Philosophy of Archaeology

Author: Kenneth Blake Vernon
Category: Philosophy of Science
Word Count: 1000

The Fundamental Problem

The work of the archaeologist is worlds away from the fantasy of the globe-trotting, Nazi-fighting Jones boys, but archaeological work still has its own idiosyncratic charm. From a small and fragmentary set of hard-won clues, the archaeologist manages to construct a telescopic vision of our distant human past. She is not unlike an astronomer who processes data gathered by the Hubble telescope to create meaningful images of the cosmos. Admittedly, the image we receive back from the archaeologist lacks the grandeur of something like the Carina Nebula, but it is no less important to our overall scientific understanding. Through the efforts of the archaeologist, we are offered a rare glimpse of our own origins as human beings. The question for the philosopher, then, is this: How does the archaeologist do what she does? What is it that makes her work a reliable lens through which to view our human past?

To answer that question, it helps to understand the challenges faced by the archaeologist, in particular what might be called the fundamental problem of archaeology. The fundamental problem is, in effect, a problem of access. The archaeologist wants to make sense of what will here be referred to as past human ways of life. Past human ways of life are a riotous assembly of actions and events, actions and events that are sometimes momentous, like the fall of Rome, sometimes mundane, like the manufacture of stone tools, and sometimes strange, like the purported carnal liaisons our early ancestors shared with the Neanderthals. Assuming no preternatural forces are at play, these past human ways of life make up sets of closely related and fully realized physical phenomena. As such, past human ways of life have measurable physical consequences. Sometimes these physical consequences defy the odds, surviving through all the upheaval of the intervening years to become the sorts of evidence the archaeologist might directly observe in the present. The archaeologist refers collectively to all of these physical consequences of human life that have survived into the present as the archaeological record.

Now, one thing the archaeologist must accept, however reluctantly, is that she is no time traveler. If she could hop into a flux-capacitor-powered De Lorean DMC-12, accelerate to 88 miles per hour, and drive away back in time, her work would be simple. She could bypass the archaeological record entirely and directly observe past human ways of life. Whatever claims she would like to make about the human past, about what happened and when, she could confirm just by having a direct look—no inference from evidence needed. Unfortunately for her, archaeology suffers from a lack of De Loreans, as do we all. So, the fundamental problem for her is that she has no way of getting herself into a position where she could just watch the past unfold. That means that she must come at past human ways of life indirectly, so to speak, by relying on evidence left in the present by those past ways of life (Binford 1983; Trigger 2003). So, how does she do it?


Archaeologists have devised a number of alternative solutions to this fundamental problem (Trigger, 2006). Positivist archaeologists maintain that archaeology reliably represents the human past via two methodological procedures: direct observation of present evidence and knowledge of the causes of that evidence (Binford, 1962; Binford, 1965; Gibbon, 1989; Salmon, 1982; Wylie, 2002; Hempel, 1942). One might imagine an archaeologist bushwhacking through southern Utah where she stumbles upon a slab of rock roughly the size of two textbooks laid side by side. Down the middle of the rock runs a long, shallow groove. The archaeologist knows that present-day indigenous people in the region grind corn on flat rocks bearing a striking resemblance to the one lying before her. She also knows that in regions like this one, corn’s energetic profitability makes it an important staple of the diet. Knowing such things, and seeing what she sees, she concludes that humans here once ground corn. It is worth noting that the positivist view is substantially more sophisticated than this simple description would suggest. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that for the positivist, the two most important features of good archaeological work are direct observation and knowledge of causes.

Extreme Relativism

Let’s turn to an alternative to the positivist view known as the extreme relativist view of archaeology. It should first be noted that extreme relativism is more a motley than a unified field. What all the various positions share in common is a core set of objections to the positivist view in archaeology, specifically the positivist view of direct observation of evidence in the present (Shanks and Tilley, 1987). Extreme relativists tend to implicate an almost endless variety of social, political, and economic forces they take to be causally responsible for the inability of archaeologists to directly observe evidence in the present. As extreme relativists see it, these various factors tint the lenses of archaeology, mediating between the archaeological observer and the thing supposedly being observed. This leads to a somewhat cynical view about archaeological images of the past. Extreme relativists insist that images of the human past do not so much reflect good evidence as they do the sorts of social, political, and economic forces that influence archaeologists in the present. Accordingly, extreme relativists believe that no objective picture of the past is possible.

Moderate Relativism

Moderate relativists, as their name suggests, lie somewhere between positivists and extreme relativists. They admit that social, political, and economic forces may influence present archaeological observations and therefore shape archaeological images of the past. Nevertheless, moderate relativists think that it is often possible to address these influences and to gain some objective or true understanding of the lives humans once lived (Hodder and Hutson, 2003).


The field of archaeology is quite contentious, it seems, and foundational battles are, if not being fought outright, still simmering in a sort of unspoken cold war. Philosophers might, therefore, contribute much to the field, especially concerning the nature of archaeological observation and the scope of causal archaeological knowledge. It is hoped, in addition, that an explanation for the archaeologist’s reliability might one day be found.


Binford, Lewis. “Archaeology as Anthropology.” American Antiquity 28: 1962, pp 217-225.

———. “Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Cultural Process.” American Antiquity 31: 1965, pp 203-210.

———. “Meaning, Inference, and the Material Record.” In Ranking, Resource and Exchange, edited by Colin Renfrew and Stephen Shennan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp 160-163.

Gibbon, Guy E. (1989). Explanation in Archaeology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hempel, Carl. “The Function of General Laws in History.” The Journal of Philosophy, 39, No. 2: 1942, pp. 35-48.

Hodder, Ian and Hutson, Scott. Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Salmon, Merrilee H. Philosophy and Archaeology. New York, NY: Academic Press, Inc., 1982.

Shanks, Michael and Tilley, Christopher. Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wylie, Alison. Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

Kenneth is a graduate student studying philosophy at the University of Utah. He has an MA from Northern Illinois University and a BA from the University of Central Arkansas. He specializes in the philosophy of archaeology and is competent in philosophy of biology and anthropology. His favorite thing to do on the weekend is to go hiking in the Wasatch range. He likes to think of hiking as philosophy by other means, and he feels in good company in this regard, like William James wondering off into the Adirondacks. He is especially fond of that old aphorism by Nietzsche, “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”