You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know… Or Do You?

You don’t know what you don’t know. This is my favorite tautology for many reasons. However obvious the meaning is, many do not follow this simple sentence defined by itself in life.  When something astounding or unpredicted happens it seems as though the concept of logical thinking and, in fact, remembering that you don’t know what you don’t know for some reason just goes out of the window.  Just in my own experiences I can speak of two examples where such lack of reasoning and archaeology have crossed paths.

My first experience begins when I was only eight or nine years old on the sunny beaches of Florida. I was on vacation with my family bored on the beach, so I did what any boy would do and dug giant hole. Ignoring my inevitable sunburn, I dug for hours. Nearing the end of the day I put a chair down in what I believed to be my masterpiece to lay back and relax. As I sat down in a hole that was easily 4 feet deep I stepped on something sharp. I looked down and it was a carved piece of stone. It resembled an arrowhead only it was the size of my hand. Being only eight or nine years old I didn’t think much of it and though it was a perfect tool to carve out what was now becoming dense sand and rocks.  About another hour goes by as my mother comes by to gather me in for dinner only to find her son has seemingly dug himself into a hole he literally could not get out of. ( spoiler: she fetched a rope and I got out.. obviously ) I brought the hand sized sharp arrowhead like digging tool with me. After sharing it with my family we decided it must have been an old tool used by the Native Americans hundreds and hundreds of years ago. For a few days, I thought I had discovered a lost civilization or the like. The bittersweet outcome was that the hand sized sharp arrowhead like device I used for a digging tool was actually a huge shark tooth (which I obviously thought was much cooler… because I was nine years old).  The point of this story was myself, and my family, uneducated in the science of archeology, cultural history of the region, and wildlife history of the region were quick to jump to a conclusion simply because we didn’t know the facts. We had to make assumptions to fill in the gaps and that is not how one should discover what they don’t know.

The second story comes from 2006 when I was swimming in the blue waters of Capri, Italy. I once again stepped on something sharp ( I guess you could call it my lucky foot ) in the water. It turned out it was just coral but as I reached down to see what it was I noticed a white and blue painted rock. The rock was not just painted; it looked as though it was from a mosaic and there were layers upon layers of human elements added to the surface of this rock that was roughly 1 inch in diameter. I took it with me back on the tour bus and showed the 30 or 40 bus riders. When it reached our guide he gasped and said, “This could be pottery from Pompeii!” ( We were visiting Pompeii earlier that morning. ) Everyone on the bus gasped and instantly believed that I had discovered, once again, some kind of unknown deposit of cultural artifacts. Per Italian law I was forced to give up the object for research. I was notified a few months later that carbon dating put the piece from around the early 1900’s, much to recent to belong to someone who lived in Pompeii. Again, too often people make assumptions to fill in the gaps. I instantly had 30-40 fellow travelers believing something that was not true.

In archeology it is much more important to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know than to assume you know something you may not know as fact. Good science does not have to explain every detail, but only those that can be proven with fact. Good archeologist must also realize that they have no way of knowing what they don’t know and never attempt to fill in the gaps with something other than fact.

3 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know… Or Do You?

  1. I find this ironically apparent statement to be quite eye-opening. As humans we are naturally driven to complete the circle of logic. I genuinely feel uncomfortable being in a situation that lacks all ‘the pieces’. As such, these words of wisdom can be just what a person needs to hear when faced with a world of knowledge they can’ be in on. In the context of archaeology, this need to learn is what has kept the practice going for centuries. The process of discovering sites, researching, excavating, is merely the ‘getting information’ phase. The goal is always to learn something new about a civilization to fill in a gap. All we can do to learn about history is continually fill in these gaps and create theories about how the people lived.

    There was a time in my life when I committed the fatal fallacy of knowing what I don’t know. Like a young archaeologist I hoped to make a contribution to the timeline of life, but looking back on it I clearly didn’t know as much as I’d thought. Back when I was 8 years old, my family drove to the west coast through Yellowstone National Park. We spent a good two weeks exploring all the wonders the National Park has to offer. One morning, just as the sun was peeking out from the horizon, my Dad woke me up for a nature walk. We wandered animal paths, over bridges, past geysers. At one point, I was reading an information sign about a geyser, learning that it only erupts once every hundred year, as my Dad snapped pictures of every animal that passed us. I span myself around to make sure I was still within his vision, and when I looked back the geyser was erupting! I yelled at my Dad to follow and sprinted towards the information desk. To be fair on my young self, I thought I had just read that this geyser only erupts once a century. As the park ranger quickly explained to me, the main geyser barely erupts because the little ones around it erupt so commonly (this was what I had witnessed). I was embarrassed and disappointed.

    We can only ever know what we know, but we think we know all there is to know. That’s the ultimate human flaw, but it has kept us moving forward so I hope it never goes away.

  2. I find it fascinating that you have these interesting stories that relate back to this anthropology class and the captivating things that we learn about. These stories really give you some insight and its great how they make connections back to your personal life. And how you mentioned your discovery in Italy and people hoped that it was from the infamous Pompeii only because of it’s known archaeological fame, I find it parallel with that people assume a lot about archaeology from what they get from the media. Like when we learned about the mummy’s curse and how the newspapers created this scandal because they wanted to sell papers and the public believed them! And everyone’s fascination with the undiscovered Atlantis and the mystery that surrounds the legend. The media really emphasizes mystery and the power of the unknown civilizations to get the public intrigued and only for the interest of selling papers and making money by taking people’s imagination on a joy ride. And when you handed your artifact over to the Italian government and found out that it was really from the 1900s, the reality set in that it may be from the past, but it’s not the great Pompeii. But you are still very lucky to have found such interesting artifacts in both Florida and Italy, that’s something most people (other than archaeologists of course) couldn’t say and the fact that you personally relate back to this class is very interesting and I find that it gives you a reason to be personally interested in what we learn in class with your experiences.

  3. This is a great article, and very true. It gives some clear examples of what I mention in my article [Time, Knowledge, and the Pursuit of Truth]( In both cases, your belief of the identity of the item at which you were looking was based on the limited observation you had available at the time; you obviously didn’t recognize the shark tooth for what it was because you hadn’t seen one of that shape or size before, and you didn’t have access to carbon dating. Thus, the confusion over what the items were was understandable.

    I’ve had many similar experiences; given a lack of knowledge on a specific subject area, the human tendency is to believe that we’re smart enough to figure it out. In some cases, we can, but most of the time we simply gain enough knowledge to be dangerous. I can read all about all of the different types of pottery one can find in a certain area, but without the experience to go with the knowledge, I would be likely to make a mistake. Knowledge must be paired with experience.

    Keeping your simple tautology in mind while making these judgments is important to keep ourselves accountable. Believing that we can apply what we learn without actually confirming that we can, in fact, interpret the results properly more often than not results in just this situation.

    Even so, sometimes we are forced to make assumptions in situations in which expert advice is unavailable. We must take responsibility, however, for the results of those assumptions. From the tour bus, thirty or forty people today believe you found an ancient piece of Pompeiian pottery. Is this a real, tangible problem? Not likely. But suppose you had then sold it to a collector claiming it was highly valuable. That’s a very different situation.

    The moral to take away from this is as follows: when you know you’re out of your depth and must make a decision regardless of that fact, be mindful of the consequences in the event the assumption is wrong.

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