Science and Archaeology (Humanities): collaboration or confrontation?

Allentoft Corded Ware

Another discussion on the role of Science for Archaeology, in The Two Cultures and a World Apart: Archaeology and Science at a New Crossroads, by Tim Flohr Sørensen, Norwegian Archaeological Review, vol. 50, 2 (2017):

Within the past decade or so, archaeology has increasingly utilised and contributed to major advances in scientific methods when exploring the past. This progress is frequently celebrated as a quantum leap in the possibilities for understanding the archaeological record, opening up hitherto inaccessible dimensions of the past. This article represents a critique of the current consumption of science in archaeology, arguing that the discipline’s grounding in the humanities is at stake, and that the notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is becoming distorted with the increasing fetishisation of ‘data’, ‘facts’ and quantitative methods. It is argued that if archaeology is to break free of its self-induced inferiority to and dependence on science, it must revitalise its methodology for asking questions pertinent to the humanities.

Commentators in the discussion include:

The answer of Sørensen to them is on Archaeological Paradigms: Pendulum or Wrecking Ball?. Excerpts:

Thus, I argue that what we are witnessing with ‘the third science revolution’ (Kristiansen 2014) is precisely the proliferation of an already very authoritative science ideal in archaeology. And I worry that this dominance will limit research possibilities and potentials rather than encouraging plurality and radical experimentation with different forms of knowing.
I do believe in the coexistence of disparate academic principles and that collaboration is very often necessary, but I am also of the conviction that some degree of epistemological friction keeps both fields of research progressing. Nurturing distinctions, in other words, is no less useful than aiming for assimilation. What I am arguing for is thus a more respectful friction than the one characterising the processual/post-processual collisions, hoping for an academic environment where differences between research ideals are humbly accepted and cultivated precisely for their disparate strengths.
So, what I am arguing for is a more kaleidoscopic academic landscape, where different positions do not always have to assume a defensive or compromising stance, especially in confrontation with paradigms that are prospering politically. This also implies that science is not simply in the service of archaeology, as Lidén argues, but that we need to consider how archaeology may benefit science more generally by continuing to debate epistemological grounds, methodology and our modes of inquiry. And so, my fellow archaeologists: ask not what science can do for us, but what we can do for science.
In my original article, I addressed the widespread tendency in archaeology to disseminate research findings with sometimes too much conviction, where ambiguous results (and limited statistical data) are adopted with little concern for the inherent uncertainties. It is precisely this valorisation and authority of scientific observations that I claim to lead to an implicit devaluation of studies based in the humanities. The problem is – as stated numerous times in my original article – not science, but the consumption of scientific observations in archaeology, where the subtleties and not least ambiguities of scientific results are filtered out, leaving space almost exclusively for scientifically ‘proven’ facts and unequivocal results. This mode of consumption stands in direct contrast to the epistemological observation in the sciences, dictating that ‘“proof” and “certainty” are actually in short supply in the world of science’ (Freudenburg et al. 2008, p. 5). Hence, the risk is that archaeology somewhat uncritically adopts scientific observations that are in fact ‘empirically underdetermined – based largely on evidence that is in the category of the “maybe,” being inherently ambiguous rather than being absolutely clear-cut’ (Freudenburg et al. 2008, p. 6).

As I said recently on the article Massive Migrations…, by Martin Furholt, we are living a historical debate on essential questions for the future of all these disciplines.

And, as always, there is no shortcut to reading the texts. Unlike in Science, you cannot write a table with a summary of findings…

Discovered (again) via a comment on this blog by Joshua Jonathan.

Featured image from Allentoft et al. “They conclude that the Corded Ware culture of central Europe had ancestry from the Yamnaya. Allentoft et al. also show that the Afanasievo culture to the east is related to the Yamnaya, and that the Sintashta and Andronovo cultures had ancestry from the Corded Ware. Arrows indicate migrations — those from the Corded Ware reflect the evidence that people of this archaeological culture (or their relatives) were responsible for the spreading of Indo-European languages. All coloured boundaries are approximate.”