Understanding what makes some forms of archaeology Bad is fundamental to cracking the claims its proponents make about the past. Knowing how to spot Bad Archaeology also helps us to recognise Good Archaeology.

What is Bad Archaeology?

To understand what makes a particular approach to archaeology part of the ‘fringe’ or a ‘cult’, it is easiest to start by defining ‘mainstream’ archaeology. It is the sum total of all knowledge about the material culture of humanity, a big claim but the only concise way of describing it. Archaeology is usually defined as the study of the human past through material culture (e.g. de Laet 1957, 13), although archaeologists are increasingly arguing that a better definition would be the study of human behaviour through material culture (e.g. Renfrew & Bahn 2004, 16), making it a much broader discipline and one of greater relevance to the contemporary world than many of its practitioners would usually concede. The most important aspect of the discipline is that archaeologists study the physical changes that we human beings have made to our world. Archaeology looks at the artefacts (the tools, ornaments and other objects), the structures (buildings, tombs and other enclosed spaces) and landscapes (field systems, settlements, communication routes and so on) that people have been creating for the seven million or so years we have been creatures distinct from the other great apes.

Washing bone

Getting to grips with archaeological data: washing cremated human bone

It’s all about the data

Archaeologists use a particular set of data that no other discipline uses as a discrete set, although it has significant overlaps with history, anthropology, linguistics, cultural studies, sociology and many other disciplines. The data come from a wide variety of sources, in the form of monuments (unique places such as Stonehenge, or places that are much more commonplace, such as railways), sites (places that are buried and invisible today, such as Star Carr) as well as artefacts. To deal with their unique data set, archaeologists have developed their own special jargon, just as other disciplines have done.

As seen elsewhere in this website, the history of archaeology is a continual development and refinement of archaeological theory and methodology. New questions are constantly being asked of archaeological data. Archaeologists have generally expanded the definition of what constitutes archaeological data. Bad Archaeology results from poor methodology, unsustainable theory or a misidentification of archaeological data.