Universiteit Leiden

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‘Archaeology is quintessentially interdisciplinary'

Professor of Archaeometry Patrick Degryse analyses archaeological finds using techniques from chemistry, physics and biology. He will give his inaugural lecture on 19 February. He reflects on three interesting propositions from his lecture.

Archaeology students need to have an understanding of science subjects

‘In archaeometry we apply scientific methods and techniques to analyse the composition of archaeological finds, to determine their origin and to date them. In recent decades the use of chemistry, physics and biology have had a huge effect on advances in archaeology. Take, for instance, the development of  isotope chemistry to determine the origin of the oldest glass and metal, or the use of new methods for working out the composition of ancient ceramics. Altogether this means that archaeology has rapidly become a truly interdisciplinary field. It's crucial for present-day archaeology students to have a basic understanding of the natural sciences.' 

Society and academia should appreciate the value of the pointless

‘The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi said that everyone understands the importance of the useful, but that no one understands the value of the pointless. But people are cultural beings, and we attach importance to art, religion and music, all of which have no immediate economic goal. They may not generate financial profit, but they do give meaning to life, which is why archaeologists need to study these cultural expressions if we want to learn to understand a society. The same is true for the outcomes of other types of science. Curiosity-driven research by no means always generates results that have direct practical or even economic applications. But it does have a purpose for mankind, for humans as thinking beings.'  

Archaeology is not a neutral nor an apolitical science

‘Archaeology is always a matter of interpretation. You have to explain your findings and place them in a bigger whole. You always do that from your own modern reference framework, based on the society and time in which you grew up. Also, as an archaeologist, you make choices based on the environment in which you are working. Take, for example, excavations in a region that is important for the native population. Archaeologists are becoming more aware of ethical principles and now make preserving heritage a set part of their working practices. This is also an effect of the increasing influence of other disciplines, from natural sciences to social sciences.'