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Archeology, science, & people

[photo] A 
                  sandal woven during the Late Basketmaker or Early Pueblo period 
                  (AD 600 to 900) shows characteristics of its original wearer. 
                  (Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center)

A sandal woven during the Late Basketmaker or Early Pueblo period (AD 600 to 900) shows characteristics of its original wearer. (Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center)

Science is concerned with gaining knowledge about the natural world by observation. To do their job, scientists systematically describe phenomena, classify observations, and reach conclusions. This often involves controlled and replicable laboratory experiments, such as those in chemistry or psychology, but it may also consist of detailed observation without experiment. Some fields cannot solely rely on experiments; these are called historical sciences. Geology, evolutionary biology and archeology are historical sciences that deal with past events that no longer can be directly observed. The evidence left behind, however, can be studied to reconstruct what took place (Ashmore and Sharer 1996:10). Many modern archeologists subscribe, in some way, to the basics of science. Like other scientists, archeologists apply the scientific method to a specified class of phenomena: the material remains of past human activity. Like other scientists, archeologists attempt to isolate, classify, and explain the relationships among pieces of evidence—in this case, among the variables of form, function, time and space. But archeologists do not always follow a set of logical rules based on formal principles. Rather, they are free to use creative imagination to solve problems and to expand beyond scientific methods to bring a humanistic perspective to their studies of the past (Thomas 1998:57).

Humanism is a doctrine, attitude, or way of life featuring human interests and values. It stresses the individual's value, dignity, and capacity for self-realization through reason. Unlike the purely scientific approach, which stresses objectivity and independent testing, humanists employ more subjective methods, stressing reality as perceived and experienced (Thomas 1998:57). In their investigations, many archeologists interpret the humanistic expressions of past people through their recovered material culture, valuing and understanding the people through the artifacts they left behind. Artifacts may support or refute current interpretations about past people. It is important to remember, however, that although archeologists try to be objective in their research, they can never escape their own cultural and personal biases (Ashmore and Sharer 1996:11). Their conclusions may reflect these biases.

People and artifacts are intimately entwined: one shouldn't be valued without the other. Scientific and humanistic studies can be used together to make the richest, most robust interpretations of archeological resources.

Case study

The Five Points Site
Learn about how archeology at Five Points, New York City's mythic slum, sheds light on the neighborhood's nineteenth-century residents.

TSM/MJB