The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This Site Makes No Sense...Damn, That's Cool!

I am having fun writing an excavation report.

That's right, it's fun.

The reason why it is fun is that the site makes very little sense. The raw materials for the tools at this site are off - good local stone is barely present, while stone imported from quite a distance is abundant. There is ample evidence of the manufacture and use of flaked stone tools, but the tools themselves are simply not present. The materials present on the site's surface indicate a small site where someone was doing little more than sharpening tools, but three feet below the surface are buried the remains of a residential base with evidence of a wide variety of activities - which is odd as the site is in an area which typically would be deflating (the soil eroding out away from the site) rather than accruing more there is something interesting happening in the site formation as well.

So, basically, the site is an oddball. The materials don't quite make sense using conventional models of raw material exchange and also of toolstone use. The site's geomorphology is wacky. And what is present on the surface of the site in no way reflects what is present below the surface. The site is an anomaly, it shows me a point of ignorance for myself (and, judging by my coworker's reactions, for them as well), and that is exciting.

Pretty much by definition, it's when we butt up against our own ignorance that we start learning something new. That's where archaeologists want to be, it's where our models and previous knowledge breaks down, and we're off on the trail of something new and more interesting.

Will this site be a ground-breaking discovery? Probably not, archaeological knowledge usually comes incrementally and this is simply one anomalous site, not yet evidence of a pattern. If more sites like this one are found, then they will probably require modifications of existing models of human behavior in the region rather then the whole-sale rejection of those models. Nonetheless, this site doesn't fit in with well-established patterns, which tells us that something was happening that we hadn't previously accounted for - probably something small and subtle, but something new nonetheless.

One of the most common things that pseudo-scientists say about real scientists is that we refuse to accept new information because it would conflict with our previously held beliefs. The opposite is, in fact, true. We love information that contradicts our previous beliefs, because it is only when we find such information that we know we are onto something. While this site is not going to cause anyone to rewrite the books on Californian archaeology, it does show us that even our best reconstructions of the past leave out subtle but important information, that we have been wrong in some way, and that is exciting. It's fun. This is what I got into archaeology for in the first place, and I am happy to have received this reminder when I need it most.