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Marat

Is Archeology a Science?

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I have two objections to archeology's claim to be a science.

 

First, it bases its inferences on data samples which would be considered utterly inadequate to prove the same sorts of assertions in history or in a court of law. A few Egyptian coins of the 2nd century B.C. are found in Massalia, and suddenly archeologists conclude that there must have been significant trade going on between Massalia and Egypt, when in fact the find may have been just a chance event, with some Massalian in the 1st century A.D. having been a collector of old Egyptian coins.

 

Second, its inferences operate on the assumption that peoples in the distant past thought just like us, which we well know is not the case. Often the evidence of beliefs and atittudes even just a few centuries ago is shockingly irrational, illogical, and mysterious in terms of the human motivations which drive our behavior today, and yet when archeologists look at the material evidence of the past, they draw implications from it about how people in the past lived on the basis of the illicit assumption that those people oriented towards their material surroundings exactly as we would.

 

When Egyptologists pompously announce that the tiny, painted, wooden figures in some pharoh's tomb were designed to accompany him to the afterlife so that they could serve him there, I always want to ask, "How do you know that they weren't intended as toys? How do you know that the whole ritual surrounded pharonic burials wasn't accompanied by raucus laughter and performed as a type of parody?"

 

If archeologists 10,000 years from now find nothing of our present culture except a Jerry Lewis movie, they are going to announce solmenly that this cinematic record from the past represents the expected maturation rituals for a young prince in our era.

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I agree. Archaeology can better be described as an interpretive art. Science can best be described as the art of critical empiricism. In a sense, archaeology is dealing with empirical evidence, so it may be somewhat more empirical than historical accounts based on other texts, unless the previous texts are treated as artifacts instead of sources, which may be an overly fine distinction to start with. You can't get around the interpretation of artifacts, though. When you find a jug or a blade, you have to interpret it as having been for water, oil, burial ashes, wine, washing, etc. If you make systematic arguments based on explicit observations about the artifact and submit these as falsifiable, though, what's not scientific about that? E.g. I dig up a bottle and propose a theory/hypothesis that the land used to be inhabited and submit that my hypothesis could be falsified if the land was/is in fact a landfill, then further tests can be deduced to strengthen or undermine the null-hypothesis. For example, if I keep digging and find more bottles, plates, and utensils, it's looking more like someone left their picnic basket when the rain started and if there's loads of old shoes and tires, the landfill hypothesis is getting stronger, no?

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I don't think that we have any Archaeologists on the board, so I'll go in to bat for them.

 

Archaeology is a science. It deals with real artifacts and falsfiable theories. While there may be inertia against new ideas and some might over stretch with their conclusions, all sciences have this problem so to use this against Archaeology would also mean that Astronomy, Geology and Physics are not sciences either. In general however, opinions and theories change as more facts are unearthed.

 

Marat, it's touching that you think people aren't the same as they were, but they are. Mores and ethical beliefs change, but the basic human nature does not. The art of politics has not really changed in the last 5,000 years. For example when Tutankhamun died his wife Ankhesenamun sent a message to the King of the Hittites (Suppiluliumas) asking for one of his sons as husband. As Ankhesenamun had no children the Dynastic line was threatened and she would not take a commoner as a husband. She said "To me he will be husband, but in Egypt he will be King!"

 

It took a little while but Suppiluliumas agreed to send a young son, thereby saving the Pharonic line and cementing relations between the two nations. Is this any different to the way things were done between the Royal Houses of Europe, a practice that continues today? The young prince was waylaid and killed on his journey to Egypt, BTW. Ai, who was Vizier to Arkenaten (Ankhesenamuns father), Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun married her shortly afterwards to become Pharaoh himself. From his writings it appears that he was not favourable to the idea of a "foreigner" sitting on the throne and it is believed that he had the prince killed to prevent this happening. Since the prince was travelling with a large retinue as befitted his state, it is highly unlikely that a small group of robbers could have defeated the force of guards he had with him. It takes a military force to defeat a military force in single combat. There were only two people who could have ordered the Egyptian military to attack the prince and his guards and one of those two was waiting to marry him. Yes it is only a theory that Ai was responsible, but it does fit the known facts. (And will be changed if new information comes to light.)

 

Nowadays we "throw him under the bus" or "stab him in the back" figuratively and not literally, but the result is the same. Politics is based on human psychology, if the basic rules and tactics of politics haven't changed in millennia, then neither has basic human psychology.

 

As to your first point. If you believe that there aren't many "data points" then you need an education in Archaeology. Would you call the 100,000 texts that were found at Sumer "inadequate" in some way? They gave us the original Flood Legend in the "Epic of Gilgamesh". They gave us tax reciepts and records of transactions which while not earthshatteringly headline worthy tell us much of the life of people at the time. *We learn that you swap 5 goats and 2 sheep for a bullock, we find that if you own farmland 500 cubits on a side which produced 200 talents of grain you paid 10 talents in tax.* (I'm just making up the figures here, but the point remains that now do know these things.)

 

We know from the texts and artifacts found at Dir-El-Medina (Where the workmen from the Valley of the Kings lived) that they had and used prosthetics to replace lost limbs. We know that the workmen went on strike over pay, we know when and we know how the strike was ended. All this is in the records. We know that one night a butcher ran down the street and tried to break into the house of a baker. (The butcher thought that the baker was having an affair with the butchers wife.) We know the names, the date and even the time that this occurred. We know it because we have the police record of the butchers arrest and his statement.

 

We know what Ushabtis are for because what they are for is written on them. To use your own analogy, if an archaeologist in 10,000 years time finds a lawnmower with "Let me cut the grass neat and low" engraved on the side it would not be unreasonable for him to conclude that the lawnmower is for cutting grass. Similarly your idea that Ushabtis represent servants in the next life shows a dismal lack of knowledge. All persons were expected to work in the "Field of Reeds". However mores of the time were that Nobles and the Pharoah did not do manual labour, so the Ushabtis would come to life and do the Pharoahs share of the work for him as proxies. There is nothing new in this, in recent centuries it was quite normal for the rich who were "drafted" to pay for another to go and fight in their stead. Again, we know these things because it is either written on the bloody wall or on the artifact itself.

 

One of the plusses for the old ways was that all records went to a central point. Imagine if all police, tax, births and deaths, marraiges, land transfers and everything else (including texts for the sermons at the local church) from Smalltown USA were kept in one building. 10,000 years from now you would have a very complete record of the goings on in the town and what life was like for the people there. The odd part would be that while you had very complete records for the day to day life, records of the big, national or international events would be sparce. You might find out the Bill Smith and Tommmy Jones went off to war on a certain day, but it might take some work to find out which war they went to. ;)

 

Yes, Archaeology is a science. It uses the scientific method, it proposes theories that can be and often are falsified. While it might not be as strictly "according to Popper" as physics is, it's still a science.

 

I should add that I've always got the impression that while some things aren't kept "hidden" by Archaeologists, they don't get noised about either, they're kept as sort of "inside jokes" to prevent offending other sciences. Medicine in Pharonic Egypt was very advanced for its time but a major difference was that the GP, or General Practitioner was the highest form of doctor. The "Specialist" was deemed inferior because he or she obviously wasn't smart enough to understand the entire body of medicine and had to make do with only a small part of the knowledge. :D The patron Goddess was Sehkmet with the head of a lioness and the body of a woman, she was both the "Bringer of Life" and the "Great Deatroyer".

 

I've read references to the "Final Examination" for a GP, with the emphasis on final. The candidate went into a room stocked with all the herbs, chemicals etc of the Doctors art and a small drinking vessel. After drinking the potion in the cup the candidate, by considering the taste, smell, texture and the symptoms after drinking had to diagnose what the poison was that they had just drunk. They would then use the contents of the room to concoct the antidote and ingest it. For obvious reasons there was no possibility of a retest. :D

Edited by JohnB

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I've read references to the "Final Examination" for a GP, with the emphasis on final. The candidate went into a room stocked with all the herbs, chemicals etc of the Doctors art and a small drinking vessel. After drinking the potion in the cup the candidate, by considering the taste, smell, texture and the symptoms after drinking had to diagnose what the poison was that they had just drunk. They would then use the contents of the room to concoct the antidote and ingest it. For obvious reasons there was no possibility of a retest. :D

That sounds like it could have been written as a joke.

 

 

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I am not sure that Archaeologists make the claims suggested by Marat soley on single bits of evidence. Usually, they have other background knowledge that supports the creation of a hypothesis.

 

As for interpretation: what were the Bohr Einstein debates about - the interpretation of evidence - the creation of a mental model - a way our minds think about things.

 

We also have the grand theories of cosmology - based on what - relatively small glimpses of things that happened a long time and a long way away.

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That sounds like it could have been written as a joke.

 

It wasn't.

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It is , of course, true that archaeology might get things totally wrong.

So can the rest of science.

It's what happens when they find the bit of evidence that makes them shift their ideas that matters.

As long as they say "Oops! we were wrong; here's our new theory" then they are doing science.

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Obviously there are some areas of archeology which are quite data-heavy, but in others where the data are quite thin, overambitious extrapolation from tiny shreds of evidence is an occupational disease among archeologists, since they would have too little to say otherwise. The sort of reasoning can be exemplified by the fact that for a long time ancient historians said that the Roman Emperor Caligula was mad because he led an entire Roman army to the shores of France to collect sea shells, but only later was it discovered that the term 'sea shell' was military jargon at the time for a type of catapult. Inferences as bold as saying that the actions of the Roman army on the northern coast of France at that time were just the rituals required of them by a madman on the strength of a single phrase simply don't happen in modern history, law, or news reporting, because the greater amount of records encourages a higher standard of proof for inferences.

 

The French 'annales' historians have made a lot in recent years of the view that 'the past is a foreign country,' and the ways of thinking of people in the past were so totally unlike our own that we simply can't comprehend motivations and assumptions of historical periods more than a few centuries ago. If this is true, obviously archeology has to fail as a science, since its inferences are based on the unstated assumption that what the artifacts it discovers mean can be determined by what they would mean to people who think like us.

 

But a lot of the 'natural' or 'obvious' thinking of the past seems bizarre by modern standards, so I doubt that we really know how those people thought. For example, Cleopatra seemed to have no problems with marrying her brother. Egyptian priests seemed to find it just fine that if an engaged woman died before being deflowered, they had to have intercourse with the corpse to ensure that it could be 'recognized' on its way to the afterlife. Ancient Carthaginian women seemed to have no problem with burning their newborn children in an oven to please the god Baal. During the medieval controversy over the rulership of the Holy Roman Empire, all the contestants seemed to regard physical possession of the tokens of office, the scepter and the crown, as essential to success, and expended enormous efforts to obtain these even though they could have been very easily faked. In the modern world the claimant to the throne might have pointed out that since these were just symbols of office rather than the actual legal basis of the right to hold the office, they could be neglected, but the synthesis of symbol and reality was simply too strong prior to the 'dissociation of sensibilities' for anyone to make this practical conceptual leap, which would seem so obvious to us.

 

Now that's odd.

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Some sciences (or studies) involve some degree of interpretation.

 

Astronomy - Probably the science that uses the greatest amount of interpretation. Astronomers cannot touch the objects of their study and cannot perform experiments; they can only observe. The science with the largest time frame (it apparently covers all of time) and the largest object of study (the universe).

 

Geology - One step up from astronomy. Geologists can touch and examine/test objects, but cannot perform experiments. A science with a very large time frame, but not as large as astronomy's and not going back as far, and a much smaller object of study (the earth).

 

Archeology - One step up from geology. Archeologists can touch and examine/test objects, but still cannot perform experiments; however, our current knowledge of recorded human history (and of human nature) allows us some insight ... maybe. It involves a much smaller and much more recent time frame than the above two sciences and a much smaller object of study (mankind).

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I have two objections to archeology's claim to be a science.

 

First, it bases its inferences on data samples which would be considered utterly inadequate to prove the same sorts of assertions in history or in a court of law. A few Egyptian coins of the 2nd century B.C. are found in Massalia, and suddenly archeologists conclude that there must have been significant trade going on between Massalia and Egypt, when in fact the find may have been just a chance event, with some Massalian in the 1st century A.D. having been a collector of old Egyptian coins.

 

Second, its inferences operate on the assumption that peoples in the distant past thought just like us, which we well know is not the case. Often the evidence of beliefs and atittudes even just a few centuries ago is shockingly irrational, illogical, and mysterious in terms of the human motivations which drive our behavior today, and yet when archeologists look at the material evidence of the past, they draw implications from it about how people in the past lived on the basis of the illicit assumption that those people oriented towards their material surroundings exactly as we would. ...

 

I remember seeing a distinction between "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry, and "soft sciences, such as sociology. Archeology can be said to be a soft science.

 

I have two objections to archeology's claim to be a science.

 

First, it bases its inferences on data samples which would be considered utterly inadequate to prove the same sorts of assertions in history or in a court of law. A few Egyptian coins of the 2nd century B.C. are found in Massalia, and suddenly archeologists conclude that there must have been significant trade going on between Massalia and Egypt, when in fact the find may have been just a chance event, with some Massalian in the 1st century A.D. having been a collector of old Egyptian coins.

 

Second, its inferences operate on the assumption that peoples in the distant past thought just like us, which we well know is not the case. Often the evidence of beliefs and atittudes even just a few centuries ago is shockingly irrational, illogical, and mysterious in terms of the human motivations which drive our behavior today, and yet when archeologists look at the material evidence of the past, they draw implications from it about how people in the past lived on the basis of the illicit assumption that those people oriented towards their material surroundings exactly as we would. ...

 

I remember seeing a distinction between "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry, and "soft sciences, such as sociology. Archeology can be said to be a soft science.

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I agree that it would fall into the category of 'soft' sciences, if it is a science at all. But my concern was that it is not very scientific even at that level, given its characteristic overextension of inferences based on thin supporting data and glib assumption that artifacts from the distant past can be interpreted on the assumption that the people making and using them thought the way we did.

 

In 'The Portable Greek Reader' (New York: Viking, 1948) p. 17 the editor comments:

 

"If there is any reaction to the Greeks which may be called typical of our age compared with preceding times, it is, I think, a feeling that they were very odd people indeed, so much so that when we come across something they wrote which seems similar to our own way of thinking, we immediately suspect that we have misunderstood the passage."

 

Now if it is true that ancient peoples like the Greeks thought in a way that was incommensurably odd to our own way of thinking, then it simply makes no sense for archeologists to interpret the ancient artifacts they find from that era and before on the assumption that those ancient people think very much the way we now do.

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" if it is true that ancient peoples like the Greeks thought in a way that was incommensurably odd "

And if not?

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