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ARTICLE Norwegian Archaeological Review, 2017

Vol. 50, No. 2, 101–115,

The Two Cultures and a World Apart:

Archaeology and Science at a New
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Within the past decade or so, archaeology has increasingly utilised and con-
tributed to major advances in scientific methods when exploring the past. This
progress is frequently celebrated as a quantum leap in the possibilities for
understanding the archaeological record, opening up hitherto inaccessible
dimensions of the past. This article represents a critique of the current con-
sumption of science in archaeology, arguing that the discipline’s grounding in
the humanities is at stake, and that the notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is becom-
ing distorted with the increasing fetishisation of ‘data’, ‘facts’ and quantitative
methods. It is argued that if archaeology is to break free of its self-induced
inferiority to and dependence on science, it must revitalise its methodology for
asking questions pertinent to the humanities.

conditions of the Scientific Turn nevertheless

pose a number of crucial questions with
After witnessing and participating in the regards to the fundamentals of archaeologi-
Linguistic Turn, the Spatial Turn, the cal epistemology. These challenges are only
Practice Turn, the Material Turn, the slowly beginning to be addressed explicitly in
Affective Turn, the Ontological Turn and current debates within archaeology (see, e.g.,
what have you, archaeology is now at the Kristiansen 2014, Sørensen 2014, Hillerdal
crossroads of what I want to describe as a and Siapkas 2015, Chapman and Wylie
‘Scientific Turn’. This may be termed as a 2016, Sørensen 2016b, in addition to the spe-
‘new empiricism’ marked by a positivist incli- cial issue of Current Swedish Archaeology
nation that celebrates quantitative data and (vol. 21) on archaeology and archaeological
absolute facts as the constitution of archaeolo- science). This lack of critique, or ‘resistance’
gical knowledge. Of course, the use of science (Killick 2015a, p. 243), perhaps results from
is nothing new to archaeology (Trigger 2006, the current optimism connected with expand-
pp. 23–24, Lidén and Eriksson 2013, pp. ing possibilities within scientific research
12–13, Killick 2015b), but I hold it to be rela- methods. In turn, however, this science opti-
tively uncontroversial to observe that the dis- mism triggers a mistrust of methods and
cipline today increasingly relies on methods interpretations grounded in the humanities.
deriving from the realm of science. Thus archaeological ‘knowledge’ is increas-
While achievements developed through ingly perceived as depending on observations
scientific methods are undeniable, the that have been quantified or ‘proven’ by

Tim Flohr Sørensen, The Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark. E-mail:

© 2017 Norwegian Archaeological Review

102 Tim Flohr Sørensen

scientific methods, while non-testable inter- consider the Scientific Turn to be in direct
pretations and deductions are circumscribed continuity with and a reinforcement of the
by suspicion or considered hypothetical. This scientific undercurrents that have followed
scepticism about humanities’ epistemology the ‘second science revolution’ (i.e. ‘the
effectively means that archaeology’s identity radiocarbon revolution’, Kristiansen 2014,
as a discipline within the humanities is chal- p. 20) and processual archaeology. In other
lenged at a very fundamental level. words, I hold the Scientific Turn to be synon-
Voicing this concern is not a criticism of the ymous with a ‘Scientific Return’, a ‘New
natural sciences, but rather cause for a delib- Empiricism’ or a ‘New New Archaeology’.
eration on the ways in which science and Even though I regard the Scientific Turn to
scientific data are consumed within the huma- be an intensification of the science agenda in
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nities, in this case archaeology, including the the humanities, rather than something genu-
partly self-induced and partly structurally inely new, I do identify at least three chal-
imposed lack of confidence in knowledge lenges associated with the extended
obtained through methods grounded in the archaeological reliance on science, and with
humanities. As such, I am sceptical of the largely unquestioned primacy of ‘data’
Kristian Kristiansen’s (2014, p. 17) conviction and the authority of ‘facts’ associated with
that the Scientific Turn will trigger a new the Scientific Turn. First, I contend that the
mode of theorisation within archaeology as a Scientific Turn in archaeology comes with a
result of advances in ‘Big Data’, new quanti- price that remains largely overlooked,
tative modelling, aDNA studies, strontium namely that archaeology’s approximation to
isotopic analyses and so on. science has produced a growing suspicion
I thereby also question the perception that towards interpretations that cannot be scien-
processual and postprocessual archaeologies tifically proven or quantified objectively.
have vanished (Kristiansen 2014, p. 14). On Second, I believe that the increasing suspi-
the contrary, I think that these agendas are cion of unquantifiable occurrences in archae-
very much alive and influential today, and ology generates an unhelpful return to the
have co-existed for many years. This implies ethos of letting ‘data speak for itself’
that the so-called postmodern attitude (Gramsch 2011, p. 52, Johnson 2011),
towards the local and the particular never because – as the popular legend goes –
replaced, but only supplemented, a more ‘facts do not lie’ and thus become associated
positivist concern with large-scale and uni- with ‘truth’ (Prescott 2013b, p. 50, Gattiglia
versalist explanations. In fact, even the clas- 2015, p. 116). Third, I argue that the
sics of postprocessual archaeology (e.g. Scientific Turn has resulted in a perceived
Hodder 1990, Tilley 1996, Thomas 1999) need to force scientific methods onto other-
did not abstain ‘from the big questions’, wise ambiguous archaeological research
such as human-nature interaction and culture topics, quite often leading to a liberal, even
(as argued by Kristiansen 2011, p. 77), yet careless, use of scientific data and, more
such phenomena were approached through importantly, a distorted notion of
local contexts (Sørensen 2015, p. 111). interdisciplinarity.
However, it is precisely the longevity of the The purpose if this critique is not simply to
processualist disposition in parts of the revive the hopelessly tiresome processual/
archaeological environment that opens the post-processual collision of two forms of aca-
door for the Scientific Turn (see also Killick demic idealism. Rather, the aim of this article
2015b, p. 159). Accordingly, I am not con- is to discuss epistemological challenges that
vinced that we can speak of a ‘third science currently emerge in archaeology at the cross-
revolution’ marking ‘a new paradigm’ as sug- roads of science and the humanities. While
gested by Kristiansen (2014). Rather, I some would say that science and archaeology
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 103

are becoming more integrated (e.g. Jørgensen referring to one of the daily or weekly formal
2015, p. 136, Torrence et al. 2015, pp. 6–7), I dinners at a Cambridge college:
make the case that the two areas of research
in fact find themselves together at a cross- A good many times I have been present at gather-
roads where epistemological directions and ings of people who, by the standards of the tradi-
destinations still remain different. tional culture, are thought highly educated and
who have with considerable gusto been expressing
Fundamentally, at the confluence of science
their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once
and the humanities, I suggest that we need to
or twice I have been provoked and have asked the
explore how archaeologists ask questions and company how many of them could describe the
not least why they ask questions. Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response
was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking
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WORLDS APART something which is the scientific equivalent of:

Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? (Snow
More than half a century ago, CP Snow 1959, pp. 15–16, emphasis in original)
(1959) argued in his seminal volume ‘The
Two Cultures’ that Western academia was Snow then concludes: ‘I now believe that if I
split into two distinct and largely incompatible had asked an even simpler question – such as,
cultures: the sciences and the humanities. What do you mean by mass, or acceleration,
Snow’s work has had tremendous effects on which is the scientific equivalent of saying,
intellectual life in Western society, especially Can you read? – not more than 1 in 10 of
in the Anglophone world, and is widely con- the highly educated would have felt that I
sidered one of the most influential texts on the was speaking the same language’ (Snow
public discourse on academia in the latter half 1959, pp. 16, emphasis in original).
of the 20th century. As the title suggests, A number of archaeologists refer to
Snow argued that Western academia was Snow’s argument in their discussion of the
divided into two separate ‘cultures’ – the relationship between archaeology and
science culture and the humanities culture – science (Jones 2002, pp. 1–2, Pollard and
marked by a division so deep that knowledge Heron 2008, p. 408, Prescott 2013a, p. 42,
and communication across them were failing 2013b, p. 51, Kristiansen 2014, p. 26).
to a degree where academics had become Emphasis is often on Snows observation
ignorant of the merits and logics of the other of the distance between the two ‘cultures’,
‘culture’. This resulted in an intellectual envir- while I believe that this is to be appreciated
onment divided into what Snow termed two not so much an observation of a relation-
‘polar groups’, separated by ‘a gulf of incom- ship than as a critique of the humanities. In
prehension, sometimes hostility and dislike, fact, I argue that Snow’s argument has
but most of all lack of understanding’ (p. 4). become so influential that it has turned
Obviously discontent with this polarity, the tables between the humanities and
Snow’s critique aimed to show how the science since the 1950s. While Snow was
British educational system had produced gen- provoked by the unchallenged cultural
erations of young people, who were, on the capital of the arts over science in Britain
one hand, fully conversant with key virtues of at the middle of the previous century, we
the humanities, such as literature, philoso- are today confronted with a research poli-
phy, history and art, while, on the other, tics that gives priority to scientific methods
not proficient in science and engineering. In and scientific results. In Denmark, for
particular, Snow was concerned that scholars instance, this may be exemplified by the
within the humanities were ‘ignorant’ of the inability of the humanities to produce
most basic terms of science. In an often-cited Centres of Excellence granted by the
passage, he exemplifies this inadequacy by National Research Foundation
104 Tim Flohr Sørensen

(Grundforskningscentre in Danish, literally theory gradually or rapidly is replaced by

‘centres of basic research’, i.e. in principle new paradigms (but see Lucas 2016), the
non-applied research, albeit centres for longevity of ‘science-assisted empiricism’ has
applied research are also supported nowa- remained an undercurrent in archaeology
days). The programme for Centres of internationally (Killick 2015b, p. 159).
Excellence was initiated in 1993 and has Being ‘empirical’ is thus commonly taken as
resulted in 100 centres so far, of which 39 a token of sound research. Some tendencies
are active today (as of March 20171). Of in archaeology furthermore imply a per-
the total of 100 centres, 11 have been ceived equation between being ‘empirical’
grounded in the humanities and theology, and being ‘scientific’, which effectively sug-
while the majority – by far – has been gests that the humanities are somehow ‘less
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based in natural science and technical dis- empirical’ than science, or working through
ciplines. Since 2005, out of a total of 56 methods that are less stringent, rigid and
new centres, 4 humanities centres have reliable. The notion of ‘scientific facts’ is
opened, but only 2 of the 4 are grounded even sometimes posed as the opposite of
in a research strategy independent of ‘speculation’, while ‘subjectivity’ is taken as
science, namely a centre for medieval litera- synonymous with ‘impressionism’. For
ture studies and a centre for socio-linguistic instance, Lawrence G. Straus argues that:
research. The remaining active centres
based in the humanities rest on the premise It is indeed telling that, with the latest wave of
that science is imperative to improving the non-scientific archaeology, concern for the record
insights of the humanities. and how it was formed has waned. It is as if, once
This leads me to ask what consequences the they learned how hard it was to obtain informa-
tion from the record, many archaeologists simply
recent escalation of the political capital of
gave up and began to speculate on prehistoric
science has for archaeology. If science is per- belief systems, worldviews, and societal relations,
ceived to be the main provider of ‘knowledge’ drawing more on empathy, subjective impressions,
– as indicated by the failure of the humanities and preconceived notions than on analyses of
to produce Centres of Excellence in Denmark facts. (Straus 2004, p. S104)
– it seems that the discipline is compelled to
assume the science path. For Danish archae- There is little doubt that this critique taps
ology this will not be a revolutionising step, into the classic schism between processual
but simply fall in line with already strong and post-processual archaeologies, yet I
positivist leanings, where being ‘empirical’ believe it also represents a widespread persis-
acts as a measure against ‘speculation’. It is tence of positivist ideals in the current
perhaps no coincidence that the only two dis- archaeological climate, even after the proces-
tinctly archaeological Centres of Excellence sual/post-processual collisions lost momen-
(the Centre for Textile Research, 2005–2016, tum. Straus’ caricature of ‘speculations’ on
and the Centre for Urban Network belief systems, worldviews and social rela-
Evolutions, 2015–) both have been grounded tions through ‘empathy’ and ‘subjectivity’
in scientific methods and based in pronounced implies that Snow’s aim to underscore the
empirically oriented methodologies, while a prominence of science has in many respects
historical and archaeological centre (the been successful; that which is testable, quan-
Centre for Black Sea Studies, 2002–2010) tifiable and falsifiable is reliable, and the
included science as one amongst a variety of alternative is a capricious and unsubstan-
research strategies. tiated ‘impressionism’.
However, this condition is not restricted to But consider also how the quote above
archaeological research in Denmark. Despite presumes that it is more difficult to work
the common notion that archaeological along the lines of a scientific programme
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 105

than its non-scientific counterpart. I am not science agenda is currently so strong that it
sure why doing science is considered more leaves not only facts but also a significant
difficult than doing humanities research, and epistemological impact on the ways in
this preconception could easily be turned on which knowledge is defined in archaeology,
its head, allowing me to rephrase Straus thus: compelling us to consider how science is con-
sumed and applied in archaeology.
It is indeed telling that, with the latest wave of
scientific archaeology, concern for archaeological
interpretation and how it is formed has waned. It EVERYTHING FROM ALMOST
is as if, once they learned how hard it is to obtain NOTHING
an understanding of the past, many archaeologists
Let me exemplify this mode of consumption,
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simply gave up and began to measure strontium,

ancient DNA, and radio carbon, drawing more on illustrating the problems with the reception
description, quantification, and the illusion of and conclusions based on scientific data as
objectivity than on the theorisation of traces of opposed to the interpretations made on the
the past. basis of the humanities. First, it is important
for me to stress that the problem does not
Caricatures such as Straus’ and my para- have to do with science itself, but rather with
phrase are of course entirely unhelpful, and the perceived need to apply scientific data in
they may illustrate the underlying ‘gulf of order to resolve humanities research issues.
incomprehension’ between science and One such research issue has been a theme in
humanities, as coined by Snow. This ‘incom- Scandinavian archaeology for more than a
prehension’ is synonymous with what Lidén century, and concerns the movement of peo-
and Eriksson (2013, p. 12) describe as ‘the ple and the exchange of material culture
filter’: a mental barrier, separating some across Europe in the Bronze Age, and more
archaeologists and some scientist. They specifically the origins of metal in Southern
relate, for the archaeological part, how Scandinavia during this period. This topic
some archaeologists claim themselves not to has been subject to intense studies at least
understand science or that scientists do not over the past decades, but has in fact been a
understand archaeology. On the other hand, staple since the very beginning of systematic
they argue, the ‘filter’ can be applied by Bronze Age research in the 19th century
scientists, arguing that archaeologists compli- (Müller 1897, pp. 280–282, Montelius 1903).
cate things unnecessarily by requiring context Recently, Johan Ling and a team of
and cultural aspects to be factored into the researchers published the findings of a project
scientific study of archaeological material. I, on the provenances of the copper used in the
no doubt, belong to the first category, with a production of bronze in the Scandinavian
limited proficiency in scientific methods, yet Bronze Age (Ling et al. 2013, 2014). Ling
my intention is not to argue for a disentan- and his team conducted isotopic and chemi-
glement of humanities from science through cal analyses of initially 33 (2013) and later a
a ‘gulf of incomprehension’ or a ‘filter’, nor total of 71 (2014) artefacts from Sweden
am I interested in passing accusations or ridi- dated to the period between 2000 and
cule towards the ‘other side’. 700BC, relating the analyses to samples
I do remain critical, nevertheless, of the from European copper ores. They conclude
role science currently assumes in archaeol- that the copper cannot derive from ores in
ogy. We may presume that scientific methods Norway and Sweden, and instead trace the
can be used simply to supply knowledge that provenance to ores on the Iberian Peninsula
is inaccessible through other archaeological and Sardinia, and to some extent from
methods, merely as a neutral provider of Austria. Ling and his team first argued that
objective facts. The challenge is that the they could scientifically prove that the copper
106 Tim Flohr Sørensen

for production of the initially 33 specimens artefacts out of a total body of metal objects
‘undoubtedly’ must have derived from else- that can be counted in the thousands (e.g.
where (Ling et al. 2013, p. 303), but later Aner and Kersten 1973, Oldeberg 1974,
went on to argue to have ‘proved without 1976, Vandkilde 1996, Willroth 1985).
doubt that the metals dated to the Nordic Hence, detailed and absolute, science-based
Bronze Age found in Sweden were not knowledge about 10 artefacts are projected
smelted from the local copper ores’ (Ling on to thousands of other – yet un-sampled –
et al. 2014, p. 106, emphasis added, also, artefacts, and moreover on to artefacts that
Ling and Stos-Gale 2015b, pp. 191–192). we must presume have vanished or been re-
I do not doubt the correctness of the scien- melted since the Early Bronze Age.
tific investigations, but I believe that it is Of course, it might be argued that Ling
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worth considering the rhetoric weight with and his team offer a modest tentative analy-
which the results are used to confidently sis, and that we have to be careful about the
reject the possibility of local copper mining implications drawn from a limited statistical
in Scandinavia in the Bronze Age. Cross- material. However, this statistic selection – or
European exchange networks and patterns construction – of data, and the use of frag-
of mobility and contact have been discussed mented evidence, deserves a transparent cri-
for more than a century, and most of these tical framework (Pearce 2016). First and
studies suggest, on the basis of culture histor- foremost the relationship between ‘data’ and
ical deduction, typology and stylistic analyses ‘knowledge’ becomes somewhat obscured in
of a vast body of archaeological artefacts the work of Ling and his team of investiga-
(Sørensen 2015, p. 157), that metals derived tors through a strategy of deducing ‘every-
from outside of Scandinavia. These conclu- thing from almost nothing’ (Latour 1988, p.
sions, however, seem only to be considered 163). This prompts us to consider how repre-
correct once backed by archaeological sentative those 71 artefacts, distributed over
science (compare with Prescott 2013a, p. 1300 years, are for the extraction of raw
41). Humanistic methodology based on ‘simi- materials and cultural exchange across the
larity in forms, decorations and designs’ is European continent. Does the analysis tell
thus considered to lead merely to ‘interesting us anything at all about artefacts that have
proposals’ (Ling and Stos-Gale 2015a, p. not been sampled, or is the ultimate conclu-
222) rather than knowledge as such (see also sion that all we know now is that these parti-
Pollard and Bray 2015, p. 126). cular 71 artefacts did not derive from
In contrast to the extensive body of arte- Scandinavian ores?
facts examined through non-scientific I have no quarrels with the validity of the
research principles for more than a century, findings or the methods applied in the work
the most recent publication by Ling and his by Ling and his team, and the results have
team accounts for an examination of 71 arte- indeed been accepted by a number of
facts (Ling et al. 2014). These artefacts are researchers (e.g. Bradley and Nimura 2013,
distributed over a period of 1300 years, giv- Bunnefeld 2016, Earle et al. 2015,
ing roughly 18 artefacts per century. If zoom- Kristiansen and Suchowska-Ducke 2015,
ing in on the sample from the Late Neolithic Vandkilde 2014, 2016, 2015, Varberg et al.
and the earliest Bronze Age (between 2000 2015, but see also Knapp 2015). However, I
and 1500BC), the sample consists of only 10 do believe that unwavering conclusions on
artefacts from the entire modern Swedish the basis of a limited quantity of data –
area. Ironically, the scientific basis for prov- regardless how well-illuminated and well-
ing without doubt that copper was not researched – is problematic. The optimistic
extracted locally in Scandinavia between attitude to absolute data, regardless of quan-
2000 and 1500BC thus rests on a mere 10 tity and representativity, seems, however, to
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 107

be reproduced in the current mainstream information about anything other than that
archaeological consumption of science. The particular artefact.
reason may be, as MA Smith argued long It appears that deducing ‘everything from
ago, that ‘the very precision of scientific ana- almost nothing’ sometimes means that scien-
lyses … do[es] tend to have a rather hypnotic tific ‘data’ becomes a ‘fetish’: it is attributed
effect on the mind’ (Smith 1955, p. 3). The with an immanent absolute power, whereby
critique of the recalcitrance of empirical evi- even the faintest piece of absolute data can
dence (Wylie 2008, p. 186) could thus be overcome interpretations, ‘speculation’ and
directed towards numerous studies that cate- subjective reasoning. This is achieved by
gorically reduce or eliminate the role of first elevating a statistically limited data sam-
absent data and the potential vagueness or ple to constitute authoritative ‘evidence’ and
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ambiguity of data in the scientific pursuit of then by claiming that ‘data’ are more trust-
the human past (Sørensen 2016b). Gero worthy than interpretations. However, this
(2007) criticises this archaeological desire fetishisation of data disregards some basic
for certainty despite de facto fragmented premises of archaeological material, for
and limited data resolutions. She argues that instance, as Robert Chapman and Alison
archaeologists tend to stage a rhetoric of Wylie argue, that ‘archaeological evidence is
‘unambiguous certainty’ in their conclusions, inherently unstable’, depending on ‘the vag-
even though the archaeological evidence is aries of survival of material traces’ and the
most often fragmented, partial or elusive. resources (technical as well as intellectual) at
She contends that the most respected and the archaeologists’ disposition (Chapman
successful archaeological literature manages and Wylie 2016, p. 19). They continue,
to disguise ambiguities in a rhetorical ‘certi- ‘archaeological evidence is not an autono-
tude’ of understated and implicit uncertain- mous, self-warranting empirical “founda-
ties (Gero 2007, p. 313). tion”, different in kind from the theoretical
Furthermore, recent advances in archaeo- claims it supports or is used to test; it is,
logical science somehow leads to the percep- itself, an interpretative construct’ (Chapman
tion that older, non-scientific observations and Wylie 2016, p. 19). This problem relates
and interpretations are less reliable than to science just as much as the humanities,
those based on or backed up by a scientific and both cultures need to address it and to
research design, where a research question make it transparent in relation to the empiri-
leads to a hypothesis, explored in tangible cal and theoretical conditions of their
data through well-defined methods, leading research questions.
to quantifiable and testable results. Science
has thus, as Mark Pollard and Peter Bray
(2015, p. 126) argue, ‘come to be regarded
as a superior form of knowledge’. This leads to a fundamental question, then,
Accordingly, isotopic analyses, aDNA ana- which regards the methodology for making
lyses, high-precision dating methods and inquiries in the humanities and science: are
accurate taphonomy are in parts of the these inquiries based on similar conditions?
archaeological environment perceived as cap- What is the measure of success for inquiries
able of answering archaeological problems in the humanities and science? Do humanities
that were previously considered ‘metaphysi- researchers and science researchers ask ques-
cal’ (Thomas 2015, p. 11). While it is possible tions in comparable ways? As indicated
to obtain an exhausting (yet not exhaustive) above, the discipline of archaeology rests on
amount of data from each individual archae- the fragmentary, the partial, the corrupted;
ological artefact through scientific methods, that which is given to us only by chance. This
the challenge is to know whether this yields condition cannot be resolved through ‘data’
108 Tim Flohr Sørensen

offering us ‘exact’ or ‘objective’ knowledge: we may find objects associated with the
we can only make sense of it through a super- human remains, such as a bronze belt plate
structure of disciplined and critical specula- and a neck collar, and thus face the rather
tion, no matter how much absolute and comfortable task of determining that this is
objective data we collect. In the humanities, the grave of a female individual, because belt
data can never resolve the research question, plates and neck collars have so far never been
and the same question can be phrased and found in graves that have been sexed osteo-
rephrased over and over again, which means logically as ‘male’ (Fig. 1). Then we might
that we are in fact unlikely ever to reach a wonder, ‘why were some women buried with
conclusive ‘result’ as such. belt plates and neck collars?’, and point to
To me, this illustrates that the challenge we ‘elites’, ‘high status individuals’, ‘power’ or
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are facing at the crossroads of science and the ‘wealth’ as the (rather clichéd) explanation.
humanities is not resolved merely by becom- However, to my mind the appropriate ques-
ing more conversant with the nature of tion would be: ‘What does this bronze belt
research across the disciplines, as suggested plate and neck collar tell us about percep-
by Snow. Rather, we need to consider the tions of gender among certain members of
potential that a question, an observation, an Early Bronze Age societies of Southern
object, a fact, are not synonymous concepts Scandinavia?’ And here is no concise answer,
in science and in the humanities. Why else regardless how closely we examine the belt
would we apply different methods and theo- plate or how fine-tuned strontium isotope
retical perspectives? But – most importantly – analyses we conduct on the buried individual.
this difference calls us to consider how we are So the question is whether issues of percep-
phrasing our research questions: what we are tion of gender have to be relegated to the
pursuing? What do we want to know, and realm of conjecture, alongside ‘belief systems,
how do we want to know it? worldviews and societal relations’, as indi-
Take for instance the well-know and cated by Straus, because such phenomena
entirely trivial archaeological example of a depend on empathy and subjectivity rather
grave. The grave lends itself to a variety of than the factuality of the archaeological
questions that may differ fundamentally from record, examined though an empiricist, falsi-
those arising from the sophisticated techni- fiable research design. I find it difficult, how-
ques of recent advances in science. We may ever, to see any point in archaeology –
be interested in the sex of the buried indivi- whatsoever – if it does not address topics
dual, so we examine the osteological evidence like ‘belief systems, worldviews, and societal
and look at the objects associated with the relations’, which must eventually be recon-
skeletal remains to see whether they fall structed and understood through an interpre-
within a known gender pattern. The answer tative methodology within which the
to the question ‘Is this a man or a woman?’ is researcher is necessarily grounded subjec-
‘Female’, ‘Male’ or ‘Undetermined’. From a tively. If the aim of archaeology is to arrive
humanities perspective, this answer is of at some form of understanding of people and
course not enough, because what did societies in the past and the present, I find it
‘Female’ or ‘Male’ mean to the buried indi- difficult to imagine how this might be possi-
vidual and to her or his society? Did these ble without some degree of empathy and
categories exist, and if so, were they binary subjectivity. Empathy, firstly, is not the
and as static as in contemporary Western same as sympathy: empathy is a conscious
society, or were they complemented by approach that a researcher can assume, and
further gender categories or the mobility of not an untethered flow of involuntary emo-
gender categories? If the grave is from the tions between researcher and Other
Early Bronze Age of Southern Scandinavia, (Sørensen 2016a, p. 125). Empathy, rather,
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 109
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Fig. 1. Objects from burial mound at Ølby, Højelse parish, Denmark (after Boye 1896, plate XXVI;
illustration by Andreas Peter Madsen).
110 Tim Flohr Sørensen

is the strategic capacity to be able to imagine Shakespeare. We also saw how Snow argues
another person’s perspective (Hollan and that asking the question, ‘What do you mean
Throop 2011). by mass or acceleration?’, is the scientific
Subjectivity, secondly, is methodologically equivalent of saying ‘Can you read?’ These
grounded, and requires as much stringency provocations, formulated in the middle of the
and transparency as any idealised notion of 20th century, are calls for a greater knowl-
objectivity. We may recall how phenomenol- edge of disciplines outside of one’s own.
ogy – a deeply subjectivist methodology – However, I believe that we now stand at
rests on the fundamental ‘bracketing’ or sus- another crossroads in academia, challenging
pension of established preconceptions. The us in new ways. We are required no-longer
purpose of bracketing, or the epoché, is to simply to know about the principles, methods
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suspend the ‘usual ontological, epistemologi- or facts of other fields of research, but even
cal, and axiological baggage’ (Sheets- more we are challenged to be able to com-
Johnstone 1999, p. 189) without returning prehend and respect different modes of ask-
to some idealist illusion of objectivity. ing questions and different incitements for
Through the epoché, ‘the familiar becomes asking these questions without claiming our
strange’, allowing us to examine phenomena own academic culture as the measure of all
anew (Sheets-Johnstone 1999, p. 265). academia, and without rejecting methodolo-
I furthermore propose that ‘speculation’ gies from other fields when they do not cor-
can be a sound and productive – perhaps respond to ours.
even necessary – mode of inquiry if carried It may be suggested that the resolution to
out critically and methodically (Sørensen the problem of ‘two cultures’ lies in a ‘third
2016b, pp. 758–759). If the aim of archaeol- culture’, bridging the cultural differences. In
ogy is to understand past (and present) socie- his second edition of The Two Cultures,
ties, the discipline cannot rest on objective Snow (1963) did in fact consider a ‘third
facts alone, but needs to make connections culture’ to mediate science and the huma-
between objective facts and elusive occur- nities (Snow 1963, pp. 70–71). Today,
rences in the social realm. This construction ‘cross-disciplinary’ or ‘interdisciplinary’
of context can only be achieved through research is encouraged by universities and
some degree of methodical speculation, and various research funding bodies, and this
the challenge is to own up to the mandate goes for archaeology as well as other disci-
given to us by lacunae and fragmentation in plines. To me, however, the question remains
the archaeological record. Results from whether such ‘genuine collaboration’ and
archaeological science can help feed many ‘integration’ (Lidén and Eriksson 2013, p. 8)
of these speculations, yet while science can really resolve the polarity between the huma-
provide data, we need to acknowledge that nities and sciences, or whether they galvanise
the nature of inquiry within the humanities is the politically strongest academic agenda at
endless: any answer we arrive at only any given time. We keep hearing about the
unleashes a host of new questions. benefits of interdisciplinary work and about
the promises of integrating disciplinary
knowledge, but I wonder why we so rarely
address the associated challenges and conse-
quences for the humanities.
I would like to return to Snow’s anecdote Today, interdisciplinarity is considered an
about the humanities scholar who failed to unquestionable benefit for archaeology, but
account for the Second Law of we need to be aware of the potential down-
Thermodynamics, which for Snow is the sides to this interdisciplinarity paradigm. Do
same as not knowing the works of interdisciplinary engagements not come with
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 111

a price when we consider the political dom- but students of problems’ (p. 88). In this, they
inance of the science agenda today? How seem to assume that these problems can be
does the ‘inter-’ affect archaeological episte- addressed within a unified epistemological
mology? How does it influence the theoretical framework or through ‘a common language’
foundation of how we ask questions and how (Lidén and Eriksson 2013, p. 18). However,
we critique the nature of our knowledge? In Popper’s deceivingly quotable dictum
other words, epistemologies across huma- deserves to be read in the context of his sub-
nities and science may differ, and they may sequent confession that ‘many problems,
hinge on fundamentally disparate ways of even if their solution involves the most
knowing. diverse disciplines, nevertheless “belong” in
The problem, as I identify it, is not scien- some sense to one or another of the tradi-
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tific resolutions to scientific problems, but tional disciplines’, because ‘theories, as

rather the fundamental epistemological chal- opposed to subject matter, may constitute a
lenge to archaeology in the wake of the discipline’ (Popper 1963, p. 89, compare
Scientific Turn: namely, the increasingly with, Lucas 2015, p. 27). Accordingly, these
widespread perception that social and cul- disciplinary theories – or epistemologies –
tural topics in archaeology not only can be, frame the approach to the problems, which
but need to be, addressed and resolved means that even if the problems are shared
through scientific methods. This has implied across disciplines, they will be addressed in
that phenomena such as belief, cosmology, different ways. Hence, add a discipline to the
social relations, identity, exchange, value, solution of any given problem and the subject
power, gender, movement, knowledge, tem- matter will multiply (Mol 2002).
porality, memory, emotion and so on must This condition should not deter us from
be studied through quantifiable data or – if collaborating between disciplines, but it
this is not possible – eschewed entirely. The indicates to me that if archaeology aims to
result is a new definition of the term ‘inter- expand its capacity to understand past and
disciplinarity’ in archaeology. Where it once present societies it must own up to the chal-
described collaboration between archaeology lenge of asking questions pertinent to the
and any other discipline, it is today synon- humanities, even if these questions do
ymous with the incorporation of scientific not comply with the aims and design of
methods in archaeology, and even with a scientific inquiry. Such a strategy does not
marginalisation of a number of central tenets imply the rejection of science from archae-
within the humanities, such as ‘subjective ology – by no means – nor should it be taken
impressions’ and ‘empathy’, which I hold to to alienate different positions and methods
be indispensable to solid humanities research. of operation (Pollard and Bray 2015, pp.
So the question is whether archaeology is 125–126). Rather, it is a call for a greater
capable of adopting scientific methods as a appreciation of the plurality – rather than
toolkit for exploring quantifiable aspects of polarity – of archaeology (Kristiansen 2004,
past and present societies, or whether it auto- p. 77) and what the discipline can achieve by
matically integrates the very principles and being heterogeneous. It may thus be worth
epistemologies of science to the extent of considering the subtle difference between
replacing its own. ‘interdisciplinary’/‘cross-disciplinary’ work
In defence of interdisciplinary collabora- and ‘multi-disciplinary’ work; I take the for-
tion between archaeology and science, Lidén mer to indicate a disciplinary alignment
and Eriksson (2013, p. 18), Jones (2013, p. through interbreeding or crossbreeding,
22) and Shennan (2013, p. 48), for instance, while the latter describes multivocality, sus-
invoke Karl Popper’s (1963) famous dictum taining the strengths and principles of each
that ‘We are not students of subject matter, partner in the collaboration.
112 Tim Flohr Sørensen

CONCLUSION as epistemologically messy, but as ontologi-

cally messy (Gattiglia 2015, Løvschal 2016):
The heterogenic, multi-disciplinary collabora-
if it is a fact that we cannot comprehend
tion between archaeology and science may thus
enormous amounts of complex data without
need to be advanced through questions of a
the aid of computational logarithms, then
different order than those revolving around
perhaps this is because the world is in fact
quantitative analyses or starting from science-
phenomenologically messy at times (see also
based premises. Archaeology is perhaps most
Sørensen 2016b). This observation may help
fundamentally challenged today by questions
us accept that the archaeological ‘record’ is
that evade epistemological concerns and revolve
always ‘fragmented and incomplete’ (Olsen
more crucially about ontological issues. To me,
2012a, p. 25), or only complete in so far as
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one of the most pressing questions within the

being complete with lacunae.
humanities, and certainly within archaeology,
My aim is not to create an unnecessary oppo-
today – as a consequence of agency theory,
sition between science and the humanities, and I
Actor-Network theory, relative ontologies, per-
want to conclude by emphasising once again
spectivism, the new materialisms, new ecology,
that this article is neither a criticism of science
post-humanist discourse, object-oriented ontol-
nor a critique of the principles of science. I wel-
ogy, Speculative Realism and assemblage theory
come dialogue between academic cultures, in
– is: ‘What is an object?’ This question is just as
particular when it occurs in a multi-disciplinary
important for the sciences as it is for the huma-
– as opposed to an interdisciplinary – setting,
nities broadly, and I believe that recent theore-
where epistemological differences are respect-
tical and philosophical developments force
fully maintained, even when they are seemingly
archaeology to take on this question directly.
contradictory to partner disciplines within the
Within this academic space, formulated by sev-
collaboration. Science and the humanities are
eral disciplines simultaneously, I anticipate that
indeed united by sharing the fundamental capa-
archaeology has something particular to offer
city for curiosity; deliberating sometimes on the
(Olsen 2012, p. 20, Thomas 2015, p. 21), being
same topics, but on different premises and
the very discipline of things (Olsen et al. 2012b)
potentially arriving at different answers that
and not least a most methodological engagement
are, nevertheless, equally valid. So, I do not
with things (Lucas 2015, p. 18). Yet at the same
have a problem with science. If I had a problem
time, I imply that a conclusive and stabilising
with science, I would probably conclude with
answer to the question is neither realistic nor
something along these lines:
desirable due to the open-ended nature of inter-
rogation in the humanities.
The question ‘What is an object?’ may in Absolutely no benefit can be derived from invol-
ving oneself with the natural sciences. One stands
fact also be where science has something spe-
there defenceless, with no control over anything.
cial to offer archaeology, not simply as a The researcher immediately begins to entertain
provider of facts, but as a contributor of with his details: now one is to go to Australia,
different ideas about the complexity of now to the moon; now into an underground
human-thing relations. It seems to me that cave; now, by Satan, up the arse – to look for an
science can help explore in what ways intestinal worm; now the telescope must be used;
humans are not just human (see, e.g., now the microscope: who the devil can endure it?
Fredengren 2014), contributing to a posthu- (Kierkegaard 2011, pp. 72–73)
manist archaeology, adding to the perspec-
tives initiated by symmetrical archaeology.
Also, I suspect that the realm of ‘Big Data’ ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
might perhaps contribute to the understand-
This article is developed from two lectures
ing of enormous quantities of data not only
given at the Centre for Textile Research at
The Two Cultures and a World Apart 113

the University of Copenhagen in 2016. I am Gero, J.M., 2007. Honoring ambiguity/problema-

grateful for useful comments and critique at tizing certitude. Journal of Archaeological
the events, in particular from Luise Ørsted Method and Theory, 14 (3), 311–327.
Brandt, Jane Malcolm-Davis and Eva doi:10.1007/s10816-007-9037-1
Gramsch, A., 2011. Theory in central European
Andersson Strand. Moreover, Mette
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Løvschal and Juliane Wammen have contrib-
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Hodder, I., 1990. The domestication of europe:
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