Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Historians routinely draw quite far-reaching conclusions about all aspects of society from archaeological artifacts and textual documents that – naturally – represent only a minuscule fraction of all the artifacts and documents that existed in the time and place that is being investigated.

I have always held doubts about the validity of the boldest of those conclusions and have devised a simple experiment that I believe would shed some light on the strength of the standard methods of the historical-archaeological sciences:

  1. Take a modern society that the historians participating in the experiment (say, United States-based historians specializing in classical European antiquity) are not familiar with (e.g. rural Japan)
  2. Randomly sample artifacts and documents from that society, emphasizing such artifacts and documents that are capable of surviving several centuries
  3. Provide those samples to the historians without any context whatsoever (except for the location of the "find")
  4. Compare the conclusions drawn by the historians with reality

Has an experiment of this type ever been conducted?

share|improve this question
1  
The academic discipline you're looking for is "experimental archaeology" - it's a pretty active field. In addition to applying their techniques to modern societies, they recreate artifacts using period technology and test their usage in real-world conditions. –  RI Swamp Yankee May 6 at 13:19
1  
what he describes is not what experimental archaeology does. EA is trying to recreate artifacts that we don't find in the dirt. The poster wants to test the acuteness of the conclusions found by archeology with a 'test' set of finds that we know the results about. The problem is that you won't get true archaeologists to start a new career digging up fake artifacts to start a new field to compare with the actual results. Humans aren't lab rats for your amusement. –  Oldcat May 6 at 23:33
2  
I think it is paranoid to suggest that not only this generation but all generations' archaeologists are fakes and liars trying to save their reputations rather than people trying to discover the truth the best they can. –  Oldcat May 7 at 23:48
1  
If it is true that historians would refuse such a test based on the fear that it might lead to unpleasant conclusions then indeed I have to conclude that archaeology is one big fake. Imagine a physicist, having published a new theory, refusing to verify that theory against known results, citing "I'm not a lab rat" or similar nonsense. He'd be dismissed as a crank in the blink of an eye, and rightfully so. I sincerely hope that you are wrong and such ridiculous arrogance is not actually found among today's archaeologists. –  pew May 8 at 18:52
2  
@pew I'm not sure I follow. As far as I can tell (I just skimmed an article) authors claim that it is possible to build the Great Pyramid of Giza in 10 years with 13200 men using modern project management and ancient technologies. Sorry, I couldn't find any far-reaching conclusions on how pyramid was actually built by ancient Egyptians. –  default locale May 27 at 17:16

1 Answer 1

Not that I know of, but I'd think that such a process would be so far removed from quantifiable science that it'd be rendered pointless.

The job of a historian is to make best guesses given the evidence that's presented itself. Given that it's easy for two different historians to look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions. Then without really knowing the reality of the situation you can't quantify accuracy of the historian's predictions.

Instead we could go about the process you described but that wouldn't represent an accurate model of different civilizations and circumstances. In the life sciences we do testing on animals that represent a model that's close enough for practical purposes, but there are way too may variables to do the same with history.

With all of that in mind it's not so much important to gauge how correct historians are, but rather that when historians make predictions to make the reader aware of the small amount of evidence involved and how likely what they are saying is to be true.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.