Home > 2011 Posts > Things We Can’t Find and the Scholars Who Exploit Them

Things We Can’t Find and the Scholars Who Exploit Them

Homer was blind. So are the archaeologists looking for him.

Carved, Painted Wooden HeadBy this, I mean that an archaeologist looking for ancient artifacts won’t find most of them because they were organic and time has rotted them away. So, with so many pieces of the archaeological puzzle missing, these scholars are like legally blind people, the ancient world beyond the thing right in front of them looks at best like soft colors and vague blobs.

I’d known this intellectually for a long time. It’s Archaeology 101. But I hadn’t understood it until one day at the Musée de Cluny in Paris (now officially the National Museum of the Middle Ages and well worth a visit). There, I was surrounded by thousands of priceless medieval things, almost all made from perishable, organic materials like wood and thread and animal hides. I realized that no one could ever have inferred the existence of these amazing things from a few other bits of metal and pottery.

'Lady with the Unicorn' Tapestries

In a flash, I now understood that archaeologists who study ancient times must have no better than a 20/800 picture of any broad ancient topic. So, their conclusions are mostly based on what they think about a bunch of figurative pastel blobs, not on science.

Put another way, if people’s lives in the distant past were a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, then at best an archaeologist can find no more than 100 partly recognizable pieces. Ever.

And those pieces would mostly come from just one corner of the puzzle: the corner with Really Hard Stuff, like pottery, stone, ceramics and some metals. That leaves a lot of room to make very bad guesses about what the whole puzzle would have looked like.

Large, Complex Carved Wood Sculpture

And bad guesses that sound like science are my point. I’ve studied hundreds of scholarly books on archaeology. Most of them were about classical and pre-classical times in and around the Mediterranean. Descriptions of the finds and professional process are usually sound. But, sadly, fad waves of academic interpretation are often all too evident.

What follows is one example among many from archaeological publications in just the past decade.

Late Bronze Age civilization in much of the Eastern Mediterranean suffered an abrupt collapse into a dark age around 1,200 BC. Dozens of scholarly works seriously consider, and sometimes conclude, that a human-caused or amplified eco-disaster was the main reason. They do this with the same fervor as apocryphal Scholastic theologians were supposed to have argued about the number of Angels who could dance on the point of a needle. Yet these modern archaeological scholars have the chutzpah to present their empty speculation as trendy scientific thought.

Fine Detail in a Tapestry

A much better path for a true scholar would be to discount an explanation because it reflects a current political or social fad.

But that is unlikely to catch on within the abstruse, socially inbred walls of tenured academia. Stand by for the fall of Rome in the West to have been caused by an olive Oil Spill in the Gulf (of Corinth), or the Sword of Islam sweeping out of the Arabian desert to be a legitimate popular protest against the Catastrophic Meltdown of woefully under-regulated pottery kilns in Jerusalem.

It’s a sad statement that my tongue has to be only partly in my cheek as I write this. To paraphrase an English writer of some note: a pox on all their houses!

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  1. April 19, 2011 at 7:11 am

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