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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Epistemology and Archaeology

This comment has been posted today in the discussion forum around the text by Dominic Lopes Drawing in Social Science: Lithic Illustration

I am a bit puzzled by some passages of Dominic Lopes’ text concerning epistemology. He depicts a “standard epistemology” position as a default position about the role of images in science. According to Lopes standard epistemology claims: “that good evidence for an empirical generalization should issue from a reliable process. Add the assumption that processes are the more reliable as they rely on mechanical means of taking measurements, and we have a good epistemic reason to prefer photographs to drawings when we wish to capture data for empirical generalization. The second fork is the claim that good evidence for empirical generalization should issue from an objective process.”
I don’t think this corresponds to any serious position today in the epistemology of archaeology (see for example Alison Wylie’s book: Thinking From Things. Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology University of California Press, 2002). The epistemology of archaeology emphasizes today the peculiarity of archaeological evidence, and the role of background and collateral knowledge in interpreting archaeological data as evidence. Drawing in archaeology may have the same role as writing in ethnology (cf. J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus, Writing Culture, 1986, University of California Press), that is, they are irreplaceable interpretive means to access past and distant cultures. Of course in the case of Galileo’s drawings of the Moon, a photo could have been better evidence than a drawing, but nobody thinks that the constraints on evidence of astronomy should be of the same kind of those of archaeology. That’s why social sciences are an interesting and distinct epistemological subject.