Dear Reader, I’m really thrilled to be on Scienceblogs! You see, I’m the
first 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.