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Scientific methods make archaeology interdisciplinary

Zhang Qingli | 2014-04-18 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

 Photographed by Zhang Qingli

Professor Gary Crawford doing research at Shandong University


Since the late 20th century, new theories and technologies have led to a series of significant develop­ments in archaeology. Archaeo­botanists have been tackling much broader questions about humans’ relationship to and use of their en­vironment while at the same time determining much more precise facts. What changes have Chinese and Western archaeology gone through? What should scholars do in the fields of archaeobotany and public archaeology? CSST talked with Professor Gary W. Crawford about these issues.


CSST: The theoretical traditions of Chinese archaeology and West­ern archeology are completely dif­ferent, with Western archaeology more closely aligned with anthro­pology while Chinese archeology has grown out of history. How does this affect archeologists’ output in China versus the West?


Crawford: We certainly have an overlap, because we both have history slightly in different way. Western archaeologists, especially North American archaeologists, still have to understand history. Un­derstanding human society, culture, belief systems, choices people are making, and how they interact with their environment is important for us to find out what is happening. But this is just the beginning. So after that, we deal with other issues or prob­lems. North American archaeologists spend a lot of time thinking about theories, models and ex­planations, and we have lots of discussions about theo­retical models and new ap­proaches to think about the past. Sometimes, we spend too little time discussing the facts. So there are many different theoretical perspec­tives coming from anthropological thinking and ecological thinking, and we try to use them more.


CSST: How did the New Archae­ology Movement in the 1960s (also called “Processual Archeology”) influence the global development of archaeology?


Crawford: It is really the applica­tion of scientific methods to archae­ology rather than historical meth­ods. Archaeology became quite an interdisciplinary area that time. In some ways, it began to separate from anthropology too. In the late 1950s, there was the famous saying “American archaeology is anthro­pology or it is nothing.” It was a reaction against history, perhaps a little bit against science as well, but it was pushing people to think about things. Lots of debates began in the 1960s.


CSST: Besides new theories that emerged from this movement, how did new methods like technolo­gies in the natural sciences and in archaeology itself change the disci­pline?


Crawford: In my field, there was a real push to recover the techni­cal data from sites. In the 1960s, people were really thinking about origins of agriculture and how you can solve these problems. The University of Chicago, University of Michigan and other schools began to train people in methods, starting to feel the world is interdisciplinary. So instead of one archaeologist go­ing to a site with a group of people and an excavator, they put a team together. One is for plant remains and one is for animals or soil. We even got people working on insects, or treating archaeological sites as a crime scene. We used every technique we could and schools be­gan to train people in those fields. Partly what was going on was that in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sense that science was going to solve all the world’s problems. So there was the really modern move­ment to popularize science. In North America, the Space Race to get to the moon first between Rus­sia and the United States was really prominent. If you could use science to get to the moon, you could use science to do anything—cure can­cer, and also solve archaeological problems. I was a science student, and I was really interested in sci­ence. In high school and as an undergraduate, I was encouraged to take science programs along with archaeology. There was a sense of getting new data and understanding the scientific side of things would cause revolutions in archaeology. And in fact, it did. And it still does.


One of the biggest developments in the 1950s was radiocarbon dat­ing. Before radiocarbon dating, we were just guessing how old mate­rial was. When we finally were able to get facts—to get something dated—we were able to put better models about what is happening and how it’s happening. Then later on—I don’t know whether it was late 1960s or early 1970s—scien­tists figured out how to calibrate radiocarbon dating. That changed the impression even more. For example, in the Mediterranean, archaeologist thought all develop­ments came out of Egypt. Develop­ment in Europe was supposed to be younger than Egypt. But it turned out that the development of Huge Stones and complex society were actually older than Egypt. That re­ally surprised everybody. Calibrat­ing radiocarbon dating was another revolution in archaeology because it changed the whole perspective of how things happened.


CSST: What have you been work­ing on recently? What areas is your research covering and what kinds of achievements does your research gain?


Crawford: I think for me one of the biggest changes has been, what we can call “the Flotation Revolu­tion” coming to China. I remember in the mid-1990s teaching two archaeologists how to do flotation in my kitchen in Canada. They were working on projects in China but no one was doing much flotation. I shipped one machine that we built in Toronto to China and when the data started to come out, there were so many remarkable results, especially very exciting results coming out of a couple projects related to the Longshan period (c. 3000-2000 BCE). We were amazed at the quality of data. To me, it was incredibly satisfying to see these wonderful results com­ing out. That’s one major develop­ment.


Being able to document the de­tails behind plant use in the late Ne­olithic period of China and achieve the richness of a whole database is really unusual. But it leads to other questions. The data is so comprehensive. We know not just the crops, but also the weeds and other plants. We get a big picture for what’s going on and this is giv­ing us an opportunity to look at how people are interacting with the environment. So my approach to all of these issues is what we call “anthropogenic interference” in English—the interaction of hu­mans with the environment. How are people working with the envi­ronment? How does the environ­ment change and impact people? So there are many big questions to ask. And China is an incredible laboratory in which to do that.


CSST: Archeology is undoubtedly something that has become more interesting and approachable for ordinary people over time. What do you think about public archae­ology?


Crawford: Public archaeology acknowledges that knowledge gained from investigating the archaeological past has value to people beyond specialist ar­chaeologists. There are plenty of different stakeholders. In other words, archaeology is relevant to our lives today and the relevance may be specific to different sectors of the public depending on their backgrounds and interests. For example archaeology has political relevance, and is relevant to tour­ism of course, land development, land entitlement and even relevant to who has access to museum col­lections and under what circum­stances.


We might also consider a con­cept that we call “multiple narra­tives.” I know that sounds rather profound but it has a straightfor­ward meaning. From the perspec­tive of professional archaeologists in the West, a Chinese issue can help inform a broader problem such as urbanism or the origins of agriculture. The story or narrative that we tell about the Chinese situ­ation has comparative relevance. For example, does urbanization start earlier or later in one area; do the same environmental cir­cumstances apply; is urbanization linked to kinship-based groups or non-kin-based groups, or religious developments? The Chinese spe­cialists may be concerned mainly with the local situation and they may not be particularly concerned about telling a story that links to international developments. Local people may be concerned about how to tell a story about a site that relates to or encourages local tour­ism and economic development. The facts may be the same but the emphases might be different. Each group may offer complementary insights or even different opinions. Public archaeology can involve a variety of voices of the different stakeholders.

 The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 579, April 2, 2014

                                                                                                                          Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                                                                                                                    Revised by Charles Horne

The Chinese link: