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Integration of science and fieldwork in archaeology

CHEN CHUN | 2022-07-14 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Archaeological excavation at the Sanxingdui site in 2022, a good example of applying scientific technology in archaeological fieldwork Photo: CFP

Modern Chinese archaeology has developed for over 100 years. Currently, new materials are emerging and scientific archaeology is flourishing. However, divergence within the discipline of archaeology is growing as well. Under this context, this paper suggests establishing archaeology with an integration of history, scientific technology, and humanities.

Development and problems
Western archaeology was introduced into China in the early 20th century. However, the birth of this discipline was based on the European study of antiquities and geology between the 17th and 19th centuries. Though archaeological studies around the world have something in common, in different countries, archaeology usually develops in different ways due to the influence of the local environment and academic traditions. For instance, the introduction of modern Chinese archaeology was prompted by the campaign led by the Gushibian School, or the Doubting Antiquity School [a group of scholars in Chinese academia, starting during the 1910s to 1920s, who applied a critical historiographical approach to Chinese historical sources], which established the academic orientation of this discipline by verifying documentary records and providing information for the study of history.
In the first half of the 20th century, China’s archaeology was basically in the stage of material accumulation. In 1959, academia began to sort archaeological discoveries since the founding of the People’s Republic of China [in 1949], and started to construct the framework of prehistoric culture with the concept of “archaeological culture.” The “regional systems and cultural types” [a model of Chinese Neolithic cultural development, which emphasized that ancient cultures developed simultaneously in multiple regions and influenced each other] proposed by the Chinese archaeologist Su Bingqi (1909–1997) could be considered a variant of V. Gordon Childe’s (1892–1957) culture-historical approach to archaeology [an archaeological theory that emphasizes defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and cultural groupings according to their material culture]. Although China’s archaeology aims to reconstruct the country’s history, archaeological cultural research explores the historical development of material culture rather than that of humans and society.
Since the 1980s, with the frequent academic exchanges between China and other countries, there has been a second wave of importing Western learning in the field of archaeology. Archaeological practices develop beyond typology, description of relics, and chronology, and attempt to explore issues such as human-land relationships, settlement forms, and social complexity. However, there is an obvious imbalance in adopting [Western] theories and methods. Techniques and methods were quickly adopted by Chinese archaeologists because of their practical uses, while [Western] theories are likely to cause disagreements between people, as the application of theories is often affected by personal views and preferences.
Since the information provided by scientific experiments is far better than the relatively vague explanations of typology, scientific archaeology has developed rapidly in China, showing a tendency to upstage field archaeology. Various research institutes and universities have established laboratories one after another, with a huge leap in professionals, capital investment, and publications. However, experts of field archaeology and scientific archaeology are trained in different ways and think from different perspectives, which constrains the academic studies of field archaeology and scientific archaeology within their own bounds respectively, with little communication between the two, let alone an interdisciplinary approach to the reconstruction of the country’s history. 
At present, the gap between field archaeology and scientific archaeology is widening. On one hand, some colleges have started to separate the education of field archaeology from that of scientific archaeology. The scientific archaeology major prefers to enroll students with a background in science, and some teachers do not require students to take basic courses in archaeology or history. On the other hand, scholars who engage in scientific archaeology tend to make achievements faster [than others in the field of archaeology], and it seems easier for them to publish their findings in overseas journals, which gives some scholars “a sense of superiority.” These scholars often think that the value of fieldwork is to provide materials for scientific analysis. They prefer to speak with data, and tend to simplify complex human behaviors and historical processes into diagrams or cause-and-effect relationships. Such scholars believe that exploring the complexity and uncertainty of archaeological issues is a type of “liberal-arts thinking,” not realizing that cultural and historical phenomena are extremely complex and are not like the mechanical relationships in physics and chemistry.
Technical testing was originally a method to serve archaeology, but the value orientation of pure scientism is building scientific archaeology bigger and bigger, while the studies of history behind it become thinner and simpler. At present, scientific and technological experts are playing the leading roles in some major projects involving archaeology topics for China’s natural science foundations. This is a reminder of some scholars’ warning that, without anthropological reference and awareness of historical issues, archaeology is in danger of turning back to mere collection of antiquities. Moreover, the funds for archaeological research are limited, and too much investment in one aspect will inevitably lead to shortage in other aspects.
When learning from the West, various archaeological theories and methods had been introduced into China separately, disorderly, and selectively, and were then localized. Moreover, the dates of importing Western theories and methods lagged far behind the period when they were popular in the West, which resulted in a mixture of the old and the new in modern Chinese archaeology. This deepens the gaps between various theories of and approaches to archaeological research.
Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874–1960), a geologist, only introduced fieldwork to China, and made no contribution to the research method. Su Bingqi drew on the typology proposed by the Swedish archaeologist Oscar Montelius (1843–1921), arranging, describing material remains, and working out a chronology. Su’s “regional systems and cultural types” was completely based on pottery collections, and that remains the basis of the main paradigm of Chinese archaeology today. 
In the 1980s, processual archaeology started to influence China. Various scientific and technological approaches have been applied one after another, but the culture-historical approach to archaeology as a dominant approach hasn’t been changed. As a result, technical approaches with practical use were adopted, while problem-oriented related theories were rejected, making scientific archaeology incompatible with the traditional approach.
Things are different in the West, where theories and approaches are inseparable, and scientific and technological methods are used to test economic and social evolution theories. For example, in the late 1940s, American archaeologist Robert J. Braidwood (1907–2003) initiated interdisciplinary research in the Fertile Crescent in order to test Childe’s Oasis Theory [one of the main hypotheses about the origins of agriculture: that people started to domesticate plants and animals as they were forced to, because of climate change]. Environmental archaeology proves that the agricultural origins of the Near East were not triggered by post-glacial droughts.
We should realize that, even if we obtain more data from scientific tests, and no matter how refreshing some of the results are, these data and results contribute little to the study of history if they don’t help address the questions of cultural change. Scientific archaeology is an archaeological approach to reconstructing the past and is an ally of field archaeology, but it cannot become an independent academic field. Without the goal of reconstructing history, scientific archaeology is just a mirage. No matter how much data has been accumulated, it provides a pile of fragmented evidence, just like pottery shards.
The way ahead
In order to achieve the goal of reconstructing China’s history, the first thing is to provide problem orientation for incorporating scientific approaches into archaeology, so as to benefit from interdisciplinary studies. Instead of reconstructing political history and chronicles recorded in historical documents, archaeology is good at reconstructing the overall history of humans adapting to the environment, transforming the environment, organizing themselves, and developing from primitive bands to states and civilized society. After the advent of written history, archaeology could still provide contextual information about the environment, population, economy, trade, and ethnicity, which is absent from documents. 
Archaeology is part of history as far as the study of the human past is concerned. Since the object of archaeological research is mainly material culture, its analysis method is more like that of natural science, which requires scholars to collect evidence, do experiments, formulate hypotheses, test hypotheses with more materials, and then construct a model to draw conclusions. However, this conclusive review or reconstruction of history must be expressed in the language of the humanities, so as to recreate the actions, thoughts, and emotions of the ancients.
As archaeology is becoming more and more specialized, both scholars and students in colleges and universities should pay attention to communication between disciplines. Scholars with a background in science need to be more familiar with the basic knowledge of field archaeology and social science theories, while field workers should know more about the basic principles and effects of various scientific and technological approaches, and be familiar with the classics of cultural anthropology and history. Such academic training is able to achieve interdisciplinary cooperation by integrating the knowledge of archaeology, natural sciences, and humanities. The goal of this interdisciplinary cooperation is to form a research “entity,” in which experts from various disciplines are familiar with each other and are accustomed to long-term cooperation. This direction is not only consistent with the development trend of international disciplines, but also more helpful in realizing the task of reconstructing the country’s history.
Chen Chun is a professor from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology at Fudan University.