Thursday, October 20, 2005

Experimental Archaeology, who needs it?

This post is an argument (heavily supplemented by an article) in favor of experimental archaeology.

That article is by John E. Clark entitled Ancient Technology, Justifiable Knowledge and Replication Experiments: Resolving the Inferential Impasse (2002).

Clark argues that "technology studies must become a core concern of all archaeology given the discipline's unavoidable emphasis on interpreting material traces of past lifeways...Replication experiments need to be central to these studies of ancient technology" (Clark 2002:259).

Clark provides a postulate to justify the need for experiments.

"If we accept the foundational premise of archaeology and history that knowledge of the past is possible, and if we further stipulate that said knowledge--however defined--is unavoidably analogical, and if we consider inferences by analogy to be the pairing of contemporary knowledge or causal principle to material effects from the past existing into the present (i.e., artifacts and traces) then it follows that our knowledge of the past depends on (1) the recovery of material traces from the past and (2) our contemporary knowledge of cause and material effects and (3) our ability to match past effects with those of known cause in an observed present" (Clark 2002:264).

In sum, if we believe that we can learn about the past and that this knowledge is gained by obtaining material remains, then we must depend on knowledge we have gained by understanding cause and effect in a modern setting. If we understand cause and effect in a modern setting then we will be able to use contemporary observations to add to our knowledge of the past.

Of course, experimental archaeology, ethnographic research and ethnoarhcaeology cannot do it all, they can however, "establish a potentially useful interpretive principle for linking cause to material effect" (Clark 2002: 265).

It is my opinion that experimental archaeology serves to strengthen our abilities to make inferences about past life-ways. By participating in experimental archaeology, we can not only replicate ethnographically observed behavior, we can test theories about unobserved behavior and methods.

Many out there approach experimental archaeology with reluctance though, fearing that many of these inferences or observations are contrived or flase. Clark's counter for this argument is that "in the final analysis it must be admitted that the logical process of archaeological inference is little affected by the source observations of cause and effect, whether generated experimentally or described for indigenous peoples on some Pacific atoll" (Clark 2002:265).

Clark also points out the fact that many times "Replication experiments provide the observational basis for the first move because analysts can explore as wide a range of possibilities as deemed necessary, something not possible in ethnography and its parade of singular cases (Clark 2002:266). This is an interesting observation, and one that has built Clark's career in Mesoamerica, and contributed to the understanding of folsom point creation, specifically fluting. Were it not for this belief certain archaeologists like John Clark and Michael Collins, the Folsom Workshop may not have taken place and many of the ideas about folsom technology expressed during those years would have still been lurking in obscurity.

If important inferences about the past can be made, they should be grounded in present observations of experiments. Experimental archaeologists need to be cautioned though, that any run of the mill experiment will not do. According to Clark, "Poorly designed experiments or experiments of unknown significance will not do...Improved archaeology in the twenty-first century needs to [place] experiments on solid, logical ground" (Clark 2002:267).

throughout the rest of his article, Clark provides a summary on how to institute experimental archaeology programs in universities and colleges. Clark concludes with a discussion on the future of archaeological inference and suggests that if inferences about the past are to contribute to the archaeology, they must be justified though "acceptable logical standards" (Clark 2002:269).

I fully agree with Clark's observations and arguments, and that's not just because I attend the university where he teaches, it's because his observations and arguments make sense. Why should archaeologists limit themselves to merely looking at artifacts and making assumptions about them, when they could actually participate in the replication of those artifacts and make logical and supported inferences? Obviously, not all archaeologists have the time, ability, or desire to participate in experimental archaeology. There are some who exist though, and their voice and participation in the academic world needs to be louder and more active. By providing data from replicative and experimental studies, archaeologists can expand the boundaries of archaeological inference. Many claims about toolstone procurement, ceramic processing, and projectile point production can be tested and accepted or rejected through experimental methods.

I would suggest that certain archaeologists have made assumptions or inferences about past behavior with no real knowledge or understanding of that behavior. Many times, these inferences have been proved wrong by applying data gained from experimental studies, and embarrassment, crushed egos, and personal vendettas have resulted.

It is my opinion that general acceptance and application of experimental studies in archaeological research has significant benefits. These benefits range from the creation of better inferences and better science in general, to the creation of more informed artifact analysts. Improvements in the areas of scientific inference and artifact analysis are always welcome and enable archaeologists to ask more issue related and important questions.

note: the bibliographic information below is in SAA format. It may not be exact format due to issues beyond my control due to some of blogger's inadequacies in the word processing department. Also, the Clark reference was a little tricky and I didn't have time to look it up. I may edit it later.

John E. Clark
2002 Ancient Technology, Justifiable Knowledge and Replication Experiments: Resolving the Inferential Impasse. In Traditions, Transitions, and Technologies: Themes in Southwestern Archaeology, Proceedings of the 2000 Southwest Symposium. edited by Sarah H. Schlanger. University Press, Colorado

For a summary of the proceedings and papers given at the Folsom Workshop, see

Clark, John E. and Michael B. Collins

2002 The Folsom Workshop Conferences. In Folsom Technology and Lifeways, edited by John E. Clark and Michael B. Collins. Special Publication No. 4. Lithic Technology, Department of Anthropology University of Tulsa, Tulsa.

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