The simple answer is Yes: archaeology covers a far greater range of time compared to historical documents, and therefore has the potential for allowing us to learn about the huge span of human existence. The more complex answer is more cautious and requires that the type of information that can be recovered using each discipline is examined and studied critically.
It should be emphasised that modern archaeological investigation is really a collection of analysis techniques and data recovery methodologies, and not just excavation. Landscape archaeology in particular makes use of historical documents such as old maps (Aston 1985, 18), and indeed any available source of information, meaning that to separate archaeology from historical sources is somewhat difficult. Especially if you consider that using fieldwork reports by other archaeologists is also ‘using historical sources’, as such reports are a document describing an event or series of events in the past, that cannot necessarily be verified by other means.
Therefore, for this purpose, we will define archaeology as the study of physical remains left behind by humans in the past and exclude physical remains that happen to be written.
In considering what material is available to study, and therefore has potential for ‘revealing’, it is important to consider how and why this material is available, as provenance and handling are an important consideration for interpretation. Recognising assumptions and lack of knowledge or evidence is as important as evidence you do have.
What are the sources of information?
Historical sources are many and varied, but all have one fact in common: they came into being deliberately and for a purpose. It is hard to create an accidental document, or an unintended map of your estate, therefore what is represented is the result of a deliberate act to convey a message to another human being, contemporary or otherwise.
Archaeology is the study of the physical remains left by humans, and as such, encompasses a wide range from stains in the earth denoting previous physical structures, to beads and pottery, to human remains.
Archaeology has the potential to get closer to the truth by providing a source of data rather than interpreted information. We must remember that any historical document is the result of human interpretation, whereas archaeological remains can be measured directly.
What can we find out?
Historical sources are very good at getting us close to the personal story of an individual at a moment in time; we can discover names, dates, addresses and family relationships, and often what living conditions were like at the time. This gives us a small window into a very specific time and place, albeit it at a very personal level.
Archaeology, on the other hand, deals with inanimate objects, mute and adrift in time. In exceptional circumstances, we cannot deduce the name of the owner, how they felt about their object and how they came to leave it where it was found. Archaeology is a process of deduction, drawing in evidence from as many places as possible, to answer questions that lead us to understanding the object (McIntosh 2006, 2).
How can we find it out?
For certain materials, shales, for instance, we can guess at a likely source the material, based on chemical analysis and the fact that these resources only occur in certain geographical locations. But that cannot tell us how it got to be 300 miles away from this source.
Careful excavation and recording can pick apart the sequence of development of an archaeological site (Barker 1993, 80); we can say that the first phase was a ring of timber posts, later to be replaced with stone settings. Or we can say that the width and depth of the foundations meant that they could have supported a two-storey building constructed in stone and wattle-and-daub. We cannot say that it did, only that it could have done, if there is no other evidence for such a construction.
We can guess that as the shape is a familiar one, that it might have had a familiar purpose, but the shape alone cannot tell us for sure. Here is where developments in science, or more precisely, the application of techniques normally associated with other branches of science, can help. A recent Leverhulme-funded research project has been looking at thousands of artefacts associated with chalcolithic Beaker-type burials, and part of that research has been looking at tiny patterns of wear (microwear) on the surfaces of the objects. This can reveal that the assumed purpose cannot be correct. For example, the ‘bone pin for sewing leather’ does not have wear at the point, but does have wear around the ‘eye’ and is therefore more likely to be suspended in some way 1. In contrast, if there is such a mistake of interpretation captured in a historical document, there is less chance of re-examining and finding this mistake.
Archaeology then, is good for telling us about things that people made, how they might have made them, and in some instances, how they might have used them. An object, considered in isolation, cannot tell us much about the person it was associated with. We must consider whole assemblages, the contexts in which they were found and in what physical state they were found. When you have enough data, patterns begin to emerge and cautious statements can begin to be made about general rules based on the empirical evidence.
It is important, though, to acknowledge that these rules are made based on general assumptions about the people we are applying them to, that they thought like us, valued similar things in similar ways, employed metaphor and symbolism in a way we can recognise today and so on. All or none of these assumptions may be correct, we cannot know (Johnson 2010, 91).
Issues of Interpretation
How then can archaeologists learn more about these people from the past? Borrowing again from another discipline, this time anthropology, archaeologists can study modern-day hunter-gatherer societies and seek to understand their mythologies and beliefs and how these inform their material culture. Mike Parker Pearson has suggested that the people of Madagascar can show that the sequence of transition from Woodhenge to Stonehenge along the river Avon can be thought of as moving from the place of the living to the place of the dead, as Madagascans view wood as ‘living’ and stone as ‘hardening into death’ (Pearson 1998). Whether this is a valid analogy to apply to Stonehenge, we can never be sure. The two cultures are so removed in time and space that it seems somewhat of a stretch, but perhaps in the past this ‘hardening into death’ was a common belief. How valid it is to use ethnoanthropology as a kind of living experimental archaeology can never be satisfactorily proven, especially as the observers may be affecting their own experiment by the very fact of their contact with these societies (Bradley 1987).
Historical sources require careful evaluation, in order to understand and interpret what has been written. Often, the record is made long after the events it records, and we cannot always be sure that the events that are described were witnessed by the recorder. In the case of Bede, who almost never left his monastery in Jarrow (Schama 2000,51), yet recorded the events of several hundred years prior with the authority of an eyewitness, we must question the record, but also accept it as being one of the few sources of information available for the period. This does not prevent us from looking critically at the motives as well as the message. We may be able to learn more about the time in which the document was written, than the events described in the document.
What are we missing?
When assessing the value of the information we can assemble from either historical documents, or the archaeological record, it is important to consider what is missing from the record. Just as we would adjust for various biasing factors when making a statistical comparison, we must take account of what is not there, the records we don’t have, when making use of what we do have.
Historical documents are fragile things; Fire, whether deliberate (as in the Dissolution), or accidental is a great destroyer of historical sources. There is no record of London in the Domesday book, yet we know that London was there and Michael Wood suggests that this is due to the fire of 1086, just as the survey was taking place (Wood, 1987, 26).
Even if the sources do not get lost, there is the real chance that they are never created at all. Assumptions are not a modern phenomenon: we always assume that information recorded in the present will be immediately accessible in the future and similarly manorial records did not need to state how the open-field system worked as everyone knew – it did not need to be recorded. Without this ‘common knowledge’, documents are open to misinterpretation and misuse.
Archaeology, too, is only a partial record. Organic materials such as wood, leather and textiles do not survive under most circumstances. There have been some notable survivals, such as the timbers of Flag Fen Post Alignment (Pryor 2005), but on the whole, we detect posts by their absence and not their presence.
Consider also the sites that are investigated; In recent years, developer-funded archaeology has increased the number of sites discovered accidentally, and also made larger areas is available for excavation. Remote sensing techniques and developments in surveying now mean that a more holistic approach can be taken to the landscape (Renfrew & Bahn 2004, 78) where previously a single area or monument would be the investigative focus. So, in the past, the knowledge about a site was limited to a single point, perhaps missing important clues.
Where does this leave us?
Having implied that historical documents are biased and untrustworthy, and that archaeology is just a series of informed guesses and assumption-based leaps of faith, how do we estimate their relative worth? Having initially decided that archaeology is obviously the better tool we have gone on to discover just how much it cannot tell us directly and therefore how much is inference and borrowing of analogy. Is this any better than historical documents?
The saving grace of archaeology is that we don’t have to get the interpretation right now: as long as fieldwork is scrupulously recorded, artefacts carefully conserved and reports written in a timely manner, the work can be re-evaluated in the light of new thinking and new discoveries.
The greatest chance to learn about the past is when historical sources and archaeological remains provide a cross-check for each other.
Aston, M., 1985. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History 1st ed., London: Routledge.
Barker, P., 1993. Techniques of Archeological Excavation 1st ed., Routledge.
Bradley, R., 1987. The Social Foundations of Prehistoric Britain: Themes and Variations in the Archaeology of Power New editio., Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.
Johnson, M., 2010. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell.
McIntosh, J., 1999. The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know About the Past 2nd ed., New York: Facts On File Inc.
Pearson, M.P., Ramilisonina, 1998. Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message. Antiquity, 72(276), p.308–326. Available at: http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ant/072/Ant0720308.htm.
Pryor, F., 2005. Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape illustrate., The History Press LTD.
Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P.G., 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice 4th ed., London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Schama, S., 2000. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? – 3000 BC-AD 1603 Vol 1 1st ed., London: BBC Books.
Wood, M., 1987. Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England BCA Editio., Book Club Associates.
1 – From a lecture ‘A Wheelbarrow Full of Surprises – a re-evaluation of some early Bronze Age Graves’ given by John Hunter 09/10/2010 http://www.wiltshireheritage.org.uk/events/index.php?Action=2&thID=567&prev=1