chapter  3
47 Pages

The nature of archaeological evidence

WithJohn Collis

In this chapter I wish to explore the nature of archaeological data-what is fact, what is interpretation, or what is plain fantasy; to discuss the limits of our knowledge; and how archaeological information is used and abused. It is about the nature of archaeological knowledge, and how it can be ordered. We can never know, nor do we want to know, all that happened in the past. There is too much of it, it is too complex, much was very banal, nor do we really understand it. It is also always changing shape and perspective as our own viewpoint changes. Thus we must make a selection, and it is the results of this selection which form the database of archaeological information. The nature of that database depends on three factors. First, what do we want to know? What do we consider important? This is our paradigm, the framework of thought which we use to order the past, and the framework within which we collect data. Second, what has actually survived? There are many things which we would like to know about, but the evidence may have simply disappeared, or was not recorded by the person who made a find. In other cases it may have never existed, but we may only be able to approach it indirectly from other forms of evidence. Third, what is the technology available to us to find the evidence? This is always improving, and includes a number of methods which can be grouped under remote sensing and survey, excavation, and scientific analysis. This chapter is mainly concerned with the second question, but it is very much influenced by the first and third; indeed, the first set of questions are fundamental to the whole study of the past, as I describe in my next section.