The Purpose of the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science

Archaeology encompasses almost everything that has to do with the history and development of our species. Archaeology is one of the few fields that belong to the humanities and to the natural sciences. It incorporates a huge variety of subjects, such as the evolution of the hominid lineage, technological breakthroughs including tool-making, fire control, agriculture, writing, architecture etc., and social developments, such as community living, legal structures and so on.

Israel is endowed with a wonderfully rich archaeological and cultural record. The key geographic location of the Levant at the cross-roads between Africa, Europe and Asia, is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why so many crucial developments in the history of our species took place here. It is through this narrow channel between the sea and the desert that hominids first came out of Africa more than a million years ago. It is here that people first gathered into villages about 14,000 years ago and developed agriculture some 10,000 years ago. It is here that the alphabet was invented about 3,500 years ago to then spread around the world. Of course, this is also the land in which the idea of monotheism first took root.

The manner in which archaeology is studied worldwide is in itself a rich blend of traditions, source materials and technologies. The written record and ethnographic documentation are two important sources of information, making archaeology in one sense an extension of the study of history. Most archaeological knowledge is derived from the excavation of past remains. The archaeological record, as revealed by excavation, is composed of macroscopic remains such as architecture, stone tools, ceramic vessels, bones etc. The microscopic record that is revealed with the aid of instruments comprises the mineralized and charred remains of plants, the minerals in the sediments that accumulate at a site, micro-artifacts etc. There is an array of scientific tools that can be used to elucidate this microscopic record. We refer to this process as “microarchaeology” (Weiner, 20101).

The last 50 years have witnessed a revolution in the way archaeology is practiced, with the advent of carbon-14 for absolute dating, more reliable means of assessing changing past climates, new techniques for reconstructing the living environments of ancient humans, determining past genetic profiles using ancient DNA, reconstructing the production processes of archaeological artifacts, understanding the pyrotechnology that enabled the production of plaster and ceramics and so on.

In Israel archaeology is taught in the faculties of the humanities, making it very difficult for archaeologists to fully exploit the powerful new scientific tools. Although there is much goodwill both on the side of natural scientists intrigued by the exciting archaeological questions to be addressed, and the archaeologists who are eager to obtain the information provided by scientific tools, a chasm of mis-communication exists between the two camps. The frequent result is that minimal benefit is obtained from maximal effort. This problem is by no means confined to Israel, but has been recognized throughout the western world.

We at the Weizmann Institute feel that this impasse can be broken by truly blending aspects of archaeology into the natural sciences under one roof. Because the Institute is devoted primarily to research and has a post-graduate training program, we are not limited by conventional disciplinary boundaries. We were thus able to build a multi-disciplinary program, and are among the first to have a graduate research center devoted to microarchaeology (using instruments to reveal the microscopic archaeological record), with the main aim being the education of a new generation of research students of archaeology trained also in the natural sciences.

Weiner, S. (2010). Microarchaeology: Beyond the Visible Archaeological Record. Cambridge University Press.