Human Past

How do we know about the human past? And why should we care?

For Anthropology 2016 we began our unit on Archaeology with readings concerning how we study the human past. We particularly focused on how to do archaeology, ethics, and indigenous peoples. For class notes focused more on reinterpreting women in the prehistoric record, see the 2017 archaeology class. There were three readings:

Archaeology: A fascinating field

Many people find archaeology fascinating because of great finds, romance, adventure. However, as detailed in by Lavenda and Schultz, we can in some ways see how archaeology has been reconfigured. Lavenda and Schultz quickly proceed through the paradigms that have dominated archaeological research:

  1. Reconstructing material remains: Traditional archaeology.
  2. Reconstructing lifeways or culture (until 1960s).
  3. Explaining cultural processes: Processual Archaeology, hypothesis testing.
  4. Postprocessual or interpretive archaeology: Symbols and meanings; More about power and agency within societies.

Others find archaeology fascinating because of the dirt and digging. But, as Lavenda and Schultz point out, there is increasing importance of techniques like:

  • Importance of surveys, walking (166)
  • Talking to people in the area (167)
  • Ethnoarchaeology (165)
  • Aerial imagery, satellite imagery, remote sensing
  • LiDAR, GPR, GIS (168-169):

    The use of LiDAR is becoming more and more common in archaeology. It allows researchers to scan large areas of land in mere minutes. And it creates a 3D map of the landscape by firing a rapid succession of laser pulses at the ground from a plane. Those pulses can penetrate foliage and soil, enabling scientists to see what’s underneath them all without having to cut down a single tree. (LiDAR Scanning reveals ‘lost’ ancient Angamuco city ‘had as many buildings as Manhattan’ by Kambiz Kamrani on anthropology.net)

  • Importance of labwork (170)

When archaeologists excavate, it’s because they need to know “a lot about a little” (Renfrew and Bahn in Lavenda & Schultz:169). Excavation destroys a site. It’s expensive in time and money. Excavation involves securing permits and a thorough consideration of possible ethical issues. Excavations must be very carefully documented with a 3-dimensional grid. Increasingly, excavations involve digital documentation.

Updates on Archaeological Techniques

For a great example of the use of LiDAR, see Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle at National Geographic (February 2018):

The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested. In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.

Meanwhile, Jack Biggs discusses advances in 3D modeling in The Future of the Past at the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative (October 2017). Biggs contextualizes 3D modeling as compared with previous colonial-style archaeology: “Along with scholarly research comes the responsibility to communicate our findings back to the public. Using 3D models (or other forms of visualization) gives people from all over the world the chance to look at, rotate, and manipulate these objects in digital space.”

For more on how contemporary archaeologists re-examine past finds, see Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun in Sapiens (August 2017). “Today, archaeology is a truly multidisciplinary science that is far more advanced than the archaeology of the 1920s. We now use sophisticated excavation-control techniques. We screen the dirt as we dig. We collect every artifact, not just the aesthetically appealing ones. And we have many analytical techniques to use in the lab, after the digging is done.”

How should we do archaeology?

Lavenda and Schultz emphasize that archaeology is a “stewardship of the remains of the human past” (2015:164). As such, it is important to understand archaeology and contemporary identity (176). In their view, NAGPRA should lead to collaboration and negotiation, which results in better archaeology (2015:178).

Lavenda and Schultz also discuss the work of Renfrew and Bahn in Australia, with “archaeology as a tool of civic engagement” (2015:186). They end the chapter with a section on “Cosmopolitan Archaeologies” (2015:187-189), which might be summarized as “negotiations whose outcome cannot be predicted in advance” (2015:189). In this sense, a cosmopolitan archaeology corresponds to a definition of anthropology that is generous, comparative and open-ended.

Updates on “how should we do archaeology?”

Specifically with regard to the question of how we should do archaeology, particularly in the US, see Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Native American Archaeology (August 2017). “When a student asks me why archaeologists think they have the right to teach her about her history, I respond by saying that they don’t have that right. But we do have an obligation, along with the rest of society, to help Native Americans document their ancestral footprints and to protect their threatened heritage.”


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2016. “The Human Past: How do we know about it and why should we care?” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology-2016/human-past/. Posted 23 September 2016. Revised 21 February 2018.

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