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Interpretation of Evidence

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 common examples.

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.

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