Thursday, 19 December 2013

Is Archaeology a Science?

Who'd have thought I'd find myself as co-convener for a third year Theoretical Archaeology module? Such is the situation I find myself in towards the end of my first year at the University of Edinburgh. I used to be one of those people who thought theory was all a bit confusing with no relevance to 'real' archaeology. This is an attitude I have found especially of researchers in archaeology who have a background in the sciences. What is the point of theory? Or I'm a scientist, I don't need theory! As an undergraduate I had a compulsory Philosophy of Science module, but I'm not sure how common this is for most science degrees. I think sometimes we don't realise that even as scientists with 'hard data', we have to interpret our data - and in archaeology especially, these data are always flawed in some way, and our interpretations steeped in our own experiences. It's a myth that scientific results can only have one interpretation. The way we use averages, choose our sample sets etc all impact the end results and skew them slightly in favour of one interpretation or another. Working on the Catalhoyuk project as a PhD student I couldn't really avoid theory, and the more I actually sat down and made the effort to make sense of it, the more it did make sense. It's one of those things that once it clicks, and you 'get it', you wonder how you ever did without it.
I am currently writing a power-point which includes a bit about deductive versus inductive reasoning. As I revise the topic I am reminded of a quote which is nicely relevant to my teaching next semester for two reasons, firstly it highlights the problem of inductive reasoning and ethnographic analogy which is sometimes invoked in archaeological interpretation, and secondly it is by David Hume, who happens to be from Edinburgh! Ok I confess, reading philosophical texts can be mighty confusing. I guess it will be a test of my teaching skills whether I can digest this into an easy to understand format for students!


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