The Challenge of Archaeology

When I was a young undergraduate student, one of the most inspiring things I read was an essay by Lewis and Sally Binford. Lewis was primarily responsible for shaping what has come to be known as the “New Archaeology,” although it’s not terribly “new” anymore. This school of archaeological thought also has been called “Processual Archaeology” for its emphasis on attempting to understand the processes of change in past cultures.

Here is the particular statement that I found so exhilarating and that continues to inspire me:

“The practical limitations on our knowledge of the past are not inherent in the nature of the archaeological record; the limitations lie in our methodological naiveté, in our lack of development for principles determining the relevance of archaeological remains to propositions regarding processes and events of the past.” Lewis and Sally Binford (1968)

This statement has been criticized for being overly optimistic and it almost certainly is. There are things we probably never will be able to learn from the data of archaeology, because much of what we, as anthropologists, are interested in knowing simply isn’t preserved in the archaeological record. Intangible things relating to religion, for example, seldom leave an indelible imprint that can be detected hundreds or thousands of years later. Even if particular symbols, such as a crucifix or a Star of David, are discovered by archaeologists of the future, in the absence of written records, how will they know what those symbols mean?

The Binfords aren’t saying the archaeological record is complete or even necessarily completely decipherable. They are simply expressing an optimism that there is a lot more information encoded in the archaeological record than might be apparent at first glance. And they are issuing a challenge to archaeologists to work harder at figuring out how to get the most from the meager traces of the past we can manage to recover.

It is the optimism that I find so exhilarating. Why start from the premise that you can’t know something? Don’t limit yourself with preconceptions about what you think you can’t know. Instead, push yourself and the data to find hidden connections. Use your imagination in framing questions and in looking for answers. You won’t always ask the right questions, and you won’t always find the answers you’re looking for, but you’ll always learn something — even if it’s just another way not to make a light bulb.

This is the challenge I find so inspiring.

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