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Giorgio Buccellati – May 1992

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Archaeology as archaeology

Stratigraphic analysis is the primary task of archaeology, totally unique to this field.

Analysis of broken traditions is the secondary task, partly unique.

Cf. the Grammar and the volume A Critique of the Archaeological Reason.

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Archaeological universals

If there are any archaeological “laws,” they pertain only to (a) the disposition of elements in the ground, and (b) assumptions about depositional processes.

Other “laws” are, at best, behavioral, not archaeological, in nature.

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Grammar of space

The disentanglement of elements in the ground, and their accurate documentation, are the primary duty of the archaeologist.

A coherent and all-inclusive descriptive system is both a theoretical and a practical requirement for success in the archaeological endeavor. Conceptually, it may be likened to the grammar of a language, whose explanatory power depends on its ability to account for the totality of the system with the smallest and most integrated network of rules.

An archaeological grammar is similar to in its intents, but is quite different from in its implementation, a linguistic grammar and an architectural “grammar of space.”

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Inferences about deposition

Deposition is not observable, therefore it cannot be documented; it can only be inferred on the basis of observed space relationships.

Depositional arguments are about temporal and causal phenomena which are presumed behind a given spatial configuration.

The concept of deposition is theoretically preferable to the concept of site formation.

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Operational difficulties of stratigraphic analysis

The major difficulty is the one generally recognized about the fact that the evidence is destroyed at the very moment that it is established. Considering the seriousness of this presupposition, one wonders why so little attention is paid to the problem. Most efforts have been on the level of implementation (excavation manuals about techniques) rather than theory (a grammar about methods).

Other difficulties not sufficiently appreciated include the following. (1) The surfeit of data (stratigraphic, not typological) is such that, even when they are recorded, they can be quickly lost as if in a quagmire. (2) Discrepancy between intended precision and actual accuracy. (3) Discrepancy between accuracy in recording and retention of such accuracy during analysis.

Since these problems are generally ignored, the archaeological record as it is generally presented can hardly be called objective by established scientific standards.

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Stratigraphic understanding after excavations

Two additional problems may be attributed to underlying attitudes brought to the excavation process. The first is the implicit assumption that the stratigraphic moment, specifically the emplacement, can be clarified either through further study of the evidence assembled during the excavation, or through further excavation. Both are fallacious. Further study only clarifies by obfuscating – i.e. it obfuscates the objectivity of the record in order to clarify the archaeologist’s perception of the resulting synthesis. Further excavation amasses more data which are often extraneous to the emplacement reality disentangled earlier, because they are not physically contiguous with that reality.

Both further study and further excavation clarify only the depositional and typological, not the emplacement reality.

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Reductionist documentary approach

The standard modus operandi takes for granted a progressive reduction in the documentary effort, which may be phrased as follows: 1. we select a portion of the evidence which we presume to be pertinent to a proposed research strategy; 1. of this portion, we discard a certain amount without accurately and consistently stating the criteria; 1. of what we keep, we record what is most readily understood; 1. of this residuum we publish only what we consider important. No scholarly discipline can accept such standards as scientific.

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Objectivity of the record

Goal of our excavation methodology is to strive towards a theoretically more defensible level of objectivity. I consider such objectivity to derive more from method than from techniques, though the latter are indispensable. Electronic data processing, in particular, is assumed as an essential technique, but objectivity is not in the computer as such. The following two points spell out my basic methodological presuppositions in this regard.

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Primacy of atomistic observations

Observations can only be at the level of discrete, single facts. We do not observe syntheses, but only discrete details as they emerge from the ground. We must give absolute primacy to these details, by training ourselves to observe them in the first place, and then by having adequate means of recording them.

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Irreplaceability of original observations

The original atomistic observation is the basic fact of the stratigraphic record, and should never, ever be jettisoned. We must both record it properly and preserve it faithfully forever.

The quality of the observation is proportional to the skills of the observer, hence each original observation must remain linked to the person and the moment of the original notation.

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Urkesh Global Record (UGR)

A site report should not be a synthesis (just as a text edition is not a selection of the phrases the editor likes best). It must instead present the global record of all the observations made. The quality of the observation is proportional to the discerning power of the recording system: the underlying “grammar” insures that the record not be a dump of disarticulate, personal notes. Instead, the record must be “public” (hence publishable) even while it is being assembled (i.e. at the very moment of the excavation). Nothing can be added to it afterwards, and therefore mustn’t. This too is the function of the “grammar.”

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Feedback for strategy

While obviously there are overarching cultural goals to an excavation, the primary responsibility of archaeologists qua archaeologists is the record, not the cultural goals (qua historians, anthropologists, statisticians, etc. they can do what they want after the record has been established). Our method must be so implemented as to provide ongoing feedback about the stratigraphic reality: this should be the primary feedback for alterations in the ongoing process of excavation.

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Explicitness about precision and strategy

Standards must be defined explicitly, and choices made must be stated on an ongoing basis, indicating the ranges for which one has opted, the reasons why, etc.

One must be ready to change gears at any time, in terms of ranges of precision. The system must provide an ever more complete array of options, any of which can be chosen at any time.

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