Some Thoughts about Archaeological Proof
When the phrase "archaeological proof" is used it carries a lot of weight. It
is as if to say that "archaeological proof" means that the conclusion is
certain, that somehow it is written in stone. It is like the commercial that
reminds us that four out of five doctors prefer some product. How the evidence
has been collected is critical. Archaeology is an experiment that cannot be
redone. The trustworthiness and reliability of the researcher in the field is
essential for other researchers. You have learned something of this in previous
lessons. But after the data is collected, how is it interpreted? Is the
archaeologist swayed by bias? What is the nature of archaeological evidence and
what can we expect to learn from it? Today we will discuss briefly some
cautions about the interpretation of archaeological evidence.
First, while archaeological data might appear to be concrete evidence it is
always subject to interpretation. All researchers have things that they like
and things that they do not like. Usually someone studies something that they
like. We tend to pay more attention to the things we like or hope to find and
to overlook things that we do not like or would not expect to find. This is
natural and both researcher and reader should be aware of this. We also tend to
treat with greater care the things that we like. All of this is to say that
interpretation of archaeological evidence will be influenced by one's biases.
Be on the lookout for this in others and in yourself!
Second, we cannot expect too much from archaeology. While at times concrete,
definitive proof that needs no interpretation is discovered, more often that is
not the case. Archaeological evidence is often not absolute, but relative.
There are a number of reasons for this, the most important, however, is that we
frequently do not have all of the evidence. Do you know how many sites are
unexcavated? And even at a given site, who would dare to make bold claims until
further research was done? The best that can be done is to reconstruct probable
interpretations. These need to be carefully checked with all of the available
written evidence while further field work is done.
Third, the interpreter must use strict rules of logic while dealing with
evidence. For instance an important principle to remember is that the "absence
of evidence is not evidence of absence." Just because something has not
been found, that is not to say that it will not be found. The absence of
evidence is obviously a problem, particularly in archaeology. But it is only
crucial when it can be proven that one has no hope of ever finding what one is
lacking. On the other hand, beware of arguments that are intentionally
based on a lack of evidence. That is, some people claim that the fact that
there is no evidence proves something. This is called an argument from silence.
It must be rejected for lack of evidence. There are a number of rules of logic
that apply in a simple way to the interpretation of data. The above are a few
Fourth, archaeology deals with material answers for questions of chronology.
But what does archaeological evidence tells us about dating? Very careful rules
of logic have to be applied when interpreting evidence to avoid falling into
some big mistakes in dating and interpretation. For instance, the latest
dateable item at a particular surface level provides the earliest
possible date for that level, assuming that the late item was not deposited at a
later date. For example, if coins were found in a sealed layer dating from the
eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that layer must date from the
thirteenth century or later. This is not definitive proof, however, that that
particular layer dates as early as the thirteenth century. The principle of
terminus post quem is that the find of the latest date provides the earliest
possible date for a level. Archaeological evidence can also provide a date
before which something else must have happened. This is called the
terminus ante quem. If layers are sealed by a layer that is dated without
question, then everything beneath that dated layer must be earlier. These are
two important concepts that are used for establishing the relative chronology of
a site. You can imagine how tricky interpretation of data must be and yet
chronology is critical for understanding the story of the past.
So the next time you hear someone say that he or she has archaeological proof,
be cautious. Remember everything is subject to interpretation. All researchers
are biased. We know far less than what has been lost to us through time and
what yet needs to be discovered. Socrates, a Greek philosopher, said that the
more he learned, the less he felt he knew. That is not to say that we should
not be convinced by evidence. There is great reason for certainty, but greater
reason and need for humility. Finally, always think clearly and use careful
rules of logic.