This section looks at the slow development of archaeology as a humanistic discipline and how ideas once popular have been discarded.
It has been said that the history of science is the history of its rejected ideas. This is just as true of Good Archaeology, but it is surprising just how many ideas of Old Archaeology crop up in Bad Archaeology as if they are new.
There have always been people with slightly eccentric beliefs about the past. Right at the birth of scientific archaeology, at the end of the eighteenth century, there were people in the newly-formed United States of America who believed that some (if not all) Native Americans were descendants of the so-called “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. The Mormon religion is founded on this very premise, while the first ever stratigraphic excavation that we know about was conducted by Thomas Jefferson on a burial mound to test the hypothesis. In fact, no evidence relevant to the hypothesis has ever been found, but there are still groups in addition to the Mormons, mostly in the United States, who continue to hold such beliefs.
Others cling on to traditional beliefs about the past. Literal readings of the Bible and early medieval speculative literature about the peopling of Europe have been (and in some instances continue to be) treated as authoritative accounts of the distant past. Until the nineteenth century, the written record was the only source of information about the past, but nobody had any means of assessing which – if any – version of variant accounts was the most likely to be accurate. It soon became apparent that archaeological evidence does not match any of these accounts terribly well and most historians came to accept that the writers of these ancient texts were repeating folk traditions, indulging in amateur etymologising and speculating to fill in the gaps.
Those who were unwilling – primarily for religious reasons – to abandon their familiar texts began to shoehorn the archaeological data into the text-based framework, often with confusing results. A good example is Joshua’s supposed conquest of Canaan in the second millennium BCE: take any century in that millennium to be the time of the conquest and there will always be a Canaanite city whose sack is described in the Book of Judges that turns out not to have been occupied at that time. Choose a different century and other cities will be found to have been deserted. This shoehorning is a desperate attempt to force the evidence into a preconceived structure, the reverse of how real archaeology works and much more like the behaviour of Cinderella’s ugly sisters when confronted with a glass slipper that was patently not theirs.
Ideas that Good Archaeology gave up along the way…
The progress of archaeology and its gradual adoption of a specifically material culture based means of examining and understanding the past is one of constantly changing methods of explanation, of finding new links and discarding old ones and of finding new ways of looking at old data.
It is always instructive to read old excavation reports to see how some very basic ideas proved to be completely wrong. The pits commonly found on British Iron Age sites, for instance, were once interpreted as underground dwellings, as excavations appeared to reveal hearths within them; they were accepted as dwellings as no other features were recognised on many of these sites in which the occupants might have lived. Following a number of important excavations in the 1930s and 1940s – especially Gerhard Bersu’s (1889-1964) work in 1938-9 at Little Woodbury – it became clear that Iron Age dwellings were mostly circular, timber-framed buildings that had simply not been recognised by earlier excavators; the ubiquitous pits were used for storage and rubbish disposal. The ‘pit dwelling’ was thus relegated to the realm of discarded hypotheses, although it is salutary to recall that I was still being taught about them in all seriousness as a schoolboy in 1970, showing how persistent outmoded ideas can be and how they can continue to form part of a general education.