Leaps of Faith

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?

4 thoughts on “Leaps of Faith

  1. i agree completely with fact that some of the logical jumps made would be completely far fetched in most other fields but when you have only bits and pieces to build on i can only imagine that the jumps they make are probably way toned down from what they hope these artifacts mean or what they actually suspect. i for on would not want to guess how a knife of a similar kind found in Germany would also be found in Spain. but even in the event that these are in fact leaps of faith they make they must know that there has to be some ground under the mist because i’m sure that in archeology along with most other fields there were thousands who came before you that missed said ledge under the mist making your leap of faith clearer. i also do agree that when it is logically decided that these people were the first to do something i find it hard to believe that they had no prior help or inkling of what some one was doing elsewhere. also when you say that they may have been creative that day why is it that we only find final products we don’t see the missing links per say between first try and final product that we dig up and treasure or what is to say that we aren’t finding the missing links and the final product is hidden somewhere we have yet to uncover.

  2. What you have posted hear was quite interesting to me for many reasons, but on of the first things that came to mind was Ancient Aliens on the History channel. We briefly mentioned one of the masters of the “ancient astronaut theory”, Erich Von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods where he so boldly states that the pyramids were built by aliens, among other things. Von Daniken is a regular on Ancient Aliens, if you have ever seen it or noticed it. He has written countless amounts of novels on why/how we and everything on this planted are here because of aliens. It’s hard to say whether he, or anyone else on the show, really believe the things that are spewing out of their mouth, or if they are just doing it for the show and for some fame.
    My point is, these are, indeed, leaps of faith, but there is no definite line, or even a blurry one, that defines what we ought to believe. People come up with some really strange answers, but the best one is the one that 51% of people will accept. The show, Ancient Aliens, proves that anything could mean anything, no matter how outrageous it might be.
    Answers to unsolvable questions is a pursuit constantly be taken on by human; it’s hard to leave things unanswered. While coming up for a plausible answers, hypothesis with no thought start taking over. Unfortunately this pursuit has plagued the human race. Being a science major, one of the first things I learned is that nothing is certain, but it’s a hard thing to accept. I mean, (not to cause controversy) it is where all religion has stemmed from.
    Is there a point a which we won’t accept something, maybe, but it’s lost at this point. The line was crossed too many times, it is hard to tell where things are coming from now.

  3. I think it’s important to understand that the assumptions that we might find as rather large leaps tend to be justified by a large amount of evidence when examined in context. Surely, there will be exceptions – instances where the standard assumptions don’t apply – but by and large they are rather good theories.

    And there’s the word: theories. All archaeology, just as with all fields, has elements of doubt associated with its conclusions; however, there is enough supporting evidence and context that we can typically construct one – or a few – very good guesses as to the lives of people from long ago. We still acknowledge the possibility that these theories are incorrect, but we can defend them fairly well. So it’s not that the assumptions are large logical leap: we just lack the context in which these assumptions were crafted, and thus can’t completely understand the trends associated with a given site or time period.

    That said, you have a number of points that I find quite intriguing. You say that archaeology makes artifacts speak, and I believe this is very true. We give voices to these objects to observe the context in which we find them, and that comes with the inherent risk that we give the objects our voices. As people and as archaeologists, we must be careful not to project our own ideas onto the artifacts which we use to observe the past. If we formulate a hypothesis, we have to be willing to disprove it; if we go looking for a conclusion, we may impart our own biases into the objects we analyze.

  4. I really like the way you introduce this problem. You make it extremely clear how careful archaeologist must be to define something. I made a few comments on this subject in my second blog post, “ You don’t know what you don’t know… or do you?.” The amount of work an archaeologist must do to have an idea of the truth is outstanding. I did not say uncover the truth, because there, most of the time, will always be a second path or evolution of events. I chose the that title for my second blog post to reflect on the fact that no matter how much information can be gathered, at some point we must make an educated assumption. Archaeologies must extrapolate details based on the information that is presented to them to create the culture. You say, “Many of the assumptions archaeologist seem to make without batting an eyelash are logical leaps that I would hesitate to make.” I completely agree with you. This is exactly why I question the tautology of you don’t know what you don’t know. Because of this we must make assumptions and do so with the highest level of control and confidence while minimizing the risk we may be incorrect. This is where the scientific process comes into play while attempting to discover anything. A system is used to eliminate all external risks while allowing the researcher to strictly observe without other influence. However, we will never find every piece of missing pottery, fabric of clothing, or tool for hunting, so we must make educated assumptions to fill in the gaps. It is remarkable how we can say something is fact, when not all of the information is there if you your audience agrees.

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