On the first day of the last seminar class that he ever taught, Brian Fagan waited for the archaeology graduate students, of whom I was one, to settle down before asking his first question.
"Who here has used peyote?"
All of us sat quiet in our seats, unsure whether Dr. Fagan was joking or serious.
"Well? Who here has used peyote?"
He was serious. Nobody raised their hands, instead we all shifted about and looked at each other uncomfortably.
"Hmph. Well, this is a sad state of affairs. Here you are, a room ful of people who study hunter-gatherer societies, and yet none of you have ever used the hallucinagenic drugs that the were a vital part of the religious practices of so many of these societies!"*
While Brian was arguably being overdramatic, and probably choosing halucenogenic drugs largely for shock value - graduate students like to act jaded, and sometimes need to be shocked - there is a valid underlying question: is it necessary for an archaeologist to engage in the behaviors of the people that they study in order to effectively study these people? If so, to what degree is this necessary?
On the surface, it seems like the answer to the first question should be an unequivocal "yes." After all, buy engaging int he practices of the people being studied - whether ritual, gathering, hunting, home-building, or anything else - may provide insights into the material record that we are studying. For example, if we understand how a stone tool was made, then we may be able to better comprehend what the debitage (the waste flakes left after the manufacture of a stone tool) means when we find it in a site. Or, to bring it back to Brian's example, if we understand how drugs impact the mind froma first-hand experience, then many elements of the archaeological record may make more sense. This line of thought formed the basis of the experimental archaeology movement, which peaked in the 70s and 80s, but is nonetheless still alive and well.
It seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Do what ancient humans were doing, and you'll have a better grasp on what their remains have to tell us.
But, of course, it's not that simple. While it is absolutely true that engaging in the activities that our ancestors engaged in will yield valuable information about the remains of these activities, it is also true that we can get alot of misinformation that causes us to mis-interpret what the material record represents.
The most obvious source of misinformation comes when we try to replicate past behaviors, but do so incorrectly. If we produce stone tools using even slightly different methods than those of the ancient people, then we may produce a debitage pile that looks different than they would have produced. If this is the case, then we may be thinking that a debitage collection from a site represents one set of tools when, in fact, it represents a completely different set.
Likewise, if someone chooses to use halucinagens in order to understand shamanic visions, they run the risk of mistaking their own individual experience for a universal one, and reaching conclusions about ancient ritual practices that are just plain wrong (I wonder if this example could be explained that way.
Another place where misinformation can creep in is through changes in the environment. For example, my friend Dustin has done extensive experimental work using replicas of prehistoric fishing tools in order to better understand why the Chumash of the Santa Barbara Channel area changed their equipment over time. One of the frequent frustrations that he encountered was the fact that California's fisheries are so overfished and depleted that he could not get good statistical data on what each type of hook and snare was likely to catch or the quantities in which the fish would be caught.
A related problems comes from the fact that, try as we might, we will never be the ancient people who we study. We were not indoctrinated into their rituals and beliefs as children; we did not learn from an early age to gather, hunt, and make tools of stone, wood, bone, and fiber; we are not mobile foragers who know nothing of the world outside of our foraging range save what the few strangers that we encounter tell us. In short, there are large swaths of the lives of these people that we do not know of simply because we are not, have not been, and will never be, them. And all of our actions are informed by aspects of our lives that on the surface seem only tangentially related to whatever activity we happen to be engaged in at the moment. This is true whether we are hunter gatherers or modern suburbanites - our beliefs about ourselves, our society, and the world around us influence us in ways that we are often not aware of.
Which should not be taken as me saying that this form of experimental archaeology is not valid. It is absolutely valid, and has provided alot of very useful and important information. However, as with any technique used to evaluate the archaeological record, all of the results that we gain should be taken with a grain of salt, and we should always keep in mind that we may be in error.
*Once, when relating this story to some fellow anthropologists, I was asked whether or not I would be willing to take Peyote, or a similar substance. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that, were it as part of a ritual and I was partaking as an anthropologists AND the preparation was done by someone who actually knew what they were doing (and therefore wouldn't poison me), then I might. For various personal reasons I might not, and I would certainly not use it recreationally, but as part of a ritual, I wouldn't discount the idea altogether.