Don’t destroy my artifacts you evil geologist!

Fig. One of the battle axes I cut open for my bachelor thesis. More on the results of that thesis in the future – when its done 🙂

Doing a proper study of the petrography of archaeological items is tricky (that is, geoarchaeology is a bitch for many reasons, but here comes one of the most important ones). My experience with my bachelors thesis on battle axes really taught me this the hard way.

Firstly – simply convincing archaeologists of the value of such a study is easier said than done. The first barrier to cross is the one where they understand the value of natural science to say something about an artifact crafted by humans. At least here in Sweden, archaeologists are schooled in humanities mostly. Actually very few archaeologists have a background in the natural sciences.

I remember a discussion between two archaeologists on just this matter last year. It was regarding some bronze age pottery – where the archaeological theory stated that the pottery was made in region X. This was questioned by another archaeologists, schooled in the petrographic study of thin sections of the pottery – since it contained clay/gravel that simply wasn’t present in this region (or if it was due to seeds or pollen embedded in the clay, can’t remember, but the reason isn’t important). But no – that mattered nothing to the other archaeologist and he just laughed and smiled at this “crazy notion”. “Of course they where made in region X – the morphology is proof enough”.

Im sorry, it really matters little how good your archaeological theories are and how many academical papers you have written on the matter – if the raw material is nowhere to be found in region X – then the pottery (or at least its raw material!) IS imported. Thats not an opinion – thats a fact. If you completly disregard this – then you are not working scientifically. Its one thing if you missed it. Another thing if you ignore it intentionally. An if you laugh when people confront you with this problem – you really should be thinking about changing profession to lets say – clown?

Its things like these that made me give up archaeology. People not understanding basic scientific theory and the vast difference between an subjective interpetation in humanities and a objective fact in natural science. Im sorry, I know there are plenty good archaeologists out there that DO understand this – and that this probably will get better in the future. But it bothers me.

Secondly, when we passed this hurdle another awaited. When we asked permission to examine the objects for my thesis, it was very difficult to make the archaeologists understand why we needed to cut open the objects – and why we simply couldn’t just examin the objects as they where – perhaps scraping some material of them. Grinding that up and put it in some machine and then get the answer without hurting the artifact.

One of the reasons for their scepticism is probably due to the fact that in recent history, petrographic studies of archaeological artifacts do have been performed by ocular examinations by geologists. Why on earth any geologists dare to say anything in an official manner to archaeologists this way eludes med totally. I mean, there are of course artifacts so well preserved and so distinct that identifying the rocks and minerals can be done visually – but in most cases this wont work and you need to cut open the object and make a thin section.

Thirdly, we get back to square one. When all this has been said and done, you face the scepticism of the archaeologists once more. Because they really love their artifacts. 🙂 The fact that most of these objects will end up in a dusty storage room, never to be seen by anyone – and therefor is of very little scientific or educational value seems not to matter.

Please dont cut them – you will destroy them. Even if its a broken piece of pottery, which they have thousands of pieces of already – there is something heartbreaking when an geologist wants to cut the piece in to more pieces yet.

I understand why – you dont want to break something thats culturally, scientifically and also perhaps estetically valuable. I totally get that! But what is the value of it really if not studied completly? Thats the thing the archaeologists have to start to think more about.

Is archaeology simply the collecting and preservation of artifacts for storage – or is it interested in knowing the truth about the past? It might sound very arrogant from me saying this, but Im not so sure of the answer. I have seen so many examples of archaeologists not interested in natural science – that I really dont know for sure.

Science should be – no matter if its natural science or humanities – about one basic thing: collecting and documenting objective variables and facts. The theory must always be based on the facts and nothing but the facts. It doesnt matter if you are examining an historical document, looking in to the sociological behavoiur of a group or examining the exact mineralogy of a granite.

Yes of course, its “only a theory” of what type of rock the geologists find as well. But there a big difference between “only a theory” in archaeology and “only a theory” in geology. Not knowing for sure who is buried in a tomb for sure is not the same as not knowing for sure if an rock is of dacite or andecite. There are possibilities in finding the “truth” in geology that archaeology never will be able to match in the same way.

This sounds of course really obvious one might think. But when you talk to some humanities-only-archaeologists, you quickly understand that its not obvious. Don’t get me wrong, I really love archaeology… but if you make theories on the origin of artifacts, and ignore the fact that lets say these artifacts are made from rocks not found in region X where youre theory puts them, your “science” is weak as your kung fu is.

This entry was posted in Geoarchaeology, Mineralogy, Petrology, University & Study. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Don’t destroy my artifacts you evil geologist!

  1. Grace says:

    Your post here really expounds on all the reasons why I chose to do geoarchaeology. I love science. I love history. I love culture. I really, really love completeness and solid facts.

    I find that talking to a lot of the humanities only archaeologists in challenging, but if I can get one to realise the benefits and go for it, I’m happy for at least a month.

  2. Zbynek says:

    Yep, same everywhere. Sometimes I just wonder if archaeology could even be called science – once we come to interpretation, its more fairy tales then evidence. Ive worked with archaeologists and they are very resistant to any scientific testing. Anyway electron microscope is pricy but very useful device, also CT scans, some luminiscence methods and very good for phase testing is Raman spectroscopy (no need to powder your stuff like X-ray diffraction). All these methods are pretty fine and non-invasive when used properly.

  3. Ne pas oublier que les cures c’est plus souvent de la prévention que du traitement.

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