Against Theoretical Archaeology

A Trondheim colleague has kindly invited me to head a session at the Nordic TAG conference next May. T.A.G. means “Theoretical Archaeology Group”, and denotes a series of annual conferences rather than a defined group of people. The invitation hinted that I might perhaps want to contribute something provocative. After a moment’s thought, I realised that my attitude to TAG (Nordic or otherwise) goes beyond provocative: I am simply hostile to it. Archaeological theory, in my opinion, belongs within the context of real specific archaeological research and is useless in an abstract form, which goes against TAG’s basic premise. So I declined the invitation, explaining that my message to the conference-goers would be a brief deal-killer: “Go home everybody and do archaeology”.

Outsiders often find the term “theoretical archaeology” humorous, evoking an image of scholars building ancient castles in the air, without contact with the gritty grimy reality of the archaeological record. The truth is that theoretical archaeology is indeed pretty risible, but not in that exact sense. The whole endeavour started in the 1960s with attempts to formalise a body of abstract interpretive theory for the discipline. This coincided with a brief spell in the history of archaeology when scholars dreamed of finding out general cultural constants, “Laws of Culture” as it were. In this perspective, theoretical archaeology would be a lot like theoretical physics, striving to formulate universal laws and ultimately achieve a Theory of Everything.

These attempts fizzled. Most archaeologists abandoned all hope of finding cultural constants around 1980 and returned to our standard business of finding out the unique kaleidoscopic non-generalisable details of individual (pre-) historical situations. But theoretical archaeology somehow survived, it even thrived, as an end unto itself. (Thus TAG, whose first conference took place in 1979.) No longer did it in the main aim at making archaeology better: it splintered into a myriad philosophical sects, abandoned the concept of “better”, and set out on a trend-driven random walk, existing to produce not better, but more new theory, mainly in the form of buzzwords. The 1980s reaction against the technocratic natural determinism of the 60s and 70s also opened the door wide to all manner of post-modernist philosophisering from the weird fringe of lit-crit and sociology. And thus, today, we have a few Swedish university archaeologists writing about Heidegger and fake ruins in theme parks.

Instead of going to TAG, I’ll just set out a few brief points on what I think archaeology should be and do. (These points are controversial only among the minority of archaeologists who work in academe. About 95% of everybody in the world who makes a living from archaeology are diggers at contract archaeology units and have very little reason, time or funding to pay any attention to theoretical archaeology.)

  • Archaeology is part of the hugely successful, rationalist, empirical, scientific Enlightenment project to find out what the world really is and has been like.

  • Archaeology is one of the disciplines within this project responsible (in close interdisciplinary cooperation) for finding out what life was like for people in the past.
  • Archaeology alone takes care of the study of material remains of past societies.
  • All enquiry that does not concern the life-ways of people in the past and/or does not study material remains is non-archaeology.
  • All non-rationalist enquiry is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
  • All impressionist-aesthetic commentary is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
  • Politics are about values and thus non-science. Archaeology should therefore resist all attempts from inside and outside the discipline to ascribe political relevance to it.

Finally, lest someone accuse me of being inconsistent here, dissing archaeological theory yet writing about it, let me just point out that I wrote this brief blog entry on vacation between two fieldwork campaigns. This is not my job, it’s what I do after dinner instead of watching TV.

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Comments

  1. #1 CamArchGrad
    July 23, 2008

    Hmmm… I view it as sign of disciplinary maturity that we have people literally digging up the trenches behind us and studying how we construct our knowledge.

    If that’s all we did I would be concerned, but a few professors on the side providing us insights into how we construct and present our knowledge is perfectly ok.

    Archaeological data is really very nonspecific, and can and will support multiple interpretations simultaneously. We can rank them from “most likely” to “less likely” based on what we have found but it is very rare that we can Yes or No. And pseudoarchaeology exploits that imprecision to the hilt.

    We need theory to expose our own biases and to understand how and why other people have their interpretations.

  2. #2 --bill
    July 23, 2008

    wow…
    a classic rant against theory…
    “Archaeology is part of the hugely successful, rationalist, empirical, scientific Enlightenment project to find out what the world really is and has been like.”
    And that’s not a problematic statement for you? Your interpretations of what you find are truly descriptions of what the world `really was like’, and are not conditioned by your experiences?

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    I forgot to mention that rationalism discourages speculation. Ockham’s razor. We should concede that we can’t know everything we’d like to know, and just leave be. We need to keep way clear of the border toward historical fiction.

    Oh, and we don’t “construct our knowledge”. That’s just jargon. Either there is a strong argument from the data to the interpretive model, or there’s not. It’s no different than in astronomy.

  4. #4 clem
    July 23, 2008

    So the practicioners of theoretical archaeology are actually archaeologians?

  5. #5 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    Haha, yeah! Or you can call them meta-archaeologists.

  6. #6 CamArchGrad
    July 23, 2008

    Strong argument or not?

    Let us look at Stonehenge which has been everything from a neolithic computer to a neolithic healing spa. A classic example of an archaeological site where each generation or researchers has dropped on another layer of interpretation.

    Why is that? We can’t we get it right the first time? Why can’t we winnow down the interpretations to a nice orthodoxy?

    Unlike studying the Technicium shifts in red giants or modeling quasars, ancient human phenomena is fundamentally opaque and irrational. We have enough debate guessing the motives of live people much less ones long gone and so fundamentally different as to be foreigners.

    To bridge that gap we rely on scientific techniques and a large measure of interpretation informed by our own biases. Science will indicate that the potsherd came from 300 kilometres away but it’s anyone’s guess as to why.

    Hence we need theory to probe that intuitive leap between our base data and our interpretations of it.

  7. #7 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    That’s no different from any other scientific discipline. Just because an interpretation gets through peer review, it doesn’t mean that it immediately becomes the consensus view. Most colourful archaeological interpretations fall by the wayside and become history-of-speculation. It’s an unfortunate effect of our organisational proximity to aesthetic disciplines in the humanities that archaeological journals and book series allow people to publish such a lot of airy speculation.

    150 years ago we knew nothing about Stonehenge’s phasing, chronology or stone sourcing. We’re advancing, regardless of all the fluff that’s been published.

  8. #8 CamArchGrad
    July 23, 2008

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/stonehenge/article1.shtml

    An article describing some of the various interpretations of Stonehenge over the years.

  9. #9 CamArchGrad
    July 23, 2008

    Oh I agree that we have enriched and elucidated the past to an unimaginable degree through our sweat. There is no substitute than to actually go out and excavate whether it’s museum cabinets or in the field.

    Yet, Archaeology has a few skeletons of it’s own, mainly it’s active role in 19th and early 20th century nationalist mythmaking. Many things that were accepted and proven facts from piltdown man to the drivel nazi archeaologists used to spout.

    We cannot say “Well, we know better now” because that leaves us open to letting a new set of biases which are just as insidious as the ones we have discredited. For instance is homosexuality in the mesolithic invisible and unreachable or have we just not looked for it?

    Theory has a strong role in asking why we make the interpretations we do, and keeping us honest.

  10. #10 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    Yeah, no science can read truth from data without explicit rational argument, which you may call “theory” if you like. But archaeological theory has no value in isolation. Any new theoretical construct must earn the reader’s respect through fruitful application to real research questions.

  11. #11 megan
    July 23, 2008

    So all these people combining archaeology and dance, you’re not into that? :P

    I’ve been to and presented at TAG once, I didn’t go over so well because of my data. Meanwhile here in the states I’m sometimes seen as too theoretical, go figure. I think some of the ideas at TAG are interesting, but again, without going back to the data, I don’t see the point necessarily.

    I do however, agree with some of these points about seeking out our biases (though I wouldn’t call that ‘theory’). Working with Native American cultures (and Native American archaeologists) has given me insight into the multiple ways someone could interpret the past – (e.g. if some cultures view the landscape as significant to their identity while others do not, the layout of a site might have different meaning to them than to us), I see anthropological theory and ethnography to be more fruitful. But that’s the standard American approach I suppose.

  12. #12 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    … and you wouldn’t try to interpret something from 5000 years ago using local 1880s ethnography.

  13. #13 megan
    July 23, 2008

    No, but the more ethnographies you read from different times and places, the more you’ll open your mind to all the different possibilities of interpretation/worldview that are out there.

  14. #14 Susan
    July 23, 2008

    I wonder if theoretical archeology is in the same league as evolutionary psycology? open to about a million intreptations depending on what your personal beliefs are. Then again, it must be difficult not to speculate on how people once lived and wonder how similar or different they were to us.

  15. #15 Martin R
    July 23, 2008

    Yeah, if nobody wondered about the past then archaeology would not have any funding.

    I don’t think archaeology is open to a million interpretations depending on your personal beliefs. Some issues can be settled definitively, like “when did agriculture begin in Peru?”. Others can never even be approached scientifically, like “What lullabies were popular in Peru in the 4200s BC?”.

  16. #16 Desmond Johnston
    July 23, 2008

    As a student of History I was interested in the article. My own – biassed – definition of what I would expect from Archaeology and archaeologists is a detailed picture of what life was like at the time in question gleaned through both traditional and new technological methods. This can then be further interpreted by the historian. There was a time when the archaeologist and the historian were one, but the trend in recent years has been for the archaeologist to become more and more of a “technician”.The emphasis seems to be on the accumulation of vast amounts of data – sometimes buried in files and reports for years before seeing the light of day and being interpreted – buried almost as effectively as the original artefacts were. The historian often has the advantage of a wider background of knowledge and may be in a better position to interpret what the archaeologist has uncovered. It is vital to be able to compare cultures, places, and periods. The historian will be using in addition to a body of facts skill in making comparisons and – dare I say it ?- the ability to theorise as well(hopefully not to excess). Maybe we need a revival of the “Antiquarian”.
    Desmond

  17. #17 megan
    July 23, 2008

    In regards to Susan’s comment, Martin, would you say that TAG tends to be a lot of archaeologists talking about archaeologists and the present, rather than about the people of the past? That’s one of my problems with it. Yes it’s good to be reflexive. But we don’t need to spend the bulk of a conference talking about them. Every year.

  18. #18 razib
    July 23, 2008

    heteronormative white male patriarchy!

  19. #19 Janne
    July 23, 2008

    “male patriarchy”

    Ah, a Redundancist in our midst! Disinfect this blog entry forthwith!

    I certainly understand your distaste of Theory of archaeology – although you may too quickly discount the publication and subsequent employment opportunities offered to its practitioners, surely its most important contribution. But archaeology, like science, does need a set of theories to guide it, does it not? Physics or chemistry without theory is just generating cool effects in the lab; computer science without theory is just programming; archaeology without theory is just digging up old stuff.

  20. #20 Martin R
    July 24, 2008

    Desmond, history is a priceless handmaiden of archaeology when available. But whereas written history goes back less than 5300 years, archaeology goes back 2.5 million years.

    Megan, I’ve only been to one TAG myself, and I have never found reason to reference one of the conference volumes in my work. But any conference that does not concern a specific period and area that I work with is of little professional interest to me.

    Janne, theoretical archaeology is often like the string theory of the Star Trek universe. It is not clear how it relates to a fictional world, let alone the real one.

  21. #21 Desmond Johnston
    July 24, 2008

    Martin – I agree there is a discrepancy in time-span at first sight. But I don’t think historians are restricted by the written word. For example historians can and do comment on events long before the advent of writing, and on later cultures where writing was not present.In such cases the contribution of the archaeologist is invaluable. The archaeologist can provide the practical “three-dimensional” discipline which should serve to anchor the historian’s feet on the ground – sometimes a necessary adjunct. Does that mean that “theoretical archaeology” is “bad?” I suspect that may well be the case. In the end in these as in so many other disciplines “truth” is the object of the exercise. My own feeling is too much theory can obscure the issue and lead to unintentional manipulation of the facts. I see the historian and archaeologist as partners.
    Desmond.

  22. #22 Martin R
    July 24, 2008

    The standard definitions of the two disciplines are that historians dig in archives, archaeologists in the ground. History undergrads do not learn to excavate. Archaeology undergrads do not learn to read 16th century handwriting.

  23. #23 Matt B.
    July 24, 2008

    Hey Martin, you should come to Germany.
    We never bought into all that theory here. To the horror of American and British visitors we are still practicing the “archaeology as cultural history” approach from before New Archaeology. You know, actually trying to find out how people lived in the past. And I fully support that.

    That said I recently became more aware of theory when I asked myself how many assumptions based on my own experience I make when looking at a particular piece of the archaeological record. If I can identify, and to some degree correct, these assumptions through theory my data will become more accurate.

    Similarily I’m certain that most modern scientific and statistical methods we use were developed under the influence of New Archaeology. I’m thankful for that. (And I know that we didn’t need the theory to develop the methods but it helped and certainly sped up the process).

    To give a third example: our department is known to be pretty progressive when it comes to theory, mostly that of ethnic interpretation. Prof. Brather has shown that most archaeologists take a far too simplistic approach when it comes to interpreting the ethnicity of a specific person or whole tribes/gentes. That approach meant that they were creating false data and theory now helps them to be more accurate. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: I agree that most theory is unnecessary but I’m going to use it in those cases where it actually helps to make our view of the past more accurate. All the musings on how we perceive ourselves or how museum visitors perceive us and their ancestors etc. should be left to sociologists and anthropologists (which WE ARE NOT, but that’s the topic for a whole other rant:).

  24. #24 Jonathan Jarrett
    July 24, 2008

    I come at this as a historian, not an archaeologist, but because I’m an early mnedievalist, I’ve read more archaeology, and archaeological theory even, than many historians. Statements like this:

    The standard definitions of the two disciplines are that historians dig in archives, archaeologists in the ground. History undergrads do not learn to excavate. Archaeology undergrads do not learn to read 16th century handwriting.

    are perhaps true enough for the early modern period but any early medieval historian who ignores archaeological evidence is angling for a fall, and archaeologists can benefit from the few written sources in the period too. Of course both sorts of evidence have their interpretative problems, and therefore we need to be aware of those, either from our own reading or from dialogue with colleagues ‘across the divide’. For that reason I try and keep in touch with archaeologists in my period.

    Theoreticians are annoying. Obviously, though, we all theorise; Martin, you would agree I guess that your guesses as to how the Djurhamn sword wound up where it did are theories, and based on your own experience as an excavator but also on what you know from other people’s writing? And when the evidence lacks, of course we all turn to models from other better-known areas or sites or texts to suggest what might explain what we’re looking at. Even if this weren’t desirable, we couldn’t avoid it.

    So is the real object of your ire the post-modern idea that facts are unreal and that all knowledge of the past is constructed? Because I’m quite ready to agree that that’s not only rubbish but unhelpful rubbish, designed merely to keep theorists in a job. Otherwise, it really should be: “Oh, we can’t ever know the past; I’m going to go and flip burgers instead.” Funny how expressions of the futility of enquiry never lead to stopping it isn’t it?

    Anyway, I’m on good record being annoyed with this sort of work. But we got to have theories from somewhere, all the same.

  25. #25 Dunc
    July 24, 2008

    OK, possibly naive question from an interested layman here…

    I’ve just picked up and started reading Peter Wells’ Beyond Celts, Germans and Scythians: Archaeology and Identity in Iron Age Europe. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about here, or is “theoretical archaeology” even fuzzier?

  26. #26 Martin R
    July 24, 2008

    Matt, yeah, as I said, “Archaeological theory, in my opinion, belongs within the context of real specific archaeological research”.

    Jon, I call the sort of thing you mention “interpretation”. Theoretical archaeology is hardly ever as goal-orientated as that. And I strongly support interdisciplinary work when somebody with qualifications in each subject takes part. Not when archaeologists play at being historians, sociologists, historians of religion, philosophers etc.

    Dunc, Wells’s book is a study of the Iron Age. Theoretical archaeology is at best the study of how to write books like that. But usually it is way, way, way fuzzier and more distant from archaeological questions.

  27. #27 Dunc
    July 24, 2008

    Thanks – I thought that was the case, but I just wanted to make sure.

  28. #28 Mary E
    July 24, 2008

    I never was a Schiffer fan. Don’t tell all my collegues and mentors who thought he was the hippest thing since sliced whitebread.

  29. #29 Martin R
    July 24, 2008

    I actually far prefer Schiffer to Binford, Clarke, Hodder, Shanks and Tilley. Though I’ve never felt any need to read more than his introductory text.

  30. #30 Desmond Johnston
    July 25, 2008

    Martin – Regarding your quote that historians dig in archives and archaeologists in the ground,I beg to differ. The historian is, as I suggested before, in no way restricted to written material. In fact his scope and capacity would be considerably narrowed if such were the case. The historian for his facts and background on which he bases his conclusions must have access to other material than archives, not least of which is provided by the exertions of the archaeologist. Perhaps if he is seeking to clarify the terms of a treaty the services of an archivist are adequate. But if he is also interested in the background of life at the time – which to my mind is a vital aspect of the historian’s role – he must access and interpret the findings of the archaeologist. The written word alone does not tell us adequately “what happened in the past.” (Nor should we believe everything we see in writing.)
    I have in my mind’s eye a picture of an archivist poring over a mediaeval document and an archaeologist deciphering an Egyptian papyrus. Is there a difference? The ability to decipher the document in each case is only the beginning of the process. After that comes an understanding of the background, how it impacted on people at the time, what led up to it, what happened next. How well both can cope with this aspect may depend on how specialised their training is – a mediaevel archivist for example may well flounder on the wider aspects. The answer is team-work rather than competition and coooperation betwee different disciplines, between generalist and specialist.
    Desmond

  31. #31 Martin R
    July 25, 2008

    Desmond, we’re using a word in different ways, and I believe your way is a minority usage. The definition of “prehistory” is “before written sources”.

    Archaeologists may get lucky and excavate a papyrus. But the ones deciphering it are philologists and palaeographers.

    I have a great deal of respect for the unique and separate skill-set of historians. When working in a historical period, I would feel uncomfortable trying to perform original written-source research on my own. I mean, come on — I can’t even read the handwriting. Likewise, I hope that the people who know that sort of thing will leave the study of pottery and small metalwork to me.

  32. #32 Joel
    July 25, 2008

    >Archaeology is part of the hugely successful, rationalist, empirical, scientific Enlightenment project to find out what the world really is and has been like.

    But then comes the problematic part where you have to explain, for whom, why and to what purpose. Life in the new millennium demands it.

    I think you need to meditate on the word “is” for a while, and see that it’s a word used by believers. If you can formulate your research without resorting to the word “is”, a word that magically bestows soulless objects and ideas with intrinsic values… basically not a word for a true sceptic to use. Whenever you use the verb a warning bell should sound: “ALERT alert assigning values to dead stuff”. This IS a flint dagger. This looks like a flint dagger to me. Better value for money!

  33. #33 Desmond
    July 26, 2008

    Martin – Thanks for your comments. I can see I could be in a minority – but not a minority of 1.
    I have never taken seriously the “definition” that prehistory is “before written sources”. History is what happened in the past, how people lived, how they reacted to the world around them, what they produced materially and spiritually,where they came from and where they went. In no way could the non-invention of writing create an artificial division called “prehistory”.
    Folk-memory and mythology go back long before writing and recent researches have been instrumental in introducing them into the history books. The originally unwritten myths of Troy, Crete, Mycenae were later written by Homer and moved into the History field by Schliemann, Evans, and a stream of successors.(These were Archaeologists please note.)The ancient mythology of “the invasions” of Ireland before written history recently have had clarification via DNA research.
    Of course we all must have “a period”. Mine ranges from the end of the last Ice Age from circa 8000BC to the contempoeary age as acontinuous and exciting process. I could never think of the word prehistory in this context except as a convenience. The movement of people over the globe in those vital years have us all personally involved whether we have heard of history or not.
    The last 2/5000 years is notofficially separated from their predecessorsby artof writing on stone, brick, wood, clay, papyrus, paper.
    Desmond.

  34. #34 Martin R
    July 26, 2008

    I take it you are neither archaeologist nor historian by profession?

  35. #35 Ismene
    July 26, 2008

    Desmond- I think most archaeologists who specialise in Aegean prehistory would have problems with your statement, “The originally unwritten myths of Troy, Crete, Mycenae were later written by Homer and moved into the History field by Schliemann, Evans, and a stream of successors.” The relationship between Homer and the Bronze Age is far from clear and a matter of great debate.

  36. #36 Desmond
    July 26, 2008

    Martin – I agree – not a very clear statement – I shouldn’t blog after midnight. Just making a connection between folk-lore or myth and the people like Homer and others who rendered it in written form followed by the excavators who sought the factual background.
    You are right of course – I am neither an archeologist nor a historian by profession. I have however been heavily engrossed in both areas for some 60 years as an interest and also as a teacher.
    Desmond.

  37. #37 megan
    July 27, 2008

    Desmond your perspective is probably a good thing – sometimes we specialists can get so engrossed in these debates and drawing lines that we can’t step back and see the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish collectively. :)

    (That being said, that is one of the major challenges i have about theoretical archaeology – they can get so caught up talking about what archaeology is/isn’t that they stop DOING it.)

  38. #38 Terry Brock
    August 6, 2008

    just wanted to toss my two cents in, although I realize the discussion has dwindled. As grad student in American historical archaeology, who studies African American enslavement, I find the meshing of the historical and archaeological record critical for a variety of reasons. First, both records allow me to develop a fuller interpretation of the lives and cultures of a people who did not have access to the written record. The archaeological record at times acts as support for the historical record, refutes the historical record, or adds unknown information to it. Theory allows me to make these links for the purpose of interpretation. Second, at times when the archaeological and historical record match up, I am capable of creating models of interpretation for archaeological sites that do not have a corresponding historical record. These elements are equally critical to my work, and since I consider myself archaeologist first (although a historian and classicist in undergrad), I consider the historical record to be yet another element of the material record: the written historical record are artifacts created during the same time period as what we pull out of the ground.

    That being said, American historians (those who study American history and are historians, that is), particularly in African American history, are utilizing the material record more and more, and not as merely systems of support, but additional evidence. Slave Counterpoint by Philip Morgan is a perfect example of the material record being considered an elemental part of the interpretation of the history of African Americans.

  39. #39 Akusai
    January 23, 2009

    I know I’m late to the party here, but good heavens was it good to read this.

    I’m just finishing up the second week of my second BA in Anthropology with a design on a Master’s in Museology. To that end, I planned on focusing my undergrad coursework in physical anthropology and archaeology, which, as far as I could tell, were the two most scientific of the subdisciplines of anthropology and the two that would actually aid me the most in seeking a career in the museum field.

    Thus I came away from my Archaeology class today rather disappointed, as we had been given a brief overview in the post-processural movement and theory, and what stuck with me was “This sounds like a lot of unscientific, postmodern navel-gazing.” It seemed to me like somebody had said “We’re not sure science can tell us anything reliable about the past, so instead we’ll focus on things science can’t possibly tell us anything about. That’ll work!”

    My personal understanding of archaeology was that it was, plain and simple, the study of what life was like for past societies. It came as quite a disappointment, then, for this science-minded skeptic to find out that there are folks out there (and apparently a lot of them) who instead see archaeology as a venue for postmodern jargon-spew, Freudian interpretation, empty speculation, and biased, self-obsessed political commentary instead of a systematic, rational study of past societies and cultures. It was disheartening to hear that scientifically useless (and almost necessarily baseless) speculation about the politicization of transdefinitional gender modes and sexual oppression in ancient Mesopotamia was somehow more important in modern archaeology than, you know, actually digging things up.

    Thus was it that your bullet-points (especially your first and your final three; they resonated with the way I thought archaeology was vs. the way I was told it now supposedly is) really hit home with me and set my troubled soul at ease. Earlier today I even thought “It sounds like they’re just taking the language of post-modern lit-crit and applying it to archaeology.” Apparently I wasn’t far from wrong.

    It is also fantastic to hear that ideas of scientific rationalism are alive and well in the field.

    Thanks, Martin. You have no idea how glad I am that you wrote this post and that I said to myself “I’m beginning to study archaeology…Maybe I should read Aarvarchaeology more often.”

  40. #40 Martin R
    January 23, 2009

    Thanks man! Things are getting better in academe as the po-mo wave has passed and been exposed as empty of value. But there’s still a lot of vacuous crap lingering — today’s teachers were grad students when po-mo was hip.

    Never forget that 95% of everybody who gets paid to do archaeology works at an excavation. Never accept any condescension from a theorist. It’s the Emperor’s clothes — by now no longer even new.

  41. #41 Dylan
    March 6, 2009

    Okay, there is no such thing as archaeological theory, yet. There are only hypotheses, none of which provide enough general explanatory power to qualify as scientific theory.

    The situation is identical to that of biology before Darwins’ Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.Prior to this theory, discovery and classification of the material record was all that could be done, explanation of why and how things changed was impossible. Archaeology is currently limited in the same way.
    This also means that archaeology is not yet a science, as it has no theoretical foundation within the natural sciences.
    Hence both theory and practice are equally important in order to construct an archaeological science.

  42. #42 Martin R
    March 8, 2009

    General laws of culture is an unrealistic goal. That’s not the point of archaeology. The point is simply that of all historical research: we find out what happened a long time ago. Archaeology is specific in time and space or it is not archaeology.

  43. #43 Dylan
    March 8, 2009

    Why do you think that the search for general laws of human phenomena are unrealistic? Is culture not a natural phenomenon? If you believe we evolved along with all life, you must accept we are subject to the same laws. Unless you believe culture is supernatural, it must also be subject to, and explicable by, the laws as they stand in the natural sciences.

    Archaeologists, like historians, have only the material record existing in the present to study. From this we infer the past. Every time you infer “what happened” in the past, you are engaged in creating a theory. In fact, you are also assuming universal laws as part of this theory, using your experience of the world now and applying it to the past. You could not do this if you did not believe that many of your experiences are universal.

    For the same reason, archaeology cannot be specific in time or space. Like any science,it relies on the universal applicability of such laws as govern entropy, gravity, evolution etc in order to allow the process of inference to take place at all.

    The problems in archaeology come not from theory, but from the lack of it.The parameters of what is and isn’t archaeology have not been set, as it has not yet been defined as a discipline.

  44. #44 Martin R
    March 8, 2009

    Why do you think that the search for general laws of human phenomena are unrealistic? Is culture not a natural phenomenon?

    It’s a question of scale level. The details that interest historians and archaeologists are just noise from the perspective of natural science, random variation around a mean. We’re not interested in the general implications of a given historical situation for humankind’s large-scale mechanisms. We’re looking at each situation for its own sake.

    Like any science,it relies on the universal applicability of such laws as govern entropy, gravity, evolution etc in order to allow the process of inference to take place at all.

    No, cross-cultural generalisation can’t be compared to gravity or evolution.

    it has not yet been defined as a discipline.

    It has, repeatedly. Like most, I define it as the study of human societies in the past through their material (non-linguistic) remains.

  45. #45 TAG-participant
    June 1, 2009

    Just for your information:

    My impression of this years TAG was that the theory was more lurking in the background than an explicit thing to be discussed separately. This was a nice gathering for archaeologists to learn how the material culture itself could be interpreteded, and how different theoretical methods could help us to both understand and help us be aware of our own biases as we do so. I think it is cowardly of you not to come to Nordic TAG and explain your own views of this subject, and dare you to come to Nordic TAG in Kalmar the next time it is held (Either in 2010 or 2011).

  46. #46 Martin R
    June 1, 2009

    It’s a novel thing for me to be called a coward in the context of a debate.

    Anyway, if you guys aren’t talking about archaeological theory, then why organise a TAG conference at all? Personally, I prefer thematic conferences on fields that I work in. I used to attend the EAA meetings, but they were all over the place chronologically and geographically, and so I never learned much useful there. The Mesolithic in Portugal and Bronze Age pottery typology on the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains simply aren’t relevant to my work. So once I got elected into the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Sachsenforschung, I quit the EAA. The Sachsensymposia are about Northern Europe after the Romans and before the Vikings. That’s my kind of conference. But since I’m starting a new project soon on the Bronze Age in the Lake Mälaren area, you’ll also find me at the North European Bronze Age symposium in Helsinki come autumn.

    What would be your ideal archaeology conference?

  47. #47 scot
    October 20, 2011

    Hi I came across this post because I’m an classical historian (well, a PhD student of same) and I was trying to get to grips with what Theoretical Archaeology is. This post and discussion was somewhat useful (although my archeologically-trained colleague told me you’re probably a “processualist” whatever that is).

    What I did want to comment on was this idea;

    … the search for general laws of human phenomena …

    Isn’t this … anthropology? Or maybe some sort of historical sociology?

  48. #48 Martin R
    October 21, 2011

    The processualist school is what I refer to above by “This coincided with a brief spell in the history of archaeology when scholars dreamed of finding out general cultural constants, ‘Laws of Culture’ as it were.” I’m not a member.

    Your question whether this is anthropology makes sense in a European context but not in an American one, as US archaeologists are trained at anthropology departments. The reason that the processualists wanted to establish general laws of culture was that they wanted a secure way to infer living past culture from its material remains, i.e. the archaeological record.

  49. #49 marlin legge
    South Sudan
    November 30, 2012

    AM ARCHAEOLOGIST BY NAME NOT PROFESSIONALS I NEED TO Learn ARCHAEOLOGY.

  50. #50 Martin R
    November 30, 2012

    Cool, how are you going about it?