Lecture 2 - Science, It's History in Archaeology, and Intro. To Copan
Quiz 1 next class!
Last class, we were discussing the importance and utility of artifactual evidence. This scale of analysis is useful for the main unit of archaeological research, the site. A site is a discrete but dense deposit of contextually-related artifacts. A site can be a small hunting camp that would fit on a couple of these tables, or a city like Teotihuacan in central Mexico or Troy in Turkey that covers several square kilometers of area. Site limits are defined according to parameters decided by the archaeologist. Typically, the limits are defined by artifact density. Once the density drops below a certain level, then the area is no longer considered part of the site. (draw on board) However, a culture or society usually consists of several sites through time...how do we link these together to understand that culture, or human behavior in general?
First, archaeologists can also draw upon data collected by other kinds of anthropologists:
Ethnographic Analogy: Using data from cultures observed
anthropologists to flesh out the bones of the artifactual data. Similar
cultures manipulating similar environments in similar ways.
Ethnoarchaeology: Archaeologists collecting their own
(from an existing culture). Cultural anthropologists doing ethnographic
work, because they have many more cultural attributes to observe,
usually overlook the cultural minutia that interests archaeologists. They
will usually focus on things like kinship or beliefs while ignoring the
movement and deposition of cultural materials. If you want a job done
right, you've got to do it yourself! Thus, to obtain archaeologically
useful data from an existing culture, archaeologists often visit a culture
and record things like...Who makes a pot? (man, woman, user, potter,
etc.) What imagery or symbolism is important during it's fabrication?
How is a pot used? How does this use alter the pot? (scratches, etc.)
How long does a pot last? How is disposed? (burial, general midden,
special midden, just swept away, etc. Is there any symbolic
importance to this disposal? (pot killing, sacred trash middens, etc.) Is
it disturbed after deposition?(In the southwestern pueblo of Acoma, old
pots are often ground up to make new pots...how would this affect the
Ethnohistory: Using written historical observations of
a culture. In effect,
these are historic ethnographic observations. However, often they are tainted by the agenda of the author. What are some examples? Columbus' log, accounts from the settling of the western US, The
Discovery of Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Codex
Mendoza written for Sahagun. These can be very useful because they
often describe first hand ways of life that no longer exist.
Now we have several specific tools that we can use to collect data about extinct cultures...how do we use these to understand more general patterns of human behavior?
Since the 1960's, archaeological research has followed the procedures of the scientific method. On the first day of class, someone described archaeology as scientific...what does this mean? What is science? (write on board)
Science is the process of systematically determining consensual beliefs about our physical universe.
Notice, I did not say that science discovers "fact" or "truth"! What is considered fact or truth often depends upon the perspective of the believer...hence, it can mean different things to different people. Science achieves agreement in a belief by continually attempting to disprove it and explain any resulting discrepancies...regardless of who is doing the observations. What is a fact but an absolute belief; one that cannot be disproved. While this might be the ultimate goal of science, one can never be totally sure that fact has been achieved. As far as truth is concerned, we'll leave that one to the lawyers and philosophers! I tend to think that anyone who bandies about the words "facts" or "truth" are either not thinking clearly or are selling something.
So, science involves the systematic testing of ideas, otherwise known as hypotheses. These are questions and their possible answers that are then tested through specially-focused research.
Models: Once we have formulated a hypothesis...once we have a question and a possible answer...we can develop a model that may explain the process. A model is a tool that we use to organize our data to fit into a more general framework. Once a model is formulated, it is repeatedly tested and revised, tested and revised. Eventually, the model should become accurate or detailed enough that most exceptions are known or understood so that the need for revision is minimal. These stable and mature models are also known as theories. Theories that stand the multiple tests of time (and get signed by the president :-) become laws(i.e. thermodynamics). This whole process is also known as the scientific method. Thus, all science is an organized method of thinking...a mental tool for explaining measurements.
So, science is:
Systematic: research is planned, and alternative explanations are investigated
Cyclical (recursive, self-refining): ideas are tested, modified, and retested
Repeatable: regardless of who is doing the research, the
same results should
be obtained. If not, something is wrong somewhere. Look at cold
Objective: Because of the other three factors, science
tends to be objective...
the personal opinions of the scientists get canceled out.
All this methodology just didn't develop overnight...how did archaeology become the highly systematic discipline that it is today?
Archaeology, like Anthropology, while an avocational interest for many centuries, has only been a formal academic discipline since the end of the 19th. century.
Prior to 1840, archaeologists were capable of little more than speculation about prehistory. Very little centralized work had been done before then, and
much less was published. Remember, science, like learning in general, is constructive...it builds upon previous knowledge. During this speculative period, previous knowledge was nearly non-existant. Therefore, all they could do was guess. For example: The large earthern mounds that characterize many prehistoric cultures in eastern North America were deemed during this time period to be beyond the technological means of the native North Americans...therefore, gifted foreigners such as the Phoenicians, Vikings, or the "Lost Tribes of Israel" had to be responsible. (can you say "ethnocentrism"?) This period was characterized by simple artifact collecting. The most contextual information that was recorded was a site name or maybe a region (i.e. "Sardinia"). Many sites in Greece, Egypt, and Mexico were robbed of their contents for display in wealthy homes and museums....generally known as " antiquarianism ". Indiana Jones is generally classified by archaeologists as an antiquarian. However, some very good work was done during this period. Most notable, was that by Thomas Jefferson in 1784. He was the first to use systematic excavation when he excavated at mound on his property. I guess we can add the title "Father of New World Archaeology" to those he already earned! In other areas of human behavior, the first tentative hypotheses were suggested during this time as well (Malthus- humans will always populate beyond their food supply)
By the early 19th. century, most areas of the world had been explored by Europeans to some degree or another. They had to conclude that the Earth was populated by a wide variety of cultures, both past and present. Around 1840, they began to document these cultures. Thus, they set the foundation of knowledge that we have been building upon ever since. However, at this early date, archaeologists were content to describe, classify, and order the artifacts they found. Several decades of work had produced such a large body of data that the first anthropology museums and departments were established for its study. Archaeology was now a formal academic discipline. While all this work lead to the identification of the fact that cultures did seem to change or progress, the reason or process for these changes remained unexamined.
In the early 20th. century, anthropologists began to systematically compare cultures. While it was known that cultures changed through time, these comparative studies documented the order of these changes. Thus, a good deal of effort was spent creating regional sequences based on seriation, the ordering of artifacts based on stylistic progression. In addition, other dating methods, such as stratigraphy and dendrochronology, were refined which, especially in the case of the latter, permitted very precise chronological placement of these cultures. However, once again, archaeologist concentrated on documenting and measure for the first time how cultures changed through time. What they neglected was investigating why cultures changed.
In the late 1940's, several outspoken archaeologists began to chafe under the still largely descriptive yoke that characterized the historical period. They felt that archaeologists were ignoring cultural reconstruction in favor of very detailed descriptions and sequences. So, in the 1950's, archaeology began to explore other facets of the archaeological data besides the stylistic/chronological-based aspects. The distribution of cultures across the landscape was examined in regional and settlement-pattern studies. Specialists from other disciplines outside of anthropology were brought in to examine botany, geology, ceramics, and biology (Dr. Matson). Broad research questions such the origins of food production and the development of urbanism were examined for the first time. In the 1960's, the scientific method was first explicitly adopted....archaeologists now felt confident that human behavior should be subject to definable constraints in was similar to phenomena in the physical sciences. Archaeology had finally reached maturity. Since then a wide variety of approaches and research questions have arisen...however, they are now focused on cultural reconstruction and explaining why cultures change.
Now that you've learned about the basic goals and methodology of archaeology, we'll start looking at the main applied archaeological example that the book uses, the major classic Mayan site of Copan. The specific research that the book describes began in 1977. However, the book shows that a significant amount of research had been done prior to that time. Thus, quite a bit was already known about Copan, and the Mayan phenomenon in general before this research.
The Maya were a prehistoric network of cultures on the Yucatan Peninsula and neighboring areas in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The earliest signs of their development first begin to appear around AD 200, peaked between AD 600 and AD 800, and persisted until the Spanish Conquest and even into the present day. The Maya culture is characterized by distinctive architecture featuring temple pyramids, ceremonial ballcourts, hieroglyphic writing, and stone monuments. These Maya cultural traits, in particular their architecture and artworks, are so widespread that they have been mistaken for a unified empire...perhaps governed from one of the major central sites such as Tikal. One characteristic of the Maya was that they built many commemorative monuments called stele. Because these were covered with elaborately carved figures and writing...of which only the dates could be translated...it was thought that their artwork depicted a pacifistic people that worshipped the cosmos and the passage of time. However, early in the 1960's, the other characters of the Mayan writing were translated. Once the inscriptions on these monuments were translated, it turned out that rather than peaceful monuments to the gods of time, they were political markers declaring how great and powerful this or that king was because they had captured and sacrificed so many hundred enemy warriors! Thus, instead of a peaceful theocracy worshipping time, the Maya region was populated by a patchwork of small kingdoms constantly warring with each other. In short, a good deal was already known about the Maya in general, and about Copan in particular, before Webster and Sanders began their research project in 1977.
Even though a significant amount of archaeological work had been done at Copan in Stephen's first purchased and explored the site in the 1830's, most of these excavations had focused on the clearing and reconstruction of the palatial Main Group. Because this was the area where the ruling elite lived, this part of the site had the most impressive artifacts and architecture...Indiana Jones would really love it! Unfortunately, this focus on the elite centers was not limited to Copan...it was symptomatic of the Mayan region, in general. Thus although a great deal was known about the ruling lineages of these centers, and their placement in time, very little was known about the role these centers played with the environment in the local areas around them, or why they apparently collapsed soon after their peak around AD 800. It was to fill this void of knowledge that the Copan Archaeological Project was initiated in 1977.