Archaeology: Real world to hypotheses, theories

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Elsewhere on this website, archaeology is defined as:

the study of past human culture by analyzing the material remains (sites and artifacts) people left behind; the science of archaeology involves recording, interpreting, and recreating past human life

That’s very informative, but just how do archaeologists do…archaeology? And how do they “think” it? How does the analysis lead to the interpreting and recreating? A new, 2012 publication provides a helpful discussion of this situation for all kinds of researchers.

Archaeologists are scientists, and like other scientists they make observations about the real world, and formulate hypotheses and develop theories and models about the data they have gathered.

Framework K 12 Science Education FIG 3 1 three spheres

Figure 3-1 from A Framework for K-12 Science Education (page 45), captioned: The three spheres of activity for scientists and engineers.

Consider the above graphic showing the three spheres of activity of scientific investigators. It’s from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, a publication of the National Academies. The authors say (pages 44–46):

One helpful way of understanding the practices of scientists and engineers is to frame them as work that is done in three spheres of activity, as shown in Figure 3-1. In one sphere, the dominant activity is investigation and empirical inquiry. In the second, the essence of work is the construction of explanations or designs using reasoning, creative thinking, and models. And in the third sphere, the ideas, such as the fit of models and explanations to evidence or the appropriateness of product designs, are analyzed, debated, and evaluated…. In all three spheres of activity, scientists and engineers try to use the best available tools to support the task at hand, which today means that modern computational technology is integral to virtually all aspects of their work.

At the left of the figure are activities related to empirical investigation. In this sphere of activity, scientists determine what needs to be measured; observe phenomena; plan experiments, programs of observation, and methods of data collection; build instruments; engage in disciplined fieldwork; and identify sources of uncertainty. For their part, engineers engage in testing that will contribute data for informing proposed designs. A civil engineer, for example, cannot design a new highway without measuring the terrain and collecting data about the nature of the soil and water flows.

The activities related to developing explanations and solutions are shown at the right of the figure. For scientists, their work in this sphere of activity is to draw from established theories and models and to propose extensions to theory or create new models. Often, they develop a model or hypothesis that leads to new questions to investigate or alternative explanations to consider. For engineers, the major practice is the production of designs. Design development also involves constructing models, for example, computer simulations of new structures or processes that may be used to test a design under a range of simulated conditions or, at a later stage, to test a physical prototype. Both scientists and engineers use their models—including sketches, diagrams, mathematical relationships, simulations, and physical models—to make predictions about the likely behavior of a system, and they then collect data to evaluate the predictions and possibly revise the models as a result.

Between and within these two spheres of activity is the practice of evaluation, represented by the middle space. Here is an iterative process that repeats at every step of the work. Critical thinking is required, whether in developing and refining an idea (an explanation or a design) or in conducting an investigation. The dominant activities in this sphere are argumentation and critique, which often lead to further experiments and observations or to changes in proposed models, explanations, or designs. Scientists and engineers use evidence-based argumentation to make the case for their ideas, whether involving new theories or designs, novel ways of collecting data, or interpretations of evidence. They and their peers then attempt to identify weaknesses and limitations in the argument, with the ultimate goal of refining and improving the explanation or design.

In reality, scientists and engineers move, fluidly and iteratively, back and forth among these three spheres of activity, and they conduct activities that might involve two or even all three of the modes at once. The function of Figure 3-1 is therefore solely to offer a scheme that helps identify the function, significance, range, and diversity of practices embedded in the work of scientists and engineers. Although admittedly a simplification, the figure does identify three overarching categories of practices and shows how they interact.

People who are not archaeologists sometimes think archaeology is about artifacts, ancient things used by long-dead people. But for archaeologists, old things provide clues they can use to create stories about people, and they focus on developing these stories.

Archaeologists usually have only small parts of each story, and so they look at many story-pieces hoping they can amalgamate them into more complete stories. Thus, over time, archaeologists are assembling more and more real-world data, which do illuminate more corners of the larger, illusive, complete stories. However, in archaeology, complete stories can never be discerned—too much is missing. It is missing because it was never left behind, or because it never survived the rigors of time. Still, the pieces archaeologists are assembling today provide more and more—exciting—detail about our human past.