjective enterprise, more so even than the other ‘soft’ sciences. A conflict that can be seen illustrated with considerable venom on Geoff Carter’s blog. The root of this conflict is the perception of some that archaeology, or any other discipline, is only one or the other. A ‘hard’ empirical practice on the one hand or a ‘soft’ discipline subject to the whims of human subjectivity on the other.

I personally feel that few archaeologists fall into the neat either/or mindset but this view does seem to permeate a lot of the literature on archaeological theory. As I said in a piece of work this last semester.

The majority of archaeologists are nowhere near these extremes but [neither do they] sit squarely in the middle influenced equally by all archaeological theory that has gone before. It is possible for an individual to hold multiple ideas that are each influenced more by one extreme or another.

As should be clear I believe that archaeology is a discipline that relies upon both the empirical data gathering of the hard sciences and the more subjective interpretation based disciplines in the social, or soft, sciences. Acknowledging  that whatever research or activities in which humans participate are subject to influences that vary depending upon many social contexts is a prime step towards being able to mitigate those influences and ensure that our interpretation of data is as accurate as can be.

Whilst this can open the doors to all manner of post-modern arguments about equal validity of interpretations(sorry but that’s utter mince), what it does not do is allow for rationality to be wholesale abandoned with the adoption of whatever flight of fancy woo woo b/s takes your fancy. Simply acknowledging that our interpretation of a site/find is a highly subjective one and therefore being open to other interpretations does not mean that the Nazca Lines could be equally as much graffiti painted by space aliens as they could be markings of religious rituals from a culture steeped in shamanistic animism. Erich von Däniken is not a reliable source of information…

Of the many facets of the archaeological discipline one of the areas I thought that should be immune from the influence of wonky thinking is the application of scientific methods in field survey. Obviously where, when and what is surveyed prone to subjectivity but the actual technologies used should be fairly immune to idiotic influence. Imagine then how shocked I was when reading a book, recommended by my department, on excavation by University of York lecturer Steve Roskams that includes these doozies.

[Discussing remote sensing in survey work]

Various other methods of ground-based remote sensing have been utilised in archaeological field work. For present purposes, it is useful to mention dowsing which is probably the most debateable and has the longest history […] Exactly how dowsing works is unclear(indeed, some would maintain that it has not been scientifically demonstrated to do so), though the existence of magnetic material in the front of human skulls, as is known from other vertebrates, has been claimed as being of critical importance (Thompson and Oldfield 1986). Whatever the explanation, perhaps the initial skepticism of many commentators can be tempered with a more open minded approach. Evidence discussed by Bailey et al. (1988) has led them to suggest that dowsing is capable of recovering details of construction phases of underground features. (Roskams, 2001 p52)

[Discussing the attitude of archaeologists to the interested public]

Somewhat more dismissive attitudes are apparent in Feder(1984), who was motivated to caricature the activities of the ‘pendulum-swinging psychic’. But how different is such activity from dowsing, or even the use of remote sensing equipment, to the uninitiated?(Roskams, 2001 p69)

Seriously? Whit? How can anyone with even the smallest shred of reason believe dowsing should be written about side by side with scientific methods of ground surveying? Some hippy with a couple of twigs is not comparable to the analysis of magnetic resistivity in the ground to find subterranean features! It’s not that, with regards working, dowsing has “not been scientifically demonstrated to do so” but that it has been scientifically shown not to work!

With the classic claim of the seasoned woo-meister Roskams accuses those who look on flabbergasted at otherwise rational people engaging in weird hippy rituals of being closed minded! I think Mr Minchin says it all fairly clearly in this video.

That this sort of thing is in a text book recommended to students is, frankly, embarrassing.


Posted on June 25, 2011, in Archaeology, woo and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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