Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Digging apart: why is archaeology a humanity and palaeontology a science?

Although my Twitter account (link) only follows scientists and scientific organisations, every day sees the arrival of a fair few archaeology tweets, even by science-orientated sites such as Science News. As someone who has been an amateur practitioner of both archaeology and palaeontology I thought I'd like to get to grips with why they are categorised so differently. After all, the names themselves don't really help: the word 'archaeology' means "the study of everything ancient." whilst the common definition of 'palaeontology' is pretty much "the study of ancient life". I've even known people with close friends or relatives in one or the other discipline to confuse them: whilst viewing my fossil cabinet, a visitor once told me that her cousin was an archaeologist studying Maori village sites!

Even historically, both fields share many common factors. Not only were they founded by enthusiasts and amateurs, but to this day non-professionals continue to make fundamental contributions. In converse, amateurs can cause serious deficiencies in the data record by lack of rigour or deliberately putting financial gain ahead of the preservation of new information. This can be caused by a variety of methods, from crude or overly hasty preparation of fossils, to metal detectorists and site robbers who sell their finds to private collectors without recording the context, or even the material itself.

It is not immediately obvious where the dividing line between the two disciplines lies when it comes to prehistoric human remains. In the 1990s, archaeologist Mark Roberts led a team that excavated the half a million year old Boxgrove site in southern England. Finds included fragmentary remains of Homo heidelbergensis, thus crossing over to what might traditionally be deemed the territory of palaeontologists. In 2001 the multi-phase Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project started, with deliberate collaboration between both sectors, proof that their skills could overlap and reinforce each other.

By and large, neither palaeontology nor archaeology utilises repeatable laboratory experiments and therefore neither can be classified as a ‘hard’ science. Even palaeontology relies to a large extent on historical contingency, both for remains to be fossilised in the first place and then for them to be discovered and recorded using the relevant methodology. As British palaeontologist Richard Fortey has said "Physics has laboratories; systematic biology has collections." Talking of which, re-examination of old evidence in both disciplines can lead to new discoveries: how often do we see headlines pointing to a fundamental discovery...made in a museum archive?

Although archaeologist were not previously known for conducting experiments,  the New Archaeology/Processual archaeology that arose in the 1960s included an emphasis on testing hypotheses, one result of which is that archaeology now uses experiments to interpret site data. This includes attempts to recreate artefacts, structures, boats, or even food recipes, based on finds from one or more sites. It may not be laboratory conditions, but it is still a method of analysis that can reinforce or disprove an idea in a close equivalent of the scientific hypothesis.

Attempts to improve the quality of data gleaned from the archaeological record have led to the utilisation of an enormous variety of scientific techniques collectively labelled archaeometry. These include microwear analysis, artefact conservation, numerous physical and chemical dating methods such as the well-known radio carbon dating and dendrochronology; geophysical remote sensing techniques involving radar, magnetometry and resistivity; and DNA analysis, pathology and osteo-archaeology.


Teeth of a sand tiger shark
(possibly Odontaspis winkleri)
I found in a wood in Surrey, UK

But there are some major differences between archaeology and palaeontology as well. Although both appear to involve excavation, this is only somewhat true. Not only does archaeology include standing structures such as buildings or ancient monuments, but a project can be restricted to non-invasive techniques such as the geophysical methods mentioned above; excavating a site is the last resort to glean information unobtainable by any other way, especially important if the site is due to be destroyed by development. In contrast, fossils are no use to science by remaining buried. Having said that, I often fossils by sifting through pebbles rather than concerted digging. I have occasionally split rocks or dug through soft sand, but a lot of the time fossils can be found scattered on the surface or prised out of exposed chalk via finger nails. The best way to spot even large finds is to have them already partially exposed through weathering, whilst some archaeology cannot be directly seen from the site but only identified via aerial photography or geophysics.

Archaeological sites can prove extremely complex due to what is known as context: for example, digging a hole is a context, back filling it is another, and any finds contained therein are yet more. Repeated occupation of a site is likely to cause great difficulty in unravelling the sequence, especially if building material has been robbed out. This is substantially different to palaeontology, where even folded stratigraphy caused by geophysical phenomena can be relatively easily understood.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the disciplines is that of data analysis. As anyone who has spent time on a site excavation knows, there are often as many theories as there are archaeologists. There are obviously far less fixed data points than that provided by Linnaean taxonomy and so there is a reliance on subjectivity, the keyword being 'interpretation'. Even the prior experience of the excavator with sites of a similar period/location/culture can prove crucial in gaining a correct (as far as we can ever be correct) assessment. In lieu of similarity to previously excavated sites, an archaeologist may turn to anthropology, extrapolating elements of a contemporary culture to a vanished one, such as British prehistorian Mike Parker-Pearson's comparison between the symbolic use of materials in contemporary Madagascar and Bronze Age Britain. In stark contrast, once a fossil has been identified it is unlikely for its taxonomy to be substantially revised - not that this doesn’t still occur from time to time.

As can be seen, not all science proceeds from the hypothesis-mathematical framework-laboratory experiment axis. After all, most of the accounts of string theory that I have read discuss how unlikely it can ever be subject to experiment. The British Quality Assurance Agency Benchmark Statement for Archaeology perhaps comes closest to the true status of the discipline when it lists 'scientific' as one of the four key contexts for higher level archaeological training. In addition, every edition since 2000 has stated "Where possible, thinking scientifically should be part of the armoury of every archaeologist."

So part historical science, part humanity, archaeology is an interesting combination of methodologies and practice, with more resemblances than differences to palaeontology. As the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project shows, sometimes the practitioners can even work in (hopefully) perfect harmony. Another nail in the coffin for C.P. Snow's 'Two Cultures', perhaps?