Friday, May 23, 2014

Science? Not even if you insist.

I have decided to completely abandon the whole "pregnant archaeology adventures" shtick.  Mainly due to the fact that this winter sucked horribly, and by the time field work came around again I was beyond wanting to challenge anyone who said I couldn't do field work during pregnancy.  Cuz now, nope, just no.  I don't want to.  I don't even want to sit in the lab and use the hole punch to put holes in all the artifact bags. Laziness level = 1,000% and rising, and I am perfectly okay with that.  I still go to the gym and workout twice a week, do prenatal yoga, clean the house, and walk the dogs.  Take that "Don't Do Anything During Pregnancy" people!  I am particularly fond of doing deadli...I mean squats, and the leg press at the gym (because really, imagine it.  Imagine how far back I have to be in that machine to get my knees around my belly.  Epic.).  

Anywho, back to archaeology.  I've been wanting to write about this for quite some time, but every time I started typing, I'd get off track and ramble about nothing.  But not this time.  Here goes:

Archaeology is, like, so not a real science. (please read that with your best California Valley girl accent).

There, I said it.  

There's this whole history, that is quite boring, behind archaeologists striving to get the field of archaeology to be accepted as a "for real" science.  Here's the not-sourced-but-from-memory super-simplified history that may or may not leave out large chunks of time periods regarding archaeology in North America:

This is straight out of a primitive "folk art" book.  I wonder if it is even 
authentic...whatever culture it belongs to.
First, we had the antiquarians who were more interested in finding awesome exotic examples of primitive man.  Think anything that can be sex-themed (venus figurines, anything phallic-shaped) and anything remotely resembling a "grotesque" figure, whatever that means.  These people loved to build themselves some cabinets of curiosities.  In one cabinet they could have Native American and African and Peruvian and Australian  and Chinese artifacts, all mishmashed together in a conglomerate of exoticness.  The rich collectors and their friends would then gather round for brandy and cigars and discuss how awesome they all were for traveling the world and finding all this primitive stuff.   "Primitive" stuff, mind you, that merely showed how the collectors were from "advanced" and "civilized" cultures.  These cabinets were also seen as proof of racial types and the whole race ladder of "superiority."  Racism.  Cabinets of racism based on "scientific proof" seen in the primitive material culture.  Hot damn, the people in the 18th and 19th centuries were so totally open-minded.*

Then!  In the mid to late nineteenth century some anthropologists started freaking out because the Native American cultures were fighting wars against armies and disease and were "disappearing."  As such it was a bum-rush of anthropologists to reservations and whatnot to record everything they could before all of the people died.**   They call this "Salvage Anthropology" because they were "salvaging" dying cultures.  (Note:  early archaeology was done under the guise of anthropology, until Mr. Franz Boas **insert cheers and celebratory music** broke anthropology down into the 4 components we still use today:  ethnography/cultural anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and biological anthropology.)

Moving forward all the way to the 1950s (there's that huge chunk of time I'm going to ignore) and you have the whole processual archaeology movement, in which some archaeologists sought to make archaeology a legit science by developing accurate and objective information about past peoples by using scientific methods.  With this came a lot of really boring, painful-to-read journal articles about how we cannot allow archaeology to be tainted by biases, and we should strive to develop overarching theories regarding culture and people and stuff that can be used to study other cultures and peoples and stuffs.

There have been other movements since, including theoretical models and ideologies that say "poo-poo" to processualism, which I will not discuss (post-processualism, Marxism, feminist archaeology (not joking)).  The point of this entire post, however, is that in my years of study and work experience, I've met more archaeologists than I can count, who honestly, truly believe that archaeology is a legit, for real science.  They believe this to the point that they won't even concede to archaeology being a "soft science."  

As I sat there in my windowless lab on a very hot day (I am in denial that pregnancy has brought on hot flashes), I suddenly wanted to slap all the "Archaeology is a science!!!" people.  I mean, I'm using a 3-hole punch to, what...scientifically place ventilation ducts in ULINE Reclosable 4 mil bags in an effort to prevent the growth of fungi of the milticellular filaments called hyphae type?  Thank you, Wikipedia for that definition of mold.  I don't even know if that is the type of mold that can grow on ceramics and other porous materials.  It just sounded all sorts of scientificky and smart and stuff.  What I do know, is that when artifacts have been washed and not allowed to dry thoroughly prior to being placed into sealed plastic bags, fuzzy, smelly stuff starts to grow.  I've seen it, I've battled it, and I've won.  I hope...those artifacts are no longer in our lab.  The point is, using my Swingline 3-hole puncher is not science.  I put the holes in the top of the bags because when the bags are sitting upright, the little degrading metal flakes won't fall out and get the bigger bags dirty.  

Shhh....Science is happening.
What's that you said about field work and GPS coordinates and tape measures and pace counts?  Oh, yes, well, about 7 steps for 5 meters is totally dependent on me counting correctly, walking the same way, and remembering my north from south.  It is also dependent on me using a tape measure on clear ground.  What do you do when you have brush and plants in the way?  You guestimate every so slightly.  Oh, and compasses?  We use those, too.  And with those I've experienced that awesome moment when two people are walking their transects (which are supposed to be parallel and between 5 and 15 meters apart) along a specific cardinal direction and then they crossed paths  (that's not supposed to happen!).

Legit science.  Deciphering one piece of burned tree bits from others.
Also, hard sciences are focused on experiments and procedures that can be duplicated.  You can't do that in archaeology.  Once we dig it out of the ground, no one will ever be able to duplicate that dig.  Oh, you can dig in the same vicinity and add to what was already recovered.  You can take the artifacts, the field notes, photos, measurements, and sketches and you can re-analyze those, but you can never replicate an archaeological excavation.  That alone tells you that archaeology can't be considered a hard science.  We kill our research subjects the moment we put a shovel in the ground.

My biggest point demonstrating how archaeology is a "science," is that archaeology is not completely objective.  It can't be.  And I don't just mean in the whole "don't bring your biases" into a study.  No, I mean 4 people can look at one artifact and give you 4 different classifications.  I have literally had a ceramic sherd that I said was pearlware, another person said whiteware, and a third person said refined earthenware.  Here's the kicker:  pearlware and whiteware are refined earthenwares.  The only difference is how refined and the glaze (whether or not it had cobalt added will give it a blue pooling and thus make it pearlware).  I've even had two different people say that a sherd was pearlware, then watched as another supervisor licked the paste and declared it whiteware due to the how "porous" the paste was.  I've seen two mendable pieces of ceramic that were cataloged as two different ceramic types.  Hmm....there's some science for you!

"Hey Bob!  Is this uranium or just some silver?"  
"Hmm....I'm not sure Jim.  Here, let me lick it!"

You see the problem in that, right?  

Here's another one:

Holy crappoli!  Aliens that look suspiciously like the aliens from War of the Worlds, came to the Mid-Atlantic in the late 1700s/early 1800s!  That guy with the hair from Ancient Astronauts NEEDS to see this!  Wait, what happens when I rotate the sherd 180 degrees?

Far less fun... and a hat.  Hhmmm....well, damn.  Cancel the Ancient Astronauts.  

In all seriousness, the first time I cleaned and really looked at this lovely creamware red transfer-printed colonial water scene ceramic, I saw aliens and a freaking UFO.  I walked around to everyone in the office and showed them.  At least one person stared at it with this completed baffled look on his face with his mouth slightly agape.  My argument was very compelling.  

As you can see, there are too many elements (primarily involving human perception) that play into archaeological analysis.  This is super duper important in that depending on how someone classifies artifacts, their analysis of the stratigraphy timeline, and ultimately their time frame for the site is affected.  Archaeologists even determine the socio-economic status of, say, a household, based off the types of artifacts you find.  Some were more elite than others.  If one person sees a silver spoon, another person may see pewter.  Pewter was a poor-man's "silver" in the 1800s, thus making it a lower socio-economic household.  So whether you see silver or pewter makes a difference in the outcome of the analysis.

Archaeology may strive to use scientific methods in an effort to make excavations and studies as consistent as possible, and that is okay.  In fact, I think it should be that way.  That way you do find some sort of consistency through the digging process (i.e. using stratigraphy, measurements, etc) thereby making it possible for subsequent digs at one location to produce information that makes sense.  My stratigraphy will match up with yours and so forth and so on.  

However, where archaeology is not a science is the human interpretation factor.  You can't be solely objective.  You have to bring in your life experiences at times to figure out what something might be.  For example, on our data recovery project, a particular artifact was recovered that sparked some debate in the lab.  The cataloger looked at it and said, "child's toy!  It just needs wheels."  I took one look at it and said, "That's not a toy.  That's a horse bit.  A curb bit to be exact."  Well, she didn't like that I had a different opinion and so she disregarded me outright.  Fast forward a few weeks and I stumble across two more horse bits.  All of these were clearly bit pieces to me, but I had to find photos of these from other archaeological contexts and argue my point.  My supervisors went with my analysis, as their only ideas were, "possible kitchen hook?" or just "unidentified."  They trusted my personal life experiences, in conjunction with the proof that the homeowners had horses at some point (as evidenced by the 6 horseshoes).  

Curb bit, because my life experiences say so.

So, there you have it.  My reasoning why archaeology is not a science.  I'll grant the profession that archaeology is a social science, and that we strive to utilize scientific methods for excavations, and even special analysis (such as faunal, archaeo-botanical, etc), but that's about it.  Get past those aspects and you stop being a science.  Licking stuff and declaring that it is blah-blah-blah is not science.  

*We cannot judge them too harshly, as they were products of their time.  I am sure future generations will look back and wonder what we were all thinking and why we were all such hateful people.  And here we are thinking we've come so far, so ya know.  Don't get too worked up over grandpa's racist comments.  You can't just snap your fingers and change a person's embedded cultural values and beliefs.  

**Sadly, many, many, many tribes throughout North America really did die off, and all we have left of some of them are memories from other tribes.  The California tribes were practically annihilated during the whole "$5 for one scalp" events of the 1800s.  Ishi is a good starting point (only that as there is so much more out there than just Ishi) for researching the California tribes.

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