Practice vs theory in archaeology – the archaeological record

Today I realized something important that may seem very trivial to others. Or, to be more exact, I found a good example of what I have always thought to be the case.

I was reading chapter 2 of Gavin Lucas’ Understanding the Archaeological Record in which Lucas provides a very nice historical account of the ideas that archaeologists have had about the archaeological record. Up until the second half of the 20th century, archaeologists were not concerned about the level of preservation of the archaeological material but rather concentrated on collecting. Some favored an approach of total recording while others saw it as an impossible task.

In the beginning of the 20th century the inductivist attitude (the idea that when the archaeologists have collected all of the relevant data, the truth about the past would automatically present itself) was to a certain degree challenged by the idea that such ‘total archaeology’ would not be possible, and even if the total record was somehow thought to have been achieved, knowledge about the past would still be only a construction because we would never be certain whether we know everything there is to know, how can we be certain that we have collected all the artifacts that were left in the ground.

Two of the most prominent British archaeologists of the time (the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century) were General Pitt Rivers and Flinders Petrie. According to Lucas (2012: 47) Pitt Rivers was an inductivist (or naive realist) who thought that archaeology should strive for securing the total record. According to Pitt Rivers ‘it ought at all times to be the chief object of an excavator to reduce his own personal equation to a minimum’ (Pitt Rivers 1887 as quoted in Lucas 2012: 45). Petrie, on the other hand had a more modest objective. Petrie (1904: 50–51) realized that no matter how carefully and how much data we gather, we would be left with no more than a statement about the past (see pictures):




Even though Pitt Rivers and Petrie write in a very similar fashion about the preservation of detailed facts in the material record, it is clear that their ideas about the nature of archaeological knowledge differed greatly. The reason that led these archaeologists to adopt such contrasting archaeological attitudes was that whereas Pitt Rivers was mainly conducting excavations on prehistoric sites in Britain, Petrie worked extensively in Egypt. Needless to say, the amount of artifacts Pitt Rivers had to deal with in Britain was significantly smaller than that dug up by Petrie in Egypt (although I doubt either one of them ever did the actual digging). Even though this may not be the only reason Pitt River’s and Petrie’s views differ from each other, this is a very simple example of how ‘the material nature of archaeological practice ought to be intimately connected to its conceptual nature’ (Lucas 2012: 49).


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