Is archaeology a science? 3. Problem solving

John Edward Terrell

This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about telling stories. In truth, our brains are always telling ourselves stories about all sorts of things. For example, figuring out what you need to buy at the supermarket. Or when it would be OK to cross the street. Or why your boss should give you a promotion at work. In short, stories are not always fictional accounts. They can also be factual.

While the thought may sound strange at first, even scientists tell stories to themselves and others (Terrell 1990). In truth, storytelling can be a creative way for them to develop new ideas and plausible explanations, say, about  badly broken bones dug up at an archaeological site in Kenya—although instead of calling them stories, scientists would probably label them as hypotheses (see: fig. 2).

Figure 2. Science differs from other kinds of storytelling is a critical way. Changing (a) the evidence available, (b) the assumptions made about the world and how things work when interpreting that evidence, or (c) the interpretations made (i.e., the working hypotheses) can also change the other two dimensions of the scientific endeavor.
Darwin’s famous letter

In a famous letter to a colleague in 1861, Charles Darwin reflects on what it means to do science:

About 30 years ago there was much talk that Geologists ought only to observe & not theorise; & I well remember some one saying, that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit & count the pebbles & describe their colours. How odd it is that every one should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.

People writing about how science is done love to quote these words because, as Michael Shermer, a columnist at Scientific American, remarked a number of years ago: “If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis or model. The facts never just speak for themselves. They must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas: percepts need concepts.”

Boiled down to a few words, therefore, what both scientists and lawyers call evidence isn’t evidence until it can be pinned to convincing stories about it. Hence, viewed from Darwin’s perspective, Lahr and her colleagues had been tasked with a research assignment that was a lot like counting pebbles and describing their colors. This kind of Plug & Play task has long been commonplace in archaeology because accidental discoveries and nowadays cultural resource salvage work are routine in this scholarly arena. Being routine, however, does not make a research assignment science. As Darwin said, all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

The major reason Plug & Play archaeology isn’t science is that stories (hypotheses) about things (evidence) must be for or against stories that are bigger—scientists call them concepts, theories, models, and the like— than the kinds of particular stories that get called hypotheses.[*] Or if you are a trial lawyer, criminal indictments.

Stories, big and small

If hypotheses are stories about particular situations and things, then what makes concepts, models, theories, and so forth bigger stories? Philosophers love to argue about the answer, but I am not a philosopher. I will give you the answer that makes sense to me. Instead of calling them concepts, theories, models, and so forth, just call them assumptions.

The 25 grand challenges to archaeology  noted earlier are grounded on so many assumptions about how the world works and what needs to be better known to do archaeology right in the future that one is left almost speechless. In a more constrained fashion, the stories Lahr and her colleagues tell us about bones from Kenya similarly make allusions to grand assumptions about what life was like during the early Holocene, about the inherent violence or pacifism of human nature, and so forth. In both cases, it seems clear that the persuasive goal in part is to justify doing archaeology by relating particular issues to broad, general assumptions (sometimes called themes) that are compelling and sometimes seemingly quite magnificent in their scope and assumed relevance to the human condition.

“What’s the problem?”

Evidence, hypotheses, assumptions . . .  how do these components of the scientific endeavor fit together (Fig. 2)? Again, philosophers of science love to debate such a question, but here is a hands-on way to resolve it. Ask the “So what?” question that kicked off this commentary in a different way, one that is not just being more polite. It is also a more meaningful way to get to the heart of the issue. Ask instead “What’s the problem here?”

Critics of archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences generally are likely to fault these fields of scholarly expertise in one or both of two ways. One is methodological, and might be expressed using the old cliché “you can’t get there from here.” In a word, there is doubt about whether the social sciences are rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to merit being called real science. The other is more elusive and judgmental. Is the problem being tackled by the research work in question really worth doing?

One way of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of this second kind of criticism is to make the purpose of what you are doing elusive. A common way of trying to accomplish this dubious end is to make grand allusions in the opening paragraphs of a research report to work previously published on the same or a comparable theme (concept, hypothesis, model, theory, etc.) and then move swiftly on to discuss methods & materials, analysis, and the like.

This popular avoidance tactic is unlikely to work, however, when the critic is someone like Lamar Smith.

The intersection of independent lies

In 1966 the late biologist Richard Levins published a short paper on the role of model building in population biology that is now a classic in the philosophy and practice of science. One of his observations back then has become famous: “truth is the intersection of independent lies.’’ As he explains, the human mind can only cope with a few variables at one time, and almost any plausible proposed relation among aspects of nature is likely to be true in the sense that it occurs (although rarely and slightly). “Yet all models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. The validation of a model is not that it is ‘true’ but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems” (Levins 1966).

Forty years after this article was published, Levins felt called upon to explain himself anew. Here, in part, is what he wrote:

In the dispute about climate change, a rising temperature in several cities is suggestive. Adding more cities to the list gives a diminishing return. But independent lines of evidence—ocean temperatures, cores from glaciers, decline of coral reefs, spread of species into places that had been too cold for them, accumulation of greenhouse gasses—each may have some separate idiosyncratic explanation or source of error but jointly converge on an unavoidable conclusion. We have to seek lines of evidence as independent as we can in order to support a large scale conclusion. (Levins 2006)

In other words, to do great science, you have to do different things based on different ways of looking at the problem being studied.

As I have said before, there is no disputing taste, and what one person judges to be a problem in need of solving may be seen as less worthy, even trivial, by someone else. The least I can do is offer two examples with the understanding you may not see them as grand, and therefore, may not be impressed that archaeologists are attempting to tackle the problem being addressed.

Two archaeological challenges to conventional wisdom

While perhaps not a universal truth, many people will tell you in one way or another that human beings come in different and enduring kinds that can be labeled variously as communities, races, ethnic groups, populations, societies, or cultures (Terrell 2012). As I have noted elsewhere at SCIENCE DIALOGUES,  such thinking is the bedrock of racism and social conflicts around the world.

My archaeological colleague John P. Hart at the New York State Museum and I have separately looked at this undeniable problem using different archaeological and ethnographic material culture datasets from entirely different regions of the globe—in Hart’s studies, northeastern North America (e.g., Hart et al. 2016), and in my work, the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea (e.g., Terrell 2010). Our goals, however, have been similar. We want to see if material culture studies support the notion—the popular conviction—that people come in discrete social and biological “kinds,” and if they do, how long-lived such fundamental building blocks of humanity may be.

As Hart and his colleagues recently reported, archaeological sequences based on pottery designs have often been used by scholars to identify ethnic ties among prehistoric settlements in eastern North America, and to hypothesize population movements over the landscape through time. Recent work by his research team using ceramic motifs and social network analysis challenges these conventional interpretations of the archaeological record and the principles underlying them. Network analysis of local and regional pottery design sequences, for example, suggests that rather than being ethnic markers, ceramic designs were used to signal inclusion in social and political networks crosscutting supposed ethnic and political boundaries in this part of North America. Moreover:

With a very robust archaeological record that has produced evidence for major shifts in settlement patterns, regional coalescences of village populations, changes in regional strife, and ultimately the development of confederacies, southern Ontario is an excellent area to investigate how signaling networks adapt as a result of socio-political and settlement system changes.

Similarly, work by myself and others on New Guinea’s northern Sepik coast since 1990 suggests that isolation by distance had led to some geographic patterning in cultural variation among communities on this coast prior to World War I. However, the patterning of similarities and differences in their material culture inventories offers little empirical support for the conventional assumption accepted by anthropologists, government officials, missionaries, and others that there is “a strong relation between language and material culture”  (Moore and Romney 1994) among villages communities in this part of the world. When seen in the broader perspectives of geography, human ecology, and time, as the old saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.


Science can be viewed as a continuous conversation among  evidence, hypotheses, and assumptions.  Some scientific conversations however ponderously expressed are trivial, merely chit-chat, so to speak. Other conversations are far more meaningful. If archaeologists want to be seen as substantial scholars and productive scientists, they have the same obligations all other scientists have. They must be clear and forthright about the problems they are addressing, and why those problems deserve the respect—and yes, the financial support—of others.

Grand challenges are inspirational, but they must be brought down to earth if what archaeologists dig up or study in museums is to add up to something worthwhile.

* As Richard Levins (2009: 744) has written, something is basically nonsense if it does not help us answer any questions other than about itself.

This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


I thank John Hart for his help with this commentary.


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© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

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