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date: 07 December 2019

Archaeological Theories and Archaeological Sciences

Abstract and Keywords

Archaeological theory and archaeological science have traditionally been characterized as concerned with different issues and unable to interact productively. In this chapter, we present a brief history of the relationship between these two subdisciplines, and some clarification of the differences between scientific archaeology and archaeological science. We then focus on examples of recent and current projects to argue that we should no longer differentiate between archaeologists on the one hand and archaeological scientists on the other, since many leading practitioners of archaeological sciences are both. We contend that science-based archaeology today plays an important role in the formulation of new theories, and in challenging long-standing assumptions in archaeology and numerous other fields (e.g. ecology). Archaeological science is central to contemporary archaeological theory and practice, and will become increasingly important in the foreseeable future.

Keywords: materiality, chaîne opératoire, archaeological science, archaeometry, two cultures


Archaeological science has historically been accused of irrelevance to archaeological concerns, and some archaeologists have long maintained that there is no theory in archaeological science. These critics are situated all across the spectrum of Anglo/American/Scandinavian archaeological theory. Archaeological science has been characterized as atheoretical by processual archaeologists (e.g. Clark 2010), post-processual archaeologists (e.g. Edmonds 1990; Thomas 1990; 1991; Jones 2002; 2004; Dobres 2010), evolutionary archaeologists (e.g. Dunnell 1993; Shott 2010), and archaeologists of uncertain affiliation (e.g. Knapp 2000).

While we acknowledge that there has been some pointless scientific analysis of archaeological materials—answers in search of questions, as it were—we shall try in this chapter to defend archaeological scientists against the charge that they are incapable of understanding, applying, or developing archaeological theory. We maintain that many archaeological scientists are perfectly capable of finding important research questions in archaeology by themselves. We shall also show that some archaeological scientists have made important contributions to archaeological theory, though their work has often gone unrecognized by self-designated archeological theorists.

Before we list some of the contributions of archaeological scientists to archaeological theory, we want to examine some of the critical comments cited above, and to address some of the misunderstandings that many archaeologists have about science in general, and archaeological science in particular.

Archaeological science and scientific archaeology

The distinction between ‘archaeological science’ (or archaeometry) on the one hand and ‘scientific archaeology’ on the other is crucial but is widely misunderstood. ‘Archaeological science’ refers to the development and application in archaeology of techniques and concepts drawn from the natural sciences and engineering, without reference to any particular brand of archaeological theory. ‘Scientific archaeology’, on the other hand, is the conviction that archaeology should model its methods of inquiry and inference upon those of the natural sciences, whether or not the scientific archaeologist uses methods drawn from the natural sciences.

As discussed in ‘Positivist and Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science’ (this volume), processual archaeology, which originated in the USA in the early 1960s, had an explicit attachment to neo-positivist philosophy of science, and sought to redesign archaeological inquiry according to the prescriptions of certain neo-positivist philosophers. The New Archaeology of Lewis Binford and his associates (e.g. Binford 1962; 1977; 1982), the Behavioral Archaeology of Michael Schiffer (e.g. Schiffer 1975; 1987; 1988; 2001; 2005), and the evolutionary archaeology of Robert Dunnell (e.g. Dunnell 1981; 1982) and successors (e.g. O’Brien and Shennan 2010) all reflect the influence of neo-positivist philosophers of science, especially Ernest Nagel, Rudolf Carnap, and Carl Hempel. Hempel’s nomological-deductive prescription for scientific inquiry (e.g. Hempel 1965) was particularly influential in the USA, where it still is the foundation for much archaeological research design, and it is still taught as ‘the scientific method’ in most American high schools.

The important point here is that archaeologists of these persuasions consider that they are doing scientific archaeology whether they use the archaeological sciences or not. In general, scientific archaeologists are favourably disposed to archaeological sciences, but some of the most prominent among them (e.g. Binford 1981; Schiffer 1986; 1987; O’Brien and Shennan 2010) do not generally use the methods from the physical and biological sciences themselves, though they are happy to interpret results generated by archaeological and other scientists. The common factor among many of the leading advocates of ‘scientific archaeology’ is missionary fervour—the conviction that their brand of scientific archaeology is the only true path (for an entertaining compilation of statements of this sort by evolutionary archaeologists, see Pluciennek 2012).

Archaeological science, on the other hand, is agnostic with respect to archaeological theory. Some archaeological scientists are neo-positivists, but many—including both the authors of this chapter—are not (e.g. Killick 2004; Martinón-Torres 2008b). Scientific methods offer sets of tools and concepts that archaeologists of any theoretical persuasion can profitably employ. Even postmodern archaeologists who once viewed archaeological science with disdain (see ‘Postmodern archaeologies’, this volume, and some chapters in Hodder 1995) are now happy to incorporate the findings of scientific investigations in their own humanistic and multivocal narratives about the past. The long-term interdisciplinary project led by Ian Hodder at Çatalhöyük (e.g. Hodder 2005) is perhaps the most notable example of retreat from the anti-science mentality that dominated British archaeological theory in the 1990s.

Brief historical background

Natural scientists applied scientific reasoning to infer the relative ages of some archaeological sites (such as Stonehenge and Avebury) from the late 17th century, some 200 years before the emergence of archaeology as a discipline (Daniel 1975). By the early 20th century, pioneer geoarchaeologists, dendrochronologists, and archaeological palynologists sought close cooperation with archaeologists, often doing joint fieldwork with them. Numerous scientists also contributed occasional studies of archaeological materials (Pollard and Heron 1996: 3–6; Pollard et al. 2007), though many of these were published as unintegrated appendices. By the 1960s, laboratory-based chemical, provenance and dating studies were widespread in Europe and America.

Some archaeologists trained in the humanities found the wholesale intrusion of science into archaeology to be profoundly distasteful. A key exchange took place in the journal Antiquity between the eminent classical archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes and Glynn Isaac, then a rising star in what was beginning to be called palaeoanthropology (Hawkes 1968; Isaac 1971). Hawkes, channelling Alexander Pope (‘the proper study of mankind is man’), argued forcefully that archaeology should focus upon the humanistic interpretation of past lives. Isaac’s response was that most of the archaeological record could not be addressed from this perspective, and he concluded that increasing reliance upon scientific techniques was both appropriate and inevitable.

The Hawkes–Isaac exchange must be situated within the general climate in British academia at the time, and related in particular to the debate that followed the ‘Two Cultures’ lecture delivered by C. P. Snow at Cambridge in 1959. Snow claimed that mutual mistrust and incomprehension between humanists and natural scientists posed a major barrier to the application of technology towards solving the problems of the world’s poor (Snow 1959; see also Snow 1993). This led to an acrimonious response from the literary critic F. R. Leavis, and the echoes of this exchange still reverberate within British and American universities (see overview in Ortolano 2009). Leavis—and many others in the humanities—reacted with utter disdain to Snow’s assertion that those who did not understand the laws of thermodynamics could not be considered truly educated; but there could be no question that science in general (and physics in particular) was in the ascendancy between 1950 and 1980. Science was lavishly funded by central governments, while support for the humanities languished, so scholars in the humanities had reason to feel threatened.

More archaeologists appear to have agreed with Isaac than with Hawkes, and during the 1970s and 1980s the range of scientific techniques applied to archaeology expanded enormously. The ‘New Archaeology’ that was dominant in the Americas during these decades had a distinctly uncritical enthusiasm for science, with Colin Renfrew as one of its most prominent advocates in Britain. But the more culture-historical archaeology practised in Francophone and German-speaking countries, as well as in Japan, was also increasingly keen on the application of scientific methods.

While applications of science produced some definite triumphs in archaeology, they also produced many headaches. Experienced archaeological scientists were scarce, so many archaeologists resorted to ad hoc collaborations with local scientists who had little understanding of archaeological data and their context. The result was an epidemic of flawed studies. In 1981, a round table of leading archaeologists and archaeological scientists was organized to discuss this issue (Olin 1982). Some of the archaeologists present complained that scientists produced data that addressed no archaeologically meaningful questions, and that, when the information was of archaeological interest, this was obscured by jargon and technicalities in such a way that it could not be fruitfully exploited. In their turn, some archaeological scientists complained about archaeologists’ ignorance of the potentials and limitations of scientific methods, and about the lack of programmes to train students in both science and archaeology. Several remedies were proposed, the most important of which was that a cadre of students should be trained in both archaeology and scientific methods. Similar complaints about the irrelevance of science in archaeology continued into the early 1990s (e.g. Atley and Bishop 1991; Edmonds 1990; Thomas 1990, 1991; Dunnell 1993).

Some misunderstandings of science by archaeological theorists

From the early 1960s science itself was under sustained attack from some philosophers. By the 1980s these critiques had taken root in archaeology, initially in Britain, leading to the movement that has been called postmodern or post-processual archaeology. Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Tilley were its most prolific proponents. We will start by asking why many Anglo-Scandinavian post-processual archaeological theorists were so strongly opposed to science in the 1990s and 2000s. As noted in ‘Positivist and Post-Positivist Philosophy of Science’ (this volume), the turn against science in archaeology followed attempts by philosophers (especially Feyerabend) and by sociologists of science (Barnes, Bloor, Latour) to deny any special epistemological standing to science. We will focus here on the role of Bruno Latour, who has been particularly influential among post-processual archaeologists, as shown by frequency of citation. In Laboratory Life (Latour and Woolgar 1979) and Science in Action (Latour 1987), he argued that ‘scientific facts’ are, in large part, cultural constructs that scientists turn into unquestioned ‘black boxes’ through the use of impressive locations (laboratories), mysterious machinery, impenetrable jargon, and false claims of intellectual rigour.

These books are much cited by post-processual archaeologists, who appear to see them as ethnographic exposés. The problem with this is that almost none of these archaeological theorists demonstrated any understanding of science or any experience of the actual practices of working scientists and scientific laboratories (Gosden 2005). They therefore missed the point that Latour was not wholly serious. He had the intent of provoking a reaction, of puncturing the inflated self-regard of certain scientists—and in this he succeeded brilliantly. But if one claims to be fundamentally reinterpreting science, even with tongue partly in cheek, one had better understand it correctly. Eventually two physicists took a close look at Science in Action, and at Latour’s representation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and delivered a devastating critique (Sokal and Bricmont 1998: chs 4 and 6). They showed that Latour’s writings (on physics, at least) are factually wrong and intellectually incoherent. In the end, Latour published a sharp critique of his own and other work on the social construction of science (Latour 2004). This is almost never cited by archaeologists, but should be, for it offers a number of sensible recommendations for critical inquiry that fit the nature of archaeological evidence quite well.

Latour’s two early books are still widely cited by archaeologists, and in some cases they appear to have encouraged archaeologists to think that they don’t really need archaeological scientists to interpret scientific ‘facts’. The reader may think that we are engaging in caricature here, but unfortunately we are not. Consider this passage from a widely cited volume entitled Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice:

The production of my facts concerning the presence of fatty acids which indicate cattle milk within the pottery vessels I was studying involves the drawing together and articulation of a whole series of other facts. These facts are effectively ‘back boxes’ that have been previously generated and on which I rely in order to generate further meaningful factual information. If I were to re-examine these ‘black boxes’ from the point of view of fatty acids, I would be forced to re-examine the chemistry of fatty acids, which would ultimately lead me into a review of the chemistry of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and ultimately to sub-atomic physics. If I want to enquire about the validity of the Gas Chromatography unit or the integrator, this would lead me into the elution characteristic of the various gas phase particles on capillary columns, or for the integrator into characteristics of microchip technology. However, my interests are in the generation of information concerning food use in a particular period of human history. Like most scientists concerned with the generation of more factual information I have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate these other avenues of information. Instead, I take them as read; I ‘black-box’ them.

(Jones 2002: 33).

The belief that scientific instruments can deliver ‘meaningful factual information’ directly to the archaeologist is not restricted to post-processual archaeology. Two prominent American archaeologists—one a processualist, the other an evolutionary archaeologist—have recently argued against increasing the role of archaeological science in the training of American archaeologists. They argue instead that what American graduate students really need instead is more and better archaeological theory (Clark 2010; Shott 2010). In Shott’s metaphor, archaeological scientists are just mechanics—only archaeologists should drive the car, and they can do so without understanding how the car runs (Shott 2010). In his view, the role of the scientist is to deliver ‘facts’ to the archaeologist, who will do the interpretation of them. Some scientists who analyse archaeological remains may seem to share this view, but we would argue that they are a minority—and that they are not representative of current archaeological science.

These comments (and there are many others like them in the archaeological literature) are symptomatic of a profound misunderstanding of scientific instruments and of the ‘facts’ that they generate. Gas chromatographs do not identify samples as milk proteins, and a petrographic microscope won’t whisper in your ear that the piece of Lapita pottery that you are examining in thin section was made on New Caledonia. As Thomas Kuhn showed more than fifty years ago, scientific measurements are always made within theoretical frameworks (Kuhn 1962). Kuhn was interested in high-level theories, which he called paradigms, but in any science there are invariably lower-level bodies of theory that inform the measurement or observation, and others that are invoked in the interpretation of the ‘facts’ emerging from scientific instruments. These theories condition the data that is brought to bear upon questions generated by high-level theory.

Since Jones, Schott, and many others think that the scientific data presented to them are ‘facts’, and are resolutely uninterested in understanding how those ‘facts’ are produced, they are consequently unable to evaluate the quality and reliability of these data. In fact, at the time that Jones wrote his book it was not yet possible to distinguish with certainty between milk fats and adipose (body) fat in organic residues—this requires the measurement of the carbon isotope ratios of the fractions separated by gas chromatography (first published by Copley et al. 2003). Interpretation of these ratios requires mastering additional bodies of theory and data on the fractionation of light isotopes during photosynthesis and mammalian digestion.

Identifying the source of the rock temper in a Lapita pot also requires knowledge of several nested sets of theory, and the large bodies of data associated with them. First one has to understand the theory of crystallography; then the theory of how polarized light interacts with crystals; then how to identify minerals in thin section (mineralogy); then how minerals are combined into rocks (petrology). And this is just to identify the rock fragments! To establish a possible source region for a Lapita pot, one has also to understand the geology of the Pacific, which requires a good understanding of the theories of plate tectonics and of igneous and sedimentary geology and geochemistry (Dickinson 2006).

The point here is that archaeological and other scientists employ theory every day, and have often mastered multiple bodies of theory. They should not therefore be presumed to be incapable of understanding archaeological theory. In fact, as we show in the following sections, archaeological scientists have made substantial contributions to theoretical issues that are of wide interest in archaeology today.

Some contributions of archaeological sciences to archaeological theories


This has been one of the most widely debated concepts in Anglo-American archaeological theory during the past decade (e.g. Schiffer and Miller 1999; de Marrais et al. 2004; Jones 2004; Tilley 2004; Meskell 2005; Miller 2005; Ingold 2007; Boivin 2008). We will simply remind the reader that users of this term typically express the conviction that individual and social personae are shaped not solely by language but also by repeated interaction with natural materials and with manufactured objects, and that the sensorial aspects of materials are key to the ways in which they are culturally valued and used. Although the accounts cited above generally trace the appearance of materiality in archaeology back to arguments within Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the mid 1990s, none of them acknowledge prior use of the concept in the archaeological sciences. However, many ethnoarchaeologists and archaeological scientists were already integrating material properties, perception, production and consumption before the term ‘materiality’ was coined in the mid-1980s.

The key figure in earlier work was the solid-state physicist and historian of technology Cyril Stanley Smith, a co-founder of the journal Technology and Culture in 1959. From the early 1970s he advanced the radical view that many technologies were not invented for the functions with which we now associate them, but as ways of extending sensuous engagement with the material world through the creation of new shapes, textures, colours, and sounds (Smith 1982; Killick and Fenn 2012). This theory has since been confirmed for fired clay ceramics (Vandiver et al. 1989), lime and gypsum plasters (Kingery et al. 1986), glass (Nicholson 2007), and metal (Stech 1990). Smith inspired a group in the eastern USA that included materials scientists (David Kingery, Robert Gordon, Michael Notis, Donald Avery, Robert Maddin), archaeological scientists (Heather Lechtman, Nikolaas van der Merwe, Pamela Vandiver, Vincent Pigott), and historians (Jules Prown, Eugenia Herbert) to investigate linkages between the material properties and the social significance of materials and manufactures (e.g. Lechtman 1977; 1984; Kingery and Vandiver 1986; Kingery 1996). During the 1980s these scholars trained a younger generation of American archaeologists to combine anthropology, archaeology, and materials sciences, and to apply their interdisciplinary training to studying the social contexts of technology and the social roles of materials (e.g. Childs 1991; Gordon and Killick 1993; Hosler 1994; Epstein 1996). Members of this group were also strongly influenced by the STS framework, by contemporary work in France (especially by Lemonnier 1992; 1993), and some were simultaneously involved in ethnoarchaeology, to which the study of materiality had been central since the early 1970s (see overview in David and Kramer 2001).

The realization that archaeological science can be productively employed in the study of materiality came relatively late to Britain (Sillar and Tite 2000; Boivin 2004; Jones 2004). Many of the ethnographic or ethnoarchaeological studies of materiality have been done by western observers working in Africa, India, and Central and South America. As outsiders, these trained observers can see relationships between objects and people that are not readily apparent to insiders, for whom these relationships are unremarkable because they are habitual. These relationships are not directly observable in archaeological contexts, but an interdisciplinary scholar trained in material science, the history of technology, anthropology, and archaeology can, in the right circumstances, still be an effective outsider. A good illustration of the power of an interdisciplinary approach is Pamela Vandiver’s study of the materiality of unfired and fired clay at Dolni Vestonice some 26,000 years ago (Vandiver et al. 1989). Similarly, only science-informed studies of technology can explain the change in the materiality of iron that takes place in many African societies, as the material proceeds from the smelting furnace—where the iron bloom was often thought of as the foetus of a furnace wife—to the smithy, where, after ‘birth’, it became a commodity to be forged and sold (Childs 1991; Childs and Killick 1993; Herbert 1993; Schmidt 1997). Yet some leading European archaeological theorists continue to circle the wagons to keep the archaeological sciences from penetrating their inner circle. It is quite remarkable that Ingold (2007) should criticize theorists of materiality for failing to consider the actual nature of materials, stating that ‘archaeologists have a unique contribution to make to understanding the world of materials’, yet neglect to cite a single one of the many interdisciplinary studies that make just exactly this contribution!

Phenomenological approaches to materiality are in vogue, but are limited by the static quality of their analyses, as seen for example in Tilley’s book on the materiality of stone (Tilley 2004). Ingold (2007) raises this problem by asking his reader to examine a pebble both wet and dry, but this is a trivial example. Critics of the recent literature on materiality have complained that it focuses myopically on consumption, largely ignoring production (Killick 2005; Ingold 2007; Hurcombe 2007a, 2007b; but see Martinón-Torres and Rehren 2009). Through a materials-based understanding of production, archaeological scientists can make significant contributions to the study of materiality. More generally, greater integration of archaeological science can revive the study of materiality, which has grown stale in recent years because many of its leading advocates have wandered into ever more abstract debates that drift further and further away from actual archaeological data. Ian Hodder’s recent examination of the materiality of clay at Neolithic Çatalhöyük (Hodder 2012) is a good example of how to build a discussion of materiality on a scientific understanding of the properties of a material (see also Vandiver et al. 1989).

The social construction of technologies

An important area in which the archaeological sciences have had a substantial impact on theory is in the development of the concepts of ‘technological styles’ (Lechtman 1977) or ‘technological choices’ (Lemonnier 1992; 1993; Sillar and Tite 2000). We regard these approaches as essentially advancing the same argument, which has two parts:

  1. (1) that there is usually more than one potential technology for making anything to satisfy a given human desire, whether it be for a tool, for shelter, for sustenance, for pleasure or for communication with the supernatural; and

  2. (2) that the choice of one technology over another may reflect social preferences, whether explicit or unconscious, rather than selection for increased economic or ergonomic efficiency.

The ‘technological choices’ school emerged in Francophone archaeology with little (if any) influence from archaeological scientists. It began with the work of André Leroi-Gourhan, who in the 1950s introduced the concept of châines opératoires (see especially Leroi-Gourhan 1964). The ‘technological styles’ approach in archaeology originated with the group of materials scientists/archaeological scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The main figures in this were Cyril Stanley Smith and his colleagues Heather Lechtman and David Kingery. Lechtman (1977) introduced the term ‘technological style’, and produced a number of classic studies (e.g. Lechtman 1979) that used archaeometallurgical analysis to reveal a distinctly Andean value system in the relation of the body composition to surface appearances in gold and copper alloys; she was subsequently able to show that the same value system existed in Andean woven textiles (Lechtman 1984). Another high point is the book Ceramic Masterpieces (Kingery and Vandiver 1986), in which art history, archaeology, and materials science are seamlessly blended in the examination of twenty selected ceramic objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the 20th century. Of particular interest here are the striking differences in the historical trajectories of Chinese and European ceramics, as seen in selection of raw materials, their processing, the scales of production, and the aesthetic preferences they express. The MIT approach also strongly influenced studies by North American scholars of iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa. These combined ethnoarchaeology with materials science (e.g. David et al. 1989; Childs 1991; Gordon and Killick 1993; Schmidt 1997). The metaphorical links between iron smelting, gender, and power that were revealed by these studies (e.g. Herbert 1993) remain some of the most compelling case studies of the social constructionist approach to the study of technology.

The publication of Lemonnier’s Elements for an Anthropology of Technology (1992) marked the beginning of a merger of ‘technological choice’ with ‘technological style’, and subsequent archaeological and ethnoarchaeological research on the social construction of technologies has had a markedly international character, often integrating scientific approaches (Sillar and Tite 2000; Killick 2004). Since 2000, some of the best work on ancient technologies has involved the reconstruction of chaînes opératoires, an approach that combines a ‘rigorous methodological framework’ in investigating the processes of manufacture, with a ‘theoretically informed commitment’ to explain these within the relevant sociocultural context (Schlanger 2005: 26 and references therein). Archaeological scientists are among those putting this strategy into daily use, and the phrase ‘technological choice’ is increasingly seen or heard in conferences, journals, and monographs of archaeological science (for example, the term appears in c.70 papers published in Archaeometry and the Journal of Archaeological Science between 2000 and 2010).

Models of technological change

Formal models play a much larger role in evolutionary archaeological theory than in other theoretical approaches (Kuhn 2004). Palaeoanthropologists, zooarchaeologists, and geneticists who study the archaeology of hunter-gatherers almost all work within the theoretical framework of evolutionary ecology. There is no point in building models if they cannot be tested, and the archaeological sciences play an important role in their testing and modification. For example, Allaby et al. (2007) have built and tested a computer simulation model of the evolution of genes in crop plants. Their findings strongly suggest that monophyletic crops did not necessarily develop in one region and spread out from there; given enough time, the simulation suggests, crop plants domesticated in multiple regions would have tended to become monophyletic. Domestication of crops may therefore have been a much more protracted process than currently thought—a finding with major implications for archaeological research (Fuller et al. 2010). Collaboration between geneticists and archaeologists has been equally important in rethinking the processes of animal domestication and spread (e.g. Larson et al. 2010).

There are several different strands to neo-evolutionary approaches to technological change (Kuhn 2004). Computer simulations have also provided null models against which metric data can be compared in order to test whether artefact variability over time responds to active selection or simply to the accumulation of copy-errors (Eerkens and Lipo 2005). Most of this literature focuses upon changes in lithic technology. There has, however, been recent interest in applying cultural transmission theory to more complex technologies, as in explaining changes in iron-smelting practice over several generations (Charlton et al. 2010).

Even when theories of change are not tied to evolutionary frameworks, archaeological sciences can be still applied to test their predictions. For example, strontium isotope studies of human bone support the hypothesis that the spread of agriculture through Europe was accomplished by migration of farmers, rather than the competing hypothesis that it spread through adoption of crops by foraging societies (Bentley et al. 2002). Likewise, zooarchaeological studies, and organic residue analyses of prehistoric pottery, have been crucial to the testing and modification of Andrew Sherratt’s theory of the Secondary Products Revolution (Greenfield 2010).

Behavioural archaeologists have written extensively about technological change, and their hypotheses are often constructed in such a manner that they require input from the archaeological sciences. A key concept in behavioural archaeology is that of ‘performance characteristics’. These are qualities that influence the choice of one potential technology over another. They are tabulated in a ‘performance matrix’ that allows direct comparison of the competing solutions, which may show why one technology was preferred to another in a given context (e.g. Schiffer 2005). Some performance characteristics need to be evaluated scientifically before a performance matrix can be constructed—for example the effects of particular types of temper upon the strength of pottery (West 1992; Tite et al. 2001).

Another important issue that has been discussed in the context of archaeometallurgy, but rarely elsewhere, is how to account for the absence of evidence for technological change. For example, why did Moche and Sicán metallurgists in Peru employ sophisticated gilding treatments for gold alloys, yet use only human breath to smelt copper in tiny batches (Epstein 1996)? Native copper was hammered into objects as early as 4500 bce in North America, so why was this still the only metallurgical technology used there in the 15th century ce? And why was iron never smelted anywhere in the New World before Europeans arrived? All of these issues have been discussed by scholars trained in both archaeology and materials science, working within the general framework of the social construction of technology, and they highlight an area of weakness within much archaeological theory. Change is often assumed to be the default condition of humanity, so theories of technological change focus upon the selection of technologies from among the variants served up by what most assume to be a continuous flow of invention (Pfaffenberger 1992). Yet, as the above questions make clear, continuous innovation is not inevitable (see also Rehren and Martinón-Torres 2008). The answers to these questions require the active engagement of archaeological scientist and archaeological theorist (who can, we wish to emphasize, be the same person).

We do not wish to imply that we favour social constructionist interpretations of change, and we particularly object to the facile dismissal of evolutionary and behavioural archaeological approaches as ‘functionalist’ (e.g. Dobres 2000; 2010). Technological change can often be best explained by showing that the new technology is simply better than the old—whether it produces a more durable cutting edge or a more reflective mirror. Knowledge of ‘artefact physics’ (often aided by experiments and/or computer modelling) allows archaeological scientists to compare the practical advantages and disadvantages of alternative technologies (Randall-MacIver 1933; Killick 2001; Rehren et al. 2007), while acknowledging that efficiency (Chirikure and Rehren 2006: 49; Martinón-Torres et al. 2008: 67–68) and performance (Schiffer and Skibo 1997; Schiffer 1999) are culturally contingent terms.

Diffusion vs. independent invention

Given its power both to demonstrate the provenance of people and things and to date past events, archaeological science has for many decades played a pivotal role in the so-called ‘diffusion controversies’. As a case in point, the ‘radiocarbon revolution’ initially did away with old diffusionist paradigms and made a strong case for the independent invention of metallurgy and megaliths in different regions of western Eurasia, but the theory had to be revisited once it was understood that radiocarbon ages did not coincide with calendar dates, and thus ought to be calibrated (Renfrew 1973). Ironically, further advances (more excavation, more accurate dating by accelerator mass spectrometry) have swung the pendulum yet again, with some researchers claiming that the dates are consistent with a single invention of ancient metallurgy in the Near East (Roberts et al. 2009; but see Radivojević et al. 2010). Tracing the diffusion of technologies is no longer confined to analysis of radiocarbon dates; detailed comparison of châines opératoires from different areas can also show whether a technology was independently invented or spread by diffusion (e.g. Craddock 2001; Roberts 2009; Pryce et al. 2010).

Provenance studies have led archaeological scientists to take on major debates in archaeological theory. A recent instance concerns the status of the Olmec as the primary state in Mesoamerica (i.e. a ‘mother culture’ to Maya, Teotihuacan, and Monte Alban). The alternative view is that Monte Alban (at least) arose to statehood independently of the Olmec. The recent feud on this issue was initiated by a large study of pottery style and provenance (as determined by neutron activation analysis) across Mesoamerica (Blomster et al. 2005). Two models were proposed. If Olmec pottery (determined by both iconography and manufacture within the Olmec region) was the most widely distributed in the era of early statehood, then the idea of an Olmec ‘mother culture’ would be favoured; conversely, a more diversified trade network would favour the picture of an array of ‘sister cultures’. The chemical data presented by Blomster et al. (2005) support the first hypothesis. This conclusion was strongly disputed by archaeologists working around Monte Alban (Flannery et al. 2005; Stoltman et al. 2005; Sharer et al. 2006; Sharer 2007) with equally strong responses by the original group (Neff 2006; Neff et al. 2006a; 2006b) and comment by neutral parties (Hancock et al. 2008). Since much of the argument was concerned with sampling strategies and multivariate statistical methods, those archaeologists unfamiliar with these methods could do little more than watch and await a final answer. Similar debates engaging method and theory were sparked by the development of isotope studies of the provenance of metals in the Bronze Age Mediterranean (Budd et al 1996; Knapp 2000).

Scientific advances are in large part responsible for the return of interest in diffusion, migration, and ‘globalization’ before the European expansion of the 16th century ce. We have already mentioned the role of strontium isotopes in tracing the migration of individuals, and we could equally mention the role of genetic studies in testing, for example, theories of the earliest colonization of America (e.g. Gilbert et al. 2008). Genomic surveys of modern populations of animals have also resolved long-standing arguments within archaeology. To give but one example, three separate domestications of cattle—in India, the Near East, and North Africa—are now proven, and in the case of Africa subsequent introductions of Indian cattle and Near Eastern cattle are clearly recognizable in spatial distributions of genes (Hanotte et al. 2002). These distributions even indicate that Indian zebu (humped) cattle must have been introduced into east Africa before reaching Egypt, where the earliest depictions of humped cattle in Africa dated to the 12th Dynasty (1991–1802 bce). Together with archaeobotanical confirmation of African sorghum and millet in India by c.4000 BP (Fuller 2003) and recent finds of silica phytoliths for bananas (originally Indonesian) in Cameroon, dated to c.2500 BP (Mbida et al. 2005), these findings are forcing a major re-evaluation of the prehistory of maritime trade around the Indian Ocean. Regional archaeological sequences that have been studied in isolation must now be correlated, and possibilities that had not previously been considered must now be evaluated. (For example, could iron-smelting technology have been carried to sub-Saharan Africa from India?).

Similar examples can be found for many other parts of the Old and New Worlds. Archaeological theory has yet to adjust to these new scientific inputs, but it seems safe to suggest that this decade will see greatly increased interest in theories of social interaction at a distance, including perhaps a reformulation of world systems theories (e.g. Killick 2009) or even a reorientation of archaeology at large, akin to the emergence of the World History movement in our sister discipline.

Conclusion and perspectives

Neglect, reluctance, or resistance from prominent archaeologists has done little to impede the growth of archaeological science. The importance of scientific methods in archaeological practice is now widely acknowledged, and yet some archaeologists still claim or imply that archaeological science should be subordinated to archaeological theory. Three relatively recent reviews (Jones 2002; 2004; Andrews and Doonan 2003: 21–4) asserted that the ‘Two Cultures’ problem continues to prevent productive deployment of archaeological science to theories and questions of broad archaeological interest. According to these authors, scientists and archaeologists have largely failed to find common ground because the purported rationality and objectivity of science have been incompatible with the relativism and subjectivity of archaeology. Most of the blame has been placed on obstinate scientists, who, in their conviction as seekers or holders of the truth, do not bother to acknowledge archaeologists’ concerns (Thomas 1991). The common attitude behind these opinions is that archaeological science is empirical and atheoretical—or, at best, uncritical of its own limitations and disdainful of humanities. We know from personal experience that many older archaeologists and scientists would agree with these sentiments, but the archaeological science that they attack is not one that we recognize today.

Questions such as ‘What is it?’, ‘How was it made?’, ‘Where does it come from?’, ‘How old is it?’ or even ‘How did they live?’, exciting as they may be to the public imagination, are increasingly deemed too narrow by archaeologists—not to mention funding bodies. However, far from constituting the background, they remain the basic staple of raw data upon which more sophisticated theories and models may be built and tested (Martinón-Torres 2008b). Permitting increasingly higher degrees of accuracy and resolution when answering the above questions, but also unveiling new avenues for data generation, laboratory studies are key in the formulation of archaeological theories, even by those who openly refute the possibility of scientific inferences about the past.

The first decade of the 21st century saw the graduation of a substantial cohort of young scholars who had been trained in both archaeological theory and in scientific analysis. These individuals are able to collaborate effectively with other archaeologists, but also to find for themselves compelling archaeological questions that can be investigated by the techniques of the natural sciences and engineering. Many of these researchers are demonstrating that no valid distinction can be made between field and laboratory in today’s archaeology. Notwithstanding notable efforts by pioneer scientists and archaeologists, the efficient integration of scientific techniques and archaeological interpretation has taken several decades to develop. Some strands of archaeological theory have played a major role in this process by outlining overarching problems of relevance to both archaeologists and scientists. However, just as important has been the more direct interaction between archaeologists and scientists in the classroom, in the field, and in the laboratory (Killick and Young 1997; Hayashida 2003; Pollard and Bray 2007; Killick 2008; Martinón-Torres 2008a). If early archaeometrists could be perceived as foreign ‘intruders’ and were therefore expected to learn archaeology in order to make their work relevant, a plethora of scientific approaches are today irresolvably blended with mainstream archaeology. So much so that neglect or disdain of science on the part of some archaeologists is unjustifiable or even irresponsible towards those whose material remains we disturb and destroy in the course of archaeological investigations (cf. Rehren 2002). Even when using archaeometric data, some archaeologists still believe that it is acceptable to submit samples for scientific analyses, with or without questions, and wait for the digested results or answers for them to interpret (Wilson 1973; Killick and Young 1997). In their complacency as consumers, they are paradoxically maintaining the misconception of archaeological science as an impenetrable ‘black box’.

It is still possible to flick through the pages of recent issues of respectable journals and conference proceedings and spot science-based papers that are devoid of theory and questions, flawed in their methods, narrowly descriptive, naive in their interpretations, or plainly irrelevant to archaeology. Others, while containing interesting data, do not fully exploit their informative or interpretive potential. Taking those as representative of the field, however, would equate to judging conventional archaeology by its worst practitioners. The main difference between both cases is that archaeological science lacks the centuries of growing disciplinary hygiene to develop the strong peer review that filters out the publication of poor papers (cf. Wilson 1973; Pollard 1995; Pollard and Bray 2007). Rather than dwelling on this, we should appreciate that, increasingly, the seeds of archaeological theories are planted in laboratories. With their intimate and time-deep knowledge of materials and their interactions with people, their privileged position in selecting the variables to be recorded, and their understanding of the natural laws and constraints that—like it or not—govern much of our behaviour, archaeological scientists are increasingly leading in posing (and often, answering) key questions of the discipline, developing theories, and challenging long-standing assumptions in archaeology and, importantly, beyond. In the early days, archaeological scientists were criticized because their white lab coats seemed resilient to archaeological theory. Nowadays, however, we would challenge any reader to name an influential archaeological theory that does not incorporate scientific evidence. If we consider the main trends in current archaeological research rather than cherry-picking examples of bad practice, then exploring specifically the role of ‘theory in the laboratory’ or demarcating ‘archaeological science’ becomes less and less necessary, as this endeavour would imply the chimera that another archaeology can exist which does not rely on science.


We are very grateful to Thilo Rehren, Michael Schiffer, and Louise Iles for their comments on earlier versions of this chapter. All the views expressed remain our own.

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