Ethnoarchaeology Research Paper

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Ethnoarchaeology is the study of variability in material culture and its relation to human behavior and/or ganization among living peoples in order to strengthen archaeological inference. The term first entered the literature in 1900 when the US anthropological archaeologist, Jesse Walter Fewkes, referred to himself as an ‘ethno-archaeologist.’ Since then, there have been a number of synonyms coined including ‘action archaeology,’ ‘living archaeology,’ and ‘archaeological ethnography.’ Most archaeologists prefer the term ‘ethnoarchaeology’ for this form of research.

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1. History Of Ethnoarchaeology

Its beginning is closely tied to the onset of anthropological archaeology in the USA around 1880. Most of the archaeological work was coordinated by the Bureau of Ethnology (later, the Bureau of American Ethnology) and was carried out in the American Southwest. Stimulated by the general theory developed by Lewis Henry Morgan (1877), archaeology was seen as the extension of ethnology into the past. Early workers include Fewkes, who worked with the Hopi Puebloan people (1900) and Frank Hamilton Cushing, who worked with the Zuni Puebloan people (1886). The concerns were upon the development of ‘Puebloan society’ through a study of its antecedents using archaeology aided by ethnology of the living Puebloan peoples.

With the publication of Morgan’s final contribution in 1881, the Bureau hired an architect to document ruins and contemporary communities (Longacre 1999a). Victor Mindeleff and his younger brother spent more than a decade doing fieldwork in the US Southwest and used the data they collected among Puebloan peoples as an aid to interpreting archaeological sites (e.g., Mindeleff 1900). Both Cushing and Fewkes used design symbolism on pottery as an aid to archaeological inference.

Although from a contemporary perspective these early attempts at exploring behavior and organizational aspects of past societies seem simplistic, the questions they were concerned with have a modern tone. They did pioneer the methods of ethno archaeology, and they did use the results to strengthen their conclusions. At about the same time, in other parts of the world similar approaches begin to appear (e.g., Mitchell 1881).

A new general theory became dominant in US anthropology after 1910, and this had a profound effect on the nature of archaeology in the USA. It is most closely associated with Franz Boas and is often referred to as ‘historical particularism’ (Darnell 1969). The emphasis on reconstructing culture history through a focus on culture ‘traits’ resulted in defining prehistoric cultures and placing them in time and space. The basic outline of prehistoric cultural development in the USA began to emerge as a result, but without the social or behavioral concerns of the previous era.

For nearly 50 years, anthropological archaeology continued to be dominated by this theoretical approach. As a result, archaeology became increasingly out of step with general anthropology, leading to great tensions within the field. The Kluckhohn–Taylor attack on the lack of modern directions in archaeology (Kluckhohn 1973, Taylor 1948) resulted in rapid changes in the field. By the early 1950s, explicit concern with social institutions in the past were returning to archaeology through settlement pattern studies pioneered by Gordon R. Willey (1953, 1956). The first attempt to reconstruct prehistoric social organization appeared at this time (Martin and Rinaldo 1950). Not surprisingly, a return to ethno archaeology appears then as well, after a hiatus of 50 years.

One of the first calls for such a return was made by the English archaeologist O. G. vs. Crawford (1953), who based it upon his work in East Africa. He felt that a study of modern pottery and other materials among the living societies in the area could enrich archaeological interpretation. In 1956, Kleindienst and Watson (1956) called for ‘action archaeology,’ and, encouraged by Robert Braidwood, who was working in Iraq and believed that a study of modern villages, agriculture, and tools would help with an interpretation of the region’s prehistory, Patty Jo Watson undertook ethnoarchaeological fieldwork in Iran (1979). The first ethnoarchaeological monograph of this new era was Raymond H. Thompson’s Modern Yucatan Maya Pottery Making (1958).

The pace of ethnoarchaeology quickened after 1960, in response to the rise of the New Archaeology. Lewis Binford launched his fieldwork among the Nunamiut Eskimo in the 1970s (Binford 1978a). At the same time, Margaret Hardin began her lifelong interest in ceramic ethnoarchaeology through fieldwork among Tarascan Indians in Mexico (Hardin 1970) and, more recently, among Zuni potters in New Mexico (1989). Warren DeBoer and Donald Lathrap began their studies among the Conibo-Shipibo in South America (DeBoer and Lathrap 1979), as did Ian Hodder in East Africa (Hodder 1977) and Dean Arnold in Mexico and Peru (Arnold 1975, 1983, 1989). Kramer followed her earlier village ethnoarchaeology in Iran with a major project in India, where she focused on urban pottery production and distribution (Kramer 1982, 1997). Longacre began his field project among the Kalinga people of northern Luzon, Philippines in 1973, work that continues today. Brian Hayden launched the Coxoh Ethnoarchaeological Project in 1977, fieldwork that focused upon both stone tools and ceramics in the Maya Highlands (Hayden and Cannon 1984, Hayden 1987).

There are very few peoples left in the world who still make and use stone tools, especially chipped stone implements. Not surprisingly, there are relatively few ethnoarchaeological studies of such peoples. Hayden’s work mentioned above as well as Richard Gould’s project in Australia (1968) and recent studies by Stephen Brandt in Ethiopia on stone scrapers made and used in the processing of cow hides (personal communication) are examples. World globalization is reducing the availability of traditional crafts such as pottery making or stone tool production for ethnoarchaeological research.

Although chipped stone tools are extremely rare among modern hunter-foragers, we do have examples of ethnoarchaeological studies of bow and arrow hunters who use arrow points of metal or wood. One excellent example is the work of Griffin (1997), who has done fieldwork among Agta peoples of northeastern Luzon, in the Philippines. Most of the hunting is done by males among the Agta, but some hunting with the bow and arrow is done by skilled females as well.

Binford’s ethnoarchaeological fieldwork among the Nunamiut has provided important contributions to our understanding of site formation processes (1978a, 1978b, 1979, 1980). His detailing of accumulations of faunal remains presents information that is useful in interpreting animal bone assemblages in prehistoric sites. Another important ethnoarchaeological example is continuing work among the Hadza peoples of east Africa by Bunn and O’Connell and their colleagues, focused on the implications of animal bone distributions in Hadza camps (O’Connell 1990, Bunn et al. 1991, Bunn 1993).

2. Contemporary Approaches In Ethnoarchaeology

Contemporary ethnoarchaeology is stimulated by several robust theories, including behavioral archaeology (Schiffer 1976) and the postmodernist inspired ‘interpretive’ anthropology (Hodder 1987). One area of great contribution by ethnoarchaeology lies in formation process research. Basic data, such as records of pottery use lives in ongoing societies, collected by multiple projects, have provided the basis for what has come to be called ‘accumulations research’ (Varien and Mills 1997). An understanding of subtle surface alterations reflecting use of pots has resulted in many insights to help archaeologists interpret prehistoric data.

One example of this is the pioneering work by Skibo (1992), which explores residue analyses with pottery collected among the Kalinga. Another area of important contribution to archaeological inference from ethnoarchaeology centers on the relationship between degree of standardization of particular products and the degree of specialization of the producers. If there is indeed a relationship, then prehistorians could look for the beginnings of standardized pottery, for example, as a correlate of the presence of craft specialists. Thus, early processes of state formation might be explored through ceramic standardization analyses. But is there really a link between standardization and specialization?

Ethnoarchaeological research would seem to be the ideal approach to explore the degree of linkage. One might begin with a field investigation among people where each household made its own pots. The Kalinga are a good example of this mode of production, and in many villages each household has at least one potter at work. Examining the degree of standardization, in this case metrical standardization, with a large sample of cooking pots reveals variation at about 12 percent. That is, in any dimension or in any ratio (height to aperture, etc.), Kalinga pottery varies about 12 percent. This provides a baseline to compare the pottery produced on a household basis with pottery made by more specialized producers, such as a group of craft specialists making pottery for market.

Several other field sites in the Philippines have now been used to provide the degree of metrical variation in pottery produced by specialized producers. The neighborhood of Paridijon, in the small city of Gubat in Sorsogon Province in southeastern Luzon, has around 70 potters working full-time (as weather and parenting duties permit) to produce thousands of kitchen pots, flower pots, and stoves per week. Measuring thousands of cooking pots from Paridijon reveals metrical variation hovering around 6 percent, roughly half that of Kalinga pottery. Using these data, a study was conducted using prehistoric cooking pots from Grasshopper Pueblo, a prehistoric community in Arizona to assess the mode of production. The Grasshopper pottery varied at 12 percent metrically, suggesting that the household mode of production was in place in this fourteenth-century community (Longacre et al. 1988).

Additional field sites have been explored that suggest that the link between specialization and standardization is not simply the unintended byproduct of rote production as has been suggested, but rather is a deliberate attempt by specialized producers to make standardized products for their consumers. As a corollary of this, the older, more skilled potters make pots that are far more standardized than those made by beginner potters, even reaching an astounding 3 percent metrical range of variation (Longacre 1999b).

Identifying general principles such as these, which link variation in material culture to specific aspects of human behavior and organization, result in strengthening the power of archaeological interpretation. Ethnoarchaeology is one source for the identification of such regularities; experimental archaeology is another. A combination of the two would seem to hold special promise as a source of such principles.

Exploring performance characteristics (Schiffer and Skibo 1998) provides one example. The cooking pots produced by the craft specialists in a neighborhood of San Nicolas, a small city in Ilocos Norte Province in northwestern Luzon, are shiny and black in color. The potters explain that the black color makes their pots stand out and thus easily found by customers in the markets. This is an example of a visual performance characteristic. Consumers identify the pots from these potters as more durable than those from competing potters.

After the pots are formed and dried, the surface is covered with a red slip with a high iron content. The pots are then polished and then fired in a ‘bonfire’ at about 750 degrees centigrade. When they are fired, they are removed from the fire and immersed in a pile of rice chaff, and this produces a very smoky reducing atmosphere that turns the pots black. To test whether or not such treatments affect the performance characteristics of the pots, a collection of pots was commissioned for a series of experiments in the lab. Pots that had no slip or blackening were collected, as were pots that had only the red slip exterior. Pots that were blackened but that had no slip, as well as pots that were produced as the potters normally do were also collected.

Experiments were conducted on the collection at the University of Arizona in the Laboratory of Traditional Technology. Strength was measured using the three ball on one tester (Neupert 1993). Heating effectiveness was also measured by recording the length of time it took to bring an amount of distilled water to 90 degrees centigrade. These were critical performance characteristics in assessing the durability and cooking effectiveness of the pots in the sample.

The results indicate that the traditional blackened pots with red slip are not much stronger than any other variant, but that their heating effectiveness is much higher than the others. So in addition to the visual performance characteristics of the black pots, they cook more efficiently than pots with alternative surface treatments.

This approach, combining ethnoarchaeology and experimental studies, holds great promise for improving our understanding of decisions made by potters in the prehistoric past. It is a direction of study that can profitably be applied to other forms of material culture as well. This would seem especially true for the study of stone tools. As noted above, there are few people left in the world who still make and use stone tools. But there are a number of expert flint knappers today who can make replicas of stone tools that can be used in experiments under controlled laboratory conditions. Expert knappers who pioneered such an approach include Don Crabtree and Francois Bordes. At the turn of the twenty-first century, whole laboratories devoted to experimental archaeology are appearing, such as the Laboratory of Traditional Technology founded by Michael Brian Schiffer at the University of Arizona and the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology established at Indiana University by Nicolas Toth.

Traditional ethnoarchaeology continues to be carried out all over the world, leading to new insights about the relationships between variability in material culture and the behaviors of the people responsible. Such work continues to be useful to archaeologists who employ such findings in their own research. Scott Van Keuren (1999) has drawn on Margaret Hardin’s earlier (1977) work among Trascan Indian potters to infer the work of individual potters in a collection of prehistoric Puebloan pottery from Arizona. This, in turn, has led Van Keuren to explore aspects of prehistoric social organization in the area, an ultimate outgrowth from ethnoarchaeology.

New ethnoarchaeology is being carried out worldwide and promises important contributions. Mark Neupert (1999) has just completed a study of elite factionalism in a small city in the Philippines and the attempts on the part of the elites to capture the allegiance of craft specialists. The subsequent split of the potters is reflected in the different clay sources utilized by each faction. Another excellent example of contemporary ethnoarchaeology is the Phuket Project, a long-term research endeavor by Pamela Rogers and Richard Engelhardt in southwest Thailand. They have been working in the Phuket Islands with the Chaw Lay people, a group of maritime foragers producing shell middens that have been extensively studied and documented. They have developed a model of maritime adaptation of coastal peoples, and are testing the model with archaeological data from the islands of Hong Kong (Rogers 1999). Although opportunities for traditional ethnoarchaeology are diminishing, work continues, and we can expect new insights into artifact variability and site formation processes to result.


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