Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Some skepticism about the value of archeology

I've been wrestling with the value of archeology. For the last couple of years, I subscribed to the Biblical Archeology Review. The magazine had occassionally interesting articles, but most of it read like a broken record.

Someone finds what appears to be an ancient artifact. Skeptics argue that it's counterfeit. Believers argue that it's the real deal. And then they attack each other verbally. Over and over and over with everything that is dug up.

On the one hand, I think it can be incredibly eye opening when you discover an ancient civilization 's remains under ground and can therefore expand your knowledge of their language and culture.

I think what I really wrestle with, though, is when archaeologists will state facts about ancient creatures/peoples/cultures with such certainty, when in fact they could be dead wrong.

For instance, they find a house with a lot of old jar fragments laying around with some weapons made from bone. They might conclude that these people frequently used jars for all sorts of purposes and that their standard weapons for hunting were made from bone. But what if this was completely wrong? What if the bone weapon was left behind at the house when a family moved because the people had much better weapons and "nobody uses bone weapons". What if they left a bunch of jars laying around because they had no use for them?

Not to mention, they typically only dig out a small portion of an area. Can you know everything about a neighborhood by looking in one house? Finding one unusual item can completely throw off a prior theory about what was "normal".

Again, we can make good guesses, but at best, they're just guesses. It disturbs me so much when people will try and make shows to explain exactly what life would have been like around the dinosaurs. Or when people find a fraction of what might be a jaw bone, then recreate an entire skeleton around the jaw bone, as if that's even realistic.

Case in point, in Africa some people found the top half of a skull and part of a jawbone, and are therefore making huge conjectures about what man was like "1.5 million years ago", as if the dating system they're using is even that reliable. What can you know from just the top half of a skull and a jaw bone? I doubt we can know as much as these folks claim we can. I don't get how scientists can attack people of faith, then follow some of these theories. I think it takes less faith to believe the Bible than it does to follow some of these fairy tales they come up with.

One of the most interesting things I've ever read was a short essay from C.S. Lewis where he spoke about his experiences with people reading his own work, then trying to write analysis papers about what Lewis had been thinking about or trying to do when he wrote certain passages. (I retyped the whole thing here) Lewis had read hundreds of critiques of his own writing, and you know how often people were correct in their guesses about why he wrote what he did? NOT ONCE! Not a single time.

I'm ok with people trying to learn about other cultures/nature from archeology, but I have some real reserves about how reliable the hypotheses are.

Just because we find something about one aspect of a culture doesn't mean we know anything about other aspects. Our scientists and archaeologists could use a great deal more humility, in my opinion.

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