A Fatal Assumption in Archaeology

Updated on December 19, 2018
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Dr. David Thiessen is an educator, writer, pastor, and speaker. He has authored several books on a variety of topics including Archaeology

Assuming the Past

Archaeology Is Known for Its Limitations

Anyone who has studied or worked in the research field already knows that archaeology is very limited in what it can do. It is a destructive field of research as the archaeologist only gets one shot at the final resting place of many ancient artifacts, manuscripts and other discoveries.

That limitation means that the archaeologists and volunteers must go very slow and document everything they find. This makes sure that almost all the information needed is on hand for analysis and future considerations.

Another limitation in archaeology is that it cannot uncover every item that ancient people used in their daily lives. The archaeologist must be content with the sparse discoveries that come their way. These discoveries provide a few clues as to what life was like for ancient people.

Archaeology Has Enemies

When archaeologists start excavating, they are working against many enemies that plague the field of research. Once the past is uncovered, archaeologists can lose vital materials due to the weather change at the excavation site. Once preserved in the cool, evenly temperature dirt, artifacts, especially manuscripts, can decay when exposed to harsher surface climates.

Then earthquakes and other natural disasters can ruin an excavation site quickly if these sites are left unprotected. Or if archaeologists cannot finish their duties in a timely matter. With short excavation seasons, the sites are left vulnerable year after year until it has been completely examined and uncovered.

Looters are another enemy of archaeologists and archaeological excavations. There are more than many times where an archaeologist has struggled to dig down to a rewarding archaeological level, only to find that looters have beaten him or her to it by 30, 100 or even 1000 years or more.

The loss of information is very hard to take. There are other enemies of archaeology, for example, wars, bombs, construction and even erosion, but these will be looked at, in another article. These do not contain the fatal assumption that is part of archaeology today and throughout the field’s history.

Archaeology’s Fatal Assumption

It is a great time and a very rewarding experience when an archaeologist can uncover something other than pottery at an excavation site. These surprises, and the mundane pottery and other numerous artifacts, like oil lamps, etc., provide the archaeologist with a lot of information.

If they are lucky, the pottery sherds will have writing o them. These ancient words open a small window into the past and lets the modern world know how the ancients thought. Even if it is a very brief glimpse into that thinking.

Archaeologists use these discoveries to draw their conclusions about the city, the building or even the people they are excavating. The archaeologists make many assumptions about the artifacts and their final resting places.

Yet, there is a fatal assumption that not many archaeologists do not take into account when they make their discoveries. Whether the excitement or enthusiasm of the discovery draws their attention away from this assumption is not known. But it does play a part in how every discovery is analyzed.

This assumption actually can change those conclusions and paint a vastly different picture of ancient life. This assumption is the idea that almost every artifact uncovered has not been touched in the interceding years between its final burial and eventual discovery.

It is assumed that over the past 2, 3, or even 5,000 years no one has come across these artifacts and moved them. This assumption puts many archaeological conclusions at risk. Why? Because it is information that cannot be recovered.

The archaeologist can only assume that the artifacts, etc., belonged to the people or city they are investigating. They cannot be sure when that artifact was finally left where it was found or who left it.

Dating Is Not Secure

This fatal assumption also can put a lot of firm dates at risk. A 10th century building may be dated to the 9th century merely because the pottery left by its wall were originally from the 9th century.

Or coins dating to the 5th century may influence the date of a building long before it was actually constructed. When assumptions are made, facts are distorted, and the picture archaeologists like to paint about the past loses its credibility.

There is no rational or logical way to conclude that in the intervening years a third party may have come across an artifact or manuscript and moved it to a totally different region, people or land.

Provenance Is of No Help

Archaeologists love to have known provenances of the artifacts they publish. This helps them avoid publishing fakes or drawing faulty conclusions. This strategy also helps to stop them from professionally embarrassing themselves.

Yet provenance only goes back to the site where the artifact or manuscript was finally discovered. That leaves the discoveries vulnerable to the fatal assumption that plagues the field. Provenance cannot provide any real history of the discovery.

That title history stops at the excavation site and the archaeologist is left to assume the rest. It can’t be helped. The limitations of archaeology leave every discovery very vulnerable as they lack any corroborating information to help the archaeologist determine the history and use of the different items they uncover.

In the case of manuscripts, the fatal assumption is that the ancient owner may have actually believed the contents. But if the ancients were like any one else, they may have merely held on to the manuscript as part of their library for their own research, etc., and not believed the contents.

Medical incantations discovered over the years provide the evidence for this point. Many archaeologists conclude that the ancient doctors were mere witch doctors at best who used magic spells. But the numerous skulls found with precision and delicate medical and dental care say otherwise.

Some Final Words

No one is saying that every archaeologist makes this fatal assumption There are enough in the field who do though. Their failure to take into account that artifacts may not have been left undisturbed, raises questions about their conclusions.

One is left wondering what is missing when archaeologist finally publish their discoveries. Looting is still a big problem today. No archaeologist can say with utter confidence if the item they uncovered was looted from another tomb in another land or not.

To assume that these discoveries are virgin finds, is not the right way to handle archaeological discoveries. The pubic is led to believe the wrong ideas about the past and that is not a smart move to make.

© 2018 David Thiessen


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    • david tee profile imageAUTHOR

      David Thiessen 

      20 months ago from Philippines

      I am surprised more people who support science haven't commented

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      20 months ago from UK

      As they sometimes say then 'the old ways are the best ways'.

    • david tee profile imageAUTHOR

      David Thiessen 

      20 months ago from Philippines

      Dating systems are not that good. Most archaeologists stick with the pottery to date their finds

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      20 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting view of archaeology. Maybe we should be questionong discoveries a little more. On the other hand science has moved on a lot in recent years to help with the dating of finds.


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