Archaeology and Eiseley’s Illusion of Two Cultures

A measure of the success of archaeology is its popularity. Archaeology has a presence in the public eye, at least in the United States, fueled by popular novels such as James Michener’s The Source (1965), movies like The Mummy (1932), the Indiana Jones series (began 1981), and recent films such as The Dig or Canyon del Muerto (discussed previously in this blog). Further proofs of the public’s appetite for antiquities are the many popular organized tours to the centers of high civilization in Egypt, Greece, Mexico, Peru, and beyond. These tours have a long history. They are modeled on the tour which set out from the United States on the steamship Quaker City bound for the Mediterranean in 1867, which was chronicled by Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad. Then as now, highlights of that tour included visits to the ruins of the great Mediterranean civilizations.

Today the internet is alive with archaeological news and chat. The interest in archaeology displayed on social media boggles the imagination. A Google keyword search at the time of this writing, for example, yielded 573,000,000 hits on archaeology, and anecdotal accounts from journalists indicate that web sites, blogs, and other social media that have anything to do with archaeology can be counted on to generate clicks and views. Clearly, the taste for antiquities has grown steadily since Mark Twain’s day. Why does archaeology have such broad public appeal? The explanation lies in the peculiar capability for wonder that uniquely characterizes human consciousness. We are curious about our past and the discoveries of archaeology fuel the popular imagination.

Consider this. The Earth came into existence some 4.5 billion years ago and the first forms of life appeared in the geological record 3.7 billion years ago. Despite five mass extinctions (with a sixth now underway) life has evolved throughout earth history and myriads of life forms have had their day in the sun. The prodigious creative force of biological evolution has nevertheless brought into existence only one species of animal that has become conscious and developed an awareness of itself. We have dared to ask whence we came and why we are here, leading archaeologists to search for the origins of humanity and explore our evolution, our dispersals around the world, and everything from the origins of art and technology to the emergence of urban civilization. We have discovered that we alone, so far as our scientific inquiries have taken us, appear to be curious about the past. We alone work to accumulate evidence about the past while, so far as we know, other animals live in the eternal present with neither the recognition of their origins nor an awareness of their future. Yet it was barely a hundred years ago that humans discovered their past through the work of archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists (among others). Despite the short history of the scientific study of our past we have learned much. We have discovered that our origins were in Africa some three to four million years ago; that we evolved into different species of the genus Homo; that we adapted to our physical environment through the unique human invention of culture, which embraces social forms, technology, and the arts; and some two million years ago our ancestors emerged from Africa in a series of demic waves that led to the peopling of all habitable parts of the globe.

In time humans settled in large social groups based in cities supported by agricultural food production, invented writing, which has enabled us to record our mental cultural world, a rainbow of thoughts and memories and learning about how to do things and what things mean, and adopted the methods of science for learning about the natural world. In the course of this immense journey—as Loren Eiseley called it—we became aware of our past and began to keep records of it (the birth of history) and, eventually, to probe the evidence of our journey preserved in the earth itself through archaeology, the most recent historical science.

Archaeology enriches our personal lives through the awareness of our history. And the findings of archaeology are transformational as we come to know our place in nature. It is this curiosity about our past and the search for the purpose of our existence that continues to draw students to archaeology and the public to the presentation of our discoveries. Archaeology is a humanistic discipline in the widest sense of the term, even as it draws upon the natural and social sciences to interpret and explain the material remains of the human past.

Because of this I believe that archaeology can bridge the divisions that are being felt in higher education.

Archaeology’s success is arguably due to the use of the methods of rational scientific inquiry. Yet there seems today to be doubt in the academic world about how our commitment to the methods of the natural sciences is affecting the humanities. This uneasiness arises from the suspicion in some quarters that our institutions of higher education are abandoning, or at least downgrading, their commitments to the humanities—including archaeology—in favor of science and technology. The acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is often used by critics who claim that STEM studies are taking over the university. The rise of STEM is a lament that has haunted the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely read newspaper in the academy, for the last 50 years (if not longer). If true, it would be a tragedy if we abandoned our investigation of the human past at the very time when we seem to have discovered it!

The fear that STEM studies will overshadow or even eliminate disciplinary studies that focus on the human past may be overstated.

I asserted above that humans are unique in that we have knowledge of our own past. Yet it is a curious fact that this has not resulted in archaeologists becoming public intellectuals or celebrities in the pantheon of academy. Perhaps surprisingly there are few famous archaeologists that come to mind. At least in this country if you ask someone to name an archaeologist they are likely to think of Indiana Jones or perhaps a presenter on a television program, someone like Zahi Hawass or Josh Gates. One name, however, that may stand out from the rest is Heinrich Schliemann who was born two hundred years ago and is remembered today for his discovery of the ancient site of Troy in Turkey and the royal tombs at the Greek site of Mycenae. In another publication I claimed that Schliemann is “the most famous archaeologist in the world,” while a recent biographer calls Schliemann the “emblematic archaeologist of all time” (Traill 1995: 306). I have often been asked about my profession and after saying “I am an archaeologist” one response has been for the questioner to search their memory for the name of an archaeologist to show that they know something about the field. Schliemann is the usual name that comes up. (The other comment is typically along the lines of “I wanted to be an archaeologist but I decided to do something more practical.”)

This collective amnesia is regrettable. One archaeologist not likely to come to mind is Loren Eiseley who was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the curator of Early Man at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. At the height of his popularity (1957-1977) he was well known to the American public and was the very face of archaeology for many people. That he is largely forgotten today is our loss because he had much to say about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. In his memorable essay (“The Illusion of the Two Cultures”) he addressed this subject and his conclusions are still relevant for our own day. But to appreciate Eiseley’s contribution to the topic we need some background.

As I have indicated, the current debate in universities about the importance of STEM versus the humanities is nothing new. More than 60 years ago the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow drew attention to what he believed was a rift between the sciences and humanities in an essay titled The Two Cultures (1959). Snow argued that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was divided into the sciences and the humanities and in his view the humanities were dominant in academe. Snow contended that this dominance was a hindrance to solving the world’s problems which required a greater commitment to the natural sciences and technology.

The concept of the Snow’s two cultures has been widely discussed ever since. Some commentators believe that the divide between the two cultures is growing wider and that now it is the natural sciences that are dominant in the academy. The notion of a divide between different ‘cultures’ is what has led some critics to argue that the humanities are threatened.

This view is not universal. In an essay, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” published in 1964, Loren Eiseley challenged C. P. Snow’s thesis. He agreed with Snow that there was mutual distrust between the different cultures of the humanities and the sciences, but contended that this was due not to differences in methods or purpose, but instead to the “institutionalism of the method [that brings about] an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves [which dominate] the university atmosphere.” These arbitrary barriers were erected more by the need to acquire funding than from anything else, a circumstance which led to “unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding” in the academy. Eiseley challenged Snow’s hypothesis of two cultures by delineating the common substrate of the disciplines which consists of the shared sense of wonder at the mystery and beauty of the natural world.

Eiseley illustrated his meaning with a Palaeolithic stone tool known as a handaxe that had been crafted in the infancy of the human race hundreds of thousands of years ago. This tool was wholly utilitarian and according to Eiseley “nothing if not practical.” Noting that the maker crafted this seemingly simple artifact to solve a precise purpose, Eiseley asserted that the handaxe was “[i]n its day and time…as grand an intellectual achievement as a rocket.” Eiseley went on to argue that the handaxe was an “early example of the empirical tradition which has led on to modern science.” Eiseley then related a “remarkable discovery” that he made as he handled the flint tool and pondered the question of the two cultures. Though we might expect a stone-tool maker to be satisfied with the gross practicality of the tool, Eiseley found that for this toolmaker there was no “distinction…between the scholarly percipience of reality and…the [so called) vaporings of the artistic imagination.” He recognized that the toolmaker had “wasted time” with a “virtuoso’s elegance” to embellish the tool with aesthetic expression in the symmetry of the form and the polish of the workmanship that went beyond utility “to beautify…it until it had become a kind of rough jewel, equivalent in its day to the carved and gold-inlaid pommel of the iron dagger placed in Tutankhamen’s tomb.” Creativity, imagination, and aesthetics were blended in a single artifact, or mindprint as Eiseley preferred to call it, echoing Henry David Thoreau’s term for artifacts like stone tools. Eiseley concluded that “creation in science demands a high level of imaginative insight and intuitive perception…just as it does…among writers, musicians, or artists.” In other words, creativity and imagination are the wellsprings of both the sciences and the humanities.

A Palaeolithic handaxe from the site of Kokkinopilos in Greece discovered by the author and now on display at the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina, Greece.  It illustrates the combination of technological acumen and aesthetic and non-utilitarian creativity applied to a quotidian artifact by a prehistoric artisan.

Eiseley ended his essay by arguing that we all respond to the “mystery and beauty” of the universe in which we find ourselves, and in a powerful paragraph Eiseley explained why the sciences and the humanities should not be relegated to two different cultures. He returned to the handaxe as the evidence of the beginnings of scientific and of humanistic thought. This practical stone tool was analogous to the great power that we have gained as we “probed at the atom’s heart” and “[t]oday we hold a stone, the heavy stone of power. We must perceive beyond it, however, by the aid of the artistic imagination, those human insights and understandings which alone can lighten our burden and enable us to shape ourselves, rather than the stone, into the forms which great art has anticipated.” The humanities and sciences must work together if we are to be fully human. And to survive.

Today the Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson has provided a word—consilience—to characterize Loren Eiseley’s insight. Wilson argues that there is an underlying unity connecting the humanities and the natural sciences. He developed his thesis in a best-selling book (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge) where he urged the pursuit of consilience among all disciplines of human inquiry. Consilience, according to Wilson is “[l]iterally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation” (Wilson 1998 :7). Wilson believed that the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities would merge, despite using different methods and addressing different subject matters, because they shared the same goal: to understand our natural world and our place in it. Through consilience, the discoveries in one field can inform the discoveries in another and there are no barriers to inhibit the flow of discovery among disciplines except for our socially-created expectations and prejudices.

Let me provide an illustration. Biologists and paleontologists wonder about the origins of life and examine the records of the rocks to find answers, studying fossils and considering evidence derived from many fields such as chemistry, genetics, and physics. Humanists, writers, and artists also want to know about the origins of life. The natural scientists ask how life began and humanists ask what is the meaning and significance of life. Seemingly different ends, they are focused nevertheless on the same question: “What is life?” All attempts to answer that question are driven by curiosity and built upon creative thinking and imaginative conjecture. Consilience is the effort to share the insights from each discipline with those of the others to find the truth.

This conclusion begs the question: why then are the STEM disciplines gaining ground in American educational curricula at the expense of the humanities? The answer to this was explained by Eiseley many decades ago. It has nothing to do with different “cultures” of science and humanism and everything to do with funding and jobs. In an age of globalized economies, a revolution in production based on automation, and the growing world of service economies, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, students—and let us be blunt, those who are paying for their education—are activated by the desperate hope that they can customize their education to fit them for well-paying jobs in a world dominated by science and technology. They demand STEM studies as the pathway to prosperity, as if prosperity was everything. So it was in C. P. Snow’s day, and so it was in Loren Eiseley’s time. Though the ascendency of the sciences may be papered over today by the promoters of our great educational institutions as the quest for “synergies,” “multidisciplinary studies,” and “interdisciplinary research,” the bald fact is that the academy is shifting its priorities not so much as a drive for consilience as a reaction to the ferociously competitive “market” for students and their dollars.

Yet Loren Eiseley and E. O. Wilson were optimistic. They believed that these “market realities,” however exigent, will not change the underlying impulses of wonder concerning our place in the universe or blunt the faculties of curiosity, creativity, and imagination that impel scientists and humanists alike to seek answers.

Archaeology has much to contribute to this noble enterprise. Archaeologists are the interpreters and reporters of the human condition. Archaeology is to be found at the intersection of the two cultures that C. P. Snow thought were at loggerheads. We may focus on explanations of the human past, but our discoveries arise from the same impulses found in all disciplines and our shared curiosity about the wonderful story of the origins and rise of humans as a species and our adaptation to our physical environment by means of culture. The immense journey must be of interest to all, and through archaeology and the consilience of the sciences and humanities we can look towards the unification of knowledge that in E. O. Wilson’s view is necessary to understand our place in nature.


Eiseley, Loren, 1964, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” The American Scholar 33 (3), pp. 387-399.

Runnels, Curtis, 2020, “Heinrich Schliemann,” in C. O. Pache (ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Homer. Cambridge (UK), pp. 381-383.

Snow, C. P., 1959, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge (UK).

Traill, David A., 1995, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York.

Twain, Mark, 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim’s Progress. Hartford, Connecticut.

Wilson, Edward O., 1998, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York.

Author: Runnels

Professor of Archaeology, Anthropology, and Classical Studies Boston University Archaeology Program and the Department of Anthropology