About Archaeology


It is unlikely that you will ever come across two archaeologists who will agree exactly what
archaeology is. Some do not even see it as a subject in its own right. Obviously the word archaeology or archeology if you prefer has a dictionary meaning, but even here agreement
is not universal. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (7th edn, 1985), for example, states that
archaeology is the study of human antiquities, especially of the prehistoric period and usually
by excavation : a good traditional view of the subject! Webster’s International Dictionary (3rd
edn, 1986), however, sees archaeology as the scientific study of extinct peoples or of past
phases of the culture of historic peoples through skeletal remains and objects of human
workmanship found in the earth”. To non-archaeologists, archaeology involves three crucial
elements: the past,material remains and excavation. To many archaeologists, however, the
meaning of the word and the discipline is more flexible and has shifting meaning. When exactly
is ‘the past’? It is not now, but it certainly was when you read the last sentence.
Most archaeologists agree that archaeology must have a material element for example,
“Archaeology: a sub-discipline of anthropology involving the study of the human past through
its material remains” (Renfrew and Bahn 1991) or “Archaeology: use of human remains to solve
the problems of another discipline, such as anthropology or art history” (Rouse 1992). It is the
study of human material remains that makes archaeology different from anthropology which,
among other things, can study intact human material culture, not just its remains. Archaeology
is different from history in that it requires the remains to be studied, not just written descriptions of these remains. Not all remains have, however, been lost or buried and require excavation to reveal them. The Great Wall of China (Fig. 1.1) or the Parthenon in Athens are remains, but neither has ever been lost or required much in the way of excavation to reveal them. Clearly, the study of material remains can be used in other disciplines: anthropology, art history or history – but archaeological methodology, theory and aims make it essentially different from these other
disciplines. The fact that economists use the techniques of mathematicians in no ways makes
mathematics a sub-discipline of economics. Equally, the fact that archaeology provides data for
anthropology or history in no way makes it a sub-discipline of these subjects. Archaeology is
its own subject with its own theory, methodology and aims. Archaeologists are therefore dealing with the remains of past peoples, societies and cultures. Remains have a tendency to be lost, buried and forgotten, so archaeology has developed a range of methods to recover partial remains. It has borrowed and adapted techniques, methods and theories from other disciplines but made them very much its own. In addition it has developed its own methods of studying palimpsests in the landscape and its own unique methods of excavation. Archaeological excavation has its own theoretical basis, often passed by word of mouth from excavator to excavator rather than formally set down in textbooks. In addition, archaeology has adopted, adapted and evolved its own theoretical basis for the interpretation of the past through the study of material remains.
If we consider archaeology to be the study of the past through the study of material remains, clearly archaeology becomes an enormous subject with time-depth back to the dawn of human existence and up to just before now. Geographically it covers the whole of the worlds surface, the surface of the moon and all those scraps of failed hardware lost in space. Archaeology,
however, is not just rubbish-collection. Not all material remains left by humans have the same
value to archaeologists. To merely collect rubbish is not only a waste of the resources available
to archaeologists but also gets archaeology a bad name with the wider public who generally,
although they often do not know it, are footing the bill. Archaeologists who systematically
record the position of a coke bottle or tin foil from a cigarette wrapper and then carefully bag and curate it as part of the archaeology of the site just make themselves (and other archaeologists) look silly. The presence of such artefacts may be significant in indicating modern disturbance, but nothing more. Note it and return it to a new archaeological context, your site backfill. Even within the archaeological context of a period like the neolithic in Europe or the archaic in North America, not all material remains have the same value to archaeologists. A few broken shells on a coastal site may have less significance than the same shells hundreds of miles inland. On a medieval site the bulk of the material remains may be shattered roof-tiles which, although important, will not provide as much information as the much smaller assemblages of pottery or metalwork. Not all remains of human activity are of equal importance in the interpretation of the past. It is the job of the archaeologist to select what he or she considers to be important and then concentrate effort on that material. Archaeologists therefore locate rubbish in the landscape, carefully select and record that rubbish and then, through analysis of that rubbish and the application of a variety of theoretical perspectives, produce a story about the past. Archaeologists cannot reconstruct the past; the past is gone for ever. What they can do is create a series of stories or interpretations about what  it may have been like in the past. They do this by collecting as many facts about the past asthey can. A pot is a fact. We can say how it is made, what it is made of, perhaps where it was made and, from residues, what it contained. We can perhaps say what date it was made. From, then on it can be woven into a story of what life was like in, say, the neolithic period. To produce a story about what it was like in the past, archaeologists must put their material remains into the context of natural remains also surviving in the landscape. Were the people you are studying living in a forest, on grassland, by a river or by a former shoreline? This environmental context can be studied through the associated discipline of environmental archaeology. Through the study of naturally occurring  although perhaps humanly modified  remains like pollen, shells or soils, an environmental story can also be built up. Both the human story and the environmental story have facts, theories and interpretations. This book will concentrate on the recovery of facts but they have no value unless they form part of evolving theories and interpretations about the past.
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