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Glossary

This page contains definitions of archaeological terms which may prove useful to the scholar of Bad Archaeology, or which may help explain exactly what we’re on about!

Carbon-14 (C14) dating

Carbon-14 dating has been part of the archaeological toolkit since the 1950s. It works by measuring the relative proportions of the stable isotope carbon-12 and the isotope carbon-14, which is present in minute quantities but which is subject to radioactive decay. All living things absorb both types of carbon while they are alive, but after death, no more carbon enters their tissues so the amount of carbon-14 decreases at a known rate. By measuring how much is left in a sample, it is possible to tell how long the plant or animal has been dead.

Context

An archaeological context is not easily defined! In excavation, it refers to the smallest definable unit, be it a deposit of soil, a wall or a hole in the ground such as a ditch. All archaeological data has a context; the relationships between contexts are what enable archaeologists to come to conclusions about the past.

Downdating

Something is downdated when an older date is revised, making the object/event/person more recent than previously accepted.

Ethnographic analogy

This is a tool used by archaeologists to explain the formation and nature of their data. Ethnographic analogy is a feature of the ‘new archaeology’ of the 1960s and 70s and Lewis Binford (in particular) was instrumental in its adoption by archaeologists. By observing living societies – how they use resources and deal with their waste – we can gain a better understanding of how archaeological sites have formed. For example, if a contemporary hunter-gather society is observed butchering animals where they are killed, then the bones are seen to be distributed in a particular fashion. When a similar assemblage of bones distributed in the same way is found at a prehistoric site, then it may be the result of similar human action observed in the contemporary society.

Factoid

A factoid is simply something which has become regarded as a ‘fact’ as a result of repeated exposure in public discourse, such as in newspapers. For example, Sherlock Holmes never said “elementary, my dear Watson” in
any of the Conan-Doyle detective stories, yet most people believe that he did (thanks to its repeated appearance in popular media and the phrase’s quotability). An archaeological example of the factoid is the persistent belief in ley lines as alignments of sites crisscrossing the landscape.

In situ

In situ is a Latin phrase (meaning literally ‘in the place’) used to explain that an archaeological object or feature is found in the place where it was deposited. It has not been destroyed by erosion or ploughing but remains untouched. An example might be the excavation of a Christian cemetery: there are 30 burials in total, 20 are aligned east-west and ten are jumbled together in no particular alignment at one end of the site. It is probable that the 20 aligned burials are in situ and that the remaining ten have been disturbed – perhaps by ploughing or grave-robbing.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA)

NOMA is a term devised by (the late great) Stephen Jay Gould to reconcile the conflicting world views derived from either science or religion. Science can tell you about how life began on earth but not what it means to live a good one. One is the legitimate domain of science, the other of religion. Trouble arises when one interferes in the other’s territory.

The Pompeii Principle

This is the false assumption that what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Very few archaeologists are lucky enough to work at sites which have been frozen in time. Therefore the Pompeii principle applies only to sites like Pompeii. The remains of all other archaeological sites are subject to extremely complicated processes of change. Material can be intentionally deposited in strange places at strange times (such as ritual gifts to the gods, or the keeping of heirlooms). Once in the ground it can be subject to natural and man-made processes which degrade the material and move it around in the soil. This makes the process of archaeological interpretation extremely difficult.

Sampling

Archaeologists use sampling strategies in order to minimise the potential bias of dealing only with places, objects or other data that they happen to find most interesting.

Simulacra

Simulacra (the plural of simulacrum) are natural objects which resemble man-made creations. The meanings given to such are objects originates entirely from the contemporary observer. For example, there might be a stone which through a process of natural erosion) resembles a fossilised mobile ’phone. You would be unlikely to claim that it really was an ancient mobile phone but this is what Bad Archaeologists do with natural phenomena which look like plausible (and implausible) ancient artefacts. It is the same impulse which leads people to see the face of Jesus in slice of toast.

Stratigraphy

This is one of the most fundamental concepts in archaeology. It refers to the sequence of contexts on a site; at its most simple, it deals with the succession of layers and features that comprise the developmental history of a site.

Terminus post quem

Another Latin phrase. This time it refers to the earliest possible point at which something must have happened. For example, a coin is found in association with a grave (we are assuming the coin is not fake!). The coin is stamped with information that enables us to date it to 250 CE. The terminus post quem, the earliest date at which this burial could have occurred is 250 CE. This helps to narrow the exact date of the burial and discounts a great deal of speculation, but it is by no means the end of the dating process. The coin could have been handed down through the generations and the person buried 100 years after the coin was minted. Archaeologists must use other pieces of evidence to help more accurately date the burial.

Uniformitarianism

This is a principle in geology which has proven invaluable to the study of archaeology. It originated with the geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Though often used in a way which conflates many different ideas, it essentially is the principle that the processes we observe today also occurred in the past. Geological formations can be described and analysed as a record of past activity (an activity which we can still see occurring today). It shattered many religious notions of the Earth’s history by demanding that geological processes took a very long time to occur.

Logical Fallacies

Wikipedia has an extensive category on logical fallacies, while the Nizkor Project’s list of fallacies is complete. The important ones for those concerned with Bad Archaeology are:

Ad hominem

Just because Julian Cope dresses like a refugee from the planet Bad Trip Alpha, it doesn’t make his interpretation of prehistoric monuments incorrect. To show that it is, we must look at the arguments and evidence proposed rather than make an ad hominem attack, which would focus on the person rather than the argument.

Appeal to Authority (ad verecundiam)

Just because the Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (the most prestigious academic post in British Archaeology) says something, it doesn’t mean it’s true! Arguments must be tested on their merits, not on the position of their proponent. Strangely, the converse of this is prevalent in Bad Archaeology, which we know as the conspiracy theory.

Cherry-picking

This is extremely common and easy to succumb to. If you ignore great chunks of evidence that run counter to your argument, then you are guilty of cherry-picking. Graham Hancock uses specific pieces of evidence from around the world to prove the existence of his pre-flood civilisation. His argument would be convincing if you ignored all evidence to the contrary, evidence which does not suggest the existence of such a civilisation. By ignoring this great mass of evidence you are guilty of cherry-picking.

False dichotomy

Also known as the either/or fallacy and false dilemma. This error of logic is where you think just because X is wrong, so Y must be right. We see the false dichotomy all the time in Bad Archaeology. An obvious example is the evolution/creation debate. Creationists spend a great deal of effort trying to disprove evolutionary theory. In fact, this makes no difference to the truth of their claim… unless… we fall for the false dichotomy fallacy and think that because evolution is wrong then creationism must be right.

I’m entitled to my opinion

Indeed you are! At badarchaeology.com we are fully in favour of free expression. However, your right to your opinion has no bearing on its relative truth.

Straw man

A straw man is a rhetorical device in which one’s opponents ideas are misrepresented. This is used a great deal in academic discourse and also employed by all sides in contentious issues in popular science. People often accuse Richard Dawkins of attacking a straw man version of religion. They say that very few people are religious in the way he portrays it. So when he goes on to attack religion, he is not attacking most people’s religion but a straw man – a non-existent misrepresentation of religion.

Texas sharpshooter

This is used a great deal by people seeking to attribute meaning to archaeological features. The name derives from the following scenario: a man shoots randomly at a wall, he then draws targets around the bullet holes and claims to be an ace shot. In the same way (but more archaeological), there might be a series of five monumental buildings in an ancient city. Their location may be the result of nothing more than wanting to be the same distance from the centre of the city. But…
what’s this?… if you draw a five-pointed star over a plan of the city, then all the star points land on a building. Therefore, there must have been some ‘cult of the star’ that archaeologists have overlooked because they are arrogant and stupid.

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