Classifying an Archaeologist

Carl Lipo at Evolution Beach has been kind enough to recommend Aard to his readers. He characterises me as “a big advocator for science based archaeology in the classic ‘New Archaeology’ sense”. It’s not the first time I’ve been called a New Archaeology guy, and I don’t consider it unflattering, but I do feel that it calls for a few comments.

Archaeology emerged as a scientific discipline with the work of C.J. Thomsen in the early 1800s. It’s a worldwide crazy quilt of regional subdisciplines that needn’t communicate much. I don’t need to know anything about Chinese archaeology to be able to publish in Viking studies, and vice versa.

In the 1960s, archaeological theory became a field of discussion in its own right, mainly among US and UK academics. There had been plenty of theoretical consciousness long before that time, which is sometimes lumped into a single period of thought called “culture-historical archaeology”. This is completely misleading as the archaeological cultures approach wasn’t formalised until 1930 with Gordon Childe’s book The Danube in Prehistory. Archaeology, at that time, had already spent over a century developing its theoretical framework.

In the 1960s, however, two young scholars published theoretical work aiming to restructure the discipline. American Lewis Binford and Englishman David Clarke painted this “New” or “processual” archaeology as a radical departure from what had gone before, as a long-overdue cleaning of a grimy stable. This was, in my opinion, mainly marketing hyperbole from scholars jockeying for academic position. What was good about New Archaeology wasn’t new, and what was new about it wasn’t good. Binford and Clarke were science-friendly, and I am too, as had most archaeologists been before them. But they also introduced a genre of impenetrable theoretical jargon that is still with us (at the time largely involving misused systems theory) and to which I am deeply hostile. With the science-friendliness also came a tendency to focus research on issues having to do with subsistence, which pretty much leaves me cold. Indeed, there was a tendency to natural determinism, where everything people did in the past was seen as happening because of calorie requirements. Finally, the New Archaeologists cultivated a dream about discovering global Laws of Culture that would let them interpret the archaeological record more unambiguously. This is in my opinion comparable to attempts at long-term prediction of other chaotic systems such as the weather and the stock market, that is, completely unscientific.

About 1980 came the next bunch of young UK PhDs who needed to make names for themselves, and so Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley turned belatedly to the radical post-modernist humanities of the preceding decades and introduced “post-processual” or “contextual” archaeology. Reams of painful theoretical blitherings ensued, and in Shanks & Tilley’s case, open hostility against science and the Enlightenment project. Now, symbolic determinism reigned: nobody in the past did anything to keep from starving, everything had to do with symbolism, cult and making sense of the world. But prominent post-processual scholars like Julian Thomas and Mike Parker Pearson were science-friendly: they harnessed really abstruse natural science to buttress their symbolic interpretations. Thomas even turned to malacology, the study of snail’s shells, to argue that pretty much the entire archaeological record of Neolithic Britain was composed of cult sites. And when Ian Hodder toured the world in the 90s to explain what post-processual fieldwork methods would be like at Catal Höyük, we learned that a) you would use a lot of computers, b) you would talk a lot to each other in the field, c) you wouldn’t believe that anything was objectively true. Few felt that this meant any radical departure from everyday procedure.

25-30 years after Hodder proclaimed the dawn of a new radical age in archaeology, it’s actually just business as usual. We still engage in productive dialogue with 19th century scholars. Almost everybody’s pretty science-friendly, although many colleagues are not very knowledgeable about new natural scientific methods and results, or even of basic statistical reasoning. Almost everybody knows the jargon of post-processualism, though since it’s not new and hip anymore, few use it very enthusiastically.

So responding to Carl Lipo, I’d like to say that I am neither a culture-historical, a New nor a post-processual archaeologist. I’m science friendly, I’m hostile to untestable speculation, and above all I’m hostile to jargon, such as that of the aesthetic disciplines in the humanities. But I fail to see any radical “paradigm shifts” in the history of my discipline, and I believe all interpretive determinism to be unscientific. There is no one-size-fits-all interpretive perspective. You have to argue well in each unique case. And, needless to say, if you’re not studying material remains and aren’t asking questions about the human past, then you’re not doing archaeology and shouldn’t have archaeological funding.

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  1. #1 megan
    October 27, 2008

    In going with that theme, my friends and I call ourselves ‘processual-plus’ – meaning we’re science-y, but we recognize the importance of examining gender, class, ethnicity, etc…

  2. #2 Joel
    October 27, 2008

    Do you have any other motivations for doing archaeology than that you are interested in how people lived in the past? The problem with archaeology is that is was very closely tied to constructing a glorious past for a nation-state. Now that that’s not politically correct any more, we’re left with, what? A desire to know more about the past because it’s something we ought to save in our archives because the world is falling to pieces around us ecologically. Save the old before it’s completely destroyed. or what.

  3. #3 Martin R
    October 27, 2008

    The problem with archaeology is that is was very closely tied to constructing a glorious past for a nation-state.

    No, that was never an important motivation. It was of course used as an argument to get funding, but the real main motivation of the 19th century scholars was scientific curiosity. Recent “critical” commenters on archaeology have blown its political importance out of all proportion. Archaeology always adapts to the ruling ideology, it doesn’t determine that ideology.

    Do you have any other motivations for doing archaeology than that you are interested in how people lived in the past?

    Yeah, I need to pay my rent. And I have an aesthetic motive too — the archaeological record is beautiful.

  4. #4 DianaGainer
    October 27, 2008

    Martin! That’s the best summary of archeological theory I’ve ever read! You cut through the BS (pardon my French as we say in America, rather rudely) like a knife through butter!
    The motivation for doing archeology is — of course — the desire to figure out what the heck those folks were doing way back when. When they didn’t have dishwashers, cars, garbage disposals and snowmobiles that is. My kids asked me that sort of thing when they were small: “Mama, what did you do in the olden days?” I had asked my granny the same thing 20 years earlier. Digging in the earth helps find the real answers. Howzat?

  5. #5 Joel
    October 28, 2008

    If it’s science it’s got to have something more going for it than just being beautiful, because it’s not just an aesthetic art.

    Answering *what* is supposedly what archaeology is good at, but *why* they did something specific in the past is trickier.

  6. #6 Rob
    October 28, 2008

    Processual-plus was a term Michelle Hegemon has been talking about for a few years that I believe characterizes many archaeologists who would fit in well with Aard’s current synthesis. Thanks for the nice rundown

  7. #7 Martin R
    October 28, 2008

    At a Mesolithic conference a few years back, there was a seminar named “What Did They Talk About After Dinner?”. I like that a lot. I also like Richard Bradley’s famous 1984 quip about the polarisation of Stone Age research, “Successful farmers have social relations with one another, while hunter-gatherers have ecological relations with hazelnuts”.

  8. #8 megan
    October 29, 2008

    Martin I LOVE that Bradley quote – a friend had it as her e-mail sig for a year or two. Rob, Michelle got her PhD at Michigan, I’m at Michigan State. I wonder if it’s a regional thing somehow, or if something we read by her in our theory class inspired us? I’ll have to check the syllabus.

  9. #9 Mattias Niord
    November 1, 2008

    Never heard about that Bradley comment before, but then, I have been away from the academical archaeology, trying to bring some enligthenment about our past to the masses instead.
    Lovely, really lovely. A quote that hits the nail straight on the head, sort off.

    And a very good rundown of that theory morass of contemporary archaeology. I think I am in that processual plus+ too, even if I would not say I am pro-absurd determinism. But I am sure as hell no pomo, even if I belived that.
    I was lectured on that in the summer of 2007 by a collegue at work, since I was too fixated with facts and “possible truths”.

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