Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences. By Adrian Currie, 2018. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Hardback, 376 pp. ISBN 9780262037266.
In 1959 Umberto Eco published a short fictional essay titled “Fragments” in the avant-garde literary magazine Il Verri. The essay takes the form of an imagined paper read by “Prof. Anouk Ooma of the Department of Archaeology, Prince Joseph’s Land University, Arctica, Earth” at the IV Intergalactic Congress of Archaeological Studies in the “Mathematical Year 121”. In this post-nuclear future archaeologists gather to try and piece together life before “the Explosion”. Prof. Ooma is particularly animated by the recent discovery of a collection of ancient poetry, “bearing on the title page the words: Great Hit Songs of Today and Yesterday”. As the esteemed professor explains, the stanzas inside conjure “a poetry of crisis, boldly aware of the world’s impending fate”, with one fragment in particular apparently from “a propitiatory or fertility hymn to nature: ‘I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain, it’s a glorious feeling…’.” “It is easy to imagine this sung by a chorus of young girls”, suggests Ooma, “the delicate words evoke the image of maidens in white veils dancing at sowing time in some pervigilium.”
Eco’s satirical characterisation of archaeological research is precisely the kind of pessimistic attitude to historical knowledge production Adrian Currie seeks to overturn with Rock, Bone, and Ruin. The book explores in a logical, thoughtful and coherent manner precisely how historical scientists come to generate understanding about the deep past from what many would consider scant evidence: traces and signals that – like the song book Eco imagines future archaeologists poring over – are ‘degraded, decayed, and deteriorated’ (p. 1). Currie is primarily interested in the methods and approaches of three disciplines here: geology (rock), palaeontology (bone) and archaeology (ruin). It should be stated from the outset, however, that the third of these fields is given far less space than the others. Where geology and palaeontology are both introduced early in the volume, and described at great length with key case studies that form a central thread for the book as a whole, archaeology surfaces in a more piecemeal fashion. This is not to suggest that the lessons gleaned from the epistemic processes of these adjacent fields are not hugely worthwhile to the archaeologist, only to point out that any readers hoping for a detailed explanation of how “ruins” are interpreted may find the sheer scope of Currie’s analysis daunting (Alison Wylie’s work, which is drawn on throughout the book, would be a better starting point on this topic).
The thrust of Currie’s argument is as follows: the historical sciences, which have typically been held to deal in ‘patchy’ records that cannot be improved through experimentation – because the things, processes, and events they are concerned with happened so long ago – are in fact highly productive, empirically grounded and indeed experimental sites of research. Despite the ‘unlucky circumstances’ they so often confront in terms of past traces, palaeontologists, geologists and archaeologists have been able to construct robust explanations for human experiences, creaturely lives and earth processes thousands, millions and even billions of years in the past. Such research, Currie finds, is not restricted to trace evidence, but instead draws on a range of methodological and epistemological techniques. As a result, Currie sees historical scientists as “methodologically omnivorous” (p. 157): “They do not rely on a particular method, approach, technique, or pattern of reasoning” and are adept at “co-opting, developing, and constructing tailored tools suitable to the context” (p. 309). Combined with this, historical investigation is seen to proceed through processes of “scaffolding”, wherein “evidential relevance depends upon the existence of particular hypotheses, tools, and midrange theories” (p. 309). Much of this will be familiar to archaeologists, but Currie offers an informed and rigorous overview of key concepts that will be highly valuable moving forwards.
I want to signal a slight note of caution here though, as the sheer density of Currie’s philosophical analysis can overwhelm the clarity of his arguments. Many passages proceed from in-depth scientific background to abstract theorisation with barely any time to take stock of the wider context and implications of such work, and there is a tendency to cross-reference with earlier and forthcoming chapters in a manner that could frustrate some readers. From sauropods to Snowball Earth to Mayan ruins to giant fleas, the book is built around localised examples of historical investigation, but this is not a text for the generalist. Rather, it will be of primary use to those eager to get a firmer grasp on the kaleidoscopic techniques and possibilities of the historical sciences, which – as this book demonstrates – cross-fertilise research in diverse fields.
Finally, it is worth highlighting that Currie’s book provides a useful counterpoint to many of the speculative accounts of future geological and archaeological research currently circulating in the shadow of the Anthropocene (while reading Rock, Bone, and Ruin I kept thinking, for example, of the vast evidential and epistemological hurdles Jan Zalasiewicz’s alien explorers have to overcome in The Earth After Us before they can begin to interpret humanity’s impact on the planet). In this vein, the book’s final chapters offer a rationale for seeing such speculations in a positive light, and for pursuing more imaginative work in the sciences more broadly. As Currie states:
Faced with the gappiness and faintness of traces, historical scientists are often tempted to hide their heads in the sands of naïve empiricism: Adopt a careful, stark, and methodical approach; be cautious in application, projection, and assertion. This is a mistake. Especially when the going gets tough, when circumstances are unlucky, historical science should be wild, messy, and creative. (p. 290)
This is something I think archaeologists of any period (including the contemporary world) could take much from.
Institute of Archaeology, University College London, UK