Archaeology versus History

I was alerted to a blog post a few weeks ago with the (deliberately I'm sure) provocative title Archaeology is just an expensive way of finding out what historians already know... Of course I immediately felt the need to...actually I didn't. The post does have a point. Archaeology is indeed usually more expensive than historical research. I don't think the central criticism of the article is specific to archaeology. What is actually being complained about here is poorly designed research, without a clear objective. Though it is not clear whether this is because the actual excavation being discussed (a battle field) does not have clear objectives, or that the main source linked to is a Telegraph article.
Saying that archaeology just shows what historians already know is a narrow view of the aims of both history and archaeology. Whilst the contribution of archaeology to (in this case) a 200 year old battle that is extensively documented, may be more limited, there are always things that archaeology can tell us that history can not.
Whilst most of my research is in prehistory, I have dabbled in historic archaeology, specifically medieval, as part of The Ecology of Crusading project. The overall aim of this project is to examine the environmental and cultural consequences of crusading in the Baltic during the medieval period. There are two reasons why historic analysis alone cannot address this question. Firstly, the indigenous Baltic groups at the time did not have written records, and so what we know of them is entirely through secondary accounts of incoming western Europeans. I don't need to point out how that could be problematic! The only direct record of these groups is through their material culture i.e. archaeology. Secondly, with even the most detailed and specific historic records, the nature of those sources means they are not always useful in a study concerning environmental change. In order to address this question, we need to conduct quantitative analyses of proxies that can tell us about the environment i.e. sedimentary records from lakes and peat bogs. And to link that with human activity, we need to look at the archaeology, and have a robust dating programme that can link the archaeological and environmental records. Historic sources can help, as they provided very detailed accounts, for example inventories of resources within castles. A good example of bringing these different sources together is a new paper in press in Geoarchaeology journal, 'The ecological impact of conquest and colonization on a medieval frontier landscape: combined palynological and geochemical analysis of lake sediments from Radzyń Chełminski, northern Poland'.
I like to think of History and Archaeology as sharing a common goal, just using different methods. And as with all the best research, the most appropriate method to use depends on the question we are asking. And most of the time, multiple methods are better than one! Both History and Archaeology have their problems when it comes to interpretation. Both records are fragmented, biased, only revealing certain aspects of the people under study. Both require a level of interpretation.Whether the expense justifies the outcomes is a matter for the funders to decide, and is just one of the factors to be considered when designing a research project.

Radzyn Castle (Photo by Alex Brown,Ecology of Crusading project)


  1. I will never get tired of the enthralling feeling from visiting castles and fortresses. Thank you for the detailed information about the oldest castle in Britain! A thrilling vibe towards the stories behind them is always existent. This kind of reminded me of the recent post of the 93-year old Simone Klugman entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down." Will not cease ticking Chepstow Castle in my bucket list! :)


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