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:

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 grouped into five separate categories labeled A–D. Here is a selection of five, one drawn from each category. Keep in mind as you read through them that these five are alike said to be within the reasonable pursue of archaeologists working as archaeologists.

A.7:  What is the role of conflict—both internal factional violence and external warfare—in the evolution of complex cultural formations?

B. 4:  How does ideology structure economic, political, and ritual systems?

C.1:  What processes led to, and resulted from, the global dispersal of modern humans?

D.2:  How do people form identities, and what are the aggregate long-term and large-scale effects of these processes?

E.7:  How do humans perceive and react to changes in climate and the natural environment over short- and long-terms?

What seems most astonishing about these five and the remaining 20 others is that none of these identified challenges said to be of global significance is accompanied by clear statements—specific research hypotheses—that might be taken to be unambiguously testable using archaeologically recovered empirical data. Not one. Yet the claim is made, nonetheless, that

the facts of the past provide the evidence that is essential to confront all of these questions. We harbor no illusions about the difficulties of addressing these classes of problems. Rather, we share a conviction that these are the domains in which the most important problems reside.

These scholars note at the end of their PNAS commentary that they have made a longer version of their collective statement available in American Antiquity (Kintigh et al. 2014b). However, whether what they outline there in more detail would satisfy Congressman Smith is questionable. With regard to challenge A.7, for example, they say:

Exploring the dialectical relationship between conflict and complex cultural formations will undoubtedly foster new approaches to the archaeological record. Conflict is notoriously difficult to identify and quantify through archaeological remains. Though some methods have been developed, more systematic and large-scale analyses are certainly necessary before this question can be thoroughly explored. These methods will involve innovations in osteology and molecular anthropology, as well as advances in comparative studies of material culture and technology.

Plug & Play archaeology

You don’t need to be as skeptical nor as dismissive as Lamar Smith to wonder what these experts have in mind to do in the years ahead to give substance to their 25 grand challenges. Being neither clairvoyant nor a mind-reader, the best anyone else can do is suggest what might or might not fit the bill—if not for Lamar Smith, at least for others.

First, therefore, what wouldn’t meet these challenges? There are many possible ways to answer such a provocative  question. Here is one. Archaeologists should avoid doing Plug & Play archaeology (fig. 1). What does my pairing of these two words refer to? Here is an example.

Figure 1. Source: the author

In January 2016 Marta Lahr at Cambridge University and her colleagues made the cover of the prestigious science journal Nature with a detailed report on human remains dating back about 10,000 years to the early Holocene that had been excavated at Nataruk in northern Kenya (Lahr et al. 2016). Some of the skeletons recovered have traumatic lesions suggesting the probable cause of death (see: fig. 1, left). Not surprisingly perhaps, given this seemingly gruesome physical testimony, Lahr and her co-authors inferred that they had in hand evidence of inter-group violence against people who, given the antiquity of the remains, were probably wandering hunter-gatherers rather than settled agriculturalists.

Now if you were Lamar Smith you might be asking yourself right now “So what?” At the close of their Nature report, Lahr and her colleagues acknowledge directly that the apparent violence attested at Nataruk might be an “ephemeral, but perhaps not unusual, event in the life of prehistoric foraging societies.” Before then in their report, however, and certainly in the press coverage around the world that this report quickly received, what is featured are possible stories about interpersonal violence that could be told given such ancient cold-case injuries.

Both in their report in Nature and in subsequent popular accounts, the central claim made is that these scholars have caught humanity red-handed doing something fundamental—and nasty—long ago strongly hinting that violence is, as many still popularly assume, one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Here is where plug & play come into operation. All that it takes to reach this kind of conclusion about ourselves as human beings is evidence such as these fossil bones (fig. 1, left), a few seemingly reasonable assumptions about human nature (fig. 1, center), and before you know it, you have a story to tell (fig. 1, right).

In fairness, it must be said that at the end their report, Lahr and her co-authors do comment that Nataruk may be showing us little more than “a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups.” But then why write about these bones, and why feature them on the cover of Nature?

There is no disputing taste, and these authors have clearly done a good job of coming up with what might be said about these prehistoric finds. But “plugging” them into an interpretation—into a story—however appealing is not what STEM education is all about, and surely not what someone like Lamar Smith would take to be real science. It may be true, as these authors conclude at the very end of their report in Nature, that “the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.” So what?

But if not Plug & Play archaeology, then what?

Part 3: Problem solving 


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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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