by Robert Bednarik

The epistemology of Pleistocene archaeology


Of all the numerous branches of archaeology, which range from Pliocene hominin studies to modern industrial archaeology, from archaeometry to numismatics, Pleistocene archaeology is perhaps the one most susceptible to speculative hypotheses. Of all the millions of propositions ever made during the past couple of centuries about the human past of the Ice Ages, only a tiny fraction, less than ten per cent, can be expected to offer adequate veracity to be considered credible. This state of affairs compares unfavorable with most if not all other branches of learning. It is therefore desirable to explore the epistemology of Pleistocene archaeology: where do its knowledge claims originate, how do they arise, how are they promoted, how can their veracity be assessed objectively, and what are the systematic issues that explain their excessive failure rate?

This course attempts to explore these issues by examining the anatomy of major blunders in the discipline, by considering the socio-political climate of the time in question, the personal factors involved, the treatment of dissident researchers, the nature of false constructs or whole paradigms, and the way valid hypotheses are eventually adopted and then often corrupted. This course also considers the systematic processes involved in the formation of false models, especially their lack of taphonomic and metamorphological sophistication, as well as the political dimensions of archaeology generally.


  1. Milestones of Pleistocene archaeology (PDF)The most characteristic feature of archaeology is not that it deals with the past; many disciplines do that, including paleontology, palynology, geology, or astronomy — no human has ever seen a present-time star. Nor is it that archaeology conjures up images of mystery and adventure; most disciplines can do that. Nor that it often deals with interesting remote places and countries. Archaeology as we know it is more readily characterized by a collection of rather negative factors. For instance, it is the only ‘scientific’ discipline that seeks to control access to methods, data, sites and knowledge.
  2. An analysis of archaeology (PDF)Archaeology is usually defined as the study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of ‘material culture’ (e.g. in Paul Bahn’s Collins Dictionary of Archaeology). Its primary aim is to recover, describe and classify material remains it considers to be of archaeological relevance, and from this the form and behavior of past societies are then deduced. In a superficial way this definition may sound convincing enough, but when we begin to look at it more closely, questions soon arise.
  3. Versions of archaeology (PDF)In the second lecture we have briefly reflected on the notion that the concept of what archaeology is can differ significantly. Here we will examine this proposition in greater detail, and explore the reasons for having so many different archaeologies. After all, the same does not apply to other disciplines: the concepts of chemistry, biology or geography are broadly the same, anywhere on the planet. Regionalization of disciplines is more apparent in what are called the ‘social sciences’, and this becomes particularly noticeable in those dealing with history.
  4. Mistakes in Pleistocene archaeology (PDF)We have briefly touched upon the question of mistakes that have been made in archaeology historically. Here we will consider more carefully the generics of this problem: are there defi nable patterns in the epistemology of mistakes? Can we identify common or systematic factors, or do blunders in archaeology occur in random patterns?
  5. The neocolonialism of archaeology (PDF)The principal epistemological impediment in archaeology, the difficulties of providing hypotheses with adequate opportunities of refutability, has also been addressed already. Here I will rehearse some aspects that have received less attention, and that relate to an underlying neocolonialist ideology. Eurocentric ‘science’ postulates that the European way of experiencing reality is the only valid one, and all claims of knowledge, to be scientifically acceptable, must be presented in a form that relates them to this model.
  6. Logic in archaeology (PDF)The purpose of the first fove lectures was to explain epistemological impairments of various types, in an effort to understand contingent theoretical and procedural deficiencies that are amenable to correction. Having thus clarified specific factors contributing to the epistemic malaise of archaeology, practical as well as theoretical, it is high time to demonstrate a crucial justification for such a comprehensive critique: do I have a better alternative to offer? I will present such an alternative approach in this lecture.
  7. A metamorphology of archaeology (PDF)Metamorphology, as the science of how the perception of the individual archaeologist about what happened in the past relates to what really happened in the past, needs to analyze the epistemology of how archaeological data are collected, interpreted and disseminated. As a theoretical framework it is essentially predicated on the application of integral functions to all unknowns in archaeology. Metamorphology thus creates systematic uncertainties, but also has benefits.
  8. Contingencies in Pleistocene archaeology (PDF)As an epistemologist of archaeology I investigate where the knowledge archaeologists believe they possess originates, and what its intrinsic nature is. If I were to do the same in a field of science, such analyses would be welcomed as providing useful testing of frameworks. But in archaeology, because of its great dependence upon authority, such attention is not only unwelcome, it is vigorously discouraged, and I know from my experience that it can incur the wrath of much of the discipline.

Robert Bednarik | Biography

My principal interests are in the origins of the human ability to create constructs of reality, and in a variety of fields providing supplementary information in that quest. This includes the beginnings of art and language, and technological developments providing a measure of early human capacities, such as seafaring and the use of beads. For instance I study rock art and portable palaeoart of the Ice Age, and I conduct experiments in replicative archaeology. In my spare time I edit three scientific journals and two monograph series, write academic books and articles, organise conferences, make TV documentaries and travel the world in search of sites and specimens. Naturally I am totally uneducated and like most autodidacts regard education as a hindrance to understanding. So I can barely write my name, but I have published more scientific works on archaeology than any other person in history. My work has appeared in 32 languages but I am not fluent in any one of them.