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.
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.
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.
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 preformed 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.
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.
Archaeological theory - 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.
Categories: Archaeological theory Methods and principles in archaeology
Cultural-history 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.
The work of the first archaeologists focused on trying to make sense of the artefacts 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 artefacts. 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 on another and that certain artefact 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 artefact 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.
Category: Archaeological theory
Archaeology - Field methods
Archaeology - Survey
A modern archaeological project often begins with a survey. Regional survey is the attempt to systematically locate previously unknown sites in a region. Site survey is the attempt to systematically locate features of interest, such as houses and middens, within a site. Each of these two goals may be accomplished with largely the same methods.
Survey was not widely practiced in the early days of archaeology. Cultural historians and prior researchers were usually content with discovering the locations of monumental sites from the local populace, and excavating only the plainly visible features there. Gordon Willey pioneered the technique of regional settlement pattern survey in 1949 in the Viru Valley of coastal Peru, and survey of all levels became prominent with the rise of processual archaeology some years later.
Survey work has many benefits if performed as a preliminary exercise to, or even in place of, excavation. It requires relatively little time and expense, because it does not require processing large volumes of soil to search out artefacts. (Nevertheless, surveying a large region or site can be expensive, so archaeologists often employ sampling methods.) It avoids ethical issues (of particular concern to descendant peoples) associated with destroying a site through excavation. It is the only way to gather some forms of information, such as settlement patterns and settlement structure. Survey data are commonly assembled into maps, which may show surface features and/or artefact distribution.
The simplest survey technique is surface survey. It involves combing an area, usually on foot but sometimes with the use of mechanised transport, to search for features or artefacts visible on the surface. Surface survey cannot detect sites or features that are completely buried under earth, or overgrown with vegetation. Surface survey may also include mini-excavation techniques such as augers, corers, and shovel test pits.
Aerial survey is conducted using cameras attached to aircraft, balloons, or even kites. A bird's-eye view is useful for quick mapping of large or complex sites. Aerial imaging can also detect many things not visible from the surface. Plants growing above a stone structure, such as a wall, will develop more slowly, while those above other types of features (such as middens) may develop more rapidly. Photographs of ripening grain, which changes colour rapidly at maturation, have revealed buried structures with great precision. Aerial survey also employs infrared, ground-penetrating radar wavelengths, and thermography.
Geophysical survey is the most effective way to see beneath the ground. Magnetometers detect minute deviations in the Earth's magnetic field caused by iron artefacts, kilns, some types of stone structures, and even ditches and middens. Devices that measure the electrical resistivity of the soil are also widely used. Most soils are moist below the surface, which gives them a relatively low resistivity. Features such as hard-packed floors or concentrations of stone have a higher resistivity.
Although some archaeologists consider the use of metal detectors to be tantamount to treasure hunting, others deem them an effective tool in archaeological surveying. Examples of formal archaeological use of metal detectors include musketball distribution analysis on English Civil War battlefields, metal distribution analysis prior to excavation of a nineteenth century ship wreck, and service cable location during evaluation. Metal detectorists have also contributed to the archaeological record where they have made detailed records of their results and refrained from raising artifacts from their archaeological context. In the UK, metal detectorists have been solicited for involvement in the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Regional survey in maritime archaeology uses side-scan sonar.
Archaeology - Excavation
Archaeological excavation existed even when the field was still the domain of amateurs, and it remains the source of the majority of data recovered in most field projects. It can reveal several types of information usually not accessible to survey, such as stratigraphy, three-dimensional structure, and verifiably primary context.
Modern excavation techniques require that the precise locations of objects and features, known as their provenance or provenience, be recorded. This always involves determining their horizontal locations, and sometimes vertical position as well (also see Primary Laws of Archaeology). Similarly, their association, or relationship with nearby objects and features, needs to be recorded for later analysis. This allows the archaeologist to deduce what artefacts and features were likely used together and which may be from different phases of activity. For example, excavation of a site reveals its stratigraphy; if a site was occupied by a succession of distinct cultures, artefacts from more recent cultures will lie above those from more ancient cultures.
Excavation is the most expensive phase of archaeological research. Also, as a destructive process, it carries ethical concerns. As a result, very few sites are excavated in their entirety. Sampling is even more important in excavation than in survey. It is common for large mechanical equipment, such as backhoes (JCBs), to be used in excavation, especially to remove the topsoil (overburden), though this method is increasingly used with great caution. Following this rather dramatic step, the exposed area is usually hand-cleaned with trowels or hoes to ensure that all features are apparent.
The next task is to form a site plan and then use it to help decide the method of excavation. Features dug into the natural subsoil are normally excavated in portions in order to produce a visible archaeological section for recording. Scaled plans and sections of individual features are all drawn on site, black and white and colour photographs of them are taken, and recording sheets are filled in describing the context of each. All this information serves as a permanent record of the now-destroyed archaeology and is used in describing and interpreting the site.
Archaeology - Post-excavation analysis
Once artefacts and structures have been excavated, or collected from surface surveys, it is necessary to properly study them, to gain as much data as possible. This process is known as post-excavation analysis, and is normally the most time-consuming part of the archaeological investigation. It is not uncommon for the final excavation reports on major sites to take years to be published.
At its most basic, the artefacts found are cleaned, catalogued and compared to published collections, in order to classify them typologically and to identify other sites with similar artefact assemblages. However, a much more comprehensive range of analytical techniques are available through archaeological science, meaning that artefacts can be dated and their compositions examined. The bones, plants and pollen collected from a site can all be analysed (using the techniques of zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, and palynology), while any texts can usually be deciphered.
These techniques frequently provide information that would not otherwise be known and therefore contribute greatly to the understanding of a site.
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