Rumsfeldian Archaeology

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know…

There are known unknowns.

That is to say,

We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

D. H. Rumsfeld Feb. 12, 2002.
Department of Defence news briefing

According to The Urban Dictionary, a neologasm (a combination of neologism and orgasm) is the intensely pleasurable feeling gained from having coined a new word. If that’s the case then George W. Bush, the most misunderestimated president in American history, just finished a very enjoyable second term. If it weren’t for the weapons grade wit of his one-time henchman Donald Rumsfeld, we’d never have taken Bush seriously.

Take for example Rumsfeld’s theory of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. This eloquent piece of existential poetry was first speechified (speech + mystified) to describe the elusive hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction. But try hard enough and it can also be applied to the glamorous world of commercial archaeology.

In order to justify vast public expenditure on development-led archaeology projects, how do we purposely find the unkown unknowns when we don’t even know what they look like? And in addition to the things we don’t know we’re looking for, what also of the nature and integrity of the things we do find (our known knowns), and of the things we expect to find (our known unknowns)?

In the beginning it all seemed so simple. Archaeology emerged from an antiquarian dilettantism and crystallized in the 19th century into a science. General Pitt Rivers argued for an empirical focus on the known known’s of typology and stratigraphy to distinguish from myth and folklore. The chief objective of this young discipline was to study and catalogue the finds from each successive digging season. And through objective description of the material remains, known unknowns were transmogrified into known knowns.

But the post-war construction frenzy jeopardized the status quo. Haunted by the spectre of unknown unknowns, innocence was lost and two distinct cultures of archaeology were spawned. The ‘Rescue Revolution’ heralded the birth of a new breed of specialist excavator. Their job was to box, bag, label and record the data for a future time of learning and leisure. A symmetrical trend was the development in academia of archaeological theory, conceiving a new breed of specialist interpreter. Their job was to construct and test theories in a transparent manner, predicting the known unknowns likely to be found in support of their theories.

Despite great advances made by each sector, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge and this is undermining attempts to grasp the bigger picture. Rescue archaeology has developed into a commercial industry embedded with environmental risk management, while academic archaeology draws on an increasingly diverse range of ideas from many adjacent disciplines.

The consequence of this specialization is that field teams have lost touch with the latest interpretive ideas whilst academics remain unaware of the latest excavation results. With no structure to realise the potential of commercially generated information, and no mechanism to disseminate this widely as new knowledge about the past, these unknown knowns (that is to say, things some people know, that other people don’t) have left us mired in Donald Rumsfeld’s existential nightmare.

Regime change anyone?


  1. Muamar Gaddafi says:

    But the beleaguered Badger brigade wont join anything, where is the consensus?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *