Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Bad Archaeology Reporting

This is a bit old, but I intended to make a brief comment on it as an example of how not to make archaeological findings accessible to the public. Discovery News posted an article on a recent British survey of caves in northern Britain. One of the results of the survey was that ancient humans did not randomly select caves to dwell in, but favored those with large entrances and deep passages, eastern or western aspects, and level areas in front.

So far, so good. Not terribly surprising perhaps, but there are differences in cave selectivity depending on region and the purposes for which the cave was used. I suspect the main goal of the project was simply to survey caves for evidence of occupation and then catalog them. The problem lies in the introductory 'grabber' paragraph:

House buyers today usually peruse properties with a checklist of desired features in mind. This aspect of human behavior has apparently not changed much over the millennia, according to a new study that found prehistoric cave dwellers in Britain did exactly the same thing when choosing their homes.

The study found no such thing. A 'checklist'? A checklist implies writing, which of course these prehistoric people did not have. We can say that they preferentially settled certain kinds of caves, but this says nothing about the selection process. For all we know, the local shaman took the omens and declared a particular cave propitious for settlement. I understand that the reporter was trying to phrase the findings in a way a layman would understand, but this was the wrong way to go about it.