Thursday 15 December 2011

Touchstone Thursday: Diane Gifford-Gonzalez's "Bones Are Not Enough: Analogues, Knowledge, and Interpretive Strategies in Zooarchaeology"

[If this post encourages you to read this article for the first time, the other readers and I would really love to hear what you think of it.] 

Article available online at 
I had no hesitation deciding on the work that I'd recall for this week's Touchstone Thursday. Diane Gifford-Gonzalez's 'Bones Are Not Enough' is as pertinent today as it was in 1991--perhaps even more so, since so many who work as archaeologists seem to have paid little or no attention to it, and continue to work as if the truth it contains applies only to other universes, and not this one. Seriously, if you or someone you love has been using enthymematic reasoning, or ignored the problem of equifinality, this article is for you. Geez, even if you're infallible, chances are good that those around you aren't, and would therefore benefit greatly from a trip through its pages.
     This article is, if you will, the 'plain English' synthesis of a wealth of understanding derived from philosophy of science, philosophy of archaeology, epistemology, informal logic (critical thinking), and other sources, that is woven into a coherent and cogent presentation of how we know what we know (and don't), and of the pitfalls (potential and common) inherent in our discipline. It's also an original contribution to the research programme of a crucial archaeological enquiry--zooarchaeology. 
     Gifford-Gonzalez details the way archaeologists make knowledge of the human past--how we take observations and think them into their archaeological meaning, and from there to inferences of their place in a set of human or hominid behaviours and activities, whether mediated by culture and language, or not. Zooarchaeology is the branch of archaeology explicitly addressed in this paper, but it applies to all of our endeavours. 
     For example, lithic analysts will appreciate Gifford-Gonzalez's treatment of how we construct knowledge using animal bones, because it's no different than the thinking process employed when we logically (and analogically) think bits of stone into flakes purposefully removed for use as a sharp edge (a primary flake, blade, or microblade), or removed to resharpen a dulled edge (a retouch flake), or removed to create a shape that will perform a certain function (e.g. bifacial thinning flake, or the final removal of the flute flake on a Clovis or Folsom biface).  Such thinking on the part of archaeologists calls on a range of background knowledge, drawn from a number of independent research domains, which together can form the basis for strong and lasting theories about the way the archaeological world worked. 

You've had to listen to me whining about the way archaeology is practiced, in some circles, and the sad state of the social dimension of science in general and anthropological archaeology in particular. This article will help to clarify why I say the things I do (if they were opaque to you beforehand), and why I get so exasperated at the 'state of the art.' 
Conflict-of-interest disclosure: I'm lucky to be able to say that Diane is one of my mentors. [Subtext: If you mess with her, I'll mess with you!] 

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