Archaeology and Intelligent Design: The Lesson of the Awl

Shields Pueblo is located in southwestern Colorado. It was mainly occupied during the period running from 1050-1300 A.D. Excavations were carried out from 1997-2000. Among the items found were 207 whole or fragmentary bone awls (over 39,000 animal bones were recovered). Generally speaking, awls are considered multipurpose instruments and, consequently, it would be nice to narrow down the uses somewhat.

As the Crow Canyon E-Newsletter explains, some of these awls have a unique feature:

A small number of the bone awls (as well as several “other modified bone” specimens) have one or more distinctive grooves on the shaft. Such grooves are found close to the tip and are usually diagonal or perpendicular to the long axis of the tool. They are relatively deep and wide, appear to be worn (not incised) into the bone, and sometimes extend one-half to three-quarters around the shaft circumference. Twenty-two awls and “other modified bone” tools in the Shields Pueblo collection have this type of groove. Grooved awls have also been found at many other Pueblo sites in the Mesa Verde region.

A picture of one such awl is below (the black arrow points to the groove):
It is thought that the groove was caused by activities related to weaving. Archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have certainly encountered any number of groups that use awls so some pretty good guesses could be made about the use of these particular awls – guesses that stood a substantial chance of being correct. Archaeologists don’t like making guesses or assumptions without some objective way determining if those assumptions are correct. In other words, we don’t look at an object and go “it looks like tool X and could have been used for function y”. The interesting thing about tools, whether of metal, lithics, or bone (or even enamel – teeth are tools too), is that their use leaves tell tale marks on them. These marks occur in the form of pits, grooves, scratches and even stains. In order to determine what a tool was used for, say awls, one can make several awls and test their possible functions in an experimental fashion. Once the tests are complete the awls can be examined under a microscope (usually a scanning electron microscope) and the tell tale marks can be compared with those on the original. This is what researchers at Crow Canyon did:

In a study conducted in the 1990s for her master’s thesis, former Crow Canyon intern Margaret Bullock used replicas of bone awls to make baskets, work leather, and weave textiles–the three most commonly touted uses for awls. Each activity resulted in distinctive wear patterns, and the weaving experiment in particular produced modifications similar to grooves–but it failed to perfectly duplicate the modifications seen in ancient specimens. (The weaving test involved sliding the awl tip behind the warp thread on a loom and then pulling the warp thread forward so a weft thread could be woven behind it.)

Although the weaving experiment left rather similar grooves, it failed to precisely duplicate them. It could have been left there, we could have said “close enough” and moved on, but that is not how archaeology works:

Although a weaving function is suggested, more studies of grooved bone awls are warranted. Such studies might include ethnographic research in addition to expanded replication experiments and examination of additional specimens recovered from other Pueblo sites in the Mesa Verde region.

The ethnographic research, in and of itself, would prove nothing. The purpose of ethnographic research in this context is to create other models of awl use that can then be tested to help us refine our explanations. Note also the emphasis on expanded replication experiments and the examination of additional specimens.
It is a common misconception that archaeology is about finding and identifying artifacts (see the last paragraph of the post linked to) – a purely descriptive and enumerative endeavor. Once upon a time they would have been right. Archaeology has moved beyond that – although it still has a place – because the identification of artifacts has become relatively routine and trivial (although there are exceptions – which would take a complete post in themselves to explain why the exceptions are important). In intro classes you here a lot about what archaeology does, usually archaeology is described as a field that seeks to learn about human behavior in the past. To that end archaeologists need some way of being able to make statements about behavior based on the residue of that behavior that is left behind in the form of artifacts, structures and such. It is not a simple matter of saying “gee, this is a buffalo scapula, so this group must have been hunters, and see here is a projectile point we found” because some groups used buffalo scapula as hoes to assist them in agriculture and some projectile points had ceremonial significance and were never used in hunting. So how do you go about making statements about the scapula or projectile point? Phrased another way, how do we put them into some kind of cultural context? This question brings us straight back to our awl. Notice, rather than relying on subjective intuition (or subjective measures of undefinable concepts) archaeologists make their assumptions explicit and test them in a wide variety of ways. Think about the effort involved in trying to prove that a certain groove on a bone is related to the way people make clothes, rugs, etc.
Some of you may have realized the point when I linked to UD, but let me make it somewhat more explicit. ID advocates like to compare their “design detection” procedures with archaeology, SETI, and the forensic sciences. They usually say something like “Well, gee, when we see statues on Easter Island or arrowheads we make a design inference because the fact that the item is the result of intelligent agency is intuitively obvious, and intelligent design is no different. We use the same methods archaeologists use, to infer design in the living world” What gets quietly lost, is all the hard work archaeologists have put into coming up with reliable methods of separating human made from nature made objects – and note the argument always uses stuff previously identified as human made. When there is some doubt about how the item was made ID remains stunningly silent. Even more interesting is the fact that ID seems to stop the analogy at the identification of the artifact – for the archaeologist that is where the really interesting stuff begins. We knew the artifacts mentioned above where a type of awl, the interesting part comes when you ask What was it used for? Who made it? How does it compare with other types of awls and how can we distinguish between them? What does an awl used for weaving imply about subsistence? Patterns of mobility? Social structure and gender roles? None of these questions seem to be able to be answered by the ID conception of design because it does not contain the theoretical or methodological basis for investigating these types of questions…So the next time you here an ID proponent babble about archaeology and artifacts, tell them about the awls of Crow Canyon and show them what science really is.


5 Responses

  1. Thanks for that. It’s useful to have a good worked-out example to refute the nonsense claims.

  2. What gets quietly lost, is all the hard work archaeologists have put into coming up with reliable methods of separating human made from nature made objects – and note the argument always uses stuff previously identified as human made.

    (Emphasis added.) Absolutely! Using known-human-designed things to argue one can identity design is silly. It must also be possible to describe the method so that, possibly after training, anyone can convincingly identify both not-designed things, and also designed things not previously known to be designed. And it must be possible to confirm those inferences via other means. That is, the claims must be repeatable and also falsifiable (stand up to scrutiny).
    But what “they” do, if something is not “obvious” (to “them”), or contradictory, is either ignore it, deny it (lie), or else invoke magic (e.g., miracles).

  3. Excellent example of what real scientists do with a design inference. It’s always screamed pseudoscience the loudest that IDers claim to be completely disinterested in discerning the nature of the designer and the purpose of the design. What’s the point of the design inference in the first place if you aren’t going to pursue those questions?

  4. RBH – I’m actually working on another example that goes into more detail on some of the questions I asked at the end of this post. It may take awhile because I have to track down a number of references and may end up having to go to the library and copying them if I can’t find them in PDF.
    blf – in this case I think the IDists are basing their comparisons to archaeology on seeing one too many Indiana Jones movies.
    Scientific Avenger – Yes, that is where the analogy seriously breaks down. If archaeologist where to limit themselves to the impoverished concept of design embraced by IDists they would have never gotten past the “elfstones” explanation for projectile points…

  5. I wish to thank you for a very factual post on what real science does in the search for answers, not the make believe science used by ID’s and other creationists

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