6. The Limits of Thing Knowledge

A similar exercise could be conducted for any cognitive artefacts that are used by archaeologists, and clearly each will differ in terms of their balance across these dimensions. Baird (2004) has previously undertaken multiple historiographical studies of scientific instruments ranging from Faraday's electric motor to the self-calibrating spectrometer and the cyclotron, and on the basis of which he has argued that each instrument embodies what he calls 'thing knowledge'. This manifests itself in different ways, but essentially an instrument is seen to encapsulate knowledge and theory about the world independent of its users, who are distanced from the design and creation of the artefact. Baird argues that scientific instruments should be seen as a kind of objective knowledge in that, for instance, their actions provide measurements that are not directly influenced by human judgement (for example, Baird 2004, 120). Of course, while the process of measurement may be objective, its value and effectiveness relies on appropriate use and application which often remains dependent on the human component. In this respect, subjective and objective knowledge may interact with each other in arriving at an output, and consequently the outcome of the application of a cognitive artefact is perfectly capable of being misleading since it functions within an imperfect environment. We can see this in the sense that a measurement performed by a total station will be 'correct' within its own parameters but nevertheless 'wrong' because it was improperly set up or targeted in the first place. Their independence from their users is therefore open to challenge since cognitive artefacts will, by definition, have users who give them meaning; without users they have no purpose (for example, see Collins 2010). Similarly, their embedded knowledge is not strictly independent of their human originators, although this is becoming less true of devices employing neural networks and other means of deep-learning. In short, the human element in the creation and construction of knowledge remains fundamental, but today it is ever more scaffolded upon the knowledge and know-how embedded in cognitive artefacts. Furthermore, this 'thing knowledge' is increasingly compounded and reliant upon the knowledge of other 'things'. This is nowhere more apparent than in the case of the computers we use, as archaeology moves progressively more to the digital and as the claims for computer cognition become increasingly insistent.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.

University of York legal statements