Archaeology is a social science. There is a joke that archaeologists console themselves with this fact. However, it is true. To the naked eye, archaeology is adventurous and easy. You pick a spot and dig. Wahoo! Treasure!
Why do archaeologists have to go to school for so long? To figure out where to dig and then to figure out what the heck they dug up so they can figure what it all means. They learn the science of archaeology.
I’ve come to appreciate that figuring out where to dig is more than science, it’s an art. Like the secret element that is more than an artist applying brush and paint to canvas, an archaeologist develops a feel for what should come next.
Landscape + vegetation + previous studies + *something else* = dig here.
The first three variables are trainable. The fourth, however, is something that just is. And some archaeologists have it, some don’t, just like artists. Some are able to tap into that *something else* and just know how to make it all work.
Archaeology uses the scientific method (hence the repeated consolation by archaeologists that they are social scientists). Taking into consideration landscape, vegetation, and previous studies, an archaeologist prepares a theory of where to dig and what they will find there. A methodology of how to collect evidence to support or negate this theory is laid out: how to dig, how deep, a random or systematic sampling of digging and evidence collection, and how to analyse the collected evidence. The results are then presented and whether or not they support or negate the aforementioned theory. In other words, did you find anything where you dug, and did you find what you expected to find? Why? All this is structured to be repeatable. If someone were to pick up an archaeological report, they *should* be able to reproduce similar results by following step by step, from the development of the theory to the analysis of the evidence.
But how do you factor in the fourth variable, *something else*? How do you factor in, “I don’t care what the previous studies say, I feel like digging here.” Or, how about, “There are no previous studies in this area. I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on with the landscape. I have no idea if anyone lived out here 4,000 years ago. Let’s dig here; I feel it’s a good place.” And then there’s the (large) handful of occasions, when you arrive at your remote field location to find that your beautifully constructed methodology just won’t work. What then?
In a world that increasingly places value on results, how do you justify spending significant amounts of money to dig “just because”? Whether it is in consulting archaeology or the art world, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before” seems a sentiment confined to Star Trek alone. Exploration for the sake of exploration is seen as frivolous, even a waste. Why would anyone do anything when results are either not assured, or could even be nil? Why would anybody do anything when they might not be able to make money from it? Because, as Thomas Edison once beautifully illustrated, you can learn many, many ways of how not to do something. It is not failure to find nothing. Instead, it is learning that, in a certain direction, there is no evidence. And lack of evidence is valuable evidence, sometimes moreso than finding tangible evidence. Knowing where not to dig is as important as knowing where to dig.
But there must be space for digging ‘just because.’
*Something else* (aka creativity) is exempt from the scientific method. There is no room for whimsy in the modern results-driven world. Results should be predictable and bankable. This fits perfectly within the deliverables of the scientific method. Strokes of brilliance, however, aren’t predictable. They descend and strike out-of-the-blue for no reason. You can’t see them coming. They are divine intervention, completely unpredictable and, no matter how hard you try to reproduce your actions and thoughts surrounding the inspiring event, you will never be able to reproduce that genius. Lack of evidence, “failure,” and productivity droughts are commonplace. How can you fit that into the scientific method? How can you bank on that?
You can’t. However, new, insightful, and innovative ideas don’t come from the path well-travelled. It comes when we decide, on a whim, to take a path not travelled. ‘Just because.’
Creativity needs room to breathe. Nay, it needs room to run free and play. Creativity is like a 5-year old child running around in an open field under a wide blue sky. No boundaries, no accountability, no expectations. Watch a child droop when you impose bedtimes, chores, timeframes. Watch a child enliven when they are given free reign with unstructured time. Watch a child make art for art’s sake, explore for the adventure of exploring. Watch them discover, and all without the scientific method!
Instead of consoling themselves, archaeologists should revel that they are not completely scientists. While the “social” in social science should be used to indicate the study of the social nature of human beings, it can also represent a wildcard; a synonym for that element of gut instinct or creativity that is very often illustrated in qualitative studies. Perhaps it is in recognition of this wildcard that scientists, social or otherwise, find a way to include the ‘just because’ under the purview of “educated guess”, “scientist’s judgment”, or “random sampling.” I believe scientists know the value of creativity, it’s fitting it into our idea of accountability that is the problem.
What a world we would live in if our methodology included an “On a Whim” section, or if our research conclusions stated: “We got results we never even dreamed of. We don’t know what the hell to do with it or what it means, but it’s really interesting!” What a world we world we would live in if we were then funded to take those whims and unexpected results, and jump off the cliff of exploration. Just because.
What do you do ‘just because’? Do you wish you did more things ‘just because’?