There’s an enduring myth that archaeology is an ‘unrepeatable experiment’, a bit like loosing your virginity with a sheep. Or perhaps that description just applies to people with a speech impediment.
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m an Archie… Acheu… I dig up old stuff.’
In fact the term ‘unrepeatable experiment’ was popularised by Phillip Barker in the book that schooled a generation of diggers: ‘Techniques of Archaeological Excavation’. Digging the dirt, or so the story goes, is a form of controlled destruction. Artefacts may be carefully labelled and packaged for study in the laboratory or display in a museum, but the layers of earth in which these objects were found can never be restored, and its this surrounding matrix that holds the key to our understanding. In the very act of digging, archaeologists destroy the thing they love − they are the punks of the scientific community − and out of the wreckage they preserve the past by obsessively recording what they have witnessed.
So far so good, you might think, but perhaps the ‘unrepeatable experiment’ is actually a misnomer – and by over-playing our scientific hand, we have both raised and dashed public expectations of what archaeology can achieve and how it works. A small but vocal minority even suspect we might be making it up, whilst a large but silent majority remain indifferent to whatever it is we do make up. So far so bad.
The problem with archaeology is that our conclusions can never be proven in a laboratory. This has played directly into the hands of the flat-earth people, who believe that because nothing can be know with certainty, all interpretations are equally valid. But just as there are many different scientific subjects, there’s more than one way to do science, and it’s this that gets confused by ‘the unrepeatable experiment.’
Archaeology is a historical science (like astronomy or geology), rather than an experimental science (like physics or chemistry), and the difference lies in how those two branches reason with their evidence. Experimental science uses a ‘w-n’, or why-necessarily approach to its subject matter. Why does something happen? It necessarily happens in this specific way – something that other scientists can independently verify. But a historical science can’t be tested in the traditional manner. It has to account for as much evidence as possible while remaining true to our expectations of how the world works today.
This can be extremely difficult, especially when moving back into the further reaches of prehistory where we find objects and behaviours with no modern parallels (unlike this recently discovered domestic appliance).
Rather than a ‘w-n’ methodology, archaeologists must adopt a ‘h-p’, or how-possibly approach to the evidence. How did it happen? It possibly happened like this, and by drawing on many different types of evidence – artefacts, ecofacts and scientific analysis such as radiocarbon dating – statements can be verified by how well they conform to the results of other excavations.
But this isn’t the only concern that archaeologists must confront. In the age of the da Vinci Code, we also need to be acutely aware of how our stories play out on the multi-media stage, and here again the odds are stacked against us. Whereas an experimental science will aim to reduce meaning into a simple formula (such as e=mc2), a historical science will be complex by nature, and to the wider public this can itself seem unscientific. If the fascinating complexity of human history can be simplified to a single back story of Atlantian priests, then in many ways that reduction conforms to the expectations we ourselves raised in the public when we branded archaeology an experimental science. Archaeology is not an experiment, but it is profoundly difficult. The challenge is to balance the credibility of the excavated evidence with a democratically accessible narrative. To neither dumb-up our investigation, nor dumb-down our results.
My mission, should I choose to accept it…