Saturday, March 18, 2006

Archaeology and Creationism

I have yet to write on issues of archaeology in this blog, despite the fact that it’s my area of expertise. The creationism/evolution debates are most notably about biology, and of course it is biologists who contribute the greatest to blunting the flood of false information coming from creationist sources, be they of the young-earth or intelligent design varieties. Archaeology, however, has a significant role to play in the discussion, for a number of reasons. Like all other sciences, archaeology stands to loose credibility when its methods and concepts are twisted or falsified to prove an existing “truth” rather than engage in the honest search for knowledge. More importantly, archaeology is being co-opted by creationists to advance their agenda in ways that are not readily apparent to most archaeologists, let alone the rest of the science community.

First, archaeology is inextricably linked to human biological evolution, which is distasteful for creationists of all stripes. With the first flaking of a river cobble some 2.5 million years ago (or perhaps with the first use of digging sticks by Australopithecine ancestors a million years prior to that) the technological and material culture of humans went hand-in-hand with their biological evolution. To deny one is to deny the other, which means that Paleolithic archaeologists must also be concerned with human biological evolution and hence, evolutionary theory. Arguments against the evolution of horses, therapsids or dung beetles are by default arguments against human biological (and cultural) evolution. Archaeologists need to be as concerned with mutations in regulatory genes between chimps and humans as their geneticist counterparts. And because many of us deal in time scales measured in millions of years, archaeologists must also fight the same inane arguments against the efficacy of radiometric dating methods as any paleontologist. Nor does this concern necessarily end with later time frames. Despite a current rough limit of 10,000 years on prehistory in northern California, I am still occasionally met with comments in public forums that the earth can’t possibly be more than 6000 years in age (not to mention oddball creationist hypotheses such as Native Americans being descendant from lost Israeli tribes). Creationism follows archaeology throughout the latter's spheres of influence.

Second, archaeology is crucial to fundamentalist reconstruction of biblical history: if King David was a real person in the way the Bible suggests, then the Bible must be correct on other matters, including Genesis. And to this end, archaeological data are cherry-picked, archaeological concepts and methods misconstrued, and archaeologists’ statements taken out of context by creationists to provide “confirmation” of the particular version of biblical history that best serves them. Recent posts on the resurrection of the search for Noah’s Ark illustrate the frequency with which creationists cite archaeological terms to give the appearance of scholarly pursuit, without actually applying professional archaeological methods. Even legitimate archaeological discoveries are taken out of context to make broad proclamations that “archaeology proves the Bible” without due consideration for complex issues of correspondence between written and archaeological sources. The archaeological reality of Jericho no more “proves the Bible” than the archaeological reality of Troy “proves the Iliad”. In the context of archaeology, the Bible is simply another historical manuscript (one of thousands throughout the world and across time) that may or may not be useful for aiding interpretation of the archaeological record.

Third, archaeology’s greatest public benefit can also be its greatest weakness. Some aspects of archaeology, unlike other disciplines, are quite amenable to non-professional public involvement. Volunteers are not only welcomed, but frequently encouraged to participate in professional excavations. Digging square holes is not quantum physics, and most people with an interest in the past can be taught to dig and screen dirt with the best of us. Don’t get me wrong: there are frequently times when finesse, experience and skill are required for intricate excavation of special features and the skill level of most non-professionals is inadequate to the task – it is here where the professional archaeologist will usually take over. But a significant part of most large scale excavations is removing lots of dirt and not finessing the excavation of intricate features. Volunteers certainly make valuable contributions to archaeology and some gain a measure of expertise (I work with a few) – but they are not professional archaeologists. Excavation is really only a minor part of archaeology: it is the analysis and interpretation that requires significant expertise in the method and theory of archaeology, the ability to adhere to the methods of science, and skill at formulating cohesive arguments. Most non-professionals know the limits of their often significant contributions. Some, however, pick up a piece of pottery and suddenly become self-proclaimed experts in the field…and creationists will rush in and create expansive expertise out of shoveling dirt for a day faster than you can say “Indiana Jones”. We certainly have the usual creationist cast such as Carl Baugh, Willie Dye, Richard Fales and Clifford Wilson claiming to be professional archaeologists when they have no academic training, no professional field experience, and no track record of having produced reviewable contributions to the discipline. But there are also a growing number of Christian volunteers, willing to pay to participate in archaeological fieldwork in the Holy Land, who then return home to go on the “lecture circuit” and recount how their archaeological experiences are “proving the Bible correct”. Many clearly participate in order to gain a measure of professional authenticity that they then parade in front of home audiences. This is bad enough for archaeology, but it also broadly translates into the perception that these people can speak authoritatively on science in general. After all, they’ve participated with professional archaeologists on professional excavations. If they know something about potsherds, they must also know something about the failings of “macroevolution”, right?

Finally, Intelligent Design advocates have completely butchered archaeological principles by constantly citing archaeology as a metaphor for recognizing the presence of intelligent “design”. They seem to think there is an analogy to be drawn between an archaeologist’s recognition of intelligent design in artifacts with their own identification of intelligent design in biological systems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design in archaeology is not “self evident” – the simple statement, “this is an obsidian arrowhead made by humans” belies centuries of thought on archaeological method and theory, ethnographic analogy, experimentation with raw materials and an appreciation for context. A lot of hard methodological and theoretical work has gone into understanding the signatures of human intervention in the natural world. The larger lessons of human “design” tell us more about the constraints on the designers rather than their abilities. More importantly, archaeologists never separate the design from the designer: understanding the material culture is only a proximate goal of archaeology. Archaeology’s ultimate goal is to understand human behavior, i.e. the nature of the designer. To suggest that direct study of the Designer is irrelevant is intellectual cowardice.

Archaeology is being used and abused by creationists of all stripes just like other disciplines. It’s time to start pointing out the falsehoods…


Noell Hyman said...

I agree with you that, while Evolutionary Biology is the most obvious target of the Intelligent Design/Creationist crowd, they are attacking science in general and every field related to the sciences.

You mentioned those who believe the Native Americans descended from the Tribes of Israel. Did you know this is primarily a Mormon belief? While Joseph Smith wasn't the only person of his time to come up with this idea, I thought the belief faded away except among Mormons. Are there other groups of people you know of who hold this belief?

Christopher O'Brien said...

Hi Noell! Yes, I know it's predominately a Mormon belief; I seem to recall an oddball Christian sect or two also buying into it, but I don't remember for sure...I'll have to look into it and get back to you.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"if King David was a real person in the way the Bible suggests, then the Bible must be correct on other matters, including Genesis." I know this isn't your argument (your line about Jericho demonstrates that) but I find it depressing to think that many people actually buy this line of "argument". Not that they would buy that "if Mohammed was a real person, the the Koran must be accurate in other matters" - but it seems so hard to convince them that "But that's different!" isn't a valid response.

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