Settlement and Landscape Archaeology Research Paper

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For contemporary archaeology, settlement and landscape approaches represent an increasingly important focus that is vital for a core mission of the discipline to describe, understand, and explain long-term cultural and behavioral change. Despite this significance, few syntheses of this topic have been undertaken (cf. Parsons 1972, Ammerman 1981, Fish and Kowalewski 1990, Billman and Feinman 1999). Yet settlement and landscape approaches provide the only large-scale perspective for the majority of premodern societies. These studies are reliant on archaeological surface surveys, which discover and record the distribution of material traces of past human presence/ habitation across a landscape. The examination and analysis of these physical remains found on the ground surface (e.g., potsherds, stone artifacts, house foundations, or earthworks) provide the empirical foundation for the interpretation of ancient settlement patterns and landscapes.



1. Historical Background

Although the roots of settlement pattern and landscape approaches extend back to the end of the nineteenth century, archaeological survey has only come into its own in the post World War II era. Spurred by the analytical emphases of Steward (1938), Willey’s Viru Valley archaeological survey (1953) provided a key impetus for settlement pattern research in the Americas. In contrast, the landscape approach, which has a more focal emphasis on the relationship between sites and their physical environments, has its roots in the UK. Nevertheless, contemporary archaeological studies indicate a high degree of intellectual cross-fertilization between these different surface approaches.

1.1 Early Foundations For Archaeological Survey In The Americas And England

The American settlement pattern tradition stems back to scholars, such as Morgan (1881), who queried how the remnants of Native American residential architecture reflected the social organization of the native peoples who occupied them. Yet the questions posed by Morgan led to relatively few immediate changes in how archaeology was practiced, and for several decades few scholars endeavored to address the specific questions regarding the relationship between settlement and social behavior that Morgan posed. When surface reconnaissance was undertaken by archaeologists, it tended to be a largely unsystematic exercise carried out to find sites worthy of excavation.

In the UK, the landscape approach, pioneered by Fox (1922), was more narrowly focused on the definition of distributional relationships between different categories of settlements and environmental features (e.g., soils, vegetation, topography). Often these early studies relied on and summarized surveys and excavations that were carried out by numerous investigators using a variety of field procedures rather than more uniform or systematic coverage implemented by a single research team. At the same time, the European landscape tradition generally has had a closer link to romantic thought as opposed to the more positivistic roots of the North American settlement pattern tradition (e.g., Sherratt 1996).

1.2 The Development Of Settlement Archaeology

By the 1930s and 1940s, US archaeologists working in several global regions recognized that changing patterns of social organization could not be reconstructed and interpreted through empirical records that relied exclusively on the excavation of a single site or community within a specific region. For example, in the lower Mississippi Valley, Phillips et al. (1951) located and mapped archaeological sites across a large area to analyze shifting patterns of ceramic styles and settlements over broad spatial domains and temporal contexts.

Yet the most influential and problem-focused investigation of that era was that of Willey in the Viru Valley. Willey’s project was the first to formally elucidate the scope and potential analytical utility of settlement patterns for understanding long-term change in human economic and social relationships. His vision moved beyond the basic correlation of environmental features and settlements as well as beyond the mere definition of archtypical settlement types for a given region. In addition to its theoretical contributions, the Viru program also was innovative methodologically, employing (for the first time in the Western Hemisphere) vertical air photographs in the location and mapping of ancient settlements. Al- though Willey did not carry out his survey entirely on foot, he did achieve reasonably systematic areal coverage for a defined geographic domain for which he could examine changes in the frequency of site types, as well as diachronic shifts in settlement patterns.

Conceptually and methodologically, these early settlement pattern projects of the 1930s and 1940s established the intellectual underpinnings for a number of multigenerational regional archaeological survey programs that were initiated in at least four global regions during the 1950s and 1960s. In many ways, these later survey programs were integral to the theoretical and methodological re-evaluations that occurred in archaeological thought and practice under the guise of ‘the New Archaeology’ or processualism. The latter theoretical framework stemmed in part from an expressed emphasis on understanding long-term processes of behavioral change and cultural transition at the population (and so regional) scale. This perspective, which replaced a more normative emphasis on archtypical sites or cultural patterns, was made possible to a significant degree by the novel diachronic and broad scalar vantages pieced together for specific areas through systematic regional settlement pattern fieldwork and analysis.

1.3 Large-Scale Regional Survey Programs

During the 1950s through the 1970s, major regional settlement pattern programs were initiated in the heartlands of three areas where early civilizations emerged (Greater Mesopotamia, highland Mexico, and the Aegean), as well as in one area known for its rich and diverse archaeological heritage (the Southwest USA). The achievements of the Viru project also stimulated continued Andean settlement pattern surveys, although a concerted push for regional research did not take root there until somewhat later (e.g., Parsons et al. 1997, Billman and Feinman 1999).

Beginning in 1957, Robert M. Adams (e.g., 1965, 1981) and his associates methodically traversed the deserts and plains of the Near East by jeep, mapping earthen tells and other visible sites. Based on the coverage of hundreds of square kilometers, these pioneering studies of regional settlement history served to unravel some of the processes associated with the early emergence of social, political, and economic complexity in Greater Mesopotamia. Shortly thereafter, in highland Mexico, large-scale, systematic surveys were initiated in the area’s two largest mountain valleys (the Basin of Mexico and the Valley of Oaxaca). These two projects implemented field-by-field, pedestrian coverage of some of the largest contiguous survey regions in the world, elucidating the diachronic settlement patterns for regions in which some of the earliest and most extensive cities in the ancient Americas were situated (e.g., Sanders et al. 1979, Blanton et al. 1993). After decades, about half of the Basin of Mexico and almost the entire Valley of Oaxaca were traversed by foot.

In the Aegean, regional surveys (McDonald and Rapp 1972, Renfrew 1972) were designed to place important sites with long excavation histories in broader spatial contexts. Once again, these investigations brought new regional vantages to areas that already had witnessed decades of excavation and textual analyses. Over the same period, settlement pattern studies were carried out in diverse ecological settings across the US Southwest, primarily to examine the differential distributions of archaeological sites in relation to their natural environments, and to determine changes in the numbers and sizes of settlements across the landscape over time. In each of the areas investigated, the wider the study domain covered, the more diverse and complex were the patterns found. Growth in one part of a larger study area was often timed with the decrease in the size and number of sites in another. And settlement trends for given regions generally were reflected in episodes of both growth and decline.

Each of these major survey regions (including much of the Andes) is an arid to semiarid environment. Without question, broad-scale surface surveys have been most effectively implemented in regions that lack dense ground cover, and therefore the resultant field findings have been most robust. In turn, these findings have fomented long research traditions carried out by trained crews, thereby contributing to the intellectual rewards of these efforts. As Ammerman (1981, p. 74) has recognized, ‘major factors in the success of the projects would appear to be the sheer volume of work done and the experience that workers have gradually built up over the years.’

1.4 Settlement Pattern Research At Smaller Scales Of Analysis

Although settlement pattern approaches were most broadly applied at the regional scale, other studies followed similar conceptual principles in the examination of occupational surfaces, structures, and communities. At the scale of individual living surfaces or house floors, such distributional analyses have provided key indications as to which activities (such as cooking, food preparation, and toolmaking) were undertaken in different sectors (activity areas) of specific structures (e.g., Flannery and Winter 1976) or surfaces (e.g., Flannery 1986, pp. 321–423). In many respects, the current emphasis on household archaeology (e.g., Wilk and Rathje 1982) is an extension of settlement pattern studies. Both household and settlement pattern approaches have fostered a growing interest in the nonelite sector of complex societies, and so have spurred the effort to understand societies as more than just undifferentiated, normative wholes.

At the intermediate scale of single sites or communities, settlement pattern approaches have compared the distribution of architectural and artifactual evidence across individual sites. Such investigations have clearly demonstrated significant intrasettlement variation in the functional use of space (e.g., Hill 1970), as well as distinctions in socioeconomic status and occupational history (e.g., Blanton 1978). From a comparative perspective, detailed settlement pattern maps and plans of specific sites have provided key insights into the similarities and differences between contemporaneous cities and communities in specific regions, as well as the elucidation of important patterns of cross-cultural diversity.

2. Contemporary Research Strategies And Ongoing Debates

The expansion of settlement pattern and landscape approaches over the last decades has promoted the increasing acceptance of less normative perspectives on cultural change and diversity across the discipline of archaeology. In many global domains, archaeological surveys have provided a new regional-scale (and in a few cases, macroregional-scale) vantage on past social systems. Settlement pattern studies also have yielded a preliminary means for estimating the parameters of diachronic demographic change and distribution at the scale of populations, something almost impossible to obtain from excavations alone. Nevertheless, important discussions continue over the environmental constraints on implementation, the relative strengths and weaknesses of different survey methodologies, issues of chronological control, procedures for population estimation, and the appropriate means for the interpretation of settlement pattern data.

2.1 Environmental Constraints

Although systematic settlement pattern and landscape studies have been undertaken in diverse environmental settings including heavily vegetated locales such as the Guatemalan Peten, the eastern woodlands of North America, and temperate Europe, the most sustained and broadly implemented regional survey programs to date have been enacted in arid environments. In large part, this preference pertains to the relative ease of finding the artifactual and architectural residues of ancient sites on the surface of landscapes that lack thick vegetal covers. Nevertheless, archaeologists have devised a variety of means, such as the interpolation of satellite images, the detailed analysis of aerial photographs, and subsurface testing programs, that can be employed to locate and map past settlements in locales where they are difficult to find through pedestrian coverage alone. In each study area, regional surveys also have to modify their specific field methodologies (the intensity of the planned coverage) and the sizes of the areas that they endeavor to examine to the nature of the terrain and the density of artifactual debris (generally nonperishable ancient refuse) associated with the sites in the specified region. For example, sedentary pottery-using peoples generally created more garbage than did mobile foragers; the latter usually employed more perishable containers (e.g., baskets, cloth bags). Consequently, other things being equal, the sites of foragers are generally less accessible through settlement and landscape approaches than are the ancient settlements that were inhabited for longer durations (especially when ceramics were used).

2.2 Survey Methodologies And Sampling

Practically since the inception of settlement pattern research, archaeologists have employed a range of different field survey methods. A critical distinction has been drawn between full-coverage and sample surveys. The former approaches rely on the complete and systematic coverage of the study region by members of a survey team. In order to ensure the full coverage of large survey blocks, team members often space themselves 25–50 m apart, depending on the specific ground cover, the terrain, and the density of archaeological materials. As a consequence, isolated artifact finds can occasionally be missed. But the researchers generally can discern a reasonably complete picture of settlement pattern change across a given region. Alternatively, sample surveys by definition are restricted to the investigation of only a part of (a sample of ) the study region. Frequently such studies (because they only cover sections of larger regions) allow for the closer spacing of crew members.

Archaeologists have employed a range of different sampling designs. Samples chosen for investigation may be selected randomly or stratified by a range of diverse factors, including environmental variables. Nevertheless, regardless of the specific sampling designs employed, such sample surveys face the problem of extrapolating the results from their surveyed samples to larger target domains that are the ultimate focus of study. Ultimately, such sample surveys have been shown to be more successful at estimating the total number of sites in a given study region than at defining the spacing between sites or at discovering rare types of settlement. The appropriateness of sample design can only be decided by the kinds of information that the investigator aims to recover. There is no single correct way to conduct archaeological survey, but certain methodological procedures have proven more productive in specific contexts and given particular research aims.

2.3 Chronological Constraints And Considerations

One of the principal strengths of settlement pattern research is that it provides a broad-scale perspective on the changing distribution of human occupation across landscapes. Yet the precision of such temporal sequences depends on the quality of chronological control. The dating of sites during surveys must depend on the recovery and temporal placement of chronologically diagnostic artifacts from the surface of such occupations. Artifacts found on the surface usually are already removed from their depositional contexts. Finer chronometric dating methods generally are of little direct utility for settlement pattern research, since such methods are premised on the recovery of materials in their depositional contexts. Of course, chronometric techniques can be used in more indirect fashion to refine the relative chronological sequences that are derived from the temporal ordering of diagnostic artifacts (typically pottery).

In many regions, the chronological sequences can only be refined to periods of several hundred years in length. As a result, sites of shorter occupational durations that may be judged to be contemporaneous in fact could have been inhabited sequentially. In the same vein, the size of certain occupations may be overestimated as episodes of habitation are conflated. Although every effort should be made to minimize such analytical errors, these problems in themselves do not negate the general importance of the long-term regional perspective on occupational histories that in many areas of the world can be derived from archaeological survey alone. Although the broad-brush perspective from surveys may never provide the precision or detailed views that are possible from excavation, they yield an encompassing representation at the population scale that excavations cannot achieve. Adequate holistic perspectives on past societies rely on the multiscalar vantages that are provided through the integration of wide-ranging archaeological surveys with targeted excavations.

2.4 Population Estimation

One of the key changes in archaeological thought and conceptualization over the past half-century has been the shift from essentialist/normative thinking about ancient societies to a more populational perspective. But the issue of how to define past populations, their constituent parts, and the changing modes of interaction between those parts remains challenging at best. Clearly, multiscalar perspectives on past social systems are necessary to collect the basic data required to estimate areal shifts in population size and distribution. Yet considerable debate has been engendered over the means employed by archaeologists to extrapolate from the density and dispersal of surface artifacts pertaining to a specific phase to the estimated sizes of past communities or populations.

Generally, archaeologists have relied on some combination of the empirically derived size of a past settlement, along with a comparative determination of surface artifact densities at that settlement, to generate demographic estimates for a given community. When the estimates are completed for each settlement across an entire survey region, extrapolations become possible for larger study domains. By necessity, the specific equations to estimate past populations vary from one region to another because community densities are far from uniform over time or space. Yet due to chronological limitations, as well as the processes of deposition, disturbance, and destruction, our techniques for measuring ancient populations remain coarsegrained. Although much refinement is still needed to translate survey data into quantitative estimates of population with a degree of precision and accuracy, systematic regional surveys still can provide the basic patterns of long-term demographic change over time and space that cannot be ascertained in any other way.

2.5 The Interpretation Of Regional Data

Beyond the broad-brush assessment of demographic trends and site distribution in relation to environmental considerations, archaeologists have interpreted and analyzed regional sets of data in a variety of ways. Landscape approaches, which began with a focused perspective on humans and their surrounding environment, have continued in that vein, often at smaller scales. Such studies often examine in detail the placement of sites in a specific setting with an eye toward landscape conservation and the meanings behind site placement (Sherratt 1996). At the same time, some landscape studies have emphasized the identification of ancient agrarian features and their construction and use.

In contrast, the different settlement pattern investigations have employed a range of analytical and interpretive strategies. In general, these have applied more quantitative procedures and asked more comparatively informed questions. Over the last 40 years (e.g., Johnson 1977), a suite of locational models derived from outside the discipline has served as guides against which different sets of archaeological data could be measured and compared. Yet debates have arisen over the underlying assumptions of such models and whether they are appropriate for understanding the preindustrial past. For that reason, even when comparatively close fits were achieved between heuristically derived expectations and empirical findings, questions regarding equifinality (similar outcomes due to different processes) emerged. More recently, theory-building efforts have endeavored to rework and expand these locational models to specifically archaeological contexts with a modicum of success. Continued work in this vein, along with the integration of some of the conceptual strengths from both landscape and settlement pattern approaches are requisite to under-standing the complex web of relations that govern human-to-human and human-to-environment interactions across diverse regions over long expanses of time.

3. Looking Forward: The Critical Role Of Settlement Studies

The key feature and attribute of archaeology is its long temporal panorama on human social formations. Understanding these formations and how they changed, diversified, and varied requires a regional populational perspective (as well as other vantages at other scales). Over the last century, the methodological and interpretive toolkits necessary to obtain this broad-scale view have emerged, diverged, and thrived. The emergence of archaeological survey (and settlement pattern and landscape approaches) has been central to the disciplinary growth of archaeology and its increasing ability to address and to contribute to questions of long-term societal change. At the same time, the advent of settlement pattern studies has had a critical role in moving the discipline as a whole from normative to populational frameworks.

Yet settlement pattern work has only recently entered the popular notion of this discipline, long wrongly equated with and defined by excavation alone. Likewise, many archaeologists find it difficult to come to grips with a regional perspective that has its strength in (broad) representation at the expense of specific reconstructed detail. Finally, the potential for theoretical contributions and insights from settlement pattern and landscape approaches (and the wealth of data collected by such studies) has only scratched the surface. In many respects, the growth of regional survey and analysis represents one of the most important conceptual developments of twentieth-century archaeology. Yet at the same time, there are still so many mountains (literally and figuratively) to climb.


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