In Defence of Archaeology
Somebody once said to me, "You archaeologists don't really know anything, do you? I mean, it's just guesses, right?". Well, sometimes I do despair about archaeology as a science. Can we actually know anything about what life was like for people in the deep past? Are we doing science at all or just deluding ourselves?
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But the thought that really cheers me is that although archaeology may not always understand societies of the past very well, it wouldn't actually be much easier if we had time machines. Because who really understands today's societies in all their multifaceted kaleidoscopism? Social anthropology and sociology have huge problems in getting any perspective on what's going on. Sure, they can talk to the people whose lives they want to learn about. But they can never be sure whether their informants are telling the truth, whether they actually have the knowledge necessary to answer the questions of social scientists, or if the sample of people they talk to is really representative of the group they aim at.
This is the thing that always annoyed me about the trend in archaeology (especially since the WIlley and Phillips tome) towards being. . .*dramatically building music*. . .Cultural Anthropologists. Nearly every archaeology textbook of the last 40 years has described the archaeological record as being so very "incomplete" and only a bare remnant of a rich cultural past, and if we only had more junk we could realize our goal of reconstructing past behavior and reach the holy grail of archaeological theory: Talking like sociocultural anthropologists. Yes, we certainly need to spend endless hours debating what the true definition of "culture" is and whether structural-functionalism is really worthwhile, and whether we're being sufficiently emic or not.
We really need to get over this whole "incompleteness" thing. A "complete" archaeological record is an absolute myth. Sure, you could imagine a world where every single item ever used by anybody everywhere is preserved after it was made, but then what? If everything we manufactured never decayed, we'd just end up piling all the useless stuff in piles and, poof, there goes context. Or destroying it ourselves and using it in some other context.
The great strength of archaeology resides strictly in the fact that we can't observe behavior directly -- time depth won't allow it. Time is the greatest asset of archaeology and that logically excludes "complete" data.