Underwater Archaeology Bonus Blog: The Importance of Bias

Attending Dr. Potrebica’s lecture on Croatian underwater archaeology was very interesting and informative. It is hard to believe how much time and effort is involved in processing sites that are difficult to locate, and are often plundered. While all the facts were certainly interesting, what really struck a chord with me was Dr. Potrebica briefly mentioning that archaeology is supposed to tell a story of the past, and of people’s daily lives. This reminded me of the previous in-class guest lecturer Jon Frey mentioning that up until recently archaeologists had been focusing almost entirely on elites, rather than commoners. While it sometimes may be difficult to discover much about the common person, this is no excuse for bias. Both Dr. Potrebica and Frey really reminded me of the degree of potential bias in archaeology, and the importance of the archaeologists themselves in shaping the information taken from a site.
While bias is an obvious problem that is constantly being addressed, I feel that another sneaky issue is just as important: how the archaeologist him or herself affects the study. From what Dr. Potrebica said on the various case studies around the Adriatic, it appears that the archaeologists are doing their best to be as scientific and precise as possible. It is good that they are using specialists to restore artifacts, otherwise the data would be skewed. How the artifacts are restored will affect an archaeologist’s interpretation of them, even if it is at the subconscious level. These specialists will be the main players in underwater archaeology not only because there are not enough for the demand (as Dr. Potrebica stated), but also because of their subtle role in affecting interpretation of data.
Archaeology is supposed to be more than categorizing artifacts or assessing complexity, it is supposed to show how a people lived. I am glad that the archaeologists in Croatia looked at more than just the cargo of the shipwrecks, they also tried to identify who the crew was and how they lived by looking at regular items such kitchen tools. While such items may not seem important, they can tell great deal about the people who used them, from basic subsistence to reasonable inferences on more vague topics such as ideology or social structure. Archaeology is an incredibly informative field, rich in knowledge and understanding. It is unfortunate that this knowledge is often hampered by bias or misunderstandings. Whenever reading any archaeological studies, one must always be on the lookout for bias and be aware of the flexibility of interpretation.

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