Extended Archaeological Laboratories

ResearchBlogging.orgAn artifact is conventionally defined as “any object that has been made, modified or used” (Champion 1980:11) by human beings. Historically, the artifact occupies a central position in archaeology. Without the artifact, archaeology would be rendered blind groping in the vast darkness of human prehistory. The artifact thus is the code that the archaeologist unlocks in order to reveal the secrets of the past.

A major key in this process of releasing the mystery of the artifact is the archaeological laboratory. Putting the artifact within the context of the archaeological laboratory setting allows an empirical observation into its formal properties—which in turn rests as a basis of archaeological inference. In time, conceptual tools developed out of the archaeological laboratory helping the archaeologist confront the complexities of the archaeological record. The archaeological laboratory is a factory of archaeological concepts churning out a distinctly “archaeological language,” such as bulb of force, eraillure flake, striking platform, etc. The archaeological laboratory thus is a “material medium” where concepts are transmitted into the archaeological record (Schiffer 1999: 121).

Major questions thus emerge: Does this distinct language rooted in positivist science marginalize indigenous conception of the “material medium”? If we treat archaeological discourse as a contested ground, how does positivist archaeology colonize the “material medium”? Is archaeology rooted in indigenous material medium concepts possible?

I thus draw my inspiration from the great processual-postprocessual debate of the 1990’s. The debate was a purifying event that allowed a rethinking of basic conceptual tools within archaeology. Yet, this process of self-critical rethinking however has not gone into the very ramparts of positivist archaeology—the archaeological laboratory setting. I argue that the archaeological laboratory—as an epitome of positivist science—is redeployed in an ethnographic setting, particularly in ethnoarchaeology.

In the first section of this paper, I attempt to locate the archaeological laboratory in the wider context of positivistic science. I give an epistemological background of positivism as an intellectual movement and attempt to uncover how this movement influenced the growth of the archaeological laboratory. Included in this section are the critiques posed by post-modern thought on positivism.

In the next section, I analyze the conceptual link between the archaeological laboratory (i.e., experimental archaeology) and ethnoarchaeology. By examining the positivistic continuities between both disciplines, I will uncover how the positivist discourse of ethnoarchaeology privileges nomothetics to the detriment of studying the diversity of people-object interaction happening in ethnographic context.

In the last section, I will argue for the development of archaeological theory, specifically in ethnoarchaeology, outlined along the emic construction of indigenous practice. I will argue that a critical rupture from Western positivistic theory is needed to provide fresher ethnoarchaeological directions.

While in a certain respect this paper draws its inspiration from the post-processual critique, I tend to associate myself with the wider post-colonial critique in the social sciences. “Science” is not a monopoly of Western cultural thought. Inscribed in the practice of the “Other” is an alternative interpretation fecund with unlimited “scientific” possibilities.

The Archaeological Laboratory

The scientific laboratory has been one of the hallmarks of natural science. Within the laboratory, specimen are analyzed and subjected to various processes to gain a scientific insight into the object at hand. Out of the quagmire posed by the natural object, the scientist explicates to tease out “scientific truths”. A cumulative sum of all these “truths” serves as a foundation for the growth of science. The everyday practice within the experimental world results in the buildup of scientific concepts and paradigms necessary for scientific advance. For example, without the basic knowledge of the existence of the cell, DNA research would be impossible. As a result of the “discovery” of the cell, the double-helix structure of the DNA was “discovered.” Thus an accumulation of scientific “truths” later on led to the innovations in DNA research: recombination techniques for DNA and the deciphering of the human genome.

At a much earlier time, the qualitative advances in the natural sciences led social scientists to adopt the “scientific method” in order to discover social laws operating within society. Early social scientists appropriated the biological metaphors of the organism and the cell as a conceptual tool for understanding the functions of society, such as that of the Spencerian model. Up until contemporary times, social scientists, including archaeologists, gain insight and use analogues derived from the natural sciences to extend theory and method—for example, new behavioral archaeology’s discussion on the “extended phenotype.” Another is Schaafsma (1991:60-80) equation of the post-processual-processual debate to the philosophical discussion surrounding quantum theory in physics.

Positivism “emphasizes the orderly collection of data within a theoretical framework to acquire knowledge expressed as general statements” (Earle and Preucel 1987:503). Preucel (1991:17-29) pointed out three positivist approaches in understanding the archaeological record: a. Comtean positivism which stresses the “discovery of laws of society” through the scientific method, b. logical empiricism which “reduces human behavior to the principle of physics,” and c. logical positivism, which posits that a “causal explanation of an event involves deducing a descriptive statement of the event from one or more general laws in connection with certain unique statements about initial conditions.”

All positivist approaches unite behind this thesis: nomothetic laws can be constructed based on empirical evidence.  For example, Binford (cited in Earle and Preucel, 1987:504) asserts, “all explanations necessarily begin with relating archaeological observations to process by constructing and testing hypothesis about past human behavior.” The classical behavioral archaeology’s multiplicity of laws is also a case in point (e.g., Rathje’s First Principle of Waste and Parkinson’s Law of Garbage). In this context, the archaeological laboratory became one of the benchmarks of scientific archaeology. It is the site for the positivist’s search for nomothetic laws. As a venue for hypothesis testing, the archaeological laboratory generates “experimental results,” a fundamental basis for archaeological inference.

Similar to the laboratory found in the natural sciences, the archaeological laboratory simulates a controlled environment where “extraneous” variables are excluded. The artifact is a lab rat subjected to microscopic analyses and, sometimes, nuclear tests to ascertain its properties. Consequently, specialized terms develop out of these experiments giving archaeologists a distinct technical language (e.g., ripple marks, flake length and width, debitage dorsal cortex, etc.). This technical language serves as the paradigm, following Kuhn, according to which archaeologists work and build general nomothetic laws.

For example, L. Lewis Johnson (1978), in his study of the history of flintknapping experimentation, pointed out the importance of experimentation in the intellectual history of archaeological inference formation. From flintknapping as a hobbyist’s craft, academic archaeologists saw the necessity of appropriating the craft whereby lithic experimentation is institutionalized as a method for archaeological inference. Pope and Holmes (cited in Johnson 1978:346), gave a detailed description of Ishi’s flintknapping techniques in the early 1900s which they surmised could be used in learning to manufacture and use prehistoric tools. Interestingly, as knapping procedures became widely practiced, experimental approaches towards flintknapping came to be distinguishable: the Idaho, Texas, and Virginia traditions.

The experimental trajectory from then on seeks to: distinguish artifacts from ecofacts (i.e., Johnson’s naturefacts); understand the manufacturing process of lithic technology; and “the actual process of fracture of flinty materials.” (Johnson 1978:358). Discovered are technological traces of human activity in interaction with the natural environment (i.e., the toolmaker vis-à-vis the obsidian). Consequently, nomothetic laws were developed as archaeologists correlated experimental results of lithic testing with archaeological traces. Crabtree’s Law is an epitome of this, which states that the “greater the degree of final finishing applied to a stone artifact, whether by flaking, grinding and/or polishing, the harder it is to conclude the lithic reduction process which produced the stone artifact[1].” Furthermore, new experimental research directions developed in recent years as a result of the growth of sophisticated laboratory technology.

Ross Barbed spear point

However in recent years, scientism within the social sciences has been questioned. Even before the “Science Wars” of the 1990’s (Franklin 1995) came about, some archaeologists had already been critical of the experimental method. Hayashi (cited in Johnson 1978:352) remarked: “Without proper control of mechanical, petrological, as well as ethnographic knowledge, the so-called “experimental” approach may become a mere empirical exercise” (emphasis mine). Yet it was the growing awareness of the political nature of the “scientific enterprise” that led to the anthropological epiphany of viewing the practice of science as a culture area deserving of anthropological inquiry. In the end, positivistic Science’s “disinterestedness” is but a façade of its inherently political nature: a hegemonic discourse that tends to stifle alternative voices. Science with a capital S, fortified within the castles of academic thought was under massive attack from the swift and systematic onslaught of post-modern relativism. This led some to lambaste these relativist heretics as immature “scientists” out to undermine the very foundation of the discipline. (see Gross and Levitt’s Higher Supersition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, 1994). The debate revives C.P. Snow’s (1963) observation that the  West’s intellectual world has been polarized into two camps: the literary and the scientific. Applied into the social sciences, this dichotomy is reflected in the debate whether social sciences should belong to the sciences or the humanities.

In archaeology, the rise of post-processualism in archaeology was part of this relativizing process (Earle and Preucel 1987; Preucel ed., 1991). Post-processualists however tend to dissociate from the anti-scientism of post-modern thought. Hodder (1987:517) remarked that what he rejected was the “rigid positivism, linking of explanation with prediction, and [the assumption] that objective data can in some way be separated from subjective theory in order to allow independent testing.”

Post-processualism’s penchant for an epistemological critique of archaeological positivism however was wanting. Lost from the post-processualist’s gaze however is a comprehensive critique of the ontological practice of positivism exemplified by laboratory archaeology.  By this I mean the necessity of critically examining a) the production of knowledges brought about by the archaeologist’s everyday practice in the laboratory context, b) bringing about an analytical study of the process whereby the archaeological record is reconfigured and tailored to conform to the demands of the archaeological lab, c) history of the laboratory as an archaeological entity, and d) how the shared lab concepts marginalize or co-opt alternative “Un-Scientific” voices.

In Laboratory Life, Latour and Woolgar (1986) argued that objects are created out of the actors’ (read: scientists) shared representations. In the context of the archaeological laboratory therefore, the “artifact’s properties” and the “artifact” itself is a conceptual product of the shared imagination of the archaeological community. Hence, the archaeologists literally discovered the conceptual artifact—charged it with meaning, categorized it, and built nomothetic laws out of the patterns they discovered. In this sense, the archaeological laboratory is by itself a behavioral system (Schiffer, 1999:121) capable of emitting information and should thus be problematized in archaeological inquiry.

One critical question would be how to account for the entry of the artifact into this behavioral system (i.e., archaeological laboratory as a behavioral system). From an object in the archaeological deposit, the artifact is decontextualized from its place (i.e., platial context according to Schiffer) and delivered into the archaeological laboratory for formal analysis. Lost in this process of decontextualization is the relational dimension of the artifact vis-à-vis other “interactors.” By entering the laboratory context, the artifact assumes a “laboratory form” from which “archaeological discoveries” are systematized into workable concepts.

Metaphorically, as a consequence of the systematization of archaeological concepts, the artifacts “discovered” leap out from the archaeological lab back into the archaeological field, into the pages of the site report, and eventually into the academic archaeological discourse. No wonder then that if one leafs through the pages of a site report, it is mechanically categorized into subsections according to types of “artifacts”—the lithic chapter, the ceramic chapter, the stone tools chapter, and so on.

In effect, the archaeological lab—a concretization of the positivist worldview—is able to extend itself beyond the confines of its “controlled” environment. Akin to a colonizing process, the archaeological record and its meaning become a theatre of positivistic exercise—the “artifact” is subsumed under the totalizing gaze of the positivist archaeologist.  If we were to treat and study the archaeological lab as an archaeological artifact in its own right, perhaps we could gain insights into the embodiment of the archaeologists’ shared doxas.

To the Field

With the concern for regularities between the interaction of people and objects, archaeologists soon turned to the hallmark of cultural anthropology: ethnography.  In contrast with experimental archaeology, ethnoarchaeology seeks to use “ethnographic methods and information to aid in the interpretation and explanation of archaeological data” (Stiles 1977:88). What is sought after is regularities (read: patterns) in the ethnographic context deemed helpful for archaeological interpretation.  Skibo (1992:3) posits that the “overall objective…is to provide the means whereby the prehistorian can more accurately connect activities of the past with their material residues.”

Ethnoarchaeology therefore primarily is for archaeology. Ethnoarchaeology is conceived to help the interpretation of prehistory. Out of the regularities in the pattern of people-object interaction in an ethnographic context comes the nomothetic laws that archaeologists can use in archaeological inference.   Stiles (1977:96) suggests: “If the pattern of the archaeological material falls within the range of variation of the pattern of physical traces which resulted from [known] ethnographic activity, one can then assume a certain probability that a valid analogy has been made.”

Consistent thus with the positivist premise of hypothesis testing, it comes as no surprise that contemporary ethnoarchaeology is deemed inseparable from experimental archaeology. A firm continuity exists between experimental and ethnoarchaeological studies—the production of general laws and models (Skibo 1992; Skibo and Longacre (1994). Like field testing in other natural scientific disciplines, contemporary ethnoarchaeology “field-tests” hypotheses in the ethnographic field for archaeological use. What is privileged in this case is the position of archaeology as a Science of the Past.

Unfortunately, the ethnographic scene in the contemporary ethnoarchaeological world is too often segmented. The material production of “artifacts,” e.g., ceramics, becomes the locus of the archaeologist’s gaze. The activity is partitioned from the wider setting of the peoples’ practice, from the totality of the material medium existent. The cover photo of Skibo’s book Pottery Function: A Use-Alteration Perspective captures the segmented understanding of the ethnographic scene in the contemporary ethnoarchaeological world. The photo captures a Kalinga woman hunched over a cooking area. The archaeological focus is the cooking area: nowhere is the context, the other dimensions of her material life discussed. Worse, the focal point here is her relationship with the cooking pot. Probably not even a discussion of how the act of cooking is related to other dimensions of her cultural life. A result is that other questions deemed “ideological,” such as religion, are marginalized.

Moreover, the ethnoarchaeologist’s concern is the empirical (read: “Scientific”) basis of the use and production of local artifacts. This approach is typified by the analysis of performance characteristics of pottery types (e.g., pottery temper vis-à-vis ceramic strength). Thus, “rationality” is sought in the ethnoarchaeological traces of their activities for a more “valid” archaeological interpretation of past behaviors. Implicitly, “Rationality” is constituted as the “Empirically Rational”: verifiable and testable in the archaeological laboratory. Even the regularity of the Irrational—i.e., impermanence of the people’s memory—is accounted for so that “informant accuracy” can be measured (Neupert and Longacre 1994:71-82).


Efforts towards critical archaeological introspection concerning the archaeological lab and ethnoarchaeological practice enables appreciation of positivism’s penetration and its extension into the archaeological discourse. For example, this could provide an alternative hypothesis as to why New Archaeologists tend to privilege technological and sociopolitical questions over “ideological” questions (Walker 1998; 2002). It is that there is a link between technological and political questions, on the one hand, and positivist practice on the other. The importance of this critical self-analysis is to enable the archaeologist to better understand his/her positioning in relation to that which is being studied (Marcus and Fischer, 1986).  More often than not, the issue of reflexivity for archaeologists has been under-problematized because the archaeological record does not respond like living indigenous peoples do. However, reflexivity becomes a concern if we recast archaeological method and theory as a Western indigenous knowledge (IK) system rather than as a Universal Science. This thus allows us to locate the political nature of the process of archaeological inference construction. With the broadening of archaeology’s definition (as a study of people-object interaction across time and space), such reflexivity is a great necessity.

For ethnoarchaeology, one of the central features of this critical introspection is the understanding of its ties with positivist archaeology. Ethnography-for-archaeology binds ethnography to the generation of nomothetic laws. This limits ethnoarchaeology to the positivist quagmire of law-production for the other fields of archaeology. What I think is necessary is a critical rupture—a cutting of the umbilical cord—from   the positivist traditions of archaeology. Instead of seeking general laws for the archaeological community, ethnoarchaeologists should conduct researches for the own sake of ethnoarchaeology. In order to resist from the positivist colonization, ethnoarchaeology should shift its research orientation to the understanding of the particularities of the ethnographic material medium, and as much as possible, utilize historically-contingent symbolic and practical concepts of the local community studied.

Schiffer’s admission that archaeology is a “Western indigenous science” is a frank testament that ethnoarchaeology should search for interpretive models sensitive to the emic, the local, the particular, and the indigenous. Bourdieu (1998:2) states his scientific enterprise as diving “into the particularity of an empirical reality, historically located and dated, but with the objective of constructing it as a ‘special case of what is possible,’ as Bachelard puts it, that is as an exemplary case in a finite world of possible conglomeration.”

The irreverent artifact, that which does not “fit into the regular pattern,” is thus saved from the archaeological trash bin. The irreverent artifacts become relevant: an embodiment of the particularities of the material medium in its “relations of… mutual exteriority and [its] relations of proximity, vicinity, or distance, as well as through relations of order, such as above, below, and between” (Bourdieu 1998:6). With the concern for the “empirical particularity” of the material medium, ethnoarchaeology thus privilege the historically-contingent particular emic of people-object interaction.

Ethnoarchaeology’s strong artifactual bias enables it to contribute significantly into the anthropological discourse by expanding cultural interpretation to focus not only on people-people interaction but on people-object interactions as well (Schiffer 1999). Cultural anthropology’s tendency to limit the interpretation of culture and practice as an anthropocentric people-people communication provides an opportunity for ethnoarchaeology to open up uncharted research directions privileging people-object interactions (Schiffer 1999).

References Cited:

1. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California.

2. Champion, Sara. 1980. Dictionary of Terms and Techniques in Archaeology. New York: Everest House Publishers. pp. 11

3. Earle, Timothy K. and Preucel, Robert W. 1987. Processual Archaeology and the Radical Critique in Current Anthropology. Vol. 28, No. 4: 501-537, August-October 1987.

4. Franklin, Sarah. 1995. Science as Culture, Cultures of Science in Annual Review of Anthropology. 1995. 24:163-84.

5. Hodder, Ian. 1987. Commentary on Processual Archaeology and the Radical Critique in Current Anthropology. Vol. 28, No. 4:516-517, August-October 1987.

6. Johnson, L. Lewis. 1978. A History of Flint-Knapping Experimentation, 1838-1976 in Current Anthropology. Vol. 19, No. 2:337-372. June 1978

7. Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1986 [1979] Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, Cambridge MA.

8. Longacre, William A. and James Skibo, eds. 1994. Kalinga Ethnoarchaeology: Expanding Archaeological Method and Theory. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C.

9. Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M. J. 1986.  Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

10. Neupert, Mark A. and Longacre, William A. 1994.  Informant Accuracy in Pottery Use-Life Studies: A Kalinga Example in Kalinga Ethnoarchaeology: Expanding Archaeological Method and Theory. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C. 1994:71-82.

11. Rathje, William J. 1995. Forever Separate Realities in Expanding Archaeology. (eds.) Skibo, J. M., Walker, W. H., and Nielsen, A. E. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. Ch. 4:36-43.

12. Preucel, Robert W. (ed.) 1991. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. United States of America

13. Schaafsma, Curtis F. 1991. Truth Dwells in the Deeps: Lessons from Quantum Theory for Contemporary Archaeology in Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. (ed.) Preucel, R. W. Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University, United States of America. Ch. 6:60-70.

14. Schiffer M. B. 1999. The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication. Routledge, New York.

15. Skibo, James M. 1992.  Pottery Function: A Use-Alteration Perspective. Plenum, New York.

16. Snow, C.P. 1963. The Two Cultures: and a Second Look. Cambridge University Press. New York.

17. Stiles, Daniel. 1977. Ethnoarchaeology: A Discussion of Methods and Applications in Man (N.S.) 12:87-103

18. Walker, William H. 1998. Where are the Witches of Prehistory? In Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 5:245-308.

2002. Stratigraphy and Practical Reason in American Anthropologist 104(1):159-177. American Anthropological Association

[1] from http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/abcde/crabtree_donald.html. April 10, 2004

Walker, W. (1998). Where are the witches of prehistory? Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 5 (3), 245-308 DOI: 10.1007/BF02428071

*this is a paper i wrote in 2004


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s