Why Teach Heisenberg to Archaeologists?

By Pollard, A. M. | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Why Teach Heisenberg to Archaeologists?


Pollard, A. M., Antiquity


At the beginning of the academic year, one of the many pleasures of being Head is to welcome new students to the Department. In my introductory remarks, I like to challenge the new undergraduates to name a science which has no relevance to archaeology. One can easily go through the scientific alphabet, from astronomy to zoology, and find many obvious applications. Alternatively, it is possible to work through all the Departments of a university and find an archaeological context for at least some of their work. Certain Departments, of course, provide more of a challenge than others - Environmental Sciences, for example, is obviously closely related, whereas one has to invoke Icarus or Leonardo da Vinci to encompass Aeronautical Engineering!

Another measure of the breadth of the modern discipline of archaeology is to look through one's own reference collection of journal off-prints, and work out how many different journals are consulted in the course of research. My own collection, of some 2500 items, encompasses contributions from more than 350 journals, ranging from Acta Praehistorica et Archaeologica and Advances in Agronomy through to Yearbook of Physical Anthropology and Zeitschrift fur Rechtsmedizin. Some, such as Nature or ANTIQUITY, are frequent companions - others may only be sought once in a lifetime. This is not to be boastful - indeed, many of my colleagues see it as a 'lack of focus' in research design - but it does show how dispersed and varied the information of relevance to archaeology can be.

The serious point to be made from these observations is that the modern discipline of archaeology has recourse to support from an extremely wide range of scientific, engineering and humanities subjects. This poses an enormous problem in particular for those departments which attempt to teach archaeology as a science-based subject - where does one begin (or, perhaps more importantly, end!)? The recent trend in the UK for otherwise 'traditional' departments of archaeology to advertise for an 'archaeological scientist' (discipline usually unspecified) to join the staff, and then to lay claims to being a 'science-based department' (a status which may carry certain financial rewards), would be amusing if it were not a serious indictment of the state of academic archaeology in the UK. Who would take seriously the claims of, say, a history department which appointed an archaeologist (discipline unspecified), and then claimed competence in the broadest areas of archaeology? It is gratifying to see the increasing appreciation of the role of science in some sectors of archaeology, but it has to be accepted that there is a difference between a commitment (which is costly) and tokenism.

In fact, the academic discipline of archaeology apparently has the qualities of a chameleon - it can take on almost any appearance, depending on the 'academic colour' of an individual's background. The extremes can be, and often are, caricatured. On the one hand, archaeology can be approached as a 'pure arts' subject - for example, looking at stylistic and decorative trends in pottery, metalwork, or art, and sometimes where appropriate integrating this approach with the writings of the classical authors. This particular view sometimes tends to downplay the technological aspects associated with human development, despite the possibility that stylistic development may be the result of some new technological capability. This caricature is often taken to represent the 'traditional' approach in the UK, and is usually the one which the general public associates with archaeology. Another caricature is that of the social anthropological archaeologist, who reminds us that archaeology is about people, not things, and that no 'experiment' can tell us what was in the minds of our predecessors. At the limit, some 'post-processualists' tell us that all interpretations of the past are equally valid, and that we are all simply 'telling stories'. …

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