Archaeology and Archaeometry: From Casual Dating to a Meaningful Relationship?

By Killick, David; Young, Suzanne, M. M. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Archaeometry: From Casual Dating to a Meaningful Relationship?


Killick, David, Young, Suzanne, M. M., Antiquity


The 1981 Brookhaven round table Future Directions in Archaeometry saw archaeologists and archaeometrists engage in pointed criticism of each other (Olin 1982). Frank Hole's contribution ('Finding problems for all the solutions') expressed the feeling of many of the archaeologists present that much archaeometric research served no demonstrable archaeological purpose, while many archaeometrists expressed frustration with archaeologists' ignorance of the methods and limitations of archaeometry.

In 1981 there were very few individuals with training in both archaeology and in the physical or natural sciences, leading to the lack of mutual understanding that is evident in the Brookhaven proceedings. The panellists at Brookhaven were acutely aware of this division, but could not agree on a remedy. Some were in favour of training students in both archaeology and archaeometry; others feared that this would produce what one speaker called 'half-baked archaeologists who know a little bit of science' (Olin 1982: 71). Sixteen years on this fear seems to have been unjustified. Scientists without archaeological training still play an essential role in the development of techniques. But there are now a substantial number of the 'brokers' for whom Frank Hole called in 1981 - those with enough archaeological training to spot meaningful research problems, and enough scientific training to pursue them. A good example of this is the use of 13C/12C ratios to infer prehistoric diet. Radiocarbon scientists had known since the late 1960s that the bimodal distribution of carbon isotope ratios in plants reflected different mechanisms of photosynthesis, but it took an archaeometrist trained in both archaeology and radiocarbon dating to realize the implications for the reconstruction of past diets and of the spread of crop plants (Vogel & van der Merwe 1977).

Archaeology and archaeometry in 1997

The integration of archaeometry into archaeology varies by technique and by region. The duration of the relationship is clearly a major factor. Radiocarbon dating was rejected by many European archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s, but few do so now. Archaeometallurgy came in for some harsh criticism at Brookhaven, but, at thirty-something, is now winning acceptance as a legitimate research specialty in archaeology. Molecular biology is a more recent arrival and is still trying to work out a meaningful relationship with archaeology.

Having overcome their initial reservations about each other, archaeologists and archaeometrists in some regions have been moving in together. This process is most advanced in Britain, where some archaeology departments, notably Bradford, Sheffield, Cambridge and Nottingham, have chosen to emphasize archaeometric research, and have made archaeometry a major focus of their curricula. Funding of archaeometric research and development has been moved to the Natural and Environmental Research Council (NERC). This bestowed formal recognition upon archaeometry as a legitimate branch of science and provides NERC-funded doctoral research studentships, which are essential for the continuing development of archaeometric techniques.

With the possible exception of Japan (see below) the relationship between archaeometry and archaeology in the rest of the world has not developed as far as in Britain. In France the separation of the research units of the CNRS from the universities creates problems in transferring new research skills into the education of archaeologists. In South Africa, as in France and Britain, archaeometry is recognized as a legitimate branch of science and is funded accordingly. At the University of Cape Town, as at Bradford and Sheffield, all archaeology students must take at least a survey course in archaeometry.

The major flaw in the French and South African systems is lack of continuity. Because funding is awarded to persons rather than projects, research units usually disappear if that individual retires, dies or accepts a job elsewhere. …

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