Archaeology should be less about coming up with the right answers and more about asking the right questions.

A few months ago I began the laborious (and downright frustrating) task of writing a history of research for the Bronze Age in Croatia and Serbia. The majority of literature is culture-historical in orientation. This means that the primary focus has been on establishing a chronological development through a discussion of artefact typologies. Quite frankly I find this all extremely dull, not to mention infinitely complex and in some cases almost incomprehensible. Often when reading the extensive descriptions of pottery vessels and metal objects I am plagued by the question: ‘so what exactly is this telling me?’ Frequently this is left unanswered.

Many archaeologists in this part of the world are what I would term ‘culture happy.’ By this I mean that all objects and sites are designated to a cultural group based on appearance, style and their date. In some cases though using this approach is nonsensical; Bronze Age material culture in this area is so complex (and in some cases just plain weird), and often researchers are left stumped and even more confused. By trying endlessly to place artefacts and sites into precise little groups, are we as archaeologists completely missing the point?

There seems to be an incessant pandemic, not just in central Europe, where academics are fearful of ‘getting it wrong.’ Perhaps this is a product of the academic system itself. Yet it is just not enough anymore to think that the material speaks for itself, and provide safe answers to the same safe questions. As archaeologists, we need to concentrate more on the questions we ask as opposed to the answers we generate. Questions that incite imagination, exploration and encourage us to think outside of the box open up all sorts of possibilities. It is possibility that enables fresh thinking, making our wonderful discipline even more exciting and dynamic.

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7 thoughts on “Archaeology should be less about coming up with the right answers and more about asking the right questions.

  1. Awesome. Reassuring that you’re thinking much the same as I am at the moment about Renaissance French literature! Lots of big questions, not rushing to find the answers just yet. Lovely to see more of what you’re up to, best of luck with it! xxx

  2. Not that I can comment on the case in Central-Eastern Europe, but in the interests of a cynic’s view:

    I think the focus on answers rather than questions is, in part at least, a product of the way research archaeology is viewed, (and funded). The objective is always to provide an ‘answer’, it’s not enough to simply reveal the holes in current reasoning or expose problems in the way evidence is categorised and interpreted – research doesn’t seem to be considered valid unless it provides a hermeneutic conclusion – and funding, which tends towards being a driving force, doesn’t really come unless the proposal details what exactly it will be answering. Emphasis on answers/results.

    Similarly, public interest and acceptance of archaeology as a legitimate practice is quite often dependent on what answers it provides, rather than the creation of knowledge which leads to further unknowns. The answer becomes more important than the question in the first place, because the ‘public’ (and I use the world lightly well aware of the generalisation) desire can be for a nicely packaged set of conclusions rather than more questions.

    Academically, I can’t speak for established academics (yet), and to put it very simply before this turns into an entire essay, the fear of being wrong may be the fear of one’s career being hindered; the plain fact is that academia can be quite brutal, and if you don’t have the internationally-recognised respect than protects you even when other academics disagree with your theories (Kristiansen for instance…), then playing safe can, I imagine, be quite alluring. However, this certainly isn’t to say that everyone does play safe, and that is why I will be having another academic exchange of ideas (for which read argument) with Jo once she returns from wherever she is at the moment! (One of the advantages of working on craft is at least that there’s not been that much done previously so we have perhaps more scope).

    As for placing artefacts into precise groups, I’m working with axes and palstaves. Metonymy. Don’t even get me started. (When is a palstave not a palstave?)

  3. Rob – I agree with a lot of what you are saying. However, just because research has always been done in a particular way does not mean to say that it should always continue to do so. Unfortuantely archaeology has in some ways become a brand and due to the nature of how we are funded we tend to rush into providing the ‘answers,’ perhaps to the detriment of really understanding our own subject. As a discipline we need to start being even more open-minded. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? As Obama said ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for.’ Viva la revolución!

    P.S. I would very much to hear your (counter-Jo) ideas!

    • Oh I do agree. I certainly don’t mean that research should continue to be done the way it always has been, I just think that for certain academics who have come through that system and want to safeguard their reputation/position then sticking to tried and tested practice is their way of doing so. I find it ever so frustrating. However, the evolution of the discipline demands the change you’re describing, but it is people at about our stage who are going to have to enact it, and that will entail a degree of force to move past some of the old guard. (Prime example is resistance to the application of elements from behavioural sciences, or at an even more basic level the exercise of common sense. This ‘strangeness of the past’ nonsense can be quite crippling).

      I consider my thesis to be about the new questions it asks, it’s Jo who keeps demanding I answer them! 🙂

  4. Hey Sarah:)

    Here are some of my comments on your experience in writing that history of research:

    ”This means that the primary focus has been on establishing a chronological development through a discussion of artefact typologies.”

    Dull or not, or however incomprehensible it might be sometimes, typology is a useful tool for an archaeologist as long as the research frames are clear and typology is used to get somewhere, that is to compare your material with the material within secure chronological frames. This however might seem relative, but it works, especially when strengthened with absolute dates gained by scientific analyses. The problem emerges only when typology is framed within cultural-historical paradigm where artifacts are seen as a direct manifestation of ethnicity. When you see that it is used to discuss cultural influence, all red lights should be on.

    ”Many archaeologists in this part of the world are what I would term ‘culture happy.’ By this I mean that all objects and sites are designated to a cultural group based on appearance, style and their date.”

    You are completely right, and we had discussions on this before. My question however is concerned with the fact that the concept of archaeological culture, even after a serious critique within processual and post-processual archaeology, stayed. Name me one article dealing with prehistory which is not at least mentioning that ”this and that” belongs to culture ”X”. This produces a double standard in my opinion, as in almost all cases archaeologists who do not consider themselves traditional still frame their material in cultures.

    Uroš

    • Hey Uros,

      I think you are completely right that typology needs to be used within a clear and direct research framework…the irony is although I am critiquing typology, I still need to use it in order to show a chronological progression. You know the score when it comes to the relative lack of absolute dates. Hope your proposal is going well!! Looking forward to Belgrade visit.

      Sarah

  5. Great ideas, Sara!

    I think you are definitely onto something good and I couldnt agree more. I am in almost the same position with those boring typologies. They have only slowed my progress and they really say nothing at all about my artefacts which is of any use. In fact, they have actively created a distorted view of my artefacts which is why I refute the view that typology is in any way useful. Those who still find a use for it don’t usually produce archaeology I am interested in. I think its really exciting where archaeology is going (at least in our dept.) being that the general consensus here seems to be embarking on something new. My approach has been to largely ignore skeptics and just go for it. I think Southampton is a great place to do that! Out with the old and in with the new!

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