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Archaeology through the Lens of Sherlock Holmes

Posted by Dawid Kobiałka

There is always something to learn from Sherlock Holmes. It is a good sign that an archaeologist has been often identified with the private detective:

The Sherlock Holmes type detective has become a common association with archaeology. Although the detective has been associated with other disciplines too […], the link with archaeology is nevertheless extremely close. As has often been pointed out […], both archaeology and (forensic) criminology draw, in parts, on seemingly incontrovertible material evidence, which is carefully documented and taken to provide significant clues as that what really had happened at the site under investigation (Holtorf 2007: 75-76).

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Figure 1. Bredarör on Kivik around 1760 (Drawing by Beckanstedt, ATA/Stockholm) (after Goldhahn 2012).

One of the archaeologists who looks closer at Sherlock Holmes’ logic and its usefulness in archaeology is Michael Shanks (1996: 37-41). The British archaeologist uses as a starting point of his discussion about Sherlock a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Golden Pince-Nez. It is rather a typical story how Sherlock Holmes by approaching details unseen to the others discovers the truth at the end. What is worth mentioning is the fact that Sherlock’s impressive logic is at work in the very first story about the great detective who lived at 221B Baker Street, A Study in Scarlet (Conan Doyle 2003). The reader is already shocked in the first chapter where Sherlock, only by a quick glance at John Watson, knows that he is a doctor of medicine, who was in Afghanistan, and was injured there, etc. John Watson explains in the next chapter how Sherlock was able to do it only by scrutinising details. This aspect of a Sherlockian thinking is emphasised by Shanks. The British archaeologist (Shanks 1996: 38) describes it in the following way:

Sherlock Holmes, whose method is exemplified in the passage above [a fragment from The Golden Pince-Nez – D.K.] trifling details lead to deep insight. It is not that Holmes is a methodical scientist who calculates all possibilities, never guessing until the truth is clear. Sherlock Holmes in fact depends on inspired guesswork, and this is what makes him so fascinating: he observes, makes a guess on the basis of what he thinks is likely, then tests out the guess.

The above quote should be read as a symptom, that something is wrong in this very reasoning about Sherlock. In other words, when such sophisticated theoretician like Shanks repeats social clichés about Sherlock (trifling details lead to deep insight), then there has to be something fundamentally wrong about it .

One of the crucial novels about Sherlock which helps to understand his logic of thinking is The Boscombe Valley Mystery (Conan Doyle 2008). On a first approach the plot is very banal: there is murder of local landlord in Boscombe Valley in Herefordshire. Inspector Lestrade asks Sherlock for help. They all, including Dr. Watson, go to Boscombe Valley. The private detective looks for details trying to find the murderer. This procedure is pinpointed by Shanks. However, there is wonderful dialogue which presents a key aspect of Sherlock’s reasoning (Conan Doyle 2008: 73):

- “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different. It must be confessed, however, that the case looks exceedingly grave against the young man, and it is very possible that he is indeed the culprit. There are several people in the neighbourhood, however, and among them Miss Turner, the daughter of the neighbouring landowner, who believes in his innocence, and who have retained Lestrade, whom you may recollect in connection with the Study in Scarlet, to work out the case in his interest. Lestrade, being rather puzzled, has referred the case to me, and hence it is that two middle-aged gentlemen are flying westward at fifty miles an hour instead of quietly digesting their breakfasts at home.”

- “I am afraid,” said I, “that the facts are so obvious that you will find little credit to be gained out of this case.”

- “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” he answered, laughing.

In short, Sherlock’s way of thinking is not so much based on gathering clues which are unseen for Dr. Watson and the police. This, let me call it, ‘zero level’ of a Sherlockian logic relies rather on assumption according to which non-problems are very problematic, so to speak. It is not that Sherlock gathers clues to let them speak for themselves and then all of a sudden the truth appears. On the contrary, when everything is clear and obvious, when facts speak for themselves it means one thing for Sherlock: that one cannot pose the correct question and the investigation begins (see also Kobiałka in press). Sherlock is in a way very superficial (Kobiałka 2013). He does not want to understand things too deeply. Here should be located the starting point of Sherlock’s reasoning.

As an archaeological example of the previous remarks can be mentioned Joakim Goldhahn’s research on the famous Bronze Age cairn Bredarör on Kivik (Sweden) and its interpretation history (e.g. Goldhahn 2009). The cairn on Kivik is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Scandinavia. Since its looting in 1748, it has become a constant point of reference in archaeological research on the Bronze Age in Scandinavia. Its impressive decorated slabs have been under special scrutiny. Relying on them and bronze artefacts found in the grave some archaeologists dated the cairn to the Early Bronze Age, others to the Middle Bronze Age, or the Late Bronze Age. What has not been call into question was the assumption that a special person (chief, shaman, etc.) was buried there. So, different archaeologists like Oscar Montelius, Sven Nilsson, Kristian Kristiansen up to and including Christopher Tilley has been following this assumption.

What Goldhanh’s research showed is the fact that a problem is usually a part of its own solution. Archaeologists had problems with precise dating of the grave because, as the Swedish archaeologist claims, the decorated cist in the cairn was used for at least 600 years. The decorated slabs were indeed from the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age. In this case, it was not only the desire to go deeper into things, but the obsession of archaeologists with unilinear historicist times, that finds difficult to admit multitemporality (Hamilakis 2011). That is why the problem with previous interpretations of the cairn is not that they were not deep and precise enough, on the contrary, they were too deep.

Last but not least, also the second point of Goldhahn’s research seems to be very Sherlockian. What Goldhahn challenged is already mentioned assumption according to which a special person was buried there. Some archaeologists even compare the person buried in the grave to Ulysses (Goldhahn 2009: 363). An analysis of the bones found in the grave shows that many people were buried there and most of them were teenagers. When the (arte)facts (seem to) speak for themselves, it means that we are in trouble – this is a lesson also of Goldhahn’s analysis.

To summarise, it is good to think of archaeology through the lens of Sherlock Holmes. However, what we can learn from Sherlock is not how to gather clues (artefacts) to analyse the past but rather to call into question our own most elementary presuppositions. There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Notes

1) It needs nonetheless to be clearly pointed out that Shanks sees Sherlock in more sophisticated way than many others (e.g. Adams 1973; Hunter 1996).

Acknowledgements

This publication is part of my research work at Linnaeus University, thanks to a Swedish Institute scholarship.

References

Adams, W. 1973. ‘The archaeologist as detective’. In Variation in anthropology, edited by D. Lathrap and J. Douglas. Urbana: Illinois Archaeological Survey, 17-29.

Conan Doyle, A. 2003. ‘A study in Scarlet’. In The complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 3-96.

Conan Doyle, A. 2008. ‘The Boscombe Valley mystery’. In The adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London: Forgotten Books, 70-95.

Goldhanh, J. 2009. ‘Bredarör on Kivik: a monumental cairn and the history of its interpretation’, Antiquity 83, 359-371.

Goldhanh, J. 2012. ‘In the wake of a voyager. Feet, boats and death rituals in the North European Bronze Age’. In Image, memory and monumentality: archaeological engagements with the material world. A celebration of the academic achievements of Professor Richard Bradley, edited by A. M. Jones, J. Pollard, M. J. Allen and J. Gardiner. London: Prehistoric Society’s Research Paper 5, 218-232.

Hamilakis, Y. 2011. ‘Archaeological ethnography: a multitemporal meeting ground for archaeology and anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 40, 399-414.

Holtorf, C. 2007. Archeology is a brand! The meaning of archeology in contepmorary popular culture. Walnut Creek: Archaepress.

Hunder, J. 1996. ‘A background to forensic archaeology’. In Studies in crime: An introdution to forensic archaeology, edited by J. Hunter, C. Roberts and A. Martin. London: Batsford, 7-23.

Kobiałka, D. 2013. ‘Against Gandalf the Grey: an archaeology of the surface’. Archaeolog:
http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/archaeolog/2013/02/against_gandalf_the_grey_an_ar.html, accessed at 23 February 2013.

Kobiałka, D. in press. ‘On (very) new and (extremly) crtical archaeologies, or, why one may remain forever eighteen years behind the truly new’, Forum Kritische Archäologie 3.

Shanks, M. 1996. Classical archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the discipline. London-New York: Routledge.