The Archaeology of Science: Studying the Creation of Useful Knowledge. By Michael Brian Schiffer. Manuals in Archaeological Method, Theory and Technique (Volume 9). New York: Springer, 2013. Hardcover and E-Book, 204 pp. ISBN: 978-3-319-00076-3 (Print) 978-3-319-00077-0 (Online).

Twenty years ago, perhaps due to the very “intellectual faddism” that the author laments (5), a book similarly titled would likely be a metaphorical appropriation of the discipline’s popularized method, in the manner of Foucault. Yet on page six alone, in the clear and succinct writing style that characterizes the volume, the author reclaims the distinctiveness of archaeology and why it is particularly suited to studying science: “[T]he foundation of any archaeological investigation [is] a concern with people making and using artifacts”—people and things. Despite other currents cross-cutting the field, behavioral archaeology has unwaveringly held to this relationship as a key matter of concern about which to build generalizations. Of course, it is a broad definition of archaeology. So broad that such a “Renaissance archaeology” may risk studying everything and no thing.

To the contrary, however, the author’s behavioral approach studies “mere” things and their interactions with other objects, humans and life-fellows in abundant detail. Case studies fill the latter two thirds of this volume and amply demonstrate such attention to thingly detail. Consider the specificity of the following definitions on page fifteen: “material properties,” the nonrelational, measurable qualities of a material; “performance characteristics”, the relational competence of an “interactor” (human or nonhuman) among other interactors in real-world activities; or “sensory performance characteristics” as the relational qualities of interactors with respect to the human senses. These have been refined from close observation of people and things.

Static, essential qualities of objects, the relational, emergent capacities of networks or inter-actants; these terms and modes of description would be at home in recent, self-styled ontological works in archaeology, computer science, design studies, human geography, speculative philosophy, science and technology studies (STS) and other fields. In many ways, behavioral archaeology took the so-called turn to things decades ago, and has been an inspiration for re-membering the “discipline of things” (Olsen et al. 2012); a discipline capable of contributing to the above fields and beyond. A Renaissance man in the best sense of the phrase, the author long ago ventured forth with such archaeological expertise into inter-disciplinary waters, whether with early electrification, the portable radio, or the electric automobile (e.g. Schiffer et al. 2003). Shoring up and consolidating earlier forays into the collective accomplishments wrought by people and things in early modern science and modern science and engineering, this book attempts to systematize and stake out an archaeological approach to science studies by characterizing scientific activity in behavioral terms (187).

In programmatic fashion, the author divides the book into three main sections. Part I, which is itself divided into three parts, serves as a refresher on the heuristics, methods and contributions of behavioral archaeology, and discusses science from a philosophy of science angle. It shows how these fields go about studying behavioral chains of phenomena (16), making descriptions (“observations, categories, and classifications” [25]) to build generalizations (“empirical generalizations, experimental laws, recipes, theories, and models” [25]). Here, the close resemblance of behavioral archaeology and science so-described leaves no doubt that the author orients his approach by the core epistemic concerns of the natural sciences. Given the unorthodox subject matter of recent ruins for archeology, it is no wonder that an avant-garde sensibility surrounds much of the archaeology of the contemporary past. From within this current, some readers may find the author’s characterizations of science to be less relevant to their own research projects.

In this same section the author also brings under the banner of science any activity that is geared toward the creation of “useful knowledge”. Useful knowledge is predictive knowledge (4). Any predictive knowledge habilitating the successful accomplishment of action in coordination with “living and nonliving phenomena” qualifies as scientific (4). It is a science that operates with the principle of actualism: products of science, resultant technologies and knowledge, propel action by enabling competent engagement with the material world (35)—at least potentially. With such a behavioral definition, activities formerly regarded as non-science—say, religion, ritual, or other traditional knowledges—may equally be regarded as scientific. They may therefore be studied with the author’s behavioral toolkit.

Such an encompassing definition of science may trouble a few readers. As with the author’s assessment of archaeology’s ambit, this inclusive scope begs the question of what is not science. Countering such generalities are, though, numerous instances throughout the book where the author displays a characteristic knack for getting specific. Indeed, a goal of the author is to refine and qualify generalizations, categories and classifications (138). Some may find this reductionism at times tedious, an exercise in splitting hairs. The author anticipates this potential reaction to “just descriptions” and takes it head on (29). The specificity of supposedly trivial descriptions is integral to fitting data to logical courses of action in order to build generalizations. Generalizations; experimental laws; recipes (29–35): these are the more interesting targets of research; that is, they are useful for guiding future inquiry. Contrary to a faddism hoping for quick returns, the archaeology of science presented in this book is patient and rigorous.

Moreover, this is no metaphorical archaeology of science. In excess of twenty-five research vignettes flesh out the remaining Parts II and III of the volume. These range from fluting Folsom points and the manufacture of the enigmatic Maya blue, to the early-modern science apparatuses of Alessandro Volta’s electrochemical battery and Thomas Davenport’s electric motor, finally culminating with examples of Thomas Edison’s laboratories and the US nuclear program at testing sites in Nevada. The final two sections of Part II offer extremely valuable overviews of experimental archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, and archaeometry. For the most part, all of the examples are very intriguing, offering some of science’s iconic stories as well as a few back-stories where an attention to artifacts offers important insights. For instance, in presenting Thomas Edison’s development of the nickel-iron battery, the author discloses how conventional histories, describing a fallow period from 1903–1909 in Edison’s battery production, get it wrong. Here the author demonstrates the valuable contribution that an archaeology of science can make. At other times, the case studies are no less interesting, but they are less convincing of the uniqueness of archaeology’s role. Aside from the behavioral terminology, the discussions of early-modern science seem indistinguishable from what’s encountered in the history of science, and the examples of colonization and exploration in New Zealand and Virginia Country would be equally at home in history.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, the volume as a whole admirably succeeds in demonstrating how underscoring “people–artifact interactions” offers potential for the study of science (185). When we turn to science, and the vast quantities of artifacts, buildings, equipment and infrastructures produced, abandoned, refurbished and re-used, particularly through ‘big science’, there is clearly a contribution for archaeology’s “apparatus-centered approach” to make (9, 185). This palpable sense of potential in turning attention to contemporary science and technology is most strongly felt in Part III—where “potential” is mentioned over seven times just in the final four sections. Here, the author details the possibilities for an archaeology of the Manhattan Project, Project Rover, and the White Sands Missile Range. Several times the author even identifies potential funding sources to conduct such archaeological research. These examples are extremely engaging.

To be sure, while there is at present an uneven ratio of potential to actual research in studying the contemporary scientific-military-industrial complex from an archaeological perspective, the author might have brought in more allies. Under-citation is an all too easy criticism to make. Yet there are some notable works that would have served to expand the author’s own citation circle. In the presentation of archaeology of the arctic regions, the rich documentation of the abandoned Soviet mining town on Svalbard by Andreassen et al (2010) could have been brought in. Christine Finn’s archaeology of Silicon Valley (2002) would complement the emphasis upon engineering and technology. And the arguments of authors already working across science studies and archaeology would bolster the author’s endeavor (e.g. Webmoor 2013).

Despite the expansive vision for the author’s archaeology of science, a slight disappointment was the stopping short of extending archaeological expertise to the increasingly digital realms of scientific research (38). While misleadingly identified as immaterial and inaccessible, the dry labs of contemporary science are often within the “black boxes” of computers (Webmoor 2014). Difficulty of access does not, however, stop the author from identifying and drawing in the gray literature of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) in the United States that envelops many of the scientific ruins discussed. The extra effort involved to merge the too-often immiscible worlds of academic and commercial, or governmental, archaeology is another laudable quality of the volume.

How do we study the contemporary past? There have been many theoretical forays into decoupling conventional space-time systematics often assumed in archaeology in order to focus archaeological modes of inquiry and expertise upon more recent, modern materials and events. While such intellectual labor has established the contemporary past as worthy of archaeological attention, evidenced in no small measure by this journal, there is less agreement in how to go about crafting “the archaeology of us.” This book is a formidable and systematic reply to such questioning by a pioneer of the study of modern material culture.

Andreassen, E., H. Bjerck and B. Olsen. 2010. Persistent Memories. Pyramiden – a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic. Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press.
Finn, C. 2002. Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Olsen, B., M. Shanks, T. Webmoor and C. Witmore. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Schiffer, M. B., K. L. Hollenback and C. L. Bell. 2003. Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Webmoor, T. 2013. “STS, Symmetry, Archaeology,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, edited by P. Graves-Brown, R. Harrison and A. Piccini, 105–120. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_____. 2014. “Algorithmic Alchemy, or the Work of Code in the Age of Computerized Visualization,” in Visualization in the Age of Computerization, edited by A. Carusi, A. S. Hoel, T. Webmoor and St. Woolgar, 19–39. London and New York: Routledge.

Timothy Webmoor
University of Colorado, USA
[email protected]

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