Scientific Method and Archaeology
Robert Drake

Volume XV --  Number  2
Winter, 1969
pp. 11-25
(C)opyright 1969
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary


    In studying scientific method it is necessary that one distinguish between method and principle as related to science. Since the present investigation is primarily concerned with principles, it will therefore not be necessary to discuss method, other than simply to state that it signifies the process whereby one determines the truth of given hypotheses.

    As to method of procedure in scientific studies one notes as follows: (1) hypothesis, (2) the collecting of data, (3) classification, (4) experimentation, and (5) application. Taken collectively the above steps compose the process through which hypotheses must pass when being examined for their respective truth claims. However, individual steps must not be confused with the principles of scientific method which constitute the determinating factors of scientific knowledge. The distinction will become apparent as the latter are discussed in their separate roles.

    In our discussion of principles we will follow the general lines set forth by Edwin Arthur Burtt of Cornell University.(1) However, before considering these principles in separate fashion, one must first determine their collective meaning. The term "principle" as here used signifies a set of conditions or properties belonging to data, Being of an intangible nature, some prefer to think of principle as an "attitude"(2)which the observer must maintain toward data. According to this usage principle means a certain way of viewing of experiencing reality. Before data may be called scientific, they must conform to certain norms or modes of testing. Perhaps this may tend to imply a somewhat stereotyped approach to reality. But, be this as it may, it is the only truly scientific approach to knowledge in given areas.

    Above we stated that principles of science might be regarded as conditions of data. Now while the word condition is not incorrect, yet it is not sufficiently clear. A better word would be "capacity," or characteristic. Data must be of a given nature which makes it possible for one to experience them through a particular set of categories. These categories, or ways of experiencing, are the constitutive elements of science. Whenever an idea or opinion cannot be tested by such standards, that is, cannot be verified by data which, through the nature of their being, render possible given types of experience, it can thus lay no claim to scientific verification.

    Seen in the light of the above remarks, it is thus apparent that the principles in question constitute the basis of scientific knowledge. This being true, one would say that principles must be regarded as the determinents of science. According to Burtt, these principles are: (1) Empiricism; (2) Objectivity; (3) Parsimony; and (4) Converging evidence.

1. Empiricism

    By Empiricism is meant, simply, the element of human experience. Any idea purporting to be scientific must establish its claim by direct appeal to sense-experience. Failing in this regard, there is no scientific evidence by which one may affirm the truth of such an idea. Of course, as seen on the other hand, evidence may be lacking whereby one would pronounce a given idea as being in violation of scientific method. In other words, apart from experienced facts, ideas claiming scientific support simply fall back into the realm of speculation, or, as is often the case, rest only upon pedagogical authority. Such means that a given view lacks the support of experience, hence cannot be said to have been demonstrated by means of data impinging upon sense faculties. Now one may still retain such a view despite this fact, but he must do so with a clear understanding of its lack of scientific validation.

    In further describing empiricism, it must be said that any experience of reality, irrespective of sense-faculty involved, comes within the scope of the principle of empiricism. Hence, any idea which had been validated through the channel of experienced fact must be regarded as having fulfilled one of the main conditions of scientific knowledge.

2. Objectivity

    By Objectivity it is meant that the facts of experience appealed to on behalf of the truth claims or a particular hypothesis must be of such a nature as to afford a number of individual experiences. The point of primary importance in this connection is that of multiple experience. This means, in short, that one may test a given idea as often as desire or necessity dictates, and others, wishing to see for themselves, may make their own private tests. In scientific method the more universal a given experience becomes, the greater becomes the claim to truth of the hypothesis involved. Hence, objectivity requires that facts prove their objective reality by separate, disconnected or, say, multiple experiences; but in order that this may be possible, conditions for testing must either exist on a permanent basis, or must be of a nature which give to them the necessary qualities of recall. Or, to state the matter somewhat differently, facts must be readily accessible at all times. If they have not that permanency of form required for ordinary observation, they must at least satisfy the conditions which puts them within the reach of controlled experimentation.

    The point involved in this connection may be illustrated by a reference to the types of subject matter found in astronomy and chemistry. Here, there is a significant difference as to the manner in which experience operates. As regards the former, that is, astronomy, its data are experienced through the channel of ordinary sense observation; whereas, with the latter, observation is largely by means of controlled situations. Such is the meaning of objectivity. Facts must remain amenable to experience for all and must be accessible at all times.

3. Parsimony

    In viewing the third principle of scientific inquiry, our approach will be from the following standpoints: (1) definition, and (2) historical meaning.

    As viewed in relation to meaning, the word parsimony connotes stinginess. This is well illustrated by the customary application of the word to certain individuals who have established a reputation for tightness or stinginess, say in matters of economics. Later on we will see that this word retains its original meaning when employed in the role of guiding principle to scientific knowledge.

    As seen from the standpoint of history, the word parsimony first came into prominence with William of Occam, who was born on the threshold of the fourteenth century. That which gave being in Occam's mind to this concept was his unwillingness to accept the philosophy of Aquinas and Scotus with respect to the doctrine of universals. Hence, his position that in attempting to arrive at a knowledge of the Universe one must proceed on the basis of sensible forms. Or, as sometimes expressed, one must not "multiply essences." What Occam meant was this: One must not posit "essences" or existences which lie beyond the realm of sensible forms. This teaching has long been known in philosophy as Occam's razor, meaning thereby the process by which one rids hypotheses of superfluous ideas.

    Having thus viewed parsimony from the standpoint of philosophy, it will now be studied in relation to science. Arid, as regards its new role, it should be said that most logicians and scientists ascribe to it a dominant position. This is clearly evident by the fact of its broad acceptance by science. From no field of learning should it be excluded. Whether one is seeking to determine the truth of theories pertaining to psychology, to astronomy, to history, or to some other type of subject-matter, parsimony is found to be both applicable and necessary. The chief function of parsimony is that of watchman or accuser. It eyes all thought systems or hypotheses with a view to determining their nature. Such inquisitiveness wants to know whether a given hypothesis is simple or complex. If, on examination, it is found that a given hypothesis contains too much complexity, parsimony immediately proclaims against it.

    One of the clearest examples of complex hypotheses may be seen on the part of those involving gratuitous assumptions. Now this means simply that a certain part of a given explanation or hypothesis must of necessity be taken for granted. Whether there be any objective reality corresponding to the assumption, one has no way of knowing. Hence the existing situation embodies a problem for which there is no possible solution. Such being true, the theory in question is under indictment; and hence must be rejected in favor of one with a more simple explanation.

    In viewing the principles of parsimony from the standpoint of application, the following well-known event in American history may be taken as an example; namely, the one-time common belief that personal misfortune, sickness, death, loss of property, etc., was not the result of natural causation, but came about through the malicious intervention of witches.

    Now the problem at hand is simply that of determining the factual and logical soundness of such a view. Which view, for example, offers the more reasonable explanation, natural causes or witches? Which best accords with all the known facts? Finally, which hypothesis, when accepted, would not leave a residue of unsolved and insoluble problems?

    As respects the above views, parsimony finds that in the positing of witches as causal agents, there is indeed far too much complexity involved in the hypothesis. For example, the transpiring events have been charged to the account of beings whose existence is merely taken for granted. Inasmuch as this assumption could never give way to known reality, a weak spot would always remain in the explanation.

    Over against this explanation stands the hypothesis calling for natural causes. This hypothesis accords not only with actual facts of experience, relative to the functioning of natural causes, but has the added advantage of complete freedom from assumptions. Therefore, its greater plausibility! Thus in the light of the foregoing facts, parsimony finds that the explanation centering in natural causes is the one possessing the support of fact and logic.

4. Converging Evidence

    The last of the principles of scientific method to be noted is that of converging evidence. Because of the familiarity of most people with the functioning of this principle, no lengthy treatment will be necessary. However, it may be said by way of specific statement, that converging evidence implies numerous lines, or threads of evidence, combining upon a given point. From each of the separate sources some measure of support is received for the idea at hand. Of course, no one bit of evidence is conclusive in itself; but, when several strands of evidence are woven together, they form proof of a highly conclusive nature.

    A good example of convergence may be seen in almost any court room procedure. For example, here are a number of witnesses with each giving his own testimony. Now, when this individual testimony has been assembled, it is found to converge upon a single idea or fact. Hence, on the strength of the fact that separate lines of evidence combine upon a given matter, the jury will most likely regard the point in question as having been proven.


    Having completed the survey of scientific principles, the examination of archaeological data, as seen in the light of these principles, now comes under consideration. The problem awaiting solution is as follows: Do archaeological data lend themselves to scientific treatment? In answering this question it will be necessary to apply archaeological finds to the principles of scientific method. If archaeological facts are amenable to scientific treatment, then our question as to whether or not archaeology can be recognized as a full-fledged science will have been answered.

1. Archaeology and Empiricism

    In considering the question of the adaptation of archaeological data to scientific processes, one must first view these data from the standpoint of their specific nature. Following this procedure their application to individual principles of scientific method becomes a simple matter.

    As respects data, it must be said that all non-epigraphic, archaeological recoveries belong to the realm of physical reality. For example, each object or thing possesses a certain size, shape, color, etc. And as such it may be weighed, measured, photographed, and handled as one normally handles physical objects. In a word, all archaeological data are of tangible form, hence are unquestionably subject to sense experience. Upon discovery everything automatically passes into the realm of sense knowledge. Thus there can be no justifiable question co14cerning archaeology's conformity to the first of the four principles of science, the principle of empiricism.

    As regards the case before us, very little is needed by way of illustration, but even so one or two examples should be given; hence the following; (1) the Rosetta Stone, discovered at the Rosetta branch of the Nile in 1799; and (2) the Lachish Bowl, discovered in southern Palestine in 1934.

2. Archaeology and Objectivity

    Following the examination of archaeology as seen in the light of empiricism, we now turn to the principle of objectivity. For it is not enough that archaeological data conform to but one or two of the principles of science. On the contrary, they must prove themselves in the light of all, that is, there must be no conflict between principles and data, or else all claims toward being genuinely scientific must be given up.

    The question of immediate concern is: can archaeology comply with the demands of science as expressed through the principle of objectivity? Or, say, are these finds subject to observation by innumerable individuals? It is possible for those who might experience doubt with respect to certain aspects of archaeology, as reported by others, to test the accuracy of such matters for themselves?

    The answer to the foregoing questions is found in the simple fact that most archaeological recoveries are preserved for future reference, their preservation being made possible by the best of scientific knowledge and costing untold sums of money. Of course, one is here speaking of the world's great museums which house archaeological finds.

    In addition to the above class of objects, there is a second class, namely those which following discovery are left where they were found, in the same place and condition in which they were found. Such is true of immovable objects such as the remains of buildings, walls, works of engineering, etc. An excellent example of the latter may be seen in the waterworks of ancient Gezer. As to walls, Jericho and Jerusalem afford good examples.

    Not only does the size of an object determine the necessary course of action to be taken, but additional factors often enter the picture. For example, the natural preference of archaeologists would be to leave a given mound wholly undisturbed, except as slight changes occur through the removal of dirt and debris covering the mound. Such procedure, however, is not possible in the majority of cases. For, since the ancients followed the practice of building many times upon a single site, to stop at the top layer would make knowledge of earlier and lower occupations impossible. When the excavator is sure that a given site has a single occupation, the usual procedure is to leave the larger objects in their original position. This means that anyone caring to visit the place of excavation may obtain first hand information concerning facts of discovery.

    Besides the above objects, there is yet a third. For it is often times the case that a given object is too fragile to permit preservation in the usual manner. Even on the slightest touch it may go to pieces. Now this does not mean that discoveries of this kind are necessarily lost. For before any disturbance of such an object has occurred, it has been carefully photographed which, in effect, bestows upon it a form of permanent existence. Furthermore, its position in relation to the mound as a whole has been carefully marked by a skilled workman whose work is that of mapping the location of all discoveries coming from a given layer, or occupation. Notations have been made with reference to the layer at which the discovery was made. Hence, through the science of photography, stratigraphy, and mapping, etc., even the most perishable of objects are preserved and thus placed at the disposal of those who might wish to investigate them.

    Before leaving the subject, it should be stated that there is one more class of objects whose preservation is even more difficult than that of the class just named. However, regarding this, the most difficult of field operations, science lends a helping hand, and as a result thereof, objects having completely disappeared can often be recreated. Of course, the question of immediate concern is how such results can be achieved.

    In outlining the process by which archaeologists restore non-existing objects, it may be said that when these long-buried objects dissolve into thin dust, they often leave a trace or mark where they once lay. For example, they leave a hole of the same proportions, that is, of the same size, shape, etc., as once belonged to the object itself. From here on the task of the excavator is fairly simple. All that is necessary is that he now fill this hole with wax or plaster paris, which process yields a new object, one having the same form as the original, only the new is of a different substance. This, however, does not in any way diminish its value. Its powers to illuminate the pages of history remain unchanged.

    The question, then, concerning archaeology's adaptability to scientific procedure, as viewed in the light of objectivity, has been fully demonstrated. The answer becomes clear through the fact that all recoveries are preserved for further observation and a more detailed study. As such, these finds become accessible to all mankind. Truly, then, they possess the quality of multiple or universal experience. Hence, in this phase of science, as in that of empiricism, archaeology fully merits the highest of scientific recognition.

3. Archaeology and Parsimony

    Next comes the problem of applying the principle of parsimony to history. For if it can be shown that it is applicable to historical data in general, then the question of its application of archaeology will have been answered. If archaeology is anything at all, it is plainly the recovery of history. Someone has called it the "handmaid of history."

    In discussing the relationship between archaeology and parsimony, perhaps it would facilitate matters if one would recall to mind the function which parsimony performs. As already stated, the office of parsimony is that of judge. In functioning in this capacity, it thus passes judgment upon divergent hypotheses. This being the case, it is plainly evident that parsimony enters the picture through the door of interpretation. Furthermore, inasmuch as all data are necessarily bound up with interpretation, which means, of course, conflicting views, parsimony is thus applicable to every type of subject-matter. Concerning its relation to hi story, there can be no sound logical opposition. Furthermore, as far as parsimony is concerned, it is altogether irrelevant whether hypotheses pertain to modern history, say as recent as the late war, or to history which has lain asleep since the days of Abraham, of Tuthmosis III, or of Jesus. In all such cases parsimony comes along and demands that hypotheses be measured according to the principle of simplicity.

    In applying the principle to a given set of hypotheses, a good example may be found in the field of classical archaeology. The problem to be investigated is that of the integrity of early writings.

    For a long time it was customary to view all ancient documents with an eye of suspicion. This attitude seemingly needed no support other than the simple fact that here was a document purporting to have been written at a very early date. Accordingly, all such writings were immediately stamped as being mythological. Such writings were also subjected to literary analysis from which supposed evidence was derived in support of their mythological character. This belief and practice was applied to all classical literature, to the writings of Manetho, to the Old Testament, and to the sacred Scriptures of certain oriental religions. Such, in short, was the view commonly held with respect to all early epigraphic materials.

    A fuller statement, bearing on the attitude of mind here described, may be seen in the following words coming from the British archaeologist, P. J. Wiseman:

The 'mythical theory' was adopted fifty years before the commencement of modern archaeological research. For it was at the end of the eighteenth century, very soon after the higher critics had begun to formulate their theories, that there swept over Europe a literary fashion which attempted to label as myth all early history which had come down to us. In 1795 Wolf published his famous Prolegomena, in which he endeavored to show that the persons and places referred to by Homer were wholly mythological; he even denied that Homer had any existence. This craze spread like an epidemic and the learned everywhere occupied themselves with finding mythological explanations to account for historical facts. This method of interpretation was instantly taken up by the critical school, who endeavored to explain the historical facts of Genesis as 'nature myth stories'. However, in 1874, Schliemann began his excavation, and on the 16th of November, 1876, he found the tomb of Agamemnon. His find was at first derided, for had not scholars decided that Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, was merely a mythical creation of an unknown Greek writer? But gradually, yet completely, the obvious facts of the archaeology undermined . . . criticism . . . The very mummies of so-called mythical and legendary figures, and the palaces in which they lived have been unearthed.(3)
At the time when the mythical view was first applied to. the Homeric writings, there were only two hypotheses; the mythical and the historical. However, after about seventy-five years, archaeology entered the field of investigation with new and significant evidence. Hence, as matters now stand there are three separate accounts: (1) the mythological, (2) the historical, as expressed in the writings themselves, and (3) the archaeological.

    Having indicated the several accounts relating to these events, it now becomes the duty of parsimony to select the explanation which offers the greatest credibility. Here it will soon be noted that the above accounts are reduced to two, this resulting from the fact that Homer and archaeology agree as to main events, hence must now be regarded from the standpoint of a single account. As regards the Homeric, on the one hand, and the "mythical" on the other, there is a pronounced difference. Hence viewing the opposing accounts, the mythical and the historical, from the standpoint of simplicity and complexity parsimony must decide concerning their respective truth claims.

    The most natural and simple solution to the problem would be to regard the Homeric Epics as having been fully substantiated by independent, archaeological evidence. Such, however, is not the only approach. Up to this point, parsimony has not spoken. But upon entering the picture it immediately charges the mythical view of having too much complexity. For assuming, for argument's sake, the mythological character of Homer, there is no way whereby 6ne may account for the fact of agreement between archaeology and the Homeric writings. For example, if the Epics are mythical why then is this fact not reflected by archaeology? How explain the stubborn fact that archaeological data upholds these documents? To this question the view calling for the non-historicity of these writings has no answer. Since the mythical view is faced with insuperable difficulties, it must therefore be rejected in favor of one whose acceptance involves no residue of unexplained matter. Hence, this is a valid application of parsimony to the field of interpretation, which is but another way of saying its application to archaeology.

4. Archaeology and Converging Evidence

    Having already explained convergence, it now becomes necessary to view it in the light of its application to archaeology. In so doing one must, of course, indicate the problem upon which the individual lines of evidence are expected to converge. In the present instance, the old and familiar question involving the existence of a Hittite people has been chosen. For a very long time criticism firmly denied that this people ever existed, denial being based upon the fact that there was no mention of such a people outside of the Scriptures. Hence, the statement of their non-existence is made. Soon after the turn of the twentieth century a complete reversal of scholarly opinion came about. Now what are the reasons for the change?

(1) Excavations at Carchemish, on the river Euphrates.

Here data were discovered which clearly revealed that Carchemish was the one-time southern capital of that part of the Hittite Empire lying between the Lebanon and the anti-Lebanon mountains.

(2) Archaeological operations at Hattusas in the heart of Asia Minor.

In 1906-7, Hugo Winckler carried on excavations at Hattusas (Boghaz-Koi), the results of which proved to be a tremendous shock to the scholarly world; for here a wealth of evidence was unearthed fully corroborating the Scriptural references to a Hittite people.

(3) Ras Shamra.

In the National Geographic Magazine of July, 1933, Claude F.A. Schoeffer gives a fairly complete account of excavations at the ancient seaport town of Ugarit (Ras Shamra). Here much evidence was found of Hittite influence affecting the socio-religious life of this far-off Syrian city.

(4) The non-aggression' pact from the temple walls at Karnak.

For a long time, prior to Winckler's excavations at Boghaz-Koi, scholars had known of a treaty between Rameses II of Egypt and a people known only by the strange name of Kheta. Now, while many saw in this name a clear reference to Hittites, there was as yet no sure proof for such a view. However, when this archaeologist made his astounding discoveries, the situation quickly changed, for here was the Hittites' version of this same treaty, a non-aggression pact between the Hittites and Egyptians, following the battle of Kedish, on the Orontes, in 1288 B.C.

Having thus cited discoveries of Hittite remains on the Euphrates, in Asia Minor, in Syria, and on the banks of the Nile, all of which focus upon the actual existence of a Hittite people, there can no longer be any question concerning their actual existence.


Adams James McKee, Ancient Records and the Bible. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1946. 397 pp.

______, Biblical Backgrounds. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934. 482 pp.

Albright, William Foxwell, The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible. New York: Fleming H. Reveli Company, 1933. 246 pp.

Barton, George A., Archaeology and the Bible, Fourth Edition. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1925. 461 pp.

Burrows, Millar, What Mean These Stones? New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1941. 306 pp.

Burtt, Edwin Arthur, Principles and Problems of Right Thinking. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. 529 pp.

Caiger, Stephen L., Bible and Spade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936. 218 pp.

______, The Old Testament and Modern Discovery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Duncan, J. G., The Accuracy of the Old Testament New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930. 192 pp.

Garstang, John, The Foundations of Bible History. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931. 423 pp.

Gluek, Nelson, The Jordan River. New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1946.

Gordon, Cyrus H., The Living Past. New York: The John Day Company, 1941. 232 pp.

Gadd, C. J., History and Monuments of Ur. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1929. 269 pp.

Hilprecht, H. V., Recent Research in Bible Lands. Philadelphia: John D. Whattles and Company, 1896. 269 pp.

Kyle, Melvin Grove, The Deciding Voice of the Monuments in Biblical Criticism. Oberlin: Bibliotheca Sacra Company, 1924.364 pp.

______, Moses and the Monuments. Oberlin: Bibliotheca Sacra Company 1920. 278 pp.

Magoffin, Ralph Van Deman, The Lure and Lore of Archaeology, Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Company, 1930. 107 pp.

Marston, Sir Charles, The Bible Comes Alive. Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company. 235 pp Price, Ira M., The Monuments and the Old Testament, Seventeenth Edition. Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1925. 482 pp.

Sayce, A. H., The Egypt of the Hebrews. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1895. 342 pp.

______, Races of the Old Testament. London: The Religious Tract Company, 1891. 180 pp.

Wiseman, P. J.. New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1936. 143 pp.

Woolley, C. Leonard, Digging Up the Past. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931. 131 pp.

______, Ur of the Chaldeess. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1930. 210 pp.


1. Burtt, Edwin Arthur, Principles and Problems of Right Thinking, pp.227-237.
2. Ds. F. L. Sampson, Professor of Religion University of Denver, in a class lecture.
3. P. J., Wiseman, New Discoveries in Babylonia About Genesis, p.100.

Scanned: Michael Riggs
Corrected: Daniel Dyke