It seems that even when I try to make a positive contribution to knowledge I'm doing it in response to something that's amiss in someone else's reasoning (at least to my mind). I once wrote a book about how some animals can create spatial patterning in caves. I intended it as an original contribution to archaeological inference-making. But I undertook the work because I thought that others were reasoning enthymematically in using their understanding of modern human behaviour to guide them in interpreting spatial pattering in pre-modern Homininan archaeological sites—in effect they were arguing that the older material must be the result of modern-like concepts of space held in the minds of the earlier beings, because, after all, moderns leave spatially patterned traces on account of culturally prescribed patterns of behaviour. A rather vicious circle, I thought.
I knew that there were all kinds of ways that objects in confined spaces can be moved around unintentionally, which then end up being patterned. It's one of the reasons I've argued for the natural burial of Middle Palaeolithic Homininae. I thought that if I could demonstrate my suspicions about animals and space using the archaeological or fossil record, it'd be useful knowledge. Apparently I was mistaken in my overarching aim. The book, however, was a runaway best-seller on the remainder tables.
My research, of course, has earned me no lasting friendships. Mostly I imagine it's because no one misses the implications of my work for their work, and, truth be told, my motivation is fairly transparent. But my depauperate social life concerns me far less than the 'chilly climate'* effect that this universal response to criticism has for archaeological practice. I ask you. If we are not free to question the work of others, how can we call archaeology a science? I think we debase the ideals of empirical enquiry when we act as if anyone's inferences are above scrutiny.
It will be very interesting to see how Sandgathe et al. (whom I mentioned in my very first Subversive Archaeologist post) will get on in the academy after a) presuming to question the inferences of two generations of French archaeologists who worked at Roc de Marsal, and b) getting it right, finally, and (to my way of thinking) showing the archaeological community that there is value in such investigations.
I remember hearing somewhere that archaeology has no tradition of criticism such as exists in the humanities and the arts. Perhaps the time is ripe. I hope to live long enough to see a generation of archaeologists for whom being critical isn't deemed anti-social.
* I want to acknowledge feminist philosophers for this term—it's equally apt for the social circumstances of archaeological practice that I'm describing.