Archaeologists are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the interpretation of archaeological data. The reason it is so difficult harks back to the purpose of archaeological research.
Archaeology is an attempt to reconstruct historical often very ancient, people and try to discover their belief systems, their rituals, their habits, and their interaction with their environment by analysis of the archaeological record.
No Voice from the Past
Artefacts are tangible objects that have once been used by people in the past. The problem facing archaeological interpretation is that when an artefact is found, there is no one alive today (and hasn’t been for up to thousands of years) that made, used, or saw the object in operation. Archaeologists can only speculate as to an object’s purpose, albeit such speculation founded on multi-disciplined information sources, but do so primarily from a context necessarily outside of the one being investigated.
Modern Cultural Bias
Without substantial written historical records of what people in the past were thinking and believing, it is very hard for modern experts to interpret artefacts without the bias of their own culture, or other known cultures, influencing the results. Postprocessual archaeologists have opened up a debate in emphasising the social, ideological and philosophical issues of historical cultures.
The Basic Questions
There are a few simple illustrations of the interpretative difficulties to face the archaeologist. For example, take a small clay vessel found on the floor level of a stone walled room. First questions that need to be asked concern identification. Is it fired clay? Ceramic? Any manufacturing marks? Is it made of local raw materials? These are basic necessary questions that will form the basis for further interpretation.
High Level Deductive Reasoning
After establishing all of the scientific data about an item, the archaeologist must begin to direct higher level questions at the object such as: who made it? Why? How was it used? Who used it?
Deductive reasoning rather than laboratory analysis better answers these questions. Once the archaeological eye leaves the university microscope, it quickly refocuses on scanning an overview of all of the hard, physical evidence in order to deduce answers to the philosophical questions. Here is where interpretation begins to become mistily subjective.
Misleading Clues Need a Careful Approach
What may appear as obvious material clues to social status, by virtue of the value of the item or the quantity of items, may in fact be misleading. Does gold jewellery mean a wealthy home or a thief? Do many silver objects mean a rich family, a temple, or a silversmith’s factory?
A number of carbon-blackened stones are found in a circle with some burned organic matter in the centre. The first conclusion is that these artefacts form a surround or an open fire. This is a relatively easy conclusion to come to but what about the questions, why or who? Why was the fire built? For cooking, for heat to keep warm, for smoke to ward off mosquitoes, as a security light at night, a beacon to neighbouring communities, or a signalling system? And what about who? Who built the fire? Men only, women, or maybe children? Was it a specialist’s job? Freemen or slaves? These questions of interpretation are harder to answer.
Culturally today, most people drink from a cup. Therefore, if an artefact that looks like a cup is discovered, it is not unreasonable to propose that the people who used it, used it as a cup as we do. However, this reasoning is flawed. Twenty-first century western culture has developed the use of tools in a very different way to ancient societies.
Ancient cups rarely had handles and were more bowl-shaped than straight sided. They would be multi-purposed and some shaped vessels were not for drinking at all. Such a vessel could actually be an oil lamp, a measuring container, or a ritual object, say for dipping one’s fingers into or for bloodletting. Like a crime scene detective, the interpretative archaeologist must gather and collate all of the field-collected artefacts and couple these with the laboratory tests and analysis.
Honesty Will Reject Flawed Theories
As interpretative theories are proposed, they are tested against the full knowledge base. If one or more parts of the puzzle do not seem to fit then an honest archaeologist will reject the theory.
There is no real alternative to this methodology. More than once two experts will arrive at conflicting conclusions from the same data, from the same archaeological site. Without an audible voice from the past to help us, archaeologists will propose and keep proposing non-testable theories, but it is all we have at this present time.