Wednesday, March 3, 2010

serendipitous archaeology

Brian Boyd and I attended a great lecture on March 1st by Sue Alcock, on the topic of 'Digging Serendipity: Accident and Archaeology'. Sue is Joukouwsky Family Professor in Archaeology at Brown University (among other titles), and was speaking as part of the Art History and Archaeology department's Bettman Lecture Series

Sue discussed the role of serendipity in archaeology, pointing out that in its original formulation by Horace Walpole a serendipitous discovery encompassed more than chance or luck alone, but also included 'sagacity' or a degree of knowing what you're looking for. It's relevant that the 18th century antiquarian Walpole coined the term, because as Sue pointed out, serendipity is fundamental to archaeology, though often remains unacknowledged.

Sue outlined a variety of case studies from archaeology's past and demonstrated how archaeologists continue to work around serendipitous discoveries. For me, the lecture raised the important question of how we can claim or own the doubt that lies at the heart of archaeological inquiry, and what an archaeology that does this might look like. It is perhaps only as we've moved away from processualism's figuring of archaeology's inference as primarily inductive and deductive that other possibilities have opened up for conceptualizing the work of archaeological investigation. A serendipitous archaeology seems to entail the proper acknowledgment of the educated guess or abduction (to use C.S. Peirce's terminology) with which archaeological inference begins. Despite Binford's original support of the hypothetico-deductive model, his emphasis and subsequent inquiry was very much on hypothesis testing, rather than on the more perilous question of where those hypotheses come from. The topic was clearly popular with the audience: the questions at the end of the talk ranged widely and continued over a glass of wine at the reception.

Zoe Crossland

No comments: