I've been thinking about something I've mentioned in a previous post, which is the tension or even conflict between historians and archaeologists. Talking to people around the university, it seems that many historians ( by which I mean those who study history) see archaeologists as over-interpreting their finds, and I do agree with this to an extent.
And God created
One of the most memorable things I have been told whilst doing archaeology is that we aren't just finding history, we are making
it, in that once an archaeologist has decided that he or she has discovered something (a piece of pottery, a building, or even nothing at all), and this discovery has become established over time, it is unlikely to be disputed by those reading the report.
It is true that the establishment of a fact like this can be, and often is, well debated, but so many factors can call this type of discovery into question, not least the development of new interpretational techniques. This is well illustrated by the widespread re-interpretation that has taken place - and still is - of early twentieth-century archaeological discoveries. It is also true that some famous frauds have taken place, one recent example of which is the dozens of falsified bog bodies which as far as I remember took place in the Netherlands (apologies to the Netherlands if I have remembered this incorrectly). But I do not wish to imply that these are common occurrences, simply that archaeology is by no means infallible.
It's a sticky area
This dichotomy illustrates something about archaeology that isn't immediately obvious: that it might be described as a discipline with a dual personality. On the one hand, things are discovered, and this uses well-established, scientifically-rigorous methods. This collection of information does not seem to be in question in terms of this conflict. On the other hand, these data must be interpreted to be meaningful in a historical sense, and this task also falls to the archaeologist, mainly because most historians don't immediately have the training to interpret, for example, statistics about soil acidity. On top of that, it is probably better for someone (ie: the archaeologist) who has information about the whole site to put a label on what has been found, rather than someone who may have an interest in just one perspective.
It's a sticky area. Either a historian or an archaeologist is able to do this job, and with different priorities, perhaps it is inevitable that they will come into conflict over it. At the same time, this diversity of disciplines is one of the things that makes archaeology attractive. I hope this will never change, although I can perhaps see a day when the process of discovery and the interpretation of discoveries are split further from one another. Perhaps, as part of an excavation plan, if time and money allowed, a second level of interpretation might take place by a traditional historian who has been less closely involved with the process of discovery. However, since even the emphasis on reporting is relatively recent, and in some ways still in its infancy, that should probably be focused on first.
Soil acidity rocks
I hope I haven't blown this issue out of proportion - that was certainly not my intention. It interests me though, especially since it is a problem that doesn't appear likely to a spectator. The idea that history is something that can be created seems to go against its definition, but in fact in many ways is at the heart of what history is. If historians complain that archaeologists over-interpret, perhaps they are forgetting that they themselves do this as a fundamental part of their jobs. Are they instead saying that a historian would be better qualified to do the interpretation? I think that is a distinct possibility.
But I sympthise with the complaint. It's bad enough having to deal with patchy evidence from the period itself without having to contend with patchy inferences. Apportioning blame is unhelpful, however, so perhaps all historians and archaeologists need a loud exhortation to unity.