Is archaeology a science? 1: The “So what?” question

John Edward Terrell

           Is archaeology more than storytelling with the help of            visual aids and esoteric props?

This is part 1 of a 3 part commentary

The brahmin sport?

Back in the early 1960s when I was an undergraduate, I was asked by a graduate student in my department what I wanted to be when I grew up. That may not have been the phrasing of the question, but that was the spirit of his inquiry. This individual was the self-identified son of an academically famous father. When I told him I wanted to be an archaeologist, his response didn’t surprise me, although I will leave it to you to decide why I wasn’t taken aback by his retort. With an air of seeming good humor, he quipped: “Ah, the brahmin sport.”

I have no idea who were the particular brahmins he had in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, or maybe Lord Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun fame. In any case, by the 1960s such a quip was off target.

Agatha Christie (2nd from the left), Max Mallowan (center, with cigarette), and others at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in southern Iraq. Source:
A waste of the taxpayer’s money?

The National Science Foundation was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” All well and good perhaps, but whether social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology should be viewed as rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to be included under the umbrella of the NSF was a matter of great and continuing contention even before the establishment of this government agency. Nevertheless, by 1958 an office for the social sciences had been established at the NSF despite the fact, as one board member commented in 1958, “we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences—except for a few extremely limited areas—are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”

Given the availability of federal funding for research in the social sciences, anthropology and archaeology by the 1960s were no longer beholden to the whims or the fanatical ideas of the rich and socially privileged. Provided, of course, the research proposals getting funded could convince not only peer reviewers in these disciplines, but Congress, too, that the work lucky enough to be funded was worthy of being labeled as “scientific” not just in name but also in deed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Over the course of the last half century or so has archaeology lived up to the prospect that it is a science? Or have archaeologists been pulling the wool over the eyes of congressmen and everyday civilians alike as often as some critics of archaeology—and anthropology—then and now contend?

Science—The Endless Frontier

Here’s a bit more history to ponder. World War II had brought the federal government into the arena of basic science research as never before in the history of the United States. Interest in Washington in supporting whatever could be done to win the war was clear and pressing.  Ignorance about what the world was like beyond our borders was no longer excusable and could be deadly. Even anthropologists and other scholars of the esoteric who had lived and worked in the Near East, Asia, and the Pacific found themselves being sought out for their advice and guidance in advancing the war effort (Terrell et al. 1997).

In 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer who had led the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a report for President Roosevelt outlining the future for science in the nation cleverly titled Science—The Endless Frontier. He argued persuasively that government support for scientific research and education would prove beneficial to both the peacetime economy and national security. Arguing in graphic terms that scientific progress is essential, his report makes the stakes involved as down to earth as anyone can get: “Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The newly found sense of relevance to solving the world’s problems carried over after the war in many of the academic disciplines that had hitherto defined themselves as being more about history and diversity than about pattern and process.  Notably geography, ecology, and natural history all experienced what soon came to be called the “quantitative revolution” marked by deliberate and carefully mastered efforts to make such previously descriptive studies more mathematical, more generalizing, and hence more “scientific.” And as I have already noted, eventually even the social sciences were able to convince federal decision makers that these so-called soft sciences were worthy of financial support.

But to repeat: that was then, this is now. And despite claims to the contrary, history can repeat itself.

The “So what?” question and STEM education

Lamar Smith, a Republican, has represented the 21st congressional district in Texas since 1987. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which has jurisdiction over programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He supports Donald Drumpf on border security, not using federal tax dollars to fund abortions under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and reigning in the “costly, overly burdensome regulations” of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also strongly opposed to wasting taxpayer’s dollars funding frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. In 2016, for example, Democrats in Congress viewed his actions as Committee Chair as “a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change.”

Lamar Smith evidently likes to take the social sciences head on. Currently, however, there are also less direct ways of challenging whether they are wasteful and frivolous. Take STEM, the acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational programs and curricula. In the words of one prominent advocacy group:

The STEM Education Coalition works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century. Members of the STEM Coalition believe that our nation must improve the way our students learn science, mathematics, technology and engineering and that the business, education, and STEM communities must work together to achieve this goal.

In November 2016 the Coalition sent a memorandum to President-elect Donald Trump titled “STEM Education, Good Jobs and American Prosperity.” Nowhere in this statement do the words “social science” or “humanities” occur. Furthermore, the memorandum notes, for instance, that the “top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”

Is archaeology science?
Koster Site, Kampsville, Illinois in the 1970s. Source:

Few would question that archaeology can be fun, fascinating, entertaining, and an entirely worthwhile summer camping experience. How would cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic keep the viewing audiences they have without the mysteries and thrilling excitement of archaeological discoveries in places near and far?


Granting archaeology’s genuine entertainment value and emotional appeal may not, however, be good enough to position such work as worthwhile enough to merit taxpayer’s dollars. At least not in the eyes of someone like Lamar Smith.

Therefore, the question cannot be artfully avoided. Is archaeology more than storytelling? Is it also a science? An honest answer would have to be maybe yes, maybe sometimes.

Part 2: Plug & Play archaeology


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© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-accessarticle 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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