Archaeological dig at Rimrock Draw Rockshelter, Oregon. Image thanks to Lee Olsen.

Three Basic Principles of Archaeological Research

Archaeology requires evidence to function.

There appears to be confusion in the alternative camp (among both its proponents and supporters) as to how archaeology as a discipline works. It is regularly described as a dogmatic orthodoxy and/or as an exercise in unfounded conjecture based entirely on professional practitioners’ “opinions.” On these bases, the speculative writers present themselves as a valid alternative to conventional archaeology and aggressively assert their right to their “opinions,” which are no less valid than those of conventional scholars.

In this article I wish to lay out some first principles of archaeological research, so that all may be clear on several fundamental points of difference that separate the conventional side from the alternative side in this debate.


Archaeology is the study of the physical remains from the past. Where there are no physical remains, there can be no archaeology. The most basic principle in archaeology, therefore, is that the discipline requires evidence to function.

A medieval clasp for a cloak.

This is what stands at the root of scholars’ constant and consistent demand for evidence when faced with new hypotheses. It is not some sort of pedantic cop-out as it often seems to be perceived by alternative supporters, it is not based on a desire to crush new ideas or enforce any imagined orthodoxy: it is the expression of the most basic requirement of archaeology — “Show me the evidence upon which your hypothesis relies.” Professional archaeologists ask it of themselves constantly. If the answer comes back negative, or there are only excuses as to why there is no evidence, archaeologists very quickly lose interest and move on. Because without evidence, archaeology cannot function.

A sub-principle of the basic requirement of evidence is that no amount of excuse-making for the complete absence of supporting evidence for a theory compensates for that absence. In the eyes of archaeologists, if you have no evidence, you have no case. Supposition, assertion, innuendo, and speculation do not constitute archaeological evidence and cannot be supplanted in its stead.

These are not unreasonable positions to take as they prevent the discipline from being overwhelmed by any number of baseless suppositions, extreme possibilities, and unsubstantiated claims. By definition, such assertions are devoid of evidence and so are bypassed as archaeologists continue to focus on those matters for which evidence does exist. People are perfectly at liberty to pursue any claims they wish and to search for evidence to support those claims, but until evidence actually surfaces, archaeology will pay them no attention. And this is perfectly correct, otherwise the discipline would be swamped by speculation and futile arguments over uncheckable beliefs.

Thus, calls for the abandonment of the conventional reconstruction of history (founded in evidence) in favor of an “alternative” scenario (for which no evidence exists) are hollow and are rightly resisted. This is not out of arrogance, nor is it based in some claim to have a monopoly on the truth or to be in possession of the whole truth. It stems from the principle of the requirement of evidence and the conclusions drawn from it.

A “history” divorced from the evidence is not a history at all, but a mythology.


The second principle is the nature of archaeological evidence itself. After 150 years of practice, what constitutes archaeological evidence is clear. People are messy. Communities of people are very messy. For the archaeologist, this is a fortunate circumstance, since people will leave physical remains of all sorts behind them. Even people living in wooden shacks or caves will leave heaps of animal bones, rubbish pits, stone and wooden tools, rudimentary artwork, burials, post-holes, and so forth. Even small bands of nomads can be traced (albeit with difficulty) in the physical record. To date, hundreds and hundreds of human cultures have been identified in the archaeological record at thousands upon thousands of sites all across the planet, and even under the sea. These range from the massively sophisticated and impressive (ancient China, Egypt, or the Roman Empire) to the paltry and primitive (cave-dwellers of tens of thousands of years ago). Whatever their circumstances, however, people leave evidence and that evidence is of a recognizable type.

So, when archaeologists encounter a “theory” for which not one verifiable object, never mind a site or a town or a burial, is adduced, they are rightly suspicious. In museums around the world, artifacts from human cultures spanning tens of thousands of years fill the display cases, from bone pins to weapons of war. Think for a moment what a display case for the Lost Civilization (LC) would look like. It would be empty.

To compensate for this total lack of typical archaeological evidence, the alternative camp manufactures “evidence” of its own — star-alignments, geologically-based archaeological dating, number games with proportions, superficial interpretation of complex myth cycles, and so on. However, this is not evidence but speculation. Without corroboration from the target culture, such material is destined always to be speculation. In some cases (many documented in other articles at this site) such alternative speculation actually runs contrary to the evidence. Archaeologists and historians will always support the evidence over speculation — to do otherwise is to close the door on history and open the door on myth.

Aside from manufacturing evidence, the alternative camp attempts (a) to explain why no hard evidence for the LC exists and (b) to excise familiar monuments (such as the Sphinx or Tiwanaku) from their archaeological and historical contexts (as fixed by the evidence, not by the “opinions” of experts) and to re-assign them to the LC. But excuses do not compensate for a lack of evidence (see above) and purloining artifacts from known cultures to compensate for a total absence of verifiable evidence for the LC is a cheap trick that ignores their firm archaeological context.

The interpretation of archaeological evidence, especially for cultures which have left us no written record, is a difficult business. The data are often open to multiple interpretations, and methodological debates rage within archaeological circles as to how the data should even be approached. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail such debates, but one example will suffice: does the application of interpretative models drawn from anthropology or sociology explain the evidence or impose a predetermined explanation on it? It is hard to say. Often two or more competing hypotheses will be equally convincing, resulting in camps of supporters forming around them. Only the continued testing of each and further investigation can resolve such conflicts.

“Context tells the archaeologist a lot about individual finds, such as where
(and so when) they appear at a site…”

For the real archaeologist, context is paramount. Context tells the archaeologist a lot about individual finds, such as where (and so when) they appear at a site, whether they evolved from earlier forms at the site or were imported, what their relationship was to other finds at the site (were they in a tomb, or found in a house, or hidden in a public building, and so on). Entire sites also have a context within the wider culture that built them. It stands to reason, then, that any artifact studied without context (such as those looted by treasure hunters) can offer only very limited information. The “alternative” propensity to excise individual artifacts from their context (be it the Sphinx, an entire city such as Tiwanaku, or an object or image) and draw spectacular conclusions from them transgresses one of the most basic procedures of the real archaeologist.

Archaeological evidence, then, is recognizable and consistent the world over. To date, the LC hypothesis can offer not a single scrap of such evidence in support of its contentions. Its attempts to manufacture evidence on the basis of the writers’ uncorroborated speculations or to appropriate sites or artifacts from familiar cultures should be recognized for what they are: desperate attempts to find something, anything, to support the initial hypothesis, even if that means ignoring huge swathes of countervailing material and the fixed historical contexts in which artifacts stand.

On the basis of this behavior alone, the LC hypothesis is rightly rejected.


So, while interpretative uncertainty and debate certainly prevail among archaeologists, there is one respect in which they are all united. Their hypotheses, to be convincing, must take all pertinent data into account. This is the third principle of archaeology: Hypotheses must respect the evidence. Any hypothesis that runs demonstrably against the evidence will be instantly rejected. Any hypothesis that is based on a selective presentation of the evidence will also be rejected, and for a very obvious reason. Who is to say that the hypothesis is not disproven by the evidence not taken into account?

The reason archaeologists insist that hypotheses take all pertinent data into account is that they are interested first and foremost in getting as close as possible to the truth about what happened in the past, even if that truth often evades us or if our understanding is necessarily incomplete. Given this motivation, it is clear that a hypothesis founded in a selective presentation of evidence is unreliable and therefore not a good guide to the truth.

Archaeological hypotheses, to get even a preliminary hearing, must therefore do a good job of explaining all the evidence pertinent to the phenomenon the hypothesis seeks to explain. If it does not, it will be rejected.

Against this background, the alternative focus on supposed “anomalies” takes on a new aspect. Given our patchy and scattered physical database from the ancient past, it is only to be expected that there will be gaps in our knowledge or bits of evidence that remain outside hypotheses that otherwise do an excellent job of making sense of the data. By focusing on these “anomalies” (many of which evaporate when investigated) and amassing examples of them, the alternative camp seeks to divert attention away from the rule and direct it at the exception. Their own hypotheses, formulated to “explain” these anomalies, are therefore founded in a collection of exceptional cases and are entirely deficient in explaining the mass of evidence left us by the target culture. This, it seems to me, is one reason why their propositions so often run contrary to the evidence and end up leading us nowhere — the alternative writers are working off the wrong data set, and the one least likely to produce reliable results.

Professional archaeologists, by the way, look at anomalies as just that. They reserve judgment about them until such a time as new evidence or more sophisticated modes of analysis can throw light on them and explain both the anomalies AND the rest of the pertinent data together. Until then, they consider an obsessive focus on anomalies as an unproductive waste of time.

Even more enlightening are the methodological statements Mr. Hancock makes in his article “Writing about Outrageous Hypotheses and Extraordinary Possibilities: A View from The Trenches,” as posted to his website:

A parallel for what I do is to be found in the work of an attorney defending a client in a court of law. My ‘client’ is a lost civilisation and it is my responsibility to persuade the jury – the public – that this civilisation did exist. Since the ‘prosecution’ – orthodox academics – naturally seek to make the opposite case as effectively as they can, I must be equally effective and, where necessary, equally ruthless.

So it is certainly true, as many of my critics have pointed out, that I am selective with the evidence I present. Of course I’m selective! It isn’t my job to show my client in a bad light!

Another criticism is that I use innuendo to make my case. Of course I do – innuendo and anything else that works

Mr. Hancock does not hide his selectivity — he celebrates it. His hypotheses are therefore inherently flawed and, out of the mouth of their very proponent, unreliable guides to the truth. Mr. Hancock is not interested in what actually happened in the past. Like the attorney he sees himself to be, he is far more interested in selling to the public his peculiar version of it, regardless of the evidence that has to be bypassed or ignored or buried in the process.

Do you, the reader, agree that this is how history should be done?


I end with an example that illustrates all of the above principles and shows just how wide an abyss separates true historical researchers from the “alternative writers.”

According to the conventional picture that has prevailed for at least a century, civilization — that is, cities with large populations, hierarchical social structures, private property, and specialization of labor — appeared in the southern end of Mesopotamia, in modern day Iraq near the Persian Gulf, around 5,000 years ago. Over the succeeding centuries, the civilized arts then spread up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers northward to Syria and southern Turkey.

Discoveries in northern Syria and southern Turkey made in 1999 and 2000 have overturned that picture completely. Here sites have come to light that display many “civilized” features, but at a date of 5,500 years ago — centuries BEFORE their documented connections with southern Mesopotamia. The revision is still underway and crucial issues now raise their heads — did civilization appear even earlier in the south and spread north? or did civilization arise in the north and spread south? or did it appear independently in both places? — but far more data are required to sort those issues out. What is clear, however, even from the preliminary finds, is that the received view about the rise of civilization in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (what “alternatives” would call the “orthodoxy”) has to be massively revised, if not abandoned altogether.

Now one of the most prominent proposers of the “south-to-north” view, a man who has published numerous books and articles propounding it, is Prof. Guillermo Algaze at the University of California at San Diego. He is a scholar of the highest standards and is internationally recognized for his work.

When faced with this new evidence that devastated his published theories, Prof. Algaze had two options open to him.

Option One: He could follow the lead of Mr. Hancock and deride his critics personally as “trainspotters and anoraks” (as Hancock recently described the contributors to this site). He could accuse the excavators in Syria and Turkey of “harassing” him or conducting “smear campaigns” to ruin his good name. He could ignore the new evidence entirely and say it was his right to cite whatever evidence he wanted and whatever writers he saw fit to cite. He could say that he has his opinion and they have theirs. He could then aggressively assert his right to his opinions and mount the moral highground to defend that right. He could say he was like an attorney out to defend his client, the “south-to-north” view, and therefore saw no need to consider material so damaging to his client.

Prof. Algaze could have done all of these things, which Mr. Hancock is on record doing, when presented with evidence that shattered his hypothesis. But he did not. He took the second option.

Option Two: Since Prof. Algaze is a genuine scholar interested in finding out what actually happened in the past, he found the new evidence intriguing. That it demolished his published position on the spread of civilization was no doubt embarrassing to him, perhaps even irritating, but since Prof. Algaze respects the evidence he could not ignore it or bury it or by-pass it. It had to be dealt with. So when asked for a comment by the New York Times in a story that was sent around the world in the International Herald Tribune, Prof. Algaze said this:

I’ve been eating a lot of crow lately (International Herald Tribune, 5 May 2000. “Health/Science” section).

Think about that statement for a moment. When asked for a comment by an international news agency, Prof. Algaze effectively said:

I was wrong all along.

Prof. Algaze behaved this way because he is a professional and knows archaeological hypotheses have to respect the evidence, that there is no reward for promoting hypotheses not supported by the evidence, and because he knows that his own published position had been founded in the best evidence available at the time and was formulated in good faith to explain that evidence. But now the evidence had shown his position to be incorrect. So he will change it.

This incident illustrates all of the basic principles outlined above: that archaeology works with evidence (the shift in position was the result of hard finds, not star-alignments or appeals to local myths); that the nature of the evidence is clear (settlements with pottery and artifacts of all sorts, not appeals to hidden evidence under the sea or number games); and that archaeologists have to respect evidence, not make every effort to dodge it (Prof. Algaze had to back down).

A second example of this sort of behavior among true archaeologists was offered in a Horizon programme, aired in the UK on 31 January 2002 (full transcript available here). This programme surveyed the lost city of Caral in Peru which, at ca. 2500 BC, is the oldest urbanized site in the Americas. One expert, Dr. Jonathan Haas, has been working on a theory for the past twenty years that postulates warfare as a formative influence in the appearance of complex, urban cultures. Yet Caral showed no overt signs of militarism. When interviewed for this prestigious science programme, Dr. Haas commented:

You seemed to really have the beginnings of that complex society and I’m able to look at it right at the start and I look for the conflict and I look for the warfare, I look for the armies and the fortifications and they’re not there. They should be here and they’re not and you have to change your whole mind-set about the role of warfare in these societies and so it’s demolishing our warfare hypothesis. The warfare hypothesis just doesn’t work.

Remember, this was from a man who had worked on this hypothesis for twenty years. Yet he was quite prepared to admit, on camera, when the evidence did not support his ideas.

There can be no clearer illustration of the huge gap that separates Mr. Hancock from the professional archaeologist. The reader, of course, can make up his or her mind what mode of analysis is most likely to get to the truth of our collective past: rational analysis and discussion of readily recognizable, testable evidence; or extreme possibilities that run contrary to that evidence, have no supporting evidence of their own, and have to be defended with expressly legal modes of argument and whatever tactics prove expedient.