Archaeological Theory Research Paper

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Archaeological theory is a vibrant tapestry of competing approaches and agendas which mutually constrain and enable one another. Some of these approaches have been imported wholesale from the humanities, social, and natural sciences, while others represent novel reformulations, or extensions, of ideas originally developed in these fields. There have even been some attempts to devise theory that is unique to archaeology. Because of this eclecticism, archaeology stands in a special relation to other disciplines as a testing ground for exploring the articulation of different theories and this is a source of archaeology’s strength. This view of archaeology as multiplex implicitly challenges the popular idea that the discipline has developed in a simple linear fashion through a series of stages—for example, from culture-historical, to processual, to post-processual (Preucel and Hodder 1996). Indeed, it suggests that more nuanced and historical studies are needed.

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1. The Archaeological Record

What is the archaeological record? This seemingly simple question masks a set of rather complicated philosophical issues which have been and continue to be debated within archaeology. Does the archaeological record consist of the material remains of past societies?; Is it comprised of samples of those remains discovered through survey or excavation; is it the written accounts of those discoveries; or does it refer to our conception of our relation to the past in the present? Three influential models have emerged in response to these questions—the fossil model, the behavioral model, and the textual model.

The fossil model is the view that the archaeological record is the repository of the physical traces of past human activity (Binford 1964). Artifacts, monuments, and buildings all potentially reflect the decisions of past actors and the workings of past social systems. This perspective is based upon the principle that human behavior is patterned, and that past behavior can be inferred, given prior knowledge of patterngenerating behavior. The transfer of meaning from a known context to an unknown one is facilitated by means of analogy (usually direct historical, specific comparative, or general comparative versions). This view is shared by advocates of culture historical archaeology as well as the early processual archaeology.

The behavioral model holds that the archaeological record is better understood as a distorted reflection of the past behavioral system. This perspective was developed by Michael Schiffer (1976), who identified two major kinds of distortions: a) n-transforms, or distortions due to natural processes, and b) c-transforms, distortions due to cultural processes. The assumption here is that after controlling for these distortions, explanation can proceed in a manner similar to the fossil model by identifying and making use of established correlates between pattern and behavior. Although this view has been critiqued on the grounds that the archaeological record cannot properly be viewed as a distortion of itself, it has drawn much needed attention to taphonomic processes (how the archaeological record is formed) and to middle range theory (how archaeologists establish logical connections between present statics and past dynamics).

The textual model was originally introduced by Ian Hodder (1986) and is ultimately derived from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s idea of ‘social action as text.’ It regards the archaeological record as meaningfully constituted by individual actors in the context of negotiating their personal identities and social roles within society. In this case, artifacts, monuments, and buildings not only serve utilitarian functions, but they can also be seen to be symbolically charged, potentially encoding such social meanings as ethnicity, gender identity, and worldview. Additional implications of the textual approach are that there can be no final reading since each reading has its own validity and that the intent of the past actor is only one among a number of possible meanings (Tilley 1991). This model is primarily associated with advocates of postprocessual archaeology.

2. Epistemology

Archaeologists typically make use of three methods of knowing the past: positivism, historical materialism, and hermeneutics. These methods are often represented in opposition to one another, but they actually differ with respect to their basic goals. Positivism has been used to establish causal explanations of cultural adaptation and behavioral change. Historical materialism has been adopted to understand social evolution in terms of changes in the forces and relations of production. Finally, hermeneutics has been used to provide interpretive understandings of social practices and meanings.

The introduction of positivism in archaeology is associated with the emergence of processual archaeology (also called the New Archaeology) in the early 1960s. The agenda of processual archaeology was to formulate and test general laws of human behavior. These laws were to be used to describe, explain, and predict (or retrodict) cultural similarities and differences represented in the archaeological record. Consistent with the tenets of positivism, unobservables such as ideology or belief systems, were deemed metaphysical (or paleopsychological) concepts and, therefore, of no explanatory relevance. In its zeal to ally itself with the natural sciences, processual ar-chaeology moved quickly to espouse the deductivenomological (D-N) approach (e.g., Watson et al. 1971) and to a lesser degree structuralism. More recently, it has broadened to include statistical-relevance models (S-R), abduction, and neo-positivist models.

Historical materialism, developed by Karl Marx and modified by his followers, focuses upon the dialectics of the mode of production, traditionally defined as the opposition between the forces and relations of production. The productive forces are the elements of the production process. These include the means of production, the objective conditions of labor, and labor power. The relations of production are the conditions under which the productive forces exist. These are fundamentally based upon class relations with capitalists enjoying the ownership of the means of production and the ability to purchase labor power to create a surplus. Although it has never been a dominant perspective in the West, Marxism has a long legacy, particularly in Europe. For example, one of its most significant early advocates was V. Gordon Childe (1936). Several different versions of historical materialism have now been used including structural Marxism, dialectical Marxism, and neo-Marxism (Leone and Potter 1999, McGuire 1992).

A hermeneutic, or interpretivist, approach was introduced in the early 1980s in reaction to the limitations of positivism. As in the social sciences in general, archaeologists challenged the artificial distinction between the ‘context of discovery’ and the ‘context of justification’ and the characterization of ideational factors as epiphenomenal (Hodder 1982, Shanks and Tilley 1989). A hermeneutic approach seeks to understand the meanings behind actions— why certain actions were taken in a particular case— rather than to explain them as an instance of a general process. It is thus an appreciation of context, rather than an attempt at retrodiction. This method is central to post-processual archaeology and today has diversified to include a number competing variants ranging from post-structuralism, to gender theory, to discourse analysis, to phenomenology.

3. Cultural Change And Social Evolution

Archaeology does not currently possess a unified theory of cultural change, similar to the theory of evolution in biology, and most practitioners take this to be a consequence of the complexity of archaeology’s subject matter which includes the full range of past human behavior from the appearance of the first6 anatomically modern humans to the emergence of the modern world system. There are three basic approaches to explaining long term, cultural change and social evolution: adaptationalism, transformationalism, and selectionism.

3.1 Adaptationalism And Its Variants

Adaptationalism is closely associated with processual archaeology and its ecosystemic approach. Following the anthropologist Leslie White, Lewis Binford (1962) defined culture as ‘man’s extrasomatic means of adaptation.’ The principal way that cultures adapted to their environments was by means of economic, social, and ideological subsystems mediated by technology (hence his technomic, soeiotechnic, and ideotechnic categories). It was assumed that a culture’s natural state was equilibrium and that this stability was achieved through the operation of social strategies which served as homeostatic mechanisms. Any change within the cultural system was viewed as an adaptive response to some external stress, usually seen as environmental degradation.

Optimality theory is based upon the principles of evolutionary ecology as developed by ecologists and modified by evolutionary anthropologists. It regards culture change as the output of individual organisms seeking to maximize the net rate of energy capture so as to enhance their reproductive fitness. In archaeology the most popular version of these theories is optimal foraging theory (see Bettinger 1991). Advocates typically regard this approach as a heuristic approach, useful in modeling evolutionarily successful behavior, but not sufficient, in and of itself, to explain all human behavior. Indeed, the model is often used to highlight deviations from predicted behavior and these deviations are then explained in terms of cultural factors.

A sophisticated version of adaptationalism is coevolution. This approach studies the interaction between social learning, cultural transmission, and biological evolution. These studies take their inspiration from the coevolutionary or dual inheritance theories of biological anthropology. They typically regard genes and culture as two distinct, but interacting, systems of information inheritance within human populations. Culture is seen to have its own mechanisms and properties and, in this sense, it can be said to have a ‘life of its own.’ On this view, continuity rather than change is the norm because of the inertial properties of inheritance systems. The most comprehensive application of coevolutionary theory has been the study of plant domestication (Rindos 1984).

Cognitive archaeology is a relatively new direction that seeks to understand the evolution of the mind by means of special human ability to construct and use symbols (Renfrew and Zubrow 1994). There is, as yet, no clear consensus on what constitutes cognitive archaeology and a variety of different approaches are being explored. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify two emerging trajectories as particularly promising. These are those approaches based upon cognitive psychology and those based upon technological choice. An example of the former is the work of Steven Mithen (1996) who has proposed that the evolution of human intelligence is characterized by oscillations between increasing modularity and increasing cognitive fluidity.

3.2 Transformationalism: Marxist And Political Economy

Transformationalist approaches regard the roots of culture change as internal to society. Some of these approaches borrow liberally from versions of Marxism and the development of society is assumed to occur through the unity of opposites in a dialectical process. Others have taken a political economic perspective, closer to classical economics, that has emphasized competition and finance systems in the emergence of political institutions.

Prestige goods exchange theory was originally developed by Jonathan Friedman and Michael Rowlands (1978) as one of the pathways of their epigenetic model of social evolution. A prestige system is one where social status is based upon access to the prestige goods necessary for social reproduction. A dependency relation emerges between core and peripheral elites such that only the core elites can maintain centralized control over luxury goods. Elites on the periphery can access these goods only through establishing alliances with the core. The result is an increase in the intensity of exchange and in the quantity of goods produced. An increase in production specialization occurs because, as the core elites desire particular kinds of goods, demand is heightened and this can often lead to standardization. Friedman and Rowlands suggest that prestige systems are typically unstable because of the difficulty of maintaining a clear monopoly over long distances.

World Systems Theory (WST), developed by the political economist Immanuel Wallerstein, is a theory of the spread of capitalism. It explores the structural linkages between First and Third Worlds such that development in one area generates underdevelopment in another. The central process is one of exploitation as nation state cores extract goods from peripheries and redistribute them according to specific rules of allocation. This process is both dynamic and complex since the status of the cores may fluctuate over time, resulting in unstable and changing boundaries. WST has been especially attractive to archaeologists because of the scale at which it operates. It places cultural entities within their larger, historical, political, and economic contexts and is sensitive to the spatial dynamics of control. Archaeologists have been sharply critical of Wallerstein’s premodern and modern distinction and argued that its applicability needs to be fully explored in particular cases of State formation with special attention paid to the units of analysis (Stein 1999).

Yet another approach is Peer–Polity Interaction (PPI), a model developed by Colin Renfrew (Renfrew and Cherry 1986) to explain the social dynamics underlying the emergence of State political economies. It identifies social structures (political institutions, ritual systems, and non-verbal language) as the products of long term interactions between adjacent early city states. He identifies three processes—competition, symbolic entrainment, and increased trade. Renfrew notes that both warfare and competitive emulation can lead to the emergence of leaders who establish their authority through gift-giving and feasting and to the intensification of production. Symbolic entrainment can lead to the adoption of writing systems and the institution of kingship. Increased trade can result in craft specialization and mass production as-well as new institutions and facilities to manage surplus goods. PPI has been widely used in both old and new world contexts.

Tim Earle, Terrence D’Altroy, and Elizabeth Brumfiel have established what might be called the political finance model. These scholars regard specialization, not as the result of the political economy adapting to a new problem, but rather as the outcome of elites seeking to solidify and strengthen their political and economic interests (Earle and D’Altroy 1989). This reversal of the standard adaptationalist argument shares strong similarities with prestige goods models (see above), but retains an implicit notion of agency. Central to this approach is the distinction between staple and wealth-finance. Staple-finance systems refers to States that collect and redistribute subsistence goods as part of their juridicial rights. Wealth-finance systems are those States that make use of some form of wealth that is paid out as currency and is exchangeable for subsistence goods in the marketplace. Although both systems are characteristic of complex societies, Brumfiel and Earle (1987) emphasize that it is wealthfinance systems that seem to be the primary force in generating political development.

3.3 Selectionism; The New Darwinian Synthesis?

Selectionism is a controversial new approach which minimizes human intentionality and promotes natural selection to a central position in explaining change in the archaeological record. This ambitious project, largely an American phenomenon, seeks to develop a single general evolutionary theory sufficient to encompass both cultural and genetic transmission in humans and other animals. As defined by Robert Dunnell, the leading proponent of this view, change must be understood as a selective, rather than a transformational, process. He further proposes that artifacts are the ‘hard parts of the behavioral segment of phenotypes’ and that differential frequencies of artifacts are thus explainable by the same process as those in biology (Dunnell 1989: 44). To date, there have been more theoretical expositions than worked case studies. The few case studies that do exist are focusing on engineering design and performance characteristics of material culture in the explanation of social transitions.

4. Theories Of Practice

Dissatisfaction with both the adaptationalist and transformationalist perspectives has led some archaeologists to explore elements of a theory of practice. Practice theories are grounded in post-structuralist approaches in anthropology, sociology, and gender studies and they generally emphasize the interplay between conscious, or goal directed, action and social structures which generate routinized action.

One of the most influential theories of practice is structuration theory. This theory was created by the sociologist Anthony Giddens as a means of bridging the limitations of functionalism and structuralism. A key component of this theory is the recursive relationship between structure and agency such that, through their actions, individuals both shape and are shaped by social rules. Structure can thus be conceptualized as both the medium and outcome of social action, a property that Giddens (1984) calls ‘the duality of structure.’ Some archaeologists have critiqued Giddens’s conception of agency, arguing that it is not a cross-cultural category and needs to be conceived as particular to a specific time period (Dobres and Robb 2000). This suggests that a historicity of agency is needed. Others have critiqued it on the basis of its implicit male focus. Most studies of agency have, in fact, tended to center on capacities for action of men, rather than women.

A second version of practice theory is that developed by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977). This theory is perhaps best known for the term ‘habitus,’ the unconscious and durable predispositions that underly routinized practice. Structure is seen as the social conditions of the production of the habitus and conjuncture represents a particular state of the structure. Hodder (1986) has characterized habitus as a linguistic and cultural competence mediating structure and practice. He regards it as of special significance for archaeology because it links social practices with the cultural history of society. One problem that has limited its use in understanding processes of social evolution is that it fails to adequately account for the transformation of the habitus. Perhaps for this reason it has seen its greatest use in ethnoarchaeological studies.

Recently, a number of scholars have drawn attention to embodiment as constitutive of social practice. Meskell (1999) has distinguished two trends. The first is the tendency to treat the ‘body as artifact.’ Here, the body is manipulated in ways similar to material culture in the context of negotiating identities and meanings. This perspective is particularly characteristic of British and European archaeology. The second is the ‘body as the scene for display.’ This approach is associated with issues of posture, gesture, costume, and sexuality and is linked to Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean archaeology. Meskell’s own work has both been inspired by and critical of Judith Butler’s (1993) work. For example, she critiques Butler’s idea of ‘gender as performance’ arguing against the assumption that performance is always about the replication of a set of norms on the grounds that there can be no single experience of being a certain biological sex. Rather one must consider the materiality of the body, its social setting, the operations of sex gender and the individual dimension of living one’s own body.

5. The Social Context Of Archaeology

One of the signal contributions of the recent theoretical debates is the foregrounding of the social context of knowledge production. Many archaeologists, following the conclusions of Michel Foucault and Jurgen Habermas, now accept that the idea of neutral or objective knowledge is a fallacy—that is to say, knowledge is always produced to serve social interests. What still remains controversial, however, is the degree to which specific social contexts shape the practice of archaeology. These issues are particularly well illustrated in the cases of nationalist, feminist, and post-colonial archaeologies.

It seems inescapable that the past has always been used for political purposes (Kohl and Faucett 1995, Meskell 1998). In recent history, perhaps the clearest example of this is the use of Gustav Kossina’s work to support the Indo-Aryan origins of the Nazis. Another frequently cited example is the interpretation of the site of Zimbabwe as the product of a white race in an attempt to deny indigenous southern Africans their rightful heritage. These examples, both obvious abuses, are sometimes taken to mean that all political uses of archaeology are inappropriate. This perspective, however, is a convenient overgeneralization that seemingly seeks to preserve the status quo. Archaeology can be used to empower people by providing them with a deeper appreciation of their heritage as, for example, can be seen at colonial Williamsburg where new exhibits features slave life alongside that of the plantation owners. Tourism can thus be a vehicle of neocolonialism or one of empowerment.

Feminism denotes a basic political commitment to confronting and eliminating and rocentrism in Western society. Since the mid 1970s, a large literature has developed spanning the arts, the humanities, and social and natural sciences that explores the multiple effects of this bias. The first explicitly feminist archaeology emerged in Scandinavia (Norway) in the 1970s. In the United States, the first widely circulated paper on gender and feminism dates to 1984 (Conkey and Spector 1984) and the first professional conference was held in 1988 (Gero and Conkey 1991). The reasons for this late development in archaeology have been traced to the dominance of positivism and its view of objective knowledge. A number of studies have now addressed equity issues, particularly those issues associated with employment, promotion, grants, and publishing (Nelson et al. 1994). Many feminists have adopted Sandra Harding’s view that feminist politics is not only a practical necessity, but is, in fact, essential in order to do good science. The best science is, therefore, the science that is produced under conditions where women and men enjoy equal representation.

A convenient date for the emergence of postcolonial archaeologies on the global stage is 1986. This date is the year the World Archaeological Congress was held at Southampton, UK. This conference is particularly important because it showcased sharp ethical conflicts (between anti-apartheid and academic freedom) for an entire profession (Ucko 1987). At the same time, it provided post-colonial scholars with a valuable opportunity to participate in substantial numbers in an international conference. For the first time, post-colonial and indigenous issues in archaeology were featured in a series of influential publications (Layton 1989a, 1989b). In the United States, the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 has empowered many tribes by providing them with a vehicle for the repatriation of human skeletal remains and associated funerary goods, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects. Although there have been some notable disputes, (e.g., the Kennewick case), archaeologists and native peoples have successfully collaborated on numerous projects of mutual interest.


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