Free Online Archeology Course 4, Lesson 1
Archaeological theory covers the debates over the practice of archaeology and the interpretation of archaeological results. There is no single theory of archaeology, and even definitions are disputed. Until the mid-20th century and the introduction of technology, there was a general consensus that archaeology was closely related to both history and anthropology. Since then, elements of other disciplines such as geology, physics, chemistry, biology, metallurgy, engineering, medicine, etc, have found an overlap, resulting in a need to revisit the fundamental ideas behind archaeology.
Culture history: The first major phase in the history of archaeological theory is commonly referred to as cultural, or culture history. The product of cultural history was to group sites into distinct “cultures”, to determine the geographic spread and time span of these cultures, and to reconstruct the interactions and flow of ideas between them. Cultural history, as the name suggests, was closely allied with the science of history. Cultural historians employed the normative model of culture, the principle that each culture is a set of norms governing human behaviour. Thus, cultures can be distinguished by patterns of craftsmanship; for instance, if one excavated sherd of pottery is decorated with a triangular pattern, and another sherd with a chequered pattern, they likely belong to different cultures. Such an approach naturally leads to a view of the past as a collection of different populations, classified by their differences and by their influences on each other. Changes in behaviour could be explained by diffusion whereby new ideas moved, through social and economic ties, from one culture to another.
The Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe was one of the first to explore and expand this concept of the relationships between cultures especially in the context of prehistoric Europe. By the 1920s sufficient archaeological material had been excavated and studied to suggest that diffusionism was not the only mechanism through which change occurred. Influenced by the political upheaval of the inter-war period Childe then argued that revolutions had wrought major changes in past societies. He conjectured a Neolithic Revolution, which inspired people to settle and farm rather than hunt nomadically. This would have led to considerable changes in social organisation, which Childe argued led to a second Urban Revolution that created the first cities. Such macro-scale thinking was in itself revolutionary and Childe’s ideas are still widely admired and respected.
Processual archaeology (New Archaeology): In the 1960s, a number of young, primarily American archaeologists, such as Lewis Binford, rebelled against the paradigms of cultural history. They proposed a “New Archaeology”, which would be more “scientific” and “anthropological”. They came to see culture as a set of behavioural processes and traditions. (In time, this view gave rise to the term processual archaeology). Processualists borrowed from the exact sciences the idea of hypothesis testing and the scientific method. They believed that an archaeologist should develop one or more hypotheses about a culture under study, and conduct excavations with the intention of testing these hypotheses against fresh evidence. They had also become frustrated with the older generation’s teachings through which cultures had taken precedence over the people being studied themselves. It was becoming clear, largely through the evidence of anthropology, that ethnic groups and their development were not always entirely congruent with the cultures in the archaeological record.
Behavioral archaeology: An approach to the study of archaeological materials formulated by Michael B. Schiffer in the mid 1970’s that privileged the analysis of human behaviour and individual actions, especially in terms of the making, using, and disposal of material culture. In particular this focused on observing and understanding what people actually did, while refraining from considering people’s thoughts and intentions in explaining that behaviour.
Post-processual archaeology: In the 1980s, a new movement arose led by the British archaeologists Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilley, Daniel Miller and Ian Hodder. It questioned processualism’s appeals to science and impartiality by claiming that every archaeologist is in fact biased by his or her personal experience and background, and thus truly scientific archaeological work is difficult or impossible. This is especially true in archaeology where experiments (excavations) cannot possibly be repeatable by others as the scientific method dictates. Exponents of this relativistic method, called post-processual archaeology, analysed not only the material remains they excavated, but also themselves, their attitudes and opinions. The different approaches to archaeological evidence which every person brings to his or her interpretation result in different constructs of the past for each individual. The benefit of this approach has been recognised in such fields as visitor interpretation, cultural resource management and ethics in archaeology as well as fieldwork. It has also been seen to have parallels with culture history. Processualists critique it, however, as without scientific merit. They point out that analysing yourself doesn’t make a hypothesis any more valid, since a scientist will likely be more biased about himself than about artifacts. And even if you can’t perfectly replicate digs, one should try to follow science as rigorously as possible. After all, perfectly scientific experiments can be performed on artifacts recovered or system theories constructed from dig information.
Post-processualism provided an umbrella for all those who decried the processual model of culture, which many feminist and neo-Marxist archaeologists for example believed treated people as mindless automatons and ignored their individuality.
Global scope: This divergence of archaeological theory has not progressed identically in all parts of the world where archaeology is conducted or in the many sub-fileds of the discipline. Traditional heritage attractions often retain an ostensibly straightforward Culture History element in their interpretation material whilst university archaeology departments provide an environment to explore more abstruse methods of understanding and explaining the past. Australian archaeologists, and many others who work with indigenous peoples whose ideas of heritage differ from western concepts, have embraced post-processualism. Professional archaeologists in the United States however are predominantly processualist and this last approach is common in other countries where commercial Cultural Resources Management is practised.
The impact of ideology: Much of the early history of professional archaeology was motivated by an attempt to distance itself from pseudo-archaeologists and dilettantes, and to establish itself as a science. While this battle has been won, archaeology has been and remains a cultural, gender and political battlefield. Many groups have tried to use archaeology to prove some current cultural or political point. Marxist or Marxist-influenced archaeologists in the USSR and the UK (among others) often try to prove the truth of dialectical materialism or to highlight the past (and present) role of conflict between interest groups (e.g. male vs. female, elders vs. juniors, workers vs. owners) in generating social change. Some contemporary cultural groups have tried, with varying degrees of success, to use archaeology to prove their historic right to ownership of an area of land. Many schools of archaeology have been patriarchal, assuming that in prehistory men produced most of the food by hunting, and women produced little nutrition by gathering; more recent studies have exposed the inadequacy of many of these theories. Some used the “Great Ages” theory implicit in the three-age system to argue continuous upward progress by Western civilisation. Much contemporary archaeology is influenced by neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought, phenomenology, postmodernism, agency theory, cognitive science, Functionalism, gender-based and Feminist archaeology and Systems theory. [GFDL Article and Copyright]