How do archaeologists differentiate between a widespread cultural tradition and an isolated incident?


This is kind of hard to put into words. What I’m asking is, how would an archaeologist be able to tell if what they’ve just found is evidence of a massive cultural phenomenon or just a weird and singular thing?

Like, if someone dug up an ancient carving that they hadn’t seen before, would they assume that it had some sort of religious or cultural purpose immediately? Or would they just think “the guy that made this must’ve been really into carving”? Do they just always assume the latter until they see the carving pop up in different areas, or do they go towards the former more often without explicit backup evidence?

In: Other

Short answer: they guess. It’s an educated guess, based on evidence left behind and knowledge about the culture, but it is a guess.

It’s not always right, either. There are some hilarious cases of mistakes coming to light.

One famous example a couple of centuries ago, archaeologists found a peculiar, triangular object made of metal in a home they were excavating. It was ornately carved and had two holes bored into it.

They came up with all kinds of theories to explain this beautiful piece. Eventually they settled on it being a means of worshiping one of the local deities – that the holes were a means of whirling the thing around so that light could shine through it.

Eventually, the local people could stand it no longer and informed the foreign archaeologists that the object was, in fact, an iron. They still used identical irons, and the holes were for the handle, which was missing. And the ornate carvings? Well, the woman who had once owned that iron had clearly wanted it to be pretty. She’d likely spent a lot of time in its company, after all.

This is a rather extreme example of guessing incorrectly, but it does make the point nicely. Archaeologists do their best, but they are human.

It’s difficult. Ideally you would like to have other points of comparison from this culture and similar cultures to be able to form a better conclusion.

There are some general principles you can apply though. Since only a small fraction of ancient sites survive to the present day, it would be especially unlikely that something which was unusual in its time would survive. So you may assume that what you have found is representative, if there is no special reason that this specific site would be preserved and discovered.

On the other hand, some biases can be inferred without much knowledge about the culture in question. For example, rich graves probably belong to people of high status because most societies operate that way, and most could hardly afford to give such a grave to everyone. And such an elaborate tomb is more likely to be preserved and discovered than a nameless grave or cremation site.

Archaeologists and other cultural interpreters are influenced by the interests of their era. All will claim science and cultural research to back up their emphasis, or direction, which will be true.

But what meaning and field of sciences gets emphasis, is also subject to the interests of it’s day.

Often these that is influenced by who the principle investors or who offers the contract on projects, and where the private interests intersect on it.

Often one or two principle archaeologists who are charismatic, more personable and very good at raising business, may take projects in certain directions to align those interests with their practice.

Here in my country it is the law that archaeological reports must be made before mojor works, but they get commissioned from certain firms, and interpreted to be favourable as seen fit by the Government, to suit the private companies they have contracted for roads and other works here. Tragically this leads to Indigenous and important built heritage sites being disrespected and disregarded and sometimes destroyed as a result.

It is not a simple matter at all, and very interesting question!

Like other scientists, archaeologists are cautious about making any assumptions and statements without evidence.

Artifacts themselves are often less important than the context in which they are found. In your example of finding an unusual carving the questions would be along the lines of:

– What material is it made of? – this lets you know if it was locally sources or potentially traded
– What was it found in association with? (eg. in/on/adjacent to a structure, and if so, where in it and what type of structure) – identifying what type of structure and where the artifact was found in relation ship to the structure helps to determine potential significance
– Does it have anything on it? (eg. paint, blood, grain meal, soot, etc) – this helps to determine if it had some sort of ritual significance, and if it had a role in offerings or something similar
– Are there any symbols or writing associated with it? – if so, these may be shared more widely and may be indicative of wider use or recognition, also, they might actually say with its was for
– Etc.

Each of these, and a great deal more, questions helps to establish a larger and more complete picture of what an individual artifact represents. Something as simple as what it is made of tells you a lot, if it’s from bronze, for example, that tells you that it was part of a trade network and cultures that participated in industrial levels of work (eg. mining and trading the tin and brass needed to make bronze), or if it’s of a particular stone that’s not found in the region that (for larger artifacts) tells you that it must have been important enough to the culture to organize enough people to bring it to the site, which in turn indicates a relatively complex potentially hierarchical society.

No real archaeologist finds an artifact and immediately comes up with a theory without first looking carefully at all the contextual clues they can find, and even then they are extremely conservative in their proposals of what an item may be representative of.

My experience as an architect with archaeologists is that they tend to make wild uneducated or logically flawed assumptions. Like:

“Technical innovations! an invasion of a superior people has happened”. No, we use Japanese cameras but Japan never invaded Europe.

“We found an idol in this building. It’s a temple! Every house has a temple attached! With some grain offerings!”. No; it’s a grain storage with a divine figure assigned to protect it, the most important asset in the life of that family.