Discovering the unexpected: the case for a Sceptical Archaeology

Pseudo-archaeologists claim that revolutionary new theories abound within the garish covers of their books. Meanwhile, mainstream archaeology trundles along as usual, with archaeologists continually re-assessing their data and refining their interpretations as a result (sometimes in fundamental and radical ways). Such self-critical evolution is non-existent within the realm of the self-styled revolutionaries of pseudo-archaeology. Archaeologists evolve while the cranks just revolve. But what does it take for a change in the predominant archaeological paradigm? How much evidence is needed to reach the tipping-point where old theories become indefensible or irrelevant? What is the best way to deal with the unexpected? This page offers a few tentative suggestions.

The nature of the Problem

Knowledge about the past does not flow consistently like water from a tap. It is subject to contemporary political and philosophical trends as well as being curtailed by what is technologically possible. Fortunately, archaeological knowledge is cumulative. We know more about the British Neolithic today than we did last year. However, this cumulative knowledge is not predicable or coherent: I cannot tell you what we might learn next month that will revolutionise our understanding of Viking longboats (for example). Knowledge accumulation follows a non-linear and often chaotic trajectory. Is it possible to negotiate a clear way through the ever-expanding field of archaeology? How can you discriminate between competing claims about the past and separate the good-archaeology-wheat from the bad-archaeology-chaff?

You do not need me to recall all the many revolutions in archaeological thought have taken place in the last few hundred years.

Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher

Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher: political theorists all

Political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, even Margaret Thatcher, have shaped the way we study and interpret the past. Technological advances like radiocarbon dating, satellite imaging, DNA analysis etc. have expanded the library of possible stories which ancient material can tell us. (For more see our History of Archaeology section).

How does one deal with archaeological claims which, when taken seriously, would result in a complete reformulation of our understanding of the past? Context is all of course, as is a wet shave with Occam’s Razor. The only healthy approach is a sceptical approach, especially when examining claims which rely upon unexpected and chaotic assemblage of evidence.

The Sceptical Approach

There are various definitions of scepticism and it is important to distinguish scientific scepticism from pure philosophical scepticism. In short, philosophical scepticism tends to dismiss the very possibility of truth and can devour itself by the fundamental stance that all truth-claims are tentative and the latest scientific findings are ultimately built upon a shaky house-of-cards made up of previous scientific assertions. Scientific scepticism as espoused by weighs various truth-claims about the past against the evidence. This might seem unbearably reductive to some who would claim that science itself is a web of mutually supporting capitalist western conspiracies, but hey!

There is always a risk that our particular understanding of archaeology might lead to some kind of interpretive oversight. In other words, our approach might deny the claims of more radical interpretations because we have fallen into conventional ways of looking at the evidence. How can we prevent blindness to the possibilities of archaeological discoveries outside the conventional academic realm? The philosopher and arch-sceptic David Hume recognised the limitations of a fundamentally rational-sceptical approach: imagine you lived in an area of equatorial Africa and someone told you that they had seen frozen water falling from the sky. Not just a small, one-off instance but sustained snowfall leaving soft white blankets as far as the eye could see. Without the requisite geographical experience it would be perfectly rational to dismiss the snowy messenger as deluded or deceptive. After all, snow would be as alien to you as it is familiar to Amy Winehouse’s nostrils (allegedly!). By dismissing this out-of-hand you would deny a real human experience – ultimately on the grounds of prejudicial ignorance. In such circumstances, unfamiliarity breeds contempt.

Can there be any model to deal with the unexpected, with the unforeseen, unplanned and unanticipated? No badly transposed off-the-shelf theory from some obscure French sociologist will suit the purposes of such a task. Is there a methodology of best practice? What would such a methodology look like, if it could exist at all?

The role of evidence

The gentle accumulation of archaeological data helps to guard against the misinterpretation of the unexpected. Finding the odd sharp and painful needle in the soft benign haystack of archaeological literature is memorable for the experience of being pricked. Worse still is the delayed onset of tetanus and gangrene leading to amputated limbs and extended hospitalisation should the find become a celebrated Oopart and is subject to the whims and delusions of countless pseudoarchaeologists.
Many Bad Archaeologists make extensive use of ‘out-of-place artefacts’ or ‘Ooparts’. The purpose of drawing these artefacts to their readers’ attention is to cast doubt on the orthodox interpretations of the past. They are used to undermine theories of evolution, the origins of various civilisations or even brought out as evidence for time travel.

What constitutes an out-of-place artefact? William Corliss provides a list of criteria for inclusion in his compendium of ‘archeological anomalies’:

  • the object must have an unexpected age (too old or too young),
  • be in the wrong place, have an unknown or contested use,
  • be of anomalous size or scale,
  • have a composition that would not be possible with current understanding of ancient technology (like aluminium in ancient China),
  • possess a sophistication not commensurate with those models (electric cells in ancient Parthia),
  • or have unexpected possible associations (mylodon bones from Argentinian caves suggestive of domestication by humans).

Corliss also lists ‘affiliation’, which he defines as “similarity in style”.

Often, the same Ooparts are used to bolster very different interpretations and a controversial interpretation made by one person becomes an established fact in the writings of those who depend on them. The interpretive house of cards becomes a breezeblock fortress when scepticism is abandoned wholesale. How about some more down-to-earth thought experiments to flesh-out the consequences of a sceptical archaeology?

Two thought experiments to illustrate an encounter with the unexpected

Two Nipplegates

Two Nipplegates for the price of one?

Imagine, if you will, that some intrepid York city archaeologist has discovered a long-lost gate into the city: Nipplegate. He found both an obscure documentary reference and a newly discovered archaeological anomaly along the city walls. This sounds like a suitable Olde-Worlde York name to go alongside Gillygate and Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate Gate. Also, Nipplegate would no longer refer to one slip of the hand during Janet Jackson’s performance during Superbowl XXXVIII and slowly cast off its association will that bizarre incident.

What would this discovery mean for our understanding of York’s ancient town plan? Well, should the entire inner-city street-plan need re-aligning, then you have a large problem on your hands. If Nipplegate can be inserted into the known plan with little painful re-assessment of the previous historical interpretation then the consequences are less dramatic. However, the archaeological fall-out of a discovery like Nipplegate has no bearing on its intrinsic status as a bona fide archaeological site. You might well ask whether archaeological knowledge really works that way: wouldn’t people find more reasons to dismiss archaeological data the more painful it is to incorporate into pre-existing interpretations?

Take another equally plausible example from the recesses of my warped mind. Which is the more likely explanation for discovering a piece of Samian Ware in a sealed context dated to 6000 years BC? This would surely be the most important discovery in British Archaeology since Nipplegate. Your options are to ignore it, to explain the possible mistakes made in excavation or undetected bioturbation from worm action (or something similar), or finally you could explain it by means of a revolutionary new model of time-travelling Romans.

Following this example a little further we can expand the picture and ask if this is an isolated example or if are there others like it in similar contexts from other excavations. If there are numerous other examples of Samian Ware from 8 millennia ago, then further explanation is needed. Either there are many instances of poorly-recorded or excavated sites where there is an unexpectedly high level of soil disturbance, or there is a genuine phenomenon which needs some kind of historical reformulation.

A sceptical approach does not dismiss outright the possibility that such reformulations may be necessary. Any historically-informed scholar knows that re-adjustments and revolutions in our understanding of the world come along from unexpected sources and puncture the steady interpretive equilibrium. Who would want to hold back scholarly progress as a result of ill-judged sceptical prejudice?


How then do we deal with the competing demands of academic sanity and free imagination? One extreme leads to the identification of false positives (we read significance into patterns where there is none). Likewise the other path leads to recurring false negatives (by demanding concrete and consistent behaviour from the data we miss patterns that are discernible but only if you squint a bit). The optical illusion that is many a resistivity survey printout can be the subject of under-interpretation and over-interpretation.

Regression to the mean is not just a description of George Osborne’s economic policy. It explains why after flipping a coin ten times and coming down as heads every time we expect to get a tail on the eleventh. In fact, the odds are still exactly 50/50. Statistical bulk (in the form of recorded data) can go some way to exonerating this instinct for the eleventh flip to come down as tails. What bearing can this have on archaeology?

Archaeologists are blessed with tons and tons of data. Our picture of the past will always be incomplete yet everyday in the UK people are working as rescue archaeologists on sites in anticipation of development. Merely recording what they find is not glamorous yet in some ways it can serve archaeology well. The aggregation of statistical patterns in archaeological material helps to weed out false positives and encourage the re-assessment of the data for true patterns of significance. Such potentially mundane work tends to be carried out by archaeological heroes as unsung as Posh Spice’s back catalogue (credit to JR).

Both accidental and wilful misrepresentations of reality can be punctured through the conscious-raising efforts of a sceptical archaeology. It asks the same archaeological questions as are found throughout the discipline yet it asks them with its own particular slant. Quite what this sceptical archaeology might look like remains a work in progress. is that work in progress.