Is archaeology a science? 2. “Plug & Play” archaeology

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a 3 part commentary


New and improved archaeology?

In 1962 the archaeologist Lewis R. Binford had an article published in the journal American Antiquity titled “Archaeology as anthropology”  that electrified the field of academic research into things ancient and not so ancient (Binford 1962). Many saw this paper as a call to turn away from just counting potsherds and pretending to write history toward doing real science in the realm of historical studies (Yu et al. 2015).

Nancy Stone and Lew Binford on an Acheulean site at Yediyapur in the Hunsgi Valley, South India, June 1986. Source: http://antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/binford.html

Since those halcyon days of the 1960s and what came to be called “processual archaeology,” professionals and amateurs alike have voiced strong doubts about whether archaeology is a science. Some have more or less utterly rejected Binford’s claim that archaeologists could be or should be scientists—an unwillingness to play along with Binford and those who would follow in his footsteps that, needless to say, plays right into the hands of someone like Congressman Lamar Smith (Jones 2016; Mizoguchi 2015).

Lewis Binford died in 2011. Despite his many naysayers, the archaeologist Mark Leone observed in a memorial appreciation of the man and his work published in the British journal Antiquity that Binford had unquestionably shown the rest of us “his astonishing capacity to connect archaeological things to the questions that mattered.”

Which raises an obvious concern. What kinds of questions might these be?

Ask no small questions

In 2012, a number of archaeologists, mostly Americans, decided they needed to come up with a list of questions for archaeologists to tackle in the years ahead. The resulting compendium, billed as “Grand challenges for archaeology,” was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (Kintigh et al. 2014a).

“The challenges had to be, in principle,” they agreed, “susceptible to a solution supported by data.” In all they came up with 25 worthy concerns. Reading through the listing makes it clear they concluded no challenge too big was beyond the scope of archaeology. Borrowing words from their published report:

These challenges focus on understanding the dynamics of cultural processes and the operation of coupled human and natural systems, recognizing that humans—mediated by culture—both affect and are affected by their natural environments. The challenges addressed questions of emergence, complexity, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human–environment interactions. There is a notable lack of concern with the earliest, the largest, and the otherwise unique.

What sorts of challenges are among the 25 listed? They are group