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.