Science Notes – Bridging the divide: the role of science in archaeology

3 mins read

This month we are doing something a little different, exploring a wider theme rather than a specific technique. A recent public-interest piece in Nature – published in response to their research paper about the Bell Beaker culture (for more on this research, see CA 338) – discusses the ‘sometimes straining’ relationship between archaeologists and geneticists. Considering a host of interviews between field archaeologists and lab-based ones, Ewen Callaway writes, ‘Some archaeologists are ecstatic over the possibilities offered by the new technology. Ancient-DNA work has breathed new life and excitement into their work, and they are beginning once-inconceivable investigations, such as sequencing the genome of every individual from a single graveyard. But others are cautious.’ The cautious ones, he says, are worried about the ‘nuance’ of archaeology being lost amid seemingly clear-cut scientific findings.

A complication with aDNA in particular, and which was highlighted by the Bell Beaker research, is its perceived connection with the pseudo-science of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the eugenics movement. This has, for some people, coloured their views of what modern-day genetics can bring to the table. For example, as Callaway summarised, ‘To many, the idea that people linked to Corded Ware had replaced Neolithic groups in Western Europe was eerily reminiscent of the ideas of Gustaf Kossinna, the early 20th-century German archaeologist who had connected Corded Ware culture to the people of modern Germany and promoted a “Risk board” view of prehistory known as settlement archaeology. The idea later fed into Nazi ideology.’ While people did not think that the present team was promoting hateful ideologies – and David Reich, one of the leaders of the Bell Beaker project, specifically addressed this issue by writing an essay rejecting Kossinna’s views in the supplementary material of the paper – the main qualm is that aDNA is unable to account for the complexity and subtleties of human behaviour.

Excavation sites and laboratories make for very different work environments. What can we do to improve cooperation and collaboration between the two? (PHOTOS: Fred W Baker III / Robin Drayton, cc-by-sa/2.0)

This got us thinking about the relationship between science and ‘traditional’ archaeology in general – particularly as we feature it so prominently in this section. Archaeology is unique in that it includes aspects of the ‘hard’ Sciences, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities. (We explore the subject’s interdisciplinary nature in greater depth here.) But despite its relative methodological inclusivity, there can still sometimes be a large divide between the lab and field, with neither side having much knowledge of the processes involved in the other – particularly as, in many cases, they are coming from separate educational backgrounds. With lack of knowledge comes lack of understanding – and, as Callaway found with some of his interview subjects, a sense of being threatened by a mysterious other. It should be stressed that it is not just certain ‘traditional’ archaeologists being suspicious of new scientific techniques: scientists are also often at fault for not fully appreciating the origins of the samples that they use. This divide is widened by the eternal struggle between the quantitative and the qualitative that is reflected in most academic disciplines.

But why do we need to limit ourselves to just one approach when a combination of the two offers the opportunity to explore a question from multiple angles? If science lacks ‘nuance’, it is the role of the traditional archaeologist to provide it – both play an important role. And many in the discipline do recognise this necessity. Increasingly, we are seeing that many on both sides understand the benefits of working more harmoniously, and it is these studies that are able to provide the most comprehensive and convincing results. In radiocarbon dating, for instance, the context of samples is of vital importance to being able to date the site successfully, and only by the scientist working together with the field archaeologist can this be achieved. The same is true with aDNA. While the Bell Beaker research was largely led by geneticists and other scientists, despite what some critics may say they did work with more ‘traditional’ archaeologists to the ultimate benefit of the project. Hopefully, this is a trend that continues well into the future, with these collaborations only becoming stronger and more balanced.

We would love to hear people’s own opinions about the dynamics between the lab and the field – either through personal experience or from an outsider’s perspective.

This article appeared in CA 340.


  1. Hi John, Thanks for sharing this link. I’m particularly interested about the ‘Beaker Complex’ in Britain (I am currently undertaking an MA in Cultural Archaeology), and would very be interested in any thoughts you have re the recent aDNA analysis of the Beaker Complex in Britain – it hits all your buttons re admixture, migration and populations! Answers on a postcard please!

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