One of the reasons I was initially attracted to the discipline of archaeology is that it is a field that requires a great deal of cleverness. By cleverness I don’t mean wit or conversational prowess – take Lewis Binford, arguably one of the most well-known archaeologists of the twentieth century, famous for such pithy gems as “We would expect that, other things being equal, the heterogeneity in mortuary practice which is characteristic of a single socio-cultural unit would vary directly with the complexity of the status hierarchy, as well as with the complexity of the overall organization of the society with regard to membership units and other forms of sodalities” (1971:15).
Instead, by cleverness I mean analytical flexibility, the ability to take minute traces of material human culture and make rigorous, scientific inferences about our history. One of the primary goals of archaeology is to reconstruct past human behavior, and piecing together what humans were up to 300 or 1000 or 10000 years ago using only fragments of broken pottery, stone tools, and animal bones necessitates a certain degree of innovation in investigative approach.
To many, the obstacles involved actually seem insurmountable; one of my favorite stories about archaeologists interacting with other anthropologists is an anecdote passed on by a younger archaeologist in my department. While enrolled in a mandatory upper-level seminar that covered the canon of cultural anthropological theory, she went in to visit the professors to discuss her final assignment. During the meeting the tenured cultural anthropologists teaching the class amicably inquired about her research and future academic goals, listening politely while she detailed her interest in reconstructing domestic lifeways in Oaxaca. One of the professors shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, brow furrowed, “it’s just that to me, what you do seems so much like alchemy.”
I find this anecdote doubly amusing, because it at once highlights the skeptical disdain ‘more humanistic’ anthropologists often have for archaeology, while illuminating the seemingly arcane and esoteric nature of archaeological methodology. How on earth could anyone possibly, say, reconstruct aspects of inter-ethnic marriage relationships of 18th-century North America using only a handful of fragmentary animal bones? Clearly scholars claiming to be capable of such a feat are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
However, such reconstructions aren’t impossible – they just demand a great deal of creativity.
One of my favorite demonstrations of the resourceful use of archaeological evidence was recounted by Dr. Terrance Martin at the Illinois State Museum on a visit several years ago. Martin is a zooarchaeologist, a researcher specializing in the study of animal bones from archaeological sites. He spent time describing his research on the state’s French Colonial history while giving a visiting group of students a tour of the zooarchaeology collections at the museum, emphasizing that zooarchaeology could actually provide a useful window through which to examine social relations during the colonial period. For example, during his own research Martin compared animal bone assemblages from within French forts to the individual homesteads outside of them that were inhabited by French soldiers and fur traders who had married native brides.He was able to isolate clear quantitative differences in food preferences by comparing the frequency and species of animal bones appearing in each area.
French settlers living in the militarized heart of the fort favored more traditionally European foods, like domesticates imported from the Old World, while individuals living outside the forts capitulated to native preferences for indigenous game and plant resources. Such evidence suggests that native wives had a significant say in the kind of food that was consumed in their households, as well as how it was prepared. These archaeological studies highlight that while native women were forced to adopt new forms of French trading economies and material culture, their husbands also had to adapt to aspects of native culture, particularly when it came to what they ate. Scott (2008) describes similar research conducted at Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan, though her work suggests such processes of cultural adoption and assimilation were regionally variable. Her chapter is well worth a read if you’re interested in the kinds of strategies zooarchaeologists use to reconstruct past human interactions. Hopefully, its conclusion will leave you nodding your head and exclaiming “it’s not alchemy, it’s archaeology!”. The pdf is open-access from Springer, and so I’ve linked to it in the citations section of this post.
In the spirit of using infinitesimally small amounts of evidence to improve our understanding of the human past, I present you with the following bone quiz. As always, photos are rotated to conceal their original orientation, and the scale is five centimeters. What I want from you:
1. Human/ Non-Human;
3. Element and dentition;
4. Age estimate (and justification);
5. Why would archaeologists be interested in the answer to number 4? What sort of information could this give us about life and death in Copper Age Iberia?
When responding to #4, I encourage you to consult outside resources (I never estimate age off the cuff or without references).
Binford, L. 1971. Mortuary practices: their study and their potential. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology. 6-29.
Scott, E. 2008. Who Ate What? Archaeological Food Remains and Cultural Diversity. In Case Studies in Environmental Archaeology: Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. Edited by E. Reitz, C.M. Scarry, and S. J. Scudder, pp.357-374. Springer: New York.
Image Credits: Photograph of dapper Lewis Binford taken from Antiquity, here. Image of “hermetic alchemy” found at Assasin’s Creed, here. All other photographs were taken at the Museo de Jaén, summer 2014.
ANSWERS BELOW THE JUMP