Is a scientific archaeology possible?

After having read Robert Dunnell’s (1992) paper in the book I wrote about in an earlier post I must write a word or two about the way I see archaeology as a science.

Dunnell provides two explanations for contemporary archaeology’s failure to become scientific:

”Archaeologists have always aspired to make archaeology science. The history of this effort shows that it has been frustrated first by the inappropriate conception of science after the fashion of physics and second by the general atheoretical character of archaeology which has permitted deep penetration by common sense.” (Dunnell 1992: 88)

The notion of a possibility of a scientific archaeology dates back to the new archaeology of the 60’s. The rapid development of physics from and in the 40’s and 50’s resulted in a definition of science as natural sciences, i.e. physics, biology etc. If archaeology were to be taken as a real science, it had to follow these lines of natural sciences. Archaeology uses a lot of the methods of natural sciences but is not itself a natural science. The notion of ‘science’ as natural sciences and ‘law’ were tried to fit into archaeology as part of the processual discourse with no success. It did not take long for archaeologists to realize that no such laws can be found to accord with human behavior. The problem of naturalism and anti-naturalism still persists. It is my view that human behavior can not be reduced to physical phenomena. When searching for universal laws governing human behavior one must turn to semiotics and try to find explanation for action and experience there. These laws will not be physical but phenomenological and semiotic.

What Dunnell is after with the notion of archaeology as atheoretical remains a bit unclear, but I think he is, however, on the right track there. The failure in finding universal laws resulted in an emergence of a bundle of archaeologies in the 80’s usually referred to as postprocessual archaeologies. To call these archaeologies atheoretical is misleading. Charles Peirce called his pragmaticism (and inquiry) critical common-sensism. Dunnell is comfortable calling archaeology atheoretical and referring to common sense as one of the reasons for archaeology’s failure for becoming scientific. It is, however, the notion of ‘common sense’ in the Peircean fashion that holds in it the very possibility of a scientific archaeology.

  • Dunnell, Robert C. 1992. Is a scientific archaeology possible? Metaarchaeology: reflections by archaeologists and philosophers. Boston studies in the philosophy of science, vol. 147.
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