Bob Chapman and Alison Wylie on Archaeological Evidence and Interpretation

Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie, co-editors of Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice, discuss how archaeologists use physical traces and surviving objects as evidence of what happened in the past.

Archaeologists have learned a lot about the past: they have discovered civilizations and cultures no one knew existed, and decisively challenged assumptions about ones we thought we knew well; they have given voice to those who rarely appear in written records of the past, and shed light on aspects of everyday life assumed to be out of our reach. How have they done this? The obvious answer: by studying material traces of past human behavior, lives and events – artefacts, monuments, cultural landscapes. Archaeological methods of enquiry have taken shape since the early nineteenth century, some of them home-grown and distinctively archaeological, others borrowed from neighboring fields in the humanities and the sciences. Their strategies for putting material traces to work as evidence are as diverse as the types of data with which they work, some of which arise from short-term events over seasons or a few years while others are the cumulative result of larger-scale processes operating over thousands of years, all of which can vary dramatically in their nature, preservation and degree of fragmentation.

How do archaeologists make effective use of physical traces and surviving objects as evidence of what happened in the past, and when, how and why it happened? That’s our focal question, and it’s a question that has divided archaeologists, as much as it has intrigued audiences of Time Detectives, among other such popular TV archaeology shows. Some practitioners set quite strict limits on what they feel they can responsibly claim on the basis of material evidence; they have learned a great deal about forms of, and changes in, technological and subsistence practices, but are cautious about interpretive claims that reach beyond what can be established with relative security on the basis of material analysis. Others are inveterate optimists; they push the interpretive envelope in all directions and are enthusiastic about the potential for using material evidence to address questions about intentions and beliefs, social dynamics and cultural lifeworlds that seem at much greater remove from the evidence available to archaeologists.

For the most part these debates about the scope and limitations of archaeological evidence have been conducted at a level of abstraction that provides little useful guidance for archaeological practice; they are debates about disciplinary ambitions and identity. We advocate a case-based analysis aimed at making explicit norms of evidential reasoning that have evolved in the context of practical experience. We asked the contributors to this collection, who are predominantly archaeologists, to identify a particular instance of evidential reasoning – an example of best practice, instructive failure, or key turning points in how archaeologists work with material evidence – and use it as a reference point for analyzing how they go about constructing and evaluating evidential claims. Some contributors focus on these questions as they arise in the context of archaeological fieldwork and the primary recording of archaeological data; others on the challenges of effective engagement with other disciplines; and still others on strategies developed to compensate for the inherent uncertainty of individual evidential claims, playing diverse lines of evidence off against one another. They ask, for example, when does interpretation begin, and how are conventions of ‘good’ practice transmitted?; how do the contingent histories of the import of analytical techniques affect what archaeologists can recognize and use as evidence?; and what training is necessary for archaeologists to be ‘scientifically literate’?

What are the implications of these case studies? They show how material evidence can surprise and challenge widely accepted assumptions and, at the same time, how disciplinary training canalizes inquiry. Standardized excavation and recording practices were designed to address specific research questions; they selectively focus attention on data relevant to those questions, but once entrenched they can persist even as research agendas shift. They can become a “tyranny,” as one contributor puts it. The general lesson here is that background assumptions – conceptual scaffolding, pre-understandings – are necessary to get research off the ground. So if ideals of objectivity are understood in terms of a mythical pre-suppositionless “view from nowhere”, it is never realized in archaeology (or anywhere else, for that matter). What archaeologists do often accomplish, by dint of intensively hard work, is continuous refinement of this scaffolding of background assumptions at the same time as they build empirical foundations, with varying degrees of robustness, which can support credible knowledge of the past. They keep multiple working hypotheses in play, considering the evidence with as different questions in mind as possible, and making omnivorous use of every resource you can imagine.


What first attracted you to this area of study?

We were both introduced to archaeological excavations as children, Bob working at weekends on a Roman villa in Kent (UK) from the age of twelve and Alison spending childhood holidays with her parents on Iroquois and Huron sites in the St Lawrence River of Ontario (Canada). We experienced the excitement and demands of fieldwork, as well as confronting directly the question of how archaeologists make sense of evidence in different states of preservation. This question remained with us through our university years (Bob studying Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, UK, and Alison majoring in Philosophy at Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, Canada). We were both encouraged, in our very different programs, to see the relevance of the philosophy of science to archaeological practice at all stages, from research design through data collection to the use made of this data as evidence of social life in the past. Bob was imbued with the optimism that social, political and economic factors could be inferred from what seemed the least promising of data, an optimism that informs his long-standing research interests in the treatment of the dead and the development of inequalities in later prehistoric societies in the West Mediterranean. Alison brought a critical eye to bear on the ways in which archaeologists were engaging with the philosophy of science in their search for models that might be useful in archaeological enquiry, and advocated a practice of building a philosophical framework for archaeology from the ground up, rather than importing off-the shelf, often highly idealized models that were developed with other disciplines in mind. As different as our career paths have been, we were both inspired by David Clarke’s 1973 paper on ‘Archaeology: The loss of innocence’; it has been a crucial starting point for developing an ‘internal’ philosophy of archaeology and its practice.

In your recent research on this, what has surprised you or challenged you the most?

Perhaps the most instructive and exciting has been the appreciation we gained of all the diverse ways archaeological practice reveals imagination, insight, reflexivity, adaptability in the use of material evidence to provide well-grounded and trustworthy inferences on past societies. Not that we were surprised, but the successes, and the trajectory of deepening sophistication is really impressive. There has always been concern that archaeologists are not as scientifically ‘literate’ as they might be, that they don’t fully grasp the assumptions that underpin the methods they import, or appreciate the subtleties of the intellectual scaffolding they rely on – but all these issues are as vigorously engaged in archaeology as in any field we know. Theoretical and philosophical assumptions, gap-crossing background knowledge, methodological tools are constantly being re-worked and refined, their fitness for purpose assessed as research programs evolve. The routine use of multiple lines of evidence is a key part of this process; there are good exemplars of how this functions, not just to reinforce but to challenge and sometimes eliminate specific hypotheses about past societies, and also to focus attention on the limitations of methods or assumptions that had been taken for granted. The failures as well as the successes are equally important to moving the field forward, these days, captured by systematic modeling of error.

At the same time several contributors to the volume identify conventions of archaeological practice, especially methods of excavation and recording, that are deeply entrenched and require careful and critical ‘excavation’ in themselves. However much they seem to be a given – just what you do if you’re doing archaeology properly – they are inevitably strategies of inquiry designed for a purpose. The take-home message in a number of chapters is that it’s crucial to keep in sharp focus the questions established modes of practice were designed to address and to assess their reliability continuously, with respect to current purposes. That’s really hard to do when, for example, long-established recording conventions, chronologies and typologies are quite literally the language in terms of which evidence is described – the basis for comparison, analysis, and communication. That said, overall the picture of archaeology that emerges from our volume is optimistic. Archaeologists have been successful in mobilizing a pluralism of expertise, specialisms and standpoints that, rather than fixing the terms of engagement, or standing in everlasting conflict with one another, continuously expand the horizons of inquiry. What some might see as a worrisome instability seems to us a productive dynamism in what counts as evidence, usable for archaeological purposes.

What are some common misconceptions about working with archaeological evidence?

Four misconceptions spring immediately to mind. First there is the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle, according to which archaeologists build up a/the picture of life in the past by assembling as many of the pieces as possible, thereby reducing the need for ambitious interpretation or imagination in the presentation of the picture. Unfortunately we never have all the pieces, most of the pieces are broken or creased and worn after long usage, and they can fit together in different ways. There are almost always a number of different pictures we could plausibly construct and debate in relation to the evidence we have. In most cases there won’t ever be a debate-stopping silver bullet; what’s called for is an ongoing process of weighing the credibility of well-grounded interpretations of the past as their evidential bases evolve.

Secondly, the metaphor of “empirical foundations” is misleading. The evidence we rely on to build and assess claims about the past – artifact typologies, various types of chronologies, for example – should be recognized to have varying, and sometimes shifting, degrees of reliability. What counts as evidence and what evidential claims archaeologists can make depends on background assumptions that are themselves open to reassessment. Some types of evidence have proven to be more or less stable through successive generations of archaeological research and fieldwork, while others require continuous calibration or, sometimes, radical reassessment. The downstream effects of evidence that survives as the cornerstone of a research program in spite of its empirical defects – evidence that’s taken to be “foundational” – can be enormous.

Thirdly, it is frequently argued that the excavation of an archaeological site is ‘an unrepeatable experiment’, making it impossible to evaluate, or reliably use, evidence that has been collected in the past, by different means or for different purposes than current: excavation is destruction. The analogy between excavation and scientific experiment is itself problematic, as is the assumption that experimentally generated evidence is the gold standard for systematic empirical inquiry across the board. Plenty of non-experimental observational, field sciences produce robust empirical knowledge on which we rely with confidence; what matters is to identify ways of assessing reliability that are appropriate to the type of evidence in question. Archaeologists accept the critical role of rigorous excavation and recording methods, along with mechanisms of inter-subjective critique that are built into the research process, as key to ensuring the reliability of evidence. This is a procedural approach that doesn’t secure “foundations” but it does open up the possibility of using legacy data in the same way that all archaeological data are put to work: by critical scrutiny of the purposes and practices by which it was produced. A key strategy here is the use of critical historiographies of earlier fieldwork that, along with re-excavation and analysis of the material recovered, often makes it possible to ask new questions of evidence derived from old sites.

A final, fourth misconception that underlies these others is that, if you recognize (as we do) that archaeological evidence is itself an interpretive construct – if you insist that tried and true, standardized methods are themselves purpose-specific conventions – then you’re forced into a position of profound epistemic pessimism. You’re never justified in claiming that a particular hypothesis or set of claims about the past is supported by the evidence because the evidence is radically unstable. The real situation in archaeology is much more complex than this polarization suggests, as it is in every other field that takes seriously the challenge of holding ambitious claims accountable to evidence. The fact that specific methods were designed for the excavation of particular types of sites, or that particular kinds of data were gathered because they were relevant to particular questions, doesn’t entail that that these data, and the evidential claims based on them, could be made up any way an archaeologist might wish. The contingency of evidential claims – the fact that there is no final, foundational stopping place – is a reason for epistemic optimism: they are open to refinement, to reexamination, repositioning. This is itself an empirical process and, time and again, archaeologists find that it challenges their most settled convictions – about the past, and about the methods they use to explore it.

Briefly how do you see the future of material evidence studies developing?

To begin with, we believe that the studies assembled in our volume demonstrate the value of close to the grain studies of the nature of archaeological practice as a means of bringing into focus the wisdom embodied in practice – building a methodological and epistemic framework for archaeology from the ground up. The contributors cover a lot of ground: fieldwork and recording conventions; the conditions for success in the importation of methods from other disciplines; the development of interpretive resources within archaeology when none exist in useable form elsewhere; the use of multiple lines of evidence – and the role of various strategies of reflexive analysis, like critical historiography of research practice, to appraise these practices as they have taken shape in the field. In retrospect, we’re acutely aware that there are many other topics we could have included: more questions are raised than answered, for example, about how “evidence” is configured by disciplinary literacy and training practices, institutional conditions for successful trade between fields, and the impact of funding regimes. So we hope that our book will prove be the impetus for future and ongoing studies of archaeological practice, not just as a philosophical or historical curiosity, but as an integral aspect of effective, dynamically evolving research practice.

Despite these reservations about coverage we feel that this collection represents a fair cross-section of the expertise archaeologists have developed in the course of a century or two of working with material evidence. Looking outside the disciplinary confines of archaeology, we hope that these essays make clear what archaeology has to offer, and also to learn from, the growing number of other social scientists who are engaged in the study of material evidence. Going forward, we’re convinced that cross-fertilization will be crucial; virtually every contribution to this volume makes it clear that no one field on its own has the resources necessary to make effective use of material evidence.

Finally, on a more philosophical level, the difficulties of working with material evidence have had the effect of reinforcing a reflective streak in archaeology. Sometimes, as our catalogue of misconceptions suggests, this has generated debates that seem ill-framed and have resulted in unproductively polarized debate: about norms of objectivity of the ‘complete’ or ‘detached’ (view from nowhere) variety; idealized models of explanation; foundationalist claims about evidence, as proclaimed in the 1960s and early 1970s. But at the same time, serious engagement with the realities of archaeological practice has given way to a messier picture of multiple standpoints, diverse questions, background assumptions and types of evidence that are differently relevant and reliable all at play in archaeological practice, and all open to ongoing revision. Taken together, these decisively undermine starkly framed philosophical ideals, disconnected from practice; but, at the same time, they make it just as implausible that archaeological practice can be dismissed as a merely subjective exercise with little insight to offer beyond speculation. We think this trajectory of internal, practice-engaged philosophizing offers a realistic appraisal of what systematic empirical inquiry – scientific inquiry – has to offer, relevant well beyond archaeology and aligned fields.

What are your three favourite books on material/archaeological evidence?

Chang, H. (2004). Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daston, L. (Ed.). (2008 [2004]). Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (1st paperback edition ed.). New York: Zone Books.

Lucas, G. (2001). Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. New York: Routledge.


Bob Chapman is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, UK. His research focuses on archaeological theory, Mediterranean later prehistory, the development of human inequality and the means by which this can be studied with archaeological data. He has pursued these interests in fieldwork projects in southeast Spain and the Balearic Islands, as well as in books such as The Archaeology of Death (1981), Emerging Complexity (1990) and Archaeologies of Complexity (2003). In recent years his research has turned increasingly to the use of historical materialism in archaeological interpretation, especially in relation to inequality and human exploitation. Running through this research activity has been a strong concern for the nature of archaeological interpretation, working with the complementary evidence of how people lived (e.g. what they produced, exchanged and consumed, centred on settlement evidence) and how they were treated in death (e.g. their disposal, centred on burial evidence).

Alison Wylie is Professor of Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Washington, and of Philosophy at Durham University. She is a philosopher of the social and historical sciences who works on questions about objectivity, evidence, and research ethics raised by archaeological practice and by feminist research in the social sciences. Her longstanding interest in evidential reasoning is represented by Thinking from Things (2002) and by contributions to Evidence, Inference and Enquiry (Dawid, Twining and Vasilaki, 2011), How Well do 'Facts' Travel? (Morgan, 2010), and Agnatology (Proctor and Schiebinger, 2008). In recent work she focuses on the role of contextual values in science and on how research can be improved by internal diversity and by collaborations that extend beyond the research community. These interests are reflected in Value-free Science? (co-edited with Kincaid and Dupré, 2007) and Epistemic Diversity and Dissent (edited for Episteme 2006), as well as in essays on stewardship and feminist standpoint theory.

  • Material Evidence

    Learning from Archaeological Practice, 1st Edition

    Edited by Robert Chapman, Alison Wylie

    How do archaeologists make effective use of physical traces and material culture as repositories of evidence? Material Evidence takes a resolutely case-based approach to this question, exploring instances of exemplary practice, key challenges, instructive failures, and innovative developments in…

    Paperback – 2014-12-12
    Routledge

  • Critical Approaches to Fieldwork

    Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice, 1st Edition

    By Gavin Lucas

    This work takes as its starting point the role of fieldwork and how this has changed over the past 150 years. The author argues against progressive accounts of fieldwork and instead places it in its broader intellectual context to critically examine the relationship between theoretical paradigms…

    Paperback – 2000-10-05
    Routledge