Culture-historical archaeology or simply Culture history is a form of archaeological theory.
The approach emerged in the nineteenth century and came about through the first efforts to explain the past as well as describe it. Its primary goal was describing the “when” and “where” of past cultures, based on the material record.
The work of the first archaeologists focused on trying to make sense of the artifacts and features they uncovered. By examining the characteristics of assemblages of objects it became apparent that some shared certain traits and that these traits could be attributed to individual ‘cultures.’ A culture, in archaeological terms, is the material manifestation of the people that created the artifacts. It was reasoned that different cultures represented different ethnic groups, and that the characteristics of these groups could be understood through their culture.
Further examination led archaeologists to infer that these cultures influenced one another and that certain artifact design styles moved from one society to another through trade, social links, migration or invasion, in a process of diffusion. In explaining changes in ancient societies, culture historians adopt the stance that new behaviours arrive as influences from elsewhere and may evolve to fit local conditions before being passed on again. Certain major events are attributed to one-off discoveries in a particular place such as the Neolithic Revolution. Describing and classifying finds into groups is an important part of culture history; classification can be done through design style, geographic distribution or period. Large corpuses of excavation reports listing the classifications of each artifact or feature encouraged the exploration of common themes between cultures. This in turn led to the construction of narratives based on these common themes to explain the past. In some ways, this is similar to the over-arching narratives produced by historians.
Culture history uses inductive reasoning unlike its main rival, processual archaeology which stresses the importance of the hypothetico-deductive method. To work best it requires an historical record to support it. As much of early archaeology focused on the Classical World it naturally came to rely on and mirror the information provided by ancient historians who could already explain many of the events and motivations which would not necessarily survive in the archaeological record. The need to explain prehistoric societies, without this historical record, could initially be dealt with using the paradigms established for later periods but as more and more material was excavated and studied, it became clear that culture history could not explain it all.
Manufacturing techniques and economic behaviour can be easily explained through cultures and culture history approaches but more complex events and explanations, involving less concrete examples in the material record are harder for it to explain. In order to interpret prehistoric religious beliefs for example, an approach based on cultures provides little to go on. Culture historians could catalogue items but in order to look beyond the material record, towards anthropology and the scientific method, they would have had to abandon their reliance on material, ‘inhuman,’ cultures. Such approaches were the intent of processual archaeology.
It should be remembered that culture history is by no means useless or surpassed by more effective methods of thinking. Indeed, diffusionist explanations are still valid in many cases and the importance of describing and classifying finds has not gone away. Post-processual archaeologists stress the importance of recurring patterns in material culture, echoing culture history’s approach. In many cases it can be argued that any explanation is only one factor within a whole network of influences. [GFDL Article and Copyright]