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Science in context
The purpose of the foregoing discussion is to bring issues relating to
the nature of observations and to the formulation of theories into focus
Before and after science 173


Objects,
instruments
Perspective of
+ techniques
concrete world




Fresh objects,
instruments +
techniques 1


Renewed perspective of
concrete world
Time 1




More fresh objects,
instruments +
techniques 2




Renewed
perspective
of concrete
world
2
Changing perspective


Figure 8.2 The relationship between the observational techniques of
science and the representations of the concrete nature of the world by
scientists


with regard to archaeological science and interpretative archaeology.
Problematically, on the one hand we have theoretical archaeologists sug-
gesting that archaeological scientists are operating in a theoretical vacuum
(Thomas 1990), and on the other we observe the singular reluctance of
archaeological scientists to engage in theoretical discussions based on the
interpretation of their data. As Renfrew (1992) rightly points out, there
is a tendency amongst archaeological scientists to place a heavy reliance
on the truth and veracity of their data, over and above the more ¬‚eeting
and less concrete interpretations of other archaeologists. In the preceding
discussion I noted that both interpretations and concrete observations
are mutually constituted; each is made stable by the other. Moreover
an instability in either observation or interpretation serves to provide a
point of resistance that may re-structure subsequent interpretations or
observations.
I will illustrate this point with a case study derived from a recent
article by Knapp (2000) concerning science-based archaeology and its
174 Archaeological theory and scienti¬c practice

application to the study of the metals trade in the Mediterranean. Knapp
provides a neat discussion of the issues surrounding the application of
lead isotope analysis (LIA) to the study of the trade in copper in the Late
Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean. Broadly stated, a series of data for
the isotopic ratios of lead in copper sources have been obtained from the
oxhide ingots (so-called because of their distinctive shape) that charac-
terise units of exchange in this area of the ancient world. Although the
main function of LIA is to provide negative data “ proving that particular
ingots were not derived from certain sources “ these data are remarkably
consistent. Initial interpretation of this pattern of consistency suggested
that all ingots from across this region must be derived from a single source
in Cyprus (Gale and Stos-Gale 1987). Here the interpretation was sit-
uated within a framework that emphasised long distant exchange, and
the notion of exchange relied heavily on conceptions borrowed from our
understanding of capitalist economics. The interpretation was therefore
constrained by the framework within which it was interpreted. However
the results resisted a single analysis, and an alternative proposal for the
data was put forward (Budd et al. 1996). These authors suggested that
the data indicated processes of pooling copper from different sources or
recycling of metal artefacts. Here the suggestion was based on technolog-
ical knowledge related to metal production. This technologically derived
interpretation, in turn, structured further interpretations regarding the
status and organisation of both the extraction and distribution of metal
in the eastern Mediterranean. As Knapp (2000, 45“7) notes, along with
the evidence for non-Cypriot artefacts found on Cyprus, interpretations
must focus on alternative gift-based models of exchange based on the
maintenance of social relations rather than the simple supply and de-
mand of commodities.
The notable point about this example is that although we can observe
a historical shift in the state of our knowledge the data itself appears to re-
main static. Interpretations have altered as we progress through time, yet
at the same time the objective data has remained the same “ the interpreta-
tions are still made with recourse to the LIA data, alongside the evidence
from the distribution of oxhide ingots and archaeological sites through-
out the eastern Mediterranean. The stability of that data both materially
and scienti¬cally is maintained by our continued referral to it. Moreover,
the increased stability of the data is maintained by recruiting other as-
pects of evidence alongside the original data. It is this that creates a more
solid, more wholly satisfactory description of the evidence. A disequilib-
rium in the scienti¬c status of this material may occur if further analysis,
structured by renewed interpretation and using different techniques, or
on different but complementary materials, were to be undertaken which
Before and after science 175

contradicted or problematised the status of the primary data. It is under
these conditions that we may speak of a different point being reached in
the state of objective knowledge.
This case study demonstrates the mutual relationship between the
analysis of scienti¬c data and the interpretation of that data. As Knapp
(2000, 47) observes, we cannot expect the results of scienti¬c analyt-
ical techniques to be interpreted in the absence of any form of the-
oretical framework. Indeed as the case study demonstrates, the appli-
cation of other theoretical perspectives has a profound effect on our
understanding of the data. Moreover, it allows that data to be more
¬rmly set within a constellation, or network, of other relevant evidence.
It is the relationship between each of these elements, including theoret-
ical orientations, data and further evidence, that characterises a network
approach to interpretation.
It is precisely this approach that I adopted in my analysis of the
Barnhouse pottery assemblage. Here again the speci¬c scienti¬c tech-
niques used were motivated by particular theoretical presuppositions.
These altered with the interpretation of the data generated by those
presuppositions: the data both resisted and enabled particular lines of
enquiry. These subsequent interpretations were also framed by further
evidence, such as the speci¬c architecture of the house, the nature of
faunal and botanical evidence, the evidence from lithics, etc. Finally
these interpretations were re¬‚exive since they also altered assumptions
concerning the nature of each of these aspects of the material evidence.
This point serves to underline the important fact that interpretation is not
simply derived from the relationship between theory and evidence;
rather, it is derived from the relationship between theoretical consid-
erations, scienti¬c analysis and other strands of evidence. Interpretations
arise through the tension created between each of these factors. It is
for this reason that scienti¬c analysis is required to be undertaken in
context, since context is a critical component of this creative tension
(Barrett 1987a).
In the opening chapter I noted that there was often a ˜brick wall™ be-
tween the interpretations of science-based archaeologists and interpre-
tative archaeologists. Part of the problem arises because scienti¬c data
is perceived as objective and therefore bears a closer correspondence to
the truth, while interpretative discussion is perceived as holding little re-
lationship to the concrete nature of the material evidence. However the
model proposed above allows both objective knowledge and contingent
theory mutually to constitute each other. As an alternative, then, I want
to propose that it is no longer viable for science-based archaeologists to
forego interpretation. Equally it becomes imperative that interpretative
176 Archaeological theory and scienti¬c practice

archaeologists understand and contextualise the results of science-based
archaeology.


Science, material culture, time and agency
I will now consider in more detail the relationship between the notion
of scienti¬c investigation proposed above and the nature of past material
culture. In particular I will develop the view that there are considerable
similarities between certain aspects of the philosophical framework out-
lined above for examining the relationship between different orders of
knowledge and certain proposals for the study of past societies through
the medium of their material remains. Here I want to outline a frame-
work for the analysis of both scienti¬c and other broader archaeological
practices, both in the present and in the interpretation of the practical
action of people and societies in the past.
It is important to draw out two of the crucial considerations in the
analysis of scienti¬c practice. The ¬rst of these concerns the relationship
of the practices of scientists to the concrete material conditions that they
inhabit. I noted earlier that while these conditions affected the observa-
tions of scientists, the nature of these conditions was ultimately deter-
mined by prior scienti¬c theories. The second important point concerns
the nature of agency. Here I noted that logically scienti¬c analysis of the
material world was motivated by the intentions of scientists. However,
I also noted that the generation of theories or instruments derived from
those observations was, in part, determined by the resistance of the ma-
terial world “ interpretation was therefore a process of accommodating, or
¬tting, observations with the constraints of the material world. Pickering
(1995, 20“1) describes this as a dialectical process in which the agency
of people and things is, by turn, active or passive, as each accommodates
to the other™s intentions. The main point to note here is that although the
material world is multi-dimensional, there are limits to the way in which
it structures our observations.
This notion resonates with recent perspectives in anthropology and
archaeology. Here a number of authors have underlined the notion that
there is a critical relationship between people and things, and that ma-
terial culture may be considered to possess a form of agency (Battaglia
1991; Gell 1998; Strathern 1985, 1998). Similarly, archaeologists have
embraced the realisation that material culture serves to structure social
relations (Hodder 1986). Barrett (1994, 2000) has provided this pro-
posal with additional coherence by suggesting that we need to consider
in more detail the nature of agency afforded by material culture. To sim-
plify matters we may consider agency “ the ability to act “ to be made up
Before and after science 177

of two components. The ¬rst is related to the intentions and motivations
of human actors. The second relates to the material conditions in which
those people act. Human actors are therefore only able to act within
the framework of constraints and possibilities of the material world. As
Gosden (1994, 77) notes: ˜Material things have both enabling and con-
straining properties so far as human action is concerned.™ So, in precisely
the same way as discussed above, when we wish to consider the agency
of the material world at the level of material culture, we also need to re-
view the possibility that material culture may be understood to operate
like other aspects of the material world. While the properties of material
culture are multiple, the particular form and structure of material cul-
ture shape the way in which material culture is perceived, utilised and
imbued with meaning (see Tilley 1999, chapters 2 and 8 with regard
to the metaphorical properties of material culture). Moreover, just as the
material conditions of the material world “ as they are formed by previous
scienti¬c analyses “ serve to structure the nature of future observations, so
material culture can be understood as an historical phenomenon (Dobres
2000). As Gosden (1994, 77) again relates: ˜History needs to be written
not just to take account of how people operate in an environment, how
culture shapes nature, but to look at how the transformed world is itself
transforming.™
If we are to take this point further, we need some practical examples
of material agency. A neat example is provided by Latour (1999, 186“7).
He discusses the concrete speed bumps laid down in certain residential
areas to limit the speed of passing traf¬c in order to reduce accidents.
These simple lumps of concrete, often known as ˜sleeping policemen™,
provide mute testimony to the concept of material agency. Latour des-
cribes them as the translated material form of the intentions and actions
of road traf¬c of¬cials. Rather than employing people or road signs in
order to reduce traf¬c speed, the intentions of these of¬cials are now
articulated by concrete. These lumps of concrete “ the congealed inten-
tions of past human actors “ have a material effect on the actions and
intentions of vehicle drivers. This is a simple example of how the agency
of people is mediated by material culture, since the ˜sleeping policeman™
created by the intentions of the traf¬c police have a clear material effect
upon subsequent actors. However, as noted above, material agents have
histories, and they are not only involved in constraining action, they also
have the capacity to transform the social and material world.
My next example, derived from the analysis of the Barnhouse Grooved
ware assemblage, will examine the historical and transformative nature
of material agency. In the earlier phase of settlement large vessels were
produced as storage containers for barley and other foodstuffs. In the
178 Archaeological theory and scienti¬c practice

later phases of settlement this function persisted, however large vessels
of a similar form were now also used for large-scale consumption prac-
tices on the platform of structure 8. The intentions of the earlier in-
habitants of Barnhouse were translated into clay in the form of large
storage containers. The material agency of these vessels cohered in their
large size, their capacity and their durability. The material existence of
the large clay vessels structured their production by people in the later
phase of settlement. However the agency of these vessels was not entirely
constraining, it was also enabling, and while the later vessels took a sim-
ilar form their capacity allowed them to be employed in quite different
ways. What is more, the large capacity of these vessels meant that they
could be used in the active construction of a more inclusive and holistic
form of communal identity. The material agency of the object therefore
structured new forms of sociality.
The crucial point here is that we are able to conceptualise the con-
tingent nature of material agency with regards to scienti¬c analysis and
with regard to past social and cultural formations using the same broad
theoretical framework. I believe that this perspective allows us to recon-
sider some of the problems that I have discussed throughout this vol-
ume, including the problematic nature of the ˜archaeological record™ and
the problem of scales of analysis. Our problems with the concept of the
˜archaeological record™ arise because we consider past material remains
as a form of representation, representing either past physical events, or
past social, economic or symbolic formations (Barrett 2000, 63“5). Each
of these viewpoints carries similar dif¬culties, since each leads us to
map the record in terms of causal events. Either we adopt a tapho-
nomic approach that attempts to uncover the physical processes that led
to the formation of the traces we observe, or we read the record as if
it crystallised past economic or social formations. In the ¬rst instance,
archaeological scientists are concerned with charting the physical con-
ditions that may be read off from the material traces of the past; in the
second instance, interpretative archaeologists are concerned to read ma-
terial traces as the effects of past social processes.
It is important to realise that the archaeological record is composed of
objects and features that both existed in the past and exist for us in the
present. As I noted in chapter 4, they may be considered as ˜boundary
objects™ which provide ¬xed points of reference between the past and the
present. At the practical level, the concept of artefacts and their contexts
as boundary objects is useful when we are considering how the tech-
niques of science-based archaeologists and interpretative archaeologists
are articulated. However, I believe that the notion has wider application
if we think of how these practices relate to our conceptualisation of the
Before and after science 179

archaeological record. I think that we need to replace the concept of the
record as a representation with the theory of contingency, objectivity and
agency developed above. We might consider the material record to be
provisionally stable; however, we need to remember that it was created
under particular historical conditions.
We may consider past material culture to operate in both the past and
the present with multiple levels, or scales, of agency. In the present we
can consider it in physical terms “ here we might think of the degrees
of constraint and enablement conveyed by the physical properties of the
object “ the characterisation of these material properties using the tech-
niques of materials science and environmental archaeology is critical.
Second, given a characterisation of these properties, we may consider
both the constraints and the possibilities open to those constructing their
lives using those material properties. We are interested here in how ma-
terial culture is used both to create and sustain certain kinds of social
relations. Both of these considerations of the agency of material objects
are reliant on the relationship between the agency of objects and that of
people. On one hand, the observational techniques of scientists, or in-
terpretative archaeologists placing material culture within interpretative
frameworks in the present; on the other, the agency of past social groups
in relation to the potentialities of the properties of material culture.
This approach to the archaeological record therefore embraces the no-
tion of material culture as a ˜boundary object™ having physical presence
in both the past and the present. However the approach I advocate here is
concerned with translating between the dual “ past and present “ aspects
of material culture. It would ¬rst examine how the physical nature of the
object is structured in terms of its physical or material composition, and
then consider how, at a different scale, this structure impacts upon the
way in which that object intervened in the lives of people in the past “ how
the physical properties of that object enabled or constrained past social
actions in terms of its physicality. This perspective requires a shift from a
view of the archaeological record as a representation of past regularities “
physical or social “ towards an understanding of the record as traces of
the potentialities of past material culture.
The implications of this approach to past material culture can be ac-
commodated at multiple scales of analysis (Pickering 1995, 229“42). As
noted above we may consider the potentialities of the material world in
relation to our observations and frameworks whether that world is com-
posed of quarks, lead isotopes, oxhide ingots, pots or warplanes. This
means that we may apply this understanding to our present analysis of
the microstructural and elemental properties of objects, while this ap-
proach may also be scaled up to consider the effect of material agency
180 Archaeological theory and scienti¬c practice

Context


Material
agency




Transformation of
scale




Material
agency




Context
Figure 8.3 The intimate relationship between material agency and its
context of in¬‚uence depends upon the nature and extent of the scale
of analysis


on large-scale social formations (see Fig. 8.3). Despite this, it does not
mean that we are simply able to shift from one scale of analysis to an-
other, from the microstructural properties of an object, for example, to
an understanding of the relationship between material culture and social
formations of differing sizes. This is one of the fallacies of approaches
such as Social Darwinism, that attempt to understand the operations of
society on the basis of the analysis of genetics. Instead we need to be
aware that the process of transformation involves a shift from one scale of
analysis to another (see Fig. 8.3). Equally we also need to be aware that
Before and after science 181

the material agency of objects operates within different humanly con-
structed contexts. We might think of contexts in terms of geographic and
historical frames of differing dimensions within which to observe the re-
lationship between material agency and human agency. When we move
from microscale analysis to macroscale and vice versa, we need to realise
that the context of analysis also changes scale, since the parameters of
our analysis are framed by context.


Relating to the past
I began this book by exploring the problematic relationship between the
knowledge generated by scienti¬c analysis and that generated by analysis
in the social sciences. Throughout this book I have noted that attention
to practice formed a critical method for shifting the focus of analysis
from a priori epistemological distinctions to the active construction of
knowledge. Moreover, as we have seen, a practice framework (see Dobres
2000) is of critical importance in the study of how scienti¬c and ar-
chaeological practices generate knowledge through interaction with their
subject matter. It furthermore allows us to begin to comprehend the re-
lationship between people and the material world, both in the past and in
the present. This shift in perspective marks a change from a framework
dominated either by the analysis of human agency (social sciences), or
by the analysis of the inanimate material world (natural sciences). The
framework outlined earlier instead suggests that the agency of the mate-
rial world and that of the human world can be seen as mutually related.
Here it is worth making the point that archaeology, as the study of ma-
terial culture, whether in the past or present, is centrally placed to play a
critical role in the analysis of this relationship.
More important with regard to my central argument in this volume is
the point that the elucidation of this relationship is not the sole domain
of interpretative archaeology. Rather, since the study of archaeology in-
volves the analysis of the material or physical remains of the past, the
combination of the perspectives generated by scienti¬c analysis in tandem
with those generated by interpretative perspectives will pave the way to
a greater understanding of this analysis. But in what terms should this
dialogue take place? The philosopher Richard Rorty (1989) points
out that the terms of our discussion tend to differ between those who
believe that an accurate representation of the world through language is
possible and those who think that the beliefs we state using language are
contingent to our particular historical situation. As an alternative, he pro-
poses that we describe our discussions in terms of ˜conversation™. Here
conversation is conceived as a discussion that is not bound to refer to
182 Archaeological theory and scienti¬c practice

the existence of objects in the external world, but rather to the relational
nature of the terms of our argument (see also Rorty 1980). Moreover
it is through conversation that we are able to redescribe the terms by
which we come to view the world afresh. According to Rorty (1989), it is
this process of redescription that affords practical, social and conceptual
change. The present volume has aimed to be equally ˜conversational™ in
its approach. I believe that it is the great strength of archaeology that
archaeological practice encompasses both those with scienti¬c and those
with interpretative dispositions. I hope that the foregoing discussions
equally stimulate conversation between the ˜two cultures™, from which
it is hoped that we may begin a redescription of our practices which allow
us to begin to think of ourselves as neither interpretative archaeologists
nor science-based archaeologists, but simply as archaeologists.
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