An Archaeologist in Lab Coat Land

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Dear Reader, I’m really thrilled to be on Scienceblogs! You see, I’m the first second or third scholar from the Arts wing that Seed‘s let in here. Archaeology was long seen as an adjunct to historical research, which is why it’s classed as a humanistic discipline and not a social science. We reconstruct societies lost in the mists of time. But our source material is concrete and hands-on: no parchment codices, no taped interviews or questionnaires. Historians dig through archives. Archaeologists dig stuff out of the ground and try to make sense of it. And we can only do that with the aid of methods nicked from the natural sciences.


I should probably tell you what we don’t do. Archaeologists know nothing about dinosaurs or early hominids. That’s palaeontology. Our business is stuff left behind by sentient beings: culture, not nature. We like bones, sure, but only if we find them in a cultural context. An elk killed and eaten by people is archaeology. An elk killed and eaten by wolves is not. Also, despite the similar words, archaeology is not architecture, though we do study ancient buildings, and it is not agronomy, though we do study ancient agriculture.

History covers about 5300 years, from the first cuneiform tablets until yesterday. Archaeology covers 2.5 million years, from the first stone tools made by furry Homo habilis people until yesterday. If there’s a historical record for the period and area we work in, then we are happy to collaborate with historians. But usually there’s not. In fact, today archaeology and history kind of see each other mutually as adjunct disciplines. Historians often don’t much like the kind of information we offer: no names, no military campaigns, no battles, no treaties, very little individuality at all. But we do offer concrete tactile experience of the past. And for most of those 2.5 million years, and for most people who ever lived, history can offer no information whatsoever. So if you want to know what life was like a long time ago, archaeology is generally your best bet. Your only bet, actually.

A big difference between archaeology and the natural sciences is our non-global scope. Chemistry works the same way in New York and Tokyo. But knowledge of the archaeology of New York state (which covers thousands of years), no matter how thorough, is useless in Tokyo. A New York archaeologist would of course be able to dig a square pit in Tokyo, sieve the spoil dirt, collect artefacts and draw the sections, but she wouldn’t understand much. It’s like doing chemistry if the periodic table were different in different areas. So archaeology really isn’t a single science: its techniques and models of interpretation are useful in the study of material culture everywhere, but the actual practice is fragmented into innumerable regional sub-disciplines.

I’m a southern Scandinavian archaeologist. I become more and more useless the farther I go from that area. Drop me in northern Sweden and I’m lost. But although temperate Northern Europe is the field you’ll be reading most about on this blog (Vikings! Megalithic tombs! Medieval castles! Mesolithic seal hunters!), I will occasionally comment on archaeological news from other parts of the world too. And then you should take anything I say with sound skepticism.

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24 thoughts on “An Archaeologist in Lab Coat Land

  1. I’m the first scholar from the Arts wing that Seed’s let in here

    *Ahem*. Also Janet and John Lynch.

    But you know things are at a pretty pass when Science refers to a blog by a philosopher as one of the top 100 science blogs…

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  2. WhooHoo! First Post! (I always wanted to say that)

    Congrats on the move! Its about time ScienceBlogs/Seed found another archaeologist! I’ll update my links this weekend.

    And when the Seed overlords finally figure out what a cool guy I am and invite me to the club, I’ll have to update the name to A AAA Alright Hot Cup of Joe to edge up to the top of the list 🙂

    Anyways, I’m glad to see you here. I’m sure you were on a short list of choices.

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  3. John Lynch is a historian and philosopher, I thought. He has evolutionary biology, but I don’t think he practices. I might be wrong, and he’ll come after me with a bottleopener and a bottle of wine.

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  4. Pharyngula was kind enough to give the good news. Welcome!

    I also like that scienceblogs becomes more international.

    An elk killed and eaten by wolves is not.

    I understand. But it makes me wonder – which role does null hypotheses play in archeology? Here it would point to number of elks and competing hunters.

    And are there different schools between Europe and US? Or am I thinking paleontology vs palaeontology here? Just curious about the background.

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  5. Thanks everyone for the props!

    Effect Measure editor, you know Swedish, impressive!

    Afarensis, your lot can’t form any other vowels, so you might as well make that “Aaafaransas”. (-;

    Torbjörn, I believe most Swedish archaeologists wouldn’t be able to explain what a null hypothesis is. As for your question, we never have a useful sample of dead elks. We’re happy to find a few bits of one elk per century for much of prehistory. Yes, there are lots of regional schools. Europe is still largely under the spell of a few authors active in Cambridge in the 80s.

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  6. Karen’s blog is what brings me here – but I’ll stay for the excellent writing! I’m afraid my knowledge of all things Scandinavian is limited to knitting, but I look forward to learning more.

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  7. Welcome from the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

    Glad to see an archaeologist here. I have always enjoyed reading and watching shows about archaeology. Years ago in my high school days I had an internship at the Smithsonian with a famous archaeologist and enjoyed a summer measuring stone tools all day.

    And historians who ignore archaeology ignore vital primary source data.

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  8. Trevligt med en svensk h�r. Men det skulle vara roligt att f� l�sa lite om norra Sveriges arkeologi, inte bara dessa eviga vikingar 😉

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  9. Hi Martin! Nice to see you online. We will get you added to the homepage blogroll soon. In the meantime, check yourself out as the homepage quote of the day…

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