One of the characteristics of archaeology that I find most striking is how very little material archaeologists must (and do) use to derive a great deal of information. In history, everything is more often than not spelled out in plain ink – just right there in text, meaning exactly what it says and all too often precious little else. If Suetonius says that Nero killed his mother it means that Suetonius thought Nero killed his mother – or wanted us to think so – and while it also means that Suetonius probably didn’t like Nero very much, it doesn’t mean a great deal more than that. In archaeology nothing is spelled out like that. There are no real accounts to be believed or disbelieved, no voices from the past to doubt or credit. Instead there is this array of objects which, be they scarce or numerous, are utterly mute. The task of the archaeologist is not to validate them (though falsehood is occasionally a factor) but far more so to make them speak. And somehow, they do. When every object is related to those around it, to the context in which it belongs, a narrative can be formed, an image of people and their lives that is remarkably clear considering its taciturn source. From a sherd a pot can be extrapolated – from a pot, a culture.
That being said, the link between the tangible and the extrapolated can seem extraordinarily tenuous. To those used to gaining knowledge from the direct, transmitted word, learning that basic assumptions about an entire culture are based on the contents of a single grave or an ancient latrine can be deeply distressing. Sometimes, after being familiar with certain facts for years, it can be startling to discover what those facts are actually based on. Many of the assumptions archaeologists seem to make without batting an eyelash are logical leaps that I would hesitate to make. Does the presence of an artifact associated with a certain culture really indicate the presence of individuals from that group, or might it be indicative of trade between groups? Can a specific design on a pot really be used to date it, or was some craftsman merely feeling particularly creative that day? Though these are not necessarily the best examples, I frequently find myself challenging the necessary assumptions of archaeology in my head, wondering if that much can really be taken as given.
All fields, obviously, have assumptions they require to operate properly. One must assume that the laws of mathematics will never change before attempting to solve an equation, and presume the existence of an external world before tackling most questions of philosophy. The question, however, is in how much is permissible. Many of the assumptions of archaeology are most probably true. Many operate simply by Occam’s razor. But there will always be that question – how much can be extrapolated from each find? In an increasingly complex world where proof proves perpetually elusive, what is the acceptable distance for a leap of faith?